- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 7, 2001

A century ago, when a gentleman would routinely provide a spittoon for his office and carry a pocket watch with a fancy fob, the District already had a museum to remind future generations of how things used to be.
Now the Smithsonian Institution, which runs the National Museum of American History, is publishing a book on its own history of collecting. It says people need to be reminded of how their grandparents lived in order to understand the currents of modern life.
"Legacies," by Steven Lubar and Kathleen M. Kendrick, has an illustration on nearly all of its 248 pages to support the argument that the past is worth holding on to.
The authors quote John Steinbeck's classic novel "The Grapes of Wrath," in which a family agonizes over what to take along as it prepares to move from Oklahoma to California.
"How will we know it's us without our past?" is the question.
Watch fobs and spittoons all have their stories to tell, but the museum and book include much more.
For example, there's a casting of Abraham Lincoln's face and the top hat he wore to Ford's Theater on April 14, 1865.
There's a 1790 spinning frame from a mill in Rhode Island, the 1849 patent model of Samuel F.B. Morse's telegraph, and a 1936 child's chemistry set. There's George Armstrong Custer's fringed buckskin coat, and a 1987 panel from the AIDS memorial quilt. All make a point about the American past.
There are the chairs from the McLean House at Appomattox Court House, Va., on which Gens. Robert E. Lee and Ulysses Grant sat when they agreed to the terms that ended the Civil War.
There's a Stradivarius violin from the 1700s and Duke Ellington's manuscript score for "Light" from about 1940.
But what is a fob?
In the 19th century, a gentleman would carry his watch in a little pocket on the right hip of his trousers.
The watch pocket, which most clothing manufacturers have abandoned, was called a fob. But the fob was also the name of the ornament that hung from the watch chain outside the pocket. It enabled the gentleman to avoid an unseemly struggle whenever he hauled the watch out of the tight pocket.
Although the book quotes a former gatekeeper of museum collections as banning "personal memorabilia," the current generation of curators has found that personal things still say a lot.

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