Damaged records from the 1890 census. Most of these records ended up being destroyed. (Image source: National Archives)

Just Stick It in the Basement: Before the Archives

Today, the founding documents of America - the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and the Bill of Rights - are on display at the Charters of Freedom exhibit in the Rotunda of the National Archives. Tourists from across America and the world make pilgrimages to see the most revered documents in American history. Extensive preservation measures have been put in place, with each document placed in bullet-proof titanium cases filled with noble, non-reactive argon gas, to protect them from the wear and tear of the elements, or from people like this guy. The Charters’ cases contain a mechanism to retract the documents back down into a 22-foot-deep bunker at a moment’s notice. The documents are even examined by a $3.3 million monitoring system, designed by scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, so that signs of damage can be detected far before they could be by the human eye.

But this wasn’t always the case. For most of our nation’s history, these charters, now considered priceless, were kept with the United States’ other government documents - that is, shoved wherever officials could find space. Before the National Archives was founded in 1934, these documents were stored essentially at random, in basements, on walls, or even piled in hallways.

Now abandoned, Glenn Dale Hospital and Sanatorium was Washington's response to its Tuberculosis problem in the 1930s. (Photo source: Wikipedia)

DC's TB Problem

Tonight at 9pm, WETA TV 26 and WETA HD premiere the new American Experience film The Forgotten Plague, which details the impact of Tuberculosis on American society. TB was a problem everywhere. But, the disease hit few places as hard as it hit Washington, D.C. In fact, according to a 1934 report by the District Medical Society, only Memphis, San Antonio and New Orleans had higher death rates among large cities in the United States.

The stats were alarming. They were also somewhat surprising, at least according to some. As the DMS report noted, since D.C. “is less congested and the economic situation is better than in any other city in this country, we should have one of the lowest death rates.” However, the rate in the nation’s capital was “higher even than that of Baltimore, where congestion and the economic situation are notoriously unfavorable.” (Sorry, Baltimore, apparently you were the measuring stick for terrible public health in the 1930s.)

Orson Welles (Source: Library of Congress)

Washingtonians React to the "War of the Worlds"

Tonight on WETA TV 26 and WETA HD, American Experience celebrates the 75th anniversary of Orson Welles' famous "War of the Worlds" radio broadcast with a new documentary. Back in 1938, Welles caused mass panic as many listeners to his The Mercury Theater Over the Air drama program on CBS radio thought that he was reporting on a real alien invasion.

Locally, Washingtonians heard the show on WJSV, the precursor to today's WTOP and the broadcast got quite a reaction. Phone switchboards were overwhelmed as frightened listeners called their loved ones and contacted the radio station for the latest news. Even some law enforcement personnel were duped. Afterwards, area residents blamed a variety of factors for the hysteria.

The Changing Landscape of Arlington As Seen by An Old DC Hiking Club

It’s a casual Sunday in April 1934 and you’re looking for something to do. How about a hike in the great outdoors? Lucky for you, there’s a new hiking club in town and they are preparing for their very first hike!

Earlier that year, German immigrant and nature enthusiast Robert Shosteck approached The Washington Post to inquire if the paper was interested in creating a partnership. Shosteck offered to write multiple columns each week on various outdoor topics in exchange for The Post’s sponsorship of a new hiking club, which he called The Wanderbirds.[1]

Portrait of Lead Belly, National Press Club, Washington, D.C., between 1938 and 1948 (Photo: William P. Gottlieb, Library of Congress)

Impressions of Washington: Lead Belly's "Bourgeois Blues"

Huddie William Ledbetter (January 20, 1888 – December 6, 1949), better known as Lead Belly, was a legendary folk and blues musician known for his virtuosity on the twelve-string guitar, powerful vocals and the huge catalog of folk standards he introduced. Inducted into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame in 1988, artists from Bob Dylan and Led Zeppelin to Nirvana and the White Stripes have covered his songs and recognized his musical influence.

Somewhat less remembered, even locally, is Lead Belly's "Bourgeois Blues," a song written about his first visit to Washington, D.C. in 1937 — an incisive indictment of the city's racial segregation conveyed in 3 minutes of rippling 12-string blues.

Happy Repeal Day, Maryland and Virginia! (Sorry, D.C.)

Repeal Day, December 5, 1933, was a day of wild celebration. The 18th Amendment was repealed, ending the great experiment known as Prohibition. Booze could finally start flowing again (legally) across the country and Americans were eager to imbibe. But, as kegs were tapped and bottles were uncorked from coast to coast, one place was left out of the party: Washington, D.C.

George Preston Marshall (Source: Library of Congress)

A D.C. Dome?

Tomorrow afternoon, the Redskins will play the Cowboys at colossal Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas. With a seating capacity of up to 100,000, a retractable roof, and a 60 yard-long HD video board amongst other amenities, the stadium is something to behold.

But, when it comes to innovative stadium designs, the Cowboys have nothing on former Redskins owner George Preston Marshall.

Hugh Bennett and the Perfect Storm

Think the impacts of the Dust Bowl were only felt in the Great Plains? Think again. In the spring of 1935, a dust storm nearly blocked out the sun above Washington, alarming local citizens and spurring Congress to take action on soil erosion policy.