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Archive for the ‘visual culture’ Category

Dear searchers of lost time,

Some of you might know that I have an odd fascination with the state guide project commissioned by the WPA during the Great Depression—a series of guidebooks detailing the history, customs, and sights of each and every corner of the nation. The guidebooks vary widely in quality, yet they remain intriguing for me precisely because of their diversity, written at a moment before a national media fully took hold and initiated the long process of homogenizing American culture.

The effort to resurrect the state as a vital component of American identity is what has long charmed me about the singer Sufjan Steven’s 50 States Project—a half-joking vow to record an album of folksy, glockenspiel-rich songs for each state. So far he’s only gotten around to Michigan and Illinois, though some songs have touched down in New York and Arkansas.

But how did, and how does, the American state exist in popular imagination? In an effort to answer this question, I’d like to introduce a new ongoing feature of these dispatches: The Divided States of America. Many digital archives are, in fact, limited to individual states (as are many historical works), so it seems to make sense to identify some archives particularly useful to a scholar of, say, Wyoming. Plus  I’m curious to see whether Missouri ultimately has a different vibe than Utah. Consider it a road trip, without traffic or smelly rest stops.

Today, I’ll head south of Massachusetts to Pennsylvania. I’ve been there only a few times in my life—once to Philadelphia, once to Pittsburgh, once to Sesame Place (I was four!), and once to Scranton for a wedding (plus the thrill of The Office connection). Villanova University‘s library has a small but impressive “Pennsylvaniana” collection, including a book of Pennsylvania poetry. Here’s one verse you might not have learned in grade school: “Hail Pennsylvania!/Noble and strong,/ To thee with loyal hearts/We raise our song./Swelling to Heaven loud,/ Our praises ring;/ Hail Pennsylvania!/Of thee we sing.”

Or check out the delightful illustrations from the 1875 book, Philadelphia and Its Environs (here’s one image on the right). Or a portrait album published by Philadelphia’s own Puglistic Publishing Company.

Also be sure to visit the (somewhat clunky) Life in Western PA photography and film collection, including the Stephen Shore-ish shot to the left of a 1970s ice cream shop.

U. of Pittsburgh’s library also has some amazing digital collections including one of Pittsburgh Public Schools. Take a look at these two spectacular images: on the left, the 1969 Westinghouse High School Ninth Grade Fashion Show; on the right, a teaching moment at Kauffman’s department store in 1972 (click images for more info).

Forecast and Company - ED Mag Fashion Show at Kaufmann's

That’s all for today. Look for two holiday posts later this week!

Yours in local pride,

Stephen

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O pioneers of the digital frontier,

Anyone who’s watched Spike Lee’s sometimes brilliant, sometimes obvious 2000 film Bamboozled, Ferris State University’s  Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia might feel eerily familiar—the docile, self-sacrificing”mammy,” the lazy, stealing, and insatiable “coon” (on the left). Less familiar to some readers may be the sexually virile “Jezebel” stereotype, embodied, curator David Pilgrim argues, by Pam Grier’s blaxploitation turn as Foxy Brown (right).

None of the artifacts on the site are explicitly sourced, which speaks, in part, to the ubiquity of the imagery over a long span of time—so long that the stereotypes’ sources in the abuses of Southern slavery have largely been forgotten. Even reproducing the images feels suspicious to me, since they still beg the viewer to take pleasure in their excesses. Old Aunt Jemima packaging once provoked delight (and relief) in seeing stereotypes depicted, hierarchies confirmed. And yet we’re left with a new ironic laughter, taking pleasure in our shock—our willingness to deride Americans of the past as unforgivably racist without admitting the subtler bigotries of the present. For all its flaws, Bamboozled makes two points worth reflection that minstrelsy continues into the 21st century in less obvious but no less pernicious forms, and that stereotypes have a life and energy of their own, which cannot be easily tamed.

Three books on the subject worth reading: Donald Bogle’s classic Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks, about African-Americans in film; M.M. Manring’s Slave in a Box: The Strange Career of Aunt Jemima; and my advisor Glenda Carpio’s Laughing Fit to Kill: Black Humor in the Fictions of Slavery.

Last but not least, be sure to check out Slate’s succinct slide show on the history of racist spokescharacters, Uncle—I mean Chairman Ben included.

Yours sincerely,

Stephen

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Dear Snuggie™ advocates,

I spent much of Friday flexing my would-be public intellectual muscles at a lively and illuminating roundtable discussion on the healthcare crisis (media coverage, the public option, the Stupak amendment) organized by Harvard’s Women, Gender, and Sexuality department. Yet as Jill Lepore’s recent Talk of the Town plainly shows, healthcare has been an ongoing dilemma in this country for nearly a century.

For a peek into the ways health and medicine were popularly understood and discussed in the early 20th century, skip over to the Indiana Public Health Digital Library for images culled from the Monthly Bulletin of the State Board of Health. Take these two, for example: on the left, a heartwarming illustration of two girls at play; on the right, a terrifying image of Death himself. I wonder where he stands on the “death panel” debate.

And while you’re at it, take a look at the images digitized by the National Library of Medicine, like the warning on the left against lice, also known as “cooties” or “seam squirrels,” or the Women’s Army Corps recruitment poster on the right.

Preventively yours,

Stephen

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To those of you blaming tryptophan for your Monday morning lag,

Tomorrow, December 1, marks World AIDS Day, which seems like a good moment to point to some online resources about the history of the illness, its impact, and the art and activisim it inspired.

The Carpenter Center here at Harvard has organized an extraordinary exhibit on the art of ACT UP (that’s AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) that runs until December 23. For those outside the Cambridge area, you can see many of the powerfully confrontational posters, stickers, and postcards designed by ACT UP artist group Gran Fury online at the New York Public Library.

The Carpenter Center exhibit also includes hours and hours of testimonies from the ACT UP Oral History Project, but you can also visit their site to view excerpts and complete transcripts. Interviewees include ACT UP founder Larry Kramer, journalist Michelangelo Signorile, filmmaker Tom Kalin, and NYC artist Peter Cramer.

For a sense of how AIDS was covered by the mainstream press, check out this 1983 cover story from New York magazine, and this 1985 Time article, which hit the stands shortly after Rock Hudson’s death.

For a more visceral sense of how the queer community itself experienced the frightening and devastating spread of AIDS, I recommend watching Bill Sherwood’s astonishing and unsentimental 1986 film Parting Glances, starring a young Steve Buscemi, available for instant viewing on Netflix.

Even in the 1980s, of course, AIDS was on its way to becoming a worldwide epidemic. UCLA’s AIDS Posters collection includes health advisories from Japan (on the left) to Uganda (on the right).

For the record, at last count, the World Health Organization estimates that 33.4 million people are currently living with HIV/AIDS worldwide.

Yours sincerely,

Stephen

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Dear preemptive vacationers,

I realize there’s been a lot of food in these dispatches lately, perhaps in subconscious anticipation of Thanksgiving this Thursday. I don’t know about you, but when I think about Thanksgiving (or Turkey Day, as I’ve heard it called), I think about sweet potatoes with marshmallows, fresh roasted turkey, grandmotherly love—and that’s just the Garfield Thanksgiving special.This year my brother and sister-in-law are hosting, and rather than bake a pumpkin pie, I figured I’d bring something far more nutritious and satisfying: cultural ephemera! Even my nephew, who hasn’t started teething, can digest that!

Even in 1898, Americans had discovered the fine art of historical reenactment. The photograph below, from the Memorial Hall Museum Online, shows four women dressed in colonial garb making “Thanksgiving Pies.” The image was created for Home Life in Colonial Days by Alice Morse Earle, usually remembered for reviving interest in the colonial period.

If you’re unsure what to prepare for your own Thanksgiving feast, then best consult the amazing collection of cookbooks and home economics among Virginia Tech’s rare and digitized books. Why not take a page from Ida Follett’s Table Decorations and Delicacies: a Complete Hand-book for the Hostess, and place a stuffed turkey at the center of the table (and illustrated turkeys at the center of your plates!). Honestly, it’s only slighty tackier than the Thanksgiving “tablescape” offered by the Food Network’s Sandra Lee.

You can also search USC’s L.A. Examiner negatives archive for some truly awe-inspiring photographs from the years of 1950s abundance, like the ones below.

And last but not least, I’ve pointed you, dear readers, to the J.N. “Ding” Darling cartoon archive at U of Iowa, but not his Thanksgiving panels. Here’s one of my favorites, “The Thanksgiving turkey of our forefathers – and the Thanksgiving turkey of today.”

With thanks to you, readers,

Stephen

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To students seldom awake before ten,

Like many scholars, I’ve relied on coffee as a lifeline for most of my academic career. By senior year of high school, I was already bringing a plastic mug full of instant Maxwell House (terrible, I know) to class. In college, I even considered footnoting the local convenience store in a freshman year philosophy paper, since I owed their machine-made vanilla lattes at least as much as Kant.

My thoughts turned to coffee this week after reading a great paper-in-progress by a fellow graduate student here at Harvard. Still I wondered, where was the history of coffee on the web? Look no further than the Victorian trade card collection at Miami University in Ohio . Trade cards became popular in nineteenth century America, as a way of advertising products from soap to lawnmowers (to learn more, check out the Baker Library’s online exhibit). In the example below, Uncle Sam himself endorses one brand. The back of the card features these inspiring verses, “Take this from me my people dear / If you’d keep war away/and fill the land with peace and cheer / Do just what I shall say: / I know a beverage full of charm, / there’s magic in the cup. / To cure all ills, to keep from harm, / Drink when you dine or sup.” Sorry, Anglophiles, your Earl Grey tea won’t help you escape the traumas of sickness and strife!Other cards, while produced by coffee companies, didn’t bother to picture the product itself. Arbuckle Brothers, for instance, came up with a number of collectible series, including “sports and pastimes of all nations.”  Check out the gentlemen athletes in the image below, and the coffee instructions on the reverse.

For more coffee-related trade cards, click here. And for yet more cards of all types, check out the collections at the Brooklyn Public Library and University of Iowa.

To see where coffee advertising would go a few decades later, surf over to the always remarkable Prelinger Archives. You’ll quickly discover the theme in these Folgers ads from the 1960s: make a better cup of coffee for your husband, or he’ll be back “at the office” faster than Mad Men‘s debonair Don Draper.  Click on the images below to watch.

Yours perkily,

Stephen

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Dear readers suffering from archive-related-asthma,

Allow me to introduce you today to the fabulous Europa Film Treasures, which brings together rare archival movies from 28 of the best collections across the continent. But don’t let the name fool you: you need not be a Franco-, Russo-, or Swedophile to appreciate these silents and talkies. A number of films come from American filmmakers—or parody them. French Jewish director Max Linder came to the United States to film The Three Must-Get-Theres (a broad spoof of Douglas Fairbank’s Three Musketeers) starring Linder himself  as “Dart-in-Again.” EFT’s restored digital version of the 1922 film also includes a delightful new score by Maud Nelissen.

three must get theresAlso check out one of John Ford’s earliest features, Bucking Broadway, about a Wyoming cowboy who falls for a rancher’s daughter, and heads to New York to rescue her from a villainous captor. Chaos ensues.

john fordjohn ford 2

And last but hardly least, enjoy Tulips Shall Grow, a creepy stop-motion depiction of—no, not The Fantastic Mr. Fox—the Nazi assault on the Netherlands! Not even the church escapes destruction.

tulips shall growYours cinematically,

Stephen

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