Treasures in the Smithsonian’s Attic

From robo-badgers to human beards, a search for the strangest items in the Smithsonian’s collections.
Stubby, a decorated war hero, resides at the American History museum. Photograph Courtesy of the National Museum of American History.
Stubby, a decorated war hero, resides at the American History museum. Photograph Courtesy of the National Museum of American History.

Did you know that one of the most decorated combatants of World
War I was a terrier named Stubby?

As I wandered through a labyrinth of display cases at the
National Museum of American History, I felt like an excitable schoolchild
on a field trip. I was on a quest to find the oddest, most exotic items in
the Smithsonian’s collection, and as I approached Stubby’s display case,
my inner child was bursting with trivia.

Did you know that Stubby was awarded the equivalent of a Purple
Heart and in fact received enough medals (more than a dozen) to cover a
whole doggie vest? Did you know he could salute his superiors by raising
his paw to his eyebrow? That he took shrapnel in the chest and leg? That
he got gassed and then became a valued sentinel against gas because he
could smell it before anyone else? Did you know he captured a German spy
by cornering him and snarling and that this earned him a promotion to
sergeant? And that, after returning home, he met multiple US Presidents
and became the mascot of Georgetown University?

Having built things up so much, I half expected to find a
shrine to Stubby. Instead, he sat in a crowded display case, beneath a
burned-out light bulb. Unlike his pictures online, he was naked—no vest of
medals. Worse, while another animal in the case—a one-legged messenger
pigeon—got front-and-center billing, Stubby sat near the wall. The placard
below him said little—no mention of shrapnel, spies, or Hoyas.

Did you know you can feel crestfallen for a dog that died
nearly a century ago?

The reason you learn so little about Stubby in the museum can
be summed up in one number: 137 million. That’s how many items the
Smithsonian owns. Only around 1 percent are on display, but that still
leaves more than a million to take in. It’s a cliché to say you could
spend a whole week wandering through the various Smithsonian museums and
still not see everything. But it’s a cliché because it’s true. You get
overwhelmed, and it’s easy to overlook even the likes of
Stubby.

Hunting down the Smithsonian’s most outlandish items was my
antidote to weary neglect. I wanted to single some things out—to savor
them and learn their stories.

Doing so proved tougher than I imagined, and not just because
of the number 137 million. A research institution like the Smithsonian
gets understandably sore about being perceived as nothing but a warehouse
of weird things—a Ripley’s Believe It or Not museum with nicer
architecture. So when I started prodding officials about the oddities in
their collections, some of them clammed up. A few refused to speak to
me.

Still, people naturally love the bizarre, and a few curators
graciously opened up about the exotica in their collections. I wanted to
focus on neglected items, things you walk by without noticing or that you
can’t notice because they’re packed away in storage. But my most important
criterion is best summed up by Kathy Golden, the curator who helped get
Stubby on display. “He tells a story,” Golden says. “He’s not important
like Lincoln’s hat or Jefferson’s Bible, but he tells a
story.”

• • •

The Smithsonian owns many firsts. The first cash register, the
first margarita machine. The first integrated computer circuit and the
first musical instruments used in space (a harmonica and a set of sleigh
bells, which played “Jingle Bells” aboard Gemini 6). But the
numero uno that caught my attention was the world’s first—and
only—pigeon-guided missile system.

Psychologist B.F. Skinner had grand plans for Project Pigeon.
Pilots during World War II had no way of aiming missiles—they just dropped
them and hoped for the best. An expert on conditioning animals, Skinner
decided to train pigeons to steer missiles from the inside. Doing so would
certainly shorten and might even win the war for the Allies, he
argued.

The military had doubts, but it gave Skinner $25,000 to build a
prototype nose cone, which the Smithsonian now owns. It’s a gumdrop-shaped
device about two feet long, painted hazard orange and silver.

B.F. Skinner believed that his pigeon-guided missile system would help the Allies win World War II. Photograph courtesy of The National Museum of American History.

Skinner took advantage of the pigeons’ natural tendency to peck
things with their beaks. He showed them pictures of enemy ships or
ammunition depots, and if they pecked the target, they got a pellet of
grain. Eventually the birds could recognize targets without prompting and
would peck them repeatedly. Their task inside the nose cone was the same.
The cone swings open to reveal three cylindrical coves, each about six
inches tall. A single pigeon sat inside each cove, and collectively the
birds acted as the missile’s eyes.

In final design, they would have viewed the outside world
through a primitive touchscreen. The birds would peck at any targets they
saw. If the peck struck the middle of the screen, the missile would stay
on course. If it struck off-center, air valves would open and adjust the
flight path.

What ultimately doomed Project Pigeon wasn’t the birds. For all
their despicable qualities, pigeons proved adept at steering missiles:
They’re easily trained, have excellent eyesight, don’t get distracted,
don’t get nauseated in freefall, and would keep peck-peck-pecking away at
enemy targets even while being exposed to deafening bangs. Instead, the
project failed because the missile’s steering systems couldn’t keep up
with the birds’ quick, precise instructions.

After the war, advances in electronics made the kamikaze
pigeons seem ridiculous, and that’s why the bright-orange nose cone sits
in a closet in the American History museum. The nose cone nevertheless
remains important to psychology, curator Peggy Kidwell says, because it
represents a major shift in Skinner’s thinking. Before the war, he was a
timid lab scientist, content merely to describe animal behavior. His
success in training pigeons inspired him to think about engineering and
controlling behavior, including in humans. He became an outspoken
proponent of conditioning people, especially children, and went on to
become one of the most influential psychologists in history.

The nose cone also helps remind us, Kidwell says, “how the
entire American society was mobilized during World War II.” Pigeons had
long carried messages during wars, but to even consider them as active
combat participants, she says, “is symbolic of the desperate straits and
national concern for missile guidance.”

Just before we part, Kidwell mentions another way World War II
affected US society: the shortages, especially of luxury goods like silk.
She suggests another odd item to track down—a wedding dress fashioned from
the only source of silk available to most Americans in the 1940s: a GI’s
parachute.

• • •

The Smithsonian, in fact, owns two parachute dresses and has
one on display. But curator Nancy Davis wants to show me the dress in
storage, the one with bloodstains. To reach the dress, Davis leads me into
what looks like the world’s largest walk-in closet, with row after row of
white cabinets. At a glance, I guess that the cabinets are stuffed with
jeweled robes, or maybe all the Oscar winners’ dresses—extraordinary
things. Instead, most are full of everyday clothes—regular old blouses and
pants, even vintage T-shirts and bras.

“It’s the everyday things—the underwear, the things that get
used up—that are really valuable,” Davis says. “They tell how people lived
their lives” in decades and centuries past. That’s well and good, but this
emphasis on everyday clothing (and underwear) has one unintended
consequence—standing there, you feel awfully self-conscious about what you
left the house wearing that morning. Is this how posterity will judge
me?

However important the everyday is to museum research, it’s the
extraordinary that captivates people, and a parachute transformed into a
wedding gown is pretty extraordinary. As Davis dons gloves and unfolds the
dress, even I—a man who doesn’t know his ruffles from his ruches—feel
stirred.

The original owner, Major Claude Hensinger, bailed out over
Japan in 1944 after his B-29 caught fire. He landed on some rocks,
suffering minor injuries, then used the parachute as a pillow and blanket
that night. Upon returning home to Pennsylvania, he began courting a woman
named Ruth, then proposed to her by giving her the parachute and asking
her to make a dress of it.

Davis points out the garment’s elegance—its design was inspired
by Gone With the Wind. Still, it retains some vestiges of its
former existence. It has heavy-duty parachute seams, and it’s extremely
billowy: When Davis starts folding it back into the box, I’m doubtful it
will fit.

Somewhere between his crash landing and his rescue, Hensinger
bled on the parachute, and while you’d think bloodstains would be easy to
find on a wedding dress, Davis and I can’t locate any. At last, we spot
them—a few darkened drops in the middle of the back.

Claude and Ruth’s daughter also got married in the dress in
1973, as did their daughter-in-law in 1989. All three women, then, had a
drop of Hensinger’s blood near their hearts during the ceremony. Not even
a fairy tale could improve on that detail.

For whatever reason, when you start digging into oddball items
at the Smithsonian, animals come up a lot, even in departments where you’d
never expect them to—such as currencies.

Among other strange money, curator Karen Lee at the American
History museum shows me a bill from Washington state made of salmon skin
and a bill from Oregon made of sheep’s hide. But the strangest currency on
the table is the clamshell cash.

In March 1933, to stop a rash of bank runs, President Franklin
Roosevelt closed banks nationwide for four days. Whatever its fiscal
merits, the decision proved a pain for everyday people, who lacked access
to cash. So the residents of Pismo Beach, California, got
creative.

Residents of Pismo Beach, California, created clamshell cash after President Franklin Roosevelt closed banks for four days in 1933. Photograph courtesy of The National Museum of American History.

Merchants at 11 businesses scooped up clamshells from the
seashore. They declared the biggest shells the most valuable, then
transformed them into genuine currency—dating them, signing them, even
inscribing them with “In God We Trust.” Lee says she sees the clam cash as
an exemplar of human ingenuity: “In times of desperation, people said, ‘We
need to work this out,’ and they did.”

Naturally, the Smithsonian’s National Zoo has squirreled away
some animal oddities as well. But zoo officials hesitated to talk about
the strangest item in their possession—unless I made it clear that their
remote-controlled badger wasn’t a toy but was built for serious
research.

In the late 1980s, a car in Wyoming hit a 20-pound badger. Its
remains, packed in dry ice, arrived at the National Museum of Natural
History the next day, where scientists skinned it and mounted it onto a
remote-control truck. The top half of the amalgamation looks like your
typical black-and-white badger; the bottom half is four oversize Tonka
wheels. The badger bares just enough teeth to look fierce, and its front
and back legs stick out kind of like Superman’s.

So what serious scientific purpose does this robo-badger serve?
It’s a fake predator. The zoo has a campus 70 miles west of DC, in Front
Royal, where biologists help conserve species. In the late 1980s, one
project aimed to reintroduce the endangered black-footed ferret into the
wilds of Wyoming, Montana, and South Dakota. Problem was, the ferrets,
raised in captivity, had never encountered a predator and would have
become ex-ferrets pretty quickly if turned loose with no
training.

The robo-badger was enlisted for predator boot camp. Biologists
periodically “attacked” the ferrets with the all-terrain badger while also
shooting them with a rubber-band gun, to reinforce in their little minds
that badgers equal pain.

Retired Smithsonian zoologist Chris Wemmer remembers that, at
two months old, the ferrets “were as helpless as gumdrops,” but they
developed a healthy fear response on their own by four months. A single
bad experience with the robo-badger (and there weren’t many good ones)
boosted their natural instincts. As Wemmer later wrote on his blog, “a
good scare improved the survival response, which was simply to beat a
hasty retreat down the burrow.”

Unfortunately, the training didn’t translate all that well to
the wild. Before exposing the endangered black-footed ferrets to potential
harm, the biologists trained some non-endangered Siberian ferrets with the
robo-badger and turned them loose. Predictably, perhaps, real predators
proved more clever than your average remote-controlled carnivore, and the
Siberian ferrets died out. (A better boot camp involved a pet Labrador.)
Still, the robo-badger played a role in what became one of the
Smithsonian’s most successful conservation efforts ever. Today more than
1,000 black-footed ferrets roam the West.

• • •

In contrast to the robo-badger, the final animal oddity on my
list seemed like pure frivolity. But even the “squirrel frame” proved
significant in its way.

This object is just what it sounds like: a small frame
surrounded by a flattened pelt, complete with claws and a desiccated head.
Inside it sits a (probably bogus) newspaper column about a deck of cards
made of human skin. An archivist named Lorain Wang discovered the frame in
2005 at the Smithsonian’s Museum Support Center in Suitland.

It was Wang’s first day of work, and while cleaning out her
office she found a manila envelope. She peeked inside, saw fur and claws,
and screamed. Wang says archivists occasionally find unpalatable things in
old boxes—she once came across an empty box labeled “horse meat patties.”
Never dead vermin, though. And because the Museum Support Center houses 55
million objects, no one knew the frame’s provenance.

For years, it migrated among various people’s offices, until
another archivist found a clue in 2011. It turned out that the frame had
belonged to, of all people, Marjorie Merriweather Post, the socialite and
benefactor of Hillwood Estate, her palatial former home in Northwest
DC.

Perhaps you’re different, but I’ve never thought, while touring
Hillwood’s Fabergé and china collections, “You know what would look
fabulous right over there . . . ?” In reality, Post hung the squirrel
frame in the main lodge of her 68-building “rustic retreat” in the
Adirondacks. (Each guest house had its own butler and maid.) The lodge
also contained important Native American artifacts, and when Post’s estate
donated them to the Smithsonian in the 1970s, the squirrel frame got swept
along.

It now rests in an archival box. There’s no plan to display it.
Still, it’s valuable. After touring her immaculate DC estate, I could
never have imagined Post even touching fur that wasn’t mink or ermine. But
I was wrong: She had a sense of humor. It took a dead squirrel to make her
seem alive to me.

• • •

The Smithsonian owns some shrunken heads from South America. It
owns a Tibetan kapala, a ceremonial cup made from a human skull. It owns
the “soap man,” who died in Philadelphia circa 1800 and much of whose
body, because of the unusual chemistry of the soil in which it was buried,
was transformed into something like a giant bar of Ivory.

None of those items is on display. Human remains have become a
touchy subject for museums. As a result, Smithsonian officials forbade me
from seeing them. That said, not all human remains are equally sensitive
topics. People do sometimes make a spectacle of themselves, with good
humor, and in those cases—as with Hans Langseth’s 17½-foot beard—curators
were happy to let me peek.

Hans Langseth began growing his beard around age 30, in 1875, and kept it going until he died 50 years later. The Smithsonian once displayed the beard for the public. Now it’s in storage. Photograph courtesy of The National Museum of Natural History.

Langseth, a farmer from North Dakota, started growing his beard
around age 30, in 1875, possibly for a Centennial Day contest. There’s no
record of whether he won for having the longest whiskers that day, but he
certainly beat everyone over the long run, eventually setting a
Guinness-certified world record. Today the beard rests in a cabinet of
skulls and other bones in the Natural History museum. It’s mounted on a
piece of blue cardboard and snakes back and forth (and back and forth)
along the surface.

Most long beards are bushy, but Langseth’s is compact, like a
rope. For most men, facial hair grows just eight inches or so before it
falls out. Langseth’s stayed in place only because the strands got matted
together as they fell out. “It’s essentially one big dreadlock,” says
David Hunt, an anthropology-collections manager.

The beard changes color along its length. The distal end, from
Langseth’s youth, is chestnut. But the color bleaches away as it meanders,
becoming white-blond near where it attached to his chin when he was 81
years old. (White hair slowly turns blond after death.)

The Smithsonian once displayed the beard for the public—Hunt
still has the portrait of Langseth’s face from which it dangled—and
Langseth himself showed it off during his lifetime. Film footage exists of
him letting onlookers stroke it; at one point, he appears to fish with it.
He even joined a traveling circus and greatly enjoyed the attention. (He
eventually quit the circus because people kept yanking on the beard to see
if it was real. Also, when the Fat Lady started coming around every
evening to groom it, Langseth’s wife got jealous.)

The beard could be an important tool for research, Hunt says.
Hair preserves DNA well, and it’s rare to have access to DNA samples from
so many points in one person’s life. Studying it could help researchers
understand how DNA changes over time. Forensic scientists also take a keen
interest in how hair ages, and there’s nothing else quite like Langseth’s
beard.

• • •

The Smithsonian has always been a miscellany. Its first
building, the “castle,” opened in 1855, and housed mammals and meteorites,
steam engines and gems, marble sculptures and basalt idols, all under one
roof. Buffalo roamed the back yard in a pen, and owls nested in the
towers.

In the 158 years since, the Smithsonian has found room for a
steam-powered adult tricycle from the 1880s; a violin that served as a
Civil War diary, with entries etched into the back; and a prized set of
jewel-encrusted trinkets, including a pacifier, a yo-yo, a mousetrap, and
a sardine can. There’s a stretch of pavement from Route 66, a cache of Y2K
memorabilia, and Evel Knievel’s motorcycle. There’s Abraham Lincoln’s top
hat and his handball; Theodore Roosevelt’s writing desk and his original
teddy bear; John Glenn’s spacesuit and the tube (yes, tube) of puréed beef
he carried into orbit.

Some at the Smithsonian may bristle about its reputation as
“the nation’s attic,” but it’s not a term of disparagement. Attics are
where we store things we love and can’t bear to part with, even if we
aren’t sure why. We know things will be safe there, and for that reason
attics are just as important psychologically as physically.

The parachute dresses and clamshell cash and pigeon nose cone
probably won’t change our understanding of American history much. But once
you know that such things exist, history does look more colorful. They
expand the realm of what’s possible and our notions of just how
creative—and weird—human beings can be. And while the most valuable goods
for historians may indeed be the everyday, some of us will always have our
eyes peeled for the extraordinary.

Sam Kean is author of the nonfiction books “The Disappearing Spoon” and “The Violinist’s Thumb.” His website is samkean.com.

This article appears in the July 2013 issue of The Washingtonian.

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