Guest Post: Weather Talk

Today’s guest post comes from Cambridge Ridley Lynch, a PhD student at the Graduate Center, CUNY. She is currently working on a project that links American weather study with larger shifts in American science and politics.

Thomas Cole - The Oxbow

In their recent recap of the MCEAS’ “Traces of Early America” conference, Sara Damiano and Michael Blaakman spoke of the need to examine “processes, events, ideas, and dynamics that subsequent history has largely obscured, and that often pose significant evidentiary problems for those who wish to write about them.” Clearly, the work presented at the conference did much to flesh out adumbrations left throughout the historical record, often by focusing on close reading of specific events, personages, and texts. But what about a factor that is so ubiquitous so as to hardly be thought of at all, one that every single person in a historical moment and place experiences at the same time, and yet goes largely unremarked upon in historical texts? Naturally, I’m talking about the weather.

The weather has become a cliché in its own right, the provenance of dullards  and small talk. Even so, weather matters, especially in the largely agricultural and pre-industrial context of the Early Republic. Many scholars have already done the work of noting the influence of weather on settlement patterns, agriculture, and economy [1] Closely related is the concept of climates, climate change, and environmental change.[2] But weather is not, in fact, the same thing as environment, or even climate. Weather connotes a specificity in both time and place. Weather is a microclimate in its own right, ephemeral and mobile, moving quickly and vanishing into thin air, leaving its effects behind. It is literally global even as its rationalization is intensely personal.[3] Throughout human history people have been transfixed by its behavior: in his recent book on meteorology during the early Renaissance, Craig Martin locates weather’s incredible ability to inspire human curiosity in its unpredictability, its potential for violence, and its omnipresence.[4] Indeed, the emotions inspired by catastrophic weather events fit the very definition of Edmund Burke’s concept of the sublime.

In years past there has been a cottage industry in a type of climatological determinism, one that speculates about things like how the American Revolution would have turned out under different weather conditions.[5] It’s an amusing thought exercise, but tying weather to very specific moments undercuts a larger question that must be answered: how did weather – in general – influence how early Americans viewed the natural world and their place within it? As historians who look closely at almanacs can tell you, the answer varies from person to person and place to place.[6] Even so, I have found that it is a question that’s worth asking, with interesting results. My own work, which deals in part with collective weather observation and the politics of power in Jacksonian America, uses weather as a lens through which to understand “ordinary” Americans in an turbulent age. There is much to recommend weather as a re-orienting perspective as we think about the constraints that shaped early American life. If, for example, we take seriously for the physical and emotional cost of losing a harvest to a freak hail storm, we might be more attentive to how safeguards against catastrophic weather might affect our subjects’ behavior and how that translated on an economic, political, or religious level. Similarly, it is an important distinction whether early Americans ascribed weather behavior to Providential intent or plain bad luck, and how that changed over time (and why). In short, weather doesn’t just affect individual lives – how it is understood is itself an artifact of broader cultural assumptions and beliefs, and historians can use that understanding as an “in” to their research.

A recent work that gets to the heart of the issues at stake is Matthew Mulcahy’s Hurricanes and Society in the Greater British Caribbean In it, Mulcahy demonstrates a sensitivity to the interplay not just of climate, but of specific weather events. He recounts how the early Caribbean was punctuated by frequent destructive hurricanes, which in turn affected how planters developed the land and ordered society. “The history of hurricanes in the Greater Caribbean,” he writes, “highlights several larger issues of concern to historians of early America, including shifting ideas about the natural world among colonists, the structure of political relationships within colonial society, the increasing political and economic connections between the colonies and other parts of the British Atlantic world, and the articulation of new ideas of sensibility, humanitarianism, and patriotism during the eighteenth century.”[7] A grand claim, to be sure, but his emphasis on the weather really does illuminate how the the constant presence of a wholly unpredictable factor fundamentally influenced how early Caribbean colonization progressed and how early colonists viewed the natural world. All this from an attention to the social effects of low pressure rotary wind systems that interact with bodies of warm water.[8]

So what does this mean for readers of The Junto? I’m not calling for everyone to drop their work and start cataloguing early American weather. But if I inspire not a single history of the environment, then let’s at least make sure that our history is environmental. Whether we work in political, cultural, religious, legal, or any of the myriad historical subfields, it’s worth stopping to take a moment to think about the utterly unpredictable environmental factors that might be at play in our subjects’ lives.  If we see weather as a constant in the early Republic, then we recognize that its effects differ according to other constructs like race, gender, class, and politics. Accepting the environment as its own kind of structure of power might help us think more completely about the “full picture” of the early Republic.

[1] My own introduction to the concepts of weather and culture came from Karen Ordahl Kupperman, “The Puzzle of the American Climate in the Early Colonial Period,” American Historical Review 87, no. 5 (1982): 1262-1289. The work of David Hackett Fischer also shows sensitivity to settlement and climate, as does that of many others.

[2] For a more recent addition to classics like Cronon’s Changes in the Land, see Jan Golinski, “American Climate and the Civilization of Nature,” in Science and Empire in the Atlantic World, eds. James Delbourgo and Nicholas Dew (New York: Routledge, 2008), 153-174.

[3] See Intimate Universality: Local and Global Themes in the History of Weather and Climate, eds. James Rodger Fleming, Vladimir Jankovic, and Deborah R. Coen (Sagamore Beach: Science History Publications, 2006), ix-xviii.

[4] Craig R. Martin, Renaissance Meteorology: From Pompanazzi to Descartes (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011), 16.

[5] The best example of this line of thinking can be found in the work of David M. Ludlum, who founded the magazine Weatherwise in 1947. Dr. Ludlum has done invaluable work cataloguing early weather events, but his popular books, like The Weather Factor, are light on scholarly analysis and overly geared towards trivia.

[6] For an excellent examination of the different registers of meteorological reportage, see Vladimir Jankovic, Reading the Skies: A Cultural History of English Weather, 1650-1820 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000).

[7] Matthew Mulcahy, Hurricanes and Society in the Greater British Caribbean, 1624-1783 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006), 5-6.

[8] For an analysis of how more recent Wai Chee Dimock, “World History According to Katrina,” in States of Emergency: The Object of American Studies, eds. Russ Castronovo and Susan Gillman (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006), 143-160.

9 responses

  1. What a wonderfully timely post! I’ve been surrounded by journals and only within the last week realized that I needed to give a little more attention and deeper thought to the (almost) daily weather observations…but had yet to explore what scholarship might be out there. Pretty excited about the awesome serendipity.

    • Thanks, though I feel honor-bound to warn you – once you start seeing weather, you see it everywhere! Happy to give any feedback about resources, etc. – feel free to send me an email anytime (contact information above).

  2. Speaking of which, just found this interesting passage about weather (specifically hurricanes) in a 1724 gardening manual:

    “Suppose a Wind, upon some Point, between North and East, carries a large Collection of Vapors out of Africa into the Caribee Isles; this Wind lights upon the Continent of America; now it is possible, that not only the Mountains and Woods of Panama may resist the Current of this Wind, and crowd of Vapours together there; but a contrary Wind, upon a Point between South and West, may blow at the sime time upon the the Western Shore of America, which shall force the Vapours back again. When such a Re-encounter happens; there must be a wild uproar in the Air about the Caribee Islands, and in all that Tract between South and North America.”

    • Good catch – this is characteristic of the types of rationalization that took place as people tried to understand what caused severe weather, particularly in the 18th century. If you’re interested in knowing more, definitely check out the Mulcahy. Otherwise, I’ll tuck it in my files of weather references – thanks!

  3. I’m a bit surprised you haven’t mentioned William B. Meyer, _Americans & Their Weather: A History_ (OUP, 2000) and his thought-provoking “Why Indoor Climates Change: A Case Study,” _Climatic Change_ 55 (2002): 395-407, on the adoption of stove and furnace heating and the marked increase of the temperature at which Americans felt comfortable indoors in winter. He even wrote about the climate of college dorms, which ought to have been enough to earn him an academic readership — “Harvard & the Heating Revolution,” _New England Quarterly_ 77:4 *Dec. 2004): 588-606. The thing about the _indoor_ climate is that it’s _controllable_, whereas for all C18th & 19th Americans’ obsession with weather observation, they couldn’t even get much useful _predictive_ knowledge in return for all of their effort. You’re absolutely right, though, weather _mattered_ to them, because they were conscious of its force and that, despite their growing technological prowess, it could still place them at the margins of survival. Here’s a nice bit of mid-century weather observation for you,

    • You’re right – the Meyer is a good introduction. The only reason I hadn’t mentioned it was because just the first two chapters fall under the purview of “early America,” though I suppose that was a false distinction on my part. And thank you for the link!

      You make a good point about lack of prediction – I also see that as the heart of the matter when it comes to weather’s unique place in the American imagination, and it’s one of the reasons why I keep my own research limited to the period when weather really was a mysterious, unpredictable force. There’s been a lot of interesting work done lately on weather prediction and prediction in general – if you’re interested, I recently enjoyed Jamie Pietruska’s 2009 dissertation, “Propheteering: A Cultural History of Prediction in the Gilded Age.”

  4. Wonderful post and great resources. One of my favorite primary docs on early American weather is Ezra Stiles’s Meterological Journals. (As long as he was journaling everything else, why not the weather?) the originals are at the Beinecke, but I think you can also get them on microfilm.

    • Yes! I was going through those this summer. The Meteorological Manuscripts collection at Yale (Manuscripts and Archives) is really great.

    • Thanks for this, Laura — you can hardly open an almanac or periodical from the Early National period without getting plenty of weather reports. For convenient guides to/examples of contemporary knowledge and understanding, I don’t think one can do a lot better than to start with a British model:

      * Williams, John. _The Climate of Great Britain: Or, Remarks on the Change It Has Undergone,
      Particularly Within the Last Fifty Years_ (London: C. & R. Baldwin, 1806),

      Then two (later) US compendia:

      * Forry, Samuel. _The Climate of the United States and Its Endemic Influences_ (New York:
      J. & H. Langley, 1842), with lots of historic data.

      * Peirce, Charles. _A Meteorological Account of the Weather in Philadelphia: From January 1,
      1790, to January 1, 1847_ (Philadelphia: Lindsay & Blakiston, 1847), — probably more interesting to US historians.


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