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.

* * *

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.


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. [Update: okay, didn't happen. That's life, too.]

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).


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).

Evidently the members of the "Deep South Amherst Minstrels" considered their name very clever: they are from the southern end of the town--get it? (Did geography or just good sense prevent residents of my neighborhood in the utter nothernmost end of town from descending to such depths?)

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.

Rev. Kenseth has the distinction of being one of only 14 Amherst authors, past and present, to have one of the Town's "Literary Trails" named in his honor.

As for Howard Atkins, he is quoted as advocating change in the late 1970s:
I plan to build a planned unit development for 750 people. Amherst still has great potential for growth. This is certainly not a small town now, and we can't go back in time. . . . The town consists of a highly variegated population with conflicting thought, and it is difficult to arrive at a consensus on any subject which challenges one of these groups who are vocal. What I mean by vocal is that people talk up a lot more than ten years ago. . . .
     I have lived in Amherst all my life, as did my ancestors. I am selling some land to those who want to buy, blacks or whites. This is a growing town, it wants to grow. Now I have sold some land my family has farmed for a couple of generations, and it is not a happy occasion when I consider what this land has symbolized for quite a time. But you must remember that events and demands change rapidly, and very few things remain the same year after year after year.
--cited in Essays on Amherst's History (Amherst: The Vista Trust, 1978), 286
(attributed to an anonymous town leader who, by the description can be no one else)
It is, I suppose, encouraging to see that the man who put on blackface in the 1950s would, a generation later, announce his willingness to sell his land to blacks as well as whites (though why one would at this late date speak of what was both right and legally required as if it were some kind of grand gesture is a subject for another conversation).

A different world?

To see the of the minstrel show 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.

The point of mentioning the minstrel show is not for the sake of scoring easy moral points and feeling superior to our predecessors. Quite the contrary. Presumably decent enough people in other regards, the participants were unable to see that their action was deeply offensive. How will we and our attitudes and behaviors fare in some 60 years?

The Town of Amherst, under the guidance of Media & Climate Communications Specialist Carol Ross, has launched its "Amherst Together" project, in order to begin a conversation intended to "advanc[e] community, collaboration, equity and inclusion." As a first step, it is asking residents to take a survey about attitudes toward the community and one another.

{updated II.15}

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.

Even Scarier Than Halloween Bad History: Everyday Ignorance

Both kidding and serious concerns about bad documentaries notwithstanding: I know that, were I to lay out the reasons that "The Burning Times" is an atrocious travesty of history, I could have an intelligent discussion with my Hampshire College classes.

Sometimes we forget how lucky we here in the Five College Consortium are, privileged to work with students who are on the whole smart and well educated or at least educable.

Not everyone is as lucky.

Consider, for example, this footage from Texas Tech.

Sure, sure, these things have a sensationalistic "gotcha" quality about them and may well not be representative. Still, can you imagine how any American claiming to be educated could not know who won the Civil War? or even what the two sides were? See for yourself.

(h.t. wj)

Pandering ghost tours and bad witchcraft documentaries pale in comparison.

Be afraid. Be very afraid.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

And You Thought Halloween Was Scary? How About Teaching Bad History About Witchcraft??

Often as not it's bad history rather than scary costumes that forces historians to turn away and scream in terror every Halloween.

I was dismayed to see that Hampshire College--admittedly, the Spiritual Life Center and Community Partnerships for Social Change, rather than an academic class--was sponsoring a screening of one of the worst pseudohistorical documentaries for the occasion.

"The Burning Times" is a 1990 piece in the National Film Board of Canada's "Women and Spirituality" series. It has developed a popular following for all wrong reasons, which will become immediately obvious:
This documentary takes an in-depth look at the witch hunts that swept through Europe. False accusations and trials led to massive torture and burnings at the stake, and ultimately to the destruction of an organic way of life. The film questions whether the widespread violence against women and the destruction of the environment today can be traced back to those times. 
The intention of my Hampshire colleagues was good, I am sure: to add some intellectual content to a holiday long known here for its substance- and sex-related excesses, to highlight the historical oppression of women, and to acknowledge neo-paganism within the scope of spiritualities in the college community.

Unfortunately, the film is a slick and sloppy New Age compilation of errors, half-truths, omissions, and exaggerations.

Given that "The Burning Times" describes the city of Trier as "French" even though all the signs on the buildings shown are in German and it belonged to France only briefly--from 1794 to 1815, never during the Middle Ages--an attentive viewer might think to question the film's larger claims such as the characterization of the witch hunts as "the women's Holocaust" (at 14:19).

I remember one colleague here in the Five College Consortium lamenting to me that whenever students saw "The Burning Times," it took him at least half a semester to unteach the idiocy they had absorbed. Some years ago, when I saw that WGBY, the local Public Television station, was showing this sorry film during a pledge drive (adding insult to injury), I went so far as to call them up and explain that I was therefore not going to donate any money that year.

Yes, it's that bad.

The work of any professional historian will suggest how much more complex the reality was.

Even a glance at David Hall's appropriately titled essay on "Witchcraft and the Limits of Interpretation" (New England Quarterly, 1985) should make anyone pause before making sweeping generalizations covering many centuries and countries.  But his piece is rather heavy going.

For those seeking the bird's eye view, Brian Pavlac, author of Witch Hunts in the Western World, helpfully lists:
Ten Common Errors and Myths about the Witch Hunts, Corrected and Commented
  1. The Witch Hunts were an example of medieval cruelty and barbarism.
  2. The Church was to blame for the Witch Hunts.
  3. The Witch Hunts specifically targeted women.
  4. The Witch Hunts were an attempt at "femicide" or "gendercide," meaning the persecution of the female sex, equivalent to genocide.
  5. The Witch Hunts were all alike.
  6. Millions of people died because of the Witch Hunts.
  7. People condemned during the Witch Hunts were burned at the stake.
  8. During the time of the Witch Hunts, witches actually existed and worked magic.
  9. In modern usage, the term "Witch Hunt" can be applied to any persecution of a group of people.
  10. Modern witchcraft/magick/wicca is a direct descendent of those practices done by people during the Witch Hunts of 1400-1800.
(detailed explanation of each here on his Women's History Resource Site).

Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance deal specifically with the film:


We are not going to win many friends in the Neopagan communities with the following essay. However, we believe it to be accurate. It is a story that needs to be told.

The facts are that almost all of the information that is generally accepted as truth by the Neopagan community about the "burning times" is wrong:
  • The total number of victims was probably between 50,000 and 100,000 -- not 9 million as many believe. 
  • Although alleged witches were burned alive or hung over a five century interval -- from the 14th to the 18th century -- the vast majority were tried from 1550 to 1650. 
  • Some of the victims worshiped Pagan deities, and thus could be considered to be indirectly linked to today's Neopagans. However most apparently did not. 
  • Some of the victims were midwives and native healers; however most were not. 
  • Most of the victims were tried executed by local, community courts, not by the Church. 
  • A substantial minority of victims -- about 25% -- were male. 
  • Many countries in Europe largely escaped the burning times: Ireland executed only four "Witches;" Russia only ten. The craze affected mostly Switzerland, Germany and France. 
  • Eastern Orthodox countries had few Witch trials.[....]
  • Most of the deaths seem to have taken place in Western Europe in the times and areas where Protestant - Roman Catholic conflict -- and thus social turmoil -- was at its maximum.

Any questions?

If there's a lesson to be learned, it's that changing historical facts is no way to redress historical injustice or bring about historic change. Even would-be radicals need to do their homework.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

And You Thought Halloween Was Scary? How About Historians Giving in to the Ghosts?

Halloween brings its share of inanity and insanity, ranging from offensive costumes to drunkenness and vandalism. Still, my pet peeve is all the bad history.

One  topic of perennial concern to people in the museum and historic preservation world is: ghosts. Do we prostitute ourselves when we indulge the public taste for these apparition-oriented events?

There is a range of opinion, from those who pander, to those who categorically shun any such programming. Most of us, I think, hold to a middle stance: it is fine to have programs that engage or teach about local supernatural legends, it's really bad (certainly: cheesy) to do events that feature ghostly special effects (a house museum is not a funhouse), and it's absolutely unacceptable to endorse and enable pseudoscience such as so-called paranormal research.

Tennessee archivist Gordon Belt (@GordonBelt) wrote a classic piece on the dilemma of "haunted history" and "heritage tourism" a couple of years back. In a very different vein, "anarchist house museum" guru Franklin Vagnone (@FranklinVagnone) argues that a good-natured embrace of the ghost-hunting fad--here, by the Morris Jumel Mansion--can be worthwhile:

Two curious things about that: (1) although the historic Morris Jumel house serves as the setting, it is not mentioned by name in the film  (2) and indeed, the skit describes the action as taking place in "Amherst, Massachusetts." Alas, there is no structure as grand as that in our fair town. Not the first time people found the good Amherst name worth appropriating, though. You may recall that the fake documentary about the "Blair Witch" (fake) documentary included an interview with a fictional "Charles Moorhouse, Professor of Folklore, Hampshire College."

The Morris Jumel House, perhaps more controversially, also opened its doors to the Travel Channel's "Ghost Adventures" program. Two clips (1, 2) and, if you prefer, the whole:

Ghost Adventures S09E03 George Washington Ghost by horror_motion

It's certainly free publicity that the site would not otherwise get. Is that nonetheless too high a price to pay? You be the judge.

By the way, it's good to be reminded that there are practical downsides to going for the ghosts: a student who worked in one major house museum told me that visitors broke at least one object object while trying to navigate the darkened edifice on one such "ghost tour." Not what we call responsible collection management. Forewarned is forearmed.

Speaking of forearms, I was taken aback to see that the National Museum of Civil War Medicine, is prominently featuring a severed arm reputed to come from the battlefield of Antietam in its "Behind the Screams" (yes, really) Halloween tour.

"But," they assure us, "it's not just a marketing gimmick." Yeah, right.

Still, I was shocked to see the museum opening its door to paranormal researchers and allowing these frauds to spend the night--though for a healthy fee, of course. A museum of science, of all places? (admittedly, it's called "the most haunted place in Frederick" Maryland, but I have no idea how many others there are or how haunted they may be).

Do those who give in to the ghosts prostitute themselves? Perhaps. But then, maybe they're just coolly calculating their interests and laughing all the way to the bank.