Following the Fashions: A Basic American Pastime

AJ1Today’s #ColonialCouture post is by Amy Sopcak-Joseph, a doctoral candidate in American history at the University of Connecticut. She is working on her dissertation, “Fashioning American Women: Godey’s Lady’s Book, Female Consumers, and Periodical Publishing in the Nineteenth Century.” Follow her @AmySopcakJoseph.

It’s that time of year again: time to stash away all of your white pants and head to the nearest Starbucks for a PSL. Love it or hate it, that sugary “Pumpkin Spice Latte” is more than just a drink that allows us to ingest autumn. The PSL reached cultural-icon status when it became the trendy accessory of someone “basic”–a term encompassing a larger set of consumer choices linked to appearance, food, and leisure activities that signal an uncritical devotion to trends. Calling someone “basic” became a kind of epithet against people who like things that are mainstream or, as some writers have suggested, feminine.[1] Some women have taken ownership of “basic,” embracing it as an identity (see social media posts enthusiastically tagged #basic).

Is being “basic” really that bad? Is someone superior–morally or intellectually–for not liking things that are mainstream? Judging other people’s consumer choices and assigning them political or cultural meaning is as American as apple (or pumpkin?) pie. In the 1820s, 1830s, and 1840s, when the United States was transitioning from an agrarian economy to a capitalist one, considerable anxiety emerged about the consumer choices of the burgeoning middle class. Not unlike the criticisms of 21st-century women whose tastes and identity might be called “basic,” some found women’s purchases and self-fashioning to be particularly alarming. Ministers and reformers argued that these choices demonstrated women’s uncritical adherence to the “tyranny” or “evils” of fashion, a devotion that could negatively shape the future of the republic. Continue reading

Why We Will Not Go

How and why does a group in a society feel affection for the society they live in, despite the constant abuses faced by them? A great case study to help answer the question is through the anti-slavery movement. Boston abolitionist intellectual Maria Stewart, after the loss of both her husband, James Stewart and intellectual mentor, abolitionist David Walker in 1830, refocused her life on Jesus and fighting for her race. From that foundation, she met and collaborated with  upstart white abolitionist newspaper editor William Lloyd Garrison of The Liberator. Garrison was a major influence on Stewart’s public career because Garrison promoted Stewart as a voice of her people, and the Liberator offered her room to publicly debate the best policies for her race’s future. In one of Stewart’s published writings in the Liberator, she wrote about death to the body of the enslaved, that would also free the soul. “The blood of her murdered ones cries to heaven for vengeance against thee. Thou art almost drunken with the blood of her slain.[1]” The plunder of black bodies effectively built the United States, and based upon Stewart’s interpretation, America became drunk from its excess. Continue reading

From Platform to Publisher: Facebook, the Early American Open Press, and Alex Jones

Yesterday, Apple, Facebook, YouTube, and Spotify removed the content of conspiracy theorist Alex Jones from their services. Jones has gained notoriety for propagating outrageous falsehoods on topics including vaccines, school shootings, and uh, *checks notes* space vampires. These decisions to remove Jones’s content come amid a growing public conversation about the extent to which technology and social media companies should act as stewards of truth. Facebook in particular has come under scrutiny for its role in spreading “fake news” in American politics and anti-Muslim propaganda in Sri Lanka, as well as CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s defense of Holocaust deniers’ ability to share verifiably false content on the site. Continue reading

The Attention Economy of the American Revolution

David RamsayA few months ago, a New York Times investigation uncovered the secret economies of social media bots. C-list celebrities such as Paul Hollywood, John Leguizamo, and Michael Symon, purveyors of “fake news,” and several businesses have boosted their Twitter profiles by purchasing fake follower “bots” and retweets from these accounts. The Times estimated that perhaps as many as 48 million Twitter accounts are bots, with around 60 million similar accounts on Facebook. Continue reading

Review: Coll Thrush, Indigenous London

Review: Coll Thrush, <i>Indigenous London</i>

Coll Thrush, Indigenous London: Native Travelers at the Heart of Empire (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016).

Thrush CoverWander through the Museum of London’s rich galleries, glowing with relics and rites of Roman Londinium, and you’ll spot scraps of the city’s wall half-strewn along the route. Burned in bits or eaten by age, the red-and-white brick arches splay out like the broken teeth of empire, grinding a crooked grin in today’s cityscape. Amid the tidy exhibits and visitors’ whirl, it’s a graphic reminder of what London was and how it has weathered so many centuries’ toll. But, as Coll Thrush’s Indigenous London asks us, “The audience of a museum is always / another sort of collection…Indigenous objects, Indigenous eyes—/ Who sees and what is being seen?” (p. 135). For the scholar rescuing clues from the built environment, the wall raises a complex set of research queries: Who passed through the city limits, and why? How did diverse travelers experience urban life at a sensory level? What did it mean for indigenous visitors to sample London? And how can we expand the historical canon of voices who tell that story in the early modern era?  Continue reading

Where Historians Work: Q&A with David Gary of the American Philosophical Society

“During graduate school, you have to be very focused on a topic. But in libraries you’re a generalist in many ways. In all the jobs I’ve had, I’ve had to learn new skills and topics.” ~ Dr. David Gary, the American Philosophical Society

David Gary - Head ShotGood morning, Junto readers! As we head into July 4th weekend, what better city to visit than Philadelphia? Today, we discuss the exciting intellectual opportunities that accompany the curation of printed collections, with Dr. David Gary, Curator of Printed Materials at the American Philosophical Society.

Dave’s story highlights the vibrancy and variety of the history profession, as well as the many paths scholars can take, both during and after graduate school, to find themselves in fulfilling occupations. Continue reading

IOTAR50: Paper Politics

French Pamphlets, Newberry Library

All praise to the humble pamphlet, upon which *may* rest the ideological origins of the American Revolution. Frequently buried by history as loose “Bundells of Pamphlets in quarto,” it’s a genre that almost shouldn’t be. Printed on flimsy paper and easily battered by salt spray or avid readers, the popular pamphlet became a clutch genre for British and American revolutionaries to send ideas around the Atlantic World. These publications, along with newsbooks, hardened into the “paper bullets,” that, according to scholar Joad Raymond, flew on and off the page in early modern England’s press.

Even as the genre evolved into weekly newspapers, he writes, “readers recognized the rules of the form.” Pamphlet culture, a dynamic arena for anonymous critics to take an eloquent swipe at matters of church and state, quickly blossomed abroad. Unbound and unfettered, pamphlets seeded colonists with a new political consciousness. Whether 10 pages or 50, these slim booklets amplified republican politics and revolutionary prose. Pamphlets, as Robert G. Parkinson observes, became the “lifeblood” of the American Revolution. “They instructed the colonial public that political and personal liberty were in jeopardy because British imperial reformers sought to strip them of their natural rights, especially the right to consent to a government that could hear and understand them,” he writes. Today, let’s look at that instructional aspect of pamphlet culture, and how Bernard Bailyn’s interpretation of revolutionary tracts has reshaped what we do in public history. Continue reading