Intrigued by a piece of charred wood in the museum's First Ladies exhibition, intern Auni Gelles explores the story behind this slice of timber as it relates to the history of both the national museum and the historic preservation movement. Two experts discuss how Americans' long-standing impulse to collect bits of history simultaneously damaged and preserved many of our national treasures.
When British troops marched into Washington, D.C. during the War of 1812, 200 years ago on August 24, they set off a shockwave of fear by burning iconic symbols of the young capital city: the White House and Capitol Building. With these landmarks ablaze, residents feared for their lives as well as for the fate of their nation. An air of desperation arose over the city as the scale of destruction became known.
A piece of timber from this fateful day was uncovered in 1950, when the White House was undergoing a renovation during Harry Truman's administration.
In 1968—over 150 years after the burning of Washington—this charred piece of otherwise unremarkable material made its way to the Smithsonian's collections. Just how—and why—did this chunk of wood end up in the National Museum of American History? Perhaps surprisingly to today's museum visitors, there was quite a precedent for including hunks of buildings in the national collection.
When the capital was in flames, only a generation after the revolution, a national museum did not yet exist. The field of historic preservation had yet to form. However, as early as the 19th century, Americans were already looking for a way to form a link to the past. It became common practice to pocket small pieces of buildings and historic objects as a personal way to preserve these landmarks, open to anyone who could afford to travel. Examples of these relics include a chip of Plymouth Rock and a piece of ivy from George Washington's Mount Vernon estate, both of which are now in the museum's collection. Although individuals sought to safeguard these keepsakes for future generations, decades of such behavior instead resulted in destruction to many historic sites. The preservation and destruction of historic artifacts were intertwined in the 19th century.
These souvenirs were more than just chunks of wood or stone. Scavenged artifacts were enormously inspirational for those seeking a direct, palpable connection to the landmark locations in their nation's history. Place was of utmost importance for these citizen-curators as they found and took genuine articles from the sites where history happened in a time when travel was both expensive and difficult. As visitors collected these objects and created their own hand-written labels describing their origins, these bits and pieces gained an almost supernatural or "numinous" power as relics of American history.
William L. Bird, Jr., a curator in the museum's Division of Political History and the author of Souvenir Nation: Relics, Keepsakes, and Curios from the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, has researched these sorts of objects extensively. As he wrote in Souvenir Nation, a relic's most memorable qualities stem from its association with a historic person, place, or event. Bird explained that, "People believed that they could save the past by getting a little chip of it—and that the past would linger in the act of possession."
Some made a business of reselling these artifacts to eager visitors. Bird explained that even into the 20th century, "there are accounts of tourists coming onto the grounds of the White House and just helping themselves to the debris pile of lathe work, anything with an old cut nail in it... people would not only just help themselves, but they would help themselves to resell little bits and pieces of the wood and the hardware with labels that they clearly put on it to identify what and where it was from."
This urge to hold onto pieces of history established a framework that would eventually lead to the creation of the museum. "Before you can have a national museum, you need to have a nation of savers," Bird said. He explained that an institution like the Smithsonian "doesn't just spring up, it [...] wells out of a population that is reflective and collects things personally, themselves."
Tom Mayes, deputy general counsel for the National Trust for Historic Preservation, agrees that "relics have the capacity to tell a story and to connect people to that history and that past." The burned wood, he said, has a certain "draw to it. It tells a story that the [White House] in its current form wouldn't necessarily tell on its own."
Beyond relics and the written record, however, he believes that entire historic buildings provide an unparalleled, immersive way to experience history. Mayes asserted that individuals have long demonstrated "the impulse to save the memory and identity embedded in [a] place."In an essay published on the Preservation Leadership Forum blog, Mayes wrote, "Old places give us an understanding of history that no other documents or evidence possibly can."
Today as well as in decades past, historic sites draw their power from their tangibility and their ability to touch all the senses. Mayes argues that historic places—whether they are designated museums, private homes, public landscapes, or busy intersections—convey a sense of history that is very much alive and connected to the present.
Thus, not only did the drive to save numinous relics help spur the creation of a national collection, but it also led to the birth of the American historic preservation movement. Although historic preservation is in the words of Mayes, "a very old impulse," with evidence of preservation efforts in Augustan Rome in the first century AD, it wasn't until the mid-19th century that organized efforts took root in the United States. Starting with a group of women who gathered together to purchase and restore the crumbling and vandalized Mount Vernon in 1859, Americans began to realize the deep connection between historic places and the identities embedded in them. (For more information on the early preservation movement, Mayes recommends Giving Preservation a History: Histories of Historic Preservation in the United States, edited by Randall Mason and Max Page.)
The Mount Vernon Ladies' Association led the way in creating a profession that reversed the trend of taking bits of a building in order to save it. As the preservation movement grew and photography became more widespread, taking objects from the natural and historical realm became considered less fashionable. Visitors, of course, continue to collect trinkets when they visit historic sites and the power of place remains influential. Bird argues that contemporary souvenirs draw their noteworthiness not from where they are made, but where they are purchased.
The field of historic preservation resurfaced as an issue of widespread interest in the face of urban renewal and highway construction in the mid-1960s, leading to the 1966 passage of the National Historic Preservation Act. Today, preservationists are working to save historic structures that are not yet considered notable or even beautiful—namely early modern, brutalist, and international-style buildings—before they disappear forever. "Preservation is one of the areas where, through recognition, history, and age, places that are considered ugly turn into places that are considered beautiful," Mayes said.
Just as our forebears sought to collect souvenirs as a way to form their own connection with the past, Americans today embody the same impulse. The opportunity to visit, examine, and touch an object or building once owned by a historical luminary remains irresistible. As Americans 200 years ago could attest, being in the presence of genuine historical articles can be an extremely moving experience.
There are in fact two pieces of charred White House timber currently on display: one in the First Ladies exhibition—although it's easy to overlook among more colorful objects—and another by the Star-Spangled Banner flag. Other original objects from the War of 1812 include a model of the schooner Lynx and a ceramic pitcher promoting free trade and sailors' rights, and the uniform Andrew Jackson wore at the Battle of New Orleans.
Auni Gelles interned in the New Media Department this summer. She has also blogged about her experience sharing War of 1812 history through social media.