Library of Congress

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.

Bread Kneaded on Capitol Hill

The Capitol's grand Civil War bakery occupied the majority of the building's large basement. (Photo Source: Architect of the Capitol)

As congressmen convened for a special session in July of 1861, they were welcomed into the Capitol by the smell of baking bread. Just months into the Civil War, the building had already seen thousands of troops pass through its doors, and now it was the site of one of the largest bakeries the world had ever known. Twenty ovens, each with the capacity of holding hundreds of loaves of bread, were housed in the basement, and multitudes of men spent hours tending yeast and kneading dough. Having been in recess for less than four months, the congressmen were astounded, and some even annoyed, with this new mammoth bakery occupying their space. But a lot had changed for the country – and for the Capitol – in that short period of time.

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.

Woody Guthrie, 1943 (Library of Congress)

How Washington Saved Folk Music

Sure, it seems a bit counter-intuitive. How could the favorite subject of protest music also be its greatest protector? Well, believe it. If it wasn't for Alan Lomax and the Archive of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress there might not be a Woody Guthrie — and thus by extension — a Bob Dylan or a Bruce Springsteen, and well … you get the rest. In March 1940, Lomax arranged for Guthrie to travel to Washington, D.C. to record traditional ballads and his original songs at the Department of the Interior recording lab. What emerged from three days of sessions is one of the purest documents of Americana ever released.