This post is by Stacie Moats of the Library of Congress.
Recently, I explored the Library’s online collections with my six- and nine-year old children as part of our learning adventures at home during the COVID-19 crisis. Feeling sad about a cancelled trip to visit relatives at the Jersey Shore, we began typing names of favorite places into the global search box on the Library’s home page, limiting our results to “Photos, Prints, Drawings.” Our discoveries included Long Beach Island’s Barnegat Lighthouse and the boardwalk in Ocean City, NJ. Best of all, we reconnected with Lucy the Elephant, a six-story building shaped like—you guessed it—a pachyderm.
My own childhood memories came flooding back to me, but as I guided my kids through an informal primary source analysis, we noticed details that astounded all of us. My son immediately noticed the building materials (“Are those just metal sheets bolted all over?”), while my daughter actually squealed when she observed that Lucy’s eye was, in fact, a window. We discovered a woman with two young children standing next to Lucy’s hind legs, which helped remind us of this structure’s impressive height.
With little prompting, the kids unleashed a stream of thoughts and questions: “I think that little girl is like me and wants to go inside.” “I wonder who painted Lucy’s toenails red and blue?” “I see a lot of American flags but what are those other flags?” “Who named her Lucy?” “When was Lucy built?” “Why would anyone want to live in an elephant?”
Incredibly, the Library had even more Lucy-themed treasures for us to investigate further. Expanding our search to “Everything” not only displayed more photos of Lucy (including this one that caused a fit of giggles) in our results but we struck gold: a “Today in History” entry focused on Lucy. We learned that Lucy “started life in 1881 as the Elephant Bazaar, soon Elephant Hotel” designed by a real estate developer to attract buyers to the area. Two additional enormous elephant seaside structures were later built, including one on Coney Island that went up in flames in 1896.
We invite you to try this fun game of close looking - which my kids dubbed “Where’s Lucy?” – with students (or children at home). Zooming into this historical map, Aeroview of Margate City, New Jersey, 1925, can you spy Lucy? (Hint: she has an oceanside view).
To learn more, check out these fantastic architectural drawings of Lucy. Look closely at the first page, and compare it to the earlier map. These drawings were made when Lucy was moved two blocks as part of a successful local effort to preserve and restore her as a national historic landmark. What architectural landmarks need saving in your hometown? If none exist, what “roadside attraction” might you design and build?
Many more examples of roadside architecture are waiting to be discovered in the Library’s online collections. Two great places to start adventuring are Carol Highsmith’s and John Margolies’ Roadside America Photographs. We’d love to know what new (or familiar) sites you discover while touring from home!