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On Exhibit: sketch of the RMS Lusitania’s lifeboat storage mechanism

Today’s post comes from Zach Kopin, an intern in the National Archives History Office in Washington, DC. 

To honor the pivotal role its sinking played in turning U.S. popular opinion against Germany during World War I, a sketch of the RMS Lusitania’s lifeboat storage mechanism is now on display at the National Archives in Washington, DC.

Sketch Showing Lifeboats Stowed and Secured on Board the RMS. Lusitania, 12/6/1917. National Archives Identifier 17369675

Sketch Showing Lifeboats Stowed and Secured on Board the RMS. Lusitania, 12/6/1917. (National Archives Identifier 17369675)

Built in England, the RMS Lusitania was the pride of the Cunard Line’s fleet. Lusitania completed 201 Atlantic ocean crossings between her maiden voyage in September 1907 and May 1915, holding the record for the fastest time between 1907 and 1909.

The Lusitania left New York for the final time on May 1, 1915, under good weather, but that did not mean she was entering calm waters.

Although technically still neutral in 1915, the United States continued to conduct commerce with the Great Britain, a practice that put the Lusitania at risk. Fearing passenger boats would be used to ship war material, the German government approved unrestricted submarine warfare in February 1915.

After sighting her on May 7, 1915, off the coast of Ireland, the German submarine U-20 fired a single torpedo at the ship at 3:10 p.m. It was a direct hit.

A secondary explosion rocked the Lusitania shortly after the … [ Read all ]

Opening the Doors to Debate

Today’s post comes from Kate Mollan, archivist in the Center for Legislative Archives in Washington, DC. 

Resolution to Open the Doors of the Senate Chamber, April 29, 1790. (Records of the U.S. Senate, National Archives)

Resolution to Open the Doors of the Senate Chamber, April 29, 1790. (Records of the U.S. Senate, National Archives)

From the earliest days of the First Congress there were clamors for the Senate to open the doors to its chamber so that the public and press could witness the proceedings. Unlike the House of Representatives, the early Senate chose to hold its deliberations in secret.

On April 29, 1790, a resolution to open the chamber was made. A day later, the Senate rejected it. This was the first of several unsuccessful motions to open the chamber during the first few years of the Senate’s history.

As there is no record of the debate, the Senate’s reasons for maintaining secrecy are largely unknown. However, it is likely there was concern that the impulse to speak to the assembled public and use more impassioned rhetoric might impede doing the people’s business in an expedient fashion. By keeping its doors closed, the Senate was following the example of the Continental and Confederation Congresses as well as the Constitutional Convention.

Yeas and Nays on Motion to Open the Doors of the Senate, February 18, 1794. (Records of the U.S. Senate, National Archives)

Yeas and Nays on Motion to Open the Doors of the Senate, February 18, 1794. (Records of the U.S. Senate, National Archives)

Meeting in secret also meant greater freedom of discussion. Many senators looked … [ Read all ]

Remembering James Berton “Bert” Rhoads, Fifth Archivist of the United States (1968-1979)

Today’s post comes from Alex Nieuwsma, an intern in the National Archives History Office in Washington, DC.

On April 7, 2015, former Archivist of the United States James “Bert” Rhoads passed away at the age of 86.

Portrait of James B. Rhoads, Fifth Archivist of the United States, ca. 1968. (National Archives Identifier 7368465)

Portrait of James B. Rhoads, Fifth Archivist of the United States, ca. 1968. (National Archives Identifier 7368465)

James Berton Rhoads was born on September 17, 1928, in Sioux City, Iowa. He graduated with a B.A. from the University of California at Berkeley in 1950 and earned an M.A. from the institution in 1952. He later earned his Ph.D. from American University in Washington, DC.

Rhoads joined the National Archives in 1952 as a microfilm operator, but soon headed down the professional track. In 1966 he was appointed Deputy Archivist under Dr. Robert Bahmer. He replaced Bahmer as Archivist of the United States on May 2, 1968, after having served as Acting Archivist for nearly two months.

Rhoads’s tenure as Archivist saw massive changes within the National Archives, many of which increased the accessibility of the National Archives and its holdings. He started the quarterly magazine Prologue, which saw its first issue published in Spring 1969. He also expanded the regional archives system to solve the two-fold problem of needing more records storage space and increasing the public’s access to records.

Though known as a shy man, Rhoads was an outspoken … [ Read all ]

The other FDR Memorial

Franklin Roosevelt Grave Site, April 12, 1953. (Harry S. Truman Library and Museum, National Archives)

Franklin Roosevelt Grave Site, April 12, 1953. (Photo from the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum, National Archives)

On April 12, 1965, a small group of people gathered at the triangular plot on Pennsylvania Avenue near the National Archives Building in Washington, DC.

They were family and close friends of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and were assembled to dedicate a memorial to the late President on the 20th anniversary of his death.

The memorial was very much unlike the current FDR Memorial on the tidal basin. It was—and still is—a small and simple block of marble made from the same quarry as the FDR’s gravestone at Hyde Park, NY. The memorial was paid for by private donations that were not made public (although their names are sealed into the base of the stone).

The modest design was intentional—on September 26, 1941, Roosevelt had told his friend Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter:

“If any memorial is erected to me, I know exactly what I should like it to be. I should like it to consist of a block about the size of this (putting his hand on his desk) and placed in the center of that green plot in front of the Archives Building. I don’t care what it is made of, whether limestone or granite or whatnot, but I want it plain without any ornamentation, with

[ Read all ]

On Exhibit: “Lady Hooch Hunter”

Today’s post comes from Zach Kopin, an intern in the National Archives History Office in Washington, DC.

A new exhibit on America’s connection to alcohol is now on display at the National Archives. “Spirited Republic: Alcohol and American History” is about the United States’ love-hate relationship with the “demon rum.”

Daisy Simpson's Prohibition Unit ID, September 6, 1921. (National Archives Identifier 6238194)

Daisy Simpson’s Prohibition Unit ID, September 6, 1921. (National Archives Identifier 6238194)

Bruce Bustard, the exhibit’s curator, says the exhibit demonstrates the “changing attitudes of the American people about alcohol, and also looks at that through the records of the National Archives and Presidential Libraries.”

One of the most interesting people featured in the exhibit is Daisy Simpson. Simpson was one of the Treasury Department’s most famous Prohibition officers (called “prohis”).

Known as the “Lady Hooch Hunter,” Simpson quickly attracted attention—and press—with her spectacular busts of Volstead Act violators.

Passed on October 28, 1919, the Volstead Act implemented the 18th amendment to the Constitution of the United States, which established prohibition in the U.S.

The act empowered Federal, as well as state and local governments, to enforce Prohibition by limiting the manufacture, sale, or transportation of alcohol.

The U.S. Government turned to the Treasury Department to play the part of the act’s enforcer, a role in which women were integral.

While women gained the equal right to vote 1920, gender-based assignment of tasks endured. Women worked in the … [ Read all ]