1880s

A contemporary engraving of the Garfield assassination (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The Witnesses

What do a five-year-old boy, a woman working at a train station and an African American newspaperman have in common? Samuel J. Seymour, Sarah V. E. White and Samuel H. Hatton were little-known Washingtonian witnesses to some of the most influential murders in history: those of U.S. Presidents.

Print shows a hen with three chicks in a farmyard.

Fowl Play in Washington: the City’s History of Chicken Thievery

Washington has seen its fair share of crimes: mafia operations, drug networks, triple murder… But in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, one of the city’s most pervasive crimes was one we today might find difficult to imagine: chicken thievery. In today’s urban landscape, the phenomenon may seem difficult to imagine; but 150 years ago chicken robbery was widespread -- and serious business. The practice was dangerous and, at times, even fatal.

The Washington Post Celebrates Young Authors With One of the Most Famous Pieces of Music in History

Sousa, John Philip. Washington Post. Harry Coleman, Philadelphia, 1889. Notated Music. https://www.loc.gov/item/sousa.200028287/.

On a beautiful June day in 1889, 25,000 people covered nearly six acres of the Smithsonian grounds for a glorious awards ceremony. Of the crowd, 22,000 were children, ranging in age from toddlers to high schoolers, and were the first members of the new Washington Post Amateur Authors’ Association, which the newspaper started to encourage students to excel in English composition. The incentive to join the Association? The opportunity to enter the essay writing competition for the chance to win a stunning solid gold medal. 

Although it might seem like these handsome gold medals would be the main highlight of this event, the jewelry actually wasn’t the only gem to come out of the ceremony ... Those present at the Smithsonian grounds that day were also witnesses to the premiere of what would become one of the most famous pieces of music in history: "The Washington Post March."

Lansburgh Corners the Market on Black Crêpe

“Lansburgh's Department Store - Washington DC - Adolf Cluss” (Photo Source: Wikimedia Commons) https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Lansburgh%27s_Department_Store_-_Washington_DC_-_Adolf_Cluss.jpg

April 14th, 1865 marks the date of one of the most shocking and memorable events in Washington and American history: the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. By 10:30 p.m. that night, the President’s death was looking imminent, and after hearing this news just two blocks over at 7th and D Streets NW, Gustave Lansburgh, owner of Lansburgh & Bros. Fancy Goods Agency, decided to start decorating his store in mourning black. It was this small decision that would transform Lansburgh’s dry goods store into one of the most prosperous Washington department stores for the next 113 years.

1884: The Year of Two Nationals

1888 Washington Nationals Baseball Club (Source: Wikipedia)

Over the years, Washington, D.C. has been home to numerous professional baseball teams, very few of them with winning records. But, 1884 might take the cake for weirdness. That year, the nation's capital boasted two separate teams called the Washington Nationals. They finished a combined 59-116.

The Closest Thing to a "Little Italy" in Washington

Holy Rosary Church, which was built by Italian immigrants in the early 20th Century. Credit: Farragutful, via Wikimedia Common

The great surge of Italian immigration to the U.S., which began in the 1880s and lasted until 1920, brought about four million Italians to this country. Many flocked to places such as Little Italy in lower Manhattan and comparable ethnic neighborhoods in Boston, Philadelphia and Baltimore, where new arrivals could speak their native language, find familiar food and churches in which to worship, and plug into a network that helped them to find employment. But Washington, D.C. didn't attract similarly large numbers of Italians. It was a government town without mills, factories or a commercial port, and there were fewer opportunities for unskilled former rural dwellers without language skills to support themselves. Instead, the area drew smaller numbers of skilled immigrants, such as the construction workers, artists and tradesmen who labored on the government buildings erected in the 19th and early 20th centuries. 

Those early Italian immigrants to DC never really established a true Little Italy of their own. Instead, they mostly settled in two residential neighborhoods that vanished long ago — Swampoodle, near the U.S. Capitol and Union Station, and the Judiciary Square area.

Shine Bright Like Oscar Wilde

This man knows how to rock a cape. (1882 photograph of Oscar Wilde by Napoleon Sarony. Source: Wikipedia Commons)

You know who was just too fabulous for Washington. D.C. to handle? Oscar Wilde. This fellow caused quite a stir when he visited in the January of 1882 as part of a lecture tour on the “Philosophy of Aestheticism”.

The general theory of ‘aestheticism’ seemed to be living in beauty, and Oscar Wilde practiced what he preached; half of any article about him was devoted to his devilish style. Newspaper reporters practically fawned over him, and we’re not going to blame them.

Two bison in front of the Smithsonian Castle, downtown Washington, D.C., circa 1880's. The bison were used as models for Smithsonian Institution taxidermists and were part of the Live Animal Collection, forerunner to the National Zoo. (Photo source: Smithsonian Archives)

Happy Birthday, National Zoo!

On March 2, 1889, President Grover Cleveland signed legislation establishing a zoological park along Rock Creek in Northwest Washington “for the advancement of science and the instruction and recreation of the people.” But, of course, the backstory began years before.

Prior to the creation of the Zoo park, the Smithsonian kept a large collection of animals in pens and cages on the National Mall. Washingtonians flocked to see the motley collection which included a jaguar, grizzly bear, lynx and buffalo.

Buffalo grazing on the National Mall! Can you imagine?