10 Strange Things in the Smithsonian's Collection

By: Jessika Toothman
smithsonian building
The Smithsonian Institution is home to some 137 million objects and counting.
Gary D'Ercole/Photolibrary/Getty Images

The Smithsonian Institution is home to some 137 million objects, artworks and specimens, and that number is climbing all the time [source: Smithsonian Institution]. So it's no surprise that many people affectionately refer to this mega museum complex as "the nation's attic" or "America's attic."

At times, that so-called attic gets a good going-over, such as when the museum's 267 curators led an army of employees through what was cheerfully dubbed the "Great Counting" back in the early 1980s [source: Time]. That first massive inventorying endeavor highlighted just how much stuff the Smithsonian had squirreled away.


The mark of successful Smithsonian curators and collections managers could very well be the soul of an avid pack rat, and as any good pack rat knows: Everything is fair game to consider keeping. The institution's eclectic collections are a case in point. Ruby slippers, shrunken heads, dinosaur poop, poison darts, barf bags, insect eggs (that have been known to hatch and start munching on beleaguered botany specimens), astronaut boots, old advertisements, tribal textiles, presidential garb -- not even gallstones are too lowly to be saved. Plus, some of the items in the Smithsonian's care aren't even American in origin, like the stuffed remains of white rats used on the Soviet side of the Space Race.

What's more, the team at the Smithsonian does nothing halfheartedly. Who wants one example of an artifact when you can have 50? Or 500? And don't even think about skimping on specimens. At the time of the "Great Counting," the Smithsonian was crammed with deceased organisms of all sorts, including more than 3,000 sea slugs, 50,000 flies and close to 115,000 bird eggs. Beetles were represented by a massive 7 million specimen collection, and there were reportedly even several million samples of good old-fashioned dirt packed away. Cataloguers expected the total number of artifacts to be around 78 million but discovered they had 100 million objects instead [sources: Time, Smith].

Ready to read more about some of the stranger items somebody thought the Smithsonian needed? On the next page, we'll discuss artifacts that captured a slightly morbid slice of American history.

10: Presidential Possessions

Lincoln's pocket watch
Lincoln's gold pocket watch -- a perfectly natural object to hang onto -- was opened recently to reveal strange scrawlings rumored to be left by the watchmaker tasked with repairing the timepiece.
AP Photo/Smithsonian Institution

Saving some artifacts that belonged to former U.S. presidents and founding fathers makes sense. Take iconic items like Ben Franklin's cane or George Washington's tent, the model Abraham Lincoln submitted with his patent application or the microphone FDR spoke into during his fireside chats. But some of the relics the Smithsonian has collected from diplomats seem a little odd.

Among the many strange mementos are Warren Harding's silk pajamas, one of Harry Truman's bowling pins and a framed display featuring locks of hair cut from the heads of the first 14 presidents, from Washington all the way up to Franklin Pierce.


Some of the stuff that's been saved is arguably downright macabre, like the top hat that Abraham Lincoln allegedly wore when he was assassinated at Ford's Theatre or the cup William McKinley had just sipped from before he, too, was shot.

9: Sewell's Heart Pump

In 1959, the Smithsonian acquired a device that was a pioneering precursor to modern artificial heart technology. Built in 1948 and 1949, by Yale School of Medicine student William H. Sewell Jr. (under the tutelage of his thesis adviser Dr. William W. L. Glenn), it was one of the first functioning heart pumps, able to successfully bypass the right side of the heart.

Besides being an important technological innovation, this particular heart pump was extraordinary for an entirely different reason: It was built primarily from the pieces of an Erector Set and cost a grand total of $24.80 to construct [source: Glenn]. Apart from the Erector Set components (including a motor), among the other items used to assemble this deceptively simple, pneumatically powered heart pump was an assortment of cannulas, cams, valves, glass tubes and connectors -- all stuff the soon-to-be Dr. Sewell could find easily in a typical lab or purchase at a dime store. After assembly, it simply needed to be hooked up to a tank of compressed air and a vacuum pump.


Sewell's heart pump was tested successfully during several experiments with dogs, and it served as an important prototype for later life-saving cardiac devices. Another intriguing artifact that combines medicine with cutting-edge engineering awaits us on the next page.

8: The Bubble Suit

The Bubble Boy
David Vetter (pictured here with his mother and father) took his first steps outside of his isolation bubble thanks to a little NASA ingenuity.

John Travolta and Jake Gyllenhaal might have enjoyed happy endings in their portrayals of the "Bubble Boy," but the real story ended tragically in 1984 when 12-year-old David Vetter died in the months following a bone marrow transplant that his doctors had hoped would reverse his severe combined immunodeficiency.

David spent almost the entirety of his short life within the cramped confines of stationary and mobility NASA-built bubbles (more technically referred to as isolators) except for a brief span before his death and during a series of outings starting in 1977, the year the space agency gave him a special gift. Then 5 years old, David received a Mobile Biological Isolation System: the infamous bubble suit.


The custom-built contraption (which also included a mobile support vehicle) cost $50,000 to make and came with a 54-page instructional manual [source: PBS]. It frightened David to enter it for the first time -- he had to make his way through an 8-foot-long (2.5-meter-long) tunnel to reach the form-fitting suit component. But once inside the mobile bubble suit, he was excited by the novelty of everyday experiences like being able to hand things to other people and walk for more than a few steps in any direction. Eventually, however, the practice of using the bubble suit began to unnerve him, and he ceased venturing about.

Apart from David's bubble suit and its accompanying mobile support vehicle, the Smithsonian also acquired one of his stationary isolation units and several of his possessions including games, toys and drawings.

7: Cher Ami

There are plenty of military relics in the Smithsonian's collection, but few also highlight the institution's penchant for preserving the more memorable furry and feathered companions that made a mark on American history.

One such example is Cher Ami, a carrier pigeon who flew 12 missions during World War I. (Pigeon units played an essential role in wartime communication because they could deliver messages quickly through dangerous territory.) Cher Ami's unwavering bravery and resolute determination during his 12th and final mission earned him medals, accolades and a posthumous spot in the Smithsonian.


On Oct. 4, 1918, the U.S. Army's 77th Infantry Division was trapped behind German lines. In an effort to assist the division, U.S. troops started firing artillery rounds, only the shells were inadvertently bombarding the very soldiers they were supposed to protect. His first pigeons shot down, the besieged division's field commander, Maj. Charles Whittlesey, had just one pigeon remaining to try to get a message through: Cher Ami.

The Germans rained bullets on Cher Ami when he broke cover, but the tenacious little bird would not be deterred from delivering his message. He managed the heroic and perilous 25-mile (40-kilometer) flight in just 25 minutes, suffering grave injuries along the way. Upon his arrival with the crucial note, Cher Ami collapsed; he'd lost an eye, and a quarter-sized bullet hole in his breastbone had almost completely severed one leg.

But his bravery was also directly responsible for saving the lives of the 194 surviving soldiers of the "Lost Battalion." For that, he won the hearts of millions and, after his eventual death, a place among the Smithsonian's treasures.

6: A Reminiscent Route

Route 66
The Twin Arrows are just one of the many quirky sights you can see along Historic Route 66. Perhaps someday those arrows will end up in the Smithsonian, too.

The collectors at the Smithsonian have worked tirelessly over the years to document all aspects of American culture. In the year 2000, they even thought to grab a chunk of Route 66, commemorating the social impact engrained within the many miles of the celebrated scenic U.S. highway, as well as the quirky essence of roadside-attractions that distinguished it from others of the era.

The 50-foot-long (15-meter-long) stretch of concrete that's now in the custody of the Smithsonian came from the Oklahoma portion of Route 66, which all told, runs from Illinois through Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico and Arizona, before ending in California. It meanders through main streets and rural stretches alike. During its heyday, the road served a number of distinct populations in unique and important ways.


Route 66 symbolized a sense of freedom for many people escaping the dismal economic situation of the rest of Depression-era America, earning it a nod from John Steinbeck in "The Grapes of Wrath." In 1933, thousands of young, out-of-work laborers were put to work completing the many remaining unpaved portions of the highway. It was finally finished in 1938 -- just in time to assist appreciably in the war effort of World War II.

Military traffic was heavy during the wartime years, and afterward, Americans took to the open road in droves, some relocating, some road-tripping. Traveling for pleasure -- a concept not common before the war -- became a booming trend, and amenities and attractions sprang up all along Route 66 to entertain and wow the deluge of sightseers.

Route 66 is still 85 percent passable, and many advocates are working to preserve its place in history while promoting its preservation into the future [source: Gambino]. But in the event the famed route is lost, a chunk of it will always be stashed safely away at the Smithsonian.

5: Bun Gauge

Food traditions form a large component of just about every culture, and they evolve over time. But when it comes to American food legacies in particular, there have been some huge changes in the past 50 or so years. Similar to the automation and regulation that have occurred in industrial settings such as the automobile industry, American meals have become increasingly homogenized and standardized in an effort to ensure customers that the look and taste of the food they're served will be as expected.

That being said, it seems a little odd that the McDonald's in origin) is used by fast-food workers to measure the correct height and width of a sliced bun, a regular burger, a Big Mac and a Quarter Pounder. Would you like a pickle with that precision?


4: Mechanized Monk

Here's another strange relic that ended up at the Smithsonian: a 16th-century, mechanized monk from Spain. An amazing specimen for its time, the monk stands 15 inches (38 centimeters) tall and is a self-acting automaton. It still works centuries later, though it's not frequently activated for preservation's sake. When wound up, the monk completes a series of movements. With a trancelike gaze upon his face and his mouth opening and closing as if he's chanting, the monk slowly paces out a pattern, raising his arms in various devotional gestures as he proceeds.

The legend behind the mechanical monk is this: In 1562, Don Carlos, the crown prince of Spain, was grievously injured from a fall, and it threw the monarchy -- and indeed, to some extent, the world -- into chaos. His father, King Philip II, was desperate to save his heir and authorized all manner of treatments. None worked, however, and it looked like the prince would die.


As a final attempt to save his son, King Philip prayed to God for a miracle -- and promised God a miracle of his own in return should the boy survive. The prince did indeed live (there's some lore here relating to a local monk's remains and how they helped heal the boy, but the facts are unclear), so King Philip hired a renowned clockmaker to construct the diminutive yet entrancing mechanical monk in the image of the one many believed to have healed the prince. No one knows for sure why he chose this as his way to offer payback to God, but many interesting theories abound among experts.

Up next, an item worn by someone who would have greatly appreciated this "bedtime story" had he heard it.

3: Indiana Jones' Hat and Jacket

harrison ford
Executive producer George Lucas, actor Harrison Ford and director Steven Spielberg pose during the 61st International Cannes Film Festival in 2008.
Photo by Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

Indiana Jones first swept onto the silver screen during the summer of 1981 in "Raiders of the Lost Ark," and he's returned three times since in 1984's "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom," 1989's "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade" and 2008's "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull." Both skeptical academic and globetrotting archaeologist, Indy jumps from one adventure to the next, swinging his bullwhip and puzzling out the mysteries of the ancients all while rescuing damsels in distress and putting crooked treasure hunters out of business.

Fitting that one of Jones' signature lines was, "That belongs in a museum!" In 1989, Harrison Ford and Lucasfilm did right by the character and donated Indy's signature fedora and leather jacket to the Smithsonian. Later, in 1999, they made the museum a gift of his bullwhip as well.


Check out another artifact Jones would have probably taken an interest in on the next page.

2: Mormon Sunstone

Construction of the ill-fated Nauvoo Temple began in 1841, and it was one of the first built by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. As it was constructed over the next few years, the temple was adorned with sunstones, moonstones and starstones; there were 30 of each. But between arson in 1848 and a tornado in 1850, the original temple did not stand long.

In 1989, the Smithsonian purchased one of only two known surviving sunstones (or stones carved to resemble the sun) that were from the Nauvoo Temple for $100,000. The sunstone is massive -- about 5,000 pounds, or 2,300 kilograms -- and features a face carved into a sun that is materializing from a bank of clouds. Two carved trumpets sound above.


The Mormons' early push for acceptance and the right to practice their religious beliefs.

On the next page, we'll look at the lighter side of the Smithsonian's penchant for pocketing even the most random items from the annals of our nation's past.

1: Veg-O-Matic II

ron popeil
The man himself, Ron Popeil. Actor Dan Aykroyd even spoofed him on "Saturday Night Live" in 1976.
Mike Guastella/WireImage/Getty Images

Housed among the more serious items in the Smithsonian's collection are many lighthearted tokens of American history. Take the Veg-O-Matic II, for example, a product of Popeil Brothers Inc. The handy kitchen aid (and similar O-Matic devices) were invented by Samuel J. Popeil, but it was his son Ron who really made them famous. His television marketing campaign with the "But wait! There's more!" sales pitch gained him pop icon status, and the products sold like hotcakes.

The Veg-O-Matic II made its way into the Smithsonian in 1986, when the Popeil family donated one for the collection. The Popeils also sent along a recording of the accompanying commercial. And that's the end of this list ... "But wait! There's more!" Check out the links on the next page.

Lots More Information

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Great Links

  • "A Clockwork Miracle." Radiolab. June 14, 2011. (Nov. 15, 2011) http://www.radiolab.org/blogs/radiolab-blog/2011/jun/14/clockwork-miracle/
  • "But Wait! There's More!" NPR. June 19, 2002. (Nov. 15, 2011) http://www.npr.org/programs/morning/features/2002/june/ronco/
  • "Clockwork Prayer: A Sixteenth-Century Monk." Blackbird. Spring 2002. (Nov. 15, 2011) http://www.blackbird.vcu.edu/v1n1/nonfiction/king_e/prayer_introduction.htm
  • Davidson, Lee. "Smithsonian pays $100,000 for Sunstone from Nauvoo Temple." Church News. Dec. 2, 1989. (Nov. 15, 2011) http://www.ldschurchnews.com/articles/18896/Smithsonian-pays-100000-for-Sunstone-from-Nauvoo-Temple.html
  • Dowd, Maureen. "Cleaning the Nation's Attic." Time. Feb. 8, 1982. (Feb. 1, 2010) http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,953316,00.html
  • Dunlap, David. "But Wait! You Mean There's More?" The New York Times. (Nov. 15, 2011) http://www.nytimes.com/1999/11/11/garden/but-wait-you-mean-there-s-more.html?pagewanted=all&src=pm
  • Gambino, Megan. "Endangered Site: Historic Route 66, U.S.A." Smithsonian Magazine. March 2009. (Feb. 1, 2010) http://www.smithsonianmag.com/travel/Endangered-Cultural-Treasures-Historic-Route-66-USA.html
  • Glenn, William. "Sewell's Pump." Eli Whitney Museum and Workshop. (Feb. 1, 2010) http://www.eliwhitney.org/new/museum/-gilbert-project/-man/a-c-gilbert-scientific-toymaker-essays-arts-and-sciences-october-3
  • "History of Route 66." National Historic Route 66 Federation. (Feb. 1, 2010) http://www.nationalroute66.org/66hstry.html
  • Indiana Jones Official Web site. (Nov. 15, 2011) http://www.indianajones.com/site/index.html
  • Keane, Maribeth and Ben Marks. "Tales from America's Attic: An Interview with Smithsonian Entertainment History Curator Dwight Blocker Bowers." Collectors Weekly. Dec. 15, 2009. (Feb. 1, 2010) http://www.collectorsweekly.com/articles/tales-from-america%E2%80%99s-attic-an-interview-with-smithsonian-entertainment-history-curator-dwight-blocker-bowers/
  • "Legendary Route 66." Legends of America. (Feb. 1, 2010) http://www.legendsofamerica.com/66-Timeline.html
  • McVicker, Steve. "Bursting the Bubble." Houston Press. April 10, 1997. (Feb. 1, 2010) http://www.houstonpress.com/1997-04-10/news/bursting-the-bubble/full
  • "Most Intriguing Objects." Smithsonian Institute Press. 2001. (Feb. 1, 2010) http://www.smithsonianlegacies.si.edu/intriguing.cfm
  • "Nauvoo Temple." The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. (Nov. 15, 2011) http://www.ldschurchtemples.com/originalnauvoo/
  • Py-Lieberman, Beth. "Lincoln's Pocket Watch Reveals Long-Hidden Message. Smithsonian Magazine. March 11, 2009. (Feb. 2, 2010) http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history-archaeology/Lincolns-Pocket-Watch-Reveals-Long-Hidden-Message.html
  • "Ron Popeil." Biography.com. http://www.biography.com/people/ron-popeil-177863
  • Smith, Jeffrey. "Smithsonian Inventory Turns up Lots of Stuff." Science. July 29, 1983. (Feb. 2, 2010)
  • Sterner, C. Douglas. "Cher Ami." Home of Heroes. (Feb. 1, 2010) http://www.homeofheroes.com/wings/part1/3b_cherami.html
  • "The Boy in the Bubble." PBS. March 6, 2006. (Feb. 2, 2010) http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/bubble/index.html
  • The Smithsonian Institution's Web sites. (Feb. 1, 2010) http://www.si.edu/
  • The Smithsonian Institution's HistoryWired Web site. (Feb. 1, 2010) http://historywired.si.edu/