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.

Material Culture online

One of the sessions I attended today at THAT Camp was on material culture (led by my friend Arden Kirkland – see her blog post and webgroup).

This is something I’ve given passing thought to, or tangentially considered, but never thought of seriously on it. What I said in the session was that, for me, the ideal presentation of an object online is not a single web page. It involves: a representation of the image on its own; at least one image of the object in its historical context; a description of the object; at least one documentary mention of that object or a similar object.

To flesh this out, take for example a silver teapot from 18th century (take a look at the teapot in the Domestic Furnishings Collection at the Smithsonian or this teapot from the National Museums of Scotland ). The stand-alone image could be a still image, like the examples, or a QTVR which you can launch and rotate, to really see the object. This image should be in a neutral background, as museum collection images often are.

The second image, or set of images, would be the teapot on a tea table. Ideally, it would be the same object with other objects from the same set or era, on an appropriately dressed table. That’s not always possible, but even images of tea tables from period prints and artworks would help viewers understand the object in context.

The description would hopefully be a happy medium between the two museums I’ve linked. I like that the NMS exposes some of the data in list form, giving you materials, dimensions, place of creation in a quick-read layout. The personal history and general information about teapots on the Smithsonian are also useful for (again) providing context. If I were creating a page on the teapot, the text blocks would be broken into “teapots” and “this teapot” sub sections, with the statistical information under or next to that.

Finally, show how we find these objects in documents. Include a page from a goldsmith’s ledger or a storekeeper’s account book, or a mention in a letter. In my work, I start with the documents and seek out objects, while some of my colleagues start with objects and then turn to the documents. However you work, the objects and the documents are in concert, and I think it’s important to show that on the object’s page if you can.

Obviously, building a series of pages like this would be labour intensive. The best implemtnation might be with a furnished room in a historic house; web visitors could start with the room, go to the object’s page, move through documents, back to the room, and explore.

Many, many thanks to Arden Kirkland for proposing this session for THATCamp, to Laurie Kahn for sharing with us some of the ideas that didn’t get used when making A Midwife’s Tale, and to everyone who participated in the session. If you want to know more, there are notes from the session on the THATCamp09 wiki.

Quick thoughts after THATCamp Day 1

Spent today having good conversations and listening to good conversations at THAT Camp.  The twitter buzz on the camp hashtag (#thatcamp) has been pretty busy; one of the points which kept coming up in twitter was how conversations kept coming back to tools more than implementations.  My thought, in the final session I attended today, was that we have such diverse audiences (end users).  Attendees include art historians, academic historians, public historians, librarians, grad students, costume designers, archaeologists, english professors, &c. The way we want to use the tools we’re brainstorming about are myriad; and of course once we launch the tools, the users will take them in totally new directions.

This makes the conversations more challenging, but the end results all that much more interesting.


Yesterday’s shooting at the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC is distressing not only because of the hatred and willful ignorance which seems to have driven the shooter, but because of its location.

We think of museums as safe places. They aren’t necessarily apolitical – in fact they can be the focus of political action or spur debate – but I feel that they are supposed to be places where those discussions and debates can happen without violence. They are a sanctuary.

The online edition of the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “sanctuary” as “2 a (1):a place of refuge and protection”. When I was a child, I learned about the medieval practice of Sanctuary, refuge from the law within the bounds of a church, by watching Cadfael (The Sanctuary Sparrow) on PBS.  Naive though it might be, I applied that idea of sacred spaces being beyond the reach of mundane violence and brutality to the modern world, to churches and museums (both sacred spaces to me, although in different ways).

The shooting in the Holocaust Museum is more upsetting to me because it comes so close on the heels of another violation of Sanctuary space, the shooting of George Tiller within the walls of a church. There are moments when it is vividly brought home that the fact that the way I see the world is not universal. This morning has been one of those times.

On Sunday, I will remember Doctor Tiller, the security guard Stephen Tyrone Johns, and all lost to the Holocaust during the Prayers of the People.

County Planning Meeting – WalMart and Wilderness

Tonight, for better or worse, I am attending the Planning Commission meeting for Orange County, Va.* I have read the staff report regarding MalWart’s request for permission to build on the edge of the county, and the conditions for approval.

I do not want the WalMart in this county.  I object to it on social, historical, and political grounds. That said, I recognize that the historical preservationist argument has failed to convince the county residents who support the WalMart. Having read the staff report, here are the questions I want to have answered tonight:

  • Who is going to pay for the roads to be built? VDOT listed 8 actions which would need to be taken in order for the site not to create traffic problems. Where is this money going to come from?
  • Where is the money for extra law enforcement going to come from? Do we really think private security will be sufficient? The Walmart will be right on the border with Spotsylvania County.
  • How feasible is finding a solution to the water supply issue? Will the county allow them to build without the water there in case of a fire?
  • How is the County going to hold WalMart accountable to the recommendations in A1? Fine them? Slap them on the wrist? Or cause them to cease and desist? As far as I can tell, WalMart doens’t play by anyone’s rules but its own!

Also: the estimated economic impact of WalMart – jobs and money brought to the county – is from WalMart. What are external (non-biased) estimates?

I don’t know how long I will last in the meetings. I like discussing historical politics becuase it’s all gone – if the meeting gets too shouting and non-productive I may leave. I’m not willing to waste my time with people who only listen to themselves talk and do not actually engage in a real dialogue.

*Full disclosure: I don’t live in Orange County, I live in a nearby city. I work in Orange County, and very good friends of mien live near the propsed site.

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.

The concept of personal space

I have never studied this formally, either from the perspective of a sociologist or historian, but I often find myself thinking about how quickly we (generic Americans and Europeans) have come to believe that our concept of “personal space” and housing are absolute, when in fact the way we live has changed in the past, say, 100 years.

I first really started to think about this in the context of historical reenacment, specifically creating historic costuming. It is very easy to say that all working women must have worn front-lacing dresses (16th c.) because it’s hard to lace yourself into something that’s on your back! Besides the fact that spiral lacing makes this much easier, the simple fact is that (most) working women would not have been getting dressed alone. They would have lived all their lives with other people around them – parents, siblings, spouses, children. There would have been someone to help them with the fiddly bits of getting in and out of clothing which laces and pins together.  Realizing that was an Aha! moment for me, but as I continue to research and build historical clothing (when you get it right, it’s clothes, not costumes), I see that a lot of people do not realize how very different the day-to-day life was in the period they are recreating.

The lack of private residence in history was also prominent in my mind this time last year, when I had just started my job and was looking for housing. I have never in my life lived all on my own. I lived with my parents, my sister, with people in a dorm, or with housemates; last year I thought that this was somehow a failing on my part. Moving out on your own is a sort of rite of passage for middle-class American kids, proof that we have achieved some form of adulthood. And yet, I realized, that’s a fairly new concept. Not moving out of your parent’s house, but the idea that it has to be somewhere that you are the only person eating, sleeping, and paying rent.

These thoughts are still bulding in my mind. I still make front-lacing dresses (there are some pictoral examples), and I think it might be nice to have a place which is just mine (but in a rowhouse or apartment building). Somehow, however, in this world where people increasingly text faraway friends instead of talking to the friends nearby, where people seem to be getting more connected and more isolated, I think it is helpful to remind them (us) that we used to live a lot closer together. If nothing else, it might explain why we sometimes get lonely in our shiny one-person apartments.

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.