Friday, October 21, 2016

October 20, 1880: Death of Lydia Maria Child

Most Americans of all ages are familiar with Lydia Maria Child's work even if they have never heard her name. Her 1844 poem, “Over the River and Through the Wood," is the  anthem of Thanksgiving, popular long before that holiday was even officially established.

Less well known is her long and active career as feminist, abolitionist, and advocate of Native American rights. Still less well known is the fact that she lived here in the Pioneer Valley from 1838 to 1841.

Here is a fragment of one of her letters from my collection.

Of more interest to me than the signature (apart from proof of authorship) is the fragment of the actual letter on the other side of the paper, which tantalizingly alludes to the prospects of women authors in the mid-nineteenth-century literary-journalistic marketplace.

One longs to know who or what is at issue here. Child was well acquainted with the press and competition. She had to earn a living by her pen, but already in the 1830s, her increasingly outspoken abolitionism alienated some of her readers. The National Women's History Museum observes, her radicalism "created an uproar among family friends, who bankrupted Child’s magazine by cutting off their children’s subscriptions to Juvenile Miscellany . . . sales of her work in other areas suffered from the controversy over slavery."

Still, she had a following, and by the time of the Civil War, when this document was gifted to an admirer, opposition to slavery was national policy rather than political eccentricity. The common but barbarous practice of clipping pieces from famous writers' manuscripts and distributing them as souvenirs--or holy relics, like hairs from Peter the Hermit's donkey--drives historians and archivists to distraction, but is as good a proof as any of the new-found status of the author in the nineteenth century.

The Women's History Museum notes, laconically, "She joined her husband during the late 1830s in an agrarian enterprise doomed to fail; like Louisa May Alcott, whose writing supported her father’s family while he experimented with utopian agronomy, Lydia Child soon needed income. In 1841, she moved to New York and edited the weekly National Anti-Slavery Standard . . . ."

This is the story that Steve Strimer of the David Ruggles Center addressed in today's talk at the Amherst History Museum on utopianism in the nineteenth-century Northampton area. Child and her husband David joined abolitionist friends here in an attempt to cultivate sugar beets.

She didn't much enjoy her surroundings:
I never was in a place that I liked less that Northampton, nor have I ever in my life spent so unhappy a year as I spent there. Nature has been lavish of beauty, but the human soul is stagnant there. My strong love of freedom could ill endure the bigotry and intolerance that prevails. (June 9, 1839)

As for the Connecticut Valley, I dislike it more and more, every week I live. If I buy a pound of butter, it is sure to fall short an ounce … Calvinism sits here enthroned, with high ears, blue nose, thin lips, and griping fist. I would I had lived in an age when the gaunt spectre had done his mission. (to Ellis Gray Loring, February 9, 1841)
In the meantime, the Calvinism is long gone, and Child might finally feel at home in the Pioneer Valley.

October 21: "Old Ironsides" Celebrates Another Birthday

On 21 October 1797, Boston witnessed the launching of the USS Constitution, which remains "the oldest commissioned warship in the world."

Here she is, depicted on the 150th anniversary commemorative stamp, which proved to be both very popular and unexpectedly controversial (naval aficionados did not think the depiction was sufficiently active and heroic).

As I noted in my recent post on the fiftieth anniversary of the National Historic Preservation Act (October 1966-2016), it was an innovative decision on the part of the US Postal Service to depict historic resources other than buildings on the stamps issued for the fifth anniversary of the law: a San Francisco cable car, and the whaling ship Charles W. Morgan of Mystic Seaport.

The inclusion of ships raises intriguing question about, first, what should be preserved, and second, what "preservation" means in the case of resources such as ships, whose material is constantly being replaced. The "Constitution" has undergone a number of major restorations, but the latest (2007-10) was intended not only to preserve the ship, and also to bring it back to the state of 1812, when it achieved its greatest fame (context and overview; individual aspects of the project).

* * *

from the vaults (2010): backgrounder and summary on the "Constitution" and challenges of maritime historic preservation:

21 October 1797: Launching of USS Constitution; the need for preservation and interpretation continues

Thursday, October 20, 2016

October 20, 1803: Ratification of Louisiana Purchase

The Library of Congress explains:

On October 20, 1803, the Senate ratified the Louisiana Purchase Treaty by a vote of twenty-four to seven. The agreement, which provided for the purchase of the western half of the Mississippi River basin from France at a price of $15 million, or approximately four cents per acre, doubled the size of the country and paved the way for westward expansion beyond the Mississippi.

Spain had controlled Louisiana and the strategic port of New Orleans with a relatively free hand since 1762. However, Spain signed the Treaty of San Ildefonso in 1800 under pressure from Napoleon Bonaparte, a secret agreement retroceding the territory of Louisiana to France.

News of the agreement eventually reached the U.S. government. President Thomas Jefferson feared that if Louisiana came under French control, American settlers living in the Mississippi River Valley would lose free access to the port of New Orleans. On April 18, 1802, Jefferson wrote a letter to Robert Livingston, the U.S. minister to France, warning that, “There is on the globe one single spot, the possessor of which is our natural and habitual enemy. It is New Orleans…”

Napoleon, faced with a shortage of cash, a recent military defeat in Santo Domingo (present-day Haiti), and the threat of a war with Great Britain, decided to cut his losses and abandon his plans for an empire in the New World. In 1803, he offered to sell the entire territory of Louisiana to the United States for $15 million.

Robert Livingston and James Monroe, whom Jefferson had sent to Paris earlier that year, had only been authorized to spend up to $10 million to purchase New Orleans and West Florida. Although the proposal for the entire territory exceeded their official instructions, they agreed to the deal. The Louisiana Purchase Treaty was dated April 30 and formally signed on May 2, 1803.

This souvenir card issued by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing for the New Orleans Philatelic Exhibition (NOPEX) of 1972 shows, at top, the 150th anniversary commemorative stamp issued of 1953 (depicting negotiators Monroe, Livingston, and Barbe-Marbois), and in the background, the centennial stamps of 1904.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Happy Dictionary Day, 2016

"Dictionary Day" honors lexicographer Noah Webster, born October 16, 1758, and celebrated for his pioneering work in both documenting and defining the emergent American language.

Webster is most often associated with Connecticut--New Haven, because he studied at Yale and spent his later years in that city (though his 1823 house was moved to Henry Ford's Greenfield Village in Michigan, in order to prevent its impending demolition)--and West Hartford, where his birthplace is today a museum and educational center dedicated to his legacy. In addition, however, he spent a crucial phase of his life (1812-22) in Amherst where he was actively involved in civic affairs (including the founding of Amherst Academy and Amherst College) as well as work on his dictionary.

Webster owned a large farm in what is now the center of town.

1920s map of Webster's holdings (Jones Library Special Collections) [placeholder]
His house no longer survives, but was located where the late nineteenth-century "Lincoln Block" now stands, across from Town Hall.

From the vaults:

• 2008: New England Celebrates Noah Webster 250th

• 2010: Well, where are you? Celebrating Noah Webster's Birthday and Searching for Remains of His Property

15 October 1817: Death of Revolutionary Tadeusz Kościuszko

199 years ago, on 15 October 1817, Tadeusz Kościuszko, hero of the American and Polish Revolutions, died in exile in Switzerland.

This substantial piece from the newsletter of the Mickiewicz Institute nicely delineates the high points and significance of his career: he arrived in the new United States in 1776, and during the war, he designed the fortifications at West Point and was responsible for the American campaign at Saratoga, which was decisive for the success of the Revolution, not least because it moved the French to lend their full backing to the new nation's struggle. In Poland, he famously led his nation's forces in the revolutionary struggles of 1791 and 1794. Although Kościuszko is celebrated for his dedication to the rights of peasants and Jews, his equally passionate commitment to the rights of enslaved Africans and Native Americans in the new United States is less well known. (more on the latter topic here)

In Philadephia, the house where he resided has been preserved and turned into the Thaddeus Kosciuszko National Memorial, operated by the National Park Service.
He is commemorated at West Point with a monument by John Latrobe (1828; incorrectly labeled a tomb in the engraving below), to which a statue was added in 1913.

Kościuszko became an international hero and a cult figure for Polish patriots, celebrated in images and on monuments, whenever political conditions permitted.

Marker in the main square in Kraków, at the spot from which Kościuszko announced the revolution in 1794.

Kościuszko monument by Leonard Marconi and Antoni Popiel (1900) outside the Wawel royal castle, Kraków. The Austro-Hungarian monarchy forbade such commemorations, so it was erected only during the interwar years. The Nazi occupiers, who located their headquarters in the castle, destroyed the statue. The 1960 reproduction now on the site was a gift of reconciliation from Dresden, East Germany.

Kościuszko's tomb, in the crypt of the cathedral, Wawel royal castle, Kraków. His body was moved from Switzerland a year after his death.

15 October 1830: Helen Fiske (Helen Hunt Jackson) born in Amherst

On October 15, 1830, Helen Fiske was born in Amherst. The friend of Emily Dickinson, who was born two months later (the arrival of both children is entered on the same page in Dr. Isaac Cutler's "baby book," or record of deliveries) became an author in her own right. Unlike Dickinson, Helen Hunt (Helen Hunt Jackson after widowhood and remarriage) chose to make a career of her writing.

She also became devoted to the cause of Native American rights. Her best known works are
 A Century of Dishonor: A Sketch of the United States Government's Dealings with Some of the Indian Tribes (1881) and the novel, Ramona (1884), which she hoped would be a Native American pendant to Uncle Tom's Cabin.

Jackson is prominently depicted on the Amherst History Mural (2005) by David Fichter, in the 1730 West Cemetery. Although the wall on which the mural is painted will fall to the wrecking ball when the former motel building is replaced by a large new mixed-use development, the developers have contracted with the artist to repaint the mural in full scale on a more suitable surface as part of the new building.

• From the vaults: More background on Jackson, her home, and the Amherst Writers' Walk.
Biographical sketch from "Mass Moments," a this-day-in-history service of the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities

Rosetta and Maria Mitchell: Pioneering Astronomer from Massachusetts

The timing of the end of the Rosetta mission--the first spacecraft sent to rendezvous with a comet--was fortuitous. On September 30, after two years' study of 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko, the European Space Agency's orbiter joined the lander module Philae on the surface.

The following day, October 1, was the anniversary of an earlier astronomical milestone. On that date in 1847, 29-year-old Maria Mitchell became the first woman to make a telescopic sighting of a comet. She did so from the roof of the Pacific Nantucket Bank, where her family resided  while her father was chief cashier. Mitchell had learned astronomy from her father, a talented amateur scientist himself, and from the study that she had undertaken on her own, working as a librarian at the Nantucket Atheneum next door.

In 1840, William Mitchell laid out the town's meridian line, marked with stone posts on the sidewalk in front of the bank.

Maria Mitchell's discovery brought her fame and helped to launch a new career: she became the first female member of both the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1848) and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (1850), as well as the first professor hired at the newly founded Vassar College (1862). A feminist, she became  president of the American Association for the Advancement of Women in 1875.

Today the family's 1790 house, operated by the Maria Mitchell Association, preserves many of her possessions and celebrates her legacy. In 2010, Heather Huyck, editor of  Women's History: Sites and Resources, listed the house among her ten favorites.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Happy Birthday, National Historic Preservation Act! What should we do for the next 50 years?

October 15 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA), one of the most significant steps in the protection of our built environment and cultural landscapes.

What has preservation become?

Commemorations and celebrations abound. But this time, even more than on the fortieth anniversary, it is an occasion for reflection and speculation rather than just self-congratulation. When I teach my preservation course, I explain not only current preservation practice, but also the evolution of the field, beginning with the American idea of preservation in the nineteenth century. To say that the preservation movement has always reflected the concerns and biases of its era is a truism, but that does not make it any less important: we do not have to indulge in condescending dismissals of all our forebears in order to accept that simple historical fact. Today, the preservation movement faces new opportunities and challenges, as concepts and law struggle to keep pace with an ever more rapidly evolving society:
  • New questions about the definition of historicity: half a century later, is the notion that things become potentially "historical" after half a century outmoded? That fifty-year moving window failed to capture many modernist works, which are falling prey to the wrecking ball or other depredations. On the other hand, would narrowing that window lead to unintended consequences, e.g. encouraging indiscriminate restrictive policies on the part of amateur civic bodies, which block necessary change and development?
  • New values and ideas about what deserves to be preserved: not just the quotidian and the vernacular rather than the elite and unique, and not just the collectivity rather than the individual edifice, but also things other than buildings
  • New questions about the relation between preservation professionals and ordinary citizens, from would-be grass-roots activists to those who worry about negative effects of preservationist initiatives in their neighborhoods
  • New dilemmas in balancing competing agendas and priorities: many important works of the modernist or postmodernist era were not built for the ages and are not energy-efficient. At what price, preservation?
  • New opportunities for alliances between preservation and environmentalism in the age of smart growth and global warming, which, on the one hand, argue for keeping more old structures (e.g. through adaptive reuse) but in some cases, at the price of more aggressive interventions for the sake of energy efficiency or other extra-historical claims
  • New demands for including a "social justice" component in our thinking about both preservation and sustainability

What would you put on a historic preservation stamp today?

Two years ago, I wrote about a little exercise that I use at the start of my preservation class. In 1971, to mark the fifth anniversary of the NHPA, the US Postal Service issued a set of four postage stamps celebrating historic preservation. It depicts an eclectic mix of subjects: the Decatur House in Washington, DC; the whaling ship, "Charles W. Morgan," in Mystic, CT; a San Francisco cable car; and the San Xavier Del Bac Mission in Arizona.

I had had the first-day-of-issue cover and many mint copies of the stamp in my collection for years, but it wasn't until I became more formally involved in actual historic preservation work that I began to wonder: what possible logic lay behind such an odd combination? And then: what might one instead depict today, reflecting our contemporary values and concerns? I ask my students to work through those same two questions.

Here's the full article, from the vaults.

Now it's your turn

When I wrote that post two years ago, I asked friends and followers to tell me what they would put on a new set of stamps if we designed one today. In particular, what might reflect the way that the theory and practice of preservation have evolved in this half-century?

I got little formal response at the time (probably, I was jumping the gun), but maybe this time will be different. Please share your thoughts in a comment. It's our golden anniversary: if not now, when?