Peter Liebhold must have a million tools. As the curator of the Division of Work and Industry at the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., he weaves them into stories that illuminate our growth as a country.
Currently, for example, he is piecing together photographs, tools, and oral accounts collected from aging workers and their families in order to document the story of the Bracero guest-worker program, which brought in foreign labor to harvest U.S. farmland after World War II. In the photo here, Liebhold is holding the widely despised "el cortito," a short-handled hoe. Although it may look innocuous, this implement had a mighty effect on modern agricultural history: It helped inspire Cesar Chavez and like-minded activists in their crusade for farm-labor reform. The hoe was finally banned in 1975, but only after its use had inflicted serious back injuries and untold pain on countless workers.
Today, if you were to find one of these battered old tools on a flea-market table, it might bear a price tag of about 50 cents; but when reverently handled by a history scholar wearing white gloves in an office of the Smithsonian, it becomes a priceless artifact. "An object's importance," Liebhold says, "transcends its essence and begins to be about the person who used it."