American Experience

An Archive Deep Dive on the Bizarre Side

Is your social/physical distancing making you a bit stir crazy? Don’t fret. We have just the antidote! Our creative Foundation staff has dusted off a few obscure surprises from the Archives holdings. We heard weird begets weird so below, you’ll find some official government oddballs, headscratchers, and maybe, knee slappers.

Sneaky Spies, ChapStick Lies

It’s no secret that the Watergate scandal had its share of eavesdroppers and bugfinders. A lesser-known piece of the puzzle, however, is that some of these bugs were found in the most unlikely places—even inside the tubes of ChapStick! The lip balm with hidden microphones were one of many bugs on display at the trial of the Watergate burglars.

Can’t get enough Watergate-era sneakiness? Check out the Watergate Files online exhibit from the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library and Museum.

A Boozy St. Bernard

Thanks to the Archives staff in the motion picture preservation lab, we get to see the world through a St. Bernard named, Patches. In this 70s education film, the students at Jackson Junior High are learning about alcohol education and have some groovy tips on how to avoid a hangover. Those who went a little too crazy on your last zoom happy hour, we’re talking to you!

If you’re still on a historical cocktail craze, check out former National Archives exhibit, Spirited Republic.


Malice & Margarine

This 1915 mugshot depicts a man in federal prison for crimes against…butter. Yep, you heard that right. The Federal Penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kansas, housed its fair share of infamous inmates, such as “Birdman of Alcatraz” and Machine Gun Kelly. But in the early 20th century, the prison took in some less likely felons—violators of the Oleomargarine Act of 1886.

Why did these men with funny facial hair and Wild West mugshots go to jail for selling margarine? After New York’s U.S. Dairy Company began production of “artificial butter” in 1871, the Dairy industry pushed Congress to regulate the popular butter substitute. With the 1886 act, margarine was taxed and those who sold it had to get special licenses. The black-market Oleo gang went to prison for trying to pass the margarine off as butter and refusing to pay the taxes.


On the Kitchen Front

In World War I and World War II, rationing led Americans to get creative with their tasty treats. Check out these strange spins on classic desserts with unusual ingredient substitutions from World War I. We challenge you to make a treat with what you’ve got on hand in your pantry—or try one from our holdings. You know what they say, when life gives you lemons, or in this case, almond paste, make cannolis and Genoa cake!

World War I Cannoli Recipe


  • 1/4 lb. Almond paste
  • 3/4 lb. Sugar
  • 3 oz. Corn starch
  • 1 Gill milk (hint: you know a “gill” as ½ cup)
  • 3 Whites of egg


Almond paste and sugar must be made to a smooth batter with half milk and half white of egg, Vanilla flavor, the pan must be waxed and floured. The dough is spread [out], cut in a square, and when baked rolled to a cylinder shape and filled with cream. Bake in a medium oven.

For more minimalist World War I recipes, visit the National Archives Unwritten Record blog.

Caption Contest: The Results

The vast holdings of the National Archives are full of millions of photographs – many without context and captions. The good news? This leaves plenty of room for interpretation! With our caption contest, we invited you to invent your own caption for this Archives photo for a chance to win a special surprise from the National Archives Store!

Drumroll please! The results are in and the winning caption for our first caption contest is:

“If that face launched one ship, it launched a million.”

Shoutout to some of our other favorites with these runner-ups:

  • “Hold on, the bottle’s empty. No wonder James is smiling.”
  • “Harriet thought ‘Prenup’ was an odd name for a boat.”
  • “To safely practice social distancing, maintain at least 6 champagne bottles between you and–Herbert, are you listening to me? I WILL crack this bottle!”

Stay tuned for our next caption contest coming soon!

Last Week and More

We want to bring the Archives to you. If you missed last week or our content in the past, have no fear! We’ve collected everything we’ve dug up from holdings. Click on an icon below to learn more!

  • We the People
  • History Pix
  • Archives Encore
  • History Quirks
  • Patent Pending
  • Cooking Club

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