‘A Grizzly in the Mail’ exposes the truth behind American tales

Need to get the stench of rotting grizzly bear out of your car? Try spritzing a little lemon juice on the upholstery, says Tim Grove, author of “A Grizzly in the Mail and Other Adventures in American History.”

“You’ll still have to drive with your windows open and your nose plugged for a few weeks,” he says.

The story of how Grove came to be in possession of a ripe grizzly bear skin (which people later got to pet at a traveling Lewis and Clark exhibit) is one of the many anecdotes in his new book, which he’ll be discussing at Politics and Prose on Saturday.

“Grizzly” traces Grove’s 20-year (and counting) career as a museum educator at the National Museum of American History, among other institutions. But don’t call it a memoir.

“I use my experiences as a jumping-off point to talk about history,” he says.

In addition to giving museum visitors tactile links to the past, Grove engages them by challenging oft-repeated American history. Here are a few myths he takes on in the book.

Myth: Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin


(all photos courtesy Smithsonian National Museum of American History)

Cotton gins were already in wide use before Eli Whitney’s came along in 1793. He refined an existing design, adding wire teeth to one of the rollers — an idea some historians believe he stole from slaves. Another inventor, Hodgen Holmes, applied for a patent for a different type of gin five years before Whitney did, but Whitney completed his application first. Whitney’s business partner later sued Holmes, claiming the sawtooth gin had been Whitney’s invention.
Go see: The cotton gin that Whitney used in his many patent battles, in the National Museum of American History’s “American Stories” exhibit.

Myth: Sacagawea guided the Lewis and Clark expedition


Sacagawea, the Shoshone wife of a French translator hired by Lewis and Clark, was an unpaid member of the expedition. She helped identify edible plants and did a little translation, but Lewis and Clark largely navigated the usual way — with maps and compasses. “People think they were going into uncharted territory, but there were maps, though they weren’t always very detailed,” Grove says.
Go see: Lewis and Clark’s silver-plated compass, in the National Museum of American History’s “American Presidency” exhibit.

Myth: Betsy Ross sewed the first American flag


There are many problems with the oft-told story that Philadelphia seamstress Betsy Ross consulted with a Congressional flag committee, headed by George Washington, to design the American flag in 1776. For instance, there was no such committee and George Washington wasn’t a member of Congress. The story didn’t crop up until Ross’ grandson began telling it, about 100 years later. The real designer of the flag was probably Francis Hopkinson, a Congressman from New Jersey, who asked for (and never received) wine in payment.
Go see: The first flag has been lost to time, but you can see the flag that inspired “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the National Museum of American History.

Politics and Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW; Sat., 3:30 p.m., free; 202-364-1919. (Van Ness)

Other stories about U.S. history:

Try singing the National Anthem right, for a change

Washington tour guide Robert Pohl dispels D.C. myths

Haul of presidents

Sadie Dingfelder is a features writer for the Washington Post Express.
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