Big Day For the Big Chair

Fifty-nine years ago today, Curtis Brothers Furniture Company declared July 25, 1959 Big Chair Day to celebrate the oversized chair that stood as a conspicuous advertisement in front of their showroom at the corner of V Street and Nichols Avenue (now Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue) in southeast Washington, DC. A piece of the original Big Chair is in the Museum’s collection, bearing testimony to one of the Anacostia neighborhood’s most famous landmarks.

Modeled in the Duncan Phyfe style and crafted out of mahogany, the 19 ½ foot, 4,600 pound chair was installed atop a four foot high concrete pedestal with a plaque touting it as the “World’s Largest Chair.” It took skilled laborers from Bassett Furniture Industries 900 hours to construct it in late 1958, and once erected, it became an immediate attraction, drawing visitors from all over the city.

January 16, 2018 – Bolivian dance troupe Tinkus Tiatako dances near the Big Chair sculpture during the annual Martin Luther King Jr Day Parade in historic Anacostia.
Photo by Susana Raab, Anacostia Community Museum, Smithsonian Institution

The Curtis Brothers Furniture Company capitalized on people’s curiosity and celebrated Big Chair Day extravagantly with a carnival-like atmosphere. The company gave away furniture and other prizes, offered pony rides for children and orchids for women, hosted live music by The Buckskins, and offered free photographs of customers with the Big Chair. The crowning moment of Big Chair Day 1959 was the coronation of Maureen Reagan, daughter of future President Ronald Reagan, as Miss World’s Largest Chair.[1]

The Curtis Brothers continued advertising their company as the “Home of the World’s Largest Chair” until it folded in 1975. Just months after hosting Big Chair Day, the company celebrated the Christmas holiday with advertisements calling on Washingtonians to “come and see the World’s Largest Santa sitting on the World’s Largest Chair.”[2] Another marketing gimmick featured a 9×10 foot furnished glass house placed atop the chair. A young woman named Rebecca Kirby, a model who went by the name Lynn Arnold, lived in it for forty-two days. The event was widely advertised by the furniture store and covered by the local press.[3] Local residents who witnessed it talked about it for decades[4]

Chuck Brown performing atop the Big Chair.
Photo by Steven M. Cummings, Anacostia Community Museum, Smithsonian Institution

Since its construction, the Big Chair has functioned as more than an advertisement for furniture. It has served as a gathering place for local residents, a way-finding marker for those giving directions, and a focal point of Washington, DC’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day Parade. Even after the Curtis Brothers Furniture Company closed in 1975, the chair remained at the same street corner, unchanged for decades save for repairs and painting by its caretaker, John Kidwell.  George Curtis III, son of the original furniture store owner, stated in 1986 “There’s no difference between that and the Washington Monument. It’s a landmark.”[5]

As befits a landmark, the Big Chair has shown great longevity. Although the original mahogany frame had to be dismantled in 2005 due to weathering, a new Big Chair was quickly erected in the same location, largely funded by the Curtis Investment Group. It was unveiled on April 25, 2006, in front of 250 invited guests, civic leaders, and politicians, including then-Washington, DC Mayor, Anthony A. Williams. The new Chair is cast proportionately to the original, but made of 2,600 pounds of painted aluminum, which requires less maintenance and lasts infinitely longer than wood. It continues the tradition of anchoring the community and standing as a landmark of Anacostia.

Souvenir block from the original Big Chair. Object no. 2006.0007.0001

As to the remainder of the original Big Chair, the discarded mahogany was cut into souvenir blocks, one of which was eventually donated to our Museum. Though a simple wooden block, it carries the weight of a neighborhood’s history – conveying some of what the Big Chair has meant to Anacostia in the six decades since the Curtis Brothers Furniture Company crafted it to draw in customers.

[1] The Evening Star (Washington, DC), July 24, 1959, sec C, 20. Newsbank Inc., (accessed July 17, 2018).

[2] The Evening Star (Washington, DC), December 21, 1959, sec A, 4. Newsbank Inc., (accessed July 17, 2018).

[3] “Model Gets Her Feet On the Ground Again,” The Evening Star (Washington, DC), September 24, 1960, sec A, 8. Newsbank Inc., (accessed July 17, 2018).

[4] Paul Schwartzman, “The Return of the Big Chair: A Very Big Deal,” The Washington Post, April 26, 2006, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/04/25/AR2006042501682.html (accessed July 17, 2018).

[5] Sandra Fleishman, “It May Not Be the Biggest but It’s Ours,” The Washington Post Magazine, November 23, 1986, 17-18. Proquest Historical Newspapers: The Washington Post (1877 – 2001), (accessed July 17, 2018).

Juneteenth Resources

Juneteenth celebration in Galveston, Texas, June 19th, 2002. Photograph by Steven M. Cummings. ACMA_03-055_GT0097

Across the nation last week various communities celebrated Juneteenth with a parade, festival, or both. The holiday is the best-known emancipation celebration in the United States, commemorating June 19, 1865, the day that Union troops under the command of General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas with the announcement of the abolition of slavery.  Until Granger’s arrival, some enslaved Texans were unaware of the end of slavery.

Growing up in a military family, I fondly recall attending Juneteenth celebrations in most of the States I called home. The festivities included speeches and actors recreating events in the life of historical figures, such as Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman. There were also games, music, arts and crafts, and great food!    The holiday brought together a diverse population of my local community to commemorate this event and celebrate African American heritage and culture.

Juneteenth celebration in Galveston, Texas June 19th, 2002. Photograph by Steven M. Cummings. ACMA_03-055_GT0064.

Years later when I started working in the Archives at the Anacostia Community Museum, I was thrilled to discover the museum held Juneteenth community festivals from 1989 to 1998.  In addition, the museum documented Juneteenth in Galveston, Texas for its 2005 exhibition: Jubilee: African American celebrations exhibition.

Juneteenth celebration in Galveston, Texas, June 19th, 2012. Photograph by Steven M. Cummings. ACMA_03-55_GT0140

Our archival holdings consist of a sizable collection of contemporary Juneteenth materials, from photographs and programs to video recordings.  We are now hard at work on an onwill be more accessible as we move towards making our collections more publicly accessible online.

Juneteenth ’91, “freedom revisited” publication by Betty Belanus and the Anacostia Museum.

A Fashionable Journalist

On this day 36 years ago, Mayor Marion Barry Jr. declared June 12, 1982 Ethel Lois Payne Day in Washington, DC. Collections Researcher Bailey Ferster commemorates the day by digging into the museum’s collections for a personal look at this grande dame of journalism.

Known as the “First-Lady of the Black Press,” Ethel Payne earned a reputation as a no-nonsense journalist who asked some of the most challenging questions. We’ve written about her accomplishments before in this blog, and today we reflect on her personal sense of style.

Ethel Payne, Portrait commissioned by Miller Brewing Company, 1987

In line with her fearless journalistic practice, Ethel Payne was a bold and charismatic dresser, unafraid to stand out in a crowd. Photographs show her wearing bright colors and eye-catching prints, and a 1987 painting portrays her elegantly attired in a loose-fitting multicolored dress with a long bead necklace, pendant earrings, bracelets and large rings. The background is painted in muted tones that accentuate her strong presence.

Some of her personal effects in the museum’s collection include a set of patterned deer hide suitcases and fur trimmed capes she used while traveling. Many of the clothes she donned were custom-made outfits from overseas, tangible connections to the cultures she experienced while traveling for work. One of her most treasured accessories, however, was a wide-brimmed green hat decorated with artificial flowers, leaves, and berries. Wide-rim hats as well as floral hats were popular during much of her career, from the 1940s to the 1970s, and Ethel’s pistachio green hat took the fashion to its zenith. More eccentric and expressive than most, the hat was decorated by hand, each flower, berry, and leaf stitched into place with green thread that is visible on the inside and underside of the brim. This hat, and Ethel’s other eye-catching fashion choices, lend credence to historic tales of her commanding presence on the media circuit.

Ethel Payne’s Floral Hat, Anacostia Community Museum

An ongoing museum project to document objects in our collection is adding depth and texture to our understanding of important community leaders. Ethel Payne’s hat and other personal accessories speak to her unique style and provide a sense of her striking personality. Her fashion choices offer an intimate look at the remarkable woman who earned a national reputation for her trailblazing work in journalism.

 

Say Their Names: The Walter Pierce Park Cemeteries Commemoration

From the Collection: Last year on Memorial Day weekend, descendants and friends of the Walter Pierce Park Cemeteries gathered to commemorate the people who are buried in this busy urban park in the Adams Morgan neighborhood of Washington, DC. The Museum’s photographer was on hand to observe and document the ceremony.

The park’s history is not widely known. Long before it acquired a dog park, soccer field, basketball court and children’s play area, the land served as the city’s only Quaker cemetery, the Friends Burying Ground (active 1807-1890), and a large African American cemetery, Mt. Pleasant Plains Cemetery (active from 1870-1890).

May 27, 2017 – The Reverend Segun Adebayo of Macedonia Church addresses the audience during the commemoration of a historic African American and Quaker burial ground located underneath Walter Pierce Park in the Adams Morgan neighborhood of Washington, DC.
Photo: Susana Raab/Anacostia Community Museum/Smithsonian Institution (triptych photograph).

In the early 2000s, neighbors were concerned about development plans that risked disturbing the burials. They joined forces with Howard University anthropologists and spearheaded efforts to document the park’s historical significance. Over the course of three years, the Walter Pierce Park Archaeological Team documented the artifacts and remains of over 8,000 people buried in Mt. Pleasant Plains Cemetery and the Friends Burying Ground. In 2015, the National Park Service named the Mt. Pleasant Plains Cemetery at Walter Pierce Park a National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom Site.

May 27, 2017 – African American Civil War Memorial Founder Frank Smith (right) and Patricia Tyson of FREED (Female Re-Enactors of Distinction) (left) read names together during the Memorial ceremony. Photo: Susana Raab/Anacostia Community Museum/Smithsonian Institution

Local resident Mary Belcher has been active in organizing The Walter Pierce Park Cemeteries Organization and commemorating the park. Last year, on Memorial Day weekend, participants recited the names of those buried in the park, and some told the stories of their interred ancestors. African American Civil War Memorial Founder Frank Smith and Patricia Tyson of FREED (Female Re-Enactors of Distinction) sat close together as a light rain cloistered the groups. Descendants T.J. Thomas and the Reverend Joanne Braxton addressed the crowd and told of their respective interred ancestors’ stories, and how they discovered their relationship to the ground. It is estimated that around a million people have ancestors in the Walter Pierce Park Cemeteries.

May 27, 2017 – The crowd reading names during the commemoration of a historic African American and Quaker burial ground located underneath Walter Pierce Park in the Adams Morgan neighborhood of Washington, DC. Photo: Susana Raab/Anacostia Community Museum/Smithsonian Institution

The Walter Pierce Park Cemeteries Organization will be hosting the commemoration this Memorial Day weekend on Saturday May 26, 2018 at 11 am at Walter Pierce Park.

Ms. Kilbourne: Chemistry Teacher Extraordinaire

“Among the things that have made teaching of chemistry an inspiration have been the intrinsic challenge of the subject matter, and the enthusiasm of the students—above all, witnessing their later successes in life. . .”      –Elaine M. Kilbourne, circa 1967

Elaine M. Kilbourne (1923-2014)

As Women’s History Month comes to a close, we would like to highlight the achievements and influence of high school chemistry teacher Elaine M. Kilbourne (1923-2014), who taught locally from 1948 to 1993. A collection of scrapbooks and other memorabilia she compiled was recently donated to the Museum by her friend and former student, Mr. Guy A. Toscano. It documents her distinguished career as a teacher and educator, and her ability to mentor and inspire generations of students.

Elaine M. Kilbourne, Anacostia History School Chemistry class, undated.

During her tenure at Anacostia High School in Washington, DC (1948-1968), and later at Thomas S. Wootton High School in Rockville, MD (1979-1993), Ms. Kilbourne earned a national reputation for her teaching. She pioneered the use of experimental and hands-on learning in her classroom, even discussing “atomic and ionic dimensions and molecular structure from student-constructed models”. In 1958 and 1963, Ms. Kilbourne received Principal Awards for Excellence in Science Teaching by the District of Columbia. The American Chemical Society recognized her contributions to the STEM field with numerous awards, including the Second District James Bryant Conan Award in High School Chemical Teaching in 1967.

Ms. Kilbourne is presented the James Bryant Conant Award, 1967

Not a person to rest on her laurels, Ms. Kilbourne created a series of national curricula for high school chemistry seniors while serving as Science Education Specialist for the Food and Drug Administration, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. She also worked for the National Science Foundation’s summer program, training chemistry teachers.

This is one of ten science projects written by Ms. Kilbourne, while she worked as a Science Education Specialist at the Food and Drug Administration.

Throughout her long career, Ms. Kilbourne demonstrated a passion for chemistry and a keen ability to influence students’ learning achievements. Her impact is evident in the letters and notes of appreciation she received from students, which are preserved in her scrapbooks. Actions speak even louder than words, and as one of her awards noted, an “average of nine to ten of her students per year” went on to major in science at college, leading in several cases to illustrious careers in STEM fields.

Ms. Kilbourne graduated from Eastside High School in 1940, received her B. A. in Physical Sciences from Montclair State Teachers College in 1944 and completed a M.A. degree in Student Personnel Administration at Columbia University in 1947. The collection contains limited personal information, and I am left to wonder about this remarkable woman’s early life and school experiences, what sparked her interest in chemistry, and how she experienced being a woman science teacher during the mid-20th century. What is undeniable is that she contributed to the advancement of STEM education, and that she instilled a love of learning in generations of Washington, DC area students. Her contributions are now duly documented among the Museum’s collections.

 

Help us identify these families!

In honor of National Quilting Day, research conservator Annaick Keruzec takes a closer look at several quilts with photographic patches in the museum’s collection.

Quilts are made for comfort, to decorate a home, or to tell a family story. For a textile conservator like myself, each quilt is unique and fascinating. Crafted from small pieces of fabric, they carry within them things that were part of the quilt maker’s environment. I can spend hours researching each fabric square, identifying fibers through the microscope or combing through historic sales catalogues to date and source the fabrics. I can examine how they were selected, arranged, and stitched together. I can document and admire the handiwork, the color combinations, and the artistry. Quilts are richly textured objects, full of connections and personal choices made by the maker. Indeed, researching quilts can offer remarkable insights on the person who made them.

Quilt with photographic patches

Shroud Series #2, Quilt by Fay Pullen Fairbrother. Photographed during examination in the collections processing room of the museum.

Several quilts in the museum’s collection incorporate squares with photographic images printed on them. This gives an added layer of complexity. How were they made? Why were these photos chosen? What was the artist’s intention? I am collaborating with a photo conservator and conservation scientists at the Smithsonian’s Museum Conservation Institute (MCI) to document these photographic quilts historically, technically, and personally from the artist’s perspective. In the next few months, we will analyze the fabrics, inks, emulsions, and binders used to create the photo patches – and we will report on it in this blog.

I’ve been examining a set of seven quilts created in the early 1990s by the artist Fay Pullen Fairbrother (1948-1997). Collectively titled The Shroud Series, they incorporate turn-of-the-century photographs depicting family portraits, lynchings, and the Ku Klux Klan. In an artist statement shortly after she made the quilts, Fairbrother wrote that the photographs of the KKK activities, studio portraits of black and white families, and lynched men clearly reflected a dissolution of family values and morals, Christian or otherwise. She chose to accentuate the dissonance of the violent imagery by juxtaposing it with quilt making, which has associations of comfort and family. The images stand out among the patchwork of the quilt.

 

I’ve been sourcing the images for the 50 photo-patches Fairbrother created, although I am not sure where and how she located them pre-internet. She reused some images, so they constitute a total of 24 different photographs. Among them are eight photographs depicting lynchings. Lynchings were public events that were described and recorded in local and sometimes national news. Some were depicted on early 20th-century postcards. I have identified the men in four photographs as Bennie Simmons (1913), Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith (1930), Claude Neal (1934), and Rubin Stacy (1935), whose photographs are published in Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America (2000). Four other scenes remain unidentified.

On three of the quilts in the Shroud Series, Fairbrother incorporated family portraits. They show well-dressed black and white families posing against draped studio backdrops. In contrast to the lynching photographs, the portraits are private and personal. Family portraits are also ubiquitous, and it is hard to describe them in a way that is unique. As a result, portraits are difficult to research and document. I have contacted archives to which Fairbrother might have had access, but have not yet located the images she used.

Please help us identify the five family portraits shown above and below! Have you seen these photographs or any like them? Let us know in the comments section.

  

Our scientific research on the quilts will continue to reveal Fairbrother’s technical processes. Meanwhile I am hoping to discover more about the artist’s life and sources of inspiration for her exceptional quilt series.

A Portrait of Frederick Douglass

2018 marks the bicentennial of abolitionist and civil rights activist Frederick Douglass, whose Cedar Hill Estate is located one mile from our museum’s current location. In his honor, collections researcher Meghan Mullins showcases a portrait that was created by one of our museum’s early employees, artist Larry Erskine Thomas.

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If You Lived Here: the Historic Barry Farm Settlement

Archaeological artifacts from Historic Barry Farm on display at the Anacostia Community Museum, 2017

In celebration of the 150th anniversary of Historic Barry Farm, the Museum presents a display of unique household items from the late-19th to mid-20th centuries. These items were excavated by urban archaeologists at the site of the Anacostia Metro Station in 1981.

Back in 1867, the Freedmen’s Bureau purchased 375 acres of land from Juliana Barry to create a settlement where freed slaves and free blacks could build their homes. The lots ranged in price from $125-$300 which had to be paid in instalments over two years. Lumber for the construction of a basic 14×24-foot house was also available for purchase. In order to pay for their new land, families held down jobs in the city during the day, and at night they crossed the river to build their homes. Over time, this post-bellum African-American community grew to include not only homes, but also schools, churches, and thriving businesses.

Porcelain Box from Historic Barry Farm, 1991.0064.0008

The objects on display in the exhibit illustrate a flourishing middle-class neighborhood. Some of the items were locally made, others imported, some mass-produced, and others hand-crafted. Of particular interest, the late 19th-century porcelain trinket box is stamped on the bottom with ‘Victoria Carlsbad Austria,’ showing that the neighborhood’s ladies favored elegant, European-made boxes for storing their treasured items. Another object, the stoneware crock bottle of ginger beer, suggests a preference for non-alcoholic beverages during Prohibition. The bottle was produced between 1910-1914 by the Washington Bottling Company once located at 465 Stafford Alley, SW, in Washington, D.C.

Beverage Bottle from Historic Barry Farm, 1991.0064.0005

The display complements an outdoor art installation titled “If You Lived Here,” created by Washington, D.C. artist Peter Krsko. The structure encourages us to reflect on how we live − in the house, the home, and the broader community across 150 years of shared history.

“If You Lived Here” Art Installation by Peter Krsko & Pink Line Project, outside the Anacostia Community Museum, 2017

Please join us for programming through July 2nd! More information is at https://www.ifyoulivedheredc.com/events/

This project was developed in collaboration with The Pink Line Project + Citizen Innovation Lab, the DC Preservation Office, and with funding from the DC Office of Planning and the Kresge Foundation.

For further information on the area’s history, check out:
http://cdi.anacostia.si.edu/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/Portia-James-EOR-Article.pdf

Flashback Friday: Good Hope Road

 

Commercial buildings and traffic along Good Hope Road in 1975.   Learn more here.

#FlashbackFriday

Sullivan Family: Service through the Generations

americanLegion

In honor of Veteran’s Day, the Museum is showcasing the Sullivan Family Collection. Several generations of Sullivans served the country by joining the armed forces or otherwise aiding in military efforts.

Many of the Museum’s holdings relate to family history and community life. Photographs, documents, treasured heirlooms and the accompanying stories reveal the lives of men and women whose efforts contributed to shaping history.

Almost a century ago, Theodore M. Sullivan enlisted in the U.S. army to fight in World War I. His Enlistment Record lists his character as “excellent,” and indicates that he was involved in the battle at Verdun, France. Several photographs show him in uniform. Mr. Sullivan was awarded the Purple Heart medal for military merit for eleven different wounds he sustained while fighting in Europe in 1918.

SullivanPurpleHeart

In subsequent years, Mr. Sullivan was active in the James E. Walker Post 26 of the American Legion, a wartime veterans’ organization formed in 1919. In this photograph, he is pictured in the middle, third from the top, during a visit of his Post to Washington, DC in 1940.

Other members of the Sullivan family continued a tradition of service for many decades. Theodore’s half-sister, Sadie Thompson, served in the Boston Chapter of the American Red Cross for over half a century, and all of Theodore’s sons enlisted in the armed forces during World War II. Edwin joined the U.S. Navy, while Earle entered the Tuskegee Institution’s program for training the first African American military pilots, now known as the “Tuskegee Airmen.” He was well into his training before his untimely death at the end of 1943.

The display will be on view through November 16, 2016.

SullivanIMG_9244b

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