The Author’s Corner with Paul Musselwhite

urban dreams, rural commonwealthPaul Musselwhite is Assistant Professor of History and the Vice-Chair of the History Department at Dartmouth College. This interview is based on his new book Urban Dreams, Rural Commonwealth: The Rise of Plantation Society in the Chesapeake (University of Chicago Press, 2018).

JF: What led you to write Urban Dreams, Rural Commonwealth: The Rise of Plantation Society in the Chesapeake?

PM: As an undergraduate taking courses on medieval and early modern Europe, I became fascinated by the idea that towns and cities were miniature self-governing communes. In graduate school I decided to pursue early American history, but I wanted to know more about how that vision of the city shaped early colonialism beyond the archetypal New England town. Although I was in Virginia, I assumed that I would need to look elsewhere for examples because the scholarly literature was so adamant that the Chesapeake was completely rural. After a little digging, though, I was astonished to come across Robert Beverley Jr., the famous champion of Virginia’s early plantocracy, sponsoring an act in 1706 to establish incorporated self-governing towns across the colony, replete with guilds, markets, and provincial representation.

I quickly realized that this was the tip of the iceberg. Everywhere I looked through seventeenth-century Virginia and Maryland, people were talking about building towns—what it would achieve, how it should be done, and where others had gone wrong—and they were unmistakably drawing from the rich traditions of European chartered boroughs and self-governing cities. The Chesapeake’s rural character, which has largely been portrayed as a product of environmental determinism, suddenly appeared as an active choice made by a particular section of colonial society in response to these questions. I realized that in looking for towns, I had found some of the critical building blocks of rural plantation society.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Urban Dreams, Rural Commonwealth: The Rise of Plantation Society in the Chesapeake?

PM: Our usual picture of the colonial Chesapeake is of a starkly rural society of tobacco and slavery that inhibited the development of towns and cities, but I reveal that urban development was actually one of the most hotly contested topics in the region throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. I argue that the absence of major urban places was not a product of plantation agriculture; rather, the relationship was quite the opposite, because decades of failed urban development were instrumental in forging the political structures and economic policies that facilitated big plantations in the Chesapeake and in shaping the agrarian outlook of the planter class in the new republic.

JF: Why do we need to read Urban Dreams, Rural Commonwealth: The Rise of Plantation Society in the Chesapeake?

PM: Urban Dreams will challenge the way you think about the development of the plantation system, early American urban places, and the roots of agrarian republicanism. For those interested in the relationship between slavery and the birth of capitalism, the book offers a new deep backstory, tracing the way large-scale plantations emerged in dialogue with the idea of the incorporated town just at the moment when the role of distinct urban civic communities in local market regulation was being co-opted and liberalized by the state. By exploring places that are traditionally overlooked in early American urban history, the book also argues that we have fundamentally misunderstood how contemporaries thought about cities and towns; it makes the case that urban history needs to pay closer attention to constitutional, legal, and ideological significance rather than simply counting populations or the volume of trade. Finally, Urban Dreams will also appeal to anyone interested in the roots of Jeffersonian agrarian republicanism. Historians have long searched for the reason why planters in the Chesapeake were particularly drawn to “country” ideology and classical republicanism, but they have never looked far enough back because they have mostly dismissed the seventeenth-century Chesapeake as a kind of “wild west” where pragmatism ruled. Civic republican ideas, though, were a critical part of debates over urban planning from the foundations of Jamestown, and the book uncovers planters’ gradual and conscious shift from viewing cities as the bastions of civic order to envisioning private plantations as the foundations of an agrarian republic.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

PM: I’m an American historian because of the birth of online discount flight booking. When I was a teenager growing up in the UK, every summer my dad would scour very rudimentary websites for flights to corners of the US that didn’t normally attract British tourists, and then we would embark on mammoth road trips. That travel, especially around the South, introduced me to so many complex and contradictory facets of American society that as soon as I got to university, I signed up for early American history. From then on, I was hooked

JF: What is your next project?

PM: My new project, tentatively entitled Plantation: From Public Project to Private Enterprise, is a study of the long-noted but unexplored transformation in the meaning of “plantation” around the English empire during the seventeenth century. In the late sixteenth century, “plantation” in Ireland, Scotland, and America was predominantly understood as a process by which private individuals established new civic societies in conquered lands, but by 1700 it was widely recognized as a place of private commercial agriculture that pursued profit by exploiting enslaved laborers. The adaptation of “plantation” to describe this evolving socioeconomic system was conscious and highly significant; colonists engaged in particular forms of economic enterprise chose to call their estates “plantations” because the term allowed them to claim particular forms of authority within the imperial state and the commercial market. One particularly exciting part of this project involves building a database of the names given to plantations around the Atlantic world; I hope that tracking changing patterns in these naming practices will reveal shifts in the implicit assumptions about the social and economic structure of the plantation

JF: Thanks, Paul!

The Author’s Corner with Victoria Johnson

AmericanEden+Final+Cover+DesignVictoria Johnson is Associate Professor of Urban Policy and Planning at Hunter College of the City University of New York.  This interview is based on her new book American Eden: David Hosack, Botany, and Medicine in the Garden of the Early Republic (Liveright, a division of W.W Norton, 2018).

JF: What led you to write American Eden?

VJEight years ago, in the course of research for a journal article on contemporary American botanical gardens, I came across David Hosack (1769-1835) for the first time (in Peter Mickulas’s Britton’s Botanical Empire). I love New York City, and I was floored to learn that Rockefeller Center had once been a botanical garden—the first founded in and for the young United States. I knew immediately that I wanted to write a book about Hosack. He was a polymath and involved in several dozen organizations (quite a few of which he helped found) and he was not famous enough to have had a critical edition of his papers published. Following his trail as I reconstructed his life eventually took me to about thirty archives in the US and Europe.

JFIn 2 sentences, what is the argument of American Eden?

VJ: There is a botanical garden two centuries old buried under one of the most iconic urban spaces in the world. The man who created it, David Hosack, is a forgotten architect of New York’s rise to civic primacy in the nineteenth-century United States, and his life story thrusts us into the post-Revolutionary generation’s battles over what kinds of institutions make cities and nations truly great and stable.

JF: Why do we need to read American Eden?

VJMany, many historians have written eloquently and rigorously on politics and natural history in the early Republic, and I’m deeply indebted to them for their scholarship. Because American Eden is a biography, we get to see through David Hosack’s eyes the very fraught political relationships all around him and to feel the excitement and heartbreak of institution-building and scientific inquiry. In the process, certain figures from the Founding era take on new complexity: not only the shadowy Hosack, long known simply as the attending physician at the Hamilton-Burr duel, but also Hamilton and Burr themselves, both of whom loved botany and horticulture. New York City likewise comes into clearer focus in American Eden. We don’t usually think of nature, agriculture, and natural history when we think of New York in the early Republic, but Hosack botanized right in the city as well as on Manhattan’s beaches and farms and in its meadows and woodlands. Finally, I’d add that while history is a field of intellectual inquiry that matters regardless of any explicit links we make to our present circumstances, I’ve found Hosack’s struggles enlightening as I try to make sense of contemporary American political culture and our divided views on science and nature.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

VJ:  I’ll answer the “historian” part first and then the “American” part. My PhD is in sociology, with a specialty in organizational sociology, but I was drawn to historical research early. One of my dissertation advisors in Columbia’s sociology department was Charles Tilly, who had a huge influence on my choice of dissertation topic: political relations between the French government and the Paris Opera from Louis XIV to Napoleon. That became Backstage at the Revolution (Chicago, 2008). For my second book, American Eden, I crossed the Atlantic and began studying American history because of my fascination with David Hosack and his enormous, unacknowledged contributions to New York, his young country, and translantic scientific networks.

JF: What is your next project?

VJ: Book tour! I will be sharing Hosack’s story of intense civic engagement and devotion to science with as broad an audience as wants to listen, in both the US and the UK; I have talks lined up running through 2020. In the meantime, I’m slowly starting to think about what comes next (to quote a certain king).

JF:  Thanks, Victoria!

Digital Harrisburg at the 2018 AHA

DHI

I just finished chairing a session at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association titled “Placing the American Community: Lessons from the Digital Harrisburg Project.”

Here is the session abstract:

In spring 2014, students and faculty from Messiah College and Harrisburg University of Science and Technology initiated a collaborative digital project to place the entire population of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and the neighboring (historically) immigrant town of Steelton, on contemporary historical maps from the early twentieth century. Through class exercises and projects, work study positions, and volunteer efforts, history professors and students input the entire population of these communities from the decennial censuses of 1900-1930, including all relevant census fields such as race and birthplace, immigrant status, occupation and industry. At the same time, and in conjunction with this work, GIS students and faculty at both institutions digitized contemporary maps of Harrisburg and Steelton. The result of this combined labor is a massive demographic database of over 300,000 names, linked to over 10,000 individual residences in a GIS. Teams have also begun to incorporate (via a unique property number) other large data sets such as church membership rolls, names and occupations from city directories, and property values for the same time span. And history faculty have mined newspaper databases and recorded oral histories to fill out the picture of the city.

The Digital Harrisburg Project has been a boon to our institutions, giving our history students new digital proficiencies in databases and GIS, and our GIS and computer science students an opportunity to tackle historical problems, while also creating real and enduring collaborations across departments and institutions. As importantly, the project has generated a new and powerful historical resource for understanding and rethinking major phenomena in U.S. urban history. The integration of multiple sets of information encoded at individual street addresses in GIS has created one of the highest-resolution digital images of an early twentieth century urban community transformed by immigration, population growth, and city planning. Plotting the population through time (1900-1930) sheds light on the dynamic patterns of human mobility and migration that were characteristic of communities at the junction of major roads, waterways, and rail lines. The datasets also have allowed us to reconsider the demographic, racial, and spatial aspects of Harrisburg’s successful urban reform movement, outlined most clearly in William Wilson’s pioneering work on The City Beautiful Movement (1989).

In this session, we provide an overview of the history of the Digital Project within our institutional contexts; outline the nature of the data sets including the geospatial framework; highlight the potential of the data for reconsidering broad issues of historiographic debate; and showcase our recent efforts to replicate the data for other cities and places through new technologies (computer vision). The goal of this session is to publicize the results of the project in anticipation of the imminent public dissemination of the demographic and geospatial datasets for purposes of research, and to highlight how others might engage in a similar project within their own communities. We also hope attendees will provide us feedback as we consider next steps.

Participants included James LaGrand (Messiah College History Department), David Pettegrew (Messiah College History Department), Albert Sarvis (Harrisburg University of Science and Technology), David Owen (Messiah College Computer Science Department), and Lisa Krissof Boehm (Urban Studies at Bridgewater State University).

Speakers focused on 3 aspects of the Digital Harrisburg Initiative:

  1. Digital Harrisburg as a collaborative venture between faculty and students at Messiah College, Harrisburg University, and civic institutions
  2. Digital Harrisburg as a pedagogical framework to help Messiah College history students develop digital proficiencies and make historical arguments with technology; and to introduce computer science and GIS students to historical applicatons of datasets.
  3. Digital Harrisburg as a public humanities project designed to engage different audiences in the city.

The audience–a combination of digital historians and Pennsylvania history experts–was small.  But they were also very engaged.  Commentator Lisa Boehm praised our work, told us to be “less humble” about it, and offered some great suggestions for moving forward.

Click here to learn more about the Digital Harrisburg Initiative.

The Author’s Corner With Douglas Thompson

RichmondDouglas Thompson is Associate Professor of History in the College of Liberal Arts at Mercer University.  This interview is based on his new book Richmond’s Priests and Prophets: Race, Religion, and Social Change in the Civil Rights Era (University of Alabama Press, 2017)

JF: What led you to write Richmond’s Priests and Prophets?

DT: I never intended to write this book. A lot of the research for this project had been done for a dissertation. When I completed the Ph.D., I already had a job in a teaching university so publishing a book, particularly turning a dissertation into a book, did not register on my radar. Once I abandoned the “dream” of being a dean because it took me away from the classroom, I sketched out a research agenda that included a project on how automobiles transformed the American South. When I applied for a sabbatical, the plan was to begin the research on that project and develop an article for publication to float the idea for the larger project. Every time I sat down to work on the car project, however, I kept thinking about the Richmond research. Just before my sabbatical I pulled out the dissertation and began tearing it apart.

After a feverish month I had a chapter written and drafted out the reimagined book. I sent the chapter off to two people I trust—one a specialist in religious history and one who is not—and told them to decide whether I should pursue the book on Richmond. Both readers encouraged me to write it, so I spent the sabbatical covering some new research and writing the book. The peer review draft went to the University of Alabama Press as I came off sabbatical.

JF: In two sentences what is the argument of the book?

DT: Outside the glare of the 1960s spectacles of marches, kneel-ins, and sit-ins Richmond’s ministers and congregations provide a compelling story about how white Christians wrestled with social change. Without overstating the findings, their variety of responses shed light on Christianity as an agent of change in social movements.

JF: Why do we need to read Richmond’s Priests and Prophets?

DT: I wrote the book for a middle ground between academics and practitioners of Christianity. While I dislike the term microhistory, the narrow focus helps us see how events on the ground both looked like the larger civil rights narrative but also how people disrupted that story.  My hope is that people will read about how folks tried to make progress and used denominational mechanisms to bring about change but also to impede change in desegregating schools and congregations. Chapter one addresses an idea found initially in Gunnar Myrdal’s An American Dilemma and repeated since then that the church is not the church unless its functions in its ideal form. Even as Myrdal praised black congregations for conserving cultural identities within African American communities, he blamed white Christians for failing to condemn segregation and racism. In fact, the same forces that help black congregations sustain cultural norms also inform how white congregations might resist desegregation.

In Richmond, I found lots of Christians doing what Myrdal called for but I also found other people attempting to maintain segregation in churches. A good example of this is when white Presbyterians opened a two-week desegregated summer camp in 1957 and maintained the practice through the end of the decade and beyond, but First Presbyterian Church, Richmond spent three years trying to undo that work. The traditional way to interpret this episode is that the progressive move to desegregate was prophetic and that FPC had a conservative reaction. The problem with that simple reading is that it misses two points about desegregation. First, the presbytery had created at least two black congregations so there were children within the presbytery who would not be able to attend and it could not afford a separate camp. Second, the arguments for desegregation were not forward thinking but backward glancing. Presbytery leaders took seriously the command in the Torah, emphasized in prophets like Amos, and taught in Jesus’ treatment of the neighbor that the stranger is a son or daughter of God. The nature of the prophetic voice is not politically progressive although we tend to think about it that way. Richmond’s religious newspaper editors, ministerial association, as well as Methodists and Presbyterians present an array of approaches to desegregation. Their stories can help us understand social change and churches in our present day.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

DT: I am still coming to terms with that one. There was a day not long into my sabbatical when I had written something and realized that idea was all mine. A few weeks later someone asked what I did and I responded “I am an historian” for the first time, usually I would say teacher or professor.

The other way to answer that question is to tell the story of my first semester in seminary. I had Bill Leonard—Baptist historian now at Wake Forest—for church history. Since Southern Baptist Theological Seminary did not have an official advising program, I asked Bill if he would be my adviser. Within a few weeks of the start of the relationship while visiting in his office, he asked what I was going to do with an MDiv. I said I wanted to be a campus minister. Given our conversations up to that point and the rapid changes taking place in Southern Baptist circles, he said something like “you’ll never get hired.” Talk about existential angst. In hindsight, he was correct. I drifted through classes for the next couple of weeks wondering what I was doing in seminary. Shortly before the end of the term and sitting in one of his lectures, I thought, “I want to do that.” The Ph.D. program at Virginia tweaked that idea a little more and a teaching fellowship at Mercer landed me doing what I do today.

JF: What is your next project?

DT: I have a contract with University of Georgia Press for a book tentatively titled “A Journey of Conscience: Martin Luther King, Jr., the Vietnam War, and the Struggle for the Soul of America.” I am also in the early stages of a project on Wendell Berry. The car project is always with me.

JF: Thanks, Doug!

 

The Author’s Corner with Gergely Baics

feedinggothamGergely Baics is Assistant Professor of History and Urban Studies at Barnard College, Columbia University. This interview is based on his new book, Feeding Gotham: The Political Economy and Geography of Food in New York, 1790-1860 (Princeton University Press, 2016).

JF: What led you to write Feeding Gotham?

GB: Working on a research paper as a graduate student, I came across a vernacular sketch of African American dancing contests at Catharine Market in 1820 in Shane White’s wonderful article, “The Death of James Johnson.” The drawing captivated me for its intimate depiction of the vibrant and cosmopolitan public spaces of Early New York City. Catharine Market—its economy, social organization, and everyday life—became the subject of that paper. Over time, I realized that that small sketch of Catharine Market opened up a much larger subject: the vast and complex landscape of food provisioning in America’s first metropolis.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Feeding Gotham?

GB: Feeding Gotham brings the critical question of food access to the center of our understanding of nineteenth-century urban life and living standards. It argues that the antebellum deregulation of food markets created a new structural inequality, similar to health and housing conditions, that defined and shaped the development of the American city.

JF: Why do we need to read Feeding Gotham?

GB: Feeding Gotham examines the vital problem of food access in a city experiencing unprecedented growth, with its population rising from thirty thousand to nearly a million. It presents a comprehensive account based in political economy and the social and geographic history of the complex interplay of urban governance, market forces, and the built environment in provisioning New Yorkers. The book’s narrative traces how access to food, once a public good, became a private matter left to free and unregulated markets. In situating the deregulation of food markets within a broader matrix of public and private goods, it underlines the highly contested and open-ended outcomes of antebellum political economy debates. Moving beyond the debates, the bulk of the book studies the stakes involved. Most critical, Feeding Gotham brings the subject of food access to the center of our understanding of nineteenth-century urban living standards, a conversation thus far dominated by concerns over housing and sanitary provisions. The book documents how unequal access to food, much like shelter and sanitation, became a structural condition of inequality, part of the modern city’s increasingly stratified built and social environment. Importantly, the analysis extends to the understudied subject of food quality. It documents that the city’s surrender of all regulatory oversight of its food supplies contributed to deteriorating quality, which disadvantaged especially the rising rank of working-class immigrant populations. Central to the book’s approach is the systematic application of geographic information system (GIS) analysis. Feeding Gotham is the first book that maps the food system of a major nineteenth-century city, and one of few that deploys GIS systematically to study a specific problem in urban history. GIS mapping—from data creation to interpretation—provides a theoretical framework, methodological approach, and empirical base for the book’s main arguments. The extensive cartographic material was carefully created and designed to present a systematic and layered spatial analysis of food access in the nineteenth-century American city.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

GB: First, I became an urban historian, and second an Americanist. I cannot recall when my fascination with cities began—probably, growing up in Budapest has a lot to do with it. It was during my undergraduate years that I discovered that I could become an urban historian, and this felt like an obvious intellectual path for me. My attraction to America also began with cities. I watched films like The French Connection or Serpico as a kid, and I was thrilled by the images of gritty New York City. Over the years, I found myself again and again seeking to study in the U.S., and becoming intellectually fascinated by the extraordinary complexity of this country. American cities, their history of immigration, booms and declines, deep inequalities, layered geographies, perplexed and fascinated me. Focusing on transnational urban economic and social history for my Ph.D., I found my topic in the food system of nineteenth-century New York City. What began as a project in urban history, over the years also became a project in U.S. economic and social history. Today, I consider myself both an urbanist and Americanist. I am most fortunate to have a joint-appointment in History and Urban Studies.

JF: What is your next project?

GB: I am currently at work on a new monograph, tentatively titled, The Transitional City: Economic and Social Geography of New York in the Mid-Nineteenth Century. My ambition is to study empirically (with the systematic application of GIS mapping) and then to theorize the spatial processes that propelled the transition from what historians describe as the walking city of the early nineteenth century to the segregated metropolis of the late nineteenth century. In addition, with a coauthor we have been writing a series of articles linking back to this larger work, and making use of advanced GIS methods, focusing on land use, the street grid, and the experiential geography of nineteenth-century Manhattan. Finally, with two colleagues we are developing a new project on the spatial history of late nineteenth to early twentieth-century Copenhagen, making use of new crowdsourced GIS data. In all of these projects, besides the specific urban historical questions at stake, I am also interested in advancing methods of spatial history.

JF: Thanks, Gergely! Sounds like some great stuff.

Parish Boundaries

parishWhen I first read John McGreevy’s Parish Boundaries: The Catholic Encounter With Race in the Twentieth-Century Urban North (1996) I thought he was describing my upbringing in an Italian and Slovakian enclave of northern New Jersey.  It is a great book.

So needless to say I have been enjoying the forum on the 20th anniversary of Parish Boundaries over at the Religion in American History blog.  The final post in the series comes from McGreevy himself.  Here is a taste of his reflections:

So how did I get to that dissertation, entitled, as Lila Berman noted, “American Catholics and the African-American migration, 1919-1970”? It’s a short story. I wandered into graduate school, as we might say, without a “research agenda.” I wavered between high school teaching and college teaching and in fact I  ended up teaching for a time at Hales Franciscan high school, an African-American Catholic high school on the south side of Chicago. At Stanford I loved the coursework and enjoyed working with superb and generous faculty such as David Kennedy and George Fredrickson, ultimately the first and second readers on my dissertation. But I agonized over a dissertation topic.  I did a seminar paper on 19th century populism in California. I did one on draft resisters in California and even wrote a dissertation proposal on the topic.[i] I finally settled  on Catholics and race after reflecting on my own life and that of my parents, very much  raised in a Catholic milieu, with both of my parents having gone to Catholic grade school, high school, college and, for my father,  medical school and then both working in catholic hospitals for much of their professional lives. This Catholic milieu – roughly 25% of the US population and a standard topic in, say, German history —  seemed absent from the literature on United States history.

But what would be my angle?  Probably no topic seemed as exciting to graduate students at Stanford as “race” broadly construed, and George Fredrickson’s work, and more distantly that of David Roediger, Barbara Fields and others animated late night conversations.[ii] And then like Amanda Seligman I read Arnold Hirsch’s Making the Second Ghetto:Race and Housing in Chicago, 1940-1960 (Cambridge, 1983).  Hirsch mentioned Catholics episodically and I started following his footnotes, which led to a full summer going through the Catholic Interracial Council papers in the Chicago Historical Society archives. The late Archie Motley befriended me there and pointed me to other local sources and archives. I even ended up, I should add, marrying and raising four children with a local  archivist. So I had a topic.

Read the rest here.

Jessica Roney on the Civic Culture of Colonial Philadelphia

GovernedOver at the most recent issue of Common-Place, Temple University historian Jessica Roney discusses her recent book Governed by a Spirit of Opposition: The Origins of American Political Practice in Colonial Philadelphia.

Here is a taste:

I first came across the concept of a “civic technology” in Johann Neem’s fine book, Creating a Nation of Joiners: Democracy and Civil Society in Early National Massachusetts. The concept resonated powerfully with me as an important intervention in how we think about voluntary associations.

The eighteenth-century men of Philadelphia I describe both borrowed and departed from an array of religious, craft, and political organizational strategies as they sought to find an effective way to organize toward a particular end, and to keep their members willing to invest their time, energy, and resources. Many of them failed. We know more about the successes because they left behind a better paper trail, but there in itself is another reason to think of voluntary associations as a technology.
Living in the early twenty-first century as a new generation of technologies make possible popular mobilization at a speed and scale never before dreamed of, it is easy to take for granted or find it self-evident that people organize together. The things they use to do so, and especially those instruments that make it possible—the Internet, cellphones, the many and ever-changing platforms of social media—those are the technologies. In a similar fashion in the eighteenth century, technological changes related to the rise of print culture facilitated and encouraged collective organizing in new ways and on a new scale. But if we step back and remember that the format of voluntary association itself had to be invented, that it was not self-evident, that it took time and trial-and-error, we can appreciate that the elaboration of successful forms of voluntary association was itself a kind of technological innovation.

As organizers throughout the Atlantic world sought to mobilize men (and by the end of the eighteenth century, women) outside the parameters of church or state, they borrowed heavily from the strategies of earlier voluntary associations that worked. In Philadelphia, men found it easier and faster to adopt a model that had already been tested, rather than generate their own from scratch. All twenty or so colonial Philadelphia fire companies, for example, copied, often verbatim, the articles of association from the first successful company, the Union Fire Company, founded in 1736. The blue-print, as it were, circulated freely, allowing a diverse range of men over a long time span to adopt and adapt the technology to their own needs. Innovations along the way then became available to still-later groups as they studied the available models and selected those strategies their organizers thought would best meet their objectives and keep the membership energized. The civic technology of voluntary associations, then, was never proprietary. Philadelphians borrowed from England and Scotland, from their churches, from joint-stock companies, and from one another as they created their own innovative strategies tailored to their own needs.

That this technology was indeed civic stems from two sources. First, the preponderance of organizations—at least in Philadelphia—that were the most effective at mobilizing and retaining members over long periods of time had at least some explicit desire to contribute to the public good. Second, even where organizations were less focused on explicit civic functions, their members understood their associations still to contribute to a civil society—meant both in the sense of one characterized by polite sociability and as a collection of citizens operating outside the scope of church or state.

Read the entire interview here.

The Author’s Corner with Emma Hart

Emma Hart is Professor of History at University of St. Andrews. This interview is based on the paperback release of her new book, Building Charleston: Town and Society in the Eighteenth-Century British Atlantic World (University of Virginia Press, 2015).


JF:
What led you to write Building Charleston?

EH:
I often get asked this question as many Americans wonder how a British person ended up writing a book about Charleston.  Like many first books, this started off as my PhD dissertation.  I went to graduate school with the intention of researching the artisan economy in early American cities.  My supervisor alerted me to the fact that both Charleston and Newport had received the least attention from historians.  I decided to visit Charleston first, and never made it Newport. Coming from the UK, the combination of palmetto trees and Palladian architecture was really striking and, as I soon realized, symbolic of so many of the dissonances in Charleston’s long and eventful history.  Even as I finished the PhD thesis, however, I realized that the people I was looking at were part of a larger group of white townspeople, who all used their labor, and that of their enslaved Africans, to accummulate wealth and property in the city.  Building Charleston became a story about these men and women who were neither planters, enslaved field workers, nor plain folk, yet still made a major contribution to the character of colonial South Carolina.  I also came to feel like a cheerleader for Charleston, which was often overlooked by historians as an important colonial city in favor of Boston, Philadelphia, and New York, even though it grew almost as fast as these northern towns.

JF:
In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Building Charleston?

EH:
In the eighteenth century Charleston was not merely a vehicle of South Carolina’s plantation economy, but rather was a fully functioning participant in the creation of a British Atlantic urban world.  Among other things the growing city fostered the emergence of a middling class of people, who strongly shaped urban culture, politics, and economics, in ways that made the place look very similar to contemporary cities in provincial Britain.

JF:
Why do we need to read Building Charleston?

EH:
I hope that readers will come away with a new outlook on how important towns were to British America’s plantation societies during the colonial era.  Like Kingston, Jamaica, and Bridgetown, Barbados, Charleston was a dynamic city, whose economy brought wealth to a distinct sector of society.  What is more, enslaved African people were often foundational to these urban wealth-creation activities.  For example, enslaved carpenters and bricklayers were instrumental in the speculative building craze that gathered pace after Charleston’s major fire of 1740. Owned by white builders, such people saw none of the profits, however, which lined the pockets of their masters who used this wealth and property as the basis of a middling social status.  Thus, the story of America’s entrepreneurial middle class starts in the eighteenth century, and is as much a southern story as it is a northern one.  What is more, slavery was right there at the inception.  The important role of urban society in shaping South Carolina society at this time also reminds us that we shouldn’t read the state’s archetypal antebellum southern character back to the eighteenth century as it wasn’t always so.  There was a time in the eighteenth century that Charleston’s importance gave the region a much more urban quality, and townspeople even challenged the authority of the plantation elite.

JF:
When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

EH:
I decided to become a historian when I was only 13 years old – I had a very dynamic history teacher at school who persuaded me pretty early on that my future lay in the past! When I got to university I started to do more eighteenth century history, which I thoroughly enjoyed.  I liked the rambunctious nature of eighteenth century society, which is embodied in so many of William Hogarth’s pictures.  When I got the opportunity to do a special topic on Revolutionary America, I knew I’d found my historical home – early America was not only more rowdy than Europe, it was also a society that grew incredibly quickly, and incorporated so many contradictions of slavery and freedom, success and failure, and violence and refinement.  Once I’d decided to commit myself to an academic career by starting a PhD, there was no question about which field I’d study.

JF:
What is your next project?

EH:
I’m working on a history of marketing in early America, tentatively titled Trading Spaces: The Early Modern Marketplace and the Creation of the American Economy.  The research continues my fascination with how humans interact with space and landscape in past societies.  I’m trying to unearth the places, customs, and institutions that characterized ordinary peoples’ daily trading practices.  American historians have usually portrayed “the market” as an ideological abstraction.  However, the majority of early modern people encountered the market as a physical space entangled in local social and economic relationships.  I think that it is only by investigating the early American market place on these terms can we grasp the foundational role of the colonial era in the long-term formation of an American market economy.

JF:
Thanks, Emma! 

Mapping American Religious History in the City

I spent some time playing with this mapping project today.  Here is a description:

This is an interactive bibliography of books published about religious history in a particular American city. Its aim is to show where historians of American religion have focused their attention—and where they have not.

Click on a city and see what has been written about the religious history of that city.  Or you can move the timeline to see the historiographical development of urban religious history over the last half-century.  

Nice work Paul Putz and Lincoln Mullen!  For more information check out Putz’s post at Religion in American History  Here is a taste:

Back when I thought my dissertation would focus on religion in Omaha, I took a keen interest in American religious history books that had been framed to fit within the context of a specific city. With books like Robert Orsi’s Madonna of 115th StreetWallace Best’s Passionately Human, No Less DivineMargaret Bendroth’s Fundamentalists in the CityMary Lethert Wingerd’s Claiming the Cityand Matthew Bowman’s The Urban Pulpit in the back of my mind, earlier this year one of the digital mapping projects from Lincoln Mullen inspired me to think about the possibility of combining mapping with bibliography. The idea was to make a map of city-based studies of religion so that someone could click on a location — say, “Chicago” — and up would pop a list of books dealing with religion in that city.

Unfortunately, my CartoDB mapping skills were simply not up to the task. Fortunately, though, Lincoln offered to use his digital wizardry to make the bibliographic map a reality. Thanks to Lincoln’s efforts, I’m proud to announce that our little project is now ready for public use. The end result is even better and more robust than I had imagined: easy to navigate, searchable, clean, and crisp. Although the difficult work is done, now we need your help. Our initial set of data includes only about 170 books. If you have time, browse over to the map and help us make it more complete by letting us know what books we have missed.

The Digital Harrisburg Initiative Rolls On

2015-02-11 09.00.32_m
DHI Fellows hard at work in the Messiah College History Dept.

Some of you who read The Way of Improvement Leads Home are familiar with the Digital Harrisburg Initiative.  If you still don’t know about the project, let me bring it to your attention here.  DHI is an interdisciplinary digital history project housed in the School of Humanities at Messiah College and run by my History Department colleague David Pettegrew.  It attempts to tell the story of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania from roughly the 1880-1930.  

Like most digital history projects, DHI is a work in progress.  David and his team of historians, GIS experts, undergraduate fellows, and student researchers continue to add new information to the site.

DHI was launched a year ago this month.  Here is a taste of David Pettegrew’s celebratory post:

About a year ago, a number of faculty and students from several courses at Messiah College and Harrisburg University partnered to launch a new initiative to digitize Harrisburg’s history. It’s incredible how our original vision of the Digital Harrisburg Initiative (DHI) has grown over the last year as we’ve found new partners and begun to outline the social contours of the City Beautiful movement. Here’s an update on the groups, courses, and institutions who are partnering this semester to contribute to the initiative:
1. The Digital Harrisburg Working Group (Rachel Carey, James Mueller, David Crout, and I) continue to plow forward in making progress on the 1900 and 1910 census. We lost our wonderful GIS tech, Rachel Morris, to an early graduation, but we’ve since gained a new member David Crout.  Rachel is digitizing the 1910 census for Harrisburg, James is working on normalizing the 1900 data, and David Crout is working on the triennial tax assessments. You’ll hear more from all of our group during the semester.
2. John Fea’s class in Pennsylvania History at Messiah College is working on church rolls for Pine Street Presbyterian and St. Patricks Cathedral parish at the turn of the 20th century as well as the relationship of these communities to the City Beautiful movement. Once these membership rolls are collected and digitized, we’ll be able to plot members of these different communities according to their area of residence, and analyze membership against criteria like ethnicity, birthplace, and occupation, among others.
3. Jim LaGrand’s students in U.S. Urban History at Messiah College will be working on the occupational data for 1900 . It’s currently the only field in our database that is not at all normalized…
4. Professor Jeff Erikson is working with several students this semester on a directed study related to GIS. His students are georeferencing and tracing the 1902 Sanborn maps for Steelton, the community immediately south of Harrisburg. Since Rachel Carey has keyed the census data for Steelton, completing this will be a first step in understanding the large community of immigrants in Harrisburg 120 years ago.
5. Professor Albert Sarvis of Harrisburg University, in the meantime, is working with geospatial technology students on georeferencing the Sanborn maps of 1905 for Harrisburg. Once these are completed, we’ll add later years of Sanborn maps for the city.
6. Over at Jump Street, Andrea Glass is directing a group of capable high school student interns in digitizing images and documents from the Harrisburg City Archive. I’m hopeful that we’ll start to crowdsource some of the photos without provenience at this site to encourage identification. For some possibility, see the incredible site dedicated to the Philadelphia City Archive. We’re about to launch an Omeka site devoted to Harrisburg history that is a bit broader than City Beautiful.
7. We’ll be partnering this semester with Professor Michael Barton’s class at Penn State Harrisburg, who will analyze the census data for the Eighth Ward. This is a boon to us since Barton has been a pioneer in telling Harrisburg’s story, and his students produced some of the earliest work on the subject. See, for example, the excellent website about the Old Eighth Ward created and maintained by Stephanie Patterson Gilbert. Look for some interesting stories and historical analysis.
8. Since launching this site, I’ve heard from a number of people who are also working on digital projects related to Harrisburg. I think of Robert Shoaff, who is doing interesting work with city youth to build up a digital 3D model of Midtown called the Midtown Minecraft Project (see the blog here). There are others who have contacted me recently about their interests in contributing to the initiative.
There are a number of other exciting projects that are just developing such as public memory harvests and gaming, which we’ll publicize when the timing is right. Stay tuned.
Beyond these endeavors, a number of presentations are in the works. We’ll keep you updated. If you would like to support our initiative, visit the Keystone Digital Humanities Conference page and follow the link to vote for including our project in a major DH conference in July.
Things are happening quickly with the DHI. It will be interesting to see where we are a year from now.

The Author’s Corner with Catherine McNeur

Catherine McNeur is Assistant Professor of Environmental History and Public History at Portland State University. This interview is based on her new book, Taming Manhattan: Environmental Battles in the Antebellum City (Harvard University Press, November 2014).

JF: What led you to write Taming Manhattan: Environmental Battles in the Antebellum City?

CM: Before I got started on Taming Manhattan, I had read a passing reference to New York’s hog riots in the early nineteenth century. I was amused by the fact that pigs freely sauntered through the streets, let alone that they were the cause of riots. My reaction, I’ve come to realize, reflects that like many others I make assumptions about what belongs in a city and what doesn’t. As I began to look into these riots and several other environmental battles, I found that the nineteenth century was a moment where these lines between urban and rural were being drawn. The act of drawing those lines legally and culturally was highly contentious because many stood to lose quite a lot as the municipal government pushed livestock and agriculture out of the city and made it harder to earn a living from urban land.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Taming Manhattan: Environmental Battles in the Antebellum City?

CM: As cities such as New York transformed beyond recognition from the influx of immigrants and the construction of new buildings, residents found in the urban environment a way to seize control of the seemingly uncontrollable city. While the battles that erupted over the use of the urban environment often led to a tamer, cleaner, and more regulated city, they also amplified environmental injustices and economic disparities.

JF: Why do we need to read Taming Manhattan: Environmental Battles in the Antebellum City?

CM: Nowadays there’s a lot of talk about how to make cities sustainable. Taming Manhattan shows us that “sustainability” meant something completely different in the nineteenth century and will likely mean something completely different in years to come. Today keeping backyard chickens or rooftop beehives is trendy and acceptable by a range of different people and municipalities. You can even buy a $100,000 chicken coop from Nieman Marcus if you were so inclined. However, 150 years ago it was far from fashionable to keep livestock or tend a garden and wealthier New Yorkers actively tried to bring about the death or urban agriculture. In their eyes, getting rid of local food sources would make the city healthier and more sustainable. What we need to remember is that attempts to improve cities usually come with significant social costs that we often overlook.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

CM: I actually majored in urban design rather than history when I was an undergrad. One of the courses I took for that major, though, focused on the architectural history of New York City. Each week the professor led us on walking tours through a different neighborhood, discussing the specific histories of buildings and communities. Having grown up around New York, I was used to the city and its built environment. In fact, it seemed like more of a backdrop than anything else. This class, however, opened my eyes up to the wealth of stories about people, politics, economics, and environments that led to something as simple as the design of a city block. As I got further into that major, I researched the work of an architect in the early republic. I fell in love with the detective work necessary in the archives and there’s been no turning back since.

JF: What is your next project?

CM: Taming Manhattan involves New Yorkers fighting over sizable animals, like sows among other things. For my next project, I’m interested in looking at how early Americans reacted to much smaller creatures from amoeba to insects and what that meant for the way they understood their own bodies and environments. While today we see a budding respect for bacteria as people increasingly embrace probiotics and newspapers report on the importance “good bacteria,” the fear of tiny things has yet to go away. I’m interested in seeing how nineteenth-century Americans confronted these fears.

JF: Good stuff, thanks Catherine!
And thanks to Megan Piette for facilitating this installment of The Author’s Corner

Chris Cantwell on the Lost Landscapes of the American Religious Past

World Parliament of Religion, Chicago, 1893

I know very little about georeferencing and digital mapping, but I have become fascinated by the whole process through my affiliation with a new digital project we are sponsoring at Messiah College.  We call it Digital Harrisburg.  

On Tuesday I was involved in a presentation about Digital Harrisburg to about thirty Messiah faculty and staff.  I watched as my colleague David Pettegrew showed how his digital history course, working together with Geographic Information Systems (GIS) classes at Messiah, Harrisburg University, and Harrisburg Area Community College, was able to link the 1900 census record of Harrisburg to contemporary digital maps.

After attending this session, and hearing David talk about this project over the course of the semester, I was particularly interested in Chris Cantwell‘s latest post at Religion in American History: “Lost Landscapes of American Religious History.”  Cantwell teaches public history at the University of Missouri–Kansas City, but he is still finishing up an exhibit on the religious history of Chicago at the turn of the 20th century for his old employer, The Newberry Library.  The exhibit is called Faith in the City: Chicago’s Religious Diversity in the Era of the World’s Fair.

Cantwell’s work in mapping churches and religious organizations at the turn of the twentieth century has forced him to realize that “the built environment of American religion is also a history of occlusion and erasure.”

Here is a taste of his fascinating post:

But even more pervasive, and more revealing, is the ways in which today’s built environment reveals the enduring privilege of race and class upon the built environment. This is most easily seen by the fact that most of the sites of Chicago’s religious history that still exist are those that remain in the hands of their founders. Holy Family Church, for example, has remained at the intersection of Roosevelt and May Streets for nearly a hundred and fifty years. The congregation has survived several fires and a neighborhood that has turned  over repeatedly throughout the century because it has had the resources to sustain itself. Many storefront churches and evangelical rescue missions, however, are all gone.

Yet the ways in which power and privilege manifest themselves in the presence and absence of go even deeper than the survival of buildings. It also occurs in the seemingly innocuous act of assigning geocoordinates. Data is supposed the be the great leveler. We’re all ones and zeroes to the computer. But level of precision one can get in assigning coordinates is deeply inflected by race, class, and gender. For example, Chicago Sinai Congregation’s 1890 temple no longer exists. But the fact that the neighborhood it was located in remains relatively stable means that translating its 1893 address into 2014 coordinates is relatively easy–even if that space is now luxury condos. But to try and locate the coordinates of the city’s black churches has been one of the most depressing research tasks I’ve undertaken. The intersections, streets, and alleyways that once pulsated with the rhythms of black Chicago are in many instances gone. And not just the buildings. Streets have been removed, intersections torn up, and alleys completely abandoned. Assigning these sites geocoordinates has involved a lot of estimated guesses, and in many instances I’ve been forced to simply place a church in the middle of the street because the data does not suggest which corner it was on. It’s like witnessing the traumas of the twentieth century in longitude and latitude.

Historical Artificats Could Help Save Harrisburg

In case you had not heard, the city of Harrisburg, PA is facing some serious financial difficulties.  Back in October the city council voted to file for bankruptcy protection, but their request was denied by a federal bankruptcy judge.  At the moment, the city is $310 million in debt.  Most of the debt comes from a failed attempt to upgrade a city trash incinerator.

In order to put a dent its massive dent, the city is holding an auction of historical artifacts.  Most of the artifacts were collected by former mayor Stephen Reed as part of a plan to establish an African-American history museum, a sports history museum, and a Wild West museum as a means of raising revenue for the city through tourism.  The city owns about 8000 artifacts, including a Jesse James “Wanted” poster and a pistol that belonged to Doc Holiday.

This article at CNN suggests that the sale of the items would have a “substantial impact on cutting the city’s debt.”

Dispatches from Graduate School–Part 38

 Cali Pitchel McCullough is a Ph.D student in American history at Arizona State University.  In this post, she discusses a new urban initiative she is working with called “Agritopia.”  For earlier posts in this series click here. –JF

For nearly 40 years James and Virginia Johnston and their three sons farmed 171 acres of land situated 25 miles southeast of Phoenix. What once supported cotton, alfalfa, and a humble homestead now contains over 500 single family homes, an elementary school, two eating establishments (including Joe’s Farm Grill of Food Network fame) 15 acres of urban farmland, a community garden, a farm stand, and site plans for both a senior-living community and vast commercial/retail development. The Johnston’s acquired the farmland in 1961, but in 1998, the family and local developer Scott Homes entered into an agreement to begin the design of a special sort of community they would call “Agritopia.”

Agritopia planners offered potential residents 176 home design variations ranging from 1300 to 4500 square feet, allowing people with a broad range of needs and resources to find a home in Agritopia. When designing the homes, the team committed to eight design principles: to reduce physical barriers to relationship; to reduce social/economic barriers to relationship; to promote sharing; to promote a simpler life; to promote the foundation of a true neighborhood; to choose style and beauty over size and sizzle; to honor agriculture; and to create a balanced project. These design principles served as the foundation for all decisions regarding architectural style and land use for the urban farm community.

Agritopia must be understood within a larger social context. The Johnston’s vision for their unique community is not the first to emerge from the desert southwest. For hundreds of years people have attempted to redefine community life and to create alternatives to the troubling urban conditions that have evolved in many sprawling Sunbelt cities. Phoenix itself is on the verge of urban crisis.

Two questions loom large in the coming years: One, how will Phoenicians, in creative and sustainable ways, respond to the growing concern over food access and local food production? Secondly, how will Phoenix residents create viable correctives to what some consider the aggressive, monotonous, and isolating postwar suburban development in the Salt River Valley? Agritopia, in a morass of tile and stucco, provides its own answer. The planners created a “middle ground”—one that incorporates urban living and agricultural production—reflecting a commitment to satisfying the human need for community, and also to meet the very physical needs of its residents by providing locally produced food and opportunities for residents to grow their own food in community gardens. 

By looking at Agritopia—its successes and its failures, its novelty and its tradition—we can learn about the ways in which people are thinking innovatively about organizing urban life in Phoenix. Perhaps Agritopia can provide a blueprint for other valley neighborhoods that must build vibrant and healthy communities in order to prevent the erosion of agriculture and kinship in a state founded on both.