As I took photos of today’s artifact, one of my colleagues fed me a straight line: “Is that a seat belt or a belt?” I’m so glad you asked. It’s both! This is a seat belt covered in a needlepointed sleeve, worn as a belt by State Senator S. Frank Shore (D – District 17, Montgomery County) in the mid 1980s as he worked to pass a mandatory seat belt law in Maryland.
Senator Shore, who donated the belt in 2005, described it as a “seat belt worn for years during the Seat Belt debates! This was made by Delegate Kay Bienen (Prince George’s County) who needle pointed the belt in Maryland Colors.” Shore’s biography on the Maryland State Archives website notes that he “believes his most significant contribution as a Maryland Senator was ‘fighting for twelve years to get Maryland’s seat belt law!’”An article in the Washington Post on January 27, 1985, includes a photo of Senator Shore showing off his belt; an article on January 31st of that year, after a version of the bill had been “killed” by a House committee, notes that Shore “for weeks has constantly worn a seat belt around the State House to advertise his position.”
Maryland’s first seat belt safety law became effective on July 1st, 1986; the work of Shore and his colleagues had finally paid off. In 1997 a stronger law, making non-compliance a primary offense, was enacted. (Click here for some national statistics on seat belt laws.) It can be difficult, from an artifact collections standpoint, to get at those aspects of history – like political debates – that do not necessarily generate much material culture. Last week a scrapbook was donated to us, filled with articles, photos etc. related to Montgomery County’s efforts on behalf of the seat belt law – and there was Senator Shore on the first page, proudly showing off his belt. That’s the kind of thing that makes a curator think, “if only we had that belt.” But we already do! It was very kind of the Senator, and Delegate Bienen, to create an artifact related to a major political debate that is not a yard sign or bumper sticker (not that I have anything against yard signs or bumper stickers) and even kinder of Senator Shore to think of us as its proper home.