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What will history make of your desk’s contents?

1 Jul

I pick up the Washington Post Express on my commute most mornings, and yesterday, among the numerous things that I totally have to check out (FOLKLIFE IS DOING R&B AND THE DIXIE CUPS WILL BE THERE, oh Internet don’t even get me started on girl groups I can’t even), there was this piece about “For All The World To See”, an exhibit about the narrative of the civil rights movement as told in everyday objects, currently at the National Museum of American History. Which, first of all, I totally have to check out. But second of all, I had a bit of a chuckle at the vaguely startled tone of the article. Everyday objects? In a historical collection? Interrobang?!?!?

Dude, that’s what history is. That’s why, for all the jokes that got made when the Library of Congress announced it was going to start archiving tweets, it’s important that they’re doing it: because history is the little things. Museums might put the shinies on display, but the tiny fraction of their catalogues that you see are joined, behind the scenes, by the less-pretty things that will tell you a lot more about the realities of everyday life.

In conclusion, for all you historians from the future, the contents of my desk are as follows: tea, chocolate from the UK, a broken rubber band, a post-it containing the details of an appointment with my therapist, my keys, a couple of Kate Beaton cartoons, a pair of scissors, and some packing tape. And binder clips. Lots of binder clips.

(Actually, now I’m going into Material History mode and I am getting ready to tell you all what impressions I, a historian, might draw from those things, but that’s an entry for another time.)


In which we are reminded of the importance of specificity. And also the deliciousness of apples.

7 Oct

So the food I set out to dig some info up on today is a pretty difficult one to research: apple cider! You’re probably thinking, “Jules, what’s so difficult about that?” In response to which I might punch you! It turns out, there is a lot that’s difficult about that.

Not only is cider about as old as apples (the only question seems to be whether the Egyptians were making it; while they grew apples, there doesn’t seem to be much evidence that they were making any kind of juice or beverage from them), but trying to figure out which particular cider any given source is talking about is pretty tricky, too. American cider, which is unsweetened, unclarified juice (cloudy and brown, as opposed to the clear yellow stuff sold as juice), is completely different from what we call hard cider and the rest of the world just calls cider, which is also clear and yellow but will get you drunk! This brings me to a very important Serious Historical Research Tip: always specify your terms. A lot of the sources out there are just throwing “cider” around without any modifiers whatsoever. Is that useful to the Serious Historical Expert? It is not. Not when you’re trying to find information on one particular kind, anyway.

As far as other early mentions, a couple of different sources mentioned that when the Romans reached Britain, the locals in Kent introduced them to some kind of apple-based drink. But the earliest records of cider-making in England are from after the Norman Conquest, although there were references from France early in the ninth century, from no less a source than Charlemagne. It also turns out that in the late nineteenth century, cider actually outstripped wine as the beverage of choice in Paris! In America, meanwhile, during the early years of the colonial period, apples were a lot quicker and easier to grow than grains, so cider was generally more prevalent than beer.

But this ended up being as much a chance to talk about the Serious Historical Research Process as delicious autumnal beverages. Here’s the thing: in a lot of the sources where I found this information, I ended up having to deduce for myself which kind of cider the author was referring to (usually hard). In the case of an article from a website dedicated to alcoholic beverages, this was kind of a no-brainer, but in other cases, I’d have to go on references contrasting cider with beer, remarking on the differences in “fermentation processes”, and mentioning that a general decline in popularity was followed by the blow of Prohibition. These are the kinds of context clues that the Serious Historical Expert needs to be on the lookout for, you see. And while it’s easy to write one source off, especially one found by the Grueling Research Method of googling for two minutes, the need to pay attention to context because no one would specify whether they were talking about hard or soft cider was a constant one–even a New York Times article confused me for awhile until its middle, where there were references to alcohol content. This timeline, further, has an interesting graph at the bottom. I had assumed (from the fact that the URL is a UK-based one, and it’s generally only Americans who refer to soft cider as merely “cider”, without any modifiers) that it was generally tracking hard cider, and if you’ll look at that graph, you’ll notice something else that corroborates that assumption: there’s a huge drop-off in US cider consumption right after 1919. Again, this is an important context clue–Prohibition went into effect shortly after, and that would’ve affected hard cider sales drastically.

Personally, for dinner tonight I’m going to make these pork chops braised in (soft) cider. I suspect they will go down in history for DELICIOUSNESS.

In which the world is in a shocking state.

20 Sep

From News9 in Oklahoma comes the shocking — SHOCKING — report that 75% of high school students in that state can’t name the first President. Obviously this is pretty crazy-sounding, which, I have to admit, is what makes me a little skeptical. I recall some kind of similar poll from the UK a few years back, in which ridiculous answers about Celebrated Naval Hero Gandalf came up a lot. Basically, I remember when I was in high school, and how a lot of the kids I knew probably would’ve thought it was pretty hilarious to pretend they didn’t know who the first President was!

So I don’t know. On the one hand, we are constantly being told that American public schools are not great compared to the rest of the world. On the other hand, these are high school students we’re talking about, and I do not have any trouble at all believing that high school students would want to screw with people polling them. I’m thinking it’s probably a little from Column A (the SHOCKING and TERRIBLE state of our public schools!!!!!!) and a little from Column B (high schoolers being high schoolers). It might just be that rather than telling us a lot about the Tragic Ignorance Of Today’s Youth, this is merely telling us about their Heroic Dedication To Sarcasm!

This is a pretty optimistic post for me, though, I have to say! Normally I am pretty much the first person to come down on the “people are all stupid, grumble grumble” side of things. This is part of what I learned to do in my Serious Historian Training, though: don’t take things at face value. It’s easier to do this with a statistic from my own time, though; it’s a lot easier to go “hang on a second, what would the people I went to high school with ten years ago have done for the lulz” than it is to try and approach the foreign mindset of someone from even two hundred years ago.

(Side note: oh my god I started high school ten years ago. WHAT.)

Basically, polling would be a whole lot easier if having ESP were a requirement for being a pollster! Someone should get on that.

(I also refuse to believe that anyone could forget about the hotness that was George Washington. SOMEDAY I WILL GET A TIME MACHINE AND THEN, HOT YOUNG GEORGE WASHINGTON, THEN WE ARE SO GOING ON A DATE.)

In which the nature of history is reflected on a little more.

15 Sep

Last week, Yahoo News’s HealthDay reported on one of the more historically significant speakers at a burn survivors’ conference in New York, and later interviewed her: Kim Phuc Phan Thai, first seen by the world at nine years old, when Nick Ut photographed her after her village in Vietnam was bombed and she was doused with napalm.

Here is the thing: history happens. I definitely think the line I like to pull out is true—the past is another country—but like I’ve also said, it’s the one we came from in getting to where we are now. It’s easy to forget sometimes that history informs who we are, that it may be another country but it’s not another planet. Kim Phuc isn’t nine years old anymore: she’s had an entire life beyond that photograph (against a whole lot of odds, too). Heck, even the focus of the article isn’t the ~historical significance~: it’s an article on a burn survivors’ conference first and foremost, written with a health focus. About as much lineage is devoted to the progress we’ve made in burn treatment since the early 70s as to Kim Phuc.

(I will leave untouched the stupidity of the line “What the iconic photo — snapped in 1972 by Associated Press photographer Nick Ut — doesn’t show is the girl’s struggle to survive and thrive in the aftermath of that day.” No, of course it doesn’t show that, because it’s a still photograph. There had to be a less awkwardly redundant way to convey all the information you wanted to get across there, dude.)

In which there is a lot of saturated fat.

13 Sep

Wow, looking at my stats apparently there has actually been traffic to this blog lately! I am surprised, and now I am sure I’ve jinxed it and I’m probably going to forget all about it soon. Consider yourselves warned. I should also apologize for my lack of interaction; besides generally being terrible at replying to comments and having a pretty terrible couple of days (I spent about six hours straight on Friday crying for no really good reason, that was good times), I am not used to having comments to reply to! It is a strange and somewhat disturbing development. But I really appreciate the thoughts, and, heck, the traffic. It is very cool to know that people are interested in hearing me yammer about things. Well, okay, let’s be honest: complain about things.

Anyhoo, I feel like I have neglected the whole history aspect of this blog pretty badly lately, and that is a shame! Like I say, I had a pretty lousy couple of days, so today my mother and I got together and made brown-butter oatmeal cookies. I saw this recipe in the June issue of Vogue while waiting around for a job interview yesterday, and I didn’t quite trust myself to be stealthy enough to rip it out, nor was I quite shameless enough to just rip it out regardless of stares. Fortunately, the Internet exists, so I used the magic of Google and turned it up at another blog! Hooray!

I would give you delightful photos, but alas, I have lost the charger for my camera’s battery. Instead, because I am sure you are wondering what the heck this has to do with history (we can have a philosophical debate about this, I’m sure—rather, people can, but I am pretty crappy at philosophical debates, so I will probably not have much to say—but I’m fairly certain the June ’09 issue of Vogue does not have that much significance as a primary historical source just yet), here are a few facts about butter throughout history! Who doesn’t love lists of random facts about butter.

  1. According to Peter Hammond’s Food & Feast in Medieval England, gentry families could (did is probably another matter, but they could) purchase butter all year ’round, although “fresh butter must have been in very short supply at some times in the year”. Hammond also says that butter was apparently “very heavily salted”, citing by way of example that “in 1305 the Bishop of Worcester used 1lb of salt for every 10lbs of butter or cheese”.
  2. This 1835 article on butter suggests that “The Romans, who adopted it as an unguent or medicine to anoint the bodies of their children, learnt the invention from the Germans; but neither Greeks nor Romans applied it to the art of cookery.” However, historian Andrew Dalby finds that Northern Europeans did eat butter during the classical period. Frankly I consider that article even more interesting than the facts it contains, since I find the way historical studies and writing have progressed to be pretty interesting in and of themselves. Personally, I’m reassured by the fact that I am not the first person to think it would be interesting to learn a little more about the history of butter. When you start saying to yourself that butter might be interesting to learn about you also start to get a little troubled by the state of your life.
  3. How far back brown butter might go, I’m not sure; a little cursory Googling turned up a recipe from 1918, and no instructions for how to brown butter are given, which suggests that it would’ve at least been common knowledge among chefs. It’s not hard to imagine that someone, somewhere along the line, probably came up with the idea of cooking butter, especially since it’s made in much the same way as clarified butters like ghee.
  4. Just a couple of weeks ago, a couple of peat workers in Ireland found an Iron Age barrel filled with butter out in a bog. Alas, it’s now hardened into a waxy substance called adipocere, so there can be no exciting museum heists that result in cookies made with three-thousand-year-old butter. :(
  5. The seventeenth century finds samp (dried and powdered corn) mixed with milk and butter and “eaten hot or cold” as a breakfast staple in the North American colonies; it comes recommended by Roger Williams! If it’s good enough for the founder of Rhode Island, it’s good enough for you.
  6. The first time I tried to type out “other” in Item #3 there, I came up with “udder”. Apparently I cannot resist a pun.

Plus, the cookies were incredible.

In which there is a hard truth.

2 Sep

So Sady Doyle over at Tiger Beatdown1 made a fantastic post linking to a piece she wrote at Salon’s Broadsheet, specifically on Sophie Tucker, who was this fantastic, badass performer in the early part of the century, but who got her start performing in blackface. More generally Doyle is focusing on an important truth about history, namely that, as she says in the subject line of the post on her blog, “History Is Uncomfortable“.

I guess this ties in a bit with what I said before, about how history is hard to impose a narrative on and maybe we should consider that difficulty as a warning not to. There’s any number of motivations the Serious Historian could ascribe to Tucker for her blackface career: Doyle notes that “biographer Armond Fields contends that she was told to put on blackface, not because she was fat, but because she was Jewish. The burnt cork did not hide pure privilege, but a different kind of marginalization, less acceptable because it was authentic,” and later speculates for herself that “at first, her bossiness and appetite may have been acceptable because they promoted a stereotype: a big, sassy, sexual black woman was easy to laugh at.” There are, like, a billion papers you could write here, and also probably a lot of novels or short stories or biopics, too, I am just saying.

This is sort of a constant theme for me: this fine line one has to walk in studying history between an observer’s detachment and a humanist’s sensibilities. I don’t think I’d say—and this is why I don’t think I entirely fit in in academia, that and my inability to go for more than a few minutes without capslocking—that you shouldn’t judge the actions of historical figures, because those who forget the past blah blah blah, but you have to remember as you do so that the past really is another country, and then some: they didn’t just wear different clothes and use different technology, they thought differently. Values and mindsets were different, and saying “no one should be doing this today”, or even “no one should have done that” period is not at all the same as saying “I can’t understand why that would have happened”. History doesn’t happen in a vacuum. But then, of course you can’t get stuck in detachment mode, either, because the past may be another country, but it’s the one we’ve come from in getting here and so it’s a part of us.

Also I mix my metaphors like crazy, that’s probably another reason I’m not good at academia.


In which I tl;dr crankily.

27 Aug

SO HERE IS THE DEAL: I kind of wife George Washington. If I had to marry a Founding Father I would totally marry him, because he seemed like a genuinely decent dude and when he was young he looked like Jason Isaacs and he was about as progressive as a dude who owned slaves could be (and even in that regard, the hypocrisy of championing ~liberty~ while owning other human beings weighed on him and he eventually freed them in his will, although it is still kind of dickish to wait until you and your wife are good and dead before you bother to do anything). As that ridiculous parenthetical no doubt suggests, though, I also recognize that he was not perfect, and, you know, that the dude owned other human beings. I don’t think recognizing that he was a human being and he did some shitty stuff in addition to the great stuff makes me some whackjob bent on ~slandering~ his character.

Which is just a roundabout way of saying oh, fuck off, drummer from Steppenwolf.

This is my sticking point, I guess, this notion that somehow, we all share this all-or-nothing thinking. Yes, clearly because I recognize that the people involved in my country’s history were people, and therefore capable of making stupid human mistakes and holding human prejudices and biases and grudges, I must therefore hate everything about my country ever. The unfairness of it — and that it comes from people who immediately turn around and trash a large percentage of the population as being incapable of being right about anything ever at least as much as they claim we characterize them as being incapable of being right about anything ever — is what gets me, I guess. And goodness knows I’ve met enough assholes on my own side of the political fence to understand how the frustration can go both ways, so idk, I guess I don’t really have a solution.

I guess I ultimately feel like to interpret so selectively (from either side of the fence, really, because I don’t doubt that there are tunnel-vision types amongst liberal historians, too) — to so refuse to see anything in history but what fits the narrative you want to impose on it — to impose a narrative at all, in some cases, or at least to do so religiously — is to miss half the fun of history. IDK, people are just so ridiculous and can be so awful sometimes, and then the same people can turn around and be so awesome too. Andrew Jackson was what we Serious Historical Experts refer to as a “stone fox”, but he also committed ethnic cleansing. FDR got us out of the Depression, but he also imprisoned American citizens in concentration camps. Basically everyone involved in this book seems to be doing exactly what they are accusing us of doing and trying to fit history into his own neat little narrative, and nothing irritates me like that does.

Probably I will do a second post where I go through what’s in the editorial reviews point-by-point, because all of them are making me go “um, no, no, no, I do not know a single person who believes this, or not in the context that you are presenting these facts”. Well, no, that is probably not true; I’m sure I do know people who believe some of these things, and in fact some review even points out that the title is “needlessly provocative”, but then goes on to be super-condescending about libruls and basically lose whatever credit I was giving him.

Good times!