16 Fascinating Historical Artifacts Stored In The Library of Congress

The Library of Congress (LOC) is a bastion of historical holdings, with some really old objects you’d expect to find, like Abraham Lincoln’s inaugural Bible, a rough draft of the Declaration of Independence, and Walt Whitman’s notebooks. However, there's also no dearth of weird artifacts in the Library of Congress. In fact, the world’s largest library, founded in 1800, contains plenty of antiquated items that are perhaps less than venerable but still fascinating. Along with books, the library’s 164 million items include old films, sheet music, maps, comics, advertisements, recordings, recipes, posters, photographs, newspapers... and hair.

Yes, the LOC has locks of hair in its collections, from the revered heads of Thomas Jefferson and Walt Whitman, among other famous figures. Many of these weird old objects in the Library of Congress (including the hair cuttings) are available for viewing in digital format, although most are not digitized – understandably – because the Library adds about 12,000 items each day. So, what's the strangest thing in the Library of Congress? It's too hard to choose, but here are some of the lesser-known and downright weirdest artifacts in the Library of Congress.

  • Fred Ott's Sneeze

    Fred Ott's Sneeze
    Photo: W.K.L. Dickson / Library of Congress / Public Domain

    “Ah-CHOO.” Sneeze and you’ll miss this five-second movie, the first motion picture to be copyrighted in the United States. Fred Ott's Sneeze is a black-and-white, silent kinetoscopic film shot in 1894 by William Kennedy-Laurie Dickson, one of Thomas Edison’s assistants. In the film, Fred Ott, an Edison employee known for his comic antics, takes a pinch of snuff and sneezes. According to the Library of Congress, it was filmed "for publicity purposes as a series of still photographs to accompany an article in Harper’s weekly.”

  • Movie Etiquette Slides

    Modern-day movie theater annoyances that necessitate pre-film and on-screen warnings generally refer to turning off cell phones. In the early days of cinema, the big offenders were less technical but equally obtrusive: ladies’ hats. The Library of Congress has a collection of slides from old movie theaters in the early 1900s with “movie etiquette” suggestions like “Applaud with hands only” and “If annoyed when here please tell the management.” Or, for women with towering headgear, “Madam how would you like to sit behind the hat you’re wearing.”

  • Amelia Earhart's Palm Print

    Palmistry is the practice of studying someone’s hands as a way to interpret the person’s personality. Palmist Nellie Simmons Meier examined the hand prints of famed aviator Amelia Earhart, the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic, in 1933 – four years before Earhart mysteriously disappeared during a flight over the Pacific Ocean. In Meier's book Lions’ Paws: The Story of Famous Hands (the book’s original prints and character analyses were donated to the Library of Congress), she wrote the following about Earheart:

    The length of the palm indicates the love of physical activity, but the restraining influence shown by the length of the fingers, indicative of carefulness in detail, enables her to make careful preparation toward accomplishing a definite goal.

  • America's Birth Certificate

    America's Birth Certificate
    Photo: Waldseemüller, Martin / Library of Congress / Public Domain

    The “birth certificate” is actually a world map described as the first document printed with the name “America.” Created by cartographer Martin Waldseemüller in 1507 CE and acquired by the Library of Congress in 2003, the world map has a mouthful of a Latin name: “Universalis cosmographia secundum Ptholomaei traditionem et Americi Vespucii aliorū que lustratione,” which translates to “A drawing of the whole earth following the tradition of Ptolemy and the travels of Amerigo Vespucci and others.” To Americans today, the map probably looks fairly accurate, but to long-ago Europeans, “America” was a big chunk of unknown continent. The document is also the first map to show a separate Western Hemisphere and Pacific Ocean.

  • A Monopoly Board Game Precursor

    A Monopoly Board Game Precursor
    Photo: Parker Brothers / Library of Congress / Public Domain

    Before Parker Brothers started selling the popular game Monopoly in 1935, the company dabbled in economics and business via a board game called “The Office Boy,” released in 1889. According to the Museum of Play, the game was produced during the days of Horatio Alger’s stories about young men achieving the American Dream. Players work their way up in the company from stock boy to traveling salesman to junior partner to head of the firm. “Carelessness” and “temperance” set players back; “integrity” and “promptness” put them on the path to promotion. The Office Girls didn't even get to pass Go.  

  • Locks Of Famous People's Hair

    "Shining, gleaming, streaming, flaxen, waxen... hair." Well, not so much anymore. These locks have lost their luster, but the Library of Congress does have samples of hair from famous people, including Thomas Jefferson, Walt Whitman and James Madison. Jefferson's family took the cuttings from his deathbed. Whitman's housekeeper chopped off a few strands of his hair. Madison's clippings are tidily braided inside a velvet-lined gold case.