8 of the Weirdest Items in the Smithsonian's Archives
For nearly 175 years, the Smithsonian Institution and its network of museums have been curating, preserving, and displaying pieces of American history, from NASA spacesuits that allowed astronauts to step on the moon to Fonzie’s jacket from Happy Days. While the exhibits are plentiful, they represent barely 1 percent of the 154 million items the organization has in storage. Have a look at some of the Smithsonian’s lesser-known—but no less interesting—peculiarities that would surely draw curious stares if and when they come up for display.
1. THE FOLDING BATHTUB
Enjoy taking baths but hate the space your tub takes up? Circa 1900, you could’ve opted for a bathtub that folded upright and out of sight. First seen in a 1895 Montgomery Ward catalog, the tub—made by the Mosely company out of Chicago—could be moved out of the way when not in use, with the underside sporting a vanity mirror. The dirty water was drained into a basin for emptying. If this wasn’t cool enough, the Smithsonian notes that other companies made combination sofa-bathtubs, with fold-up seats that allowed people to climb in for a bath.
2. GIANT SLOTH DUNG
In 1941, a Smithsonian curator named Remington Kellogg made a landmark find in the Grand Canyon’s Rampart Cave: giant, fossilized sloth poop. The feces was originally excreted by the giant ground sloth (Nothrotheriops shastensis), a creature that went extinct 12,000 years ago. This particular pile of dung is thought to be roughly 100,000 years old and was part of a repository of crap beloved by scientists. In 1977, the cave experienced a prolonged fire that threatened to torch the pile, which was 5 feet thick. In their infinite wit, The Washington Post referred to the crisis as being a matter of “endangered feces.”
3. A TERRIFYING FAKE BABY
With the right amount of flecking paint and a proper thousand-yard stare, dolls can become one of the most sinister inanimate objects possible. But what if the doll was fitted with primitive gears that could make it crawl? This faux-toddler was patented by inventor George Pemberton Clarke in 1871, who labeled it the “natural creeping baby doll.” Buzzsaw-like wheels provide forward momentum for the hellish object, while the flat surface on top may have been a good place to transport a drink ... or dead animals.
4. PICKLED WOOLLY MAMMOTH FLESH
Mammuthus primigenius was a common sight 12,000 years ago, before the ice age eliminated a sizable portion of wildlife. Some survived in Alaska and Russia, but no one has seen a woolly mammoth in the flesh in 4000 years—unless you convince a Smithsonian curator to lead the way to their preserved sample. In 1901, a team of Russian scientists discovered a frozen woolly mammoth that still had pieces of its flesh intact. In 1922, when one of the scientists ran into some financial trouble, he sold off muscle tissue from the mammoth’s hind leg to the museum, along with samples of its hair and teeth.
5. A 17-FOOT LONG BEARD
At 17 feet, 6 inches, North Dakota resident Hans Langseth’s beard might just be the longest ever grown. A hirsute man who wanted to enter a beard competition, Langseth simply let his facial hair continue to grow, tying off the bottom once it began dying off so he could maintain the follicles. When he died in 1927, he instructed his family to trim it off before he was buried. The intact scruff was donated to the Smithsonian, which periodically brings it out of storage when a Langseth ancestor wants to see the specimen for themselves.
6. A GIANT SQUID EYE
Things floating in jars typically don’t promote pleasant dreams, and this massive giant squid eyeball is no exception. The eyes of this animal can grow up to 10 inches in diameter with a 3.5 inch pupil and are intended to visualize surroundings in water depths which have low to zero visibility. It’s believed squids need such massive peepers in order to keep tabs on the sperm whale, their natural predator. Such eye specimens aren’t common, as squid carcasses are usually rotting by the time they get in the hands of scientists. No one had even photographed a live squid in its natural environment until 2005.
7. AN IRON LUNG
Before Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine, polio ran rampant, sometimes compromising a patient’s respiration to the point they needed artificial breathing assistance. Machinist John Haven Emerson improved on the first “iron lung” machines that used negative pressure to inflate and compress the lungs and introduced them in 1931 to help assist with the care of polio victims who had paralyzed chest muscles. The whole-body units offered variable breathing and a hand pump in case of electrical failure; inside was a “cookie tray” that could slide in and out to tend to patients. The number of people using these types of tank respirators fell from 1200 in 1959 to just 39 in 2004. Today, just three people are still using them, including an 82-year-old polio survivor.
8. PIGEON VESTS
During World War II, Allied forces used pigeons as message carriers. Strapping the birds to their chests before parachuting helped make sure the avian soldiers weren’t harmed during the descent. Bra company Maidenform made 28,500 of the vests for the U.S. government in 1944. (For reasons unknown, the instructions cautioned the user not to leave the birds in the vests more than six hours.) Messages delivered by the birds had an impressive 95 percent success rate.