Landmark birthdays are a big deal, and for George Washington’s 200th, a master party planner was necessary. The House’s own Rep. Sol Bloom applied his talents to the task, coordinating a cross-country series of events—and some interesting souvenirs—throughout 1932.
Sol Bloom came to the House with an unusual background, uniquely qualifying him to run the George Washington Bicentennial Commission. His working life began at 8 years old, in a San Francisco brush factory. By his teens, he worked in theater promotion, and made his name as the organizer of Faire du Plaisance—the entertainment midway—of the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. Amongst this fair’s many contributions to culture, one of the less high-brow was the introduction of the tune “Danse du ventre”— later dubbed the “hoochy koochy dance”—for belly dancers included in the Midway entertainments. Bloom claimed authorship of the tune, lamenting his failure to copyright it in his 1948 autobiography. Despite missing out on the royalties from this composition, the promoter made his fortune in real estate. He was elected to represent New York in 1923.
In 1930, with Washington’s 200th birthday fast approaching, Bloom took the lead in planning the celebration. What started off as a single day of events developed into a nine-month long, national commemoration. Bloom’s overall vision for the Bicentennial was to take “Washington down off his white horse and putting him in the heart and the mind of every man, woman and child in America.” Though Washington had once been the most famous individual in the world, many, including Bloom, were concerned that the first President had calcified into myth. The best known stories about him—such as the famous childhood cherry-tree chopping—were apocryphal, and Bloom was determined to correct them.
After two years of historical research and planning, the commission was ready to party. President Hoover’s Joint Session address kicked off the events on February 22, 1932. A Bicentennial Ball held in Washington, D.C., included descendants depicting their famous Revolutionary era ancestors in period costumes. Parades and commemorations were held throughout the nation, and continued on until Thanksgiving.
Education and awareness were the main goals. A 39-volume scholarly work, The Definitive Writings of George Washington, was published, effectively separating historical fact from fiction. The commission produced a film, shown in cinemas across the country, called Washington, the Man and the Capital, to spread the educational mission. To ensure that school children were also targeted in the George Washington promotion, reproductions of the Gilbert Stuart’s Athenaeum portrait—the basis of the portrait appearing on the dollar bill—were provided to every classroom in the country.
In addition to wanting to place him in the hearts and minds of every citizen, Bloom wanted George Washington in every Member of Congress’s automobile and office. He created spare tire covers with “chromos of George Washington” on them (made at Bloom’s own expense) for his congressional colleagues. The more traditional memento was the bust of Washington. On one of his research trips to London—where Bloom visited to investigate Washington’s ancestors in the early planning stages of the bicentennial celebration—he spotted a little-known bust of the first President. Artist Joseph Nollekens made the marble likeness in 1805, based on one of Gilbert Stuart’s portraits, and Bloom had bronze-painted plaster reproductions made for each state governor and Member of Congress.
The spare tire covers have rolled into obscurity, but a handful of the busts remain, adorning offices in the Capitol. Their survival in the ever-changing Capitol attests to the wisdom of Bloom’s decisions on how to make Washington’s 200th birthday one for the history books.Follow @USHouseHistory