Events

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Before It Was Safe to Drink the Water: Amherst Historical Society Teaches You How to Drink Like a Colonist

The annual meeting of the Amherst Historical Society typically includes a guest lecture. This year, at the suggestion of visiting curator Marianne Curling, we combined the talk (at the Jones Library) with a subsequent event (at the History Museum next door) that was at once demonstration, experience, and fundraiser. As the description put it, "Before it was safe to drink the water, tipples at breakfast, lunch, tea time and dinner were the norm in Colonial New England, and low-alcohol hard cider was sometimes a part of even children’s lives." Who would not be intrigued?

Our guest speaker was Corin Hirsch (@latesupper), author of Forgotten Drinks of Colonial New England: From Flips and Rattle-Skulls to Switchel and Spruce Beer, who has been presenting her first book to considerable acclaim elsewhere in the region and beyond. (Here's a podcast from my tweep @marianpl over at Fieldstone Common.)

Ms. Hirsch, humbly describing herself as a foodie rather than a historian and characterizing her book as "a romp" rather than a "scholarly" work, was an engaging speaker who took the audience on a sort of guided tour of the region's early drinking habits. The book is divided into four parts: Why They Drank, Where They Drank, What They Drank, and How They Drank, though the latter two overlap as part 4 consists of recipes with descriptions. The lecture began with the "Why" and "Where" but focused on the "What," conducting us from drink to drink in a manner that also roughly followed chronology.



It began with Hogarth's famed etchings of "Gin Lane" and "Beer Street," to illustrate the contemporary views on dangerous (foreign, newfangled) vs. healthful (traditional, national) drinking habits. Although the social and medical consequences of gin-drinking among the poor became a cause for concern, steady consumption of other forms of alcohol was simply a normal way of life. As Ms. Hirsch reminded us (and many of us know), the Pilgrims and Puritans were plenty fond of their drink. In fact, one of the reasons the Pilgrims finally picked a settlement site in 1620 was because their beer supply was running low. The Mayflower had also carried hard spirits and probably wine. By the time the newcomers celebrated that first Thanksgiving in 1621, they had already brewed their own beer.

Beer

Although beer-brewing was an almost universal practice in English farms and villages, it was not without its challenges in America. Hops grew well: the first plant was imported in 1628, Ms. Hirsch explained. But growing good barley for the malt was more difficult in the North American climate, so the colonists used any substance that was handy to produce the necessary sugars: potato, pumpkin (yes, pumpkin ale is nothing new)--even berries, birch bark, maple syrup, or spruce tips; the latter imparted a favored hop-like bitterness to the brew.

Cider

Hard cider was also ubiquitous: the value of traditional apple varieties lay in their suitability for long winter storage--and production of alcohol. And even the wild varieties, which made for poor eating, served perfectly well as a source of fermentable juice. (It was not for nothing that Leominster native Johnny Appleseed was later so popular.) As historians of early America and material culture can tell you, John Adams knocked back a pint (the equivalent of two pints of typical modern beer, Ms. Hirsch explains) at breakfast every day. Children drank a weak version--and sometimes even the strong stuff. And we were none the worse for it. Sometimes it even led to victory (or at least did not prevent it).

The "Stone-Fence"--a blend of hard cider and rum--seems to have inspir(it)ed Ethan Allen's Green Mountain Boys prior to the capture of Fort Ticonderoga. As Ms. Hirsch puts it in her book, "Drunk, hung over or just a combination of the two, they found a slumbering guard to Ticonderoga, and the American militiamen claimed their first victory of the war."

Wine

By contrast, the wine trade was slow to develop. Despite high hopes occasioned by the prevalence of wild grapes (the east coast was the fabled Viking Vinland, after all), European varieties suitable for making fine wines did poorly in the climate of both New England and Virginia. This did not stop the colonists from making wine from wild grapes (and, well, almost anything and everything that would ferment) for personal consumption, but wines of quality remained an imported good for the elite, which gave it an undemocratic taint in the Revolutionary era and beyond. That, too, did not stop the greatest of the Revolutionary leaders from indulging their taste for it. In the book, Ms. Hirsch aptly characterizes Thomas Jefferson as "perhaps the most famous colonial oenophile," and Ben Franklin as "a sot, marinating in porter, Champagne, brandy, Madeira and the fine wines of France." And as for Washington, "He was a man of all things alcoholic, but he was not an alcoholic." In the book, she calls him "a fanboy of small beer . . . and enthusiastic swiller of porter" as well as a failed vintner and very successful distiller.

Rum etc.

For then there was the hard stuff. Every schoolchild is (or was, or should be) familiar with the notorious "triangle" or "triangular" "trade" involving the circulation of captive Africans, Caribbean sugar or molasses, and New England rum. Although distillation of whiskey began in the early seventeenth century, it became the quintessential American and frontier drink only when the Revolution interrupted the rum trade.

It was ironic, Ms. Hirsch noted, that, in 1794, George Washington put down the Whiskey Rebellion that arose in opposition to the new federal tax on spirits, and then went on to become a distiller himself (of course he paid his tax). Between 1797 and 1799, his production rose from 600 to 11,000 gallons, making him one of the leading producers in the country.
Excursus
During the question-and-answer session, former Jones Library Trustee and (before that) Washington litigator Sarah McKee recalled having seen George Washington's original still--confiscated during the charade of Prohibition--in the ATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives) museum near her place of work in the nation's capital. This got me curious, of course. I had been to most major Washington museums (though not that one) as well as Mount Vernon in the past few years. The old still now appears in the collections of the Smithsonian. As for Mount Vernon and the ATF, they have made their peace, for the latter granted the former a permit to conduct distilling in 2001. The site, several miles away from the mansion, near a good source of water, was excavated between 1999 and 2006, and reconstructed from 2007-9. And, nota bene: if your timing is right, you can still buy its new product.

Ancestors of the Cocktail

Many popular Colonial drinks were also mixtures involving some elements of the above. Each often had several variants, depending on one's taste and the availability of the ingredients.

Among the most famous (and most misunderstood; we all read pirate tales as kids, right?) is grog: essentially, a dilution of rum including water, citrus, and a sweetener.

Syllabub might consist of "cider blended with cream, rum and sugar, although wine could be used in place of the cider."

Flip was "a blend of beer; rum; a sweetener such as molasses, sugar or dried pumpkin; and occasionally eggs and cream." (Ms. Hirsch recommends a light brown ale rather than a porter or other darker brew). It could be expensive: in at least one town, it cost more than a night's accommodation. I myself have always admired the large glasses in which it was traditionally prepared or served.

flip glass from the collections of Historic Deerfield
It also made history. As Ms. Hirsch tells it: the Minutemen of Lexington dutifully assembled when the first alarm was sounded in the wee hours back in 1775, but after they were dismissed at around 2 a.m., some eighty of them repaired to the Buckman Tavern (rather than their homes), where they continued to drink flip until they stumbled out to confront the British regulars toward daybreak. As more than one commentator has noted, the guns were not the only things that were loaded on that famed April Morning.

Punch--derived from the Hindi "panch," or five--referring to the number of ingredients (which varied considerably) was, in Ms. Hirsch's words, "quite a democratic drink in a way." It was meant to be shared communally, after all. It was thus a serious business and once again confounds simplistic stereotypes of religious Christians. As the book notes, "At the 1785 ordination of a Beverly, Massachusetts, minister, the eighty attendees drank seventy-four bowls of punch as well as twenty-eight bottles of wine and eight bottles of brandy." Not exactly your stereotypical evangelical buzzkills. I'd wager that the congregants of Amherst's First Church (separate story on that institution to follow) could come nowhere near that achievement nowadays, for more than one reason.

As Ms. Hirsch explained, "Drinking in America really exploded after the [Revolutionary] War."

Per capita consumption for every person over the age of 15 amounted to 5 gallons of spirits, 34 gallons of beer, and 1 gallon of wine. Today, by contrast, the US has the lowest per capita alcohol consumption in the developed world. Even at a respectable 14th place in beer consumption (20.4 gallons), for example, we lag well behind not only our forebears, but also the second- and third-place Germans and Austrians (28 and 28.5 gallons, respectively), and the world-leading Czechs at 39.3. But our founding fathers would have earned us a clear second place.

Oh, yes, the infamous, intriguing and appropriately named "Rattle-Skull" consisted of a pint of porter or other dark beer, along with rum, brandy, sherry, and (optional) lime juice and nutmeg. As Ms. Hirsch noted, you probably wouldn't want to drive home after one of these, which go down with surprising ease.

Boozing peaked around 1825, and the high point of the drinking culture also marked the birth of the temperance movement. Perhaps we have always oscillated between unhealthy extremes. As Ms. Hirsch writes in her book, "That American society could reach a nadir of drunkenness only a few decades before outlawing drinking altogether speaks to an all-or-naught national psychology."


After the lecture, many members of the audience adjourned to the neighboring c. 1750 Simeon Strong House, site of the Amherst History Museum, for hors d'oeuvres and a sampling of representative historical beverages:  Flip, made with ale, rum, molasses, a beaten egg and nutmeg; Syllabub, made with white wine, lemon juice, heavy cream, sugar, and nutmeg; a mulled wine, and hard cider from All Things Local.

Ms. Hirsch prepared and served some of the more complex beverages. Among the highlights: making flip the traditional way by plunging a red-hot poker into the pitcher of liquid. Admittedly, not all traditions can be observed due to the modern preservation policy and safety regulations in historic structures: we used a propane-fired barbecue a safe distance away from the house.

video



the final product: Corin Hirsch serves the flip
As guests sampled a half-dozen drinks, Hampshire College students Emma John and Deidre Kelly performed traditional songs. I happened to walk in as they were singing "The Bonnie Banks of Loch Lomond." First published in 1841, it seems to refer to the events of the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745. It's a personal favorite of mine because I grew up with it: my father learned it while in the military in Scotland during World War II.




Appropriately enough, the portrait beneath which they are seated at the historic piano, on loan from the Heath Historical Society, reflects the shared musical interest of the Emerson family of Amherst (which owned this house) and their relatives to the east. Records describe the painting as "a family group which Dr. Emerson allowed a deaf and dumb travelling man to paint, out of pity for him." Scholars surmise that the painter was Augustus Fuller (b. 1812, Deerfield, d. 1872) and that the portrait was painted circa 1837.



The proverbial (to cite that awkward and oft-parodied phrase) "good time was had by all." So much so, in fact, that we hope to repeat the event in the future.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Post-Thanksgiving Digestif (cheers and fears)

Thanksgiving became a regular national holiday only in 1863 when President Lincoln called upon the nation "to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens." Some of his predecessors had, however, declared individual days of thanks at various times of the year. In the meantime, the autumn holiday was celebrated in New England (the Governor of Massachusetts proclaimed a Thanksgiving in 1816). By the 1840s, the holiday was gaining currency elsewhere in the country.

Indeed, we find it mentioned in some of the earliest letters of Emily Dickinson. As it happens, the weather preceding the holiday in 1847 was much the same as it was here this week (except that then it rained rather than snowed). Writing from Mount Holyoke Female Seminary to her friend Abiah Root in January 1848, she recalled:
We all went home on Wednesday before Thanksgiving & a stormy day it was. . . . The storm did not at all subside that night, but in the morning I was waked by the glorious sun himself, staring full in my face. We went to church in the morning & listened to an excellent sermon from our own minister, Mr Colton. At noon we returned and had a nice dinner, which, you well know cannot be dispensed with on Thanksgiving day.
The combined historical origins of the festival and its institutionalization by Abraham Lincoln long made Thanksgiving a "Yankee holiday," an image that did not dissipate for several decades after the Civil War.

* * *
Cheers!


I subtitled this post "cheers and fears" because, this year, I seemed to detect more stress on the alcoholic beverages that best accompany the Thanksgiving repast--"a nice dinner," as Emily put it--as well as a few stories (maybe everyone is desperate for a new angle) that play up the dark side of the holiday--in jest, to be sure. Maybe it's all in my head, but that's as good an excuse as any.

Although the article explaining how best to pair wine with each Thanksgiving food is a perennial feature of the periodical press (and now online food and beverage sites), it seems that the cocktail is receiving new attention. We have pieces desperately trying to come up with clever new drinks (1, 2). (Turkey bouillon? Puréed potatoes? Dude! Seriously?) And we have pieces that poke fun at those pieces and call for simplicity and common sense (1, 2). Although I always appreciate any good recipe, I have to admit that I (unsurprisingly) incline toward the historical.

We know of course that the Pilgrims and their descendants drank a lot (even or especially at funerals), but theirs were the typical drinks of England and the evolving colonies: beer, wine, and spirits such as rum, or beverages including these as ingredients. (More on that in a coming post.)

For those seeking something more modern but still historical, there is a 1960s drink called the Thanksgiving Special, but it is in essence the same as the "Darb," which dates back to circa 1930 and is thus suitably historical. (1, 2, 3).

Moving a bit further back in time, I'd recommend the "Sangaree" (1, 2), which as Ted Haigh explains, is vaguely related to but not at all the same as "sangria." Traceable to the eighteenth century, when it evidently was a popular item in Caribbean whorehouses, it was made of some blend of alcohol (at first, red wine), water, sugar, and spices; it did not consistently include citrus.  A good modern version uses red wine and cognac.

And next time I give a big party, I'm certainly going to consider mixing up a bowl of USS Richmond Punch, named after a Union Civil War ship (1, 2). Ingredients for this one include rum, cognac, port, Grand Marnier, and champagne. Don't drink and sail (and don't even think about using one of those nine-inch smoothbores) if you've had one of these.

Cheers!


As for fears:

At Slate, legal correspondent Dahlia Lithwick uses the famed White House holiday ritual to poke fun at the fuss over the recent White House executive action: Obama’s Thanksgiving Amnesty: Will the president’s turkey pardon start a wave of unauthorized poultry immigration?

With minds that must have been moving along in the same groove, the folks over at Destination America TV came up with a special on "When Turkeys Attack":


There's nowhere to run and nowhere to hide when predator becomes prey. Our nation's turkey population has grown from 300,000 to a staggering 7 million in only 70 years. It's become an epidemic that will ruffle anyone's feathers! Fearless, intelligent and territorial, turkeys are taking over, terrorizing unsuspecting, innocent townspeople all over the country. In this one-hour Thanksgiving special, we'll see personal video of turkey attacks and hear from the surviving victims.
Damned immigrants. It's actually pretty funny.

By contrast, here's what turkeys fear:


(This one is from The American Hysterical Society. Hat tip to my friends at the American Association for State and Local History [AASLH] discussion group.)

* * *

Here's what I fear: The ever greater encroachment of coercive commercialism upon our holidays.

It's not about some naive and idealistic lament for lost purity. Any historian should know better than that. Commerce and culture have long been intertwined. (Don't forget that Johannes Gutenberg began his entrepreneurial career hoping to make a killing by selling "holy mirrors" to pilgrims.) To portray the problem as one of corporate "greed," as is typically the case, is also misguided: that is to psychologize the problem and cast it in moralizing rather than structural terms.

There are two problems: the cultural and the ethical.

When I was a senior in college applying for various scholarships, I was asked in one interview in a swanky Chicago highrise, "What do you think of 'the attenuation of periodicity'?" Since I had to devote most of my relatively unsophisticated Midwestern brainpower to figuring out just what the hell the question even meant, I suppose my answer was not very good. (Spoiler: I did not get the scholarship.) Nowadays I could probably give a better answer. I teach my students that premodern times in Europe were characterized by dramatic swings of activity and temperament: we speak of the wild fluctuations of "feast and fast." Modern rhythms, by contrast, are much more flattened: we have few holidays and work most of the time (even the weekend is a relatively recent development). The advent of 24/7 service and shopping, though a benefit in many ways, has only accentuated this tendency.

As anyone of a certain age can tell you: it used to be that one did not see Christmas decorations and other signs of the holiday or its marketing until Advent, or at least, after Thanksgiving. Nowadays, it seems, they appear ever earlier. Beginning on Halloween, the Hallmark Channel (not that it is a measure of anything but itself) replaces its regular programs with Christmas programs.That's nearly two months of this tedious treacle.

Again, it's not only about commerce, as such, but about losing our sense of time. When the entire period from October through New Year's becomes one long and increasingly undifferentiated marketing season, we lose our sense of the distinctiveness of the holidays that define it, and perhaps of the seasons themselves. The purpose of holidays is, after all, to mark differences in time.

As for the ethical: as one who grew up in a region in which some combination of blue laws and custom kept almost all stores closed on Sundays, I am glad that we have moved beyond that particularistic religious restriction on citizens' activity in a secular republic (though--fun facts to know and tell--you still can't buy alcohol in Minnesota or a car in Wisconsin on a Sunday). Personally, I therefore also have little sympathy for European handwringing that the end of anachronistic store-closing laws endangers mom-and-pop stores (Germans call them Tante-Erna-Läden). Ironic, of course, to see supposed leftists defending capitalists. (1) There are more consumers than small capitalists, and when both partners in a marriage have to work, being able to shop in the evening or on Saturday afternoon is a de facto necessity. (2) The logic of the economic system, as the German socialists pointed out more than a century ago, is that the small owners will go under anyway. They will survive only to the extent that they can offer a distinctive benefit or value.

Conservatives love to trumpet that supposedly salvific Pilgrim switch from socialism to capitalism: As if the insane desire to buy more stuff on "Black Friday" (even the Brits--who don't celebrate Thanksgiving--have succumbed to the mania: with predictable results) were not bad enough, an increasing number of enterprises (not only large chains) are now opening on Thanksgiving day itself: which is to say, requiring the workers to show up rather than celebrate the holiday with friends and family. Staples, for example, decided to open its stores at 6:00 p.m.--as Adam Vaccaro of the Boston Globe quipped, "(because nothing says “Merry Christmas” like office supplies!)." In Massachusetts, our surviving blue laws keep the stores themselves closed, but the staff of the corporate headquarters still had to report for work.

Somehow, I do not think that this is what our "Pilgrim Forefathers" had in mind.

It's especially ironic, given that historical Thanksgivings were occasions whose very nature precluded the carrying on of ordinary activity. That's what I meant about time. The first such national proclamation, by the Continental Congress, in 1777, included the injunction to refrain not only from frivolous entertainments, but also from "servile labor."

So, no, the ethical issue is not mere "greed": it's not even clear that opening on Thanksgiving is profitable, as such, but the logic of competition pushes stores to stay open, and that in turn inexorably attracts more shoppers. In the process, workers are forced to give up one of the few universally observed national holidays; many federal holidays are marked only by public institutions, banks, and the like, rather than retailers. (Airports and related travel facilities may be a different matter, though it's a myth that Thanksgiving is the busiest travel day of the year.) As one analyst put it, retailers have created a "Catch-22" for themselves: "the more they do this Thanksgiving shopping thing, the more people will think it's normal, and then the retailers will have to open even if it's not profitable." And the workers will work and we will shop, and once again, we will have lost something of that precious feel of time--and rest.


Thanksgiving vs. "Franksgiving"

Of course, the seeds were planted long ago. In 1939, November had five Thursdays, and that seemed to mean a reduced Christmas shopping season, which, as NPR tells us, "worried large retailers who lobbied FDR to move up Thanskgiving. He did." Then, as now, presidential executive action was controversial: Republican Alf Landon denounced the President as a "Hitler." Many others simply mocked and sulked. And so, states where the progressives were in control celebrated the holiday on November 23, while conservative states rejected what came to be called "Franksgiving" and stuck with November 30. (a video here; can't embed it, for some reason).

Increasing numbers of people are now actively resisting the consumer binge of Black Friday. And then there's "Cyber Monday." Slate tells us it's "the dumbest fake holiday of the year," while Mashable, tongue-in-cheek, lauds its superiority to Black Friday. Still, we all need to buy things sometime, and the convenience and benefits of the online marketplace are not to be underestimated. But how do you know whether you really need something--or someone else really needs that gift?  Here's a handy flowchart, courtesy of Callie Enlow at Good magazine:

full image and story

Choose wisely.


[updates: correct edit posted; link added]

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Thanksgiving History: From the Vaults





Nothing new this year.

For that matter, I suppose, I never have anything truly new to say about Thanksgiving: just my occasional musings based on old histories or new coverage in the media.

But that's the point, I suppose: Thanksgiving is the quintessential and universal American holiday. To be sure, July 4th is the official national holiday, but although it is far older, its rituals and practices are more variable: we celebrate in our mulitfarious ways, from barbecues to nothing in particular. By contrast, "The Thanksgiving dinner" (whatever its varied constituents) is the national norm and in that sense unique as a means of celebration transcending cultures, ethnicities, and faiths (taking into account of course, some modern resistance to the traditional political-historical narrative: 1, 2 ).

Because I've already posted a good many times on this favorite American holiday, I thought I would content myself with offering an overview of those earlier posts rather than introducing a new theme this year.

In addition, I'll upload the collected images to the tumblr for better viewing.

Amuse yourselves as best you can. Wishing all a pleasant holiday feast and extended weekend.



• 2008 The Inevitable Thanksgiving Piece : focusing on food and fable as well as historiography: how the holiday came to assume its familiar form. Among my minor favorites are the mystery of the cranberry (pregnant insects?! wtf?) and Pilgrim drinking habits (a shot and a brew).

• 2009 Thanksgiving Day (Thanksgiving Again): brief piece with focus on historiography--contrasting historical approaches of the focus on material culture and the larger narrative (including the long-term consequences), exemplified by James and Patricia Deetz on the one hand and Nathaniel Philbrick, on the other (with links to a variety of topics, from the date of the holiday to presidential turkey pardons and the relation between poultry and dinosaurs).

• 2010 (a) The Annual Thanksgiving History Buffet: a smorgasbord of topics, starting with foodways (eels and sweet potato) and moving on to the conservative canards about Pilgrims, socialism, and capitalism.

• 2010 (b) Thanksgiving Miscellany: e.g. never rocked to the Turkey Gobbler's Ball? Here's your chance.

• 2010 (c) (I must have been on a roll that year): 13 December 1621: The "Fortune" Sails from Plymouth to England (and why the Pilgrims were neither "socialists" nor "capitalists")

Conservatives in recent years have for some reason decided to make much of a supposed contrast between the early failures of the Pilgrims under what is termed a "socialist" arrangement vs. their great successes once they abandoned this Obama-avant-la-lettre policy and threw themselves into the sluttish welcoming arms of free-market capitalism.

This is not my field, but one doesn't need to be a specialist--only to understand historical perspective and use of evidence--in order to see that this is bunk. As any historian worth his or her salt (a valuable commodity in Colonial days) can tell you, the whole notion of a struggle between "socialism" and "capitalism" in seventeenth-century America is unhistorical nonsense. And what is more, the Pilgrims and their descendants--before and after the supposed great transformation--intruded in the lives of citizens in a way that would be anathema to modern socialists and libertarians alike. Myth busted. QED.

• 2012 From the Vaults: Thanksgiving Retrospective (socialists, eels, eating pregnant insects, a shot and a brew, more): a less (an abbreviated version of what you have here).

Enjoy.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Back When Amherst Was Not So "Progressive": Color Lines and Blackface


Amherst is today engaged in a new process of dialogue regarding the problem of racism, in the schools and in our community at large. (e.g. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5)

In the course of some research on other topics in Amherst history, I stumbled upon this 1951 photo from the local paper, depicting a minstrel show, with performers in blackface:


It is reproduced in Leave the Light Burning: South Amherst, Massachusetts, by W. H. Atkins (1871-1952), ed. Marjorie Atkins Elliott (McFarland, WI: Community Publications, 1973).

Among the participants in the show are many notables of South Amherst, some deeply involved with the South Congregational Church--including the Minister, Rev. Arnold Kenseth (Chaplain and later Instructor in English at the University of Massachusetts) and his wife Betty--and members of the Atkins family, founders of the popular agricultural enterprise and grocery market. It was also Howard Atkins who donated land for the site of the Munson Library, next to the Church.

To see such a picture today is be thrown back into a very different world. No doubt the participants thought what they were doing was all in good fun, or even some kind of tribute to another culture--perhaps much the way some people still think of the images of Native Americans appropriated as emblems of sports teams. Times have changed. Thankfully.

The minstrel show remains shocking but becomes less surprising when one recalls that it was only around this time that  the Lord Jeffery Inn, associated with Amherst College, finally and reluctantly began to admit African Americans as guests. Times have changed. Thankfully.

The latter episode, which appears in Essays on Amherst's History (Amherst: The Vista Trust, 1978), draws upon an Amherst College senior thesis by David Chaplin on "Amherst's Negroes" (1953). As the essay summarizes (p. 297):
Chaplin also found that most whites in Amherst refused to believe that any real discrimination existed; as one citizen explained, 'I don't know anything about the Negroes here, but I do know that there isn't any discrimination'
On second thought, maybe the times have not changed so much, after all.





Tuesday, November 11, 2014

The Lighter Side of the Fall of the Wall (3)


Although contemporaries immediately recognized the historical significance of the opening of the Berlin Wall, comics were almost as quick to find material in the event.  Some pretty good stuff emerged in the coming weeks and months.

Here, a few selections from The Late Night with David Letterman Book of Top Ten Lists (Pocket Books, 1990):

Top Ten New Names for the Reunited Germany

10. Keggerland
9. Just Plain Volks
8. Siegfried and Roy
7. Aryan Acres
6. Argentina East
5. The Love Shack
4. Nazichusetts
3. Switzerland's Bad-Ass Neighbor
2. Home of Das Whopper
1. CIndy

(IMHO these are much superior to the list of ways to make communism fun again and return to or exceed the level of the Top Ten Things Overheard at the Fall of the Berlin Wall. Of course, as a historian of German nationalism, I have to give high marks to "Just Plain Volks"--though one wonders whether the writers understood the full significance of the term, "Volk," or were just deriving it from Volkswagen. No matter: authorial intention remains inscrutable, and we can all enjoy. # 3 is likewise a top candidate, though of course, as a resident of the Baystate, I also have to give plaudits to "Nazichusetts."

The Lighter Side of the Fall of the Wall (2)




Although contemporaries immediately recognized the historical significance of the opening of the Berlin Wall, comics were almost as quick to find material in the event.  Some pretty good stuff emerged in the coming weeks and months.

Here, a few selections from The Late Night with David Letterman Book of Top Ten Lists (Pocket Books, 1990):



* * *
Top Ten Ways to Make Communism Fun Again

10. Spell it with a "K."
9. Have Castro do guest shot on Cosby.
8. Add mechanical shark attraction at Lenin's Tomb.
7. Have Revlon introduce new "Khmer Rouge."
6. Give everybody red birthmark decals to wear on forehead.
5. Adopt "Lovable Loser" persona--like the '61 Mets.
4. Get Skip Gorbachev to do a 'Not Your Father's Oldsmobile" commercial.
3. Hire "The Chicken" to disrupt Politburo meetings.
2. Have Den Xiaopeng cry during Barbara Walters interview.
1. Less centralized economic planning; more rock.

(IMHO not as good as the preceding set, though # 7 remains a classic. 5 is good, especially if you are a sports fan. And at least it was good to teach the average viewer the term, "Politburo.")

The Lighter Side of the Fall of the Wall (1)




Although contemporaries immediately recognized the historical significance of the opening of the Berlin Wall, comics were almost as quick to find material in the event.  Some pretty good stuff emerged in the coming weeks and months.

Here, a few selections from The Late Night with David Letterman Book of Top Ten Lists (Pocket Books, 1990):

Top Ten Things Overheard at the Berlin Wall
10. "I came for the political freedom--I'm staying for the McRibs!"
9. "Is this the line for Batman?"
8. "So many Bennetons!"
7. "As long as you're already in the trunk, let's go to a drive-in."
6. "We're coming to save you, Zsa Zsa!"
5. "Here in the West, we don't have to pay a lot for our muffler."
4. Finally I can realize my lifelong dream to attend a taping of the PTL Club."
3. "Let's stay at Dave's house!"
2. "This ought to scare the crap out of the French."
1. "We're going to Disney World."

(FWIW: Personally, I think # 10 is a lot better than 8 and 9, for example. Or 3 and 4, for that matter. But 1 and 2 are good.)

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Fall of the Wall Disclaimer




Today of course marks the 25th anniversary of the opening/fall of the Berlin Wall.

It was a striking event for those of us who watched the scenes play out across our television screens, the more so for those of us with personal or professional connections to Germany and German history.

However, because every major news organization will be covering the anniversary in full--indeed, ad nauseam, I've decided to limit my own posting here and just follow the conversation. Be prepared: most of the commentary will not be from the most sophisticated perspective (expect lots of triumphalism, sweeping generalization, and banalities that pass for profundity, but amidst all the empty chatter, there will be a few morsels of insight.

I will post a few smaller items, some serious, others--not so much.

Meanwhile, keep an eye on the tumblr for images associated with the event (#fall of the wall; #Mauerfall)


[updated image]

Friday, November 7, 2014

What Would You Put On a New Historic Preservation Stamp?


October 29 is the anniversary of the US Historic Preservation Stamps. What Does Historic Preservation Mean to You Today?


On 15 October 1966, President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the National Historic Preservation Act,  (NHPA; Public Law 89-665; 16 U.S.C. 470 et seq.), the landmark legislation that, in the words of the National ParkService, “established the framework that focused local, state, and national efforts on a common goal – preserving the historic fabric of our nation."

Among the results was the creation of the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, the National Register of Historic Places, and enabling legislation for preservation funding, as well as measures that facilitated the creation of local historic districts.

To mark the fifth anniversary, the US Postal Service issued a set of four postage stamps on October 29, 1971.


Designer: Melbourne Brindle
Printing: 150 million in sheets of 32
Decatur House (Washington, DC)

The 1818 building was a fitting choice in several ways. A private domicile, built for the famed American naval hero in the new national “Federal” style in the nation’s capital, it is one of only 3 extant houses by Benjamin Henry Latrobe, architect of the US Capitol. It may have been a more fitting choice than the designers realized: Given to the National Trust in 1956, it acquired landmark status in 1976. Today, as the National Center for White House History, it includes event space for rental as well as commemoration of the enslaved African-Americans who worked and lived here. We thus find here on one site the evolving spectrum of US preservation concerns: historical and architectural significance, cultural diversity and difficult histories, and adaptive reuse.


The last surviving wooden whaling ship, and a highlight of the historic ensemble of Mystic, CT. An icon of American economic development and technological achievement.

The iconic local transportation system, which began in 1873 as a creative response to the uniquely hilly terrain. After World War II, the city planned to eliminate them when the bus emerged as a more efficient alternative. Citizen activism saved them from destruction on the grounds of charm and historic resonance in 1947.



Reflecting a distinctive blend of aesthetic influences from Spain, New Spain, and indigenous traditions, it is the oldest preserved European structure (1783-97) in Arizona, granted landmark status in 1963. Today, we are more willing to acknowledge the exploitative nature and destructive consequences of the Spanish missionary work among the Native Americans (1, 2). More generally, we realize that our image of the old Spanish west derives more from the romanticzing impulses of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century than from history itself.


I always show these images at the start of my historic preservation class—not only as an ice-breaker or eye candy, but with a further purpose. I ask students to imagine why these images might have been chosen. That is: what do they tell us about what was valued then?

I have always been intrigued by the possible logic.  There are two sites each from the east and west coast—though nothing in between (not barn or a Sullivan skyscraper or a Prairie School house from my native Midwest). The inclusion of the mission broadens the customary scope of preservation concerns to include the Spanish Colonial heritage and moreover adds a religious structure to the mix. I have always found it noteworthy that, despite the common tendency to associate historic preservation with architecture, half of the images are not of buildings.

Preservation in the United States, as is well known, began with sites of historical importance to our civic-national narrative and grew to embrace exemplars of architectural distinction. The NHPA formalized the beginning of a greatly expanded, long-overdue notion of preservation going beyond major landmarks. As the amended law and practice have evolved, we have come to take a much broader view of resources and our mission. We preserve vernacular as well as exalted architecture, we preserve whole neighborhoods as well as individual structures. We preserve cultural landscapes as well as buildings. We save not only Civil War battlefields, but also once-“futuristic” 1960s gas stations and an early McDonald’s restaurant.

Sometimes (as in the past, no doubt), our efforts seem to outpace public understanding. We have begun to consider 1950s asphalt parking lots as cultural landscapes. Preservation of a chain link fence in Alexandria, VA became a source of outrage and the butt of jokes not long ago.

Indeed, as I noted in one of my earliest posts here, the preservation of the modern has become the most complex and controversial field. Traditionally, preservation regulations come into effect when a resource is at least 50 years old. However, given that the middle of the twentieth century witnessed a building boom and the proliferation of new architectural styles, a vast stock of modernist structures was or remains unprotected. The fact that many of these styles lack a popular constituency and that the structures themselves are anything but energy-efficient puts them in particular jeopardy. The National Park Service decided that restoration of the landscape of Gettysburg Battlefield trumped preservation of Richard Neutra’s modernist Cyclorama visitor center.  Protests of architects notwithstanding, the idiosyncratic Prentice Women’s Hospital in Chicago, too, came down.

On the other hand, whereas concerns over energy efficiency at times feed the urge for demolition, they now also contribute to a countervailing trend, as preservationists ally themselves with environmentalists and sustainability advocates under the mantra, “the greenest building is one that has already been built.” We have risen up to defend the much-maligned traditional window against the onslaught of the replacement window industry. The notion of “adaptive reuse” is saving many a building that might otherwise have fallen to the wrecking ball, even as it prompts us to let go of purist or absolutist notions of preservation and allow greater changes to structures. (One might perhaps discern a resemblance to the notion of "letting go" and "shared authority" now in vogue in the world of museums and public history.) Often as not, we now speak of “sustainable preservation" as well as “historic" preservation.

So here’s my question. The fortieth anniversary of the NHPA was cause for both celebration and deliberation. 2016 will mark the fiftieth anniversary. If we were to issue new preservation stamps two years from now, what iconic American subjects would you have them depict?


or ….?

Please post your answers in the comment section below. I’m eager to see what, collectively, we come up with.