For an administrative history of the furnishings component of the Division of Costume and Furnishings prior to 1969, see Record Unit 261.
In 1883 a Section of Costumes was established under the Department of Arts and Industries, Division of Anthropology, United States National Museum (USNM), but was abolished in 1884. Costume collections subsequently were curated by the Section of Historical Relics and its various successors through to the Division of History, under the direction of A. Howard Clark until 1918 and Theodore T. Belote, 1919-1948. Otis T. Mason of the Department (later, Division) of Ethnology aided Clark with costumes of ethnological importance.
The Period Costume Collection was established in 1911 and featured a series of dresses worn by former First Ladies. Collector and donor Mrs. Julian James and Walter Hough, Head Curator of the Department of Anthropology, acted as co-supervisors. When Mrs. James died in 1922, Belote curated the collections. Upon its formation in 1943, the Civil Section of the Division of History assumed responsibility for the costume collections. Until 1969, they remained under that Section and its various successors through to the Division of Political History, Section of American Costume. Curators Margaret Klapthor and Anne W. Murray were chiefly concerned with costumes, establishing the First Ladies Hall and the Hall of American Costume during these years. For additional details on the history of the Section under the Division of Political History, see Record Unit 252.
When the Museum was reorganized in 1969, the new Division of Costume and Furnishings and the existing Division of Political History each curated portions of the costume collections. Staff for the new Division was assembled from the Divisions of Cultural History (now defunct) and Political History. Rodris C. Roth served as Associate Curator (chiefly furnishings), 1969-1971, and Curator, 1972- , and Claudia B. Kidwell as Assistant Curator (chiefly costume), 1969- . Murray continued as Curator Emerita, 1969- .
Research of the Division of Costume and Furnishings primarily focused on the history of clothing and household objects in America with emphasis on the industrial period. It studied how changing economic, social, and technological factors affected the clothing and appearance of Americans. In addition, the Division was concerned with documenting and interpreting everyday wares used in the home, and the activities surrounding them. The Division staff and their predecessors collected a wide range of artifacts for study including clothing of men, women and children; jewelry; military and diplomatic uniforms; heating and lighting devices; clothing and gowns of Presidents and First Ladies; metal, synthetic and wooden wares; theatrical garments; furniture and accessories; household appliances; working class apparel; and architectural elements.