Museum Collection Items That Are as American as Apple Pie

Much like the 1776 founding of the so-called United States, the definition of Americana has always been problematic, fraught with deeply-rooted histories concerning colonization, imperialism, and capitalism. At its core, the idea that certain art forms and cultural ephemera are considered representative of a singular American identity — whereas others are not — often erases the intersectional experiences and diversity of perspectives that actually comprise the country. 

These questions of national heritage resurface every year on July 4, as communities around the country commemorate the US’s independence from England with star-spangled festivities in the form of parades, fireworks, and barbecues. For this year’s holiday, we rounded up some museum collection objects and artifacts that capture the quintessential American spirit, regardless of national allegiance and pride — and its many nuances and complexities.

Read on to see what Americana-core artifacts we’re focusing on this holiday.

Hot Dog History Galore at O’Betty’s

For those who will be spending the Fourth at the grill, you may be pleased to know that in Athens, Ohio there is a dual restaurant-museum dedicated to all things wiener-coded. Featuring a quirky collection of hundreds of hot dog memorabilia including clothing, books, toys, musical instruments, and “dangerous looking hot dog cookers,” according to its website, O’Betty’s Hot Dog Museum is part of the restaurant’s dining area, where visitors can also enjoy frankfurters named after burlesque entertainers including Gypsy Rose Lee, Syra Marty, and Mata Hari.

Paul Strand’s Iconic Photo of a White Picket Fence

paul strand fence
Paul Strand, “The White Fence” (1916), photogravure, 6 11/16 inches × 8 9/16 inches (image via Getty)

Printed in the June 1917 issue of Camera Work alongside an essay on photography, Paul Strand’s “The White Fence” (1916), a straight shot of a white picket fence in Port Kent, New York, became an iconic image — both for its composition, which sharply deviated from the pictorialist traditions dominating photography at the time, and for its focus on a seemingly unassuming structure that spoke volumes about American suburbia ideals and dreams of property ownership. Today, this photograph is stored in the collections of Los Angeles’s Getty Museum, alongside more than 180 images by Strand documenting communities around the country.

Declarations of Independence

What’s more American than the literal Declaration of Independence? While the original document officially denouncing King George III’s rule is kept in the National Archives Museum in Washington, DC, along with the Constitution and Bill of Rights, the first broadsides of the legendary paper that were printed by publisher and bookseller John Dunlap on the night of July 4, 1776, can be found elsewhere. The last 26 surviving copies are dispersed among institutions including the Library of Congress, the New York Public Library, and Harvard University’s Houghton Library.

The Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders’s White Boots and Jackie Robinson’s Brooklyn Dodgers Uniform

If you’ve been watching America’s Sweethearts on Netflix, you know that the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders (DCC) are both incredibly talented and also grossly underpaid, while male football players make salaries in the millions. Among the DCC performers’ most recognizable garments is their iconic white cowboy boots, a pair of which is held at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History along with uniforms and other memorabilia that speak to cheerleading’s imprint on US history and identity.

Touching on another of America’s favorite sports, a New York City institution celebrates the life of Jackie Robinson, the trailblazing baseball player and civil rights activist. At Manhattan’s Jackie Robinson Museum, visitors can find historic mementos from the Brooklyn Dodger’s career including a uniform and bat used by Robinson in 1947 (his first season with the team).

Likely derived from Japan’s tsujiura senbei (meaning “fortune crackers”), the classic American treat was invented in San Francisco sometime around the turn of the 20th century when Japanese immigrants arrived to the United States in the wake of the Chinese Exclusion Act‘s ejection of Chinese laborers. Today, the history of this prophetic cookie continues to be appreciated at the family-owned Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory, which owner Kevin Chan describes as both “a mini-museum and an institution, not just a shop.” Founded in 1962 by Chan’s mother and uncle, this longtime San Francisco business gives visitors a glimpse at the old-fashioned way of making these classic desserts with antique machines and a view of the by-hand assembling process.

Coney Island on Film

Peruse through decades of Coney Island history at the Brooklyn Museum, where over 200 archival photographs capture the New York seaside destination and generations of its community members in all its storied glory and absurdity from boardwalk to beach.”The photographs reflect the ways that Coney Island is a microcosm of the national mood as well as a community unto itself, maintaining its essence through bonds of affection and camaraderie,” Brooklyn Museum Curatorial Assistant Imani Williford wrote in a recently published essay on the collection.

Vintage Heinz Ketchup Bottle

Ketchup’s origins trace back 500 years to southern China, but United States-based manufacturers like Heinz made the tomato-based dip a beloved American diner and fast-food staple in the late 19th century. Ketch-up on cuisine history at the Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh, which features hundreds of artifacts related to the condiment plus an 11-foot ketchup bottle made of over 400 individual containers, and so much more.

For those who prefer mustard — yes, you can have both — Wisconsin’s National Mustard Museum offers visitors free admission to explore more than 6,000 jars of the tangy condiment, sourced from all 50 states and over 70 countries. The museum also hosts an annual World-Wide Mustard Competition and the National Mustard Day Festival.

The Jeans of Your Dreams

While it may come as a surprise that denim was invented Nîmes, France, blue jeans are an American creation, patented by Levi Strauss & Co. founders Levi Strauss and Jacob David in 1873. The company’s own history is entwined with racism on account of its adopting an anti-Chinese labor policy in the 1880s, but blue jeans themselves have transcended beyond the brand, becoming one of the most cherished trousers in both the US and around the world today. Denim diehards can find this pair adorned with red, blue, and silver buttons at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute in New York.

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