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Public History in the Digital Sphere: /r/AskHistorians

By Joe Rachman

What sparked the craze for martial arts, particularly kung fu, in 1970s America? Why did some Serbs commit acts of genocide in the late twentieth century despite Serbs themselves having been victims of genocide during World War Two? What started the Opium Wars? Did Zarathustra, the supposed founder of Zoroastrianism, actually exist? Why are contemporary African states so poor when compared to the legendary wealth of some pre-colonial African empires? All these questions, and more, posed by curious members of the public have recently been answered for free by historians willing to dedicate a little bit of their time to help sate public curiosity about history. Welcome to /r/AskHistorians.

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Thinking about Sleep Across History

By Albert Kohn

In a certain sense, sleeping is the great unifying experience across time and place. Regardless of time period, almost every person spends one-third to one-half of their life asleep thus a good portion of our modern lives are identical to those of medieval people!

Yet, sleeping is not just the experience of unconsciousness. Recent scholarly work—particularly on the early modern period in Europe—has highlighted numerous differences in how people have structured their sleeping. While modern people have come to almost sacralize the ideal of one person per bed, the norm for most of history was to share beds; while we generally (attempt to) sleep continuously through the night, many in preindustrial Europe segmented their sleeping patterns so to be awake for a few hours in the middle of the night. These variations, though, pale in significance to the differences in how premodern people reflected upon their sleep.

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Film archives: using moving images as historical sources

By Max Long

My first encounter with moving image archives took place in a windowless room in the basement of a building in London. I was there to view a selection of natural history films. I had watched similar films online, but here I could load, spool, and wind up the films myself. Films are the principal source in my research, but prior to my PhD, I had little experience with the medium. Here I was left alone with two towering piles of 35mm and 16mm films, and an unexpected lesson in the materiality of film technology.

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‘Experience doesn’t pay the bills’: a lesson from medieval England

By Rhiannon Sandy (@RhiannonSandy)

A few weeks ago, in my daily perusal of Twitter, I came across a retweet which made me angry enough to write a blogpost. Questioned as to why interns should be paid if they’re ‘getting experience for their résumé’, US Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez posted a short video answer – ‘experience doesn’t pay the bills’. This was retweeted by Piers Morgan, who called it ‘nonsense’ because ‘the free teaching is the salary’.[1] This is a very privileged stance. Unpaid internships are exploitative and exclusionary, limiting experience to those whose financial situation allows them to work for free. This limits diversity and prevents institutions from being enriched by new ideas and perspectives, because their interns are almost always going to come from a similar background.[2]

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Reconsidering the History of Domestic Medicine

By Jennifer W. Reiss

The history of American medicine often follows a declension/ascension narrative: it’s a teleology of medical progress dominated by professionalised and scientifically-minded male physicians of the nineteenth century bringing the light of modernity to backward-looking, female-dominated folk practice of earlier periods. Even comparable British scholarship on early modern medical history follows a top-down story of professionalising medics ineffectively controlling a diverse ‘medical marketplace’ – a position which appreciates the place of vernacular practice generally, but underplays non-commercial, domestic medicine. Lay, and especially female practitioners were an essential alternative source of medical knowledge, particularly for poor and rural populations with limited access to other forms of health care, as well as a complement to the professional medicine available to urban and elite populations.

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How to abuse and misuse history: a guide from twentieth-century politics

By Spike Lister

The utilisation of history in political discourse has itself a long history. For as long as there has been a public space and a shared experience, communities have looked to the past as a lens through which to understand their issues. History offers us a guiding light by which to move forwards or a source from which to draw blood-curdling parallels to our present circumstances. Consequently, it should not surprise us in such complex and disruptive times that historical parallels abound as a means of garnering political support. In periods of political intricacy and seemingly tectonic historic change, it is inevitable that politicians draw from the past to assert the continuity of their policies within a nation’s historical experience, or to draw ominous parallels between history and the present day.

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The Politics of the Archive: reflections, observations and challenges

By Tamara Fernando (@TamaraFernando3)

One rainy winter day in 2016, I was navigating the cavernous halls and corridors of the British Museum, looking for the Department of Prints and Drawings. I had arrived to examine two seventeenth-century engraved frontispieces depicting Saint Augustine, the early Church Father, for an MPhil project on the reception of Augustine’s works. When I finally located the correct floor, I was hailed down by a museum guard at the entrance: ‘Madam, this is not the tourist section’ they volunteered. I mumbled an explanation about an appointment with the Curator of Prints—which presumably got muffled, because the staff repeated (this time louder and slower): ‘Maadamm, NO touurissts here’, making a wide crossing-arm gestures to clarify. Something about my age, gender or the colour of my skin and hair, signalled tourist, not researcher.

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Unconventional History: El Paso, Texas according to an early-twentieth-century postcard

By Savannah Pine (@savannah_pine)

El Paso, Texas (my hometown) features in the news frequently nowadays because of the migrant crisis and the administration’s desire to build a wall on the border between the United States and Mexico. The border, which lies along the Rio Grande, separates a large urban area into two cities: El Paso in the US and Juárez, in Mexico. But people have long travelled across the border, as this early-twentieth-century postcard demonstrates: a streetcar rides the El Paso & Juárez Streetcar Line from downtown Juárez, over the international bridge, and down El Paso Street to downtown El Paso. My professor sent me this postcard last year as a graduation gift and I decided to find the modern version. However, it was more difficult than I thought without institutional access to research resources. This is the story of how I did unconventional historical research.

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Ghettoes to Gentrification: How Hollywood Shaped America’s Urban Imagination

By Sam Collings-Wells (@Sam_cw_)

‘And they hide their faces / And they hide their eyes / Cause the city is dyin/ And they dont know why.

These lyrics from Randy Newmans 1977 Baltimore’—later made famous by Nina Simones justly celebrated coverperfectly captured the spirit urban life during the mid-1970s. Historians would later pinpoint the variety of forces that were killing Americas cities: the flight of industry to the suburbs; increased manufacturing competition from emerging economies in the Global South; a deeply racist housing market which served to entrap people of colour within these decaying urban cores.

Yet as Newmans lyric suggests, for many Americans the causes of urban decay were far more nebulous.

In seeking out explanations, some might have turned to the intense contemporary debate amongst sociologists, urbanists, and politicians. For others, a rather more seductive interpretation of the urban crisis was emerging, one which they could absorb from the comfort of a suburban movie theatre.  Read more

Revisiting the Visitor’s Book

By Clemency Hinton (@clemencyhinton)

Have you ever left an online review after dining at a café or staying in a hotel? What about after a visiting a museum or a local heritage site? You probably left your comment for the benefit of future visitors or to get the attention of management, but that review may have had unintended consequences. Although you not have known it, your opinions could  be creating valuable digital sources for the historians of tomorrow.[i]

It might feel like websites such as Google Reviews, TripAdvisor and HotelWorld are a pretty new phenomenon. Certainly, online reviews are a product of the twenty-first century. But as consumers, we humans have been recording our opinions on recreational experiences for a long time. The best historic example of this is the visitor’s (or guest) book. Typically identified by its leather cover, heavy pages, or dusty appearance, this thick tome sitting in the corner of a museum room or end of the gallery corridor should not be overlooked. Though some visitor’s books may only elicit a signature, akin to ‘X was here,’ most are filled with colourful and reflective feedback. Even the briefest of autographs can open intriguing avenues of research, whether exploring the nature of the ink to the style of the handwriting.[ii]

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Serving ex-servicemen? Demobilisation schemes in India after the Second World War

By Mobeen Hussain (@amhuss27)

The demobilisation of soldiers has always been fraught with questions regarding jobs, re-skilling, pensions, rehabilitation and transition into peace time society. Such challenges were particularly pronounced at the apexes of the First and Second World Wars due to the sheer scale of demobilisation. Read more

‘No Stamp Act’: Pots & Politics in Early America

By Evelyn Strope (@develyn_16)

Although it may come as a shock to a twenty-first-century consumer, tea was once a political brew. The strong, steeped leaves and the teapots, teacups, and silverware that accompanied them were representative of clashes between imperialism and commercialism in the Atlantic world. As tea shifted from luxury to necessity in early modern Europe, Britons wanted tea-time utensils as fashionable as the drink itself.[1] Sensing a profitable opportunity  in this spike in tea consumption, British manufacturers raced to meet demand for teaware and challenge the Chinese stronghold on the porcelain market through the invention of ‘creamware’ or ‘pearlware.’ Both attractive and cost-effective, creamware opened up new markets for fine tableware beyond the middling classes, allowing ordinary men and women whose pocketbooks had once restricted them to rough earthenwares to dabble in the finer things in life. New-and-improved British ceramics were marketed throughout the Empire, including in the North American colonies, where tea and teaware would set the stage for now-infamous taxation protests. Long before disaffected colonists threw around 340 chests of tea into Boston Harbor, Americans had already begun to associate pots and politics. Take, for example, the ‘No Stamp Act’ teapot.

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Re-educating the enemy: German Prisoners of War in Britain

By Emily Redican-Bradford

As the Second World War in Europe entered its final stages, Allied governments began to focus on how to deal with a defeated Germany. The leaders of Britain, the United States and the Soviet Union were determined to eradicate Nazism, in the hope of preventing the eruption of another global conflict. In an effort to achieve this, each of the Allied powers embarked on a policy of re-education, with the aim of weakening loyalty to National Socialism amongst the Germans already in their custody: prisoners of war.

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Shipwrecks and Sand dunes: A Brief History of Sable Island

By Aoife O’Leary McNeice (@aolmcn)

‘Unless I’m clean lost, we must now be somewhere near Sable Island. I’m expecting to hear the roar of its breakers any minute, and once the Francis gets amongst them, God help us all!’ These are the words of Captain Reefwell in James Macdonald Oxley’s 1897 adventure story The Wreckers of Sable Island. The Island already had a reputation as a dangerous site of multiple shipwrecks. A search on The Times digital archive for “Sable Island” produces 127 results from 1812 to 1899, most referring to shipwrecks. In 1812, with ‘the wind blowing hard… a heavy sea, and hazy weather’ HMS Barbados struck on the North West bar of Sable Island, and ‘notwithstanding every exertion, was lost’. Much of the ship’s cargo – sugar and rum, was not recovered.[1] Thirty-five years later, the Anglo Saxon was lost off Sable Island, carrying an extensive cargo that included 500 barrels of pork, 5000 barrels of bread, and 25 barrels and boxes of relief for the Great Irish Famine.[2] Read more

Gallipoli and national memory

By Stephanie Brown (@StephEmmaBrown)

On 22 May 1915, ‘a gay-hearted youth’, William Fielding Sames, sat outside his dug-out in Gallipoli (modern-day Turkey) drinking a cup of tea.[1] Even though he was just 22-years-old, William had been in the Army for five years, been promoted to Lieutenant and served in Egypt.[2] Yet, the decision to sit and drink this cup of tea was to prove fatal. While he sat with his tea a bullet penetrated his lung.[3] William died nine days later while on the way to a military hospital in Greece. He was buried at sea on 31 May 1915.[4]

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Researching with English Legal Records: some tips on getting started

By Laura Flannigan (@LFlannigan17)

The vast archives produced by the English legal system are some of our most valuable materials for legal, political, social, and family histories.  Issuing from national and local courts, from common, ecclesiastical, and equitable jurisdictions, and covering civil and criminal law, they offer a window into the lives of ordinary people and the principles that governed their societies.  Yet to the first-time researcher – and even to more experienced scholars – they can seem idiosyncratic, impenetrable, and daunting.  As someone who is still on the steep learning curve that comes with reading these records, I have put together some basic advice for those new to working with them.

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Book Review – Samia Khatun, Australianama: The South Asian Odyssey in Australia

Mobeen Hussain (@amhuss27) reviews Samia Khatun’s Australianama (Hurst Publishers, December 2018, ISBN 9781849049696 £25.00)

In Australianama, author and academic Samia Khatun skilfully weaves an intricate patchwork of hitherto unexplored connections between South Asia and Australia. I first heard about Australianama at an Islam and Print in South Asia Workshop at the British Library where Khatun was presenting on her work on South Asian peoples in Australia. She shared her research journey, relating how she came across a photograph of a book labelled as the Quran located in the desert lands of Australia in Broken Hill, noting how the words looked like Bengali script. At the workshop, as well as in the book, she shared her experience of visiting the mosque to find that the book was not the Quran but a book of Bengali Sufi poetry called Kasasol Ambia (Stories of the Prophets), all the while wondering how a book published in Bengal found its way to an inland Australian mining town. (Khatun, 3) This question is where Khatun’s Australianama begins.

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History for Schools

PhD students Eleanor Barnett (@eleanorrbarnett), Trina Moseley (@trina_moseley) and Lewis Defrates (@lewisdefrates) talk to Doing History in Public about their experiences running sessions with primary school children for the Faculty of History’s History for Schools programme.

What was your History for Schools session about and how does it link with your research?

Eleanor and Trina: Our History for Schools session was called ‘Hungry Historians: A Delicious and Disgusting Journey Through Time’. We used our combined research interests in early modern (Italian and English) and modern (British) food history to teach about how flavours and ingredients have changed over time. We tried to have as many hands-on activities as possible, including opportunities to taste historical sweets and cakes! You can find out more about our session on the Cambridge Body and Food Histories Group blog.

Lewis: My session was on the first visit of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West to London in 1887. More broadly, my research concerns the movement of a variety of cultural actors and performers from the United States to Britain between 1880 and 1914 and differing conceptions of ‘Americanness’ that travel and performance enabled these figures to formulate, but this was a great chance to focus on one particular instance of travel and explore what it would have shown British audiences about ‘America’ in the late nineteenth century.

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Royal babies: a late-nineteenth-century perspective

By Helen Sunderland (@hl_sunderland)

Last week, the world’s media was fixed on the arrival of another royal baby. At less than a week old, pictures of Archie Harrison Mountbatten-Windsor, the first child of Harry and Meghan, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, and the Queen’s eighth great-grandchild, have been shared around the globe. Although the birth took place in the relative privacy of the Windsor estate – avoiding a repeat of the now-familiar press camp outside St Mary’s Lindo Wing – the royal couple were still expected to present their new baby to the world within days. Royal Instagram followers were even treated to a photo of Archie’s feet on Sunday to mark Mother’s Day in the US. This level of exposure might seem unique to the internet and social media age, but royal childhood was followed just as eagerly at the turn of the twentieth century.

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The History of Advertising Trust: preservation, management, and marketing in modern Britain

By Alistair Moir (Archive and Library Collections Manager, https://www.hatads.org.uk/.)

The History of Advertising Trust (HAT) is a nationally accredited archive service established in 1976 to preserve the heritage of the UK advertising industry and make it available for study and research. Today the HAT archive is the most comprehensive collection of British advertising and marketing communications in the world. Over the past forty years the Trust’s collections have developed into a truly unique resource for advertising industry and brand heritage records. Archives of several major advertising agencies and industry professional bodies form the core of HAT’s collections, alongside ephemeral press, poster and commercials collections.

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