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Whee the People

The National Archives: where the laughs are

By Gene Weingarten
Sunday, February 6, 2005; Page W36

I am standing in the rotunda of the National Archives,

looking down at the Declaration of Independence. As

(Eric Shansby)

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we all know, this is an extremely famous and important document, and I am filled with all the appropriate awe and wonder, diminished only slightly by the fact that the Declaration is, essentially, a blank sheet of paper.

They never tell you that in school. It has faded to the point where the only immediately recognizable words are the giant "In Congress" at the top and John Hancock's John Hancock. Otherwise, it may as well be a great big, slightly soiled hankie. This is because, for the first half-century or so after it was signed, it was displayed on the walls of various government buildings, in the sun and elements, tacked up like a butcher-shop poster for ham hocks.

This was just one of the things I learned during a special humor tour of the Archives, conducted for me by the Archives staff. Some stuff I saw is actually on public display, and some is hidden away in the "stacks," which is an enormous warren of old files that has a distinctive smell and feel. The best way to replicate this smell and feel would be to open a really old book, stick your nose deep into the creamy, yellowed pages, slam the book closed so you can't breathe, and die. It is really musty in those stacks.

Anyway, I learned many important lessons on my tour.

Lesson One: Technology Can Be Good

An urgent message was delivered to a commander from an Army major whose unit was pinned down behind German lines in the Argonne Forest, on October 4, 1918. The major used the speediest message delivery technology available at the time, which was . . . a pigeon. The message was stuffed into a little capsule and flapped several miles to a pigeon box at command headquarters, retrieved by a bird handler and trotted to the commanding officer. It reads, in its entirety: "We are along the road parallel to 276.4. Our own artillery is dropping a barrage directly on us. For heaven's sake stop it."

Lesson Two: On the Other Hand, Technology Can Be Bad

There is a rare recording of the voice of Theodore Roosevelt, from 1912. America's most macho president -- scourge of corporate scoundrels, conqueror of the Spaniards, protector of the hemisphere, wielder of the Big Stick -- sounds exactly like Mister Magoo.

Lesson Three: No, We Didn't Invent Sex

A page from the census report for the inhabitants of Dade County, Ga., in 1850, lists each resident, his or her age, occupation and place of birth, and whether he or she is "deaf, dumb, blind, insane or idiotic." One page lists several farmers and their families, and four single women: Sarah and Mary Doyle, and Lucinda and Susan Killion. One may assume the census recorder did not approve of these women, or had a perverse sense of humor, or both. In a formal, flowery handwriting similar to that found on, say, the U.S. Constitution, all four women's occupations are listed as: "[F-word]ing."

Lesson Four: No, We Didn't Invent Bureaucracy

A letter dated November 1, 1866, from a clerk in the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands to his boss: "I have the honor to report that no reports are due by me to your Office for the Month of October, not being responsible for anything. Very Respectfully, Yr. Obd. Svt., James Lowrie."


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