1960s artifacts on display at Museum of American History

Posted May 22, 2014, at 7:02 a.m.
Last modified May 22, 2014, at 12:58 p.m.

WASHINGTON — In 1964, the Beatles made their first trip to the U.S., “Mary Poppins” had its world premiere and LBJ defeated Barry Goldwater to win a full term as president. Also that year, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of History and Technology opened on the Mall. The cultural storehouse, now the National Museum of American History, is marking its 50th anniversary with a display of artifacts from “The Early Sixties,” an exuberant and volatile period.

Two of the items won’t fit in a display case: a diorama of the New York World’s Fair, which also opened in 1964, and a 1965 Ford Mustang, silvery but not all that sleek by today’s standards. The rest are on display in two large facing cabinets, divided between “Culture” and “Science.”

The distinction is a matter of interpretation. A copy of “Silent Spring,” Rachel Carson’s book about the effects of pesticides, is on the culture side. So is a Family Radiation Measurement Kit, though a photo of Cold War-era schoolchildren under their desks during an A-bomb drill is in the science case. Such artifacts tell stories that overlap, parallel and diverge from an era when American society was traveling in multiple directions at great speed.

Harlem Globetrotters jersey

This jersey belonged to Hubert “Geese” Ausbie, a Harlem Globetrotter from 1961 to 1985 and Meadowlark Lemon’s successor as the “Clown Prince of Basketball.” Founded in racially segregated Chicago in the 1920s, the team vaulted over racial barriers. When the 1960s began, the Globetrotters just completed a series of games in Moscow.

Paper dress

It was just four years before the first Earth Day when this paper “Souper” dress debuted in 1966, when it was still a golden age of disposability. Riffing on Andy Warhol’s appropriation of its label design, the Campbell’s Soup Co. sought to immortalize its product with throwaway couture.

“Can You Pass the Acid Test” poster

For many Americans, the new turn-on of the mid-’60s was color TV. But a pioneering few switched the channel to LSD, which was legal in California until 1966. This one-of-a-kind collaged poster — dated only to “the 1960s” — promises an appearance by a band whose music was almost mandatory for tripping: the Grateful Dead.

Mustang pedal car

The sporty Mustang was designed for the young at heart, but some fans were literally too young to drive. Ford introduced this pedal-driven miniature, designed to make Mustang aficionados of the under-10 set while publicizing the version that used horsepower rather than foot power.

NOW button

The National Organization for Women was founded in Washington in 1966, though the logo on this button wasn’t introduced until 1969. The button is displayed next to a copy of “The Feminine Mystique,” by NOW co-founder Betty Friedan. Something just as relevant to NOW’s mission is in the science case: a prototype of a dispenser for birth control pills, approved by the FDA in 1960.

Klystron tube

The sofa-length artifact on display, this klystron tube is a vacuum device that amplifies very high frequencies. Such tubes have many uses, but this one is a veteran of the Cold War. Built in 1959, it was used for three years at a radar station in Greenland, helping to scan the skies for Soviet bombers and missiles.

“The Early Sixties” at the National Museum of American History continues through Dec. 14. For information, visit americanhistory.si.edu.