The National Archives, America’s official safe-deposit box, is only fifty years old—but it is already bulging with our treasures and souvenirs
THE NATIONAL ARCHIVES has been called variously the nation’s memory, storehouse, attic, and soul. The institution is known as the place where Americans can find their roots, as the country’s Hall of Heroes, and, by cynics, as the nation’s wastebasket. All these labels are, in fact, perfectly apt. In the handsome National Archives building on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, in the fifteen regional records centers, and in the seven presidential libraries—which altogether make up the National Archives—are stored 3,250,000,000 documents, 5,000,000 still pictures, 91,000,000 feet of motion pictures, and 122,000 sound and video recordings. The range is breathtaking: the most important holdings are the nation’s birth records—the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights—which, carefully guarded and preserved, are on permanent display; less awesome are such homey exhibits as a handwritten letter from Queen Elizabeth of Great Britain to President Eisenhower, sending him a recipe for “Drop Scones.”
The wastebasket label is quite accurate too. Every year the federal government generates some 7,000,000 cubic feet of records—the tax returns alone would fill ninety railroad cars—which are sent to the National Archives to be appraised and honed down to the 1 to 3 percent that are of permanent enough value to be retained. “Good records,” one archivist has said, “go to the heavenly archives and the bad ones go to the flames.”
It comes as a surprise to many people to learn that the National Archives is only fifty years old. When the nation was founded, the government records followed Congress around to wherever it was sitting, moving eleven times before 1800. The government’s establishment in Washington determined in what city the records would be kept, but the lack of a fireproof depository still left the papers vulnerable. Again and again, bills were introduced in Congress to authorize the building of a proper fireproof building, and again and again, the project was shunted aside. Finally, in 1921, a fire at the Commerce Department virtually destroyed the 1890 census and damaged census records back to 1790, leading at last to the passage of a bill in favor of a National Archives building. The architect John Russell Pope was chosen to design it, and construction started in 1932. Oddly enough, it was two more years before the National Archives Act of 1934 officially established the agency that would inhabit the building and defined its mission.
Now, fifty years later, our records are uniquely accessible. As well as documenting all the acts of our government—treaties, maps, trade agreements—a remarkably detailed portrait of the American people emerges through millions of military service records, hundreds of thousands of pension claim files, and the immigration and naturalization documents of our vast immigrant population. Census records detail our vital statistics, and federal court records register crime. And for comic relief, the archivists have preserved such oddities as the Declaration of Independence reproduced in alphabet noodles. The following portfolio is excerpted from a forthcoming book, The National Archives of the United States by Herman Viola, to be published by Harry N. Abrams. The photographs are by Jonathan Wallen.