The Asiatic Cholera Pandemic of 1832

As you well know, in many ways the 1830s is a distant mirror of today. A time of promise but also unsettling social, political and technological changes, it, too, faced and survived its own pandemic: the Asiatic cholera, which appeared in the United States in 1832. Cholera causes severe abdominal cramps, sudden and profuse diarrhea and vomiting. The rapid loss of body fluids causes the faces of its victims to turn blue, and death by dehydration usually comes within a few days or even hours of onset.

Like COVID-19, cholera first broke out in Asia and spread through increasingly frequent travel and a global trade network. The first cholera pandemic occurred in 1817, and the world has faced at least six more outbreaks since. In 1831, the deadly disease again appeared and spread west. It killed hundreds of thousands across Russia, Austria-Hungary and Germany. Later that year it reached Western Europe and continued its spread into 1832. London saw 6,536 deaths and Paris over 20,000. Fifty-five thousand died throughout Great Britain as a whole, and 100,000 died across France. A voracious and increasingly ubiquitous news media—daily newspapers—spread fear even faster than the disease itself. Americans read how cholera ravaged Asia and Europe and hoped the Atlantic Ocean would protect them. It did not. By June, the disease appeared in Canada and the United States, where it initially struck New York and along the Mississippi River and soon spread, especially in rapidly growing urban areas. Days after the first deaths were reported in New York City, former mayor Philip Hone confided to his diary, “This dreadful disease increases fearfully; there are eighty-eight new cases today, and twenty-six deaths. Our visitation is severe but thus far it falls much short of other places. St. Louis on the Mississippi is likely to be depopulated, and Cincinnati on the Ohio is awfully scourged.”

No one knew what caused this terrifying disease or how it was spread. Was it contagious? Many blamed “miasma,” or bad air. Some said it was bad oysters, unripe fruit or other contaminated food. French doctors saw a link to poverty and crowded living conditions. Since there was no definitive test, many saw the signs and symptoms of cholera, that is, diarrhea or vomiting, and fearfully thought it was the dreaded cholera. Some saw this scourge as nothing less than the wrath of an angry God, punishing a sinful world. Others suspected that contaminated drinking water was to blame, but no one knew for sure until British doctor John Snow proved it in 1854 when he traced the source of a local cholera outbreak to a single neighborhood pump. Almost three decades later, in1883, a water-borne bacterium called Vibrio cholerae was discovered to be the specific cause of cholera.

Many Americans in 1832 blamed recent immigrants and their lifestyles, particularly the Irish. Philip Hone lamented to his diary that the disease was likely brought to western cities by

“emigrants from Europe; Irish and Germans coming by Canada, New York, and New Orleans, filthy, intemperate, unused to the comforts of life and regardless of its proprieties. They flock to the populous towns of the great West, with disease contracted on shipboard, and increased by bad habits on shore. They inoculate the inhabitants of those beautiful cities, and every paper we open is only a record of premature mortality. The air seems to be corrupted, and indulgence in things heretofore innocent is frequently fatal now in these ‘cholera times.'”

New York merchant, philanthropist (and early promoter of Santa Claus) John Pintard observed that cholera “is almost exclusively confined to the lower classes of intemperate dissolute & filthy people huddled together like swine in their polluted habitations.” He also cynically opined, “Those sickened must be cured or die off, & being chiefly of the very scum of the city, the quicker [their] dispatch the sooner the malady will cease.” As had been the case from the ancient world through the witch craze of the 17th century and beyond, the first impulse of many was to blame “the other,” i.e. social outcasts.

Newspapers and magazines ran charts reporting the number of cases and deaths day by day and stories of those who died in towns and cities across the country, often with frightening details. Without authoritative medical bodies like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) or the World Health Organization (WHO), periodicals were rife with letters and articles from named and unnamed experts offered often-contradictory opinions and advice. This only fueled fear and uncertainty.

How did early Americans react to this terrifying and often fatal illness, which caused patients’ faces to turn blue as fluids rapidly left their bodies? For many, they responded by implementing a 19th-century version of social distancing: they fled crowded cities for the countryside. Tens of thousands of New Yorkers—those who could economically afford to— sought refuge in rural areas, traveling by carriage and by steamboat and renting lodging wherever they could in rural villages. The poor, left behind in crowded conditions with faulty sanitation and fouled wells, were those most likely to succumb.

The fact that no one knew for sure what caused cholera did not mean people did nothing. Many prayed. Holden, Massachusetts observed a day of fasting and prayer on July 19, 1832 in response. The entire Commonwealth did the same on August 9th. Temperance lecturer Sylvester Graham proclaimed that it (and indeed all disease) was the result of poor lifestyle choices. He guaranteed that those who abstained from the “excitement” of meat, alcohol, and sex would be perfectly safe from cholera and attracted many followers to his prescribed “diet of brown bread and pumpkins,” as Ralph Waldo Emerson derisively described it.

Doctors typically treated cholera initially with bedrest and warm herbal teas made from spearmint, chamomile and other soothing ingredients. There was nothing wrong with that. Once fever commenced, however, medical treatment unintentionally hastened death by administering harsh drugs and treatments that caused even more dehydration, including powerful laxatives, enemas, emetics, bloodletting and blistering. Although he, too, prescribed harsh purgatives and blistering, at least one physician, Dr. W. V. Rhinelander of New York, advocated intravenous saline solutions, an effective treatment, although there was no safe means of doing so at that time. Indeed, IV fluids and antibiotics are the prescribed treatment for cholera today.

Ultimately, New York, with a quarter-million people the largest city in America, reported over 3,000 deaths from cholera, with thousands more nationally. The summer of 1832 was terrifying for most and tragic for some, but by the fall, the disease had largely passed. It would strike again in the 1840s, the 1870s, and beyond, but no one knew that then.

Today, good sanitation and clean drinking water have largely eliminated cholera in the developed world. However, it is far from eradicated. In our 21st century, cholera still infects 1.3 to 4 million people and kills up to 143,000 annually around the world. By comparison, as of this date (April 2), according to the World Health Organization there have been 896,450 COVID-19 viral infections and 45,526 deaths worldwide.

Taking off my historian’s hat for a minute, I end by reminding you of the obvious. While we can know the past we cannot change it. We do not know the future, but we CAN influence and even change it. We do not yet know how the COVID-19 pandemic will play out. We DO know that it is a contagious and potentially dangerous virus, spread by droplets every time an infected person breathes, coughs or sneezes. Those viruses can be spread on surfaces for up to a few days. Every infected person will likely infect at least two or three others, perhaps more. That is why isolation and social distancing are so vitally important NOW, at this relatively early stage here in the United States. If one person infects two people, and so on, it only takes repeating that process twenty times for a million people to become infected. Our personal actions can either significantly slow—or accelerate—the spread of COVID-19. YOU truly can help prevent death and suffering by staying healthy. So as our leaders both globally and at the Village have told us, please stay home, and stay well, for your own sake and for the sake of us all. Thank you and God bless.

Author Tom Kell

Author Tom Kelleher is Historian, and Curator of Mechanical Arts at Old Sturbridge Village.

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Working From Home

Family in New York making artificial flowers (Photo: Library of Congress)

Most Americans, including all but a few Old Sturbridge Village employees, are currently working from home to slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus. However, The family was the basic unit of society. Until about 1850, over half of all families farmed and worked where they lived. In city and countryside alike, the homes of shopkeepers and tradesmen typically corresponded with their places of business as well. More defined gender roles focused the work of most women on the home: gardening, cooking, cleaning, rearing children and a host of other chores,  regardless of how male members of the household earned a living. The accelerating industrial and commercial revolutions of the early 19th century did draw more labor outside of the home, but it also increased the economic output of households. People sought ways to earn money to buy the myriad of luxuries-becoming-necessities that flooded the expanding marketplace. Some households sewed ready-made clothing or turned out parts for chairs. Others, like the real-life Freeman and Bixby families, saw farm wives and their daughters make surplus butter and cheese for distant markets, braid straw or weave palm leaves for hats, and sew shoe uppers, while their menfolk farmed, made shoes, and followed traditional trades within sight of home, all contributing to an expanding economy. Working from home was just everyday life.

In early New England, the home was much more the focus of life, from cradle to grave, than it is today, when for many home is just a place to relax, sleep, and keep your “stuff.”  Babies were born at home. Most food was produced, preserved and cooked at home. Families ate meals together at home. The clothes they wore were made at home. Most work was done at home. When they got ill, doctors treated them at home. When they died, they were buried from their own parlors.

Railroad engineer Alberta Canada (Photo: Prairie Postcard Collection, University of Alberta Libraries)

The family was the basic unit of society. Until about 1850, over half of all families farmed and worked where they lived. In city and countryside alike, the homes of shopkeepers and tradesmen typically corresponded with their places of business as well. More defined gender roles focused the work of most women on the home: gardening, cooking, cleaning, rearing children and a host of other chores,  regardless of how male members of the household earned a living. The accelerating industrial and commercial revolutions of the early 19th century did draw more labor outside of the home, but it also increased the economic output of households. People sought ways to earn money to buy the myriad of luxuries-becoming-necessities that flooded the expanding marketplace. Some households sewed ready-made clothing or turned out parts for chairs. Others, like the real-life Freeman and Bixby families, saw farm wives and their daughters make surplus butter and cheese for distant markets, braid straw or weave palm leaves for hats, and sew shoe uppers, while their menfolk farmed, made shoes, and followed traditional trades within sight of home, all contributing to an expanding economy. Working from home was just everyday life.

ALHFAM past president and webmaster Deb Arenz has found some challenges working from home.

Stay safe everyone!

Author Tom Kelleher, Historian and Curator of Mechanical Arts, Old Sturbridge Village

Author Tom Kelleher, Historian and Curator of Mechanical Arts, Old Sturbridge Village

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Yellow Fever: Savannah’s Dreadful Pestilence

Photo: Davenport House Museum

Excerpt of an article written in 2015 by Jamie Credle, Davenport House Museum, Savannah, Georgia 

ALHFAM members can access the full text of this article and thousands more though the A.S.K. database. Not a member? Join today! 

October 2014 marked the twelfth time in October that the Davenport House Museum in Savannah, Georgia, produced a scripted living history program on the topic of yellow fever.

What is yellow fever?

Yellow fever is a tropical virus carried by the Aedes aegypti mosquito, which breeds in clean standing water. The vector and the virus originated in Africa and their existence in the Western Hemisphere is a legacy of the Atlantic slave trade. The incubation time for the fever is three to six days, with most cases causing only a mild infection with fever, headache, chills, back pain, fatigue, loss of appetite, muscle pain, nausea, and vomiting. In these cases, the infection lasts three to five days. In 15 percent of cases, however, victims enter a toxic phase with recurring fever, which is accompanied by jaundice due to liver damage, as well as abdominal pain, and bleeding in the mouth, eyes and gastrointestinal tract. The toxic phase is fatal in about 20 percent of cases, making the overall fatality rate for the disease three percent. In severe epidemics, the mortality may exceed 50 percent. It often fells those in the prime of life.

The epidemic of 1820

The years 1819 to 1820 were a terrible time for Savannah. First came the financial crisis of 1819, which sent cotton prices tumbling. Then, on January 11, 1820, there was a catastrophic fire that took out the heart of the city, some 463 buildings, leaving the population of 7,500 reeling. After the fire, there was a mild winter followed by a wet spring and summer, making the exposed privy vaults and foundations of houses ideal locations for the breeding of the mosquito that causes yellow fever. In August 1820 the mayor made a public announcement – as the seasonal sickness seemed to be raging:

“Having received reports from the Committee of the Medical Society, I feel myself authorized to announce that no pestilence prevails in this city. One Ward has been rather unusually unhealthy, but the disease has been, and is confined principally to strangers and people of intemperate, dissolute habits; and is no more than the ordinary bilious fever of the climate.”

Which newspaper do you trust?

The most useful sources for the Davenport House’s program have been the competing newspapers in the city at the time, the Columbia Museum and the Savannah Republican. Their contentiousness was much like FOX News and MSNBC as they differed at every corner: on whether there was an epidemic and whether the city government had the citizens’ best interest at heart. The two papers went back and forth all summer. Mr. Barlett, editor of the Columbia Museum, wrote:

“Although our Health Committees and Medical Societies are silent upon the subject, we are induced to believe that a pestilential disease rages to a considerable extent in certain portions of our city. Why is it endeavored to keep the fact a secret? And why is not the public fully informed of the matter, by those whose duty it is, to give full information upon this subject?”

Mr. Fell, editor of the Savannah Republican, replied:

“When an ignorant fellow bawls out “mad dog!” in the streets, or when a simpleton hears that the yellow fever is in any of our wards: You may make it appear as plain as the nose on his face, that there is no “mad dog” or that no fever `rages’ – he will still believe it probable. Why do we say this? Because the remarks in this morning’s Museum touching the health of our city, are replete with misrepresentation and falsehood. It is true, a small part of the inhabitants of Washington Ward, have been visited with disease but we deny that it ’rages to a considerable extent’ – or that it is a pestilence.”

Photo: Davenport House Museum

This is an excerpt of an article that first appeared as: Jamie Credle, “Put Yellow Fever in Your Toolbox: The Evolution of Savannah’s Dreadful Pestilence” in Nancy Egloff and Ron Kley, ed., Proceedings of the 2015 ALHFAM Conference & Annual Meeting, 83-88. 

If you would like to read the full article, which includes a description of Davenport House Museum’s educational program based on the yellow fever epidemic, check out the A.S.K. database. Not a member? Join today! 

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The Challenges of Portraying a Famous Person

Library of Congress

I have the great honor to portray George Washington at Colonial Williamsburg. Washington was already being hoisted onto his pedestal while he was still alive—a circumstance that I am sure made him a little uncomfortable.

To me, the truth is so much more interesting than the myth. Certainly, he was a remarkable man, but he was still a man—a man who had no more ability to predetermine the future than any of the rest of us, and who, uncertain of success, risked everything for what he thought was right.

His Faith

The greatest minefield regarding portraying Washington is his faith. Today there exists a cultural war between fundamentalist Christians and secular humanists, each trying to claim George Washington as their own.

Washington’s religion is of great interest to me, and I have read many of the arguments that both sides have made. I don’t intend to get involved in the debate here. I bring it up instead as an example of Washington’s opinions regarding the private and public. This modern controversy exists because Washington didn’t believe that his personal faith was anyone’s business save his and his Creator’s.

Freeman Tilden reminds us that our job is NOT to teach; it is rather to provoke. Besides, what is the more important answer? Certainly if someone asks a character to identify his faith, and he states Church of England, an answer has been given and the visitor has been taught. I think, however, that it is far more powerful if that character instead speaks of his reluctance to answer such a personal question, or speaks to his support for the freedom of conscience. In either version, the visitor has been taught, but the second approach is far more thought-provoking.

Library of Congress

Must. Not. Smile.

Another challenge to portraying Washington is his stoic and aloof nature. Many historians blame his poorly-fitting dentures for his apparent lack of humor. His own writing, however, suggests that it had more to do with his study of Seneca, who taught that men in public life should avoid displays of humor and frivolousness. Regardless of the reason, it does take away one of the most common and useful tools that any interpreter relies upon to help make the visitor feel welcome and at ease: the simple smile.

This is another occasion where loyalty to character, whether myth or reality, can be a dangerous challenge. In fact, I consider this my greatest weakness. It is important to me that I preserve this stoic nature in my interpretation. I know that it is important to some of my visitors as well. I have received a letter complaining that I smiled as Washington! Still, a serious and aloof nature can often appear to the visitor as the interpreter being rude, arrogant or mean. In fact, some people made all of these complaints regarding Washington as well, though I believe as the interpreter, that this was a misunderstanding of his nature.

Author Ron Carnegie as George Washington

So… How Do You Do It?

In presenting Washington, I try to reach a balance. Mostly, this is between his public and private personas. Understanding that he maintained a strong divide between these realms is very important in understanding what sort of man Washington really was. I do not treat my audience as close confidants. Washington had very few, and I like people to understand that. I state clearly that I won’t take questions regarding private or personal matters. I do, however, take them more into my confidence than Washington probably would.

This is an excerpt of an article that first appeared as: Ron Carnegie, “The Dictates of Conscience: Loyalty to Character in First Person Interpretation” in Diane L. Gallinger, ed., Proceedings of the 2008 ALHFAM Conference & Annual Meeting, 187-190.

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Skills Training: Plowing Workshop

Author, David Fowler plowing with Ryan King driving (Photo: Rob Collins)

Since I began working for the Oklahoma Historical Society, Tillers International has been on my bucket list of places to visit. When ALHFAM announced the first STP (Skills, Training, and Preservation) plowing workshop was going to be held at Tillers I was excited. Not only was I going to be able to check off one of my bucket list places, I was also going to be able to improve my plowing skills learning from some of the masters in the business.  

It was a long drive from Park Hill, Oklahoma, to Scott, Michigan. Fighting the urge to stop at the countless antique stores along the route, I pressed on to arrive at Tillers by early afternoon on Friday to be ready for the workshop the next morning. There I met up with Jim Slining and Ed Schultz, two of the workshop instructors. I was given my room assignment and settled in. I walked around the property and spent a little time catching up with Ed, and then Jim took us to view the Tillers collections. What a treat that was: Two massive buildings full of tools and farm equipment! Tillers is a wonderful resource ready for curious minds to inquire. After the tour we met up with several more workshop participants, and it was on to the local restaurant for a supper of sea perch. The rest of the evening was spent getting to know one another and sharing stories of past ALHFAM experiences.

Saturday morning brought much excitement for us all. Up early with coffee on the run, we headed to the barns for a meet-and-greet. After brief introductions from the instructors and participants, we went to work harnessing the horses and yoking the oxen as the instructors taught us the right way to do it. An hour was spent driving the teams through an obstacle course and then off to the fields to plow. 

Left to Right: Dick Roosenburg, Kevin Tobias, Michael Daniels, David Fowler (Photo: Rob Collins)

Ed, Don and Pete Watson went through the basics of laying out the field and striking out. They also covered plowing techniques, how to adjust the plow and how to finish off a furrow. We each took turns plowing, driving and plowing solo. After lunch break we were back out into the field for more instruction and plowing. We had two teams of horses and two teams of oxen going at the same time. I have always had a slight anxiety about working with oxen, stemming from a bad experience at a previous workshop. Due to the format of this workshop, I was able to focus on working more with the oxen. As a result, I worked through some of my issues and became a little more confident with the oxen. We plowed through the afternoon and ended the day with supper and then off to bed. 

Sunday started with harnessing and yoking, then off to the fields to continue plowing. We spent the day plowing, stopped briefly for lunch, and then continued into the late afternoon. Jim produced an old hillside plow with a rotating mold board for us to use. I have heard many a tale of this style of plow being used in the Ozarks, and thanks to the folks at the workshop I can now say I have used one!

This truly was one of the best workshops I have attended.  It was an all-out, hands-on affair.  Almost every moment was spent in the field plowing and gaining experience that only comes from doing. I am ever so happy that I decided to attend. The proof in the pudding was after I returned home. When we plowed the fields at Hunter’s Home in Park Hill, Oklahoma and at Nash Farm in Grapevine, Texas later in October, I could see how much the workshop had improved my plowing skills. I was able to share the knowledge and skills I gained with others at these events. Thank you to all who made the STP plowing workshop possible. Speed the plow!    

David Fowler is a regional director for the Oklahoma Historical Society. He is currently working to redevelop Hunters Home, an antebellum home in the Cherokee Nation, into a living history farm.

Posted in Agricultural Museum, Education, Historic Farming, Skill Training and Preservation, Uncategorized, Workshops | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

I was told if you want to attract a crowd, make some noise.

The pfut-pfut-pfut of the tractor engine, the slapping belt, the clacks and rattles of the thresher did draw some people to the fence of the show ring at the fairgrounds. The public, ready for the sensory appeal of carnival rides, food trucks and other vendors, found instead an active agricultural display.

Threshing day at the fair (Photo: Sarah Bent)

We were threshing grain with our Champion No. 1 thresher, providing those attending the county fair the opportunity to experience a little bit of 1890s agricultural living history. Seeing the sheaves forked off the wagon, the fat sacks of grain and the growing straw pile told a story, and the interpretation provided by the living history farm staff added to the auditory experience for the people on the fence line. This was one of the high points of my summer, in spite of the scratchy chaff and the inherent danger involved in operating this machine. When I had my “threshing legs,” the firm footing to sway and shake in tune with the vibrations of the machine so I could concentrate on feeding the stalks of rye and not my hand in to the mouth of the beast, I could revel in this active piece of late 19th-century agricultural equipment.

I love being able to bring history to life. Often demonstrations focus on muscle power: the strong slow ox team, prancing or plodding horses and the vast array of tools in the skilled hands of talented crafts people. Far too often the machines of our past are relegated to stationary exhibits. Why? Curators warn us of wear and tear; few replacement parts are available; operating means maintenance; and without a manual does anyone still know how to start it, to operate it, to troubleshoot when it breaks down? These are all significant concerns but, oh, the glorious thrill of an engine come to life! If you don’t run the equipment do you truly understand it? Sure it looks good, but how did it get the job done?

I am not neutral on this topic: I operate a 19th-century gristmill. We have eye-catching informative panels, friendly knowledgeable interpreters and hands-on opportunities in the building to engage visitors, all of which explain the how, what and why of milling grain. But no matter how engaging the interpretation, nothing beats hearing, seeing, feeling and smelling the mill in action. The building comes alive and so does the understanding of a miller’s job, the power of the equipment, the engineering involved and the magical feeling as hard kernels of corn become fine soft cornmeal in seconds.

Author Sarah Bent driving an early gasoline powered tractor under the guidance of Wayne Schultz, artifact technician at the Reynolds-Alberta Museum (Photo: Cliff Jones)

I will never forget driving an old gasoline tractor at a workshop at the 2014 ALHFAM Conference in Calgary. That experience provided me with more than just the historical context of the incredible change in farming that came with powered equipment. It added the sound and motion and what felt like unstoppable POWER. What I experienced behind the wheel of that tractor could not be duplicated through any number of words on a panel or images on a screen. My interpretation is now based on tangible understanding rather than abstraction.

I am a strong proponent of preservation. Sometimes using equipment can mean losing it, so do approach your mechanical artifacts with respect. But when you can, power it up, turn it on, let it roll!  If you can’t operate your machinery on a regular basis, invite everyone you can to take part in the experience; document every bit of the preparation, action and resulting maintenance, and I think you and your team will find a new level of appreciation for your historical machinery.

Author Sarah Bent is a Historic Sites Supervisor for the Monmouth County (NJ) Park System.

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It Takes A Village

Hopefully by now word of ALHFAM’s Skill Training and Preservation initiative (STP) has permeated the living history community, arousing interest. For some it may also have raised questions. What is being preserved and why? What infrastructure is needed at our living history sites to nurture the ongoing acquisition of historic skills and their preservation? Are these support structures sufficiently intact to benefit from the STP initiative?

Strict reliance on the appropriate period tools to solve historic problems force difficult questions to the fore; an opportunity to flush-out new understanding and skill development.

Kitchen at the James Anderson property, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation (Photo Jim Slining)

In a 1996 issue of William and Mary Quarterly, Ann Smart Martin wrote “…the study of material culture has remained a sidestream in historical scholarship. Numbers of historians are unacquainted with, or disinclined to engage in, examination of the material world in depth; they do not leap to opportunities to investigate a pot, a picture, or a house in visual and physical ways. At the same time, specialized skill in artifactual analysis often pulls material scholars inward into object study and away from cultural implications….” Also “Human-made things are far more than mere tools: they are complex bundles of individual, social, and cultural meanings grafted into something that can be seen, touched and owned.” If studying material culture has remained a “sidestream in historical scholarship,” studying historic work habits through experimentation is a backwater.

The more basic a tool, the greater is the requirement for complex user skill. Therefore, aspects of material culture may not be understood by “mere” traditional research. One can examine the best of 18th-century, European pipe organs with only a limited idea of its capability. It is only when it is put to use by an organist with proficient skill that its full value and potential can begin to be assessed. If heard only when used by a rank beginner, it may give a very false impression of not only the instrument’s potential but of a culture’s refinement as well. Unfortunately, the skill to play pipe organs cannot be stored in a box somewhere to be pulled out when occasion requires. Skill has to be used– practiced–if it is to be maintained. Sustained skill (transferable over time) requires cultural support. Paradoxically, this required culture is in turn maintained by practitioners of that skill. Cultural knowledge is lost when a practice is discontinued.

Theodore Sindt, a representative of McCormick (left) leans on an early grain binder in this undated photograph taken in Russia (note the binder’s wooden frame)–a testament to regional cultural variations and associated skill requirements. (Tillers’ Collection)

In his important 1977 article “The Use of Objects in Historical Research,” John Schlebecker commented “Scythes, sickles and cradles not only give an impression of weight, but if used a bit, give a clearer idea of farm drudgery. He who swings a cradle will learn why cradlers received more per day than ordinary reapers.” If someone today had never seen a bicycle in use but casually tried riding one “a bit,” the perceived lesson of its usefulness might be false. Lacking skill, a tricycle might seem much more sensible at first investigation. But given limited power, the reduced friction of only two wheels is much more serviceable. Rather than an awkward conveyance, in skilled hands a bicycle is an efficient source of cheap and speedy transportation: In skilled hands!  When learning to ride, the cultural support of skilled cyclists demonstrating its possibilities provides courage, competitive challenge and motivation to the novice.

This exemplifies the requirements of living history if it is to be a successful contributor to historical scholarship. What structures are required at our sites in order to create an environment conducive to skill attainment and preservation? Will they not look very much like the cultural underpinnings that historically enabled common knowledge to be passed from generation to generation? Development of historically-accurate skill requires informed discrimination and commitment. This is why living history sites MUST provide career paths for front-line, skilled historic interpreters. Needed as well are interpretive techniques that are centered on activity and place and on practical knowledge not easily conveyed only verbally. Before big horsepower and cheap fossil fuel, humans often needed to work together in order to power technology. Understanding the culture of such a working community requires museum “towns” to function synergistically, rather than as a collection of house museums. It takes a village to make a village!

Growing out seed for two mid-19th-century plant varieties, Bloody Butcher Corn (behind hybrid sweet corn) and American Banner Oats, teach skills these varieties require for successful propagation. Seed and skills must both be regularly used if their vigor is to be maintained.
Author’s garden.

This is about much more than increasing visitation. The world currently faces some serious challenges. There may well be historic objects within our trust that hold seeds to innovative alternatives useful for sustainable living–alternatives offering hope, confidence and security. Though a backwater in historical scholarship, reconstructing and preserving historic skills and their supporting cultures are a necessary complement to other scholarly research if history is to be accurately understood and assessed. The STP initiative is a tremendously important conduit. May it encourage us to delight in our mission, examine the culture of our sites, and develop the assets we hold in trust which make living history uniquely relevant!


About the Author:
Jim Slining’s first involvement with ALHFAM was at the 1987 Southeast regional conference in a blizzard-stricken Richmond, VA (alright, that local culture’s snow removal skills are less refined than New England’s). He is currently Curator of Collections at Tillers International in Scotts, MI.

Jim Slining (right) and Steve Mankowski in front of the Levi Rugg Blacksmith Shop at Genesee Country Village in this early ‘80’s tintype by John Coffer.

Posted in Education, Living History, Material Culture, Skill Training and Preservation, Uncategorized | 1 Comment