Wild Mint

This is peppermint, growing in a damp ditch in Ashfield Massachusetts. Peppermint has been growing wild in Ashfield, on the edges of cultivated fields, since the early 1800s when the town was the center of the early mint oil business.


Student Evals

At UMass, faculty does not evaluate TA performance — at least not formally. I’ve TAed three courses in the four semesters of my PhD program here: both halves of the US History Survey, as well as US Environmental History. The professor I worked with my first semester (Fall ’09) “hired” me back for Enviro last Spring, so I guess he liked my work.

What I do know, because I get to look at them after the end of semester, is what the students said about me. They said things like
“I loved every discussion with Dan; he made the class interesting and worthwhile” (Fall ’09), “TA was amazing!! Very thorough and clear. Always available for advice or to meet” (Fall ’10), and “Always lets people give their opinion. Accepts the views in a way that makes you feel good when you speak up” (Spring ’11).

Since it’s difficult for prospective employers to decide what kind of teacher a new PhD would be, by just looking at the CV,
I posted a page with all the comments my students have made. It was nice typing it up -- a kind of validation for the work I put into those courses. Maybe it will be useful, when it comes time for me to apply for work...

Biddle's Stairs

Nicholas Biddle, the famous president of the Second Bank of the United States and target of Andrew Jackson’s “Bank War,” is famous in upstate New York for another reason. In 1827, he visited the falls in the company of Augustus and (General) Peter Porter, the Secretary of War under John Quincy Adams. The Porters owned most of the land around Niagara Falls, including Goat Island. They wanted to encourage tourists to visit, so Biddle gave them $200 to build an 80-foot tall enclosed staircase on Goat Island. The “Biddle Stairs” operated for 98 years, until it was put out of business by the Cave of the Wind elevator in 1925.

It’s interesting to think of banker Nicholas Biddle and Secretary of War Porter, in a wider context than their political offices. What other surprises lurk in the stories of public figures we think we know well?

(Info from the
Niagara County Historical Society’s Bicentennial Moments )

Note the "Terrapin Tower" in the 1846
watercolor by Michael Seymour below. Many more illustrations and early photos of Niagara Falls here.

falls fromstairs

Chester Cheetah

I read an interesting post by Bland Whitley earlier this week on THS, which led to a very interesting discussion in the comments section. Interesting, but also a little frustrating. I sometimes feel a bit like I’m in a room full of people who are all worried about issues I don’t find problematic. Maybe I didn't really get the analogy Bland made in his final response, to songwriters who can’t sing. I guess what he’s saying is that some people are good researchers and academic historians, and others are good at telling stories that are relevant and interesting to the general public. History, like the music world, is divided between composers and performers.

Doesn't that perspective tend to denigrate the contribution of “performers” who write the histories that people read? But even if we let that pass, if you extend the metaphor, you have songwriters who need professional singers to get their songs in front of the public in an acceptable (salable) form. You may have a bunch of amateurs, singing the same songs and posting their efforts on YouTube, but does this really ruin the game for the songwriters? If anything, it would seem like the fact lots of people are humming the tune would be good for sales…(
see Neil Gaiman on copyright).

Or, is the issue that lots of Napsters are pirating the songs, so there are fewer actual purchases generating royalties for the record companies to share with songwriters? I think this is a potentially solid point, based on the arguments made in the music industry. But was it ever conclusively proven that “illegal downloads” actually took sales from record companies? Did radio airplay? Did making “mix-tapes” in the 80s? Seems more likely to me, that downloading raised the overall number of “listens” to any particular song, but probably not at the expense of actual record sales. It mobilized a completely different market.

Since this is a contested issue in the music business, do these questions follow it, when we use it as an analogy for academic history? Is there way the advent of web-based info sources can be seen as “Napsters” of learning? Is it possible they extend the reach of our ideas into territory they might not otherwise be able to access?

Doesn’t this discussion also sort-of assume that there are a limited number of good historical ideas that you can discover, and that we have to hoard them and guard them as if they’re precious? To me it seems just the opposite. Everyplace I look, there are historical things that I could talk about. So if someone was to start talking about the same things, I think I’d be happy. Not that I’m going to give away my dissertation ideas, before I’ve had a chance to put them all together. But once it’s a book, wouldn’t it actually be good for me, if my argument got mainstreamed to the point where it just appears everywhere, like a tune people are humming? I can certainly step up at any time and say, “see, I said that in 2011,” if I need to.

Like the Cheetos guy says, "Crunch all ya want, we'll make more."

Interest for everybody

I blogged a few weeks ago on my own site as well as on THS, about bankers–and specifically on how I thought that historians spend too much time talking about the distrust that everybody had in the 19th century for banknotes (especially rural bank's notes). Although counterfeiters and fraudulent banknotes are certainly colorful, I think for the most part, 19th-century people accepted the notes that were presented to them.

One of the arguments historians have used to support the idea of widespread distrust, is the fact that everybody knew how to discount notes. This was a skill that was taught to many people in common school, as part of the basic package of reading, writing, and arithmetic. But I think that rather than showing that these people were all busily discounting the notes of bankers they didn't completely trust, it actually shows that they were learning how to charge and receive interest. We tend to forget, because the currency we carry around in her pockets does not, that most of the banknotes, bills of exchange, and other commercial paper that functioned as currency in the 19th century, carried interest.

To illustrate just how widespread the need to calculate interest was, here is a reproduction of a passage from Dr. Chases Practical Recipes, printed in 1870. This book contains 800 recipes for all types of items, all as Dr. Chase says, “arranged in their appropriate departments.” He gives an explanation on how to calculate interest, using the odd amount of $1,111 at 6% for one year, four months and 27 days. Then he includes rate tables for interest rates ranging from 6 to 10%. Clearly discounting was a skill for which there was still a need, even in 1870, five years after the national banking laws had begun taxing state bank currency out of existence.


Food Deserts


When I was visiting upstate New York, on a research trip, I was surprised to find there was nowhere to buy food. Living in an affluent, populated area in the Northeast, I have access to three supermarkets I use (Hannafords, Price Chopper, and Market Basket), as well as several I avoid (Shaws and Walmart). And there are a number of neighborhood stores that sell more than just beer and candy — one even has a New York style sandwich shop in the rear!

These places I went to, though, were not slums or ghost-towns at the end of dirt roads. They were towns of 1,000 to 2,000 people, along the New York through-way. A hundred years ago, they were bustling centers along the Erie Canal. The canal is still there, of course; and the towns are trying to make it a tourist attraction, putting in trails and bikeways along the historic waterway. So why were the people living there traveling a half hour or more to buy their groceries?

The USDA has just published an interactive
Food Desert Locator on its ERS website, which gives a detailed graphical perspective on this issue. Interestingly, the areas along route 90 seem to be desert-free on their map. Does this suggest that their data are on the conservative side? That there are places (maybe a lot of them) where rural people have to go to a nearby, bigger town to buy groceries once a week, and feel a lack of options in their food choices? In rural Minnesota and the Dakotas, people seem to lack options, unless they can get to a decent-sized city. The food desert ends at eastern Wyoming, not because there are a lot of food stores, but because there aren’t a lot of people. Another artifact of the statistics.


When I have time, I’ll look at the discussion the UDSA attaches to this. Do they talk about WHY there are fewer choices for rural (and poor urban) people? Consolidation of the food processing, marketing, and distribution systems? Box stores putting local mom & pop shops out of business? Food assistance programs that have historically made it difficult for local (and often more natural/organic) producers to compete? There seem to be some concerned , aware people working at ERS. I wonder if they have any input into the USDA’s overall program?

New York 1796

1796 New York Map

From David Rumsey collection, click map for link to page.


Photo on 2011-05-09 at 15.44
So I’m sitting here in my study carrel, talking rather than typing. I’m using the new version of Dragon dictation software for the Macintosh, and it seems to be working pretty well. I don’t have to go back and correct too much (although I will have to go to the first line and change study Carol to study carrel–and I had to do it here, too).

This has been incredibly valuable to me in transcribing all of these old letters from the 19th century that I’m using as my primary sources. Previously, I would read the letters through and then type a brief synopsis and maybe quote a few lines. Now it’s just as quick to dictate the entire letter. This is especially helpful in the long letters my subjects write to each other, describing their business strategies; and also for getting a much better sense of the language and tone they use with each other. And I can get them done about four times faster than if I was typing them.

I do feel a little bit like a telemarketer, sitting here with this thing on my head. But it’s not the first time I’ve worn a Plantronics headset, and as I get better at it, I expect it to go even quicker. Donna love technology… yeah, okay. I said, “Gotta love technology.” There’s a little learning curve. But I edit anyway, so it’s not such a big change.

Old Books

I found this in an 1879 book called History of the Connecticut Valley in Massachusetts. Also, an illustration of the river valley, and a lot of interesting little biographies of regular people. I love these old books!