The Museum's History Department encourages everyone to explore the colorful past of California and the American West. Learn more >
Our history collections preserve myriad artifacts of American & Californian culture—from jewelry to aircraft to memorabilia from Hollywood's golden age. See more >
Need more info about history terminology, our artifacts, or donation procedures? The History Department has answers to a number of frequently asked questions.
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Although most of our history exhibits focus primarily on California and the West, this hall focuses on several general aspects of American history in order to place our regional experience into a much broader national context.
In the 50 years following the Civil War, from 1865 to 1914, the social fabric of America underwent profound changes. Regional differences that ultimately contributed to the war became less noticeable, and a more uniform American culture began to develop. In a single generation the agrarian society of the mid-1800s changed with the rise of a modern urban culture. Simple life styles became more complex and cosmopolitan, as the economy focused on a continual increase in production and an ever-widening distribution of manufactured goods. Family life, social and political culture, agriculture, and industry were dramatically transformed, ushering in a new era of change.
Dr. Samuel P. Langley, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, designed and built what was probably the first heavier-than-air machine that flew in a sustained flight while keeping its equilibrium. Our Museum’s replica, although not exactly correct, represents Langley's steam powered "Aerodrome 5," which on May 6, 1896, flew for 80 seconds and covered nearly three-fourths of a mile above the Potomac River. In 1903 Langley twice attempted to launch a larger, manned aerodrome from a specially designed houseboat, but failed on the take offs.
This restored trolley car from the Electric Rapid Transit Company of Los Angeles, 1890, was built by the St. Louis Car Company and ran on several local lines thru the 1910s.
This switch, sometimes referred to as the “banjo type,” was used on the Denver & Rio Grande Railway in the late 19th century. Railroads were of great importance in the expansion and development of the U.S. as great systems formed networks of rails over the entire nation.
The majestic redwood tree is California’s state symbol. This enormous cross section represents one of California’s major natural resources consumed by industrialization throughout the late 1800s and into the 1900s. Beginning around 1900, however, under President Theodore Roosevelt’s, the federal government accelerated its efforts to set aside land for national parks and forests. Redwoods were now viewed as national treasures rather than an exploitable resource.