Senator John Heinz History Center

    Westinghouse Auditorium entrance at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. George Westinghouse Museum Collection, c.1864-2007, MSS 920, Thomas and Katherine Detre Library and Archives, Senator John Heinz History Center
     

    Uncharted Territory: Researching Pittsburgh’s Changing Image in Film

    Author: Zoe Creamer, Milton Fine Museum Profession Fellow at the Senator Heinz History Center – Summer 2019

    How many movies can you name that were filmed in Pittsburgh? I could only think of a few (actually, just two: The Perks of Being a Wallflower and The Dark Knight Rises) before starting my internship at the Heinz History Center, and now I’ve gotten to know several of them on a frame-by-frame basis. For a few years now, the Heinz History Center has been in the midst of a long-term collecting initiative regarding Pittsburgh film history, and guided by dedicated curators, Leslie Przybylek and Lauren Uhl, I quickly became invested in the project. 

    Some of the world’s first movie theaters were established in Pittsburgh, and several early film stars and directors came from the area. This includes Lois Weber, America’s first female film director, who was born in Pittsburgh’s North Side. Near the beginning of the summer, I attended the unveiling of the historic landmark plaque in front of the Allegheny Library to commemorate her birthplace. Pittsburgh’s vibrant film history continues its journey to this day: close to the end of my internship, I also had the exciting opportunity to visit the set of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, an upcoming film produced by Netflix based on the August Wilson play of the same name. 

    Because of the many interesting possibilities in considering Pittsburgh’s history of film, I settled on two research areas: representations of Pittsburgh in movies, specifically since 1980, and the city’s early film industry. I began by watching about 30 films while compiling data on them to note common trends. For one part of my project, I focused on four contemporary movies filmed in and set in Pittsburgh to research their locations and differences in the portrayals of Pittsburgh. I used these data points to create a digital map prototype based on the four films. I mapped out Flashdance (1983), Striking Distance (1993), Dominick and Eugene (1988), and Fences (2016). Each of these films highlight different aspects of Pittsburgh’s image, and I wanted to track these changes while providing physical locations on a map that may serve as a future walking tour. 

    To obtain data points for my maps, I re-watched the films carefully to identify significant locations, such as local landmarks or areas of change. Some places were easily recognizable, such as Carnegie Music Hall in Flashdance, but others, such as a historic church in Dominick and Eugene, took some dedicated digging through archived newspapers and virtual exploration with Google Street View. Imagine my surprise when I confirmed that this church, once home of the Lithuanian parish of St. Casimir, had been turned into luxury condos that I’d passed by countless times before in South Side! Click here to open an interactive online map of Dominick and Eugene and explore the setting for yourself. 

    My second project centered around Westinghouse Electric’s  connection to early film history. In reading about early Pittsburgh film, I learned that the Westinghouse companies had made a series of 21 short films shot inside four factories around Pittsburgh. These were actuality films, movies lacking a central narrative that showed people in action as they would be if there were no camera recording their movements. The Westinghouse Works films were made for the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, also known as the 1904 World’s Fair, held in St. Louis, Missouri. 

    Advanced for their time, these were among the first interior films ever made—early cameras required a great deal of light to reach a shutter speed capable of creating a “moving” picture, and the only way to do this was to film in natural light or gather bundles of hundreds of incandescent lamps indoors. The latter option was not desirable because of the amount of electricity needed to power many inefficient incandescent bulbs, but the Westinghouse films utilized a new light source. 

    Inventor and electrical engineer Peter Cooper Hewitt, with financing from George Westinghouse, invented a mercury vapor lamp which emitted abundant light and was much more efficient than the common incandescent lamps. The mercury vapor lamps gave off a strange bluish green light which made them undesirable for home use, but the color of the light was unimportant with black and white filming. Learning that it was these lights that made the films possible, I looked with renewed interest at photos of the Westinghouse exhibits at the 1904 World’s Fair and realized that the lights pictured lighting the exhibits were mercury vapor lamps. Other photos depicted the aptly named Westinghouse Auditorium that the films were shown in. I found a scan of a daily program for the World’s Fair from the Missouri Historical Society in St. Louis. As the Westinghouse Films have not received much scholarly attention, any seemingly small finds aids the understanding of Westinghouse’s connections and contributions to early film. 

    These projects helped me understand that museum research takes many forms. While I felt out of my element at first, I began to realize that curatorial research does not always have to result in securing a three-dimensional artifact for exhibition, as my projects focused on creating a digital resource and conducting archival research. I gained valuable knowledge regarding navigating careers in the museum field, and got an inside look at Pittsburgh film, both past and present. I am thankful for this opportunity and hope to see an exhibition on the Hollywood in Pittsburgh project in the near future so more Pittsburghers and visitors from around the world can learn about this intriguing subject.

    Categories: 
    • Academic Interns
    • Undergraduate Work
    • Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh

    Myself (at right) with Mellon Fellow and PhD student Emily Mazzola (at left) examining preliminary sketches and drafts of presidential china designs (specifically the Clinton/200th White House Anniversary china set) at the Detre Archives at the Senator John Heinz History Center

     

    The Taste of the Nation: Lenox Chinaware

    Museum Studies Intern with the AW Mellon Fellowship research project – Spring 2019

    When local glassware and porcelain manufacturer Lenox Inc. closed its doors in 2002, the Senator John Heinz History Center received all their archival and design materials. Boxes filled with papers ranging from sketches to memos to product catalogues are now available at the History Center’s Detre Library & Archives. Lenox acquired the Bryce Brothers company in the 1965 and through this merger began creating both porcelain dinnerware and glass and stemware. The sketches of both glass and porcelain designs reveal much about the design process, as do the internal memos, but perhaps some of the most interesting pieces from the collection were the bits of local advertisement across their history that were saved in manila folders by the company. 

    How Lenox sought to reel in their Pittsburgh clientele and the ways in they marketed to the public are very telling of both their products and market audience. As Lenox had been given the opportunity to provide their services for several US Presidents and Vice Presidents from the early twentieth century to the present, the Mount Pleasant based company fancied itself an important player in international diplomacy, and would frequently use the opportunity to make the public aware of this through their marketing. As an intern through Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh aiding the creation of an online exhibition exploring Lenox’s presidential china and stemware, one of my tasks was to discover local press that mentioned their presidential contribution. In my research with digitized newspapers, I discovered an ad from a clipping within a Joseph Horne department store advertisement in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette from May of 1925 that describes Lenox China as “one of the world’s finest achievements in Chinaware,” and President Woodrow Wilson’s selection of 17,000 pieces of Lenox China for his White House as a “fine tribute and an indication of the high standard of Lenox.” This advertisement was one of the first of many instances of their promotion of their relationship with the White House and other dignitaries. 

    Frequently seen alongside such self-descriptors as “fine,” “bone white,” and “hand-crafted,” Lenox prided itself on its “all-American” manufacturing and artisan-based design. Targeting upper and upper-middle class families in the Pittsburgh area, their advertisements emphasized this state relationship also through promoting their replications of presidential china that were reimagined and sold to the public. This way, the Pittsburgh family could partake in their own homes in the dining of the American political aristocracy. Lenox would frequently host elaborate production displays and demonstrations in Pittsburgh department stores to further engage with the public in their marketing attempts. The way in which brands utilize sociopolitical trends to market their products is a topic of great interest to me that I hope to explore while completing my Masters at the University of Brighton in the History of Design and Material Culture. My engagement with the Detre Archives encouraged that interest and helped me to gain experience utilizing archival materials to craft curatorial narratives in this subject area.

    Categories: 
    • Academic Interns
    • Undergraduate Work
    • Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh

    Looking at Icons in Visible Storage

     

    Finding Stories at the Heinz History Center

    Museum Studies Intern at the Senator John Heinz History Center – Spring 2019

    Through the course of my internship at the Senator John Heinz History Center I had many experiences which helped me understand museum work better. I was an intern in the curatorial department under Senior Curator Leslie Przybylek and conducted research to help expand the museum’s body of knowledge. I had two great experiences which really shaped and changed my expectations and goals of working in a museum setting. Under the guidance of Ms. Przybylek, I found that what I really wanted to do was tell stories. And what better way to do that than to go and find them yourself?

    My two areas of research throughout the internship were Skiing and Eastern Orthodox Christianity. I focused on the Pittsburgh area and mainly focused on the 1900s. I learned so much about Eastern Orthodox Christianity that I hadn’t known before doing this internship. I was lucky enough to be invited to attend a service at St. Nicholas Church in McKees Rocks. It was when I went here and listened to the service and talked with congregation members afterwards, that I wanted to do something more than simply interacting with icons in the collections. Objects are awesome and I love learning about them, but to me the story behind them and the people who interacted with them are the real gems of the collections at the Heinz History Center.

    The research that went in to skiing was a little different. Unfortunately, I could not go on any big downhill skiing adventures, though I was invited on an outing. No hills? No problem! Nordic Skiing, or Cross-Country Skiing, is a great alternative when there aren’t any convenient mountains. I received a great lesson about Nordic Skiing from Rick Garstka, the former president of the Pennsylvania Association of Cross-Country Skiing. I learned from Mr. Garstka that the wax on the middle part of the skis actually grips the snow so that you can propel yourself forward. It’s great for all ages and a wonderful way to stay in shape during the winter months!

    During my research I also came across a lovely article in the Pittsburgh Press from 1935. Aleen Westein had some advice on what to do with unused ski equipment including using it to ward of intruders in the night! Some other good tidbits include wearing ski pants to make unwanted guests leave early and transforming ski poles into a lamp.

    Throughout my internship I loved meeting new people and learning about their experiences. The ability of curators to not only collect objects but tell a story that might otherwise remain unshared is something I greatly admire and hope that I can one day do myself.

    Categories: 
    • Academic Interns
    • Undergraduate Work
    • Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh
  • Emily Mazzola and undergraduate research collaborator Gabriela Schunn at the Detre Library and Archives

     

    Raising a Pittsburgh Glass

    Author: Emily Mazzola

    2018-2019 A.W. Mellon Fellow in Curation and Education and PhD student in History of Art and Architecture

    On February 25, 1972 the people of Westmoreland County proudly took part in a major diplomatic mission occurring halfway across the world when President Nixon concluded his historic trip to China by raising a Lenox Crystal glass filled with California champagne. With the delicate chime of clinking of glasses, Western Pennsylvanian manufacturing was, for a moment, at the center of international diplomacy. Nixon’s toast calling for a “new world order,” was memorialized for the president’s Chinese hosts with gifts of the acid-etched lead-glass champagne coupes, baring the Great Seal of the United States, that were offered as souvenirs of the momentous occasion.

    In the days that followed, the national press highlighted the west-coast origins of the sparkling wine, but failed to acknowledge the Pittsburgh glassware that had made it all possible—an oversight that the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and the Mount Pleasant Journal eagerly corrected for local readers. Tribune staff writer Dell McCloy lamented the media’s focus on California’s contribution to the event writing:

    "What hasn’t been widely publicized is the fact that Westmoreland County, although not as exotic as the coastal bikini country, also played a part in the drama and diplomacy of the ceremonies. Mainly, a county firm supplied the glasses that held the bubbly that eased the tension that…" [1]

    Following the author’s humorous trailing off, the article details the efforts of the Lenox Crystal production team to manufacture 60-dozen flawless coupes under a significant time strain. McCloy concludes, “Local industry had a hand in making history. And although a glass may not sound as exciting as perishable oranges and grapefruits flown in by special jet, who ever heard of drinking champagne without one?”[2] McCloy’s sarcasm belies the pride local glass workers felt in providing an essential element of a major diplomatic ceremony—regardless of how easily the rest of the country overlooked their contribution. The glass workers’ sense of achievement was echoed by the broader community when President Nixon raised a Pittsburgh glass on the international stage.

    Nixon’s famous toast using Lenox Crystal produced in Mount Pleasant is just one example of the stories tying Western Pennsylvania manufacturing to the material culture of the American presidency, diplomatic gift exchange, and the politics of national taste that I have uncovered while researching at the Heinz History Center’s Detre Library and Archives for the past year. As the A.W. Mellon Fellow in Curation and Education, I am developing a digital project that highlights these moments of intersection between local production and presidential politics, contextualizing them within the broader concerns of American material culture studies and the decorative arts. My project is rooted in the Detre Library and Archive’s Bryce Brothers Company and Lenox Incorporated Records 1828-2002. My work with this collection has been made possible by the support of the Heinz History Center and the dedication of my undergraduate research collaborators. 

     

    [1] Dell McCoy, “Crystal in China: Lenox? Vel-l-ly Good…” Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, March 2, 1972.Bryce Brothers and Lenox Incorporated Glass records, 1828-2002, MSS 0800, Thomas and Katherine Detre Library and Archives, Senator John Heinz History Center.  This collection has been made accessible as part of the Basic Processing and Documenting Democracy grants funded by the National Historical Publications & Records Commission (NHPRC).

    [2] Ibid.

     

    Learn more about the Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh initiative here

    Categories: 
    • Graduate Work
    • Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh
  • The work station in the Library and Archives includes with needle nose pliers, which help to remove the nails from the picture frames. The gloves protect from the dirt that has accrued over the years since the theater's closing. The deframed photographs are separated into two piles: those that are fused to the glass and those that are not.

     

    Identifying Movie Stars of Yesteryear: Historical Photos of Pittsburgh’s Nixon Theatre

    Museum Studies Intern at the Thomas & Katherine Detre Library & Archives at the Senator John Heinz History – Spring 2018

    When the Nixon Theatre, a “Gilded Age” theater in downtown Pittsburgh, closed in 1950, Katharine Hepburn requested some brackets from the building’s marble columns so that she could remember her fond times at the theater. The manager sent Hepburn the hooks she wanted, as indicated in a telegram that came to the Detre Library & Archive, at the Senator John Heinz History Center. It came with a collection of photographs of musical and comedy stars, c. 1900s-1950s. The photographs were contained in their original frames, which is why about half of the pictures have fused to the glass of the frames. Additionally, a collection of autographed photographs that used to hang in the front lobby of the Nixon, were donated to the Heinz History Center by the family of the last electrician who worked there.

    In my internship role, my job has been to not only remove the photographs from their frames, but to rehouse them into acid-free folders and boxes, as well as figure out who the celebrities in the photos are. At one time, these celebrities were well known to the public, and it was probably unimaginable that they would not be recognizable in the future. If today we had a Taylor Swift picture, it would not need a label to be identified. However, many of these pictures are not of people whose legacies hold up throughout time, like Katharine Hepburn’s. With a lack of identifying labels for celebrities in the photographs, the newspapers of Pittsburgh have been extremely helpful in identifying the years, productions, and people who graced the stage and screen of the Nixon Theatre.

    This project not only enabled me to learn the general aspects of archival processing, but it also has also made me privy to conversations about what purpose libraries and archives serve. The Senator John Heinz History Center and its Detre Library and Archives hold documents and photographs pertaining to the history of Western Pennsylvania and the lives of its residents. Because the Nixon Theatre was located in downtown Pittsburgh, the theater itself is a part of Western Pennsylvania history. Many of the actors and actresses in the pictures, however, were not from the area and only spent a few nights in Pittsburgh while performing. Due to this and the fact that the collection is mostly headshots, there were several debates among staff about how much research value the collection holds, and whether the material falls into the Library and Archives’ collecting scope (i.e. Western PA history and the lives of the residents). Sometimes, if a donation does not fall into the collecting scope, it will be referred to another repository with a mission that the documents are more aligned with.

    However, the Nixon Theatre Photographs were ultimately accepted into the collection. As I learned through my internship, while these celebrities from the past may not be memorable or recognizable to everyone, many of the photographs are one of a kind, and, therefore, hold quite a bit of artefactual value.

    Learn more about the Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh initiative here

    Categories: 
    • Academic Interns
    • Undergraduate Work
    • Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh
  • Nancy Mosser and I at the casting audition room in Mosser Casting studio

     

    Delving into the Pittsburgh Film Industry and History

    Museum Studies Intern at Senator John Heinz History Center - Spring 2018

    As a Museum Studies intern at Senator John Heinz History Center for Spring 2018, I have had the opportunity to work under curators Leslie Przybylek and Lauren Uhl, helping them document Pittsburgh’s significant ties to commercial film production. During my internship, I looked through newspaper articles about films I was interested in knowing more about. I also interviewed people in the industry and did research on the museum’s collection for an eventual exhibit on Pittsburgh’s role in film.

    I first researched Fences (2016), a film based on the play by Pittsburgh playwright August Wilson. The film follows the lives of the Maxon family in the 1950s Hill District neighborhood. One of the people that we interviewed was my cousin Greg Weimerskirch, an art director in the film industry locally. He showed us how he designs each environment for the camera. For Fences he had to recreate what the Hill District looked like in the 1950s, from the street signs to the kind of garbage truck used, to how the houses looked at that time. It was amazing to witness the level of detail that goes into being an art director and how Greg uses both digital and physical modeling to create an impression of setting in the film.

    Other films that I have examined closely in my internship were Striking Distance (1993), Sudden Death (1995), and Inspector Gadget (1999). I searched through newspapers to find articles on how each of the movies was received when it was in theatres, as well as production information pertaining to the who, when, where and how they were produced. I then searched for film crewmembers and technicians to contact who worked on these films.

    Some of my leads did not meet with success, but one lead for Sudden Death led me to interviewing Nancy Mosser, who runs the Mosser Casting studio in Lawrenceville, Pittsburgh. Nancy casts extras and actors for films, television, and commercials. This is unique because most casting agencies only cast either extras or actors, not both. She got her start by working as a Production Assistant for Channel 11 news and Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. She then struck out on her own to become a casting director. Nancy told us about the ease of casting today, compared to when she started out, thanks to the increased use of technology.

    Overall, this internship has blended my passios of Pittsburgh history and film. I have more understanding about what it takes to envision and work on a film. This was revealed to me by using digital archival material, tracking down and interviewing contacts, and critically thinking about the interconnection between people and movies and objects.

    Learn more about the Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh initiative here

    Categories: 
    • Academic Interns
    • Undergraduate Work
    • Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh
  •  

    Getting Involved with Audubon Day and Pittsburgh’s Birds

    Author: Melissa Yang 

    PhD student in English (Composition) and Consuming Nature workshop participant

    A complete set of John James Audubon’s Birds of America (1827–1838) is a rare collector’s item worth millions, featuring 435 life-sized images of birds dramatically depicted by the controversial French-American artist-naturalist. The University of Pittsburgh owns one of these rare sets—it is the most valuable set of volumes in our library. Each fall, the University Library System hosts a public Audubon Day to celebrate the Birds of America.

    The seventh annual Audubon Day took place at the Hillman Library on November 17, 2017. During the day, select prints were displayed in special collections, and programming included live bird meet-and-greets from the National Aviary and invited talks. Local blogger and bird expert Kate St. John (author of the terrific https://www.birdsoutsidemywindow.org) gave a morning talk on "The Story of Peregrine Falcons at Pitt: The Dynasty Continues.”

    In the afternoon, I shared eclectic tales drawn from my dissertation research on avian rhetoric in a talk called, “Our Archival Aviaries: Exploring Pittsburgh's Birdscapes.” In addition to the resources in Pittsburgh’s many libraries and museums, I reflected on Powdermill’s bird banders, volunteering with Birdsafe Pittsburgh, and—as a result of the Consuming Nature workshop—visiting the Tarentum Homing Club pigeon racers. Seeking to cultivate bird knowledge and citizen science efforts, I encouraged the public to engage in local organizations and initiatives, including the Audubon Society, Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, BirdSafe Pittsburgh, Three Rivers Birding Club, the National Aviary (Neighbohood Nestwatch and Project Owlnet), and more.

    Read about Melissa's visit to the Tarentum Homing Club here

    Learn more about the Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh initiative here

    Categories: 
    • Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh

    A memorandum of agreement between MGM and the Pittsburgh Pirates, found in the Branch Rickey Papers at the Library of Congress Manuscript Division. The letter discusses the use of Pirates gear and facilities in the film Angels in the Outfield.

     

    Celebrating Pittsburgh as the Hollywood of the East: A Fellowship at the Heinz History Center

    Author: Monica Marchese

    Milton Fine Museum Profession Fellowship at Senator John Heinz History Center - Summer 2017

    What word comes to mind when you think of Pittsburgh? Is it steel? Sports? Pierogies? Yinzers? This summer I had the unique opportunity to explore one of Pittsburgh’s lesser known exports – movies. In recent years, the city has become one of the biggest movie hubs in the east without even realizing it. Thanks to the government-sponsored Film Production Tax Credit Program in Pennsylvania, and Pittsburgh’s unique personality, production companies have been flocking to the city in the past couple of years to film their next big hit. Our varied landscapes – from scenic rivers and bustling downtown streets to cozy neighborhoods with local flavor – make our city ideal for all types of projects. Not to mention the five-star casting companies, film crews, and more-than-willing extras available at directors’ disposal.

    As the University of Pittsburgh’s Milton Fine Fellow this summer at the Heinz History Center, I had the opportunity to work with curators Leslie Przybylek and Lauren Uhl on a project documenting the history of Pittsburgh’s film industry from the 1900s to the present. I jumped into this project in its very early stages. As a collecting initiative and eventual exhibition, this project required a two-pronged approach. My goals for the summer were to conduct preliminary research on which movies and individuals would best tell this story, and to locate artifacts and materials for the museum to either acquire or borrow in the future. I chose to focus my research film by film, creating thematic connections and logical arguments between each. In some cases, the intense study of a film proved very fruitful. In others, I found only dead-ends.

    My research led me to interviews and objects from films like Silence of the Lambs (1991) and The Dark Knight Rises (2012), filmed all around Pittsburgh, and the animated feature film Big Hero 6 (2014), which used soft robotics technology from Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute as the inspiration for the character Baymax. In fact, I had the opportunity to meet with Chris Atkeson, creator of the inflatable soft robotic arm and renowned professor at the Robotics Institute, in his laboratory. He showed us the original arm technology (pictured above) and encouraged us to “get into character” to understand the advantages and challenges of using inflatable robots. As I quickly found out, walking, gesturing, and holding objects proved exponentially more difficult when wearing an inflated Baymax suit (see above).

    Two of the most rewarding discoveries were related to the films Angels in the Outfield (1951) and Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012). These two films could not be any more different. Angels, a film about a fictitious general manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates who encounters angels (you guessed it) in the outfield, allowed me to explore the more secluded, archival side of research. I found original letters, scripts, and legal agreements from film production. This film was also important to my research because it immortalizes Forbes Field in a very unique way. In an official letter (pictured above) between Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios and the then Pittsburgh Pirates Manager Bill Meyer, it was agreed upon that MGM would have full use of the Forbes Field facilities, Pirates uniforms and equipment, and park staff while filming. So while the characters – and the World Series win at the end of the film – are imaginary, a large majority of the film is authentic and serves as an accurate portrayal of baseball life at Forbes Field.

    Perks, a coming-of-age film about a high school boy and his group of friends, allowed me to explore a different aspect of curation. I was able to get in contact with the novelist/screenplay writer/director/producer of the book and film, Stephen Chbosky. Chbosky, a native Pittsburgher who now lives in California, wrote Perks based on his own high school experiences growing up in Upper St. Clair. He was more than willing to speak with me on the phone about all things Perks and Pittsburgh, and even offered to help the museum acquire costumes, props, and scripts from the film.

    Working on this project has allowed me to meld my love of film, history, and Pittsburgh. I’ve had the chance to dig through archives and special collections, make important contacts within the film community, locate key artifacts, and develop thematic connections between films, people, and objects. I am honored to have had this unique opportunity at the Heinz History Center.

    Learn more about the Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh initiative here

    Categories: 
    • Academic Interns
    • Undergraduate Work
    • Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh

    John Yodanis Papers, 1919 – 1987, MSS 293, Detre Library & Archives, Heinz History Center

     

    Revisiting Pittsburgh’s Pigeondom

    Author: Melissa Yang

    PhD student in English (Composition) and Consuming Nature workshop participant

    The American Racing Pigeon Union (ARPU)’s Souvenir Book of the 1937 Greater Pittsburgh Convention opens on a charming exchange of two epistolary poems between Edgar A. Guest and Peter P. Barry. Guest’s four stanzas of aa/bb rhymes, addressed “To the Owner of a Homing Pigeon,” detail the antics of a pigeon who “stopped to spend the day with us.” Barry responds to thank Guest, and requests he “Do again that sportsman’s deed,/Give him water and a bit of feed,” if the pigeon again chooses to rest upon his roof on his route home.

    There is abundant poetry—intentional and unintentional, whimsical and solemn—in the five boxes of materials compiled over sixty years by Pittsburgh pigeon racer John Yodanis (1910 – 1988). Housed in the Heinz History Center’s archives, these boxes are packed full of documents, from pigeon breeding guides to lineage charts, racing diplomas to gift-like bundles tied up in paper and string, which unwrap to reveal piles of pigeon-centric newspapers, catalogues, convention yearbooks, and more.

    Pigeons have long been featured in and have fostered an enormous range of human communications. Pigeon post, after all, was the fastest method of message-transmission from ancient times until Samuel Morse developed his code in the 1830s and 40s. Perusing more recent papers, it is nevertheless striking how valuable these birds were to their caretakers, and how stark the contrast is between the dedicated treatment of these pedigreed pigeons and the feral “rats with wings” marginalized in city streets today. Still, racing birds were bred to serve a purpose and, unlike most pets, had to earn their keep.

    This common attitude is reflected across Yodanis’s materials, including the four-volume Four Seasons Real Course About Pigeons. Penned by M. Joseph Heuskin for novices in the 1920s, this relic meticulously describes the proper composure, composition, and disposition of an ideal bird. He notes, “A pigeon of value has often a bigger eye than a common pigeon,” and “watches you wherever you go, for it is very inquisitive.” Breeders are advised to kill birds not up to snuff because “Marvelous pigeons are scarce,” and only achieved by “cultivating your colony” carefully. The anthropomorphism of the watchful, bright birds juxtaposed with casual culling directives render this guide darkly memorable, and the sport susceptible to criticism from animal welfare activists. (Pigeon racing ethics are controversial enough to warrant their own entry.)

    The modern sport of pigeon racing first emerged in Belgium in the 1850s, as carrier pigeons were being phased out by newer messaging technologies. Aficionados were motivated by a passion for pigeons, as well as prize money. The sport spread across Europe, and when Europeans migrated to the United States, they brought their birds with them. This is how Pittsburgh, PA—whose abundant job openings in factories and steel mills attracted European immigrants—became an epicenter for American pigeon racing in the following century.

    “Pittsburgh Promotes Pigeondom’s Progress” appears as a bold announcement in the opening pages of Yodanis’s 1948 commemorative book for the 38th annual ARPU convention (and the 4th annual “Ladies Auxiliary” meeting). Several pages of a welcome essay boast, of all the sports in Pittsburgh, “One of the finest sports of all, the realm of Pigeondom, is enthusiastically proclaimed by a great number here.” The Pittsburgh Center of the ARPU was the largest in America at the time, with thousands of members within a 50-mile radius of the city.

    John Yodanis was inducted into Pittsburgh’s pigeondom by his father and brother at age 14 in 1924. One of the collection’s final news clippings, from 1984, features the 74-year-old retired steamfitter reflecting on growing up when “every other yard had a pigeon loft and the association of racing pigeon clubs known as the Pittsburgh Center had more than 2,400 members.” Near the end of Yodanis’s life, he estimated only “175 racing pigeon owners remain in the Pittsburgh area.” Today, numbers continue to dwindle.

    The Tarentum Homing Club is one of the few active pigeon racing groups remaining around Pittsburgh, where a few devotees—mostly male retirees—continue to race their birds on weekends. When I interviewed member David Corry, he attributed the decline of pigeon racing in part to a lack of interest in the time commitment required of animal husbandry among young people today. Curiously, a concern for adolescent apathy can already be discerned in Yodanis’s earlier documents, some of which even cite “prevention of juvenile delinquency” as rationale to encourage children to pursue pigeon racing. Corry, who laughingly recalled how he was almost arrested for climbing grain elevators to catch pigeons in his youth, followed up to say, “You do not have to be nuts to get involved in pigeon racing but to some degree it helps.”Pittsburgh’s pigeondom may be endangered, but there is a liveliness, passion, humor, and resonant lyricism in even the most matter-of-fact of the extant discourses and documents. John Yodanis’s collection offers a fascinating glimpse into this niche area of local history well worth remembering and revisiting.

    Learn more about the Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh initiative here

    Categories: 
    • Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh
  • Main Lobby of The Heinz History Center

     

    Heinz History Center- The Italian American Program (complete with outdoor bocce)

    Museum Studies Intern at the Senator John Heinz History Center - Fall 2016 

    This summer, I was able to complete an Internship at the Senator John Heinz History Center within their Italian American program. Here, I was able to meet with donors and handle collections. The biggest feeling of success was not only getting to work with other people who were as passionate about Italian American history as me, but also getting to work in the highly competitive field of museum curators and exhibitionists. As a Museum Studies Minor, this internship allowed me to use my knowledge of the Italian language to translate documents, and combine that with my love of history, and furthering education. Throughout the summer, I met with various donors and was able to hear their stories of their immigration, or of their parents and other families immigrations. I worked closely with a project that focused on a group called I Campagnoli, an Italian folk dance and singing group. From the members I received pamphlets and photos and other memorable items from their time together. From these items I started curating an online exhibition for the group, that I was unfortunately not able to complete due to time, but at least had the experience of working with digital media which to me is important as it seems many museums are taking this route for future exhibits since it eliminates the concern of accessibility and preservation. This site is still not complete as there are so many interviews to transcribe, and other collections to be archived and used. In addition to this online work, I was also able to see the side of collections and preservation, education, and many other elements of the museum. This is one of the benefits I felt I had in such a big museum- I was always working and getting an experience! By having this internship over the summer, I was fortunate enough to participate in their Bocce Event, which is an outdoor bocce competition with many teams competing with sponsoring companies. This by far was one of the more exciting experiences as I not only got to watch players compete, but there was live music and free food and drinks. I felt this is program showed me the effectiveness of fundraising for a museum and how events don't always have to be educational or history based. Although my internship here has ended, I’m still volunteering at events and promoting the Italian American website and exhibition. This past October I attended Italian American Heritage Day and was able to see the group I worked with, I Campagnoli, perform, and it felt like a great culmination to my internship. The Italian American Program Online Content can be found at this link: http://www.heinzhistorycenter.org/collections/italian-american-program