Original brick armory topped by blue onion dome with gold stars.
Coltsville National Historical Site / Image by the author.

By Nick DeLuca

A version of this post was originally published by History News Network.

On August 18, President Joe Biden nominated Charles F. “Chuck” Sams III to serve as National Park Service Director. The appointment is important for two reasons in particular: first, Sams III could be the first Native American to lead the National Park Service; second, Sams III could be the first person since the Obama administration to hold the position in an official capacity. Both are contingent on the Senate confirmation process, which is a relatively new prerequisite for the top parks job.

On the surface it seems arbitrary that Congress would decide one day in 1996 to throw out the old way of doing things and instead require the president to choose a director with consent of the Senate. Understanding how this came to be is important for understanding the current state of our national parks system and our most treasured landscapes and resources.

US national parks are supremely popular among the American people, and the National Park Service is one of the most favorably viewed of all government agencies. This might lead some to believe that the parks system sits above the political fray. However, America’s parks system has on more than one occasion served as an arena for political posturing and power dynamics, and continues to at present.

Virtually all of the national parks established by Congress prior to the creation of the National Park Service in 1916 were headed up by political appointees at the discretion of the Secretary of the Interior. A notable exception was Yellowstone National Park, established in 1872 as the world’s first national park, which was overseen for more than two decades by the US Army.

Lamar River weaving through the foggy Lamar Valley in Yellowstone.
Lamar Valley, Yellowstone National Park / Image by the author.

In the case of Yellowstone, park mismanagement and unsatisfactory protection of the environment by its first superintendents in the Department of the Interior convinced Congress in 1883 to authorize the Secretary of the Interior to call upon the Secretary of War for assistance if needed. This meant using the strength of the military to preserve the land, conserve wildlife and resources, and exclude, often violently, Native Americans from entering park boundaries. In 1886 the interior department called upon the war department. The Army would occupy and run Yellowstone until 1918.

President Woodrow Wilson enacted the law creating the National Park Service in 1916, granting the interior secretary power to appoint park service directors and assistant directors. Interior secretaries would enjoy this prerogative until the mid-1990s, an 80-year span.

The shape and administration of the park service has evolved since its creation in the early 20th century. It grew in size and scope, added and recategorized sites of national historic significance, and reached into dense urban centers. But the mid-1990s brought on a more divisive brand of politics.

The Republican Revolution and Our Parks System

In the 1994 midterm elections, the so-called “Republican Revolution” ushered in the first Republican majority in Congress since the 1950s.

The Republican victory was undergirded by the Contract with America, a conservative agenda inspired by Ronald Reagan’s 1985 State of the Union speech and supported by research from the conservative think tank The Heritage Foundation. This legislative roadmap was meant to reinstate the Reagan administration’s goals of reducing the government’s role in private sector regulation and social safety infrastructure. Reagan’s deregulation mandate seeped into the National Park Service.

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By Tirzah Frank

Visitors to historic house museums often ask what’s “original,” or “real,” or “authentic.” In the Paul Revere House’s Best Chamber, which acted as both master bedroom and parlor space for the Reveres, the answer varies. To start, 90 percent of the house’s posts, beams, and subflooring are original. And according to family tradition, several pieces of furniture in the room belonged to Paul Revere himself, or to his second wife Rachel. There is a grandfather clock in one corner that did not belong to the Reveres, but is quite similar to a clock Paul Revere owned (that piece is still in the family). After that, things get slightly more speculative. A book placed on a chair—a compilation of Massachusetts Magazine—represents a publication to which Paul Revere subscribed. A Masonic bowl sits on the dresser, reflecting Revere’s identity as a Freemason. The other furniture in the room dates to the period (around the 1790s) and was made in Massachusetts. And finally, reproduction fabrics and wallpaper, each based on a popular print that was sold in Boston at the time, have been placed on the bedding and the walls, respectively.

Tirzah Frank, UMass Amherst History MA and Public History Certificate student in the Best Chamber, Paul Revere House, Boston.
Tirzah preparing to speak to visitors in the Best Chamber.

Layers of authenticity like this are common in historic house museums, which rarely have all of the relevant family’s furniture, much less know where it was placed. While working at the Revere House, I was fascinated by the space between what the Reveres had and what they might have had—and the mix of careful research and creativity it takes to bridge that gap. The wallpaper and the fabric in particular have a huge impact on how the room feels, but we have no idea what they looked like. The wallpaper pattern dates to the correct period and was found in two different houses in the area (one in Salem and one in Cambridge), suggesting that it was made locally. It is, therefore, certainly in line with what the Reveres could have had on their walls. However, there is no surviving evidence of how the Best Chamber’s walls looked when the Reveres were living there.

Still, it would hardly be more authentic to put the Revere pieces alone in a room with no decoration and tell visitors, “These are the only things we can be sure of.” While that might be an interesting exercise, it’s guaranteed to be further from the Reveres’ experience than the current installation. As curator Laura C. Keim has noted, “furnishings have the power to connect us to people and contexts from another time and bring them into our present reality.”[1] The fully furnished Best Chamber allows visitors to imagine the Reveres in context, especially because it is the room where interpreters describe the Revere family. Explaining the origins of the furniture and other objects in the room also provides an opportunity to pull back the curtain on historical methodology for the public—we don’t know what wallpaper the Reveres had (if any), but we can talk about the research and decision-making process that led to the pattern on the walls right now.

The wallpaper in the Best Chamber (left) and reproduction fabric in the Best Chamber.

Navigating around gaps in the archive and using them to enrich visitors’ experiences is equally important in the Hall, the main room on the house’s ground floor. Here, the furnishings date to the late seventeenth century, when the first owner, Robert Howard, lived in the house. None of the furniture in the Hall is original, but it is designed to reflect Howard’s status as a wealthy merchant. Discussing his wealth as evidenced by the furniture is a useful segue to the fact that that Howard engaged in transatlantic trade, which relied heavily on the transport of enslaved Africans. While Howard’s involvement in the Atlantic slave economy is not fully understood, he owned a ship that frequently transited between Boston and the Caribbean, where he traded rum, tobacco, timber and more; he was an investor in 19 additional ships.[2] Howard also enslaved at least one person, a man named Samuel, who likely lived in the house as well.[3] The Revere House does not have any objects associated with the Howards, much less Samuel, but the furnishings in the room can still help guides illustrate facets of the Howards’ lives and provide some context for Samuel’s as well.

The phenomenon of making well-researched guesses to enrich the public’s experience and circumvent archival gaps is not limited to museums. In writing, historians have to mediate between what they can confidently claim and what they can only suggest. Developing this skill is becoming ever more important as scholars use creative methods to tell the stories of people far less famous than Paul Revere, especially BIPOC individuals like Samuel who may have left no written records.

For instance, Abenaki scholar Lisa Brooks incorporated elements of historical fiction in her book Our Beloved Kin, noting that these sections are designed “to bring readers into plausible scenarios, to animate the historical landscape through Indigenous frameworks and to give a sense of humanity to historical characters whose stories have been silenced, repressed or misunderstood.”[4] Brooks’ innovative approach is unusual for academic historical writing, but historic house museums have been bringing visitors into plausible scenarios in order to give a sense of humanity to historical characters for a long time. At the Revere House, this ranges from making décor decisions that show how the Reveres might have lived to connecting the expensive furniture on the ground floor to the atrocities behind Robert Howard’s wealth. There is no reason other genres of history cannot do the same thing, especially in situations where stories have been silenced or repressed. Indeed, taking a creative approach (and inviting visitors or readers into that process) can make history more engaging and provide a more authentic narrative, acknowledging that silences in the archive are not voids where nothing occurred.

Tirzah Frank is an M.A. student in History at UMass Amherst who is also pursuing the Public History Graduate Certificate. Her 2021 internship is supported by the Charles K. Hyde Intern Fellowship.


[1] Laura C. Keim, “Why Do Furnishings Matter? The Power of Furnishings in Historic House Museums,” in Reimagining Historic House Museums: New Approaches and Proven Solutions, ed. Kenneth C. Turino and Max A. van Balgooy (Rowman & Littlefield, 2019), 207.

[2] Ruaidhrí Crofton, “The Howards of Clark’s Square,” The Revere Express, June 12, 2020, https://www.paulreverehouse.org/the-howards-of-clarks-square/.

[3] Crofton, “Howards.”

[4] Lisa Brooks, Our Beloved Kin: A New History of King Philip’s War (Yale University Press, 2018), 140.

By Catherine White

The Springfield Museums recently purchased Theodor Geisel’s, a.k.a. Dr. Seuss, childhood home. Known as the “Seuss House,” it is surprisingly not on Mulberry Street. Their intention is to turn the house into a historic house museum (HHM) that explores Springfield and the Geisels’ lives in the early 20th century. At the Seuss house, nothing will be off limits to visitors. Embracing interactivity and inclusivity, visitors will be able to touch things, sit on the furniture, and engage with the house and its content in unique ways.

Black and white photograph of a large clapboard house with front porch and awning. Three people in white sit in the lefthand corner of the image.
Theodor Geisel’s childhood home in Springfield, MA, circa 1906. Courtesy Springfield Museums.

Issues of inclusion, particularly accessibility, are contentious at HHMs, which are notoriously exempt from many Americans with Disabilities Act standards. Questions of access in HHMs will become more pressing as museums realize the ways they have failed to be inclusive spaces. HHMs must consider inclusion in terms of physical accessibility for all abilities, as well as various learning preferences and who is represented in the museum.   

During my internship at the Seuss House, I try to consider all aspects of inclusivity and accessibility as I develop an exhibit proposal about Anna Lindner, the Geisels’ live-in housekeeper for 18 years. Including the histories of domestic workers and the “servant’s tours” in HHMs allows us to shift focus from the wealthier homeowners to underrepresented groups and individuals. The challenge with building the history of domestic workers is that the evidence that documents these lives is not always found in archives and the usual historical repositories. This was certainly the case with Anna Lindner. 

I was fortunate on this project because some preliminary research had already been done. In earlier partnerships with the museum, Marla Miller’s “History and its Publics” Fall 2018 undergraduate class and UMass Public History graduate Katherine Fecteau had researched the neighborhood and developed maps and demographic information for the street. The students enrolled in “History and its Publics” initially recommended featuring Anna in the museum.

But Anna Lindner was not in any of the other Geisel records that I had access to. She does not appear in any photographs that Ted Owens, Ted Geisel’s grand nephew, has and she is mentioned in passing only twice in the Ted Geisel memoir/biography. Dutifully noting each instance, I started my research with a basic search of census documents. Anna is listed in the 1910 and 1920 census records in Springfield, but in 1910 her name was misspelled. Further research found her in ship manifests for her initial voyage to the U.S. in 1903 as well as a four-month trip back to Germany in 1913. The Springfield Republican also listed her name along with the other Springfield residents who sailed over to Germany in 1913.

  • Black and white scan of handwritten 1910 census record.
  • Black and white scan of handwritten passenger manifest from 1913.
  • Black and white scan of handwritten passenger manifest from 1913.
  • Contemporary photo of a brown wooden cabinet with the doors open.

And that was it. Scraps of information and her name listed as one of many. The question became how to put these scraps together. I decided to contextualize the aspects of her life that I knew, focusing on her labor as a domestic worker, life as a Springfield resident, and experience as an immigrant.

I used what I learned about domestic work from Jennifer Pustz’s book, Voices from the Back Stairs: Interpreting Servant’s Lives in Historic House Museums, and other articles about domestic workers to examine Good Housekeeping magazines from the early 1900s. A critical reading revealed the duties and social status of domestic workers, racial portrayals of domestic workers, and their living and working conditions.

Maggie, Cliff, and Zoe over at the Springfield History Library and Archives were unbelievably knowledgeable and helpful in finding information about Springfield.

Douglas Baynton’s Defectives in the Land was one of many informative books on immigration, particularly for interpreting ship manifests. Anna’s ship manifests are fascinating to examine as they reflect the changing requirements for entry into the country and reasons for exclusion from the country. We will provide these documents for visitors to inspect and pose questions about why certain information is collected. Because we have manifests from both 1903 and 1913, visitors will be able to compare the changes as well.

To engage the different ways people create meaning, visitors will be able to pick up and touch all objects and parts of the exhibit. There will be maps, photographs and documents, objects and appliances, panels, and a brief video. Visitors who wish to explore a topic further can scan a QR code to connect to further resources. The exhibit will be fully bilingual in Spanish and English with video captioning and the museum is exploring additional translations. Any digital content will be compatible with the most commonly used assistive technologies, and we will invite feedback for improvement.

I also want to open up the process of “doing history” and offer a way for visitors to participate in that process if they choose. A wall panel highlights the challenges of researching the history of Anna Lindner and the many gaps in evidence that we have about her life. Another panel invites visitors to think about who or what else may have been “lost” to history. This panel will have a place where people can write or draw something about their own history that they want included in the public’s memory. This effort will also include a social media aspect where people can share stories, photos, or documents and the museums can help people develop and record their histories.

Working on this project has been very rewarding because Anna Lindner is important. Anna Lindner offers us the opportunity to expand the historical narrative and include diverse perspectives and experiences. Through Anna’s story we can examine issues of gender, class, race and ethnicity, and more, that wouldn’t be possible if we only discussed the Geisels. Inclusive museums need to represent these stories and need to be presented in ways that allow access to all abilities and learning styles. I have tried to make room within the exhibit for all abilities and learning preferences as best as I could, though I look forward to feedback from my supervisor and the diversity and inclusivity team, as well as ongoing feedback from visitors. 

  1. Baynton, Douglas C. Defectives in the Land: Disability and Immigration in the Age of Eugenics. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2016.
  2. Pustz, Jennifer. Voices from the Back Stairs: Interpreting Servants’ Lives at Historic House Museums. DeKalb, IL: Northern Illinois University Press, 2010.

Catherine White is an M.A. student in History at UMass Amherst who is also pursuing the Public History Graduate Certificate. Her 2021 internship is supported by the Charles K. Hyde Intern Fellowship.

by Camesha Scruggs

I must admit, my spark for public history was not ignited by childhood vacations to historic places. My initial thought on the phrase “public history” was that it focused on the houses and spaces of famous old white people in the West and in the North. Why would that interest me, a young Black woman in the South? Little did I know then that I would eventually discover that spark.

My introduction to the field was an internship at the Abraham Lincoln Home in Springfield, Illinois, during my undergraduate years at a Historically Black College and University, based on a program designed to enhance diversity. After that experience and speaking with former NPS Director Robert Stanton, I changed my perception and decided to pursue further education in the field. Once I arrived at UMass Amherst, I began considering my options for the program’s internship requirement. I learned about the W.E.B. Du Bois Boyhood Homesite in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, and decided that was going to be a potential internship project. 

The first time I visited the site, it was the last weekend of tours for Felicia Jamison, a fellow doctoral student and docent at the time and now Assistant Professor of History at Drake University. Later, her knowledge and professionalism served as my example and unofficial training. 

Camesha Scruggs speaks with the public at the W.E.B. Du Bois Boyhood Homesite in Great Barrington, MA.

Designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1979, the site is significant because Du Bois is considered “one of the most incisive thinkers and profound scholars of all time… [who] influenced much of the twentieth century black protest.”[1] I agree with the nominators and that spirit remains on the site through interpretation. UMass Amherst owns and manages the site, named its library after him and holds the largest collection of his papers. The university and its stewardship ensures that some of the legacy of Du Bois remains in the state.

Walking onto the land, it felt as if I was entering a special space. It is a feeling that visitors often remark upon once they step onto the site. The entrance, a nature path lined by overarching trees, creates a cathedral-like feel, setting the scene for visitors to immerse themselves in the experience of guided tours. The site continues as a half-mile wooded trail with interpretive signage, telling the story of Du Bois. Although the site lacks a physical structure and tangible artifacts, the design allows visitors to linger and learn about Du Bois and his ancestors, who walked this space more than one century ago. During my tours, we examine blueprints, discuss Du Bois’ writings about the space and approach a platform where the home once stood. I encourage visitors to imagine their home and hometown. This prompts visitors to connect to the ideas of nature and home at the site, including the feelings it evokes and intangible values it instilled. 

Since the summer of 2016, I have served as the tour guide at the W.E.B. Du Bois Boyhood Homesite Although the tour season lasts only ten weeks, hundreds of individuals interact and engage with his legacy. As the tour guide, I take visitors through various parts of his life, from his genesis in Great Barrington to his death and burial in Ghana. On these tours, visitors learn that some of his ideas and views were founded in the interactions with the local community. He took these hometown ideas and interactions to places all over the world. 

As a historian, I am accustomed to asking questions. However, I became accustomed to answering a variety of questions via calls, emails and on the tours. Questions range from demographics to the location of his descendants to his affiliation with Communism. Some are answered immediately, and others with a little research and a delayed reply. We discuss gender, race, family, community and conflict in this short half-mile, half-hour tour. Yet, one of the most intriguing questions was from a young visitor about whether Du Bois had a dog as a kid. Genuine inquiries like these shaped the tours, giving them uniqueness and unpredictability.

The reasons and ways that visitors engage with Du Bois always interest me. Some visit because they’ve read works of Du Bois, some come as part of their summer experience in the Berkshires. Others simply stop by accidentally due to the sign and small parking lot.  Each audience had a different experience and I was privileged to facilitate them. 

As a member of the NAACP, my perspective could have some bias. Yet, when I met one of the former editors of NAACP’s The Crisis magazine, which Du Bois was the first editor, it simply reminded me that I was being prepared for these types of moments of engaging with one of the influential figures in US and African American history. Of course, my presence at this site was significant and important. As a Black woman from the South, my perspective allowed opportunities for dialogue. Representation in public history spaces matters.

During my tenure at the Homesite, I’ve discussed Du Bois in a variety of ways. I’ve scheduled tours, provided public programming, given podcast interviews, shared informal chats and created social media videos. Each of these engagements allow me to do this thing called public history. I have the opportunity to present history to the public in palatable formats. The joy comes when someone comes away with new knowledge about Du Bois. Although he was an extraordinary man, there were moments that made him human. I try to convey these images and ideas at various presentations. 

These experiences are supported by various groups and individuals vested in the desire of Du Bois to keep this place that he cherished. Local organizations such as the Upper Housatonic Valley Heritage Area provide logistical daily operations support. Local residents like Wray Gunn and the late Reverend Esther Dozier gave the foundation and continual support of this work. The Friends of Du Bois Group expands the reach of the site to broader and larger audiences. The University of Massachusetts Amherst history, Public History and Anthropology Departments, Du Bois Library Special Collections and University Archives, and the W.E.B. Du Bois Center ensures that I am capable of providing accurate information for visitors. However, when I accidentally met Dr. Edmond Gordon, one of the originators of this site, our conversation reminded me that people and organizations can come together in acts of preservation, whether large or small. Dr. Edmond Gordon, a friend of Du Bois and Walter Wilson, a realtor, raised funds, resulting in the purchase of the land, creating the site in October 1969.

Walking the woods while discussing Du Bois is an indelible experience. It continually shapes my work in the field of public history.

Camesha Scruggs is a doctoral candidate in history at UMass Amherst in addition to pursuing a public history certificate in the program. As a native Texan, she recalls oral histories from community elders and wanted to tell their stories as she got older. Her public history work reflects that ambition, through projects with the Abraham Lincoln Home National Historic Site, Humanities Action Lab, W E B Du Bois Boyhood Homesite and The Center for Design and Engagement. In her work and scholarship, she desires to present unknown stories to larger audiences while making public history palatable to all that partake.

[1] Department of the Interior, National Park Service Du Bois Boyhood Homesite National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form  https://npgallery.nps.gov/GetAsset/440b0922-0e6d-4011-95ea-404ec06ef81b Accessed August 2, 2019.

By Marla Miller, Past@Present Editor

In Spring 2021, the Hatfield Historical Society received funding from Mass Humanities for an innovative project to explore how best to recruit and support digital volunteers; the work will unfold over summer and winter 2021-22 and conclude in early 2022.  Like many small local history organizations, the society grapples with issues of accessibility that have been exacerbated by the global pandemic. Digital engagement seems like a possible solution, but how might the HHS (and groups like it) engage and train mostly senior volunteers in a way that will fulfill existing needs for the Society, and incorporate the skills, interests and social needs of the volunteers?  To explore those questions, the HHS has received grant funding to consider how best to build a vibrant and sustainable volunteer program.  To contribute to the process, the HHS project will tap the experience and insight of two members of the UMass Amherst History community: alumnus Robert Forrant and Public History Program director Marla Miller.  In the interview below, Kathie Gow, curator of the Hatfield Historical Museum, Forrant and Miller discuss the project’s aims and potential, work that will surely be of interest to organizations across Massachusetts.

MRM: Kathie, can you kick us off by sharing a little bit about how you came to develop this project?  What activities will the grant funds support?

KG: When Meguey Baker (Hatfield Historical Museum Collections Assistant) and I sat down in January to discuss the coming year’s priorities — based on more general priorities set by the Hatfield Historical Society (HHS) board, which funds our two positions — we knew we wanted to do projects that would hit a lot of our goals. Those goals included engaging our community in Hatfield history, expanding our reach beyond those who already knew us, discovering and connecting stories about artifacts in the collection, and building a volunteer corps. (Oh yeah, and then add some reality in–like, we’re challenged to keep on top of collections management and project work as it is, with funds the Society has been able to raise from its generous supporters, AND, we’re in a pandemic, and no volunteers have been allowed into the museum since mid-March 2020). 

So Mass Humanities’ Digital Capacity grants couldn’t have come at a better time!

The grant will support staff time to work with a half-dozen volunteers over the coming year, plus our two Humanities scholars (you and Bob), all of whom bring great skills and experiences to the project. It will also pay for the first year of an upgrade to the Pro version of our free website builder (Weebly), which gives us capabilities we’ll need for the project, and help fund our upgrade to the paid version of Zoom, which will be our primary platform for engaging with volunteers.

This was one of the last times volunteers and visitors were allowed into the Hatfield Historical Museum in February 2020, just before Covid shut the museum down. Volunteer Wunderley Stauder is writing up artifact intake sheets with Megue Baker.

MRM:  Bob, how did you come to get involved?  What priorities will you bring to this initiative?

RF: During Covid Times I have been continuing to do research and have spent time in the Lawrence Public Library and the Lawrence History Center. I also exchanged frequent emails with archivists at the Massachusetts State Archives. Through the efforts of these institutions I was able to get quite a bit of work done and it made me realize how difficult the last fifteen months have been for dedicated people who care about, collect, archive, and make available the historical record for us. I had also spent a great few months working on a research project in Hatfield with boxes and boxes of materials lovingly organized by the folks at the Hatfield Historical Society. 

When I was asked about whether I would want to be involved in a project in Hatfield again, it was an easy decision. For people like me who engage in public history projects and want to utilize local history in their classroom efforts, it is incumbent that we do everything we can to support local history organizations. As a researcher and board member of the Lawrence History Center, I can add my knowledge of how institutions like this work to the project. At the same time, by being involved with a local history organization, I can learn lots about best practices for working in such organizations. It may also help me to identify how I want to volunteer when ever I decide to retire from UMass Lowell!

MRM: How has HHS been coping with the effects of the pandemic, especially around Hatfield’s anniversary year?

KG: Like for most museums and historical societies, especially small ones, it has been a challenging year, made all the more frustrating and sad because 2020 was our town’s 350th anniversary year. It was also the Hatfield Historical Society’s 50th anniversary, which should have been a great opportunity for us to promote the work HHS has been doing. It meant that most of 2020’s scheduled events got cancelled, and our opportunities to engage in person with the public disappeared.

But we did not sit idle! We shifted gears, and of course with growing pains (we are still figuring things out), we embraced the digital platform. We were delighted to be asked last fall by Bill Hosely (of Terra Firma Northeast) to participate in the Mass Historical Society Zoom program, “A Treasury of Massachusetts House Museums and Local History Orgs: Part III: Hidden Gems” (you can watch the program HERE) to introduce our organization and the collections we manage for the Town of Hatfield to their audience.

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By Emily Whitted

Stephen Girard—the wealthiest man in the Early Republic—had a secret hidden inside his shoes. From his knees to his ankles, his legs were clad in fine silk stockings imported from France, with delicate silk embroidery, known as clocking, on display when wearing breeches. But below the ankle, his stocking feet were thick with mended areas, known as darns, made to repair holes in the fabric (fig. 1). Twenty pairs of Stephen Girard’s stockings are housed in Girard College’s collection and are rare survivals of extensively repaired early American textiles. If the wealthiest man in the Early Republic had his stockings mended, then one can only imagine the sheer scale of textile repair work in early America as both a domestic task and a professional occupation.  But why is textile repair worthy of notice, and what can its visibility tell us about the lives of early Americans? 

Fig. 1 – A pair of frame-knit silk stockings made in France and owned by Stephen Girard in the early nineteenth century show extensive darning in the feet. Stockings. Girard College Archives, Accession Number: 0323. Courtesy of Girard History Collections, Philadelphia PA.

Mending is having a moment. The New York Times informed me and the rest of its readership in an article last March, as stay-at-home orders began to go into effect throughout the U.S., that “now is when we all learn to darn our socks again.”1 The article featured an in-depth look at the visible mending movement, a craft practice-turned-social commentary on fast fashion and twenty-first-century throwaway clothing culture that mends damaged clothing in bright thread colors and distinctive sewing techniques (fig.2). I don’t think that article could have predicted how accurate its title would soon become; for many, extended time at home due to the pandemic would generate a mass return to textile mending and a renewed sense of relationship with clothing through the act of repair. Mending is certainly experiencing a resurgence, but only time will tell if its popularity continues once COVID-19 dictates less of our daily routines.

Fig. 2 – Visibly-mended cashmere socks by Flora Collingwood-Norris, knitwear designer and visible mender. Her work can be found at @visible_creative_mending on Instagram or her website
https://www.collingwoodnorrisdesign.com/visible-mending.
Courtesy of Flora Collingwood-Norris.

While eye-catching color and embroidery in visible mending wants viewers to notice repair work, in early America those executing textile repair work—the overwhelming majority of whom were women—were much more concerned with their mends escaping notice. With needles and thread, damaged textiles could be repaired to extend the life of garments without drawing any additional attention. Threads could be selected to match fabric colors, and even woven or knit patterns could be mimicked. Function was also important; mended textiles would need to sustain additional wear, as necessity often justified the time and labor spent repairing garments. But need was not the only motivating factor for mending. Like many of us today, repair in early America could also be motivated by sentimentality, as objects that are meaningful then, as now, felt worth the additional care and attention of repair work.

Girard’s stockings attract special notice because they were repaired multiple times with different techniques, all designed to extend their period of wear for as long as possible. The most common form of mending, executed in white cotton thread, mimics woven fabric structure to mend a hole. Swiss darning, executed in the tan silk thread, mimics knit fabric structure and could be used to mend a hole or  strengthen weak areas of knit fabric. Girard’s stockings also sport “run heels,” a technique that layers thread onto stocking heels which were likely to wear through first, for additional strength and padding (fig. 3-4).  

Fig. 3 – A close-up image of the mended areas of Girard’s stocking. White darning thread mimics woven fabric structure, while the light grey Swiss darns mimic the original knit structure of the fabric and are meant to escape notice. Stockings. Girard College Archives, Accession Number: 0323. Courtesy of Girard History Collections, Philadelphia PA.

Fig. 4 – The reverse of Girard’s stocking heel, which reveals the complex rows of couched thread that make a “run heel.” This technique provides additional cushion and padding to delay the emergence of holes in the fabric. Stockings. Girard College Archives, Accession Number: 0323. Courtesy of Girard History Collections, Philadelphia PA.

Each of these techniques were part of many early American women’s plain sewing education, although the skill and frequency in which they were executed depended on each particular woman’s socio-economic status and individual talent for needlework. A homework sampler housed in the collection of The Library Company of Philadelphia offers multiple examples of repair techniques, including a basic darn and a run heel technique (fig. 5). Made by Emily Bell in 1830 while attending the Bethlehem Female Seminary in Pennsylvania, this sampler offers an example of more common needlework. A 1790-1830 sampler by Anna Hofmann, part of the Winterthur Museum’s collection, showcases more elaborate darning techniques, including mending that mimics multi-colored woven patterns in fabric and mends that recreate knit stitches (fig. 6). In lieu of written sources, these early American women are documented by the needlework of textile repair. 

Fig. 5 – Eleven samplers, mounted on board in the form of a book, made by Emily Bell while attending the Bethlehem Female Seminary in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. 1830. Courtesy of Library Company of Philadelphia. https://www.librarycompany.org/

Fig. 6 – Darning sampler, Anna Hofmann, possibly England or North America, 1790-1830, Plain-woven linen and cotton thread, 1964.1702, Bequest of Henry Francis du Pont. Courtesy of Winterthur Museum.

Within museum collections, early American textile repair work is difficult to spot, assuming that mended textiles even make it into museums in the first place. Collecting, whether on a personal or institutional level, has often privileged objects that seem perfect, authentic, and without flaws. Some museum objects may have damage, often due to age and prior storage conditions, but it is much rarer to find damaged objects that were also repaired in the same time period in which they were made and used.

Several reasons, some practical and others less so, explain this absence. Repairs can be difficult to date. Antique dealers or other collectors in possession of objects before they arrive in museums may try to repair broken objects before their purchase and acquisition, and while some collections with regular access to conservators receive professional repair, objects that have received conservation work before entering a collection might make it difficult for museums to determine when a repair was made. Repairs can also escape notice in object records within collection databases, whether due to the assumption that information about an object’s repair is less important than an object’s creation or use or because textile mending is still, many years later, performing its original function and staying hidden. But early American repaired textiles do exist in collections despite this host of reasons, and closer analysis can access diverse histories of labor, sentimentality, and economic necessity. The first step, however, is finding them.

Repairing our fashion industry, our rates of consumption, and our relationships with the objects that surround us requires both modern-day commitment and historical context. My dissertation research is interested in the latter, and I am seeking early American repaired textiles (broadly defined and geographically conceived) as well as other objects in collections that tell the history of mending through material evidence and additional documentation. Darned socks are just the beginning. 

Do you know of any repaired early American textiles in a museum or private collection? Let the author know!

Email: ewhitted@umass.edu

Twitter: @knitwhitted

Instagram: @knitwhitted

  1. Kurutz, Steven. “Now Is When We All Learn to Darn Our Socks Again.” The New York Times. March 12, 2020. https://tinyurl.com/ydx4k63z

By Michelle Barrasso

I began my internship at the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD) in January 2021. My work at the Commission consists of a number of roles, responsibilities, and tasks; I am an Intake Specialist in the Employment Division. The tasks I am undertaking cover a number of different areas. First, I conduct intakeinterviews over the phone with people who wish to file a discrimination claim. This entails asking the right questions while remaining neutral and drafting the complaint. After several additional steps (i.e. sending the complaint to the Attorney Advisor, requesting signatures, etc.), I enter the complaint into the Case Management System. Second, I read case documents (i.e. a Complaint, Position Statement, Rebuttal, and Evidence) and outline the case in order to investigate and analyze it — to determine whether or not a PFC or “prima facie case” has been established and if there is probable cause for discrimination. I also help the assigned investigator determine what else is needed to move forward, which is known as an RFI or “request for information.” Lastly, I read mail-in complaints which include the same documents aforementioned. I outline each one with a checklist of pertinent information and enter the complaint into the Case Management System.

The intake interviews I conduct over the phone are informed by my training in Public History for a number of reasons. I am working with the public and engaging with the individual stories of people across the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, essentially recording a piece of their history and preserving it. This aspect of my internship work lends itself to an oral history framework due to the interview process of the intake as well as the documentation. Although I am not recording the Complainant’s story with a device, I am writing it down and filing it. The complaint of discrimination serves as the individual’s oral history.

I acquired these oral history skills in Introduction to Public History, a course I took during the Fall 2018 semester with Dr. David Glassberg. We covered a wide range of Public History topics, theories, and practices, dedicating a week to the subject of oral history. One of the requirements for the course was to lead two discussions, and I signed up to lead the week covering oral history because it has always been a topic that interests me. In order to prepare for the discussion, I read the section of Letting Go?: Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World that examines the practice of oral history, and we discussed the reading as a class. We engaged in a dialogue about the uses of oral history as well as its implications, methods, and procedures. These readings and conversations provided the necessary foundation for my field service project. 

I selected an oral history based topic for my field service project, which served as the main component for Introduction to Public History. This project, titled “UMass Black Pioneers”, focuses on the stories of African American students who attended UMass Amherst during the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. My two colleagues and I were each assigned one Black Pioneer to interview, and I was tasked with recording the story of Dr. Leslie McLemore. With the help of Dr. Glassberg, my colleagues and I created a list of interview questions and sent each interviewee an oral history release form, which provided their consent to be interviewed as well as archive their story. I interviewed Dr. McLemore at the UMass Digital Media Lab to ensure I had the proper technology to conduct and record the interview. At the end of the 60-minute interview, I downloaded both the audio and visual recording. The final step was the transcription process, which took me approximately 12 hours to complete. I utilize all of these skills to conduct the intake interviews for my internship with the Commission.

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By Past@Present

P@P: First, it’s so exciting to see your photo on the cover of the new issue of The Public Historian—Congratulations!  Can you tell us how that came about?

RR: Thank you! I knew The Public Historian was publishing a special issue about childhood, gender, and play, but it was a surprise when the editor contacted me about using one of my photos for the cover. It’s such an honor to have my work recognized by colleagues in the field.

P@P: More than 3000 people follow your Instagram feed, @iamexcessivelydollverted.  When and why did you launch that project?  And how do you use this platform as a public historian?

RR: I began @iamexcessivelydollverted three years ago as a way to discuss and expand upon aspects of history related to American Girl’s historical characters. Over time, the project has transformed into a discussion of the history that is overlooked by American Girl. In recent years, American Girl has introduced more characters from marginalized backgrounds, but the vast majority of the dolls they sell are white and all but two of their historical characters are Christian. I am really interested in the idea of historical fiction as public history and how we can use fiction as an entry into understanding history, so I began creating my own historical characters from time periods and marginalized communities overlooked by American Girl. I use these original historical characters to discuss histories of non-white and non-Christian communities in the United States and elsewhere. I also use this project to connect history to contemporary events. All of American Girl’s canonical historical characters fight for justice and equality in their books, so it makes sense to me to use these historical characters to discuss contemporary issues of justice and equality and to trace how contemporary racism, sexism, and inequality is rooted in history.

As a public historian, this project is an extension of my other work. I typically write history articles for online and print outlets, on topics ranging from suffrage history to environmental history. On @iamexcessivelydollverted, I often discuss topics that I’ve written about for websites and magazines, but I’m able to interact with a different readership—over half of my followers are 18-34 years old and the majority are women. Too often, history writing aimed at a popular audience is synonymous with weighty tomes about men written by men. By using American Girl dolls to discuss history for a popular audience, I’m fighting against that stereotype; writing popular history is and should be a feminist act.

American Girl dolls dressed as early 20th-century suffragists used for the cover of The Public Historian’s February 2021 Issue.

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By Allison Smith

Over the summer of 2020 I participated in the Women and COVID-19 Oral History and Memory Project, hosted by Smith College, where I completed my undergraduate degree. I interviewed women in my family about their experiences making and wearing face masks, and along the way, I learned how women understood their roles in the pandemic and how they adapted to the public health crisis.

Two professors from Smith College, Darcy Buerkle and Kelly Anderson, spearheaded the Women and COVID-19 Oral History and Memory Project as a way for Smith students to learn how to create historical sources. For me, this project served as a productive bridge between my undergraduate work and studying Public History at the graduate level at UMass Amherst. As a participant in the project, I could choose any topic to explore. Interested in material culture and fascinated by the changing mask fashions even in the short time from the beginning of the pandemic to the summer months, I decided to give women a space to talk about their experiences with face masks. I conducted six oral history interviews over Zoom and collected numerous survey responses from women who generously shared their experiences with mask making and wearing, pandemic life, and the political climate.

To learn more about mask making on a global scale, I also attended the Homemade Mask (Virtual) Summit in June 2020, an event hosted by Tulane University.1 During this virtual summit I realized how far-reaching this network of women was and I became even more encouraged to continue collecting oral histories. The Smith College project—which to date has preserved over 100 oral testimonies, and counting—is only one project of many, as the IFPH (International Federation for Public History) is collecting public history projects about COVID-19 in a Made By Us map.2 The COVID-19 Pandemic has presented us with an opportunity to capture history in ways that ensure diverse stories are told and women’s voices are heard. 

Patricia Stowell showing off face mask, June 23, 2020.

My grandmother, Patricia Stowell, is one of those women who rose to the challenge of mask making. She and other women from her retirement community in Punta Gorda, Florida, shared face mask patterns and debated the various advantages and disadvantages of each. Looking on YouTube for tutorials, my grandmother endeavored to find a pattern that was “loose enough to breathe, but tight enough so that I feel it’s working.”3 She also followed CDC guidelines, using two 10×6 rectangles of tightly woven cotton.4 After drafting a prototype, she located scraps of cotton she had laying around from previous quilting projects and began machine-sewing masks. Stowell not only sewed masks for herself and her husband but her children and grandchildren. After sending masks across the country to her relatives, she joined forces with her friends to make over 100 masks to donate to the local children’s hospital. The generosity and dedication of these women represent only a snapshot of the communities of crafting women across the world protecting those around them. 

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By Jessica Scott

This article was written as a result of a semester long practicum with Associate Professor Sam Redman focusing on research into the original production of Artifacts at the End of a Decade. Professor Redman also serves as a member of the steering committee for the UMCA exhibit opening February 16th.

It was early Fall 2019 by the time co-curator Jill Hughes and I decided to show the artists book Artifacts at the End of a Decade in its entirety for our 2020 UMCA Curatorial Fellow Exhibition. We’d only seen  its “pages” through the thumbnail images on the website for the 5 Colleges Museum’s Digital Database but we were already piqued by how it stood out from the rest of the collection’s 3000 works on paper. Published in 1981 by Steven Watson and Carol Venezia-Huebner, Artifacts at the End of a Decade is an unbound artists’ book consisting of of 44 unique pieces of photography, ceramics, fiber, print, clothing, painting, and drawing, contributed by artists including Martha Rosler, Fab 5 Freddy, Laurie Anderson, Sol LeWitt, Robert Wilson, Lucinda Childs, and Robert Kushner, among many others. As a multidisciplinary American survey of the 1970’s in the form of an artists’ archive, it’s a work that was both a response to its time and far ahead of it.

An image of an opened archival box containing the artists Watson and Venezia-Huebner's portfolio "Artifacts at the end of a Decade."
An image of an to closed archival box containing the artists Watson and Venezia-Huebner's portfolio with the title "Artifacts at the end of a Decade" on the cover of the box.

Artifacts in its portfolio, photography by Stephen Petergorsky.

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