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.
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.
By Sam Collings-Wells (@Sam_cw_)
‘And they hide their faces / And they hide their eyes / Cause the city is dyin’/ And they don’t know why’.
These lyrics from Randy Newman’s 1977 ‘Baltimore’—later made famous by Nina Simone’s justly celebrated cover—perfectly captured the spirit urban life during the mid-1970s. Historians would later pinpoint the variety of forces that were killing America’s 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 Newman’s 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
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. 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.
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.
By Jeremiah J. Garsha (@jjgarsha)
It is comforting to think of the collecting of human heads as existing in the distant past. When visitors to the Pitt-Rivers Museum in Oxford marvel at the shrunken heads display, they do so under a combination of alterity and distancing. The process of shrinking the heads renders them distinguishable from life-sized heads, as does their distant geographic origins as creations by Amazonian ‘tribes’ bought by Victorians as souvenirs. Visitors to art museums also encounter human heads. Dubbed memento mori, the appearance of skulls in early modern European works of art was a leitmotiv reflecting mortality. Viewers of these paintings can relegate even this artistic practice as existing in a removed history, like the objects themselves.
By Tom Smith (@TomEtesonSmith)
Last Wednesday, 4 April, the world commemorated the assassination fifty years earlier of a man widely regarded as one of the twentieth century’s greatest figures. Martin Luther King Jr. is best remembered for having played an instrumental role in securing the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by the U.S. federal government, and for doing so through an unwavering commitment to non-violence and interracial cooperation. Accordingly, the shooting of this Nobel Peace Prize laureate is seen to epitomize the tumultuous year of 1968 in U.S. history, during which opposition to the Vietnam War and ongoing racial antagonism saw American society turn from peace to violence, and from consensus to division.
By Helen Sunderland (@hl_sunderland)
The recent success of The Vietnam War, a television documentary co-directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, shows the enduring legacy of the conflict in popular memory. Broadcast as a ten-hour series in the UK on BBC Four and originally aired with an even longer running time on PBS, the series is ambitious in its detail and scope. That such an in-depth history can still prove gripping, accessible and popular shows how the Vietnam War continues to loom large in the psyche. Read more
Tom Smith (@TomEtesonSmith)
The Declaration of Independence, approved on 4 July 1776 by the thirteen colonies which were about to form the United States of America, has returned to the headlines recently after a parchment copy of the iconic document, only the second known to exist, was discovered in the somewhat unlikely surroundings of the West Sussex Record Office. The excitement generated by this discovery on both sides of the Atlantic is testament to the enduring power of the Declaration. Read more
In the second of our posts on doing research abroad, Tom Smith (@TomEtesonSmith) traverses the United States.
Working on American history from a British university as I do, it was inevitable that at some point during my PhD research I was going to have to spend some time abroad. Courtesy of two Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded fellowships, first at the Huntington Library in California, and secondly at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC, ‘some time’ rapidly became more-or-less an entire year. While I was somewhat daunted by the prospect of abandoning family, friends, and familiar settings to enter the political inferno that is the contemporary United States, this was too good an opportunity to pass up. Read more
By Bennett Ostdiek
As an American living in the UK, I often get asked about the presidential election, particularly my views on Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. My British and European friends cannot understand why two polar opposite figures are becoming significant in American politics at the exact same time. To this question, I always respond that Trump and Sanders are two sides of the same coin, and should be understood in relationship to each other. They are both ‘populists’: politicians who appeal to the hopes and fears of the general population by contrasting the interests of “the people” with the interests of political and corporate elites.
By Bennett Ostdiek
On January 22, 1862, nine months into the American Civil War, Henry Hotze arrived in London. Hotze had come to London to serve as a propaganda agent for the Confederate States of America. His mission was simple – to convince Her Majesty’s Government to grant official diplomatic recognition to the Confederacy. Both Hotze and the Confederate government believed that once Britain recognized Southern independence as an accomplished fact, the United States government would do the same and give up its military efforts to bring the seceded states back into the Union. At stake was nothing that than the independence of his homeland and the future of its signature institution – slavery.