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‘public history’ Category

  1. Happy Birthday, Betty Friedan

    February 4, 2014 by Holly Thomas

    Betty Friedan

    From Ms. Magazine today:

    Betty Friedan was born and died on this date in 1921 and 2006. Her groundbreaking book The Feminine Mystique gave a name to the unspoken oppression women had been bearing in American society and is credited with sparking the feminist movement of the 1960s.”

    “The problem lay buried, unspoken, for many years in the minds of American women,” Friedan wrote in her book, which I read in my early twenties and return to from time to time but always remember deeply, though I was born after it was published.

    “It was a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning that women suffered in the middle of the twentieth century in the United States. Each suburban wife struggled with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night -she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question- “Is this all?”

  2. Beautiful People I Admire

    February 3, 2014 by Holly Thomas


    Even as everyone is reeling with the news of the death of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman today, another story about another great artist who died too young just aired on NPR. It is about Sam Cooke and especially his aching song, Change is Gonna Come, which is 50 years old this week.

    I happened to catch the first half of Gone With the Wind on Saturday night on TCM, which I haven’t seen for years. The actress Hattie McDaniel won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her portrait of Mammy the following spring, 1940, and it would be another twenty-four years before another African American won at the Oscars, Sidney Poitier for his role in Lilies of the Field, for which he was the first African American to receive Best Actor. When Gone With The Wind premiered at the Loew’s Grand Theater in Atlanta, Georgia, in December, 1939, Atlanta made sure to exclude the African American actors who had appeared in the film under their stark segregation laws. Clarke Gable nearly boycotted, but McDaniel apparently talked him into going.

    Gone With the Wind is, of course, laughable: little slave girls fanning the spoiled plantation daughters in their bloomers while they nap upstairs at a party; the KKK shown as the law-and-order party, men supposedly on the side of justice instead of the terrorists they were; even in the opening sequence, the gauzy shot of black slaves in the cotton fields, beckoning the viewer to partake in a nostalgia for the antebellum South as if there were no human cost to that civilization that matters, on the contrary, that the Old South was the only honorable civilization and the damned yankees destroyed it.

    Hattie McDaniel is probably best remembered today for her role in Gone With The Wind, but she was that elusive thing that so many actors (and musicians) seek to be in general: gainfully employed. Imagine the talent that would have required as an African American woman in the 1930s. “In addition to acting in many films, McDaniel was a professional singer-songwriter, comedian, stage actress, radio performer, and television star; she was the first black woman to sing on the radio in America. During her career, McDaniel appeared in over 300 films, although she received screen credits for only 80 or so.”

    What it means to be successful, to triumph over adversity – or not – is something we all think about. Philip Seymour Hoffman discussed this in an interview during the time that he played Willy Loman on Broadway two years ago.

    “You have a vision of where your life’s going to be and that doesn’t work out,” said Hoffman in the interview about Loman. “I think that’s something that’s always going to affect people.”

    But we hope that the artists who give us so much beauty and pain and understanding in their work, the great story tellers who allow us to see them and teach us about ourselves, will themselves always transcend life’s most entrenched problems.

    “It’s never that simple,” said Hoffman about life and the play, Death of a Salesman. “This play really seeps into why we’re here, what are we doing? Family, work, friends, hopes, dreams, careers. What’s happiness? What’s success? What does it mean? Is it important? How do you get it?”

    Those words are haunting me today.

    Rest in Peace, Philip Seymour Hoffman







  3. History is Still Current

    January 31, 2014 by Holly Thomas

    History Man


    History is still current, even if I am not. That is to say, I have been away far too long from my blog, considering how many times I have come across current events to write more deeply about, as when I was traveling with my family last August from Los Angeles to Santa Fe. We left my brothers in Big Bear and drove down the east side of the stunning San Bernardino Mountains into a quiet part of California I had never seen before and into some flash floods (thankfully minor) and on to Las Vegas. In between Sedona, Arizona, and Santa Fe, we stopped one night on the Navajo Reservation in a squalid town called Chinle near Canyon de Chelly and its transformative beauty. It was late August, and school had started, and we followed a yellow school bus for miles and miles, which stopped once in a while to drop off a teenager. (The population density is about 337 people per square mile around Chinle.) The school in town had barbed wire at the top of its fencing, and the motel cafeteria (the only place to both stay and eat) was dry. More importantly, the food was barely edible, the dregs of industrial food-like stuff; the over-boiled broccoli covered in microwaved Velveeta cheese was the healthiest item on the menu. In the local newspaper, the Navajo Times, was a cover story on the code talkers from World War II, so many of whom are in their eighties and nineties now. “It took 37 years for the U.S. government to acknowledge the war efforts of the Navajo Code Talkers in World War II, when President Ronald Reagan in 1982 designated Aug. 14 as National Navajo Code Talkers Day,” said the article. Four hundred Navajo were trained as code talkers during WWII. Yet many of these men are still waiting for their veteran’s benefits – a disgrace, as is the condition of Chinle, which seems forgotten.

    But I have been away for a good reason, which is that I am hard at work finishing my second book. It is based on our two years in Ankara, Turkey, and so, yes, it is a memoir, although it’s also a work of narrative nonfiction. Just as in The History Current, I focus on current events and then explore them in order to understand them further. Living in Turkey, it’s hard not to, that is, if you want to understand anything at all when you’re there as more than a tourist. When Şükran, a woman who worked for us who became my good friend, came to my apartment one morning saying, “Turkey doesn’t deserve to join the EU,” I wanted to know more – about why she felt this (it’s a gruesome story I elucidate in the book about a man who had strangled his bride on their wedding night believing that she wasn’t a virgin), and about the history of Turkey’s relationship with Europe, but again, not only since it applied to become an EU member, but since the late eighteenth century under Sultan Selim III, at a time when it had become painfully clear to the Ottomans that they would need European military and bureaucratic expertise to survive. Selim even wrote Louis XIV letters.

    I still have more to do before I can begin sending this book out to agents. In the meantime, I will rededicate myself to The History Current so as to not miss out on the events that are happening now.


  4. The People’s History: Simple, Wishful & Wrong

    May 2, 2013 by Holly Thomas

    Tea PartyLike people everywhere, Tea Party adherents have mostly got their own history wrong. What people generally seem to do is absorb bits and pieces of history, such as a name-Paul Revere, or the Titanic, and hang onto it along with the simplest outlines of the story. Paul Revere rode a horse in Massachusetts proclaiming the British are coming! The Titanic, of course, sank. It’s storybook stuff, appealing to first graders who are probably also learning to make feather hats out of colored construction paper for Thanksgiving.

    These days, the Tea Party is not so much in the news as in the House, with a grip on American society they would not have if not for cheating (gerrymandering) and enormous financial support (the Koch brothers). It seems like ancient history when then-presidential candidate Sarah Palin, ever-folky Alaskan in expensive shoes, infamously said two years ago that Paul Revere “warned the British that they weren’t gonna be takin’ away our arms.” She went on to say that there were British soldiers in the area for years before Revere’s legendary ride, and that he was warning them, as well as his fellow colonists.

    “Part of his ride was to warn the British that were already there that ‘hey, you’re not going to take American arms, you are not going to beat our own well-armed persons individual private militia that we have.’” (On April 18, 1775, a man named Dr. Joseph Warren told Paul Revere to ride to Lexington, Mass., to warn Samuel Adams and John Hancock that British troops were marching to arrest them.)

    Aside from the Tea Party conservatives who loved her, the American public reeled at Palin’s comments – the Tea Party itself deriving its pseudo-historical name from the eighteenth century and all that the Revolutionary Era supposedly stood for. Yet what is distilled in popular memory but that Paul Revere “warned the British that they weren’t gonna be takin’ away our arms,” along with some gobbledegook about  the Second Amendment (I think): “you are not going to beat our own well-armed persons individual private militia that we have.” Huh?

    To be fair, the Second Amendment is rather inscrutable, its language belonging to the late eighteenth century in the same way, say, that William Shakespeare belongs to the sixteenth. (The most recent interpretation of this amendment (Heller v. DC), which emphasized the individual right to bear arms, is, really just that: the most recent interpretation. Supreme Court judges are human, and law, like history, is ultimately subjective because it cannot be separated either from a person’s values, or the era in which it is written.)

    And yet, it’s important to at least try to get history right, especially if you’re going to use it to justify your actions and values today. Second Amendment ideologues – and especially the silent gun makers behind them, so many of whom are Austrian and Italian – would turn modern America into that other great American mythic place, the Old West. Yet if this were the 1870s, “and the NRA was convening in Dodge City [instead of Houston, Texas, where it is meeting this weekend], members would be required to check their guns at the city limits.”

    In Houston this weekend, gun-toting Americans in thrall to an idealized past they know nothing about, will be allowed to carry their weapons into town.















  5. The Truth is Elusive in Law & History Alike

    March 7, 2013 by Holly Thomas

    I was rummaging around a legal database called Corpus Juris Secundum this week, when I came across this information on evidence in relation to maps, diagrams “and the like,” which, to be admissible in a court of law, must be “accurate.” Well, yeah, I thought. But the legal definition of accurate not only means correct but fair, which surprised me.

    “The [map] must correctly represent the situation as it existed at the time under consideration,” it states in the text. “However, the requirement as to accuracy does not extend to strict mathematical accuracy, and the mere fact that a sketch or map is not drawn to scale, or the possibility that a map incorporates inaccuracies…does not require its exclusion, if it is a fair representation of the situation in question.” Maps are a useful example, because historians know that they seem factual but are subjective (in particular historical maps, such as the one pictured below depicting the thirteenth century Christian world.)

    Note that Jerusalem is the center of the world

    Even more interesting is the statement that “evidence and facts seem to be the same thing but are not.”

    “Evidence is the demonstration of a fact; it signifies that which demonstrates, makes clear, or ascertains the truth of the very fact or point at issue, either on the one side or the other. In legal usage, the term evidence includes all the means by which any alleged matter of fact, the truth of which is submitted to investigation, is established or disproved…. Although the term evidence is sometimes used synonymously with facts, the terms are different. Evidence is limited to that which may properly be considered by the court or submitted to the jury for its consideration.”

    This is vital to understanding history, too, where the disconnect between trained historians and the general public can be vast and is most loudly noticeable when the public feels it has something concerning its own identity at stake, such as during the controversy over exhibiting the Enola Gay twenty years ago, or with regard to the debate over National History Standards.

    In After the Fact: The Art of Historical Detection, the authors point to “a misconception at the heart of the everyday view of history.”

    “History is not what happened in the past,” state the authors. “It is the act of selecting, analyzing, and writing about the past. It is something that is done, that is constructed, rather than an inert body of data that lies scattered through the archives.” And, they say, “The past holds an infinite number of facts” about any person, or event, or, I might add, any afternoon. Like our legal counterparts, we gather evidence to ascertain the truth. This is difficult enough in the courtroom. In history, the truth reveals itself through perspective, which in turn is molded by our values.

    Consider this: During the 1930s the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP) undertook to interview ex-slaves, (Born in Slavery), but for the most part did not use recording equipment during the interviews. Instead, they wrote down the responses of the people interviewed. The transcriptions (and questions asked) have become historical evidence themselves, a reflection of the interviewers, who were mostly white (a fact that also certainly influenced the interviews and comfort level of interview subjects). They spelled “was” “wuz” and “from” “frum” and “of” “uv” when there is no difference in pronunciation between these words.




  6. Historic House Review: Carlyle House

    January 26, 2013 by Holly Thomas

    Children too small to eat at table in an 18th-century house like Carlyle, stood

    It is difficult to imagine a more well-situated historic house site than Carlyle House in Old Town Alexandria, Virginia. It is both well-preserved and easily accessible, and the neighborhood it sits in is a National Historic Landmark District. This designation protects the eighteenth-century Georgian mansion, while the neighborhood endows it with an authentic eighteenth-century atmosphere despite the contemporary businesses that surround it.

    The Carlyle House was built in  1753 by one of the founders of, and first landowners in, Alexandria, John Carlyle. (He lived there with his first wife Sarah Fairfax, until she died  eight years later giving birth to their seventh child.)

    According to the Carlyle House’s own literature, the story of the house “parallels the early history of Alexandria, colonial Virginia, and America.” It was restored in 1976 for the Bicentennial, and is today owned and operated by the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority.

    A well-known story surrounding Carlyle House is that of the British using it in 1755 as a headquarters to plot against the French. British General Edward Braddock held the historic Governors’ Council with five colonial governors, asking them not only for military strategy, but also for help in financing the war. The governors warned him that their local assemblies would repudiate this attempt at taxation, an early indication of the tension between the American colonies and Britain, according to the congenial docent who led me on the tour.

    Carlyle House also offered up several surprising stories, such as that Alexandria was the eighth largest eighteenth-century port city in the colonies; that the wallpaper was painted green with a varnish overlay to maximize lighting; that the chairs and furniture were kept against the walls until they were needed (very utilitarian, I thought); that all of the rooms had multiple uses (not unlike Ottoman houses in the same period), e.g., that the small dining room the family used when not entertaining doubled as an office; that china was kept locked in the closet and washed in the room after meals to prevent theft; that if children were too small to eat at the table, they stood; that doors were shorter not necessarily because people were smaller but in order to prevent heat loss; and finally that the master bed, which was strung with yards of ornate imported fabric and was a gift from Carlyle’s father-in-law, was considered a status symbol, like today’s top-of-the-line BMW.

    On the second floor, the docent pointed toward the Potomac River and said it was hard to imagine what life would have been like for Carlyle, his family and his many slaves, as the house the day we toured was quiet.

    “There were thirty-five people here,” he said. “The blacksmith shops ran along the river, and began their day at seven AM. It would have been hard to sleep in.”

    Despite the wealth of the house, its belongings, and the surrounding land, it becomes clear that John Carlyle’s most valuable property was his slaves. In an introductory video we are told, “There are no slave cabins outside [of Carlyle House], and never have been, so it’s easy to assume there were no slaves.” Not a bad set up, for we of course learn otherwise.

    We also learn what many people don’t always realize: that slavery in America existed before the cotton gin, and urban slavery was more rampant in some areas than rural slavery. Also, depending on time and location, a slave’s relationship with his or her own labor varied. Some of the slaves in the Carlyle House did not only perform menial tasks, but also learned trades such as coopering and tin smithing, and would have, alongside free blacks, indentured servants, and others, hired themselves out for their skills.



  7. What Does it Mean that Ellis Island Shuttered its Doors?

    November 21, 2012 by Holly Thomas

    This month marks the anniversary of the 1954 closing of Ellis Island. An oft-cited statistic is that close to forty percent of all current U.S. citizens can trace at least one of their ancestors to entering the United States through Ellis Island. Yet few people realize how fraught immigration has always been. In spite of the often virulent debates about immigration today, most Americans believe in what is a central myth of our country: that we welcome immigrants. Perhaps the words of the famous poem, The New Colossusby Emma Lazarus, engraved on a bronze plaque in the Statue of Liberty under which millions of immigrants passed in New York Harbor, has done more to solidify this feeling than nearly anything else. (“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…”) Yet at the time Lazarus, a Sephardic Jew, wrote it (1883), the Chinese Exclusion Act, the first significant law restricting immigration into the United States, was only one year old. Mind you, it was hardly the first significant attempt to restrict immigration, not only of Chinese, but of Irish Catholic. In the nineteenth century, native white Protestants, in particular, believed the Irish, like some groups of Latinos today, monopolized labor (though most of these jobs paid low wages and few natives wanted them). They also believed the Irish were alcoholic, and the Protestant temperance movements of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that culminated in Prohibition in 1920 were inherently anti-Irish. (For images and videos on Prohibition produced by Ken Burns for PBS, click here.)

    And the 1920s in general proved to be a decade of toxic backlash against what white Protestant America viewed as “un-American” threats, from “undesirable” immigrants to Communism (as I discuss in my paper on the John Birch Society here). Congress passed the Immigrant Quota Act (1921), and the National Origins Act (1924), both which limited the number and nationality of immigrants allowed into the United States, “effectively ended the era of mass immigration into New York,” according to one source. For the next twenty-nine years, from 1925 to its closing in 1954, only 2.3 million immigrants passed through Ellis Island, and immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe was fiercely curtailed. Not until the multiculturalism of the 1960s and 1970s would Irish and Italian Americans feel proud – at least publicly – of their ancestry.




  8. Showcase Your History on the Web

    September 8, 2012 by Holly Thomas

    As a public historian who has done corporate history for clients, it’s incredible to me that more companies do not take advantage of the Web in telling their own stories. Under their “About Me” sections, companies often either ignore their history all together, or treat the evolution of their companies as an afterthought. Too often I see tiny, seemingly irrelevant photos, skeletal timelines, and no context to either create interest or to illuminate a fact or topic.

    IBM film frames Eames Studio

    Design-oriented IBM knows how to showcase its heritage. (From “IBM Museum” by the Eames Studio.)

    But some companies do make good use of their histories and showcase it on the Web. Here are some of the ones that most impress me:

    Tiffany & Co. Who knew that throughout the Civil War, jewelry maker Tiffany & Co. supplied the Union Army with swords, flags, and surgical implements? The company tells “The Tiffany Story” by celebrating its rich heritage, and Tiffany & Co.’s history pages on the Web are as elegant as its jewelry. Tiffany’s also leads visitors seeking current information under “Our Company” to this heritage by placing “Our History” right next to it. I especially like the way Tiffany includes short history videos into its Timeline.

    Johnson & Johnson Well written and content-rich, the company describes its development of the first ready-made surgical dressings in the 1880s, which, it claims, led to a dramatic reduction of infection and disease. Throughout, it reiterates its original mission of “creating safe and effective health care products,” and an illustrated timeline rounds out the milestones the company chooses to emphasize.

    I used to like the Hoover Company‘s history pages on its Website, but not now. Once it generated excitement about its company by putting its history in the top left-hand corner of the home page, announcing “A History of Innovation,” accompanied by an image of its first “suction sweeper” and a story of the man who designed it, a janitor with asthma. It also provided links to a permanent exhibition at the Hoover Historical Center in Canton, Ohio. No more. Now, Hoover chooses to bury its history and includes only a very dull photo of the exterior of its headquarters. It looks like a trade magazine.

    IBM has long incorporated solid design into company presentation, as its mid-twentieth century working relationships with Charles and Ray Eames and industrial designer Eliot Noyes testify. This appreciation for both content and aesthetics is evident on IBM’s history pages, where it is currently celebrating its centennial. Although its films are formulaic, IBM does use oral histories and archival footage and photographs well. It does so to tell stories that are not only relevant to IBM but to our understanding of all of society and culture.

    I think that there is merit in that.


  9. A Million New Images of New York! And in London…

    April 26, 2012 by Holly Thomas

    42nd Street circa 1890. Courtesy of the New York Municipal Archives

    Word has spread fast this week that the New York Department of Records has made nearly a million new images of New York City available for the first time online. So many people want to see these historic photographs that if you try to enter the Online Gallery, you will get this message instead: Due to overwhelming demand, the New York City Municipal Archives Online Gallery is unavailable at present. Maintenance activities are underway to address this issue.

    Frustrated archive seekers can view a few fresh shots in the meantime courtesy of the U.K.’s Daily Mail here.

    The photographs date from as early as the mid nineteenth century. One of my favorites is of the main concourse of Grand Central Terminal on 42nd Street with shafts of light streaming through the window as if in a church. It is from 1937 and, according to its caption, taken from the Campbell apartment, where financier John Campbell actually lived. It has been a luxurious cocktail bar for the past ten years or so, and when I have been there, I have found it hard to believe that someone actually considered it home situated as it is in Grand Central. It is also architecturally wonderful, an incredibly special place.

    Another photo is taken of two little girls around 1890 (see above) in long plaid dresses, black, lace-up boots, and big straw hats. They are walking along 42nd Street, which looks nothing like the 42nd Street only a few decades later with its high rises. In other ways – the cement sidewalks and construction – it is surprisingly modern.

    But whatever their context, it is their freshness that feels remarkable. We have all seen Lewis Hine‘s Ellis Island (important as they are) and child laborers, and Weegee’s slums. I return to those photographs from time to time with great curiosity. How intriguing to be able to view nearly a million more than before.

    In other news this week: media tycoon Rubert Murdoch was grilled for four hours in London on Wednesday at the Leveson inquiry, a judicial investigation on media regulation in the U.K., and in particular, Murdoch’s role on the phone hacking scandal there.

    He submitted a fifty-two page witness statement to Lord Leveson, in which he described some of the exchanges he has had with the eight English prime ministers he has had contact with since buying the now-defunct tabloid News of the World in 1968. I’m sure most of it self-serving pap, but it, and other statements by Murdoch on his political influence over several decades, may prove to be of great interest to political and cultural historians when considering British politics and society over the same period.





  10. Santorum’s Appeal to Evangelicals Doesn’t Shock

    March 14, 2012 by Holly Thomas

    Today we awoke to the unsurprising news that Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum won over Mitt Romney in the GOP Primary in Mississippi and Alabama, two of the most conservative states in the union. But I wonder if people realize how surprising, historically speaking, this non-surprise is. Most will remember that John F. Kennedy was the first (and only) Catholic to become president of the United States in 1960, but how many Americans can say they know anything about the presidential election of 1928 when Herbert Hoover beat…who? Oh yes, Al Smith, a Catholic city kid from New York.

    Imagine this is Rick Santorum today

    “The nomination of a Catholic by one of the nation’s two major political parties rekindled religious strife in the United States,” according to historian Allan J. Lichtman’s Prejudice and the Old Politics: The Presidential Election of 1928. Lutheran, Baptist, and Fundamentalist ministers all came out against Al Smith.

    When people think of the 1920s, they often think of the images they have seen of what looks like a damned good party: flappers, cocktails (in spite of Prohibition), the new Hollywood glamor, the ballooning stock market, the Charleston. But the 1920s was an era fraught with domestic strife. The new Ku Klux Klan (not the original post-Civil War KKK, but the newly awakened post World War I variety) reached its zenith in 1924 when millions of Americans claimed membership. This was the same year the federal government essentially closed Ellis Island to immigration. These events are not unrelated.

    As I write here, the KKK sought to defend white Protestant America against perceived “un-American” threats, ranging from “undesirable” immigrants (Catholics and Jews) to Communism. The values and beliefs that millions of Americans possessed in the 1920s included a fear of internal subversion, a sense of Protestant righteousness, and a belief in individualism and God. The last of these underlay both a bias against secular reform as well as an opposition to progressive thinking. An example is the Red Scare of 1919-1920, which established critical precedence for anti-Communism in the United States, particularly among the political right, as a theme that would last seven decades and even become institutionalized in the American government. From the time the first Brits landed here, many Americans have believed that Catholicism was incompatible with democracy, that Catholics owed allegiance to a foreign sovereign. In 1928, some even believed the Pope sought to control Washington through Al Smith.

    Although as recently as 2006, a Gallup Poll declared that 30 percent of Americans have an unfavorable view of Catholics, Rick Santorum’s great appeal to evangelical Christians in this country displays an historic alignment that began over the issue of anti-Communism during the Cold War, and has continued to grow during the culture wars of the past forty-odd years, in particular over the issue of abortion.

    This alignment should be reason to celebrate as it seems to show an open-mindedness that would have been historically impossible among white Anglo-Saxon Protestants towards the Catholics they did so much to exclude in this country. How ironic, then, that the man they voted for yesterday should prove to be so reactionary himself.