rusty lawn chair

History Is in the Details

rusty lawn chair

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History comes at us in different ways. Daily, as we live it. Sometimes as we watch it on TV or in the cinema, or someone’s version of it. Rarely, unless you really love it, in the form of books.

Watching an Agatha Christie series, having just listened to a lecture on archaeology, and reading a book on The Peloponnesian War all have in common the details of history. An Agatha Christie episode of Miss Marple, made in the middle 1980’s and starring Joan Hickson (the preeminent Miss Marple, in my opinion) reminded me that to make an historically accurate production of an earlier era requires attention to detail. Not just major details, but especially the small details.

The small details are the most telling. In one scene, a character from the 1950’s seats himself on a canopied gliding lounge sofa. It was the kind I remember seeing from my childhood in the 1980’s, but I had to search my memory because it didn’t quite fit in the 1950’s surroundings. Then I dimly remembered seeing something like it in an old magazine picture from the 50’s, possibly online. Regardless, it did make me realize that what we see around us, the things that are seemingly unimportant, are the stuff of history, which leads me to the lecture on archaeology.

Digging into history

The lecturer pointed out that it was the small things that an excavation discovers that tell the story of history. The little things tell the story, bits and pieces like ostraca, pieces of broken pottery with writing on them, sometimes even shopping lists of 6th century B.C. ladies of the manor. These details, the same kind of shopping lists that we would toss as we return home from the market, help give a clear picture of what everyday life was like many centuries in the past. Thrilling stuff, huh?

Which brings me to the Peloponnesian War. Reading The Peloponnesian War by Donald Kagan has been informative, but also a challenge. The book is well written, but the event is long and arduous. Thirty years of the Greeks at war and frankly it feels like it has taken me almost as long to read about it as it took to fight it. A detailed war, in a region of numerous city-states and decades of leaders with names that are remarkably similar if you aren’t a fluent speaker of Greek. It is history, it is compelling, but it isn’t light reading.

The big and small of history

The connection? There isn’t one, not a similarity at least, but a disparity. The accounts of this Greek war come from the detailed histories written by various ancient scholars and historians. They are based on military accounts, biographies of great men, and political rhetoric. Somewhat removed from the odd shopping list and glider-lounge. But both are history. They are the big and small of history.

The big history is charging Greek soldiers leaping off of triremes and sloshing onto the beaches of recalcitrant city-states. The little history is what they ate on board the morning before and how they polished their spears. The big history is 1950’s cold-war counter-movements done by spies. The small history is what they bought at the grocery when they had a toothache while spying (and if they bought a gliding lounger when they retired).

We live daily with big history and little history. Big history is government legislation. Small history is whether we bought Nutella for a our chocolate craving or simply a Hershey bar. Both become a part of the whole picture of history of the past and our place in it. The big history is affected by the small history, cravings for Nutella affect trade partnerships between Europe and the US. And, of course, the big history affects the small. Government legislation affects what and how and how much we eat.

Food for thought. Keep thinking history!

– Amanda Stiver

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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!

Reminiscing

I’ve written about using documentaries, historical journals, museums, and re-enactments to explore history, but I can’t go on without praising one of my favorite publications. It is a magazine that brings primary source history to my fingertips and reminds me of the struggles and challenges my parents and grandparents faced.

Don’t jump to conclusions! I’m not talking about WWII history magazines, archeological reviews, etc. I like those too, but they’re for another day.

I’m talking about entry-level history where even the most disinterested beginner can take a bit out of time and enjoy it.  A visual layout with great, short, first person reports on the historical past of the 20th century is the fundamental strength of Reminisce magazine published by Reiman Media Group which is a subsidiary of The Reader’s Digest Association, INC.

Tales of the past

This is the kind of history that you might hear your grandparents or great-grandparents tell if you are lucky enough to have these resources still alive. It isn’t ground breaking, never-before-seen historical research, but it is just as important. Knowing the daily details of the past and the experiences of our elders help us to live a fuller life, to respect them more, emulate the great things they did, and, one hopes, not make the same mistakes.

Magazines like this are a great teaching tool for kids and teens and a way to get them interested in history. Reminisce in particular has a surfeit of photographs, illustrations, and reprints of old cartoons and advertisements. Every issue is colorful, like having your own personal museum to page through whenever you need to fill a few minutes.

Did people really act like that?

After flipping through the past, it might surprise you to realize how degraded our current society has become. Wholesomeness is not something marketers feature much anymore. We are so used to the world in which we live that sometimes it takes a virtual journey back in time to realize how sordid it has become.

Scanning the advertisements of years past is an education in what people valued. The advertising professionals of the era designed their material to appeal to those values: wholesomeness, dignity, respect, faith, hard work, thrift, good clean fun, cleanliness, good cheer, family, marriage, the innocence of romance. From our 21st century cynical viewpoint we often see this material and think it looks hokey or syrupy. Kind of sad that good clean fun isn’t considered fun anymore.

There is one requirement when delving into this kind of historical record (or any part of the past, actually): check your modern sensibilities and put them aside, don’t reason from our contemporary perspective. Trade cynicism for a lighter approach to life in order to appreciate an era, only a few decades old, which had a greater sweetness and innocence than what we suffer through today.

When is history fact – wait, let me revise that…

Human interest in its own history has been around for, well, since humanity began. Through different means – oral, written, re-enacted – has history been passed down between generations. It was important to live up to the expectations and deeds of the elders.

Herodotus is given credit for being the father of history, but if we look further back we will find that various cultures had already been recording their history in writing. The Israelites spring to mind with the earliest historical works in the Bible: the five books of Moses.

Were all of these accounts (Greek, Roman, Babylonian, Israelite, etc.) factual? Some yes, some no. Do humans revise their history? Certainly. So are there really facts in history? Yes – the key is how to find and organize them to accurately understand an historic event.

You printed what?

Think of a reporter in an old black and white film, being chewed out by the editor of the paper for not getting the facts. The editor goes on to remind the wayward employee that he needs to get back to the basics – who, when, where, what and then, maybe, how and why!

Reporting or researching history works along the same lines. Who was involved in the event in question? When did it occur? Where? What kind of event was it? These can usually be verified by physical evidence – inscriptions, written records, archeological ruins, etc.

When the concrete details are corralled, then the suppositions may begin. How was it done? And, most iffy of all – why it happened?

It’s like working through one of those logic puzzles, with a series of clues and a criss-cross chart. Verify the easy items first. Then come the mental gymnastics.

See, what I really meant was…

Revise means to correct or improve – not a bad idea if past research was flawed or a supposition was off base because of societal taboos or bias. It has another meaning, slightly less virtuous sounding – to amend (not so bad) or alter (hmm, bad).

Alteration to rectify a mistaken fact is what history is about, but altering an historic record to change the interpretation based on current societal bias, personal opinion or grudge isn’t history – it’s misleading and dishonest. Ironically, the record of human history is full of this kind of revision.

To see through revision, learn about the authors; find out their philosophy of history. Then if you subtract the bias of their philosophy, does their interpretation still hold up? Be your own historian, be it academic history or any story or human event because, tomorrow, it will all be history!

Do you remember when…?

The details of the past are accessible by a single question. Being an historian only takes that one question and someone with a story to tell.

There are so many assumptions about history – primarily that it is inaccessible and boring. It really isn’t. It just takes someone young asking an elder what they know about the past.

History passed down in this way is referred to as an oral record. Often, people who yearn to research their personal genealogy become the default guardians of this historical record in their family. They were the ones who cared enough to find out about the family history before the bearers of that record were no more.

Sometimes we assume that once we’re tagged as the “family historian” we’re expected to write a book, which is a great achievement, but simply being able and willing to one day share those same stories with a younger generation is a great achievement, too.

Be the link – learn the history – pass it on.

Time Machines…

At a garage sale I picked up a book entitled, A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains by Isabella Bird, who, according to the cover blurb was “a Victorian Englishwoman” – an intrepid lady traveler of the late nineteenth century.

These journalized or epistolary (letter based) accounts of the past, primary sources, are a fun way to study history. Their first-person perspective is always a refreshing change from most analytical histories on the bookstore shelf. Such perspectives, untainted by revision or assumptions are the actual thoughts of those who lived the past, warts and all.

Good intentions

I like this genre so much that I have two other books of this type in my reading pile. Mollie: The Journal of Mollie Dorsey Sanford by the aforementioned Mollie Dorsey Sanford and Daughter of the Regiment: Memoirs of a Childhood in the Frontier Army, 1878-1898 by Mary Leefe Laurence. Neither of which I have finished. For, unlike fiction, journals have their boring days, even historical journals, which tempts me to put them down and reach for something more exciting.

This is a conundrum of historiography (the study of the study of history) – the boring stuff. What do we do with it? Read, skip it, or write about it in painful detail? There are authors who do that!

Acknowledge it. If our lives were daily filled with fast-paced action, danger, and intrigue, we’d be neurotic! The boring stuff lets us live a saner life.

Life is in the details

Maybe boring is too much of a condemnation; call it instead daily life, the details of living. Stopping for a pretty sunset, relaxing in an empty hour with a good book, washing the clothes, fixing a meal, etc. These things go on, even when the danger of wars, upheaval and panic have passed.

I suspect my curiosity will get the best of me and I’ll drift back to Mollie, Mary or Isabella and finish their works. The rich detail of the eras in which they lived adding to a greater knowledge of life in the past.

If you’re stuck for an interesting history read, try an historical journal – your very own guided trip back in time.