The people from the Smithsonian arrived at 9:48 a.m., walked past the full-size cutouts of school policemen on the front porch, and entered Richard Lodish’s cluttered living room.
They carried a big bag of bubble wrap and a list of things they wanted.
If they could find them.
Lodish’s Bethesda living room was jammed with artifacts related to the history of education. So was his basement, and his dining room and his garage. Objects were piled on the floor, on tables and chairs, leaning against the walls, propped on the mantelpiece.
“Take everything!” Lodish joked that his wife might say. “And take my husband!”
Although they can’t take everything, the experts from the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History have been sifting through Lodish’s astounding collection of school memorabilia for the best things.
“It’s a very big deal,” said Debbie Schaefer-Jacobs, the associate curator in the museum’s division of home and community life. The collection is so broad that it’s being distributed among several museum divisions.
The retired head of the Sidwell Friends Lower School, Lodish, 68, has been collecting for decades: desks, bells, spellers, readers, primers, blackboard slates, report cards, samplers, merit cards, police cutouts and outhouse seats.
(The museum will take the cutouts, but not the outhouse seats.)
The donation came about after Schaefer-Jacobs heard about Lodish’s collection, called him and met with him several times last year, she said.
Lodish had exhibited part of his collection at Sidwell’s upper school late last year and thought it would be a good idea to share with others.
“I just felt that many, many more people would be interested in what I’ve collected,” he said. “And I want more people to see it.”
“Especially kids,” he said. “I think they would be very interested if they’re, like, in the fourth, fifth or sixth grade” to see school life from 100 years ago.
Take the old religious-themed alphabet chart that reads:
“A” is for Adam, Who first of men became, to every beast and bird gave name.
“B” is for Babel, Its tower toward heaven aspired, and here men many tongues acquired.
“C” is for Cain, Who being envious and self-willed, his harmless brother Abel killed.
He also has phonetic charts, multiplication charts and penmanship books. “Penmanship was big-time in the 1800s,” he said.
He has 1884 report cards, where students were graded on “deportment” and “declamation” and praised for punctuality and diligence. There are miniature schoolhouses and miniature classrooms with miniature students.
The museum said it plans to take about 800 items, or two-thirds of the collection. Some items already have been transferred. But there is much more.
Lodish said he attended auctions, went to flea markets and kept an eye on eBay. Most of his items date from the 1800s and early 1900s.
Why school memorabilia?
“That’s interesting,” he laughed. “I was a bad kid in school.”
From memory, he can quote from a report card he said he got in third grade:
“How disappointed we are in Richard’s inability to mature. He not only spoils his own work, but makes it difficult for others to do their work. If Richard would behave for one day it would be a miracle.”
“My poor mother,” he said.
He did, however, go on to get a PhD in education from Harvard, head an elite school attended by the children of presidents for some 30 years, and build his remarkable collection.
He has gathered old paintings of school scenes, a giant scroll depicting the history of the world and tuition cards from two sisters who attended a “colored school” in Georgia where dues were 15 cents a month.
He has already turned over to the museum some rare 18th-century “horn books” — small wooden paddles bearing tiny lessons on parchment covered with a transparent film of animal horn to protect them.
He has given the exquisite map of the world that one Matilda Bates “wrought” in 1821 with needle and thread on cloth.
He has old-fashioned book carriers — just straps and a handle, a beautiful handwritten letter to a principal who was leaving a school in 1899, and a five-pronged chalk holder to draw multiple lines across a blackboard.
“This is beautiful,” he said, pulling out a framed document during a recent interview. “I love this.” It was set of rules for a school from 1879.
“Pupils if tardy or absent must bring written excuse from the parent or guardian,” the rules state. “The teachers are instructed to refuse frivolous excuses . . . Pupils are required to . . . abstain from profanity and all noisy or boisterous conduct . . . A pupil who strikes or resists a teacher should be expelled.”
Lodish laughed: “They don’t mess around in the 1800s.”
He said he got the big police cutouts on the front porch at an auction. Each “officer,” clad in a gray uniform, holds up a hand and has a yellow sign that reads: “School 15 Mile Speed Limit.”
He said local police have stopped at the house, asking, “Where’d you get that?” “Like I stole it. . . . They didn’t arrest me.”
Lodish is a trim, diminutive man — 5-foot-4, he said — with a big personality and an infectious laugh.
Last Monday, Schaefer-Jacobs, of the museum, and intern Emily Kraft moved along the narrow path through the clutter in Lodish’s living room.
They were hunting for, among other things, a rare old cylindrical abacus. They knew Lodish had it. But neither they nor he knew where it was. They rummaged in vain. Lodish checked the basement, but he struck out.
Other treasures turned up.
A school book of patriotic tunes from 1897, containing songs such as “My Country ’Tis of Thee” and “Hail, Columbia,” was found. “This, I don’t think I’ve ever seen before,” Schaefer-Jacobs said.
She spotted a tattered 1824 book with a cover that read: “The American Spelling Book, that contains the rudiments of the English language for the use of schools in the United States.” It was by Noah Webster.
Webster, an educator and patriot, was famous for pushing the use of American English, vs. British English, in schools, she said. “This is the very beginnings of American education.”
Would she be taking this book?
“Oh yeah,” she said. “Definitely.”
Lodish hovered nearby, watching.
“It’s like having a baby that grows up,” he said of his treasures. “Now they’re on their own. I love this stuff. But I love much, much, much more that other people love it now.”