The best gifts come with a story. One holiday, my mom gave my sister and I homemade cookbooks with our favorite recipes in them. Each dish came with a memory, especially poignant as the two of us packed off to college and grad school facing the prospect of cooking for ourselves. The best part was the cover, which featured a photo of my mom as a slightly awkward but very pretty young woman standing proudly next to a large cake she helped bake. In the photo, she was nearly the same age as my sister and I, not yet the confident cook she became later.
The museum's store is also packed with gifts that have history. Before you pick up these presents in the store, here's the story behind a few of our favorites.
For the political junkie who's already discussing the 2016 presidential election
Your politico pal can gear up for the next political battle with some of our elephant and donkey-themed gifts, from shirts to water bottles. Political tchotchkes like these aren't just fun—they’re also an important part of the museum's collection. In fact, curators travel to the national political conventions as well as campaign headquarters during presidential elections, gathering stories, photographs, and key artifacts, like this cheese head hat worn by a delegate.
For the friend who still plays in the snow
When Wilson Bentley was 15 years old, he was given a microscope. Four years later, in 1855, he took the first successful photo of a snowflake.
How did he do it? A Smithsonian Archives blog post has the details: "Bentley stood in the winter cold for hours at a time; waiting patiently until he caught falling flakes. Once a snowflake landed, he carefully handled it with a feather to place it under the lens. The apparatus was set up outside so that the delicate specimens would not melt, and after a minute and a half exposure, he captured the image of a snowflake." Bentley sent a collection of 500 photographs of snowflakes to the Smithsonian to ensure their safety.
This children's book about Bentley is available both in the store and online.
For the kid who won't take off her ruby slippers and the Oz-obsessed adult
Before beginning my job at this museum, I never obsessed much about the ruby slippers. Then I got to watch the case come off as curator Dwight Blocker delicately took the size five, sparkly kitten heels off display for short-term loan to the Victoria and Albert Museum in England. "Oh my god," I thought to myself as something caught in my throat, "They’re leaving."
Worn 74 years ago by Judy Garland as she danced down the yellow brick road (the shoes have felt on the bottom to muffle her footsteps), the shoes are back on exhibition in American Stories, an important symbol to so many people.
Ruby slippers ornaments are also on sale in the Smithsonian online store.
For the fashion maven or aspiring First Lady
Any fashionista inspired by First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy—with her pillbox hats, oversize sunglasses, strands of pearls, and statement jewelry—will be glad you did your holiday shopping here.
When she became first lady at the age of 32, Jacqueline Kennedy was beloved for her fashion sense; when she traveled with the president, her clothes received incredible attention from the public, once prompting the president to call himself in France, "the man who accompanied Jacqueline Kennedy to Paris."
More gifts for the Jacqueline Kennedy fan are available in the Smithsonian's online store.
For the French chef, hungry science fan, or snackaholic
I once baked chocolate chip hockey pucks by skipping the baking soda in a cookie recipe. Chris Kimball of television show America's Test Kitchen and Cook's Illustrated uses science to prevent kitchen disasters, a method that has resulted in tips such as adding vodka to pie crust, weighing flour when baking, and using frozen egg whites unless you need to beat the whites. His book is a delicious gift for the science geek in the kitchen or the cook whose pot roast never gets tender enough.
Kimball shares science-based tips for the contemporary cook, but he cooked and ate alongside an icon of American cooking: Julia Child. When he cooked with the "French Chef," he "utterly failed" at shucking oysters but impressed her with his knowledge of carving a leg of lamb.
A boxed set of Julia Child cookbooks are also available in the Smithsonian's online store. If you cook one of her recipes, let us know how it goes! We blogged about making everything from French bread to flourless chocolate cake.
For the nostalgic baby boomer or the retronaut
For those who prefer the classic rock radio station—whether they actually lived through that time or not—our stores have a wide selection, from nostalgic candy to Woodstock t-shirts.
A denim Hell's Angels Vest is one 1960s object in our collection. It was worn by "Hairy" Henry of San Francisco, California.
For the frequent traveler or trainiac
One of our visitors' favorite objects in the museum is the John Bull Locomotive. It was one of the earliest steam locomotives in the United States, imported from England in 1831. It provided the first rail link between New York and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, reducing a two-day trip to just five hours. The bridge John Bull is displayed on is a section of the first iron railroad bridge built in the United States. It was constructed in 1845 to cross a small creek near West Manayunk, Pennsylvania.
If you give the gift of a train set or book to a youngster, take advantage of this "All Aboard the Train!" free resource for parents and educators. It includes a reading guide for Jingle the Brass, a train book by Patricia Newman, and activities that will have young conductors singing, playing, and cooking in railroad style.
You can see more photos of holiday merchandise available in the store on Flickr. Don't forget, you can also make a donation to the museum in honor of a loved one.