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Tag: National Archives History

Carting the Charters

Procession Transferring documents to the National Archives, December 13, 1952. (Records of the National Archives)

Procession transferring documents to the National Archives, December 13, 1952. (Records of the National Archives)

Visitors to downtown Washington, DC, on December 13, 1952, were treated to an interesting sight—armored vehicles escorted by a barrage of military and police personnel. It wasn’t a holiday or the Presidential motorcade or a visiting dignitary.

On that chilly December morning, passersby saw the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States going for a ride.

“The Charters of Freedom”—the Declaration, Constitution, and Bill of Rights—all have varied histories of transport and storage through 1952.

The Declaration of Independence, after it was signed on August 2, 1776, moved with Congress from city to city throughout the Revolutionary War. After the establishment of the new nation under the Constitution, the Declaration found itself in Federal buildings, abandoned gristmills, and private homes before it ended up in the Library of Congress in 1921.

The Constitution had a similar history—after the framers signed it, the Constitution passed into the custody of the Department of State in 1789 and moved as the Federal Government moved. Unlike the Declaration, which was displayed for many years, the Constitution spent much of its history in storage.

The Bill of Rights has an even thinner history between its creation in 1789 and 1938. It, too, traveled with the government as it moved about until the … [ Read all ]

Making Room for Records

Continuing our celebration of American Archives month, today’s post comes from Christina James, intern in the National Archives History Office.

Photograph of the Inner Court of Archives Building, 12/21/1935. (National Archives Identifier: 7820485) This inner courtyard was filled in shortly after the construction of the National Archives Building to increase the building’s storage capacity.

Photograph of the Inner Court of Archives Building, 12/21/1935. (National Archives Identifier: 7820485)
This inner courtyard was filled in shortly after the construction of the National Archives Building to increase the building’s storage capacity.

Since it opened and began accepting records in 1935, the National Archives has had to face the issue of space. Housing the records of the Federal Government is no small task, even when only 1-3 percent of the government’s records are held in perpetuity.

In the decades since its establishment, the National Archives has addressed its storage needs in a number of ways, some more effective than others.

The National Archives first confronted the growing mountain of records it faced by increasing storage space at the National Archives Building. The building’s architect, John Russell Pope had designed the building to have an interior courtyard, which could be converted to storage place at some point.

This courtyard was almost immediately filled in to expand the building’s stack area and nearly double the building’s storage space. This addition to the building was completed in 1937, but again in the late 1960s, the National Archives Building reached its storage capacity.

Photograph of Veterans Bureau Records in Stack Areas 06/12/1936. (National Archives Identifier: 7820633) The records of the Veterans Bureau were among the first groups of records to be transferred to the National Archives. At the time this photo was taken, the National Archives had accessioned 58,800 cubic feet of records, mostly from the Veterans Bureau and the U.S. Food Administration.

Photograph of Veterans Bureau Records in Stack Areas, 06/12/1936. (National Archives Identifier: 7820633) The

[ Read all ]

“The Posner Affair”

Continuing our celebration of American Archives Month, today’s post comes from Christina James, an intern in the National Archives History Office.

As the inscription on the west side of the National Archives Building reads, the National Archives is home to “the chronicles of those who conceived and builded the structure of our nation.” Primarily thought of as a place where history is preserved, one can easily overlook the ways in which historical events have directly affected the National Archives.

Ernst Posner, undated. (Records of the National Archives)

Ernst Posner, undated. (Records of the National Archives)

During World War II, the National Archives found itself under attack by the Senate Subcommittee on Independent Agencies regarding ties between the National Archives and German archivist, Ernst Posner. A short chapter in National Archives history, this incident is recorded in the Personal Files of Solon J. Buck as “The Posner Affair.”

Born in Berlin in 1892, Ernst Posner was a German citizen who had served in World War I and later became an archivist at the Prussian State Privy Archives. Prior to the start of World War II, Posner eagerly sought to leave Germany and hoped to relocate and secure an archival position in the U.S. He first met Solon J. Buck in 1938 while visiting and lecturing in the United States. Shortly after his return from this trip, Posner was arrested and imprisoned following the Nazi … [ Read all ]

Survey of Federal Records

Continuing our celebration of American Archives Month, today’s post comes from Tom Ryan, an intern in the National Archives History Office.

Photograph of storage conditions of the Office of Indian Affairs records, 1935.  (Records of the National Archives)

Photograph of storage conditions of the Office of Indian Affairs records, 1935.
(Records of the National Archives, RG 64)

Do you ever wonder where records were stored before the National Archives was created in 1934?

Before 1934, the Federal Government lacked a uniform manner to handle its records. Congress enacted legislation requiring each Government agency to keep its own records and gave the State Department responsibility for most archival duties.

In 1934, Congress passed legislation creating the National Archives which also created the office of the Archivist of the United States.

The new Archivist’s first step was to determine which of the older Federal records the Archives would accession (take legal and physical custody).

The National Archives Act also created the National Archives Council, whose primary duties were advising the Archivist in determining which documents should be included in the Archives.

The council was chaired by Secretary of State Cordell Hull. In a speech to the council, Hull declared: “We should approach our duty in a manner that will save us from allowing this vastly important work to become routine.”

In the early days, the process of collecting government records was anything but routine. Before the council could establish rules regarding the acquisition of records, … [ Read all ]

Symbols of Significance: The Pediments of the National Archives Building

October is American Archives Month! To celebrate the month dedicated to all things archives, we will feature weekly posts on the history of the National Archives. Today’s post comes from Christina James, intern in the National Archives History Office.

Measuring 118 feet wide and 18 feet high at their peaks, the pediments on the north and south sides of the National Archives Building are the largest in Washington, DC. These grand pediments depict scenes that convey the purpose of the National Archives and contain rich symbols of the Archives’ significance to the nation.

When he set out to design a national hall of records, architect John Russell Pope sought to create a neoclassical building of monumental size and design. This meant that the structure would be embellished with ornate, symbolic sculptural details, inspired by the art and architecture of the ancient Greeks and Romans. Pope wrote, “In view of the classic spirit in which the design of the building was conceived, it was considered essential by the architect and the sculptors that allegory rather than realism be the means of conveying the significance of the sculptural decoration.”

The pediment on the north side of the building, facing Pennsylvania Avenue, was designed by accomplished sculptor Adolph Alexander Weinman and is titled Destiny. The figure at the center symbolizes Destiny. He is seated, staring intensely from a throne on … [ Read all ]