How's my restoration?

In Newburgh, where I am now working for the Newburgh Historical Society, there are many people fixing up old houses.

Just across the street from the Crawford House (the society's HQ), the owner put up this sign, asking for input on paint choice.

Which paint color do you prefer? (I chose maroon).

It shows the kind of community spirit often demonstrated in places like Newburgh by those involved in restoration. It invites neighbours to feel invested in what's going on in their environment. Those improving a house are not just fixing up their own home, but adding something to the area.


In which I muse upon the domestic arts...

Those of you who knit may be familar with two common styles: English (aka "throwing") and Continental. Recently, I encountered an interesting theory: that "English" knitting style was encouraged (I suppose at least in the UK) because of its palms-down, "ladylike" pose. This may be partly true, but I would also suggest that the technique is easy to learn, and produces even results, making it a good option for those who were only going to knit as a hobby, and for whom speed was not important. My historian's ear also perked up at the discussion, because of the implication that a ladylike posture was not valued in continental Europe, or indeed in Portugal (where they have a different style again).

My own knitting frustrations led me to the discussion. I have knitted since I was a child (sporadically), but with no great results. While I am an even knitter, I am so abysmally slow that I lose interest long before the project is done. To put it into perspective: championship speed knitters run at 100+ stitches per minute. Competent quick knitters are at 50+. I manage about 15-20. So everything takes forever.

Which brings me back to my curiosity about the speeds of knitting production, and particularly that Continental knitting is reputed to be faster than English. The "fast" option in the British Isles in fact seems to be "cottage" or lever style, in which the movement is streamlined by anchoring the right needle, in the knitter's armpit, in an attachment to a belt, or in the knitter's crotch (it's obvious why such a pose would not have caught on with Victorian ladies). Graceful it isn't, but damn quick. And for women in the Aran islands and elsewhere knitting for a living it was probably the fastest way to hand knit anything.

A couple of years ago, I discovered crochet (well, ok, I didn't "discover" it, I'm not the Christopher Columbus of textile arts). I taught myself (thank you, threadbanger!) and since then that's what I've mostly stuck to. Although it is the same basic concept: creating a fabric by looping and threading yarn together, it seems quicker than knitting.

Some beautiful crochet from the mid-19th century onwards have been digitised, showing some of the beautiful designs women used to make bags or cushions. As crochet, like knitting, shifted from being a manufacturing skill to a decorative hobby, it also became more generalised. Previously, different regions specialised in different crafts, and particular decorative motifs (part of the culturogenesis I research in urban spaces relates to the development of distinctive local costumes). The arrival of printed patterns made designs more general: you too can make an "Aran" or "Fairisle" sweater.

Along with the romanticisation of domestic arts that arose among middle-class Victorians, the low cost of labour (which meant an increasing proportion of the population could afford to employ the rest of the population as domestic servants), gave ladies free time to sew, knit, etc, as a hobby.

Domestic sewing machines (the Smithsonian has a fabulous booklet from 1929 online explaining the history of the sewing machine) and commercial dress patterns appeared in the mid nineteenth century, which made making one's own clothes (for the untrained seamstress) feasible. Although then as now, the amateur stitcher only made the occasional garment, not an entire wardrobe.

It's a romantic image of the woman sewing by candlelight to clothe her children, but before the machines arrived and sewing was by hand, most women did not make their own or their families' clothes. Rich women had no need (they used dressmakers) and poor women did not have the time. They repaired or altered clothes, and they bought second-hand or acquired hand-me-downs.Only professional seamstresses are likely to have made their own clothes.

I sew, but to make all my own clothes (let alone those for a husband and children) would take pretty much all my time. As in, it would only be possible if I didn't have to work. And it would still be more expensive than just buying them at a department store. (for me to buy the fabric, retail, for an outfit, can work out more expensive than getting the outfit when it's already been sewn together in a factory in some other country, where another woman's labour is being valued at much less than mine).

Perhaps because these are traditionally female crafts, the engineering skill is overlooked.

"I felt overwhelmed by the masses of circular creations that seemed to represent womankind's challenge to answer the riddle of pi in neverending cotton lace. It seemed odd to me that so many women could say that they are no good at math when they could create a perfect flat circle, or hexagon, or octagon, in lace pattern, no less.

Lace is a way of suspending holes within a stable fabric. So making a doily means a person creates pleasing, repeating geometrical pattterns with these holes, while at the same time making the number of stitches inrease by pi (3.14+) every time the diameter of the doily increases by the height of the average stitch's width.
― Sigrid Arnott

The mathematical and spatial ability in devising patterns can be quite high, as shown in the work of mathematician Daina Taimina, using crochet to model hyperbolic space.

The hours of work involved in making anything by hand mean those of us who do it (when it would be cheaper to just buy a machine-knitted sweater), are doing it for recreation - and perhaps to make something unique. But if anyone gives you a sweater they knitted this Christmas, remember that it probably took them hours each evening for weeks to make it.

For those of you on craftster or ravelry, you'll find me scampering round there as squirrelbythesea.

Crowdsourcing historical research: an experiment

Yesterday I put on google docs an article draft. The piece is called "Landscape Projections" and it is about the presentation of Australia's environment in historical film. You can see it here:

I am interested to gather people's responses to the piece, and any suggestions they may have for improvement. (I was also curious to see how many people actually read it, and I've been pleasantly surprised on that score).

So, take a look, and let me know what you think.

Every you, every me

I was struck by something Timothy Burke wrote at Easily Distracted, as a comment on one of his own posts, which was progressively threadjacked.

He was writing in relation to the discussions of rioters in London, vs. the bankers responsible for the economic meltdown. The contrast between those scrambling to make excuses or find cultural explanation for rioting, while not looking at financial practices in the same way, reveals a blind spot in a lot of people's thinking. As Professor Burke wrote:

But you’re singing my song on a point that I frequently harp on (including in classes, to my poor students) which is that for a very long time much qualitative social science has shown very little interest in elites or powerful social groups like soldiers or bureaucrats in the same terms that it takes an interest in many other social groups, e.g., as groups that have “cultures”, that are the products of social conditions, and so on. Lazy or simple versions of the social-conditions-produce-and-justify-practices ought to be just as forgiving of neoconservative bombing of Iraq. Admittedly, part of the reason that there are very few ethnographic studies of military or security force cultures of torture (for one example) is methodological: the powerful have very little interest in welcoming ethnographic inquiry into their habitus, even when that’s not strictly secret in some sense. But part of it is also the assumption by a lot of people on the left that the elite are already fully understood in this sense. Which I don’t really see: if I had to teach a class on the everyday cultural world of the most elite financial capitalists, I would have very few studies to put on the syllabus that would compare with what I can offer in a course on everyday life in rural southern Africa. I’d have to use memoirs, novels, and journalism, which is fine, but it’s still a notable gap. Unless what people mean by assuming that these worlds are already known to inquiry is because academics or leftists typically believe that they themselves are part of or known personally about such elite social contexts or that the self-representations of elites in the public sphere are accurate or useful guides to their everyday practices.

This relates to the kind of problem I bump up against regularly in my research, which involves assessing the cultures of colonialism at different sites. I don't often see scholars finding culturally determinist explanations for European empires. However, at the the high point of European expansion, we could easily say it was a longstanding part of European culture to beat people up and take their land. The defeated either sucked it up and learned to bow to a new king, or they rallied their friends and pushed the invaders out. (see Spain, reconquest of). And pretty well every part of Europe had been on both sides of that equation (conqueror and conquered) at some point in their history.

Historians, whether we like it or not, tend to vew the colonialist elites of the past as our equals, to be judged on our terms, while the subaltern groups are condescended to and excuses are made for their culture-bound hopelessness. I'm reminded of this response to the Aztec exhibition at the British Museum, which said a lot of what I was thinking at the time. If an exhibition of the history of the slave trade showed shackles and whips and did not say "look at this evidence of human cruelty" but "look at the fine workmanship on that!" most of us would be horrified and outraged. Why wasn't the Aztec show seen in the same way?

If Europe’s explorers and conquerors are condemned as invaders, pillagers and exploiters (which means judging them by our contemporary standards of morality), then we have to hold other groups to the same standard. Otherwise it’s like saying “oh, those poor benighted tribal people, with their simple understanding of the world, we can’t condemn them for their child sacrifice/cannibalism/cruelty. But those white Europeans, we can condemn them for witch hunts/slavery/torture, because they should have known better.”

Evil people and nasty practices have existed everywhere, at all times. So have good people. I am certain there would have been some Aztecs who thought the murder of children was wrong, and who tried to stop it. Diversity of opinion within a group isn’t something we in the educated West have exclusive claim to, either. “People of [group], believed x....”. Really? All of them? Can you think of one thing today that “everyone believes”?

Either we're all trapped by our cultures, or nobody is. I'm frequently annoyed with people who describe themselves as "very spiritual". This irks me because I regard "spirituality"—in the sense of having an interior life, rather than adhering to any particular religion or philosophy—as an essential element of being human. To say one is "very spiritual" is like saying one is "very human".

Which brings me back to Professor Burke’s useful point about rioters and bankers: if we’re to excuse the rioters for their culturally determined behaviour, the same excuses have to apply to the bankers. Or conversely, theft is theft. If you expect better from someone because they wear a suit and work on Wall St than you do from a teenager in a hooded sweatshirt, what kind of class snobbery is that?


Minding our manners, acting our age?

I have been working on an essay on the development of a particular code of manners in particular places (to do with my research on urban culture). I've always been fascinated not only by the rules prescribed in various books on correct form, but the way they vary not only over time, but in different places. I tend to agree with the books that hesitate to recommend taking wine to a dinner party (and certainly expecting to drink it) as this can be read as impugning the quality of the host's cellar. When I cook dinner, I've already planned which wines I'm serving to match the courses. While I certainly don't mind a friend bringing wine as a gift, it goes in the cupboard for me to drink later: I don't serve it that night. And when I'm a guest I tend to take something non-consumable (or chocolates). These days it's common to observe such incidents of colossal rudeness (frankly, obnoxiousness) that dinner gifts, place cards and printed invitations are of somewhat marginal concern. But the fact that rules exist I think is a good thing.

However, not everyone agrees. The idea of etiquette seems confusing. Some regard it as old-fashioned, anti-democratic, the idea of having rules imposed from on high and being told what to do is something they resent. Others argue that in fact it can be very egalitarian, as it is about treating everyone decently. I tend to be in the second camp. In common with many (most?) people of my generation, I was raised being told I could be whatever I wanted to, and that I shouldn't worry about what other people thought. At the same time, however, my mother was frequently dropping reminders about appropriate behaviour: so obviously what other people thought DID matter.

But it's this confusing nexus that seems to have produced a lot of the poor public decorum we see today. Likewise when a tourist is arrested for going topless on a beach in a conservative part of the world: those of us raised in multicultural democracies, having been told our whole lives we need to respect the cultural practices of others, see the flipside of that as the right to pursue our own choices unhindered (even - or especially - if those choices include semi-nudity, public inebriation, wearing a miniskirt in a temple, offensive t-shirt slogans, swearing loudly in the street: how dare you not be TOLERANT of my lifestyle. F*ck you).

I've noticed this particularly since I moved to Germany, where (at least in my neighbourhood) people are generally quiet. Returning to the UK for a conference, I found myself walking around London at night. It was a pleasantly warm evening so I wanted to take a stroll. I found myself skirting huge bags of trash dumped on the footpath, stepping over puddles of vomit, being approached by beggars, and having to listen to a man having a very loud conversation (on the other side of the street) on his mobile phone in which he was yelling obscenities. And this was in a "nice" area. I suppose I was inured to it in the past (the urine-smelling alleys, the litter, the graffiti), but it's jarring having been away to encounter this level of unpleasantness. I've always been fond of London, but it's hard to escape the vision of a city in decay. Or rather, separate cities. If you have afternoon tea at the Lanesborough and dine at Roussillon and travel everywhere by taxi, it is one of the most wonderful cities in the world. But by the time you've struggled through peak hour tube traffic, been shouted at by drunks, and had to wonder what that was you just stepped in, it's rather dystopic.

I remember hearing from my mother that when she was young, "going into town" meant dressing up. When wearing hats and gloves was considered appropriate. Now, nobody treats "going to the city" as an occasion for which they might dress up. There's been some recent discussion that Mad Men is bringing back stylish dressing - would Don Draper be seen in a t-shirt and jeans? When clothing becomes more democratic, I don't see why that has to mean "lowest common denominator" but as others have observed, many adults today dress like children. Shorts, t-shirts, tracksuits.... Is this a related phenomenon? Since we're not dressed like grown-ups, we don't act like them? The people shouting abuse and being sick in the street, in any city I've spent time in, are NOT the ones wearing Sunday best.

Some years ago, I recall hearing about a nightclub (I think it was Annabels?) in which an experiment with abandoning the suit and tie dress requirement for "smart casual" turned into a disaster: behaviour in the club slipped dramatically under the "casual attire" rule, so the old jacket and tie requirement was brought back toute de suite. Needless to say, I'm a big fan of dress codes. At least if I know what I'm expected to wear, I don't have to worry about whether I'll be dressed appropriately. As with etiquette, some see dress requirements as restrictive, I feel they can be liberating by putting everyone on an equal footing. (I'm also incredibly skeptical of "Casual Friday" and other management fads).

Is it too much to hope that we will return to a time in which being over-25 means it really is time to dress and act like an adult?


Speaking dates, History Carnival, and more Twitterstorians

I will be speaking at UMass Amherst on October 6, and UC Irvine on October 18. Interested historians, please come along. My presentations will focus on the ideas of the colonial city, the subject of my next book.

The History Carnival for October will also be hosted here, so if you want to send a nomination for any good history weblog posts or articles from the last month (or August, since the Carnival has been on hiatus), please submit them here.

And some more twitterstorians have emerged:

@Sparrow566 - Liz Chairopoulou
@OOHRP - Oklahoma Oral History

Cityscapes Wrap-up (AKA "why I am still so tired")

Last Thursday and Friday, I was co-organiser of a conference, "Cityscapes in History: Creating the Urban Experience". My colleague Heléna Tóth and I hosted 29 panelists plus 4 keynote speakers at the Center for Advanced Studies here in Munich. Having first had the idea for the conference last October, it has felt like a sprint to get everything organised, from the original CFP to the timing of the coffee breaks, and I'm still recovering!

We kicked off the event with a walking tour of the city last Wednesday afternoon, which we guided ourselves, and it was fun showing people around our new home, despite the rain.

The conference went better than I could have hoped, and our plans to generate interdisciplinary conversation seem to have succeeded. I learned a lot from all the presentations I saw, including Manan Ahmed (of Chapati Mystery) who spoke about digitising maps and retaining cultural information. So much was packed into the two days, I'm still marveling that we got so many great participants to come from all over the world. We even had the famous Lucy Inglis of Georgian London showing her work on where the different ethnic groups lived in the 1700s.

Our keynote speakers were very generous, Lizabeth Cohen spoke about being a historian who wanted to use architectural and landscape studies in her own work (which was particularly relevant and informative for me); Nicholas Temple spoke about religious space in all kinds of forms (with thought-provoking resonances); Richard Dennis captured the cultural relevance of modern urban life with the "architecture of hurry"; and Philip Ethington gave us a whirlwind history of Los Angeles, from megafauna to Richard Nixon, showing that perhaps some things do stay the same ;)

We are very grateful to Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität and the CAS for their funding and support. We were particularly spoiled with the catering, which included hot food for lunch and plum cake for afternoon tea!

Heléna and I will be editing a volume based on the conference, and I'll update here with how that progresses.


Six Degrees of Imagination

A few years ago, I participated in the Small World experiment being conducted online by Duncan Watts and Steven Strogatz. I did not succeed in reaching my targets, although I made a sincere effort. It was around the time that I was a member of an early social networking site called sixdegrees, which unfortunately became extinct after a short time (I bet they’re looking at facebook now and kicking themselves....).

I was wondering if anyone had tried running such an experiment since the advent of twitter? The targets wouldn’t have to be twitter users, but I think it could help people get through several of the steps faster (particularly with others retweeting the message). Do my connexions on twitter count, for the purposes of the Small Word thesis? I don’t know - to be sure, most of my Twitter list are people I have not met in real life, but is that different from other forms of social networking online? Of course it’s not the same as a close friendship, but are these connexions less “real” than having spoken for five minutes and exchanged business cards at a cocktail party - the kind of loose links that by my understanding the Six Degrees concept depends on?

Then I started thinking about applying the Six Degrees concept in history. Could it be valid, for instance, in the eighteenth-century Atlantic world? Or the nineteenth-century British empire? There’s been research on kinship networks, particularly among trade families across the Atlantic, and Benjamin Franklin’s diaries demonstrated the links among Americans in London. However, there also seems to be a sense in which affective community links are perceived as, if not entirely imaginary, then at least somewhat invented. The fact that they were in some cases not reciprocated is another element: French colonists in Louisiana wrote many more letters “home” than they received back; and while a colonist would read a Metropolitan newspaper (in fact they hungered for regular updates of goings-on in the capital), the reverse was unlikely to be true.[1]

Many of you are no doubt familiar with Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities. He describes the development of nationalism, and a sense of community sympathy among otherwise disparate groups who shared a written language. Indeed, it was through written communication (and receipt of newspapers, magazines, etc) that people in colonial sites still felt connected to not only the metropole but other sites in the empire. As Kirsten McKenzie has shown, those networks were often strengthened by the transfer of colonial administrators between different locations, meaning that these communities were not entirely “imagined” either: officials in the Cape Colony, or Jamaica, or New South Wales, or Nova Scotia knew each other personally.[2]

Obviously the notion of our networked connectedness came out of 1920s social theory, and it’s hard to believe that people a hundred years prior necessarily conceived of things in that way. On the other hand, a world in which personal letters of introduction were commonly used when someone travelled to a new place meant that such networks obviously did exist (and this is leaving aside the institutional networks of trust that allowed such financial instruments as letters of credit to work internationally).

While I look at the development of community identity in my current research, I would be interested to hear suggestions or thoughts on the applicability of the small world ideas to earlier periods. 


[1]Shannon Lee Dawdy, Building the Devil’s Empire, (Chicago: 2008)

[2]Kirsten McKenzie, Scandal in the Colonies: Sydney and Cape Town, 1800-1850, (Melbourne: 2004); see also David Lambert and Alan Lester, Colonial Lives Across the British Empire: Imperial Careering in the Long Nineteenth Century, (Cambridge: 2006).

In a Foreign Land

I am this week at the Archivo General de Indias, in Seville. Preparing for my trip, I searched articles both for index references, and discussions of the archives themselves. It’s always best to know in advance what to expect when you arrive at a new research site, especially with limited time. I knew that the archive does not allow digital cameras, but that photocopies are inexpensive (what may be expensive are the baggage fees for carrying all that paper home!). Friends who were familiar with the archive gave me various tips, and this entry from Danielle Terrazas Williams’ blog was also very helpful.

However, the advice from academic journals made me wonder about the wisdom of going at all. I was very concerned about my health, having been warned:

“Spanish food, though plentiful, is invaribly prepared in olive-oil which, beneficial in its natural state, is highly indigestible as cooked grease. Nor can too much care be exercised in drinking nothing but boiled or distilled water, as the local supplies are typhoid-laden.

And I could forget about practising my Castilian, as “the Spanish dialect spoken in Andalusia, makes it a most unsatisfactory place to acquire correct Spanish.”

I brought books as I was particularly worried about not having enough to do:

People accustomed to keep in trim by a certain amount of active, outdoor exercise, will find that all Seville affords are long walks. Even tennis is out of the question, due to the absence of tennis courts. Physical recreation being thus summarily disposed of there remains mental diversion. There are no public libraries, nor institutions resembling the Y. M. C. A. Hence, one is compelled to fall back on clubs, cafes, and theaters for amusement.

Needless to say, the lack of a YMCA is a particular disappointment. But being compelled to go to the theatre didn’t sound so awful. I had some doubts too about my research preparation:

The Archives' very rich collection in old maps makes, at least, an elementary acquaintance with cartography highly desirable. It is for the particular investigator to determine whether his subject requires training in diplomatics, heraldry, genealogy, sphragistics, or any other of the sciences auxiliary to history.

Since I don’t even know what sphragistics is, I obviously haven’t mastered it. Nonetheless, I endeavour onwards with this handicap. At least, “Competent typists can be hired in the Archives at a nominal price for the making of transcripts.”* Well, that’s a relief. For academics to have to type their own research is truly barbaric.
I have not seen any recent articles about archival sources that presume to act as a Baedeker for the town in which they are located, but perhaps they still exist?
(I am staying at a nice hotel 5 minutes walk from the archive, and the water is perfectly potable)
*Arthur S. Aiton and J. Lloyd Mecham, ‘The Archivo General de Indias’, The Hispanic American Historical Review, Vol. 4, No. 3 (Aug., 1921), pp. 553-567


When I talk to people outside academia about my work, I am often told "Oh, but you can get all of that from the internet". They seem surprised that I have to go and visit physical records, often many miles away.
Digitisation of records is a great gift for historians, but is limited too by the searchability (or lack thereof) of catalogues. The serendipitous possibilities that come of flicking to the next page, or the next file, or just of rifling through piles of ephemera, is lost in the digital project.
I have spent a lot of time in the past looking at newspapers on microfilm, and part of the fun for me is looking at what else is on the page: the other stories, the advertisements, what made up the world of those people for whom the story was NEWS.

Debates in history

I am writing a piece I have been musing on and toying with for too long, on defining the Pacific World. I see it as a concept that applies earlier and later than seems to be used by other analysts, with a high point with the Pan Pacific Union (and pretty much dying with that organisation too).
I'm now trying to beat this article into shape to justify my ideas!

I recently submitted a piece on Vani Maris Lake, a woman who came forward in 1959 claiming to have information about the disappearance of Camilo Cienfuegos. It's timely for the 50th anniversary, but it remains to be seen if I can find someone willing to publish it this year.

Currently also working on longstanding piece on Gabrielle Vassal. A short comment I wrote on her misidentification is coming out later this year in Notes and Queries.