From Turbines to Tupperware

Challenged to come up with a signature structure for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, George S. Morison produced a design for what he called the “American Tower.” The trouble was, it looked suspiciously like the Eiffel Tower, which had wowed visitors at the Paris Exposition in 1889. Not original enough, decided the design committee, which chose a 250-foot passenger-carrying wheel devised by an engineer named George W. G. Ferris instead.

Morison’s losing drawing was among a wide variety of industrial drawings and other materials featured in “From Turbines to Tupperware: Two Centuries of Industrial Drawings from the Smithsonian,” the inaugural exhibition of the renovated Payne Gallery from August 3 through November 4. Subjects of the drawings ranged from the grandiose to the trivial. The plans for Grand Central Station in New York and machinery for the building of the Panama Canal were on view, as were Maidenform’s templates for vests for carrier pigeons used in World War II and Earl S. Tupper’s patent drawing for his original Tupperware bowl. Items of local interest included shop cards from the Baldwin Locomotive Works in Philadelphia (1857 and 1860), an 1873 drawing for a rail mill engine for Bethlehem Iron Co., and a raw materials test data sheet for Crayola crayons from Binney & Smith of Easton (1970s). Engineers’ notebooks, patent drawings, trade literature, and work incentive posters rounded out the variety.

Steven Lubar, chair of the Division of the History of Technology at the National Museum of American History, laid out the rationale of the exhibition for visitors at the opening reception. Usually, he said, museums keep their collections in exclusive conceptual compartments. History museums are interested in context, industrial museums are interested in technology, and art museums are interested in aesthetics. But this exhibition, he noted, was interested in all three. Every piece of art in this exhibition had an aesthetic appeal, but each had a use that depended on technology and context. The uses of art in industry, Lubar said, were related to four things: inventing, persuading, controlling, and recording.

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Notebook of Frank P. Sheldon of Providence, R.I., 1870s.
George S. Morison's "American Tower," 1891.
Elevation drawing for Grand Central Terminal, 1904.