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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,