Finding A History Treasure: Kitchen-Klatter Magazine

Every once in a while you stumble upon a time capsule. Not the kind buried underground or in the cornerstone of an imposing edifice, but the ephemeral trail to which digital transfer has given us access.

My treasure is a midwestern-American publication from the year 1940 called Kitchen-Klatter Magazine. It was produced and edited by Leanna Field Driftmier, a home economist and radio personality of her day based in western Iowa.

Image: Amanda Stiver

Her sister was a founder of the 4H movement and her brother owned a seed company and dabbled in radio. Additional members of the family provided articles from themes based on their expertise, one daughter, for example was a librarian and offered monthly selections from among recently published books. Other friends supplied additional columns themed according to their professional backgrounds and training.

This was all set into the background of the heyday of the Home Economist movement, which emphasized education for women, particularly in training for developing a healthy, efficient, financially secure home. But it incorporated health sciences, consumer sciences (both of which held the meat, agricultural, and packaged food industries to quality and safety standards), fashion and interior design, sewing, vocational training, cooking and meal preparation, nursing, fitness, etc. The list goes on.

Kitchen-Klatter is fascinating to read. It’s a window into the concerns and insecurities of its time. And what a time it was, in 1940 the world was at war. The U.S. was beginning to ramp up military production, wary, rightly so, that it, too, would become involved in the conflagration that had emerged in Europe and Asia.

In particular, in the latter issues of that year, October and November, Leanna Driftmier’s son, Frederick (Ted), who had been teaching at a mission sponsored school in Assiut, Egypt and regularly sent letters home to his mother, excerpts of which she included each month, began to describe the seriousness of the war situation as it drew closer and closer to Egypt and the Middle East.

Major events, like the Second World War, often become just a dry and dusty marker on the timeline of history. We can find it hard to relate to all the battles and casualties on a human scale, so when I find these very personal accounts of how a young person felt in the midst of unanticipated danger, it helps to draw down history to an relatable level.

Ted Driftmier writes in the October 1940 issue (page 5): “Besides enduring this terrible heat, there is the reality that the war is coming nearer to Egypt daily, and it is quite a nervous strain. Every airplane that flies over makes us jumpy….The Mission does not want to send us all home for probably the school can be opened in the fall and [otherwise] they would have to bring us all back again at a terrific cost. These colleges can’t be left standing [empty]. They must carry on. We will leave only when our lives are endangered but not until then.”

We, too, are facing great uncertainty in our time, with an epidemic, with political instability, so it is, in a strange way, comforting to read and relate to the uncertainty of a previous era. We can face up and move forward, despite constraining unpredictability.

That’s a historical treasure to my way of thinking. Also, there are recipes, and practical housekeeping and gardening tips, and who couldn’t use those?

Take a moment to explore the issues of Kitchen-Klatter from 1940. The magazines are in a publicly accessible digital database at Iowa State University, and available through this LINK.

October and November 1940 are especially poignant.

Keep thinking history!

~ Amanda Stiver

When In Crisis – Head Back to the Homefront and We’ll Meet Again!

I find it notable that in times of national crisis on an international scale our (writing from the U.S. here) collective reaction is to draw on the resolve and the homefront spirit of World War Two.

Image credit: Amanda Stiver

What has sold out in stores, aside from toilet paper and vitamins? Yeast, meat and potatoes, and other staples. In a strange way, we’re self-rationing. Just as our grand and great-grandparents did during that all-consuming war in the 1940’s. People are scrounging online to learn how to make their own bread, or at least have the means to do so, and looking for other simple comfort meals much like those that people relied on to stretch their rations.

This sense of, “If I’m stuck at home, I might as well go on with life and get back to the basics” is striking.

Families are exercising together, at least in our neighborhood. And neighbors are trying to keep a healthy distance, not unlike the way neighborhoods used to make sure that everyone had their windows blacked-out as an air-raid precaution. If we’re all in this together we have to take a care for those around us.

What else has sold out? Vegetable seeds! Can you believe it?! It’s like there is an instinctive need to plant a Victory Garden deep down inside us, despite being several generations away from WW2. Those who survived the war are in their 80’s and 90’s, yet this collective sense of history has reached all the way through the years of trends and revisions to visit their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

On the dark side, we also have hoarders and black market-style price gougers (individual and corporate, and mostly online). The good and bad of the WW2 has a tendency to repeat itself.

The global and national nature of the Coronavirus epidemic and the fact that it, like war, is no respecter of persons, wealth, or nation, has forged a similar atmosphere as the Second World War. Totality and finality forces you to face reality.

I had the privilege of studying civil defense documents from WW2 as my undergraduate thesis, and the same kind of local pull-together was recorded for me in those memos, memorabilia, and notations. First-Aid training was a community wide-effort. Plane spotters (which my own grandparents did while living in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon) and Air-Raid wardens were a vital part of daily life.

Experts were sent out from Washington D.C. to train local communities and encourage clothing and other drives for necessities for soldiers and civilians. Avid knitters and seamstresses accomplished great things to send items to those in need over-seas, just as readily as many now are making masks to protect loved-ones, neighbors, and perfect strangers.

In the same way, industry was refitted to produce vital supplies and the phrase “make-do and mend,” which was already a part of daily life from the Great Depression, extended into the war years as production of non-essential items was stopped. And here we are with our light and some heavy manufacturing rapidly refitting to produce medical supplies and field hospitals (also a feature of WW2 and WW1).

It’s no wonder that after Queen Elizabeth II’s televised speech last night in which she quoted the lines from a Vera Lynn song “We’ll Meet Again” (made famous during the Second World War) that it, as so many things related to that historic time, has surfaced again. It’s now number 22 on the iTunes chart.

There truly is nothing new under the sun. What we experience now has been lived before, yet how we react to it will be the measure of our generation.

Keep your chin up and keep thinking history!

Amanda Stiver

More Dollars and Sense Savvy: Meal Planning from Limited Resources and One Cut of Meat

How do you take a single package or cut of meat and make it last for a whole week of meals? How many of us even think about these things anymore?

Photo credit: Amanda Stiver

The coronavirus crisis has made it cross minds again, and the best place to look is back to the 1930’s when salaries were low, if they existed at all, and homemakers (or women who worked from home before it was cool in this moment of history) used strategic planning to eke out the last bit of everything.

One account goes as follows:

“My husband graduated in the late 1930’s…He was finally able to land one [a job] and after we figured out our weekly budget, there wasn’t much left over for food shopping…To get the most for our money, I shopped at the two markets in our neighborhood to get the best price on staples, vegetables and meat. To stretch the meat…I came up with a strict schedule. I’d buy a round-bone pot roast and cut out the largest portion for our Saturday night dinner… I’d serve more of the same on Sunday. Monday’s supper would be hot beef sandwiches and gravy…”

On Tuesdays the author, Lucella Bowman, would make stew from a small portion of the original roast. Then Wednesday was meat pie made from leftover roast and stew with a biscuit crust. Friday was soup from the round bone she’s cut out earlier and leftover vegetables.

This short memory was from page 157 of a recipe book called, Dining During the Depression: The simple-yet-satisfying foods that saw families through those tough years. Edited by Karen Thibodeau, it was published in 1996 by Reminisce Books.

Just as in the above, one of the best places to search for old time common sense and home economics wisdom are in nostalgia magazines. Titles such as Reminisce and Good Old Days both also publish topical books on everything from the Great Depression and the Second World War, to kitchen traditions and entertainment.

If you come across one of these, nab it. They are oral histories in writing, full of practical lessons drawn from personal, historical experience.

Lucella’s account is a prime place to mine some practical tips:

1. Keep a weekly/monthly budget, and budget for food.

2. Shop around for the best deals, and use your consumer skills to make a limited budget last.

3. Buy mostly staples, milk, eggs, cheese, butter, flour, sugar, spices and seasonings, vegetables (fresh, canned and frozen), and meat. You can make an amazing number of variations with the basics. There is a learning curve, but it will be a savings and a newly acquired skill set.

Notice: I didn’t include fruit, which is now much more of a staple than it was then due to out- of-season availability and shipping. During WW2 in England, fruit was often rationed to go first to children and invalids who needed the readily available Vitamin-C the most. The rest of the population was admonished to get their vitamins and minerals from vegetables instead, and there were a surprising array of “substitutes” for fruit such as carrots for oranges, and so on.

4. Stretch your meat by planning a week’s worth of meals off of one large roast. The author does a great job of outlining how this is possible. Use up leftovers, don’t throw them out. Extend them into a new dish with added vegetables and crusts. Don’t throw bones away…the current fad of bone broth should teach us this. Cook them into a stock and make soup! You get not only protein, but collagen.

5. This is an unspoken lesson, but have a set of simple go-to recipes that allow you to make these variations in a flash. Save the more gourmet or finicky recipes for when there is more availability, or in our case, mobility and variety! Challenge yourself to make things last!

So there we go, one small oral history provides all of these useful lessons. You can do this from a variety of historical accounts and on various topics. Find the lessons and carry them with you into your daily life!

Keep thinking history!

– Amanda Stiver

Dollars and Sense Savvy: Cut Up Your Own Meat

We live in an unprecedented time, a pandemic from a novel coronavirus and resulting disease, COVID-19, has nations advising their citizens to work from and stay at home until further notice. This is history in the making, and not far removed, just over a century from the last world-impacting pandemic, the Influenza epidemic of 1918 that followed close on the heels of WW1.

The author, apron on, read to get down to practicalities!

But I don’t really want to focus strictly on big history for the moment, but rather domestic history and frankly, the practical lessons thereof. What do you do when store shelves are running out from the depredations of panic shoppers, and you can’t get the pre-packaged foods you’re used to?

Home economics/Depression-era savvy to the rescue! The home economics movement taught, mostly women, how to take advantage of common sense when shopping to be a good consumer, and get the best deals and therefore most mileage from your income.

Likewise, the Great Depression taught people that wastefulness was a dirty word. When you can’t easily go out and buy a replacement the next day, you make do with what you have. In the same vein, wasted food thrown out is wasted money thrown away.

After visiting the local warehouse club store today for provisions, my mom noticed that though most of the frozen meat was sold-out (the Sunday rush, we presumed) there were plenty of larger-size packages of fresh beef and chicken, still there, looking for a hungry home.

As we reviewed the collective wisdom of both my grandmothers, we realized that the only thing standing between a fresh package of meat and a deep-freezer was a sharp knife, a little slicing know-how, and a freezer bag or two.

From one big package of beef round roast we got two good-sized steaks, one medium roast, and a package of stew meat. Then we sharpened the knife because there is nothing more creepy-crawly than trying to cut up fresh meat with a dull edged blade.

From a package of giant chicken breasts (4 to a pack) we got a gallon bag of chicken cutlets. Again, with the sharp knife.

Divvied up into freezer bags and marked with the date and store we originally bought them at, into the freezer they went. And the cost was substantially lower then buying the pre-frozen variety.

My grandparents and many of their generation who dealt with a pandemic (1918-1921), a massive economic depression (1929-1940), and a second World War (1941-1945) had a “can-do” outlook, rather than a “do-for-me” attitude. We’ve been used to a culture of “do-for-me”, but it’s actually extremely empowering to take back some of that being done-for and turn it into, “I can do this!”

Even something as simple as cutting up some of your own meat or getting back into the swing of pantry cooking. These are little steps, training wheel into a different mentality, but they can make a dollars and cents difference!

[If you care to comment: What kind of dollars and sense savvy and practical considerations have you drawn on to make the best of difficult circumstances?]

Even during this crisis the past is full of practical lessons that can teach us how to react to emergencies in the present.

Keep thinking history!

-Amanda Stiver

Ocean Liners: The Grandest Boats Afloat

IT was the assignment of the year, a research paper. The Mt. Everest of English composition. Looming, daunting, and seemingly impossible!

Thankfully, we had a wise English teacher and she helped us whittle the assignment into doable pieces. First you choose your topic, then you get your research materials from the library, then read them, inscribing pithy quotations on 3×5 index cards alongside bibliographical reference information. And so on.

Image: Amanda Stiver

Still daunted, I thankfully chose a topic that intrigued me, and continues to even today: ocean liners and their history.

This curiosity for things nautical started the year before with a book report choice, The Commodore, featuring dashing naval hero Horatio Hornblower, written by C. S. Forester. The Hornblower series is a wonderful gateway into history for those with a curiosity about seafaring life during the Napoleonic wars.

But upon reflection, I find that I had developed my interest for ships and sailing and ocean navigation long before that. First a children’s book, still haunting my shelves, about a tug boat on the Hudson River, called The Carol Moran and featuring a cameo by the beautiful mid-century ocean liner the Queen Mary. That illustrious silhouette is hard to forget once seen, and the illustrations from that book were beautifully executed by Peter Burchard.

Next came a favorite childhood movie, “Royal Wedding,” starring Fred Astaire and Jane Powell. The plot featured the story of an American brother-sister dance act who find themselves booked for the season of the royal wedding of then Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip in 1947. They find adventure and romance in the process, but in order to get from New York to London they travel on, you guessed it, an ocean liner. In this case, the very stylish S.S. Liberte of the Compagnie Generale Transatlantique, a.k.a. the French Line.

In that film Astaire and Powell perform a lovely, graceful exhibition dance all the while contending with a blustery sea that leaps and plunges the deck of the smoking room into something akin to one of those topsy-turvy fun house walks at a carnival midway. The finale finds a wayward sofa slide down and topple them over just at the concluding dip of the performance.

So there I was, writing a research paper on ocean liners. My English teacher, who as a little girl with family in both the U.S. and Australia made a voyage there and back on the Queen Mary, was encouraging to her student who chose so unusual a topic. But, sadly, those beautiful floating fortresses of transatlantic travel were few and far between by the late 1990s.

There were, however, many cruise ships and so it was to that topic I looked for my research materials. I came across a wonderful book: Crossing & Cruising: From the Golden Era of Ocean Liners to the Luxury Cruise Ships of Today by John Maxtone-Graham.

Though my research paper is now buried in a moving box somewhere, an enduring curiosity for this topic was launched and I recently bit the bullet and bought copies of Maxtone-Graham’s The Only Way to Cross, Liners to the Sun, and Crossing and Cruising. And I’ve enjoyed every moment of these vicarious historical journeys and travelogues!

If you have a hankering for ocean travel but can’t carve out the time for a week-long cruise on Cunard’s Queen Mary 2 or Queen Victoria, or the recently revived Titanic, then I highly recommend these very intelligent and amusing books by an author who lovingly recites his prodigious knowledge of the history of ocean travel and its industries.

Set sail on a wave of nautical history. There is much to learn from the prime mode of mass transport preceding the jet age.

Keep thinking history!

~ Amanda Stiver

Notre-Dame, the News, and Resurgent Religions

Many years back in my elementary school days, I remember a project our teacher gave us. For our current events class, we were to script a newscast and film it.

This was back before the Internet. We had to read the newspaper, watch the local TV newscast, and call the national weather service to learn which news items we wanted to portray on our news program. It may not have been efficient, but it certainly gave us opportunity to interact with others, to learn what they thought was important, and to get advice from our parents about which news items were affecting their lives. The lesson: automation has a downside, it severs the human connections that are the reason our lives have meaning.

Back to the story…this childhood newscast taught me a few things: how to speak clearly and communicate before a camera, and how to find resources of information about what is happening in the world around me. It taught me to sift, sort, and discern the news both at face value, and for what dynamics might be at work underneath. I learned the nascent art of spotting “fake news” long before that catch-phrase was news, and to question my first reaction to a story. That emotional reaction is frequently self-deceiving, a reaction to how a news story is presented or written, rather than to the actual facts of the situation.

Gauging fact vs. reaction

Attribution: By Pline – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4279202

Which brings us down to a recent news event, an actuality, which is the French word for a current event. Let’s look at the burning of Notre-Dame de Paris on April 15, 2019. Situated on the Île de la Cité in the River Seine, it has been at the heart of Paris for 856 years from the day the first stone was set in 1163.

It is not the spiritual center of historical France, that was the cathedral of Reims where many French kings were coronated, but it has become a symbolic center of historical France and Paris. Thanks in part to the story by Victor Hugo that was, after many interpretations, turned into a Disney cartoon film, “The Hunchback of Notre-Dame.”

*For an off-site article recommendation to learn more about Notre-Dame, please see link following this post.

Rather momentously, it (mostly) survived the brutality of the 1790’s, during the philosophically atheistic Reign of Terror of the French Revolution. A few statues lost their heads, and it was turned into a secular-religious church of the cult of the Supreme Being. Alas, the neglect it suffered in the ensuing decades led to a restoration in the 1840’s directed by Eugene Viollet-le-Duc. The very spire, the tower that went up so dramatically in flames on April 15, dates from this period.

And ironically, it was in the midst of restoration once again when it caught fire. Which brings me back to the news. How it sometimes pays to reserve our judgment on the cause of events.

It is tempting to think that the fire was the result of a malfunction of restoration equipment and computer systems, which, of this writing, it appears has become the official cause. On the other hand, we may be tempted to ponder the proximity to the traditional Christian religious festival of Easter, and the occurrence of other fires and defacements of cathedrals and churches around France, and indeed, Europe. It is logical to wonder if there is religious conflict at the heart of the conflagration. And this is where patience is the best perspective because, ultimately, time will tell.

Rapidly raising funds

But what I find more interesting, and illuminating (pardon the pun), is the speed with which over 1 billion Euros were raised to support reconstruction of Notre-Dame. Roughly, two days.

Much has been made of the secularization of the religious world, and specifically of Christianity, and precisely, the Catholic Church. Scandals, a Pope with sometimes seemingly mixed messages, has led many to assume that this ancient religious movement is defunct. I think it is unwise to make that assumption, and the rapidity with which funds were raised is just a slight rumble of a still active entity.

As tensions increase, and national identities, and identities of all kinds are debated, people will begin to move back to what is familiar. Atheism as a belief system (and it is one) has little hope to offer, but religions, of various definitions, do (however much we may debate whose belief system is truth).

This of course, as any student of Biblical prophecy knows, means increased conflict among religions, which is, unfortunately, the human experience. But it’s also history-in-the-making.

So when you read the news, take time to look behind the headlines. Consider the possible conclusions, have patience because the truth will eventually become clear. Guard your initial reaction to a news event, be ready to discern between how a story is presented and what the actual facts are. And most importantly, look at the news with an eye for what we can learn, just as the fund raising for restoring Notre-Dame was unexpectedly rapid, look closer, and consider further implications.

Keep thinking history!

– Amanda Stiver

*For an excellent article from Nation Geographic about the history and construction of Notre-Dame de Paris, with many images of the cathedral: CLICK HERE

Images are History

Sometimes we get so caught up in writing history, or making it, if we’re high profile types, that even as we post photos to Instagram or Facebook we forget that we, too, are recording a visual history.

How long this history will last, however, depends on the permanence of the digital record. Will it be there forever? Or will it, like the famous Library of Alexandria, be destroyed by powers and empires of the future. As is so often the case in history, time alone will tell.

The real question then becomes, what are we taking images of, and what for? To look back on every fascinating detail of yesterday’s meal a year from now? Doubtful. You and I know that we really only look at those images when Google photos reminds us they exist. How many people regularly review all 387 images from their last vacation? Not many.

What are our real reasons for recording so many images? Habit? Peer pressure? To share? To record beauty? To cling to the past? Because we can and we remember the days when film was expensive? To build the appearance of a more beautiful life than the one we actually experience? For business? All possibilities, and certainly something to ask ourselves from time to time.

But despite all I’ve said, and in the interest of recording my history from yesterday, and especially the beauty of the Autumn season as the leaves finish their descent to the ground, is a vignette to add to the digital record…

Keep thinking history…

~ Amanda Stiver

Gateways to History: Recreating Recipes of the Past

I recently watched an interesting video about a baker in California, Valerie Gordon, who is recreating recipes from popular restaurants and bakeries of the past on the West Coast. She specializes in baked goods and cakes and has produced a number of classic recipes that she stocks in her shop, Valerie’s Confections. To watch: https://dustyoldthing.com/bringing-back-vintage-desserts/ The Brown Derby Grapefruit Cake (<–see link for a version of the recipe from the classic Hollywood restaurant) is high on my list to attempt!

I love a good classic recipe, and not just because they may taste good, but because they taste……like history. The what, the why and the how of eating from culture to culture and decade to decade.

Which brings me to this gateway to history, culinary history. Though most of us assume that history is best accessed via books and dusty artifacts, one of the most delicious and accessible gateways is to cook up a recipe from the past. The advantage of the internet these days is that we have access to updated versions of some of these classic dishes, easier to make and with ingredients and techniques that aren’t so foreign to us now. (A few recommendations to get you started, if you are interested: Indian Pudding (think, colonial era, sweetened polenta), WW2 No-Egg Chocolate Cake, and Thomas Jefferson’s Ice Cream)

Image: Amanda Stiver

There is another way to experiment with classic and historical dishes, however, that is, through vintage cookbooks. One of my favorites, which is available in both original versions as well as reprints, is the Fannie Farmer Boston Cooking School Cookbook. For generations of American women, this was the foundation textbook for daily cooking. Fannie Farmer was the principle of the Boston Cooking School at the turn of the century, and therefore the cookbook was the product of her curriculum.

Pictured, Chocolate Cake from the Fannie Farmer Cookbook and behind it, a Chocolate Cake recipe from the BH&G classic red plaid cookbook from 2003. Using an equivalent recipe will allow you to see hidden directions that cooks from the past knew by heart and also the all important temperature settings. Image: Amanda Stiver

If you get adventurous and want  to tackle a recipe, bear in mind a couple of things. First of all, in early 20th century editions of these cookbooks, there are no oven temperature directions. Instead, you’ll find instructions like “bake in a moderate oven” or just “bake for forty minutes…”

Yikes! What to do?

The simple solution is to look up a modern equivalent recipe, on the internet or in a compendium cookbook like my old standby, The Better Homes & Gardens Red Plaid Cookbook. Find a recipe that is similar to the classic one, say a chocolate cake for a chocolate cake, and use the heating instructions, usually 350 to 400 degrees. However, be careful, and watch your cake carefully to catch any variations that necessitate whipping the dish out of the oven before it burns.

But to answer the more important question, why didn’t they have temperature instructions back then?

Our modern electric and gas ovens are miracles of mechanics and technology. Back in the day, wood and coal fire ovens were the norm. So cooks got used to gauging oven temps by feel, adding a bit more fuel here or there to increase the temperature appropriately. It was as much an art form as it was a practicality. They were also in the kitchen a lot more than we are, as a rule, so they developed that feel by experience.

I have a degree (pardon the pun) of experience in this department because my maternal grandmother had a wood fire oven when I was a kid and I learned to cook with it from her. If you want to learn this skill yourself, when you set your modern-day oven to the proper temperature, and it has finished the pre-heat cycle, test the temperature carefully with your hand at the opening of the oven (don’t touch the hot metal, obviously). Get a sense of how hot it feels and make of note of the exact temperature and mentally connect it with that feeling. It will come in handy if you go camping and need to cook over a campfire, as well.

Finally, enjoy the process of discovery, and if things don’t go perfectly well…don’t panic. Chalk it up to experience and education, and then find a modern version that’s easier to do. Learning why your recipe works chemically is as instructive as figuring out why it tastes so good (or bad, as the case may be). Science, art, food, and history, all rolled into one!

Have at it and keep thinking history!

– Amanda Stiver

Short on History: Context and the Electoral Process

The recent US election has shown, among many things, that various segments of the population, but particularly younger people are missing a vital facet of education…knowledge of the past and how our written laws and systems of governance emerged from the circumstances of their era and reached up to become supra-generational universalisms (I just made that last one up). For instance, the hotly debated and debased electoral college. Some hate it, but they don’t know why. Some love it, but they don’t know what it is.

This is where context comes in. In the study of history (which we all should be doing, by the way) context is a short mental rehearsal of the key players, national and individual, and the geo-political or cultural spectrum of the day. Religious institutions and mores, popular societal trends, styles of government, etc. We do this when we begin to study a new historical topic. Good historians will write books interwoven with context, unfortunately, so will bad historians who make up non-existent context. One has to do a little individual research.

For instance, one popular slogan goes, “we don’t need that electoral college, we just need a popular vote!” Sounds all neo-socialist, get rid of the elitists, etc, but the reality is that government structures like the electoral college were originally implemented as a check and a balance against any one  side of the US government quadrangle of executive-legislative-judicial-demos (the voters) from misusing its power and presuming to take privileges that don’t belong to it. This was a reaction, in part to the governmental institutions of Enlightenment Era Europe (which only went so far), and the remaining monarchies that ruled nations through both religion and dominion or kingship. The balance of power wasn’t. It was also a reaction to the constitutional monarchy of England and the peculiarly interwoven parliamentary system through which aristocrats and semi-common men could rule. America sought a system with a greater balance of power.

And it is only through a kind of intergovernmental detente that our system works. Thing is, many people would like to up end the balance, from all sides of the political spectrum, in order to funnel power their way. Hence we have checks and balances, however imperfectly they function.

So there you have it, a small sampling of context and how it applies to understanding the past and the world around us now.

Where do you need to apply the tool of context for better understanding?

Keep thinking history!

– Amanda Stiver

Tomorrow’s History: Politics and the Seasons – The Sanity Our Rural Past Brings to Election Nonsense

As I write this a U.S. Presidential election is upon us, tomorrow. I cannot, at this point, following on months of listening to campaigns, lies (let’s be real), and observing endless posturing endure any more analyses of politics, so I shall diverge.

Looking around us now, and by looking around I will be taken to mean, looking around the Internet because that’s where we are these days. We stare at screens, big ones (if we’re well funded), medium ones, and little ones. Ubiquitous rectangles of blue light distorting our ability to sleep and, for that matter, telling us what to think. They’ve only been around on this scale for the last 10 years, a mere blip in the historical timeline, but we seem to be unable to imagine life without them.

And that’s just what I want to do. Imagine life without them. What on earth would we be doing, in say, 1886?

Well, the vast majority of us would be farming.

And no, I don’t mean hobby farming with a flock of rare heritage goats that we pay someone to keep so they can make handmade cheese for us that we can sell with our own cleverly designed label that connotes rural overtones in a setting of glamorous urban prosperity. Sigh.

Image: Amanda Stiver

Image: Amanda Stiver

I mean the real deal, dad, mom and kids working the land, eating what they grow and raise. Planting, tending, harvesting, and preserving. With real dirt and real injuries and real dependency on the land. That’s the kind of rural reality that most Americans faced in 1886.

If you have absolutely no idea what I’m talking about, and cannot even think of a single recent television series you’ve binged on Netflix to draw on for reference (sigh), then tackle a book. One I highly recommend, and have probably done before and will again, is The Seasons of America Past by Eric Sloane. Sloane was one of the foremost meteorological painters of the 20th century and he also put his artistic skills to work preserving images of the rural, agricultural norm that was the American way of life, and of which we are now completely and most tragically bereft.

These sketches, of which the book is full, will put a shape to the past. When we think of tablets, smartphones, and laptops, we can in some, rather inadequate, way attempt to compare to the scythes, plows, apple presses, and wagons of the past. These were the tools of their existence. People were fluent with these items in the same way that we are fluent (or reasonably so) with our technology. They are the implements of our lives.

The other facet of The Seasons of America Past that I relish is the step by step progress through each month of the year that gives us a sample of what agricultural tasks would have been on the schedule for that season.

Let’s take November for instance. Sloane relates that by this time cattle had been or were being driven to market in a parade of moving herds that marked the season for many (or to the railyard and transported by train in 1886). Crop harvests had been taken in and at this time there was abundance and time to preserve and enjoy. Meat was butchered, preserved, and products like the yearly supply of soap made from the rendered fat. Candles were made of the same animal by-products, though some plant sourced fats, such as bayberry, were used for their pleasant aroma. Nuts were harvested from trees, particularly chestnuts, though, tragically, a blight that began from an international exhibition in New York in 1904 destroyed much of the American chestnut tree population.

Daily chores were done, animals were fed, tools were repaired and sharpened, fields dressed for winter. The changing of the seasons was so deep and abiding and intertwined in daily life that people didn’t have to wait for the trees to turn colors and drop their leaves to know what was coming. They saw it coming from August on in every small detail that connotes a slight shift in the seasons from summer to fall. The seasons came to you, you didn’t have to go out in search of them. They still can.

It is a remarkable heritage that we possess, this rural connection. Don’t lose it, even if you don’t live in it, and I confess, I do not, though I should like to. My grandparents did and probably so did yours. Take the time to reflect on the genuine triviality that all politics descends into. For no matter how vaunted a potential leader, he or she cannot make the weather. He or she cannot bring in the harvest and put food on tables. He or she cannot change the seasons. They are inexorable, and remain as their Maker dictates.

Keep thinking history!

– Amanda Stiver