Today we have a desktop seal press or seal embosser from the 1960s.  Though unassuming at first, it has several stories to tell us – let’s take a look.

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The press is made of molded metal, measuring 5” tall (10” when the lever is raised), painted black with gold accents. It’s a desktop model with a professional, expensive look, and is heavy enough that it won’t slide around on the desk while you’re stamping your paperwork. The two halves of the 1.75” die, also metal, are custom pieces that impress the desired image – in this case, WTOP AM-FM-TV – onto a piece of paper when the lever is pressed.

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Its purpose is similar to that of our 1810s Orphan’s Court seal: marking paper with an official emblem. Unlike an ink or wax impression tool, the embosser uses pressure to imprint a raised mark. It’s a simple process, and one that has been in use for a long time; a search of the U.S. patent database found this “improved” model from 1864, and earlier examples can be found on this collectors website. Customized presses were (and are) used by courts, notaries public, and other officials, as well as corporations, agencies, and private individuals who want their name embossed on their stationery. Our particular piece has no manufacturer information, and its streamlined look doesn’t get us much further than “mid 20th century.” Conveniently enough the seal itself is intact, and the information there helps give us a narrower time frame – and takes us to its second, more specific story.

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The AM radio station now known as WTOP came to the DC area in the late 1920s, was purchased by CBS in 1932, and took the call sign WTOP (then at 1500 AM) in 1943. The Washington Post bought a controlling interest in the station in 1949; the following year, the newspaper acquired WOIC-TV, a local CBS station, and changed the call sign to match its sister radio station. WTOP-TV, Channel 9, was born.  Jim Henson’s first television appearances were on WTOP-TV; several still-on-air local newscasters started here; and you can watch some 1950s-70s promos and newscasts online. The station changed its call sign to WDVM in 1978, and to the current WUSA (still a CBS affiliate, on channel 9) in 1986. (For a nice thorough history of the television station, click here or here.)

As for the “FM” included on the seal, as best I can tell (from sites such as this one) the Post purchased the FM frequency of Rockville’s WINX in the 1960s, changing it to WTOP FM; when the station was given to Howard University in 1971, the call sign changed to WHUR.  WTOP was AM-only until a new FM frequency was added to the lineup in the late 1990s. (Radio history fans and researchers don’t mess around, so I found details to spare about WTOP’s AM and TV history – but I’ve not quite confirmed the early WTOP FM part of this story. If anyone can set us straight, please do!)  Since the tv station existed from 1950 to 1978, and the original FM frequency was used in the 1960s through 1971, I’ve given our artifact an appropriately vaguely-specific date of “the 1960s.”

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The third part of this artifact’s story relates to where it was found: under the stage at the Bethesda Theater. (If you were hoping I’d talk about the Art Deco WTOP transmitter building in Wheaton, my apologies… but here’s a website with lots of photos for you!) The Bethesda Theater, designed by John Eberson, opened in 1938 as the Boro. Like many 1930s-era movie houses it included a stage below the movie screen for performances, celebrity appearances, etc. I’ve started looking through newspaper articles for references to non-movie events at the theater; for example, the Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School 1951 commencement ceremony was held there, and I’m sure there are many more. (Please feel free to add your memories of the theater in the comments section.)

The theater has gone through several incarnations over the years (and is still open, though not currently as a film venue).  In 2001, construction began on an apartment building on top of the theater, necessitating both the closure of the Bethesda Theatre Café and an extreme renovation of the space.  Amidst the several-decades-worth of debris under the stage was, oddly enough, this little WTOP seal, evidently forgotten there after some unidentified radio or tv broadcast/taping many years ago.  Theater owner Pete Carney kindly donated it to MCHS.

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