Reimagining Public History in the COVID Era

This is a presentation essay I prepared for a conference in April 2021.

My talk today is about public history in the “COVID Era” — it is also about larger questions of relevance, service, and presentism. Over the past year, my day-to-day work as a public historian has changed to a degree that continues to surprise me. I became a public historian because I believe in the power of place. I wanted to work with people in and among landscapes that give us the room to step out of the present to understanding something universal about what it means to be human. On a practical level, this has meant having engaging discussions in auditoriums, on canal boats, in large mansions, and on the creaky floorboards of stuffy historic homes. Now, as with most people, I primarily connect with others through the internet. While this has allowed me to make new and far-flung contacts, I have also missed the sparks that come from directly interfacing with people in historic spaces. Before delving further into these topics, I want to talk about context. 

As I write this, more than 562,000 people in the United States have died from Coronavirus. I am starting with this fact, a kind of simple statement, because I don’t know anyone who hasn’t experienced great loss in the past year. Every one of us has had to adjust our lives in one way or many ways, and all of us have some awareness of this daunting figure. At the beginning of the pandemic, archivists, historians, and other practitioners of public history encouraged individuals, families, and communities to keep records of their lives in and out of quarantine. This may have seemed like a contained ask: an ideal spring or summer project for people spending more time inside, away from other activities. It felt like a promising moment to begin keeping a diary, or family log of new activities. I don’t want to diminish that moment by claiming there was novelty to it, but there was a sense that this was a small window of time worth remembering.   

A year later, we have many more deaths, a general exhaustion with quarantine, and few outlets or spaces set aside for mourning what haunts us. On national level, it was nearly a year into the pandemic before a leading figure called for a large-scale event for memorialization. Then President-elect Joseph Biden honored the first 400,000 on January 19, 2021 while acknowledging that “For many months, we have grieved by ourselves.” This event was for the dead and for the living; truly, a small gesture for the many who have suffered. None of this was expected or inevitable, and it remains hard to imagine talking about public history here and now without pausing for grief. That word can refer to grief in the sense of pain, the misery of feeling such sadness. Grief can also refer to a bother. This duality is well suited to discussions of Coronavirus. Many institutions, and many of our media outlets, have had less and less time and space for dealing with grief, as if it was simply in the way of “real life.” Despite this reluctance to face hard facts, we are indeed in a COVID era, and not just the throes of a pandemic.

Historians know that there was a similar nonresponse to the Flu Pandemic in the 19-teens and 1920s. There was no great halting of society, no mass memorialization, and a hundred years later, still few markers of that pandemic. Warren G. Harding didn’t create the term normalcy, but he certainly did bring it to the fore of American consciousness. We, too, have already heard those calls for a return to normal, and for what used to seem comfortable. With our historians’ brains, we might understand why people might find elements of the recent past a more alluring place. Still, we know that we cannot return to how the world used to be. One of the great challenges we face in moving forward is not just thinking about how we will all co-exist in close proximity again, but how we will recreate broken social bonds. Without openly and repeatedly talking about who we have lost, we cannot truly fathom the pain our audiences will be feeling for years to come.

This is not just because of the pandemic. The acts of violence against Black Americans, Asian Americans, and the attempted coup in January 2021 have taken a cumulative toll and further traumatized communities already under siege within systems of white supremacy.

When studying History, you may have wondered how people made it through other moments, particularly difficult ones. Now you know that the mundane acts of life seem to press on through moments of great upheaval. You have learned that even amidst marches of thousands in the streets and reports of mass burials, the world seems to keep going, and many are quick to smooth over the roughest edges of what others have just been through. Clint Smith has a poem that speaks to this: “When people say, ‘we have made it through worse before.’” He writes, “We are not all left standing after the war has ended. Some of us have become ghosts by the time the dust has settled.” 

Historians know that the people who remain have power over the stories we tell. Yet this past year has heightened my awareness (and I think others’) of the fact that a shared experience is still experienced radically differently. While we all have some level of fatigue surrounding these topics, reimagining of our field still demands a sharp focus on what we’ve been seeing, feeling, and living through, right up to now. This means honing a clearer and more sustained view of the present than most public historians have been trained to cultivate. In June 2020, The Brooklyn Museum posted a tweet about needing to postpone a regularly scheduled program. In solidarity with Black Lives Matter, the museum decided to “honor the space that our collective grief requires…” (June 5, 2020) In a more recent tweet, one of their social media authors wrote, “As we surpass the one year anniversary of the pandemic, we’re thinking about how exhausting this extended crisis has been and how we can seek rest even as we persevere.” (March 21, 2021) 

In such a small number of characters, this post models empathy, relevance, and a sense of community. This tweet also succinctly frames much of what has been happening within and around cultural institutions—the “extended crisis” that has seeped into our culture. Usually, a historical essay would not rely so much on very recent newspaper articles and social media posts. However, public history discourse is changing quickly and evolving online. My professional world (and probably yours, too) has gotten both smaller and more global through the web. In thinking about the state of the field or a “reimagining,” I want to situate the importance of these kinds of platforms and what it might mean for the future of our work.

Overall, people who work within public history have had to use virtual platforms much more to communicate with their audiences. Before last spring, I had never done a Facebook Live program, used Webex, or hosted an event on Zoom. What’s more, I had not known how to edit videos or write captions. Within a few months, however, I learned how to do all these things, and more, together with my colleagues. I spent more and more time in front of a screen, communicating through texts, emails, and other chats more than before. Instead of serendipitous interactions with the public, I was reviewing comments online and answering messages.   

There were some upsides, particularly before screen burnout became so acute. In lieu of a carpet storytime face-to-face, I could read on Facebook live. This allowed me to reach an audience that may not come into the park. Likewise, I was able to expand the audience for facilitated dialogue programs using virtual platforms. Though “Hands-on” programs went to the wayside, in their place, we experimented with how we could reach people through screens. Since we couldn’t hand out the thousands of trading cards we’d made on local leaders for the 19th Amendment centennial, using the same research, we worked on videos featuring those women. Those videos have reached more than the sum of cards we printed.

While focusing on virtual media, we also thought about how to address the pandemic and/or histories of public health. A discussion on the flu pandemic or medical history did not seem quite right for our audience, not yet. Then the New York Times published the headline “US Deaths Near 100,000, An Incalculable Loss,” followed by the list of names, and that seemed to finally grab ahold of people’s attention. In response, activists Adrianne Benzion and Jessica McEwan used that same format for “The Incalculable Loss Project” to highlight “names with those of unarmed African Americans who died during incidents of police brutality.” These initiatives spurred me and my colleagues to look anew at another public health crisis. Using obituaries from Robert John Quinn’s “Memorial Books” collected during the AIDS epidemic, we made a one minute video on local men who’d died as a result of the disease and used the framework of an “incalculable loss.”

While working on digital media, I had the chance to connect with new partners, such as The History Project: Documenting LGBTQ Boston, whose team preserved the Quinn “Memorial Books.” In addition to building outside relationships, I know that my institution was not alone in using some of this “doors closed” time to further develop research that had been sitting in various desktop folders. My work group spent months making app-based tours. I was also able to contribute to a few similar local projects, and to work on a “ghost sign” initiative, recreating a painted advertisement from the bygone patent medicine era. All these projects were portable, personal, and generally far more accessible. They also did not require the direct guidance or interpretation of a professional, and could be read, watched, or consumed at any time. Even when the doors were closed, we were still able to build interpretive connections with people, wherever they might find themselves.  

While building new relationships, I was seeing new or different risks, too; there were pervasive fears of intrusions on Zoom, and the lack of trust that can pervade an online space. There was also far more “backend” work with editing, audio descriptions, captions, and more. I’ve been doing social media work as part of my job for many years and continue to do that interpretive work on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. What changed in 2020 is that I was doing more of it than ever before and spending far more time on in-depth research posts. I was also showing more people how to do this kind of interpretation, often in lieu of presenting to the public on tours or at historic sites. People who had not really thought of social media or digital media as part of their work were suddenly asked to learn a lot of new skills. I saw this not only at my own workplace, but at so many institutions whose work I follow online. On one level, it is extremely gratifying to reach thousands of people with something you’ve written on Facebook, though the true reach of that work is often quite hard to measure.

While I’d like to portray this as a great moment in diversifying skill sets, there’s another element to this story. Walking to my car in late March 2020, I recall hearing news that ⅓ of museums that closed their doors “out of an abundance of caution” would likely never open again. Often, people had to learn new skills last year because they had missing colleagues and their entire workplace had been turned upside down. With layoffs, staff shrinkages, and more, people had to suddenly adapt to new workloads without the benefit of the teams they’d had even a month earlier. At least at the start of the pandemic, I wasn’t hearing that much about this (in a way that felt productive) on a national, or organizational level. Where I was reading about this was through the personal feeds of people I knew and respected in the field. Over a few months, I continued to see news about institutions closing their doors, more layoffs, hiring freezes, and “eliminated positions.”

As some people packed for telework, some people packed their things for good, and others had no choice but to keep showing up for work. Sometimes it was hard to discern a real pattern, or logic, in who was doing what, and why. Many people in the museum field also had this sense of fear, I think, about what was coming next. Then a larger story broke. At one especially well-known museum  where interpreters frequently discuss labor and activism, there were two competing narratives last summer about what needed to be done to keep the place afloat. On the one hand, the Tenement Museum was actively campaigning for financial support, emphasizing how important it was to preserve stories of working-class people and resistance. On the other hand, workers fought back against the narrative that their layoffs were the only path forward. Tenement Museum union representatives argued that “the pandemic closure is being used as an opportunity to circumvent our unionization [.]” (July 31, 2020) This was not an isolated case.

Through April and May, I read posts written by people who loved their jobs and either feared or knew they’d never get them back. I felt as though I was watching a field shrink in real time; I’m sure I’m not alone. Over the past year, it’s been hard to know why some institutions are opening or closing at any given time. For some, it’s too expensive to stay closed, and for others, too much to open the doors with so few people coming through each day. In a New York Times article from February 2021, “Is Seeing That Renoir Essential?” Julia Jacobs reports: “Epidemiologists do not have a simple answer as to whether museums should be open — and whether people should visit them — at this stage of the pandemic.” Overall, “‘The decision making has been really erratic,’ said Laura Lott, president of the American Alliance of Museums.”

This is not really a surprise given how “erratic” and uncoordinated the response to COVID-19 has been in general. The question in the NYT headline can be readily answered: no, seeing a Renoir painting isn’t essential. But many other “non-essential” operations have also been open almost without interruption. Museums area also treated differently than other kinds of public spaces. The relationships people have to museums and public history sites are different, in part, because we insist (and often work to have others agree) that these are special places. The American Alliance of Museums put out a tweet on March 24: “The ways a #museum can inspire are endless: acting as a hub for education, providing services to those in need during crises, combatting social isolation, providing space and resources for healing, and more.” I think this can be true, but I also wonder if we prepared to do that without a longer and deeper reckoning—or another reorientation away from heavy reliance on screens and virtual work.

 We are torn, in many ways, I think between the reality of the pandemic and the deep wish that this period of grief come to a close. Many of us have to balance the pull of the virtual with the needs of visitors walking through the doors. As visitors arrive in greater numbers each day, it’s useful to ask why, and to consider what they are looking for, or what they need. People in the fields of parks, recreation, and museums talk a lot and often in vague terms about the healing qualities of art and nature. We also discuss the value of community. It has been surprising to me that there has not been more of a conversation about the value of museums as places to “escape” this current moment, but that is because these places are as much doors as mirrors. As with many other facets of society, the deeply embedded systems of racism and white supremacy that are endemic to our culture are also prevalent in public history: “23% of visitors to the parks were people of color, the National Park Service found in its most recent 10-year survey; 77% were white.” One article aptly called this “an existential crisis.” (“Existential Crisis” July 2020) 

 Truly processing the grief not just of the past year, but of the traumas that have been inflicted on many Americans for hundreds of years, requires careful work. It also means listening so much more to communities online, and to people who have historically been marginalized and even kept out of “public” spaces for our so-called “shared” heritage. I think this also requires a hyper attentiveness to the context in which we are all living and using our skills to better understand our world as it is now. While training to become a historian, I was warned about presentism. I still agree with the idea that we should not rush to judgments or evaluations of the past based on values or common assumptions from today. However, I am increasingly convinced that some of this thinking is rooted in a fear of making certain audiences uncomfortable, particularly audiences who have long been made to feel safe/supported at historic sites. Put another way, sometimes a caution about presentism is really a fear of recognizing or reckoning with historical injustices or changing the demographics of who comes through the door.

In 2019, I hosted a community dialogue on “race and place,” and considering the industrial north and the history of slavery. As part of that talk, I had the opportunity to interview Maiyah Gamble-Rivers (from the Center for Slavery and Social Justice, Brown University). She said something I won’t soon forget about teaching and public history: “actually learning true history or a more complex history, it leaves a lot of young people frustrated and angry, right?” When speaking to young people who go to a school named after a person who profited off the slave trade, Gamble-Rivers explains, “what would it mean for me to then show up to students at middle school and say, ‘Oh, your school is named after the slave ship captain, he did X, Y and Z.’ I can’t just drop that on them and then and then expect them to continue…there definitely needs to be a conversation about how we equip educators to do that work, but also how do we prepare students for that knowledge? Because so much of our education has been about preserving myths and preserving this country.” 

With more than half a million dead, we should think daily about the myths that serve a system that does not serve all of us. In my work as an interpreter, I often paraphrase Joe Hill and discuss the ways that workers have mourned and organized. Looking broadly at public history, it’s a good as time as any to do both of those things. I think museums and public history sites can be spaces for healing, but not by ignoring the hurt or the racism that has been deeply rooted in the field. When museum directors post job advertisements seeking candidates who will suit their “traditional, core, white art audience” (“White Art Audience,” February 2021) it’s hard to justify such places as essential during a pandemic. Although some institutions have gone beyond diversity and equity statements, I suspect a good number will avoid, or will lack the staff to undertake, such work. 

I want to end by talking about the value of working with people who aren’t historians, or public historians. On one of my Facebook live programs, a group of artists reached out to me to work on a musical about a workers’ petition. This chat evolved into one of the most satisfying collaborations I have ever been part of — the end product, an EP, features songs that so wonderfully bridge the past and present. A creative cast of women artists took something that’s been covered in endless books and articles and gave it a new pulse. The first time I was able to listen to the EP in the museum space that inspired the songs, I cried. It felt good to do something human in a place where people have worked, mourned, and organized for hundreds of years. I hope that more people are able to join me in that, soon, and that we can talk about the way these years have changed us.

Mill Girl, Me Too, 2

(continued from the previous post)

Upon finding these sources, I wanted to know where else I might find evidence of people discussing harassment in and out of the workplace. A great source on many topics is The Lowell Offering, a magazine made by and for factory operatives from 1840-1845. Harriet Farley, one of the magazine’s editors, wrote the following in 1845:  “Another evil, to which factory girls may possibly be subjected, is, that of ‘flirtation,’ or insincere courtship.” Coming to a new place, these young women “are afar from fathers and brothers, that they are ignorant of the gallantries, and even of the courtesies of city gentlemen, that they are young, guileless, and confiding, it may be imagined that much unhappiness—to use the gentlest term—is the result.” Farley is making it clear that far from the idyllic picture painted by many corporation owners, women were not always secure in Lowell. She also notes, however, that not all women who entered into relationships were “fallen” women: “We will not allude to those errors were both are equally guilty, where there is no confidence betrayed; where there was no fall, because there was no elevation of character.” (282)

Historian Peter Baldwin gives us more context for “insincere” attention in his study, In the Watches of the Night. Focusing on women’s after-work hours, Baldwin notes that “women felt safe on the streets of Lowell because of their large numbers and the relative scarcity of men. Women in their twenties made up fully 25 percent of Lowell’s population in 1840, outnumbering men that age more than two to one. Teenage girls outnumbered teenage boys more than three to one.” While one contemporary observer noted that “at a given point on Central or Merrimack streets, for half an hour, of a pleasant evening, and probably two to three thousand people would pass him…three fourths are female” (39) women still did not always feel safe even in such large numbers. Baldwin argues, “Lowell women learned to avoid passing certain street corners or saloons.” (40) Late at night, “When the streets grew nearly deserted after the 10:00 p.m. curfew in the boardinghouses, young men drifted to the backstreet taverns or to brothels on the fringe of town.” (40)

On one end of the spectrum, I was finding evidence of undesired attention. On the other, I was soon discovering, were cases of extreme violence that were held up as examples. In instances were men violently abused or even murdered women, however, the lesson was not for men, but for women. In analyzing this aspect of the history, I took particular care with reading Elizabeth A. De Wolfe’s Murder of Mary Bean and Other Stories. This provided a context for understanding acts of violence (broadly defined) in “new” factory towns in New England in the 19th century. De Wolfe notes that with the high profile case of Sarah Cornell, her “death challenged mill agents’ claims that factory life was safe for the first generation of factory girls.” (57) Cornell wasn’t alone, either–there was also the case of Caroline Adams in Lawrence, MA and Berengera Caswell (1850).

On the one hand, mill girls read “prescriptive literature” which “asserted that once a woman began to turn away from virtue, there was no escape from ruin.” (23) Yet women like Caswell, who’d worked in Lowell then Manchester, NH (49) knew that life was not so black and white. They read about “menstrual regulators” in newspapers (25) and knew that in cases of consensual and non-consensual relationships, some women sought abortions. In Caswell’s instance, it was a badly performed abortion that led to her death and tragically, the dumping of her body in Saco, Maine. Caswell as found after a thaw. Descendants claimed she died in an ice skating accident. De Wolfe elegantly reminds us that her “life of independence and labor in the textile factories was erased and replaced with the memory of Berry in the heart of her domestic circle, a passive, and innocent victim once more.” (59) A sanitized view of the past makes no room for the lives of these women, nor for the kind of struggles they faced. This is why, more than a century later, we can imagine the Me Too movement as an entirely novel phenomenon.

There are still a few more Lowell sources worth exploring. Closer to home, Lowell operatives knew that some women took their own lives in situations of crisis. In 1849, Orrilla Durrell’s choice to die in a canal in a tightly packed city must have been highly traumatic for other operatives. Officially, she was “jilted” by a man in town; we cannot know the truth of their relationship or what she was really facing in that moment. De Wolfe provides excellent context for how this story was disseminated here. But in using these kinds of histories for a public program, it is important to remember that detailed, place-based anecdotes are not told simply for their own sake. We use stories in a public forum like a community conversation to reveal something specific and universal. Sitting in an old cotton mill, with a canal still flowing outside, it is important to pause, to consider what it must have been like (truly, the horror) of finding a colleague in desperation and crisis who chose to end her life in the rush of the power source of the city.

Karen Abbott’s work on mashing and harassment reminds us that these incidents are about control. As women came into new workplaces in large numbers, they knew their place financially; the best paid woman made less than any man. Yet these acts of violence and violation cut deeper. With mashing, Abbott explains, “Beneath the surface, the threat is there, letting women know that if they wanted more freedoms to venture out into society, then they would have to deal with this sort of attention. Mashing was a way to put women back in ‘their places’ and police their activity, decisions, and whereabouts.”

By way of conclusion, I want to honor the important work of historian Mary Blewett, who conducted the many interviews that served as the basis for both her book, The Last Generation, and much of the interpretive material at Lowell NHP. History may not repeat itself, but it does echo. In a city known for working women, Blewett notes that in the 1940s, it was still a shock for men to see women working at night. She argues, “To many men, the women who worked in the mills during World War II as slashers or for the first time on the night shift seemed a degraded and unsavory group.” (152) Once again, even being out at night was seen as an indictment of one’s character and in some cases, an opening for indecent conduct. It was no secret either, and we must not forget that. Prominent men who owned factories “were well aware of the sexual harassment of women by supervisors, which was one good reason to see to it that wives or daughters never entered the mill.” (154) One of the workers who is quoted in the book, and in the exhibit says simply: “the boys used to get away with murder!”

Perhaps the most chilling words in her book are these: “those whose memories were too painful refused to be interviewed.” (xvii) There are the stories we know, that we must grapple with, and many, many more that we will never know. Thus, we ended our program with a reflection on how we might think about “mill girls” and all workers differently. We handed out little slips of paper, encouraging people to share anything there that they had not wanted to say out loud. Several people wrote the two words that launched a new social movement. Several more wrote another two-word phrase: thank you.

Mill Girl, Me Too

On October 15, 2017, Alyssa Milano took to Twitter and encouraged “women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted” to write just two words: “Me too.” This, she hoped, would “give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem”–and it did. What is now referred to as the Me Too Movement began a decade earlier, not in Hollywood but with activist Tarana Burke. It was her words that provided the foundation, and Milano’s high profile status, that ignited a firestorm and a reckoning that continues today.

Almost exactly one year after Milano hit send on her tweet, the museum I work in hosted a community conversation on the history of sexual harassment. The title for this talk had slipped out of my mouth months earlier. Walking through the exhibits, noisy keys dangling from my carabiner, I imagined a program entitled “Mill Girl, Me Too.” This idea came to fruition in October 2018, serving as the first dialogue in a series called Lowell Talks.

When Lowell National Historical Park was first authorized by Congress more than 40 years ago, sexual harassment as we understand it today was finally being openly discussed in the context of the workplace. This site was created, in part, to tell worker’s stories, and especially women’s stories, in the contexts of labor and immigration history.  From the beginning, the park’s signature museum has included placards with workers’ words, verbatim, as well as a series of videos with oral histories. One of the placards in the weave room includes the words of a worker who experienced frequent harassment. It is popular to talk about “hidden” or “missing” histories as if the past is a balloon that slips from our fingers on a windy hilltop. This story was right here, all along, and this was the time to better understand who among her colleagues might have added “me, too” to her words.

The program we put together was not a lecture–it was a dialogue. One of the goals of this was to achieve a better shared understanding of sexual harassment as a historical problem and as an aspect of the lived experience today. To ensure that we had the right expertise in the room, we invited Isa Woldeguiorguis, a community leader and nationally recognized expert on anti-violence who serves as the Executive Director of The Center for Hope and Healing. After a question and answer period between me and Ms. Woldeguiorguis, we planned for the rest of the program to be a facilitated group dialogue. We followed the guidelines set out out by the Sites of Conscience, and heeded Sarah Pharaon’s statement: “Essential museums cannot fear being perceived as political in a world where all actions are becoming politicized.”

There is only so much that one can prepare in anticipation of a group dialogue. Simply put, you don’t know who will be coming, what stories they may want to share, or where the conversation will go. What I want to share here is how prepared for this discussion. If our guest was going to serve as an expert on the issue from a contemporary perspective, I wanted to be able to provide the historical background and context.

Here is some of what I read to get a sense of the scope of the problem of harassment today: Pew ResearchHidden Activists. This gave me a balanced look at the impact of Milano’s work AND the labor of working-class women fighting against systems of harassment today.

I then turned to the work of historians who were looking at this issue from a longer perspective. I especially recommend this article: Molly Brookfield, “Why It’s Bad When It’s ‘Not That Bad’” Nursing Clio May 1, 2018. Brookfield explains:

“At the turn of the twentieth century, women began to campaign against ‘mashers’ and ‘male flirts,’ men who accosted women in city streets. While ‘mashing,’ like street insults, involved all sorts of annoying and threatening behaviors, commentary on the phenomenon often latched on to looking, ogling, or leering as the most bothersome behavior.”

Here’s why this article was especially important. It gave me a period-specific term to research: mashing. If you are looking for the history of harassment with that term, you won’t find very much. As a quick aside, the term “sexual harassment” wasn’t widely used until the 1970s, with Sexual Shakedown. 

Next, I looked back through my general resources on “mill girls” to build something of a profile for this program. Per Thomas Dublin’s research in Women and Work, Mill girls generally: married later and married differently from their rural peers. They were also entering a veritable “world of women” upon coming to Lowell, where women might outnumber men 3:1 in certain contexts. Did this make them more or less vulnerable?

I decided to go back to the words written by early mill operatives to find some of my answers. A letter that had struck me as odd some months ago came back into my memory. On March 3, 1852, Eliza Bixby wrote the following to her brother: 

“I am glad Lydia has made up her mind to go and earn her own living but I am sorry very sorry she has been so regardless of my advice to her about going top that mill I have worked there before her…one objection which is greater than all the rest is that she has gone to work for Mr H- for he is one of the greatest villains I ever got acauinted with without exceptions I summered and wintered there before I even dreamed of his character which proved to be to seduce every innocent girl that was in his power let me tell you of one instance of his artfulness”

Later: “he beconed to me to come sit on his knee I refused….he locked the door then seated himself by my side and took that ring off his finger and put it on mine…then put his arm around me clinching both of my wrists put his face over my nose so I could not breathe through it. At the same time sucking my breath from my mouth untill [sic] I became so exasted I lay me down on the sofa at that moment a rap at the door stoped his career…

Call me a baby for being [willing] left alone yet do not expose me out of the family I told you this as proof of Mr H—character and this is but one instance they are two numerous to mention yet he is a mon of good qualities I fear they  are very few that him that he has not tried  to rob of there Chastity I wish Lydia would shun this man as she would a lion for he is an artful rogue”

This letter is not that difficult to decipher: Lydia is describing a serial harasser, a menace to the community. She is also making us privy, so many years later, to a second fact: women DID write to one another, and other family members, about predatory people in the workplace. This is not a whisper network, it’s a peer into a letter chain that has somehow survived.

Notably, another case from around this period ended up in the Lowell Daily Courier. An article from December 20, 1847 relates the testimony of Elvira C. Mitchell against Dr. Ingalls, Farmer in Lowell:

  • ‘He held me by the throat, so that I could not ___’
  • “Elvira was examined minutely upon points of a delicate nature, in order to lay a foundation for corroboratory evidence.”
  • ‘She did not scream. He held her so that she could not cry out.’
  • “Mrs Tuck of Beverly…recollects that Elvira walked out with Miss Farmer. When they came home, heard them converse on the stairs; Elvira said she was a ruined girl, that she could never look her friends in the face again.”

There is more coverage, this time from the Boston Post, December 18, 1847, p.2: 

“Dr Ingalls, a short, pale young man, on an indictment alleging that at Lowell, on the 18th of May, upon Elvira C. Mitchell, he violently and feloniously an assault did make…”

This article reminds us that “Miss Mitchell” was a minor: 16 years old. She worked for the Suffolk Corporation. She may have imagined that Lowell would be an adventure–an opportunity to earn money for herself, for others, or for a future.


400 Years

Remarks I delivered at a commemorative ceremony marking the 400th anniversary of the arrival of enslaved African people in present-day Virginia: 

Four hundred years ago, privateers brought forth, on this continent, the beginnings of what would become a new nation. This nation, conceived in liberty and in slavery, would struggle henceforth with the proposition that all people are indeed created equal. The first enslaved people that arrived from Africa in the English colonies were stolen. They were not the first to be enslaved in the Americas; they were far, far from the last. The story of American slavery is one that precedes 1619 and ripples well into the present, in forms of social injustice, bigotry, and malice.

Today, we are still engaged in a great internal battle, testing whether this nation, or any nation so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure. We are not on a battlefield but we are in a war of ideas and conflicting truths. We come together, today, to think of those who forcibly gave their lives and their labor, and who have been robbed of their freedom so that this nation could exist. The stories of the enslaved are often called “hidden,” “unknown,” or “lost.” Who did the hiding, and who did the losing? When did you first learn about enslavement as a historical fact? And when did you first really come to terms with what it would have meant to be bartered, purchased, or sold in the land of the free?

We cannot merely dedicate this day, this ground, this moment. We have to take up the call to make use of the past in the service of truth, in living up to our name as America’s storytellers and our obligation as citizens of this place, this time. Indeed, “the world will little note, nor long remember what we say here” we are but one site, one place marking this moment. Still, we ought to remember the “unfinished work” of democracy that led to a bloody war; we should commemorate those who believed that this nation could have “a new birth of freedom, and” a “government of the people, by the people, for the people [.]” That has often been an imperiled, unmet promise. Let us work for a better future, starting by looking clearly at the past.

Eugenics: A Cultural Inheritance

Note: this essay and accompanying list of articles may be used as a subject guide for researching historical newspapers on the topic of Eugenics in Connecticut. 
The Inheritance of Eugenics
Over the course of a little more than a century, Connecticut changed from a place where
ardent social reformers worked to create cutting-edge, therapeutic spaces for the deaf and mentally ill to a state on the forefront of eugenic science and legal action. Though eugenic science was influential nationwide, a closer look at one state, and particularly a state once thought to be especially progressive in this area, can perhaps illuminate how this corrosive way of thinking came to be mainstream.

In the early 19th century, specialized retreats and asylums in CT provided, in some cases, hitherto unknown levels of clinical attention and care to those with select cognitive and physical disabilities. Yet, over time, these places became overcrowded and in turn, critics encouraged ways of managing disability and difference. The “colony plan,” which favored larger facilities and increased use of institutionalization, became an ideal. At the same time, the industrial revolution brought decades of intensifying immigration and new levels of poverty, housing shortages, and crime. Now, even colonies were thought too small to manage the growing social problems of the day. In response, some elites in Connecticut—along with their peers in other states—gravitated toward explanations of social disruption rooted in science. Drawing upon the new language of heredity, reformers now argued that intellectual and developmental disability, epilepsy, poverty, and propensity to crime were inheritable and yet just as importantly, preventable. This thinking came from the science of eugenics.

Reacting to the sweeping changes around them, some figures, including Connecticut’s
once esteemed Lakeville School superintendent George H. Knight, argued that Connecticut should apply tools of “better breeding” that had been developed from within the natural sciences for plants and animals to humans. Knight was not alone in this thinking. As these digitized historical newspapers show, many physicians and other respected professionals in the state were keen to embrace eugenics and the idea that races of people could be “bettered” through legal restrictions on human procreation. To that end, legislators worked to codify select marriage prohibitions and sterilizations into law, with the support of administrators such as Dr. Charles T. La Moure. During his tenure at Lakeview, in 1917 La Moure argued for a bill that urged large-scale “custodial” care of the “feeble-minded” so as to prevent the birth of more criminals as well as the poor and sex workers.

Connecticut historical newspapers offer a window into this moment when eugenics took
off. For years, the work undertaken by professionals in local “hygiene” groups related to
eugenics, along with the projects of national reformers, were featured in daily newspapers. Not all are explicitly linked to eugenics scientists per se, but all trace their genesis to eugenic thinking. For instance, some newspapers reported on the features of ideal babies, while others printed articles on how criminality could be tracked through genetics and found in an individual’s features. Unfortunately, the voices of those who were most affected by eugenic thinking—those who were actually sterilized or institutionalized—are difficult to find in local papers. Yet stories about such persons can also be found when reading against the grain. Overall, there is no shortage of evidence that this kind of social engineering was in the lives of most in CT, in some way.

It is important to note that Connecticut’s eugenic marriage law, which carried prison
terms for marrying someone from any of the proscribed groups, may not have actually ever been used to imprison. Likewise, it is unclear how often sterilization was actually ordered by the 
boards assigned to this task in state institutions. What’s more, not everyone was in favor of eugenics. Some Connecticut residents who vehemently opposed eugenic measures such as marriage bans and sterilizations, made their views known in letters to the editor and lectures. Finding all of these types of stories presents a more balanced view of how eugenic thinking influenced people in this area.
Connecticut’s history provides an important case study when considering the state’s early adoption of both 19 th century social reform and 20 th century eugenic thinking. Ultimately, to better understand how society grappled with these phenomena, national histories on changes in legislation and broad movements ought to be paired with these newspapers, where we can see local actors dealing with these highly complex issues. Eugenics principles were deeply engrained in the thinking of lawmakers, social reformers, and physicians through the 1930s, and in some cases, well beyond World War II; these local papers provide at least part of that story.
How to Search
Entering “eugenic” and “marriage” in the search box called “All the Words” will yield many relevant results. Using the term “social hygiene” in the search box called “Phrase” will be a productive route to learn about social and reformist groups related to eugenics.
For a more focused project on local people and eugenics, the “Women’s Social Page” in the Bridgeport Evening Farmer is a useful place to start. Here, researchers can glean information on the Connecticut Society of Social Hygiene. Richer details on speeches and meetings can also be found by searching for “Valerie Parker,” “Valeria Parker,” “Dr. Parker,” or a variation of those with an H. between the first and last name, I.E., “Valerie H. Parker.”

Examining articles with “heredity” or “hereditary” will also reveal the ways that discourses of genetics and theories about criminality became connected. This term will also return articles on farming, work at the grange, and the Connecticut Agricultural College (UConn). This search reveals the connections between the historic study of “better breeding” of plants and the social projects of eugenics. Finally, a considerable number of articles are available on those who were dubbed “Feeble-minded,” a category no longer used to describe persons with cognitive disabilities today. To better understand this history, searching with this term will provide material for gaining insight on how ideas about disability have changed over time.

A targeted search with the phrasing “better babies” will reveal how this language spilled over into advertisements for commercial products, for local gatherings and fairs, and articles on motherhood. There are also considerable results for “baby contest(s).” Researching this topic will also be useful for projects on rural amusements, such as fairs and other social gatherings.
Sample Results 


While many older towns in New England have a historic green & at least one quaint row of historic homes, Auburn, Massachusetts is different. For the better part of two centuries, Auburn has been an important hub for transportation. In addition to the many small and meandering side roads, Auburn is well known for access routes to major interstates and highways. With connectors to Routes 12 and 20, I290, I90, and I395, Auburn certainly provides easy access to nearby suburbs and the city of Worcester just eight miles away. If those numbers don’t register anything for you, all you need to know is this: Auburn is a busy, modern suburban landscape with byways crisscrossing through at nearly every turn. 

Preservationists and historians tend to write about the places where historical structures and landscapes are more or less intact. We’re looking for the sites where we can show something that resembles the way it was. Auburn is not the best place to understand how colonists in Massachusetts built communities radiating from a town common. Nor is it a starting place for grasping the development of mill villages or industrialization in the 19th and 20th centuries in New England. But it is a great place to understand how small certain types of community spaces persist into the present, even and perhaps especially in places where people have decided that imminent domain will rule the day.

Having lived in another suburban area with curious planning practices, I am keen to look for cemeteries in places where (to the contemporary eye) they ought not to exist. So, it was with a mix of disgust and delight that I visited the historic cemetery known as  West Auburn Burial Ground on Waterman Rd. and Southbridge St. Today, this burial ground is surrounded by many modern buildings and busy connectors. From within the stone walls that mark the parameters of the cemetery, however, there are stones that capture important stories and conjure difficult, rebellious periods of the past. 

At the onset, this cemetery was first created for the Warren and Goulding families. Jonah Goulding, who served in the Revolutionary War, was one of the 26 men who fought for Ward (Auburn). Goulding continued fighting after the war, participating in Shays’ Rebellion. As a consequence, Goulding was sentenced to die for an act of legal obstruction, but this was not to be. Goulding was later pardoned and lived until 1826, when he was buried here in this cemetery.

Another notable Auburn resident buried here is Richard B. Jennison (1842-1864). A member of the 36th Regiment, Massachusetts, Jennison enlisted in the army at the age of twenty, interrupting his life as an Auburn farmer. Jennison was only in his 24th year when he died, an event plainly marked on his gravestone which reads:  “Starved in Andersonville.” One of the largest Confederate military prisons used during the Civil War, Andersonville became the final battleground for too many young men. During the 14 months that the “rebel prison” was run by Confederates, more than 45,000 Union soldiers were held captive; nearly a third, or 13,000 perished. Some people recreate at Andersonville today; there are even camps hosted on occasion. As for Jennison, there is no high ground in pretending that he is better remembered by his community.  Today, his dirty marker is seeping into the earth of a site overshadowed by a Wendy’s. 




A Pocket History 

Just over a year ago, I began writing this blog as a way to document some of my experience as a public historian. My first post was about giving a talk at a centennial NPS event in Boston. Last month, I was invited back to Boston National Historical Park (at the Navy Yard in Charlestown) to talk once again about women and war work, with a focus on World War II. As part of this event, I was also honored to serve on a panel about the legacies of Rosie the Riveter with a fellow researcher, a welder, and a gardener who has made her own rugged clothing line for women. Over the course of the day, our conversation circled around a few key themes, including: how women’s work cultures have changed, the significance of World War II to current public perceptions of women’s labor, and the ways that clothing shapes social cues of exclusion and inclusion.
Now, for a little backstory on why clothing was and is so important. During World War II, women working in government-run and/ or private shipyards as “Rosies” or SWONs – Shipbuilding Women of the Navy – needed sturdy and safe protective gear. But uniforms of that period and for that type of work were generally (I am always hesitant to definitively say exclusively) designed for men. In newspapers and other publications where SWONs were discussed, reporters fretted over this need for new patterns for women. Yet  specific size or shape differences per se were rarely up for discussion. The issue was, by design, cultural and not practical. It was not as if pattern makers or tailors were altogether rare. It was the taboo, the threshold about to be crossed that raised alarm. Looking back, we can see that it was not so much the precise outfitting needs but the matter of how women could do this kind of work and avoid the risk of appearing unfeminine. Put another way: could women be temporarily outfitted in this gear needed for heavy labor without something more fundamental shifting in their own minds and in the broader public?
These questions resonated with some urgency among the female panelists who work in industrial and manual crafts today. The presenters who work in horticulture and welding, respectively, had done “hacks” to make their existing uniforms fit and suit their needs. I want to dwell here a moment. This words fit and suit are simply so apt. When male outfits are the norm in a line of work, how are women and frankly, anyone whose bodies do not conform to existing patterns supposed to react? How does one NOT see this issue of outfitting as a sign that on some level, one is being pegged as somehow less fit for the job?
Taylor Johnson, who also spoke to this issue, struggled to find good pants while working as a gardener in Boston. So she began her quest to “fit” in her field by unraveling what she knew about women’s clothing manufacturing. She took to researching clothing archives, NAFTA policies, and the contours of historic women’s patterns. What she found was a strong tradition of clothing made for women (by women) that is now largely forgotten in our world of cheaply made, disposable, mass produced textiles. Inspired by prewar women’s work dresses and the strength of historic denim, she reached out to designers and tailors to have her own line of custom-made apparel. The demand for more clothing of this kind has been overwhelming.
There are a few lessons in her story, I think. We talk so much about the social cues women internalize when it comes to work. It’s important to also examine the ways in which gatekeepers use something as basic as clothing to send messages about who belongs. Yet Johnson’s discovery of now abandoned designs for women (IE the practical yet tailored work dress) should also caution us about the problems with easy or linear narratives about the past. Historically, of course women needed sturdy work clothes. Of course they knew how to make them, or how to find someone who did. It is our own presentism and reliance on (unethical) systems of cheap (for whom?) clothing production that largely makes such histories harder to see.
Yet I also think there’s something particular about the Rosie figure (who, I should add, is what brought us all together) that is especially important to this discussion. Why isn’t there a better collective sense, today, about this history of women’s industrial garb? Well, let’s consider the pervasive image of women working that we do know–Rosie. Few women who worked during the war in heavy trades looked like Rosie the Riveter at work. On some level, most folks today might assume or intuit this, remembering if they choose to do a little homework that indeed, she was a product of wartime propaganda, not a true-to-life portrait. Many young women now, after all, have seen far more of her than any woman who worked in a defense plant 70+ years ago. Rarely seen and only briefly disseminated during the war, Rosie has had a far, far more robust postwar life than the artist could have imagined. So, this must make us think: what kind of “cultural work” is the image/icon of Rosie doing in the postwar period? Is this prominence perhaps linked to the “forgetting” of the earlier (and more supportive, perhaps?) culture surrounding women’s work wear? Keep in mind: the Rosie most folks focus on replicating in art and selfies today is quite different from Norman Rockwell’s own “Rosie,” a busy worker whose denim-based outfit might be far more reasonable for heavy lifting, then and now.
When seen through this lens of fashion and fit, the image of Rosie most know best might not seem quite so inspiring  for women; instead, it might be read as presenting a false hiccup in a narrative about women’s place in industry. OK, I’ll admit it: even after two entire days of considering “the Rosie,” I am left with so much ambivalence.
I find this image both incredibly inspiring (she’s so proud!) and somehow very depressing (must she be so glamorous?). During my talk, I also argued that we cannot view this very famous woman-in-a-kerchief in isolation. After all, who is the other, arguably even more pervasive image of a kerchiefed woman from the 20th century? If you can’t remember, you might have an image of her in your pantry or refrigerator. Should you need to pay either a visit, you just may find that Aunt Jemima’s head is fully covered (in a very similar red kerchief). But she is smiling, for in this form of propaganda, difficult and demanding work is portrayed as simply delightful. In this way, Rosie is at least in part a symbol of privilege – a marker of a moment when people chose to see the issue of finding clothing for (mostly white) women to wear in a defense plant as a totally puzzling endeavor.