What It Means to Be American
A National Conversation
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What does your family own that belongs in the Smithsonian?

Upload a photograph of an object in your home and explain what it tells us about your family’s American story and why it belongs in the collections of the National Museum of American History.

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  • Sally K.

    Seattle, WA

    IMG_20141023_210915

    My maternal grandmother was a quintessential American–a real product of the melting pot. Whenever I asked what her nationality was she always said, “Oh I’m just a mixture of a lot of things. German and English I guess with some Scotch and Dutch in there somewhere.” Born several years before 1900, she was a typical American housewife and mother in the early 20th century. She made great pies, tasty fried chicken, and the best Christmas “cutout” cookies imaginable. To this day they’re the only ones my children and I really like. She sewed prolifically and made quilts and blankets, some of which are in the photo. The orange and blue sunbonnet kid quilt was one of two she made for my sister and me in the 1950’s. Note my name embroidered in the corner so we could always see whose was whose. I slept under that quilt for most of my childhood. The crocheted afghan with the bright flower blocks was one of many she made when those were all the rage. By the time I left home and lived on my own, she had switched to knitting and she presented me with the burgundy and pink knitted throw for my first apartment. She told me there were three basic stitches in knitting–“knit, purl, and rip.” About 15 years after my grandmother died, my mother gave me a surprise gift one Christmas. It was the brilliantly colored pieced quilt in the photo. She had found the quilt top, apparently pieced and put away sometime before her birth in 1921. Mom rescued it from a box of items about to be consigned to the rummage. She machine-washed the quilt top and hung it on the backyard line to dry. When she took it to a quilting shop, the ladies there were horrified that she had been so cavalier with those nearly hundred-year-old cotton fabrics. But they were pleased to finish the project, choosing a back that matched and quilting it to the top my grandma had hand-stitched all those years ago. The quilt will be handed on to my daughters and hopefully to their offspring in turn.

  • Carter M.

    Orange, NJ

    Jones Cup 1_edited

    This is a coin silver cup, with a grape leaf repousse design, awarded to my great grandfather, Thomas Woodward Jones, for having the “best cultivated farm” in Chester County, Pennsylvania in 1858. It was awarded by the Chester County Agricultural Society as part of an annual competition to encourage good farm practices in the county. Thomas came from a long line of prosperous Quakers who lived along the Brandywine River in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania. The Jones family farm in Chadds Ford, where he grew up, had a rich history, having been slightly damaged by cannon fire in the Battle of the Brandywine in 1777, and having been where Lafayette was entertained (by Thomas’s father Brinton Jones) when he visited the battlefield during his trip through America in 1825. Thomas attended Haverford College, where many young Quaker men received their education at that time, but he left in 1851 and shortly thereafter began to cultivate his own farm in the Chadds Ford area. He was just 24 years old at the time he won the cup. I’m sure it was a source of some pride to him, as it has been carefully preserved and protected by three generations of Joneses, a testament to the family’s agricultural roots along the Brandywine, and to the Quaker faith that sustained them.

  • Sheila P.

    Southampton, NY

    Beach Plum jelly

    Prunus Maritina, the American Beach Plum, native to the east coast of the United States, is found in the dunes and sandy lots of our home town. Ripening in early September, the dusky purple fruit, even when fully ripe, is sour and mostly pit – good only for jelly making. When the season produces a good crop, our family all pitches in picking, sorting, stewing, mashing and, the final stage, testing the steaming dark red liquid for the elusive “sheeting off” which portends another batch of jelly ready for the sterilized jars. The satisfying ping of the lids sealing the vacuum proclaims a successful venture that will take us through a winter where this crimson sweet/sour translucence will adorn our biscuits and toast.

    On September 11, 2001 we had spent the morning haunted by repetition of falling towers – but the beach plums were waiting. Paul Lewis says, of the jam making cycle, “the jam maker appears to defer impending death…it is a life preserver, a sweet if imperfect antidote to the poison of time.” On that poignant day in early fall, one cycle of doom was interrupted as we turned ripening berries into jelly that even today evokes the sweetness of plums maturing in the salt laden air.

  • Tory A.

    Arlington, VA

    Tfelin

    My great-grandfather, Samuel Altman, immigrated to the United States from what is now Romania in about 1911. He was a furrier in New York City and raised three sons – the second was my grandpa, Murray Altman. These are Samuel’s tfelin, blocks of wood with leather straps that an Orthodox Jewish man would wind around himself and wear while praying.