America: A Vision for the Present

Lately I’ve been reading David McCullough’s John Adams, upon which the recent HBO series was based. Although I won’t write a review yet (I haven’t quite finished it), some interesting observations can be drawn from this era of history.

As I read the comments in letters and writings of individuals like John Adams, Abigail Adams, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Quincy Adams, Benjamin Rush and others, I found myself reading sentiments of modern proportions.

Devaluation of money, excessive national debt, wartime alliances, and visions of America for centuries to come and not just as a mere 13 British colonies. After the conclusion of the Revolutionary War, men and women worried about America’s acceptance with the British, if we were to be continually their enemy or treat for total peace and recognition. Whether America would be a collection of very loosely confederated, nearly autonomous states, a pure, overwhelming national state with a central government, or united in balance under state and federal establishments.

Policies and Politics

Mud was slung between politicians and between factions. Republicans (at that early stage) stood for continuous revolutions and applauded the bloody, messy French Revolution, while Federalists looked to a strongly central government.

These positions would switch back and forth between liberal and conservative parties through the centuries. Today a less empowered federal government is the aim of conservatives while liberals yearn for a highly centralized, intensively regulated state.

Adams worried about America’s future with dire forebodings about the continual practice of slavery. Constant was his worry about how the new nation would be received in Europe and if it would or should get involved in the wars of that continent.

Past and Present

This is how history affects us. The same worries tie us to an era whose daily life is so very different from our own. The industrial revolution had not yet begun in earnest and everyday life was much as it had been for thousands of years.

You traveled by horse, your house was unplumbed, electricity was a gleam in Benjamin Franklin’s eye, and cooking was done over an open wood fire!

And yet, the human yearning for liberty is not sequestered by physical environment. Despite the differences of our dress, manner, speech, and abode, we all still cling to the hope of freedom – to live a free and virtuous life full of opportunity.

For more on this, please read The Declaration of Independence.

– Amanda Stiver

Natural History, Naturally

History covers all sorts of topics and usually we assume “history” means social history – the study of groups of people, the way they live, their actions, and specifically their interactions, peaceful or violent. But let’s not forget natural history.

Natural history is the study of plants and animals, the natural world. Nowadays we have more specific scientific names for all the various sub-categories. Natural history museums are in every major city and usually at every university. There you will learn about the indigenous peoples of the area (why they are tagged with plants and animals and not with human history I have no idea), geological formations and distinguishing characteristics, local animal and plant species, etc.

Pliny of this and Pliny of that

Way back when, Pliny the Elder published his Naturalis Historiae in 77-79 AD. It covers a multitude of subjects and is, according to our friends at Wikipedia, a compendium of ancient knowledge from sources and experts extant at that time relating to and drawing on the natural world. His work served as the model for the study of natural history through the centuries.

Natural history, quite naturally, relates to social history because people did and still do make their living from the natural world. Despite those nice glossy “modern” dwellings and all our digitized efforts, we still have to root around in the dirt to get our veggies and I guarantee without agriculture our societies will collapse in famine and pestilence.

Know the natural world

What I mean to impart is that it is as important to understand how the natural world really works (be careful, there are experts who purport to know and whose theories of climate, health, and ecology drawn on more supposition than fact) as it is to have a good grip on social history.

It also serves to remember that we haven’t been industrialized all that long, so knowing how the ancients and the denizens of the “olden days” lived helps us to gauge if society is moving in a positive technological direction or toward disaster.

The Teatime Experience

Branching out from my usual trend toward military or related history, I’ve been thinking about tea lately. I am off caffeine and therefore can’t have the lovely dark liquid for a while, so naturally I should choose to write about it.

Much is said about tea these days regarding its health qualities. And for the past few years the idea of an extravagant and elegant afternoon tea has enjoyed a revival of popularity in the U.S. Cute little tea houses have popped up in various places, often only to fold a few months later. It takes marketing genius or a known clientele to get Americans to shake their coffee loving habits.

Although colonial America owes many of its identifying traditions to British norms of the eighteenth century, we did shake loose a few things during the revolution. Tea was one. The Boston Tea Party incident sparked by increased taxes on this most essential of British liquids made a seminal statement. So much so that when you step into a diner the waitress will hand out menus and ask if you want a cup of coffee – you have to ask for tea!

Tea, once upon a time

Don’t get me wrong; I have nothing bad to say about traditional British teatime. It’s lovely and when I visited England I was determined to experience this glorious repast.

In the city of York there is a lovely place called Betty’s Café Tea Rooms. Here you will find the kind of tea service, sandwiches, sweet things, and goodies dreamed about by little girls in frilly dresses. They also serve a pretty swell coronation chicken if you hanker for something more substantial.

For the real deal, tea is prepared with loose leaves in a teapot and strained into your cup. Then a tower of delights arrives at the table. Three layers: warm scones and clotted cream (something I dream of, but rarely can afford stateside), then small open-faced sandwiches conspicuous by the absence of crust and the delicacy of cut, and, finally, a platter of small tarts, lemon curd and raspberry, and other little cakes.

Why is this historic?

Well, at one time people frequently indulged in this colossal teatime repast, but they don’t so much anymore, so participating in such a meal is akin to attending one of those medieval banquet performances, with jousting, and a goofy looking minstrel wandering around playing on a lute. You wouldn’t dine that way every night, but once in a while it gives you first hand experience of a different era of history. Living history.

So have a cup of tea, a scone, and some cake. Live a little… history.

Living like it’s 1873

Not long ago I finished A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains by Isabella Bird. The book covers her remarkable travels as an Englishwoman in the nineteenth century American West.

Bird was subject to ill health and traveled, as many did at that time, to different climates to restore her strength. Among other places she also visited Hawaii as well as Canada, Japan and China. In this case Bird was on a trip to reach Estes Park, Colorado.

Her journey begins at Lake Tahoe and she travels east from there into Colorado. Given the strictures of the time she was unusual as an independent woman who traveled alone and un-chaperoned through vast prairies and mountainous regions. With the exception of a few close calls she remained quite safe. After her return she compiled letters written to family into a journal of her travels and published it for sale.

The narrative is full of action and moves quickly, so it is a worthy read if you are interested in doing a little time travel and getting some firsthand experience in the “old west.”

Word pictures

Two things stand out from the book. First, is Bird’s ability to use language to describe her surroundings. The book is un-illustrated, but I was surprised at how little I missed photographs or maps. Her descriptions are precise and show a facility of language usage that is completely lacking these days.

Here are a few samples:

“The stars were intensely bright, and a well-defined auroral arch, throwing off fantastic coruscations, lighted the whole northern sky. Yet I was only in the Foot Hills, and Long’s glorious Peak was not to be seen (p. 229, Comstock Editions, INC., 1987).”

Who uses the word “coruscations” these days? (It means “sparklings and glitterings,” by the way.)

“Long’s Peak, 14,700 feet high, blocks up one end of Estes Park, and dwarfs all the surrounding mountains. … By sunlight or moonlight its splintered grey crest is the one object which, in spite of wapiti and bighorn, skunk and grizzly, unfailingly arrests the eyes. From it come all storms of snow and wind, and the forked lightnings play round its head like a glory. It is one of the noblest of mountains, but in one’s imagination it grows to be much more than a mountain. It becomes invested with a personality (pp.78-79).”

I know that a picture can speak a thousand words, but words like these can speak a thousand pictures!

At your leisure…

Secondly, the descriptions of life at this time in American (and British) history fill a need-to-know of mine. When I sit down in the evening to watch a television show or movie I sometimes ponder at the passivity of my modern habits. It doesn’t take much intellectual stimulation to watch a video (which is sometimes the point after a busy day), but on the other hand, how much of the human brain do we leave inactive for the sake of “entertainment.”

The following quote from the book gives a hint at the kind of end-of-day events common in the early 1870’s:

“After that we all sit in the living room, and I settle down to write to you, or mend my clothes, which are dropping to pieces. Some sit round the table playing at eucre, the strange hunters and prospectors lie on the floor smoking, and rifles are cleaned, bullets cast, fishing flies made, fishing tackle repaired, boots are waterproofed, part-songs are sung, and about half-past eight I cross the crisp grass to my cabin, always expecting to find something in it [based on a previous encounter with a skunk] (pp. 108-109).”

Life was not a piece of cake and leisure time was at a minimum. If you wanted to hear music, you sang it. If you wanted amusement, you played cards. Otherwise you were busy repairing your equipment.

Travel by book – I highly recommend this volume as your personal tour guide into the past!

The Great Depression and “Stuff”

A few months back I was blessed to be able to compile an article about survivors of the Great Depression. The article was an assignment for Vertical Thought magazine, which reaches out to a young adult and teen audience. My goal was to connect young people to the now elderly folks who lived through the Great Depression.

What was great about doing the article was that the subject fascinated me. Likewise, my interview material was everywhere! My relatives, older folks from the church congregation I attend, and from the community.

I think what has always amazed me about that era was that although so many people were barely scraping along; you will often hear them say that they didn’t know they were poor.

There was still an unspoken rule that if you had food to eat, a roof over your head, and a family with love – you were all right. Notice I didn’t say indoor plumbing, electricity, air conditioning, a new car, digital communication devices, digital music devices, etc. There are some basic things that all humans truly need. Then there are “necessities” that we are conditioned to “need.”

Binary Burden

To be fair, I, like the next person, use my fair share of these devices and benefit as a result, but I also find myself over-processed from them. In the same way that junk food is over-processed to the point that it doesn’t resemble its original components; I think over-digitalization is similar.

We lose ourselves in the crush of information, our ability to concentrate is tampered with, and we begin to feel like we can’t live without all the social networking, constant texting, and electronic gadgets. We’re addicted to a pile of things or worse, to the miles of information encoded in the vapor that is the web!

Tough as it is to imagine, we could all probably get along without the proliferation of leisure and time saving devices that drive store and Internet sales these days.

Maybe I’m a young curmudgeon in the making, but there is something to be said for daily physical activity that leaves you fatigued, but invigorated by the activity and accomplishment.

Walk the talk

My challenge to you – go find one of these elders and ask them about (if possible) their life before electricity. Ask them to tell you what it was like when each new device came into popular use. Ask them how they got along without all those things.

You will be intrigued by the answers, and more than that, you will have made a connection to their past, which is now part of yours. You will be an historian!

Founding Parents: Advice for a Nation

Reading about colonial life in America got me thinking about the founding fathers (and mothers) of the revolutionary period. I thought it would be interesting to examine a piece of parenting advice from one of the many individuals who, essentially, parented this country.

John Adams served as both President and Vice President of America in the last decades of the 18th century and early 19th. He had been a member of the Continental Congress and helped to write the Declaration of Independence. He and his wife, Abigail, both of Massachusetts, spent time on diplomatic missions to France. One of their sons, John Quincy Adams, also served as President.

I turned to my copy of Our Sacred Honor: Words of Advice from the Founders in Stories, Letters, Poems, and Speeches compiled by William J. Bennett (Simon & Schuster, 1997). The following quote, in a letter from John to Abigail, explains the expectations they had for their children:

“Human nature with all its infirmities and depravation is still capable of great       things. It is capable of attaining to degrees of wisdom and of goodness, which, we have reason to believe, appear respectable in the estimation of superior intelligences. Education makes a greater difference between man and man, than nature has made between man and brute. The virtues and powers to which men may be trained, by early education and constant discipline, are truly sublime and astonishing.”

“It should be your care, therefore, and mine, to elevate the minds of our children and exalt their courage; to accelerate and animate their industry and activity; to excite in them an habitual contempt of meanness, abhorrence of injustice and inhumanity, and an ambition to excel in every capacity, faculty, and virtue. If we suffer their minds to grovel and creep in infancy, they will grovel all their lives.”

“But their bodies must be hardened, as well as their souls exalted. Without strength and activity and vigor of body, the brightest mental excellencies will be eclipsed and obscured.”

Discipline your mind, use your intellect, exercise your body, and above all, value virtue.

Good advice for a nation, too.

Daily Life – Living in the Past

I just came across a magazine called Early American Life. It is a niche magazine dealing with Colonial life in America, both east and southwest. It has plenty of historical detail for re-enactors or history buffs like myself.

It is refreshing to see a magazine with quality reporting and well-crafted articles that are directed at a specific field of interest. General interest magazines are sadly, a dime a dozen, particularly as they move to the Internet. This needn’t be so, but it is the nature of a void like the Internet that demands to be filled with endless amounts of copy.

Most importantly I was excited to find a magazine that exemplifies an area of history study that has always fascinated me. The word quotidian expresses it best, those little things that add up to make what we know as everyday life. To simplify, I call it the history of daily life.

Time Travel

This was my favorite boredom fix as a kid. I would take whatever circumstance I was in and try to imagine it in a different era of history, a little time travel.

Say I was on a long drive home with my parents, no scenery to speak of, 12 years old, getting carsick, what to do? What if it wasn’t the present, but two hundred years earlier in colonial era America?

What would I wear? Well, not jeans and a t-shirt, but what was the equivalent for a middle class miss? What would I be riding in? A mini-van? No. Well then, maybe a carriage, but what kind? How many horses, or would I be on horseback?

Where would I be traveling? What kind of house would I live in? What would I eat? What amenities would exist? Electricity? Certainly not. Plumbing? Not really – just a chamber pot (imagine that the next time you stumble to the bathroom early in the morning!). What would I do all day? Sewing? School? Music? The list can go on and on.

Try a little time travel yourself – where would you go? How would you have been living?