At Smithsonian, Americana 'Made in China'

Many patriotic products aren't made in the USA

February 24, 2011, 3:04 PM

Feb. 24, 2011— -- Tens of millions flock to the Smithsonian museums in Washington each year to see Americana -- everything from Abraham Lincoln's top hat to Archie Bunker's chair.

But one thing you'll have a hard time finding is something American in the gift shop.

Take the miniature sculptures of presidents sold at the National Museum of American History, located right on the Mall in the nation's capital.

From the busts of George Washington to Barack Obama, they were made in China.

Last month Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-VT, was so outraged by the situation that he fired off a letter demanding that the museum sell products made in the USA.

"It appears that a museum owned by the people of the United States, celebrating the history of the United States, cannot find companies in this country employing American workers that are able to manufacture statues of our founding fathers, or our current president," Sanders said in a letter to the museum.

"That is pretty pathetic!" he exclaimed. "I was not aware that the collapse of our manufacturing base had gone that far."

But it's not just the Smithsonian. Walk around the capital city's monuments – the great symbols of America – in search of products made in the USA and you might be surprised what you find.

The Lincoln Memorial gift shop sells magnets of the Washington Monument – made in China. A bell – made in China. A toothpick holder – made in China. Plates designed in the US – but made in China. And yes, a Barack Obama coffee mug – made in China.

The Jefferson Memorial gift shop sells actual replicas of the memorial – made in China. Even American flag pins – you guessed it - made in China.

You might spend $400 on souvenirs all over town and not buy a single product made in the USA, not even a keychain of the Supreme Court gavel.

But those Made-in-the-USA products are out there if you look, even if they are harder to find.

Why? It all comes down to dollars and sense.

The Lincoln Memorial gift shop sells two hats – one made in America and one made in China – and the price difference is drastic. $19.95 for the former, only $10.95 for the latter.

The Memorial used to sell spoons made in America, but then the manufacturer decided to move to Mexico.

The Smithsonian, for instance, did find an American manufacturer of presidential busts, but at nearly double the price. Faced with that prospect, the museum chose to stick with the Chinese-made presidents – and the Elvis bobblehead, too.

After Sanders' released his letter last month, Brent Glass, the director of the National Museum of American History, called ABC News to explain their stance on the made-in-China products.

"We do whenever possible try to buy from US-made manufacturers and we contract primarily with companies that are based in the US. We have more than 400 vendors just at our museum that are American that we work with. And our buyers only attend American trade shows," Glass said. "But a lot of distributors carry products made domestically and internationally. We try to offer items to the public that are affordable and many of those products come from other countries, not only China."

But some stores in Washington have found a way to sell virtually all products made in the USA – like the gift shops in none other than the US Capitol itself, where a whopping 99 percent of products are domestic-made.

The Capitol gift shops are proud of it, too, with signs hanging all over the store touting that the products are made right here at home.

Last month Sanders even stopped by the Capitol gift shops to buy some made-in-America products to take with him to a meeting with Smithsonian officials – just to prove that it could be done.

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