Feeds:
Posts
Comments

To those wearing white one week longer,

The great Brian Distelberg, a PhD candidate in history at Yale, returns today to these pages. In case you missed it, check out his musings on Connecticut. And check out his own website, where he writes about his research, contemporary politics and culture, and LGBT issues.

The Boy Scouts of America (BSA) turns 100 this year, and as Katherine Q. Seelye recently observed in the New York Times, the anniversary finds the Scouts facing “a host of issues”: plummeting membership (from a 1973 peak of 4.8 million to 2.8 million now), an $18.5 million jury verdict stemming from a sexual abuse case, and ongoing challenges to its exclusion of atheists, gay people, and girls under 13.

Given that I currently fall into two of these three categories, it’s not surprising that I often felt a bit ill-at-ease during the eight years I spent as a Cub Scout and a Boy Scout. But memories of that youthful discomfort now feed my curiosity about the remarkably under-examined place the Scouts have historically occupied in American society and popular mythology, and encourage me to look skeptically on the sort of fuzzy ahistoricism that prompted Seelye to declare that the Scouts were “long an icon of wholesomeness in a simpler America.”  As Michael Rosenthal wrote in his 1986 study of the Boy Scouts in Britain, “immunity from critical scrutiny has left Scouting almost entirely in the hands of its own historians and publicists, a situation that is not helpful in trying to understand the origins and meaning of any movement.”

Although now a quarter-century old, Rosenthal’s diagnosis remains surprisingly applicable to the case of Scouting in the United States. David Macleod’s social history Building Character in the American Boy: The Boy Scouts, the YMCA, and Their Forerunners, 1870-1920 (1983) examines the Scouts’ Progressive-era origins, and Jay Mechling analyzes a contemporary Scout troop’s summer camp rituals in On My Honor: Boy Scouts and the Making of American Youth (2001). A few unpublished dissertations also cover the organization’s early years. But large swaths of the Boy Scouts’ history, including the wartime and Cold War decades when it enjoyed its greatest popularity, remain largely unexplored—to the detriment of our understanding of American political conservatism, youth culture, suburbanization and recreation, and masculinity and male sexuality, among other topics.

Lack of easy access to BSA organizational records is, of course, a major obstacle.  (The National Scouting Museum, which moved to its current Irving, TX, location in 2002, offers few useful exhibits on its website, and researchers must apply, and pay a daily usage fee, to examine to its holdings.) But the digital archive can provide inquiring historians an alternative means of exploring the organization’s place in American society, particularly as revealed through the voluminous print culture produced by and about the Scouts in its century of existence.

The Boy Scout Handbook is probably the best known of these publications. The handbook, which sets out and explains the Scout Oath and Law, describes the requirements to advance from rank to rank, and offers information on subjects from camping to fitness to good citizenship, has passed through twelve editions since 1910. (It carried the title Handbook for Boys until 1959.) Jeff Snowden, scoutmaster of Troop 97 in Fort Collins, Colorado, maintains a detailed online compendium of images of Boy Scout, Scoutmaster, and other Scout handbooks. The images, which accompany Snowden’s study of the handbook’s evolution, reveal telling shifts in the Scouts’ self-presentation and traces of wider social changes.

Around 1950, for instance, the fifth edition’s cover was redrawn reflect the introduction of “overseas caps”popularized in the U.S. armed forces during World War II—to replace “campaign hats” in the Scout uniform. Scouts of color appear on the back cover in 1965, and on the front in 1972. And since 1990, the covers have shifted from depicting hiking, camping, and fishing to emphasizing more “extreme” outdoor activities, especially whitewater rafting and kayaking. (Troop 97’s website only includes handbook covers; the full text of reprint editions of the 1911 handbook and 1913-1914 scoutmaster handbook are on Google Books.)

Between 1910 and 1930, the early handbook was joined by a flurry of inexpensive juvenile fiction featuring the Scouts. Continue Reading »

Dear weekend awaiters,

This is the second installment of a new Lazy Scholar feature, pairing news items with historical archives.

Slate‘s TV Club is diligently following and debating the new season of Mad Men. If you haven’t watched (is that possible?), it’s a 60s scholar’s dream, with carefully reconstructed interior design, fashion, and, yes, language. A few weeks back, Ben Zimmer at the New York Times Magazine offered an inside look at the writers’ efforts to keep the dialogue historically accurate. Scholars of advertising and consumerism, of course, will be thrilled, too, even if the show fictionalizes the origins of many real-life advertising campaigns. Sorry folks, Don Draper did not coin Lucky Strike’s slogan. People were enjoying their “toasted” cigarettes as early as 1919, as this ad shows. Until next Sunday night, you can ponder more of the history behind Mad Men by checking out the beautiful exhibit, The High Art of Photographic Advertisement, thanks to Harvard Business School’s Baker Library. One wonders, were those “Luckies” even more tempting in color?

• Moving on to the big screen, top critics are divided about Eat, Pray, Love, Ryan Murphy’s adaptation of Elizabeth Gilbert’s bestselling memoir about her post-divorce trip to Italy and elsewhere. You can follow the globe-trots of some earlier American women courtesy of  Brigham Young University’s American Travelers in Italy archive, with digitized copies of travelogues by Sophia Hawthorne, Margaret Fuller, and Louisa May Alcott. The Little Women author had this to say about Rome: “Felt as if I had been there before and knew all about it. Always oppressed with a sense of sin, dirt, and general decay of all things.” Not exactly the stuff of summer movies.

• Officials and locals in Louisiana debate whether it’s safe or wise to re-open commercial fishing grounds after the Gulf oil spill. Between 1921 and 1932, LA Department of Wildlife and Fisheries employee Percy Viosca, Jr.,  documented the state’s coasts, and captured many photos of its fishing industry. You can view images like the one below on the Viosca Collection from LSU.

• After much research, McSweeney’s presented the “Editor’s Choice Award” to their favorite “e-Reader”: the Newspaper. It “outclassed its rivals both in terms of size and elasticity” and its “display could be read at full size or, when flipped open, twice its normal width.” Fellow ironical Luddites will enjoy the Library of Congress’s amazing, easy-to-navigate, and free Chronicling America Archive, with searchable copies of newspapers dating from 1860 to 1922, including The Texas Jewish Herald, The Salt Lake Evening Democrat, The Ohio Valley Worker, and the Daily Tombstone of Tombstone, Arizona. Here’s a look at some beachfront fashions from a 1916 issue of the New York Herald-Tribune, “an afternoon gown of black silk.”

• Speaking of fashion, this just in: Urban Outfitters’s fall catalog was shot entirely in and around my adopted summer home, Northampton, Massachusetts. Have the grounds of Smith ever looked so co-ed? You can download the catalog here. And you can see historical images of Smith here, thanks to the college’s library. Below, some ladies play leapfrog on the ice for the Sophomore Carnival of 1922.

That’s all for this week dear readers.

Yours currently,

Stephen

Dear Panama-Hat-sporting summerers,

Most of what I knew about fraternities I learned from watching Animal House and Old School. Until, that is, I read The Company He Keeps: A History of White College Fraternities by Nicholas Syrett, assistant professor of history at University of Northern Colorado . Published in 2009 by UNC Press, Syrett’s lucid, ambitious, and dizzyingly well-researched book follows the birth and growth of the American fraternity from the 1800s to the present, with anecdotes and evidence from chapters across the country. Casual readers will certainly walk away with plenty of fascinating facts to wow their friends (first fraternity: Kappa Alpha Society at Union College, founded in 1825; first residential frat house: Zeta Psi house at UC Berkeley, built in 1876; first instance of beer funneling: okay, no evidence on this one just yet). But the book truly excels in tracking the shifts in “manly” and “masculine” behavior among fraternity brothers over two centuries, as standards around scholarship, intimacy, sexuality, and aggression continually changed.

What are you working on now?
I’m working on two projects at the moment.  One, that will probably result in an article considers a male couple together from the 20s to the 60s in Illinois and Hawaii, who lived as father and son though they were not biologically related.  The elder actually adopted the younger in the 1960s.  The second is what I’m hoping will be a book about the history of child marriage and the regulation of child sexuality in the nineteenth and twentieth-century United States.  I’m interested in how the institution of marriage has been used to legitimize that which we otherwise prohibit (child sexuality) and also the ways that children themselves manipulated the law because they recognized this.

What digital resources do you rely on?
Given that the web existed by the time I got to college, I am remarkably un-savvy about matters technological. I use JSTOR religiously for academic articles and am a recent convert to the American Historical Newspapers database.

What is the best research or writing advice you’ve ever gotten?
Someone once told me that if writing wasn’t going well, and if you were the type of person who could generally recognize when it was (as most of us probably are), then just take a break.  As a result I saw many movies at the Angelika, Sunshine, and Paris (my very favorite) theatres in the middle of a weekday afternoon.  And was much better able to return to writing the next morning.

What was the inspiration behind your dissertation?
I was really fascinated by the way that men (mis)behaved in groups and the history behind this sort of behavior.  Why was it that I found myself scared when I walked down the street and noticed that a group of young men approached from the other direction?  Why was this fear actually a rational response, given what sociologists and anthropologists have told us about young men’s behavior in groups?  From there I just picked a group of men (white college fraternities) and started researching their history.

What advice would you give someone working on their dissertation?
I concur with Tania Modleski’s earlier advice that you should pick something that you truly love.  To that I would add that you should envision your dissertation as the book that it will most likely become.  I have seen many people postpone a crucial area of research while writing their dissertations, thinking that they will leave it “for the book.”  Once you get a job, finding the time—in the midst of the rest of one’s life as well as that job—to do all the extra research and transform a dissertation into a book is hard.  If it’s in a state of looking and reading like a book already, your first few years of teaching are a lot easier and a lot less stressful.

What’s the one book or article published before 1970 that has most influenced your work?
I’m going to pick two, but they’re both by the same person.  Erving Goffman’s The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959) and Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity (1963).  In both of them Goffman is really smart in talking about everyday behavior and the ways that we, as humans, are cognizant of how we behave and what it says about us as people.

What was the last thing you read to seriously inspire or haunt you?
Peter Cameron’s Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You has little to do with my own academic interests but it still haunts me, as does most of his fiction.

What primary source do you dream of finding?
Of course the answer depends on the project, but right now: the diary of a child bride, circa 1850.

What website most often draws your attention away from work?
I am much more likely to be distracted by things non-web related—cleaning, food, the telephone—but I tend to check email obsessively (sort of a website?) and I do love the ladies of GoFugYourself.

What do you see as the most annoying tendency in contemporary scholarship?
I get really irritated by self-conscious affectation in writing.  When people invent new words to describe things for which words already exist, it just seems such a transparent attempt to link one’s name to something in hopes of securing a reputation.  Claiming the invention of a new and innovative methodology that looks suspiciously similar to what many of us are already doing is also rather precious.

Dear regular readers,

Today the Lazy Scholar is experimenting with a new feature called Old News, in which current news items are paired with archival finds. Let me know if you like it!

• The New York Times ran a taste-test of strawberry ice cream, only to find that the not-so-local, not-so-artisinal Häagen-Dazs variety beat out the pricier competitors. You can try making your own from scratch, following this recipe for Crushed Strawberry Cream from 1907’s Ice Cream and Candy Makers’ Factory Guide, courtesy of the Smithsonian’s Trade Literature Collection. Many more cool images and texts can be found on their Flickr page.

• You might have heard: the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California overturned the state’s ban on gay marriage. But the fight for marriage equality has deeper roots than you might think. Listen to track 4 from this digitized 1970 episode of “Gay Perspective,” a radio show produced by the Milwaukee-based Gay People’s Union. In this installment, a lesbian couple relates how they sought a marriage license from the Milwaukee County Clerk and were quickly denied. As one woman put it, “Love is not meant to be hidden…. And I won’t hide it. If I don’t get a license now, I’ll keep trying, and keep trying, and eventually I’ll get one.” There’s much more to hear and see in the Gay People’s Union Collection, brought to you by University of Wisconsin.

• Speaking of marriage, in Real Simple, Daily Show correspondents and spouses Samantha Bee and Jason Jones offer advice to make your holy matrimony “divorceproof,” including this useful bit of wisdom: “If you’re irritated by your partner, imagine him as a small child.” For some more tried and true advice, read Marie Carmichael Stopes’ 1918 text Married Love, digitized by UPenn. Its frankness so scandalized readers, the book was banned in the U.S. until 1931. Here’s one of its raciest images: a”curve showing the Periodicity of Recurrence of natural desire in healthy women.”

• The Associated Press reports that the U.S. Postal Service is apparently ailing, as, wouldn’t you know it, people have switched increasingly from paper mail to the electronic variety. You can start mourning the passing of stamps by checking out Arago, the collections site of the National Postal Museum. Take, for example, these 1979 “Endangered Flora” stamps. Because one endangered species deserves another.

• Courtesy of the Library of Congress, the Denver Post has put online 78 beautiful color photographs taken from 1939 to 1943 for the Farm Security Administration. To those used to imagining the 1930s and 40s in black and white, the color images have a way of bringing that period a little bit closer. You can view many, many more on the Library of Congress site, including this photo of a Florida “juke joint.”

Yours currently,

Stephen

California Dreaming

Dear obsessive Netflix queue updaters,

I went to San Francisco last week to do some research at a couple of non-digital archives—you know, the kind with actual, physical papers and books—but spent much of my time wondering what my life would be like on the west coast. Would I indulge in olive oil ice cream everyday? Teach in HistCon? Overcome my fear of driving on steep hills? What made Californians different from the Brooklynites and Bostonians  I’ve known?

My on-the-ground research remains inconclusive—one person described liberal Californians as passive-aggressive, in contrast to plain-old aggressive New Yorkers—but my digital research promises more answers, thanks to the archives of Sunset. As explained by historian Kevin Starr in this nice Stanford exhibit, the periodical eventually known as “the magazine of Western living” was founded in 1898 by the Southern Pacific Railroad in hopes of attracting the upper classes. To the right, you can see the cover of the first issue, beckoning readers beyond Yosemite. (Check out many more cover images on the Stanford site here.) Thanks to the ever-resource-full Internet Archive, as well as Google Books and the Harvard archives, you can also read some of those early volumes. The June 1900 issue featured, for instance, the sonnet “Before the Twilight Comes” by San Francisco accountant and lawyer John Franklin Forbes:

When down the flaming causeway of the west
The regal sun, refulgent in the gleam
Of sacred fire and the paler beam
That reaches into nothingness in quest
Of laggard eve, is passing to his rest,
And in his wake, like babbling of some stream,
Or soft, uncadenced voices of a dream,
Sound murmurs of the gentle night wind’s guest.

Then ere the tides grow dark as they flow in,
A blush of gold comes rippling down the bay
To kiss the Berkeley hills, and o’er Marin
A purple vapor veils each mountain height
For a brief while—then slowly fades away
Within the dusky coverlet of night.

Perhaps it’s a good thing Forbes left poetry behind to teach accounting and auditing at Berkeley. On the more serious side, the magazine also featured Mary Edith Griswold’s first-hand account of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and its aftermath. One of the more stirring moments from her narrative: “As we stopped on Stockton street to watch a toppling-wall I found myself next an old colored man. As he spoke I recognized in him the negro exhorter. I had sometimes listened when he was holding forth from his open-air platforms. Now he was exclaiming: ‘Haven’t I prophesied all this? Haven’t I told you this wicked town would be consumed with fire and brimstone? But now I’m sorry I spoke.'”

By 1914, the Pacific Railway decided to get out of the magazine biz, but as Starr points out, the magazine had already outlived its early promotional goals, publishing famous and soon-to-be-famous writers including Sinclair Lewis, Damon Runyon (read one of his poems here), and Jack London.

Another major shift came in 1929 when the magazine was purchased by publishing mogul Larry Lane and his wife, who expanded the focus of the magazine to include the Great Indoors. This new attention towards the home may best be revealed by two of the covers from the thirties, below.

That decade also saw the release of the first Sunset cookbook, the All-Western Cook Book by Genevieve Callahan, available on the Internet Archive and on Google. Honestly, who had time to worry about the Great Depression when you were preparing artichoke soufflé? As Callahan exhorted, “Don’t let yourself fall into the routine of cooking just a few old familiar vegetables! Explore! Experiment!” Irony aside, I have to say, I love this illustration of a fashionable lady buying vegetables from an ambiguously ethnic market man.

As far as I can tell from this brief browse, the Western ethos according to Sunset hasn’t changed much since then. The current issue still features awe-struck memoirs of trips to the wilderness, delectable recipes, gardening tips. But then again, so does the New York Times. If anything, it seems the West Coast no longer has much of a hold on Western living after all.

That’s what I’m telling myself anyway.

Yours escaping the Massachusetts humidity,

Stephen

Many who like procrastination like this blog,

Today’s post, number three in the Lazy Scholar’s ongoing Divided States project, comes to you from  Brian Distelberg, a historian of twentieth-century U.S. culture and politics and a PhD candidate at Yale. I first encountered Distelberg’s work in the most recent issue of GLQ, featuring his rich and insightful article on gay book critics and the emergence of gay visibility politics in the 1970s. His dissertation examines minority groups’ campaigns to combat stereotypes and encourage “positive” representations in film, television, and other media between the 1940s and the 1990s. His other interests include gay and lesbian history, African American history, and the regional history of New England in the twentieth century.  He blogs about his research, contemporary politics and culture, LGBT issues, and other topics at his website.

“It would be a brave man who would sit down, alone or with company, and attempt a portrait of this State. Present-day Connecticut is too diversified and restless to yield an easy likeness.”

So wrote John B. Derby, state director of the Federal Writer’s Project, in his preface to Connecticut: A Guide to Its Roads, Lore, and People (1938), the Nutmeg State’s entry in the sequence of guidebooks that inspired the “Divided States” posts. Today, Connecticut is perhaps even more “diversified and restless” than it was in the New Deal era. But thanks to an abundance of archival material digitized by its libraries, universities, and historical societies, you can delve into its past in search of your own “portrait of this State” with relative ease.

Derby’s preface invokes the nineteenth-century engraver John Warner Barber, who travelled and sketched the state’s towns for his book Historical Collections of Connecticut (1836). You can browse hundreds of Barber’s drawings and engravings at Connecticut History Online (CHO), a portal and search engine that offers access to the collections of a number of historical institutions. In 1934, just shy of a century after Barber’s volume appeared,the state completed a first-in-the-nation photographic aerial survey. Check out “Aerial Surveys,” one of over twenty subject-based digital collections created by the Connecticut State Library, to search the images, and others from 1938 and 1965, by town and by street. Here’s a view of the state capitol in Hartford in 1934, opened in 1879, and here’s the famous onion-domed factory of Colt’s Patent Firearms Manufacturing Company. (Another State Library exhibit has numerous images from the corporate records of Colt, one of Connecticut’s many arms manufacturers, including this charming photo of a young girl holding a Colt .45 revolver.)

About thirty miles east of Hartford is Storrs, home to the University of Connecticut, which was established in 1881 as the Storrs Agricultural School and serves as the state’s land-grant university. That heritage helps explain the impressive-looking College of Agriculture Building depicted in this undated postcard, one of hundreds from throughout the state included in the Boston Public Library’s Tichnor Brothers Inc. Postcard Collection and available on Flickr.

The Thomas J. Dodd Research Center offers several ways to dig deeper into the history of student life at UConn. As a Syracuse basketball fan by marriage I’m not exactly an enthusiast for UConn athletics, but the historian in me is still fascinated by the films of football and basketball games from the 1930s and 1940s digitized by the Dodd Center. You can also browse volumes of Nutmeg, the university yearbook, stretching from 1915-1990. Although the image quality is disappointing and each page features an obtrusive watermark, the yearbooks remain fascinating time capsules. Take a look at the 1970 volume, filled with Bob Dylan and Simon and Garfunkel lyrics, images of antiwar protests, and student organizations like the “Parachute Club,” all coexisting somewhat uncomfortably with more traditional fare like freshman beanies, fraternities, and the ROTC. (And, hey—is that kid holding a vuvuzela?)

Down in New Haven, meanwhile, is Yale University, which I’ve called home for the past four years. If you’d prefer a sense of the daily pace of student life, the Yale Library Digital Collections allow you to browse and search past issues of the Yale Daily News dating from 1878 to 1992.

But given its history as a “Model City” for urban renewal programs after World War II, New Haven also provides a window onto the broader history of U.S. cities in the twentieth century. Yale experts helped to make New Haven’s urban renewal policies, and Yale scholars and its libraries have since helped to document those policies’ often-tragic results.  For a multimedia introduction to the history, have a look at Life in the Model City: Stories of Urban Renewal in New Haven, a digital exhibit combining text, images, and oral history recordings. Then continue on to the Yale Library’s Historical New Haven Digital Collection, which allows you to browse images by neighborhood, as well as maps and a compendium of census and other demographic data. (Much of it seems to be the primary sources gathered by Douglas W. Rae for his 2003 study City: Urbanism and Its End.) Here, for instance, is a before-and-after image of the Oak Street neighborhood, bulldozed and replaced by a highway, and another celebrating the construction of the Elm Haven public housing project in the Dixwell neighborhood near Yale’s campus (which has since been demolished to make way for new townhouse-style homes).

Connecticut History Online also furnishes fully-searchable access to many more images from the files of the New Haven Redevelopment Agency—a fantastic teaching tool.

If that all isn’t enough, in two years, the Connecticut Humanities Council will launch another digital resource for exploring the state’s history, the Encyclopedia of Connecticut History Online (ECHO).  Until it debuts in 2012, you can follow the compilers’ progress and sample some of the content at their blog, ECHO Underway.

Yours in steady habits,

Brian Distelberg

Nintendo Days

Dear catnappers,

My first semester in college, in an effort to stymie all academic progress, one of my suitemates unveiled an aging Nintendo console along with a cache of video game cartridges. Mind you, this was 1999, at which point the original Nintendo—a not-very-sexy gray box—was decidedly outdated. It was hardly unusual, for instance, to walk into the common room and find a friend hunched over, blowing into console, then the cartridge, then the console, as though giving mouth to mouth, just to get the damn think working again. Despite these low-tech troubles, however, I think we all felt a nostalgic thrill playing games like Castlevania and Super Mario Bros, sort of like revisiting your old elementary school (“I can’t believe how small everything is!”) Most things I remember from early childhood tend towards the traumatic—my first visit to the hospital, my first day of summer camp—but I can vividly recall the marvel I felt the first time I saw someone play Nintendo. And still I don’t quite understand how that Duck Hunt gun works.

The Internet, of course, was practically invented for nostalgic pleasures like these. So it’s no surprise to find a wealth of Nintendo-related material online. For starters, there’s the Nintendo Game Archive where you can view screenshots of everything from A Boy and His Blob to Zombie Nation Samurai. You can even view the game boxes, like this one from Zelda II.

Even more evocatively, you can listen to music from countless Nintendo games at the Video Game Music Archive. Just listen to the victory music from Super Mario Bros and tell me your heart doesn’t race just a little bit.

Not all Nintendo touched turned to gold, of course. Long before the Wii, there was the power pad (Dance Aerobics anyone?) and, this ad reminds me, a robot that, as far as I remember, did nothing.  (YouTube’s Irate Gamer offers a more nuanced historical view on “R.O.B.” as he was known .) My mother and father deserve credit for buying us only the most basic system.

Before Nintendo, my brother and I did manage with another game system—our beloved Atari, which was, in its own way, groundbreaking. How groundbreaking you ask? Groundbreaking enough to warrant its own magazine, now digitized over at Atari Age. The graphics, needless to say, looked nothing like those pictured on this cover. But we were skilled in the art of imagination! And where else could you find answers to questions like these? “Dear Atari Club, I have learned that on Space Invaders if you hold down the reset button at the same time as the power switch is being turned on, your laser cannon will fire double. My question is, will this hurt either my space invaders cartridge or my Atari console unit?” (The answer: it would!) New York magazine on the other hand saw fit to ask this question, “Can Atari Stay Ahead of the Game?” (The answer: it couldn’t!)

Alas, I have left video gaming behind, but the memories linger on. And my hand-eye coordination is better than it might otherwise be.

Yours playfully,

Stephen

P.S. Check out videos from the Nintendo-“inspired” cartoon series Captain N the Game Master.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 31 other followers