11 September

This day had a huge impact on my undergraduate life.

2001 was the beginning of my sophomore year of college, in New York State, only about 2 hours by train from New York City. My parents and sister were in northern Virginia. When I finally understood the scale of what had happened, I knew it was going to be one of those events my children would ask me about, decades in the future.

This date, 11 September, was also the basis of my undergraduate thesis. 11 September 1973, the day the Chilean tradition of democracy was dealt a blow from which it took seventeen years (or more) to recover.  I wrote about the coverage of the coup by US newspapers; partly because my Spanish is limited to what most Americans pick up, and partly because the events of the two intervening years had made me curious about how openly critical newspapers had been of our own government in the past.

(In January 2003 my mother and I attended a celebration of the life and works of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., hosted by the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., and attended by people from all religions and backgrounds. Following the service we walked down Massachusetts Avenue, intending to gather in a prayerful vigil for peace in Lafayette Square – but due to “security concerns” the police stood on horseback, preventing this crowd celebrating nonviolent protest from getting too close to the White House. Later that year, friends at William and Mary who were also studying in the UK were told that they would lose all credits and might be expelled if they joined in anti-war protests in Britain).

I spent the fall of my senior year of college reading book after book on the coup in 1973, the imprisonment of thousands in the National Stadium, the torture and killings – and all this in a nation which had been very proud of its democratic process. It was disturbing reading, and I only got through it because of the breaks imposed by college life, and by self-imposed breaks with a box of 96 Crayola crayons and a coloring book. Still, I’m glad  that I know about that tragedy in the history of a nation not my own.

September 11 is a day, for me, to remember the power of democracy, the importance of human rights, and that the power of fear and anger and hatred can be overcome.

Ada Lovelace Day: Maria Mitchell

A post for Finding Ada Day, focused on the life and influence of Maria Mitchell

I signed up to  blog for Finding Ada’s day of ” day of blogging (videologging, podcasting, comic drawing etc.!) to draw attention to the achievements of women in technology and science.” And then I thought “wait, who will I write about?”

After all, I’m a geeky artist born to geeky artists. As much as I really enjoyed most of my science classes as a kid, I don’t know about that many historical scientists – and of course most of the ones I do know are men. I considered writing about Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and how she tried to bring the Ottoman smallpox inoculations to England, of how 1930s movie beauty Heddy Lamarr was also a brilliant engineer, but neither of those felt quite on.

Then it hit me! Maria Mitchell!

Although in her time she may have been one of world’s most famous natural scientists, most people today do not know who she was. In fact, I wouldn’t know who she was if I hadn’t gone to Vassar College, where she taught astronomy in the late 19th century. Maria Mitchell was an awesome woman, and I mean that more in the traditional sense than the “Bill & Ted” one. She was an astronomer, a teacher, and an advocate for women’s rights.  Continue reading “Ada Lovelace Day: Maria Mitchell”

Citizenship and National Identity

This morning on NPR I heard a story about the push for immigration reform, and a rally in Washington to happen this weekend. Senator Russell Pearce of Arizona, who apparently opposes reform, said of the pro-reform marchers “They’re as treasonous and as un-American as anyone I know.” The quote came on the heels of a conversation with woman who works with teenage children of illegal immigrants, trying to keep them out of gangs. The teenagers feel that no opportunity is open to them because of their uncertain immigrant status.

Now, the history of the South-West and Central America are not my area of expertise. What I know has been gathered haphazardly through media and the occasional lecture. However, the question of who is an American (or rather, what makes someone an American) has resonance. As I’ve discussed in an earlier post, how a person is identified as a citizen or subject of one nation or another was a part of what led to the War of 1812.

I know that there is scholarship on how Americans resident in the (present) US came to conceptualize themselves as a new nation. What this NPR story has me wondering about, in addition to that, is how quickly or slowly did new immigrants become “Americans”? What was the process, social or political, through which a person who moved to the US after 1783 came to be regarded by their neighbors as an American and not a Brit or Frenchman or Italian, or what have you? I am given to understand that slaves, not being thought of exactly as people, were probably not thought of as citizens either. What of indentured servants?

I have no answers to these questions. I know that at the local university there are papers from numerous families from this period, including a family whose children were all born in England to an American father and English mother, but who apparently considered themselves American citizens. Maybe some small part of the answers lie there?

Lost Causes

When I’m not reading history essays and biographies, I like a good mystery (I also like a good historical romance, but that’s a story for another time).  Today’s read is by an author who I’ve read before, Sharyn McCrumb, but a series I have not, starring one Elizabeth MacPherson. I’m reading the first in the series, Sick of Shadows (first published 1984).

There is a point fairly early in the book (page 47 in my copy), where Elizabeth is teased by her cousins for  knowing so much about the history of the MacPhearson clan and their participation in the ’45, fighting with “Bonnie Prince Charlie.” Her cousin Geoffrey comments:

“I congratulate you on your originality,” purred Geoffrey. “It seems you have been unable to escape the Southern weakness for lost causes, but at least you managed to avoid the conventional one. I would rather hear you go on about the Scottish Alamo than to hear about the Confederacy.”

This comment, made though it was by a fictional Southern cynic, gave me pause. I am a Southerner, in case I’ve not mentioned that before (North Carolina, in case you were wondering), and yet I have no great fondness for lost causes. Underdogs, certainly, but that can be put down to the influence of Robin Hood and being a geeky child in general. I confess that I don’t view the Confederate cause as a great Romantic story; but then, I also find Lord Byron rather trying and suspect I would be likely to tread on his foot if I’d ever met him at a party.  Likewise, I see nothing ‘bonnie’ about Charles Edward Stuart’s character, although he certainly was handsome and charismatic when campaigning with the elite of Edinburgh.

The men who fought in both armies interest me, and the women who traveled with them. Both armies contained people who had been disenfranchised, and I wonder what they hoped the future would bring if they won. How the wars affected the lives of ordinary people, the long-term impact, interests me far more than the movements of units or the personalities of the figureheads.

Sometimes my lack of passionate interest in the Civil War and the cause of Bonnie Charlie makes me wonder just what kind of Southerner and Scottish-descended-American I am. Perhaps a new generation, one with a different romantic outlook than the past. Or perhaps the kind who has always preferred Robin Hood and Little John to King Richard and his Crusaders. Or simply one who also happens to be a social historian.

Christmases Past: what happens next?

With the close of the 18th century, we run into a sort of black hole of information about how people celebrated Christmas. The next big era everyone looks at is the Victorian era, when Christmas trees come into vogue and many of the “Christmas Traditions” we take for granted are first introduced. None of this kicks in until the 1840s, at the earliest. What happened in the interim?

There are new Christmas ideas afoot in the first 40 years of the 19th century. A small group of historian/writer types in New York (city) make a big deal out of Saint Nicholas and ‘traditional’ Christmases. Everyone’s favourite Christmas poem, “A Visit from Saint Nicholas” (aka “The Night Before Christmas”), was published anonymously in 1823. The poem is generally attributed to Clement Clark Moore, although there’s also an argument to be made for it having orginally been penned by Henry Livingston Jr.; either way, both of these men had probably been exposed to the works for fellow New Yorker Washington Irving. In 1809, Irving had published A History of New York, which included mentions of Saint Nicholas bringing gifts to the early inhabitants of New York (described in a way which resembles that of “Visit from Saint Nicholas.”) Moreover, Irving described an ideal Christmas, to him, in his 1819/20 Sketch-book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. Among the short stories in the Sketch-book are a series on ‘old Christmas’ as celebrated in England. Although these are technically fiction, Irving had spent time in England and may have based his descriptions on observations.

So we have a handful of publications out of New York in the early part of the 19th century which talk about Christmas celebrations. They aren’t wildly divergent from the Christmases of the 18th century, although I feel that they are more vibrant. There is also a strong German/Dutch influence, due to the history of New York. What I have not been able to discover is how widely read these works were. By the end of the 19th century Irving’s “Old Christmas” essays were being published independently of the rest of the Sketch-book; when did they catch the public eye? Before or after the “Visit from Saint Nicholas” and the popularisation of that other Germanic tradition, the Christmas tree? Did the story of a Saint Nicholas with tiny reindeer become popular in the Southern states immediately after the poem was published, or did it take decades?

Somehow the celebration of Christmas in America shifted from a non-holiday in the Northeast and a time for church and visiting in the South to something more standardized (as much as anything could or can be standardized here). How long did the transition take, and how did it manifest? I have not yet been able to uncover answers to my questions. I can only hope that there were some very descriptive diarists and letter-writers in the mid-Atlantic and Southern states who recorded their memories of Christmas.

What makes a citizen?

Working as I do with a focus on the period between 1780 and 1830, the War of 1812 frequently drifts into focus. It is not a war with which I was very familiar when I started at this job, and I still think there’s a lot more I could know about it (although I have very little interest in all the movements of all the troops).  Still, I am aware that one of the issues which led to the war was continued impressment by the British Navy of people who considered themselves to be citizens of the United States.

I do not know, and admittedly have not taken the time to discover, how exactly one became a citizen of any nation in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Now, of course, we have citizenship applications and tests and ceremonies where you swear an oath, and afterwards you get a new passport. What was it like then?

Yesterday, while in the archives, I came across a letter which mentioned this question of what makes a person a citizen. It is written by a man living in Liverpool, England, to an acquaintance back in the U.S. The man in Liverpool worked for the U.S. Government, and must therefore have considered himself an American, despite having been born before the Revolution. It doesn’t answer my question completely, but it’s an excellent insight into the attitudes which led to a war between the U.S. and the United Kingdom.

“I observe what in America constitutes a citizen of the U. S. differs from what is here considered the Qualification; pro. Ex. a subject of this Country settled since the peace, in the Territories of the U.S. altho’ admitted there a Citizen is nonetheless still held here a subject of this Country.”

Source: James Maury to Thomas Jefferson, [10] November 1791. Papers of James Maury, 1769-1917, Accession #3888 and #3888-a, Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Va.

Mail by Train

This morning I attended the re-opening of the train station/post office in the tiny little zipcode that houses the historic site where I work. I was excited partly because the building has been wonderfully restored, partly because I no longer have to drive to the nearby tiny town to check my PO box, and partly because, in February, we’ll be installing some exhibits in the old White and Colored waiting rooms.

The Train Depot is on the rail line between Cville, Culpeper, and Fburg. It isn’t a stop now, and apparently was never a regular stop, at least not for passengers. The current director for this area’s post offices (the Mountain Region, which goes over into West Virginia) told us some stories about when the mail was carried all over the country, back when he started with the USPS. This was before zip codes, and when he was invited to the re-opening of our little post office train depot, he thought for a minute and was able to recall exactly which train you’d need to have put the mail on form his sorting facility for it to reach this depot.

Even the mail trains didn’t stop here. They just slowed down and the mail carrier on the train would toss the sack of mail out of an open window. At the time, federal employees (including postal carriers) had merits and demerits. Failing to deliver a sack of mail was a demerit, so they kept a few empty sacks by the train car door. That way, if you couldn’t find the right bag, you could just toss an empty bag – it still counted, no demerits.

The other story I found interesting was that our little depot had a dog who would come out and get those mail sacks. The guys on the train (and yes, I think it was just men) took to tossing out various things, trying to distract that dog. Chicken bones, baloney sandwiches, whatever they could get their hands on that a dog might like. No matter what they tossed, the dog always got the sack. The man from the USPS didn’t say, because by that time the guys on the train would have been out of sight, but I bet that dog went back out after delivering the sack and enjoyed the treats from the train.

Quote from Miss Ann Maury, March 9, 1832

Miss Ann Maury was born and raised in England to an English mother and an American father. James Maury, her father, was consul at Liverpool from 1790 to 1829.  She kept a diary, and part of it has been published, from the 1830s after her family moved (back) to the United States.

She writes that her American friends asked her to tell them what she thought of the United States, and among her comments is this observation:

Education is distributed here more equally as money & every other comfort is the result so that such persons as Mechanics, Tradesmen, Farmers &c. are better educated than the same class in England & certainly they claim & are entitled to a higher station in society here, but there are very few indeed who receive that high education which is given to so many at the English universities.  Some attribute to that cause the appearance of so little American literature, but I think there is another reason for that, namely the cheapness with which books written in England can be published here. The publisher has only to purchase a copy to print from & all he wants is a moderate profit upon the paper & printing. He has nothing to pay the Author – but when an American Author applies to the Book-seller, he expects to receive some remuneration for his labours in addition to the publishers profit spoken of above

Ann Maury, diary, as quoted in Intimate Virginiana: A Century of Maury Travels by Land and Sea, Anne Fontaine Maury, ed (Richmond, VA: The Dietz Press, 1941) 199-200.

Marriage, economy, community

On the drive into work on Friday, my local NPR station had a story on Governor Kaine disucssing the econonmy (sadly, the station isn’t very good about posting stories on its web site). Apparently, Gov. Kaine made a statement that one way to improve the economy would be to raise the marriage rates to where they were in the 1970s – he mentioned on how children from single-parent homes face “challenges” in their lives.

I can think of one way to raise the marriage rate, but I doubt Virginia will rapidly join Maine and Iowa, and that’s not really what I wanted to write about.

One of the points Gov. Kaine made was (his facts) most of the single-parent families in Virginia have a mother but no father. His solution to this is to promote marriage. Mine would be to promote community. As my last post mentioned, I think about the difference between how we live now and how we lived fifty or a hundred years ago (or more). A child who only had one parent in the home, but who had a community of adults of different ages who they could trust and turn to for guidance would probably do just as well, if not better, than a child in a two-parent family who didn’t have that kind of greater community.

When more people lived in one house, when we lived closer together, or were (in general) more engaged in social “institutions” (places of worship) which were nearer to our homes, there were more adults around to help both parents and children. Parents can get support elsewhere – many of my friends belong to online communities which support breastfeeding, where they can give and receive advice – but children are more limited in where they go to get adult advice. I was very lucky in that I lived in a neighborhood built mostly in the 30s/40s where the houses had porches and the local Neighborhood Association hosted regular events. I left that neighborhood ten years ago this summer, and I am still in touch with many of my neighbors, because it was more than houses – it was community.

I don’t think there’s one simple solution, or that one solution fits all. I do think that when someone says “The best way to ensure adult presence in a child’s life is to have two-parent (one of each gender) families” they are seriously missing the point, and ignoring a lot of history.

Quote on History

“Human nature is the same in every age if we make allowance for the difference of customs & Education, so that we learn to know ourselves by studying the opinions and passions of others”
-William Bradford (paraphrasing Hume) in a letter to James Madison, October [1772], original in the collection of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

Transcription from William T. Hutchinson & William M. E. Rachal, eds. Papers of James Madison, vol 1 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press , 1962), 73.