Hidden Bureaucratic Forget-me-nots and What to Make of Ubiquity

2015-01-07 15.49.56When wading through account books, muster rolls, and other dry military records, I don’t usually get a sense of the author—there might be a name jotted down, or maybe some distinctive handwriting, but hardly any evidence of personality. Reading through a 1758 orderly book from the Oneida Carry was much the same: a recounting of paroles, provisions, parades, and troop preparations. And then, curiously, tucked between the routine orders and work details, on the bottom of the 51st page:

When This You See Remember me.[1]

An—abruptly elegant—personal appeal hidden in the middle of a bureaucratic record, a record covering the various minutiae of one regiment of the vast British military apparatus but containing no information (other than a name) about the man who had chronicled them all. What on earth was it doing here?

This post began as a simple question about the meaning of private voices in the state record and quickly became something a little more meandering—tracing a phrase, finding its ubiquity in the British Atlantic, and then, in that broader context, pondering how and why it came to be on the page of an official military document. Continue reading

After the Trail

Sioux Shield FP op

Oglala Sioux Shield, ca. 1846

Consider the sixth-grader of 1907. Gertrude F. Greene’s syllabus passed over Plato, sidelined Scottish ballads, and resisted the Alaskan derring-do of The Fur-Seal’s Tooth. At the top of her reading list—first to devour on a snowy winter break from the old Belcher School—she ranked Francis Parkman’s Oregon Trail (1849). In under a century, Parkman had gone from cliffhanger to canon. Why? What might students learn from a 23-year-old romantic historian’s rambles in the Indian country of 1846? Glints of Parkman’s early artistry shone through, but only when you shook up the story a bit. His sketch of life with the Oglala Sioux melded ethnography and emotion, sense and sensation. His Oregon Trail had been greatly curated, edited, and revised in the retelling. And yet Ms. Greene’s sixth-graders missed out on the juicier bits. What Parkman saw (“a strange variety of characters”), what Parkman heard (“harsh and guttaral” dialects), and what Parkman ate (buffalo, fish, dog) on the road filled his private journals, first made available to readers in the 1940s. There, stashed away in the “no-filter” notebooks that Parkman used to piece together his first blockbuster, lay the real adventure. Continue reading

Before the Trail

Francis Parkman's Medicine Chest

Francis Parkman’s Medicine Chest

Pratt must be paid. There was a route to examine one last time, and three shirts to stuff into a knapsack bulging with flannels and history books, powder and shot. The Berkshire Hills trip was a rush job; he needed to return for graduation in late August, 1844. Into the knapsack went a 4” x 2½” dusky-green journal, with shorthand notes in pencil. After a boyhood spent hunting and riding bareback on the Medford frontier, the blue-eyed Harvard senior, 20, knew how to pack for a research errand into the wilderness. Already, he boasted colorful adventures from past summer forays, fine-tuning the field skills that history professor Jared Sparks did not cover in class. Take July 1841: Scaling his first New Hampshire ravine, the rookie historian slipped and swung free, clawing air. As he “shuddered” and clung to the crag, a hard sheaf of pebbles fell, “clattering hundreds of feet” to the sunny gulf below.

 

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Guest Post: 84th Annual Anglo-American Conference Recap, Fashion

Kimberly Alexander holds the Ph.D. in Art and Architectural History from Boston University. A museum professional and scholar, she is adjunct faculty in the History Department at University of New Hampshire. Her book, “Georgian Shoes Stories From Colonial America” will be published by Johns Hopkins University Press in 2016.

The 84th Anglo-American Conference of Historians was held in London at the Institute of Historical Research, University of London, and the Victoria and Albert Museum. This year’s theme was “fashion.”

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For the first time in its distinguished history, the AACH selected ‘fashion’ as its theme, confirming for many scholars the recognition that the field of fashion history, and its attendant subfields, have attained validation. To quote the conference program:

“Fashion in history is a topic which has come of age in recent years, as scholars have turned to addressing what is chic and what is style over the ages and across different cultures. The history of fashion, and the role of fashion in history, is not just confined to the study of dress and costume, but encompasses design and innovation, taste and zeitgeist, treats as its subjects both people and objects, and crosses over into related disciplines such as the history of art and architecture, consumption, retailing and technology.” Continue reading

Natural Histories

hannah

See the world through Hannah Winthrop’s eyes. Your gaze dips down into the high-polished tea table and shears past John Singleton Copley’s brush, into summer 1773. Shown here serenely grasping a nectarine branch, Hannah likely knew that her world—what she called the “same little peaceful circle”—was spinning into a new revolution. Continue reading

Guest Post: Why Shoes?

Kimberly Alexander is an Adjunct Professor in the History Department at UNH, Durham, where she teaches courses in museum studies and material culture. She earned her Ph.D. in Art & Architectural History from Boston University and was a founding Curator of Architecture and Design at the MIT Museum. She’s also served as Curator of Architecture and Design at the Peabody Essex Museum and Chief Curator of Strawbery Banke Museum in Portsmouth, NH. Dr. Alexander has published several books and essays, and has recently had papers presented at history of fashion conferences in London and Florence. Her current catalog and exhibition project is titled “Cosmopolitan Consumption: Georgian Shoe Stories From the Long 18th Century.”

How does one select a sampling of dozens of pairs of eighteenth-century shoes and translate the assemblage into a coherent museum exhibit housed in one charming, but tiny gallery? How does one translate a five-year study of eighteenth-century consumption patterns, cultural diffusion, and gentility in the Atlantic shoe trade into a show that will excite the imaginations of early Atlantic scholars yet appeal to the general public? How does present a material culture and fashion history exhibition in a refined Athenaeum situated in a corner of New Hampshire? Continue reading

Object Lessons

Iron Yoke Slave Collar John A. Andrew Artifact Collection, MHS

Iron Yoke Slave Collar
John A. Andrew Artifact Collection, MHS

Questions first ignited in a comprehensive exam room have an electric way of rippling through your whole career, whether you’re teaching in a university classroom and/or in the realms of public history. Take, for example, a standard query about nineteenth-century material culture: How would you tell a history of the American Civil War in five objects?

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Reading and Magic

interesting narrativeLast week, the Library Company of Philadelphia and the McNeil Center for Early American Studies hosted the Early American Literature and Material Texts Workshop, generously sponsored for the fifth time by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.  Led this year by Meredith McGill, the workshop offers a chance each summer for some material-texts scholars to get together and talk about their work and reflect on what attention to the material conditions of texts can bring to the study of, primarily, history and literature.  This year there was a particular focus on materiality as it relates to how we think about form and genre–we had great sessions on nineteenth-century autobiography as a genre, P.T. Barnum, the print transmission of colonial media narratives, and the meaning of format from manuscript to magazine to mp3.  It’s always humbling and exciting to glimpse the high level on which other scholars are thinking about some of the things I’m interested in. Continue reading

Guest Post: Things Colloquial: Material Culture at the 2013 Conference of the Society of Early Americanists

Today’s guest poster, Zara Anishanslin, is Assistant Professor of History at the College of Staten Island/City University of New York.  She received her PhD in the History of American Civilization at the University of Delaware in 2009, and from 2009-2010 was the Patrick Henry Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of History at Johns Hopkins University. She’s at work on her first book, Embedded Empire: Hidden Histories of Labor, Landscape, and Luxury in the British Atlantic World (Yale University Press, forthcoming).  Embedded Empire uses a single object—the portrait of a woman in a silk dress—and the four people who made it (the textile designer, the silk weaver, the colonial merchant’s wife, and the painter), to tell transatlantic material histories that challenge traditional narratives of emulative consumption.  She also serves as Co-Chair of the Seminar in Early American History and Culture at Columbia University.

Savannah is one of those southern cities where historic atmosphere and charm drape over everything like Spanish moss on live oaks. But amidst all this atmospheric charm, one of the sights I remember most was a distinctly uncharming thing: the desiccated body of a dead squirrel on a tray, tucked away in the attic of the Davenport House. I visited iconic Davenport House because it was the site of the Material Culture Colloquium at this year’s Society of Early Americanists’ conference.  (For a report on the conference, see Rachel Herrmann’s blog post).

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