Tag Archives: historiography

How to Dig Into the History of Your City, Town, or Neighborhood

11 Jun
A Sanborn Fire Insurance Map from Lincoln, Nebraska, from 1903.

A Sanborn Fire Insurance Map from Lincoln, Nebraska, from 1903. LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

During the past few months of lockdown, I’ve been taking daily walks around my Brooklyn neighborhood. As I’ve strolled the same streets week after week, I’ve started paying attention to buildings in a way I never had before. My roommate and I turned this into a sort of historical scavenger hunt. Each of us takes photos or writes down addresses during our separate constitutionals, and back at home we look up the history of the buildings. We’ve learned that a luxury condo building was previously a 19th-century home for “respectable aged and indigent females,” that a stately brick house was the mansion of a wealthy piano manufacturer, and that, between the 1880s and World War II, our neighborhood was a thriving shoe manufacturing district.

Wherever you live, the built environment tells stories. During this period of limited movement, uncovering those stories can help you feel a sense of discovery, even in your immediate surroundings, even among the very familiar. “Every community has value, and one of the ways you can realize it is to start looking, and analyzing, and thinking about it,” says Gabrielle Esperdy, a professor of architecture and design at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, and the editor of SAH Archipedia, a digital encyclopedia of more than 20,000 American buildings.

So begins Lauren Vespoli’s fine essay on doing local history. You may read the entire Atlas Obscura piece here.

Who Defines Evangelicalism? An Interview with Mark Noll

29 Apr

President Donald Trump holds an Evangelicals for Trump rally at a Miami megachurch in January of 2020. (Adam DelGiudice/Echoes Wire/Barcroft Media/Getty)

Now more than three years into Donald Trump’s presidency, amid the coronavirus pandemic and his run for reelection, the debate over his white evangelical base continues to rage. Columns and editorials have been written, pundits have clashed, friendships and family ties have been strained. Through it all, some basic questions have underwritten the exchange—What is an evangelical? To whom does the label apply? What policies and politicians should an evangelical support? Of all the recent books tackling these questions on American evangelicalism—and there are many—one stands out as complete and comprehensive.

Mark Noll, David Bebbington, and George Marsden—all esteemed scholars of American religious history—have assembled an impressive line-up of contributors in their edited volume, Evangelicals: Who They Have Been, Are Now, and Could Be. Bebbington, now retired from Scotland’s University of Sterling, is perhaps best known for outlining four main characteristics of evangelicalism. Marsden and Noll, who held the same chair in succession at Notre Dame, have also long explored the salient traits of evangelicals, including their role in higher education. In Noll’s 1994 book about the tension between his twin loves of intellectualism and evangelicalism, he famously wrote, “The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind.”

In this latest volume, Noll has helped bring together many minds to ponder different facets of the questions facing evangelicalism. Among them are names that have appeared in the pages of Religion & Politics and around the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics, including Darren DochukMolly WorthenKristin Kobes Du MezJemar TisbyTimothy Keller, and Thomas S. KiddEric C. Miller spoke recently with Noll about the book by phone. Their conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

So begins a fascinating interview by Eric C. Miller of historian and evangelical Mark Noll about a new book on evangelicalism. You may read the entire Religion and Politics piece here.

Triscuits–what’s in a name?

12 Apr

On March 25, Sage Boggs shocked the twittersphere with his revelation that the brand name Triscuit was a portmanteau of “electricity” and “biscuit.” In a time when seemingly all anyone can talk about is the coronavirus pandemic, Boggs’s thread provided some much-needed levity and excitement. It elicited a statement from Triscuit’s official Twitter account: “We had to go all the way up the ladder but we CAN confirm.” The account even added a lightning bolt to its username and changed its bio to “elecTRIcity biSCUIT.”

But do we really know Boggs is right?

So begins historian Charles Louis Richter’s investigation of the origins of the name of the Triscuit cracker–pushing back against the Twitter linking of the naming to electricity. You may read Richter’s entire Contingent Magazine post here.

Diaries & Journals are what historians will look for to source the history of this pandemic.

31 Mar
Ady calls her diary Ela, as in the first syllable of the word “elephant” (one of her favorite animals).


Before the end of life as we knew it, Ady, an 8-year-old who lives in the Bay Area of San Francisco, read a biography of Anne Frank.

When she realized that she, too, was living through what would soon become history, Ady started keeping her own diary.

In one early entry, she recorded that the judging for her county’s science fair would be conducted over the phone, rather than in person. “Not ‘fair’!!” she wrote. “Har, har, very funny.”

When Santa Cruz County enacted a shelter-in-place order on March 16, she again picked up her pen.

“I’m REALY scared!” she wrote. “Did you know this is getting so bad that I have to go my clarinet lessons on the cumputer!!”

So begins Amelia Nierenberg’s New York Times piece on diaries and journals of this pandemic time. You may read her entire article here.

Slavery, History, and Relativism

1 Feb

Recently, John Turner contributed an important post concerning John Myles, one of the founders of the American Baptist tradition, and in the process, he noted that Myles owned several slaves. Myles was certainly not alone in that. By any measure, Jonathan Edwards was one of the greatest figures in early American history, a brilliant religious leader, and a daunting polymath. We also know that in 1731 he traveled to Newport, Rhode Island, in order to buy a slave, a “Negro girl named Venus,” and that at various time he might have owned as many as six slaves. Those facts are not in dispute. But how should they affect his reputation, or how we commemorate him? By extension, we also know that a great many distinguished early Americans in the secular realm were slave holders, including a large portion of the founding generation of national leaders, and so were many institutions, particularly colleges. What should we do with that information?

So begins historian Philip Jenkins’ thoughtful analysis of thinking morally about the past. You may read his entire Anxious Bench post here.

Christian humility and the task of history: Recovering the legacy of Herbert Butterfield

21 Jan

Just over seventy years ago, in the autumn of 1948, several hundred people gathered at noon across seven consecutive Saturdays in Cambridge. The location was a lecture hall on Mill Lane, and they were there to hear the eminent historian Herbert Butterfield.

So begins Australian historian Simon Kennedy’s essay on Butterfield’s classic lecture series Christianity and History. You may read the entire essay here.

Q: “Sir, would you like a history of this monument?” A: “F**k You!”

22 Mar

Members of Historians for a Better Future planned to encounter many personalities along the sidewalk when we set up in front of the Women of the Confederacy monument at the State Capitol building in Raleigh, North Carolina, on September 8, 2017. During our Free History Lesson, we stood holding banners connecting the monument to white supremacy and passing out histories. When one of our educators approached a passerby with an offer of a free historical brochure, he received a decided “F**k you.” But other educators reported finding common ground with most individuals, and some pedestrians expressed encouragement. Motorists used horns and hand gestures to express disappointment or support for our work. Such a range of responses not only indicate the charged climate for public dialogue about history, but also how, in this volatile time, education looks very much like protest.

To read the rest of the report from Historians for a Better Future at the National Council for Public History site, click here.


14 Feb

Frederick Douglass portrait

This year’s Black History Month coincides with the 200th birthday of Douglass, and it’s an ideal occasion to rectify some unfortunate ways in which this influential writer has continued to be misrepresented and misunderstood—and not simply by the likes of Trump. Specifically, consider this famous quote that has been attributed to Douglass for decades: “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”

William Cheng offers a fine piece of historiography here about Douglass and a quote attributed to him. You may read his entire piece at the Pacific Standard here.

A disturbing new report on how poorly schools teach American slavery

5 Feb

Consider this from a disturbing new report on how U.S. schools teach — or, rather, don’t teach — students about the history of slavery in the United States:

  • Only 8 percent of U.S. high school seniors could identify slavery as the central cause of the Civil War.
  • 68 percent of the surveyed students did not know that slavery formally ended only with an amendment to the Constitution.
  • Only 22 percent of the students could correctly identify how provisions in the Constitution gave advantages to slaveholders.
  • Only 44 percent of the students answered that slavery was legal in all colonies during the American Revolution.

These results are part of an unsettling new report titled “Teaching Hard History: American Slavery,” which was researched over the course of a year by the Teaching Tolerance project of the nonprofit Southern Poverty Law Center. The report includes results of surveys of U.S. high school seniors as well as social studies teachers in all grades — nationally representative of those populations — as well as an analysis of 15 state content standards, and a review of 10 popular U.S. history textbooks. The best textbook achieved a score of 70 percent against a rubric of what should be included in the study of American slavery; the average score was 46 percent.

So begins a Washington Post report by Valerie Strauss on how well the history of slavery is taught in U.S. high schools. You may read the rest of Strauss’ report here.


Sometimes the Records Tell Different Stories

23 Jan

The past is the past. History is what someone says about what happened in the past. Historians, and others, consult textual records, oral histories, non-textual records, and artifacts to find evidence of the past. Needless to say, persons writing about people, places, and things observe and/or record those things from their own perception and sources at hand, which might be their own eyes and ears. Thus, it is understandable that two people witnessing the same thing might have a different view of what they saw or heard. To some degree, this should be just common sense to everybody, but it is useful to be periodically reminded of this.

So begins Dr. Greg Bradsher’s essay at the National Archives site about sorting out records of the past that differ. You may read the entire essay here.

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