It is true that there are many artifacts in our collections that are unrelated to local history. In our early years, we happily accepted any and all donations, regardless of provenance.

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At first glance, this little wood sculpture might appear to be one of those “why do we have this?” artifacts. Yet it is actually part of a story with both local and national significance: the 1949 French Merci Train.

In 1948, the United States sent relief goods to France, which was still suffering from the aftermath of occupation and war. We filled over 700 boxcars with supplies, many of which were contributed by individual Americans. To express the country’s gratitude, the following year France in turn filled 49 “40 and 8”-style boxcars with gifts for the American people. The train arrived in New York in February, 1949. The cars were sent off to their allotted states (the 49th car was split between D.C. and the territory of Hawaii), and the contents – ranging from food and wine to handicrafts to antiques – were divvied up.

The Maryland boxcar contents were exhibited at the Enoch Pratt Library in Baltimore, and some sort of bidding system was set up so that individuals or groups could acquire items. I haven’t found many details on the process*, or on the number and type of gifts in the Maryland car; all we have so far is a June 1949 Montgomery County Sentinel article, clipped for our scrapbook, reporting that “several highly interesting pieces to be added to the collection of the Montgomery County Historical Society have resulted from bids made last February,” and that MCHS members Mr. and Mrs. Randolph Talbott were to claim the successful bids. The Sentinel mentioned five things, though only four are in our collections today: an elaborately decorative flax wheel, a miniature portrait of Marie Antoinette, a modern model of the Arc d’ Triomphe, and this little folk carving. (We’ve never figured out what happened to the “fruit plaques from Paris,” which never made it to us.)

Why did these particular pieces catch our eye? Did we bid on other artifacts and lose? So far, we have no idea. Perhaps our smiling couple here, representing the folk costumes of the Bretagne region, were intended as comparison for our textile collections . . . or maybe we just appreciated their charming air. The 9.25″ tall wood carving is signed on the back by a J. Drèan of Auray, a town in the Morbihan department of France, in the Bretagne (Brittany) region. Though we know the name, the artist is otherwise anonymous; perhaps he or she made this piece specifically for the train, to represent his or her hometown? The gifts on the train were supposed to be chosen and offered by individuals, making as personal a connection as possible between two nations. I’ve always enjoyed the fact that in our paperwork, the donor of record is “The people of France.”

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At the time, the Merci Train was a big story.  The cars were received with parades and ceremonies; the city of Rockville held an event when the boxcar passed through, and Maryland even declared an official “French Thank You Train Day.” Today the train is not terribly well-known, although there are plenty of fans working to document the fates of the gifts, and of the boxcars themselves. Several cars were scrapped or lost over the years, but the Maryland car is in the collections of the B&O Railroad Museum in Baltimore. As of now, our pieces are the only identified gifts from the Maryland car, and that’s what makes these artifacts important to our collections: not that they are particularly related to the county, but that they have survived to represent this moment of American (and French) history. 

Want to learn more? The folks behind mercitrain.org have a state-by-state list of identified cars and artifacts, plus some historic photos from 1949. The Maryland car is sometimes on view at the B&O Museum, and there are lots of photos of the car here. And if you’d like to see our other artifacts (and me!), watch the B&O Museum’s online show, when the artifacts took a “this is your life”-style field trip to visit their old friend the boxcar.

* The process evidently varied from state to state. For example, the DC half-a-car contained “hundreds of gifts” – which were displayed in the windows at Woodies downtown – creating a disposal problem which left the sponsoring committee “temporarily stumped.” (“Overflow of Gifts Poses Problem to Merci Train Unit,” Washington Post, February 22, 1949.)

This cotton robe or yukata, and the history shared by the donor, are examples of how a single artifact can be used to tell multiple stories, including unexpected ones. Taken by itself, it is a simple cotton yukata (summer kimono) or robe, with a small tag reading “Japan” inside the neck. It has a narrow belt made of the same material, and wide, straight sleeves. Without knowing its provenance, it looks like a piece made for American (or otherwise non-Japanese) audiences, as a simple version of a traditional garment. That in itself provides avenues for exploration of fashion history, cultural exchange, and the like.

The piece was donated to MCHS in 1990 by Alice A. Harmon, who informed us that it was a gift received by her sister, Helen Anderson, upon graduating from Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School in 1938. Now we have a place, a time, and an occasion, and a way to talk about the importance of high school graduations in American culture, the kinds of presents people give, and the kinds of presents teenage girls actually want to receive, as well as some insight into the personality of the owner (who, presumably, enjoyed the gift enough to keep both the garment and the story behind it).

The information from the donor goes further, however, to tell us more about the neighbor who gave the yukata. Minnie Robinson Usuda (1888-1974) was the daughter of a British Army officer and his Spanish wife, and grew up in Korea. She moved to the United States, and married Yoshisada Karlo Usuda (1884-1962), who worked at the Japanese Embassy in D.C. During the 1930s, Mrs. Usuda “sent away” to friends in Korea for “house goods and clothing” to sell, and help support her family. This yukata given to Helen Anderson – who was a neighbor, and possibly also a friend of one of the same-age Usuda children – was probably one of the pieces sent from overseas.

According to the donor, Mrs. Usuda became a naturalized U.S. citizen, and her four children were also citizens. Mr. Usuda, a Japanese citizen, spent World War II in an American interment camp. So far, I have found little in our library to corroborate this part of the donor’s story – which, to my mind, makes this artifact all the more interesting. Although it has little to do with the Usuda family’s experience during the war, the yukata was the catalyst that prompted the donor to share her knowledge with us; otherwise, we might have nothing about the family at all. I’ve found a few references to the children at B-CC High School, in newspapers and yearbooks. Mr. and Mrs. Usuda, and their son Charles (1919-1940), are buried at Rockville Cemetery. Mr. Usuda’s brief obituary in the Washington Post makes no reference to his wartime experiences, and his name does not otherwise appear in that paper; perhaps there is something on the family in the more-local Sentinel, but that is a research avenue for the future. For now, our library yields only the 1944 Bethesda phone book, which lists the family under Mrs. Minnie R. Usuda; presumably she was regarded as the ‘head of household,’ in the absence of her husband.