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The Mysterious Centennial Safe of Mrs. Charles F. Deihm

February 22, 1879
The Mysterious Centennial Safe of Mrs. Charles F. Deihm Image courtesy of U.S. House of Representatives Photography Office A gift to the Congress, the large centennial safe contained autographs of public figures, gilded pens, inkstands, and publications of the era.
On this date, Mrs. Anna Deihm, widow of Civil War veteran Charles F. Deihm, attempted to give to Congress a large iron safe containing several quirky pieces of Americana that she had amassed during the country’s centennial celebration in 1876. The contents of the roughly five-foot-tall safe included photographs and autographs of public figures, gilded pens and inkstands belonging to (among others) Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, a bound volume containing the names of more than 80,000 government employees, a temperance manual, and a letter from President Rutherford B. Hayes. Deihm had hoped that the safe would remain locked until 1976 when the then-President would open it to celebrate the national bicentennial, but Congress declined to accept it. Though the House of Representatives agreed to receive the gift, the Senate refused to concur. Few Senators even knew what it was, and Senator William Windom of Minnesota belittled it, “I think it is a small business.” Despite the Senate’s rejection, the safe came to the Capitol and was ceremoniously closed and locked in Statuary Hall in the presence of President Hayes and Vice President William A. Wheeler. Measuring more than 70 cubic feet, the safe sat in Statuary Hall only briefly before being moved outside to the Capitol’s East Portico where it remained for the next 80 years. In 1958, it was moved again to a nearby storage room. Congress, however, did not legally own it, and few people paid it any attention until discussions about celebrating the country’s bicentennial began in 1971. Few remembered any of the safe’s history and no one knew the location of the keys. A locksmith cracked the safe to reveal a layer of glass protecting the interior and its contents. In preparation for the bicentennial celebration, Texas Representative Robert Randolph Casey introduced House Concurrent Resolution 84 to formally thank Mrs. Deihm and to accept the safe under the original terms, 95 years after her offer. Because President Gerald R. Ford was unavailable on July 4, the Joint Committee on Arrangements for the Commemoration of the Bicentennial, chaired by Lindy Boggs of Louisiana, held the opening ceremony on July 1, 1976. Speaking eloquently that day, President Ford noted that “there is no safe big enough to contain the hopes, the energies, the abilities” of the country. “Our real national treasure,” he went on, “does not have to be kept under lock and key.”

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