Tag Archives: Local History

Remembering Boston’s Great Molasses Flood

Via the Associated Press, https://www.npr.org/2019/01/15/685154620/a-deadly-tsunami-of-molasses-in-bostons-north-end

On Jan. 15, 1919, a tank of molasses stored in Boston’s North End, ruptured, sending a cascading wave of the thick, sugary syrup down the streets. This “Great Molasses Flood” killed 21 people, numerous animals, and injured 150.

The tank was built to be a holding vessel for molasses until it could be transported to a nearby distillery, where it was converted into industrial alcohol for World War I munitions.  Because the war was over, it was expected that the molasses would be shipped on to a distillery to produce rum.  As historian of the event Stephen Puleo explained in an interview with WBUR, the residents of the area–one of Boston’s busiest economic districts–knew the tank was structurally unsound before it ruptured:

There were signs that the tank was faltering, but the people of the North End had gotten used to its instability.

“There were often comments made by people around the vicinity that this tank would shudder and groan every time it was full, and it leaked from day one,” Puleo said. “It was very customary for children of the North End to go and collect molasses with pails.”

So on the day of the flood, despite leaks and groans, no one anticipated that the tank was about to burst, unleashing a wave of 2.3 million gallons of molasses that would move 35 miles an hour down Commercial Street.

While we don’t have any hard and fast answers as to why the tank failed, a number of theories and facts have come to light.  One of the first rumors to be circulated was that an anarchist’s bomb had broke the tank open, but no proof has ever been found to verify that rumor–which, admittedly, was largely fear-based and shows the effects of the First World War on people’s consciousness at the time.

As History.com reports, the tank itself

More recent investigations suggest several fundamental problems with the structure of the tank. Designed to hold 2.5 million gallons of liquid, it measured 50 feet tall and 90 feet in diameter. But its steel walls, which ranged from 0.67 inches at the bottom to 0.31 inches at the top, were too thin to support the weight of a full tank of molasses, found a 2014 analysis by Ronald Mayville, a senior structural engineer in the Massachusetts consulting firm of Simpson, Gumpertz & Heger.

Temperature also had an effect on the tank.  A new shipment of molasses had arrived days before, and that liquid was warmer than the air outside.  The weight of the molasses as it hardened further strained the walls of the tank.  Apparently, when the company received complaints that the tank was leaking, it painted the tank brown to disguise the leaks rather than repair them.  As it roiled down the street, the hot molasses congealed, trapping people, cars, trolleys, and everything else in its path.

The force of the wave was enough to buckle and destroy the elevated railway that ran through the North End at the time:

Via Wikipedia Wikicommons

Researchers from the University of Massachusetts Boston recently used ground-penetrating radar to determine the location of the giant molasses tank that caused the Great Molasses Flood of 1919.  Today, colored flags marked the site of the tank as city officials and history buffs gathered at Langone Park in the North End to mark the 100th anniversary of the disaster.

Looking to learn more about the Great Molasses Flood of 1919?  Check out these books!

Dark Tide: The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919: Probably the best known (at least ’round these parts) book about the Great Molasses Flood, reporter Stephen Puleo brings readers into the world of Boston at the time, and makes the smallest details of the date come to live.  But, as he also points out, the molasses flood was more than an isolated event. Its story overlays America’s story during a tumultuous decade in our history. Tracing the era from the tank’s construction in 1915 through the multiyear lawsuit that followed the tragedy, Dark Tide uses the drama of the flood to examine the sweeping changes brought about by World War I, Prohibition, the Anarchist movement, the Red Scare, immigration, and the role of big business in society.  Puleo is a friend of the Peabody Library, so we love to promote his super-terrific text.

The Great Molasses Flood : Boston, 1919: Written for a younger audience, Deborah Kops’ book places the Molasses Flood in its historical context with fascinating results.  She discusses the influenza epidemic that embroiled the city, as well as the recently ended First World War.  As she notes, January 1919 was a hopeful time. Schools had reopened. So had the soda fountains, where kids went to buy Cokes. On New Year’s Eve tens of thousands of cheering, singing Bostonians gathered to ring in the new year. They jammed the city’s cafés and hotels and overflowed into the streets. Everyone seemed thrilled that life in this old port city was returning to normal.  But the molasses flood would change the mood and focus of the city, and have repercussions that would linger for decades to come.

A Head Full of GhostsPaul Tremblay’s book isn’t really about the molasses flood, which should be fairly evident from the book’s description, but it does incorporate it into the plot.  Marjorie Barrett, the focus of the book, is a story teller, who understands the power of narrative to shape our ways of thinking.  One of the first ways that we learn this is in her rendition of the molasses flood–a horribly visceral telling that names one of the real-life victims of the disaster, and portends the terrible events of the book that will unfold.  If you want to talk about the power of history to terrify even today, then don’t miss this pitch-perfect novel!

Resolve to Read 2018: Read a book written by someone who’s from my state

As we mentioned here previously, we here at the Library are Resolving to Read (more…different….) in 2018, and tackling both Book Riot’s and Scholastic’s 2018 Reading Challenges.  In the hopes of encouraging you to broader your literary horizons along with us, here are some suggestions for books that fall within the categories of the various challenges.

…And, like many of you, we’ve fallen a bit behind on our resolutions, dear readers!  But everyday is a chance to try again all over again, so let’s get back on track, shall we?  This week, we’re looking at the Scholastic 100 New Year’s Reading Resolutions.  We love this list because it can be used by readers from any age to find new, exciting, and challenging books (and reading scenarios) to expand your literary horizons in 2018.

Today’s Challenge: Scholastic 100 New Year’s Reading Resolutions
Category: Read a Book Written by Someone Who’s From My State

Since the Peabody Library–and George Peabody himself, was from Massachusetts, we’re going to stick with this state as our category, but readers from other states, please check with your local library (or, heck, check with us!) to find some books from authors nearer to you.

Massachusetts has a rich literary legacy, beloved patrons, from Phillis Wheatley, who was the first published African-American female poet to London Bridgez, a spoken word poet, writer, and playwright who was a short list finalist for the 2016 Leslie Scalapino Award for Innovative Women Playwrights.  From Anne Bradstreet, who was the first writer in England’s North American colonies to be published, to my own beloved Louisa May Alcott and her father Bronson..

In short, this is a category that can take you in any number of directions, and offers the potential for exploring a wealth of new books, types of story, and forms of story-telling.  We offer just a few suggestions below for some books to help fulfill this part of your reading resolution–come speak to a member of our staff to find even more!

(Presented in alphabetical order)

Holly Black: Although born in New Jersey, we are pleased as punch that she now lives in Massachusetts, and we can add her to this list.  Black’s imagination and story-telling skills are powerful, indeed, and she has put them to use in novels, graphic novels, and short stories over the course of her impressive career.  Black is perhaps most well-known for The Spiderwick Chronicles, the series she worked on in collaboration with her long-time friend, Caldecott award winning artist, Tony DiTerlizzi, which begins with the title The Field Guide.  However, she is also a wonderful teller of fantasy and modern fairy tales.  One of her most recent is The Coldest Girl in Coldtown, and features Tana, who lives in a world where walled cities called Coldtowns exist. In them, quarantined monsters and humans mingle in a decadently bloody mix of predator and prey.  For those who enjoy reading about the fair folk, check out The Darkest Part of the Forest, which is set in a world where fairies and mortal live side-by-side.  Hazel and Ben have been telling each other stories about the boy in the glass coffin, that he is a prince and they are valiant knights, pretending their prince would be different, kinder, from the other faeries. But as Hazel grows up, she puts aside those stories. Hazel knows the horned boy will never wake…until he does.

Dennis Lehane: Dorchester native Dennis Lehane’s work has put a new kind of Boston on the literary map.  Instead of the stuffy, upper-case, subdued landscape of Henry James, Lehane’s characters tend to be poor; they tend to live in the working-class areas of the city that residents know well, but the outside world may have never visited.  They deal in emotional extremes that make Lehane’s works compelling, gripping, scary, and stunningly moving.  He’s also a gifted screen-writer who has produced shows for The Wireand has written the script for The Drop and the adaptation of Stephen King’s Mr. Mercedes.  Readers looking to get started in Lehane’s sometimes-seedy, but incredibly well-drawn and insightful world should immediately check out his Kensie and Gennaro series, featuring private detectives Patrick Kensie and Angie Gennaro.  This series starts with A Drink Before the Warand winds through Boston’s streets, its suburbs, its drug and alcohol problems, its organized crime, and the wonderful, flawed, colorful people who make up its inhabitants.  It’s also an incredible tale of a partnership that is unforgettable in its poignancy and honesty.  Also, if your in the mood to have your pants scared off of you, check out Shutter Island, set in a mythical institution on an island off Boston Harbor. It’s so much better than the movie (even though the movie’s pretty great).

Kelly Link: A nominee for the 2016 Pulitzer Prize, Kelly Link is a formidable talent whose short stories are disquieting, disruptive, beautifully imagined and wonderfully written treasures.  Stories from her first collection, Stranger Things Happen, were awarded the Nebula, the James Tiptree Jr., and the World Fantasy Awards–and the cover is a weird take on a Nancy Drew cover, which is just plain wonderful.  There are elements of Shirley Jackson in Link’s slow-burning, captivating narration, while her story ideas have a lot to offer fans of Angela Carter’s work.  Despite the weird and the magical in her tales, Link is also a master of human emotion, grounding these tales in honest, empathetic relationships–and making the inevitable twists and turns in the stories that much more surprising and shocking.  Whether it’s “Origin Story”, from the book Get in Trouble, which deals with a woman and her erstwhile lover (who just happens to be a superhero), or “Stone Animals”, from Magic for Beginners, in which a house is haunted by a unique horde of rabbits that camp out nightly on the front lawn, it’s a pretty fair bet that you haven’t read anything like Kelly Link’s work before, but you’ll be very grateful you did.

Paul Tremblay: Paul Tremblay is a fan of libraries, which we can deduce by his appearances at the Merrimack Valley Halloween Book Festival at the Haverhill Library.  He is not a fan of pickles, because he says so.  But regardless of his choice of sides and snacks, Tremblay is one heck of a good writer.  Like Stephen King, Tremblay can take the most innocuous things–a painted staircase, a blog, a notebook, a bag of fertilizer–and make those things the pulse-points of a genuinely unsettling, unforgettable story.  His short stories are delightfully twisty, compact gems, and his novels are some of this Library’s favorites.  Favorite among those favorites is A Head Full of Ghosts, which deals with the story of a teenage girl’s alleged possession, exorcism, and the reality tv show made about the events (which is set in Beverly, making is extra-awesome).  Told in flashbacks, blog posts and interviews, this is a story full of dread, lies, and carries a killer twist.  Mystery fans should also check out Tremblay’s PI series, which features Mark Genevich, a detective in South Boston who suffers from narcolepsy, which starts with the novel The Little Sleep.  His newest book, The Cabin at the End of the World, is due out in a few short weeks!

Five Book Friday!

And check out today’s Google Doodle, which celebrates our namesake, George Peabody!

Today is the 151st anniversary of Peabody receiving the Congressional Gold Medal, one of the two highest civilian awards in the United States, given to a persons “who have performed an achievement that has an impact on American history and culture that is likely to be recognized as a major achievement in the recipient’s field long after the achievement.”

Peabody’s impact has certainly been long-lasting.  Born into a poor family in South Danvers (what is now Peabody),  George Peabody knew need and hunger growing up, and was only able to attend a few years of schooling.  As a result, he was notoriously thrifty as an adult (both in his private life and with his employees), but was also a dedicated philanthropist.  He established the banking firm of “George Peabody & Company”, which evolved, eventually into the firm  JPMorgan Chase.  The fortune he made from that endeavor provided the capital which he used to make his enormous and lasting donations.

In the UK, Peabody established the Peabody Trust, which is still among London’s largest affordable-housing associations.  Here in the United States, Peabody largely focused on providing funds for public education.  In 1852, he donated $217,000 to establish the Peabody Institute in his home town (that’s us!), and four years later, he donated $100,000 to the Peabody Institute in Danvers (they of the stunning building near the duck pond in Danvers).  In today’s currency, those donations are the equivalent (approximately) of $6.8 million and $2.85 million.  Ten years later, he donated the funds to build Georgetown’s public library (hello, Georgetown friends!) in honor of his mother.  He also established the Peabody Academy of Science in Salem, Massachusetts, which we know today as the Peabody Essex Museum.

Peabody also donated $3.5 million to establish the Peabody Education Fund in 1867 to provide educational funds for the children of the south following the Civil War (in today’s currency, that $3.5 million would be approximately $56,455,000).  The city of Baltimore, where Peabody enjoyed his first financial success, also benefited: The Peabody Institute in Baltimore (today known as the Peabody Institute of The Johns Hopkins University,) is the oldest conservatory in the U.S.   Today’s Google Doodle was actually created by students at George Peabody Elementary School in San Francisco, California, another site of George Peabody’s remarkable legacy.

So what better way to honor our namesake than with a selection of some of the book that have scurried onto our shelves this week, and are eager to make your acquaintance!


Happiness:  Aminatta Forna’s newest novel has been compared by some to The Remains of the Day, but her London-based novel is a wholly original tale that highlights the small moments and intimate connections that make us who we are.  A fox on a bridge causes two pedestrians to collide―Jean, an American studying the habits of urban foxes, and Attila, a Ghanaian psychiatrist there to deliver a keynote speech.  Attila has arrived in London with two tasks: to deliver a keynote speech on trauma, as he has done many times before; and to contact the daughter of friends, his “niece” who hasn’t called home in a while. The daughter, Ama, has been swept up in an immigration crackdown, and now her young son Tano is missing.  When Attila runs into Jean again, she mobilizes the network of rubbish men she uses as volunteer fox spotters. Security guards, hotel doormen, traffic wardens―mainly West African immigrants who work the myriad streets of London―come together to help. As the search for Tano continues, a deepening friendship between Attila and Jean unfolds, leading Attila to reconsider his own concepts about trauma, and the connections to the world around him.  This is a book that deals with difficult issues with dignity and grace, and weaves a tale that earned a starred review from Booklist, who explained, “The overarching message tucked into Scottish and Sierra Leonian writer Forna’s quietly resonant novel is this: Every living thing is the net sum of its history, and we carry the weight of our past on our shoulders…Forna’s novel is ultimately a mesmerizing tale studded with exquisite writing.”

Green SunThose of you loving the ’80’s nostalgia that is seeping into tv and literature lately will love this newest release from fan-favorite Kent Anderson.  It’s 1983 in Oakland, California, and Officer Hanson, a Vietnam veteran, has abandoned academia for the life-and-death clarity of police work, a way to live with the demons that followed him home from the war.  But Hanson knows that justice requires more than simply enforcing the penal code.  He believes in becoming a part of the community he serves–which is why, unlike most officers, he chooses to live in the same town where he works. This strategy serves him well…to a point. He forges a precarious friendship with Felix Maxwell, the drug king of East Oakland, based on their shared sense of fairness and honor. He falls in love with Libya the moment he sees her, a confident and outspoken black woman. He is befriended by Weegee, a streetwise eleven-year-old who is primed to become a dope dealer.  Every day, every shift, tests a cop’s boundaries between the man he wants to be and the officer of the law he’s required to be.  At last an off-duty shooting forces Hanson to finally face who he is, and which side of the law he belongs on.  Anderson has the ability to tell a difficult story with compassion, and this tale is no less gripping for its fundamental humanity.  NPR agrees, noting in its review Green Sun succeeds on so many levels, it’s hard to keep count. . . . Hanson is a fascinating and memorable character, but the real star of Green Sun is Anderson’s writing. . . . Anderson is adept at finding a terrible kind of beauty in the worst circumstances, which makes Green Sun difficult to put down even when it’s emotionally painful to keep reading. Above all, it’s a stunning meditation on power, violence and the intractability of pain, which Anderson seems to understand all too well.”

The Chalk Man: Another ’80’s nostalgia novel here, but C.J. Tudor’s debut is a taut psychological thriller that has, apparently, kept a number of respected authors awake with its chilling premise.  In 1986, Eddie and his friends are just kids on the verge of adolescence. They spend their days biking around their sleepy English village and looking for any taste of excitement they can get. The chalk men are their secret code: little chalk stick figures they leave for one another as messages only they can understand. But then a mysterious chalk man leads them right to a dismembered body, and nothing is ever the same. In 2016, Eddie is fully grown, and thinks he’s put his past behind him. But then he gets a letter in the mail, containing a single chalk stick figure. When it turns out that his friends got the same message, they think it could be a prank –until one of them turns up dead.  That’s when Eddie realizes that saving himself means finally figuring out what really happened all those years ago.  Full of flash-backs, twists, and revelations about its characters that will linger long after the final page, this is a book that Kirkus noted  will speak to fans “of the kids of Stand by Me and even IT…[the] first-person narration alternates between past and present, taking full advantage of chapter-ending cliffhangers. A swift, cleverly plotted debut novel that ably captures the insular, slightly sinister feel of a small village. Children of the 1980’s will enjoy the nostalgia.”

The Return of Marco Polo’s World: War, Strategy, and American Interests in the Twenty-First CenturyIn the late thirteenth century, Marco Polo began a decades-long trek from Venice to China. The strength of that Silk Road—the trade route between Europe and Asia—was a foundation of Kublai Khan’s sprawling empire. Now, in the early twenty-first century, the Chinese regime has proposed a land-and-maritime Silk Road that duplicates exactly the route Marco Polo traveled.  In opening of this enlightening anthology, an essay recently released by the Pentagon’s Office of Net Assessment, Robert D. Kaplan lays out a blueprint of the world’s changing power politics that recalls the geo-politics late thirteenth century.  Drawing on decades of firsthand experience as a foreign correspondent and military embed for The Atlantic, as well as encounters with preeminent realist thinkers, the essays in this book offer timely and insightful commentary on the role of the United States in the world that considers both where we’ve been, and some suggestions as we move forward.  Kirkus Reviews gave this collection a starred review, calling it a “Thoughtful, unsettling, but not apocalyptic analyses of world affairs flow steadily off the presses, and this is a superior example. . . . Presented with enough verve and insight to tempt readers to set it aside to reread in a few years.”

The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist: A True Story of Injustice in the American South:   In 1990, Levon Brooks was arrested for the mrape and murder of a three-year-old girl in rural Mississippi.  Two years later, Kennedy Brewer was arrested and accused of killing his girlfriend’s three-year-old daughter.  Both men waited two to three years in prison before their trial, and together, they spent a combined thirty years in prison before finally being exonerated in 2008. Meanwhile, the real killer remained free.  In this haunting work of investigative non-fiction, Radley Balko and Tucker Carrington recount the story of how the criminal justice system allowed two innocent men to be convicted of these crimes, and how two men, Dr. Steven Hayne and Dr. Michael West, built successful careers on the back of that structure. For nearly two decades, Hayne, a medical examiner, performed the vast majority of Mississippi’s autopsies, while his friend Dr. West, a local dentist, pitched himself as a forensic jack-of-all-trades. Together they became the go-to experts for prosecutors and helped put countless Mississippians in prison. But then some of those convictions began to fall apart.  This is a book about justice, and how the courts and Mississippi’s death investigation system–a relic of the Jim Crow era–failed to deliver it for its citizens. The authors argue that bad forensics, structural racism, and institutional failures are at fault, raising sobering questions about our ability and willingness to address these crucial issues. Publisher’s Weekly gave this troubling, fascinating work a starred review, calling it “A clear and shocking portrait of the structural failings of the U.S. criminal justice system… This eminently readable book builds a hard-to-ignore case for comprehensive criminal justice reform.”


Until next week,  beloved patrons: Happy Reading!

Towards a Better History…

Pardon me while I climb up on my soap box…

Pardon me while I climb on my soapbox…

Okie dokie, now….Who watched the Bloomberg TV broadcast of the Boston Pops concert and fireworks last night?

Do you remember the montage of Boston that they’d played right at the beginning of the night?  Right after Brian Stokes Mitchell sang a stunning rendition of “American the Beautiful”, and added “sisterhood” after the line about “brotherhood”?

I know I did.  So did my cat.  And what we both noticed was that after a performance that honored not only the humanitarian goals of America (symbolized by “brotherhood”), but the determination and activism that is trying to bring us closer to that goal (symbolized by the “sisterhood”), as well as the recognition that America is made up of lots of different peoples…

…We get a montage about Boston that features images of men.

And I, along with my cat, who is himself a keen student of history, let out a huge sigh.  Not only because this kind of stuff happens all the time, because it does.  All the time.

You don’t have to take my word for it, either.  A Slate.com article last year pointed out that popular history books are not only largely about men, but are also largely written by men.  Click on the above link for more information, as well as a truly eye-opening graph about the state of the history publishing industry.   The problem with this isn’t the books themselves, or their authors (as long as they use good research practices and conscientious citations).  The problem is that these books, together, have the effect of a bullhorn–it makes it that much harder to hear any other stories being told around them.  And there are so many more stories that still need to be told.  Not only about Boston.

A painting recreating the Battle of Lexington and Concord

But Boston (and Massachusetts in general) is a phenomenal place to start telling those stories!  From the opening shots of the American Revolution fired in Concord and the riot that was the Boston Tea Party to the The Combahee River Collective in the 1970s to the being the first state to legalize gay marriage, Massachusetts has a history of producing and remembering people who change the status quo.  And to overlook that is to do a great disservice to its history, as well as upholding a troubling precedent of overlooking their contributions to history.

So let’s put together a list, shall we, of histories and people who weren’t discussed on Bloomberg TV last night, and celebrate all the people who make this area, this country, and this species we call humanity, so fascinating….

The Poems of Phyllis Wheatley:  The woman we know today as Phyllis Wheatley was born in West Africa around 1753, and was sold into slavery around the age of seven.   She was purchased by the Wheatley family of Boston, and named after the ship that brought her to North America.  The Wheatley children taught her to read and write, and their parents, John and Susanna Wheatley encouraged her poetry when they saw her talent.  Phyllis was emancipated in 1773, and became the first published female African-American poet the same year.  She corresponded with George Washington and the King George III, and wrote movingly about the rights of slaves in the emerging United States.  Phyllis Wheatley died at the age of 31, while working as a scullery maid in order to pay back her husbands’ debts.

Improper Bostonians : lesbian and gay history from the Puritans to Playland: Drawing on sources ranging from newspaper accounts to private archives, and incorporating more than 200 images, this book is one of, if not the most comprehensive LGBT city history around. Showcasing an extraordinary variety of perspectives and periods, subjects and sources, from Prohibition to World War II to  urban development to the AIDS epidemic, to tell a new and vitally important history of Boston.  The History Project is a volunteer-based organization that works to collect and preserve the history of lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and transgender people in and of Massachusetts, and have a pretty remarkable digital archives on their website, which you can check out here.

Louisa May Alcott: A Biography: One of the faces that Bloomberg TV showed was Ralph Waldo Emerson, who was, by far, the most well-known of the Transcendentalists living in Concord, Massachusetts in the 19th century.  But, nothing against Emerson at all, he was famous because he was the most mainstream of all the Transcendentalists.  He didn’t go build himself a cabin in the woods like his buddy, Henry David Thoreau.  He didn’t create a big scandal by implying that children had minds of their own and should be encouraged to think and contradict their elders, like Bronson Alcott.  And he wasn’t a rabble-rouser like Bronson’s daughter, my friend Louisa May Alcott.   Did you know that Louisa was the first woman in Concord to register to vote?  The state legislature passed a bill in 1879 permitting women to vote in town elections dealing with children and education, and Louisa knew that this was the first, critical step, to women gaining a voice in politics.  You can read all about Louisa’s remarkable life, and her unique family, including her mother, who worked at a shelter for abused women in Boston in the mid-nineteenth century, in this phenomenal biography by Madeline Stern.

The Trouble Between Us : An Uneasy History of White and Black Women in the Feminist Movement: Inspired by the idealism of the civil rights movement, the women who launched the radical second wave of the feminist movement believed fundamentally in universal sisterhood and a color-blind democracy. Their goals, however, remain unrecognized to this day.  Winifred Breines explores why a racially integrated women’s liberation movement did not develop in the United States, using sources as diverse as protest posters, pamphlets, newspapers, speeches, and oral histories with some of the most influential and active of the second-wave feminists.  Of particular focus in her work is the Combahee River Collective, a Boston-based organization of Black women whose published statement (which you can read here) is considered a bedrock of the Black feminist movement to this day.  This isn’t an easy read, but it is a vitally important one for those seeking for ways to improve the dialogue still taking place about race and feminism today.

Interesting in reading some more of Boston’s–and Massachusetts’–fascinating, diverse, and revolutionary history?  Come into the Library and we’ll be happy to help you find just want you’re looking for!


Archivist Favorite Book For 2015

Attempting to pick a favorite book for 2015 was difficult task because many of the books that I have read this year have been books that I have read in the past and of those several k2-_5ee9edaf-90e1-432a-a41d-496896093b4c.v1were non-fiction. James Deetz (1930-2000), former University of Virginia archaeology professor, book In Small Things Forgotten is one book worth rereading. Deetz maintains his argument that understanding the significance of simple artifacts may give deeper insight into American history than letters journals and other written documents. In his 1996 edition, Deetz expanded many of the chapters and added an entire chapter on Africans and African-Americans, their artifacts, and lifestyles.

Deetz examines the definition of historical archaeology, as well as historical archaeologists’ relationships to material culture and how a site and its artifacts are important. Now this might sound a bit academic, but Deetz is able to write in a way that makes his work accessible and interesting to many outside the world of history. He also uncovers archaeology’s relationship with the historical record. For example, Deetz reveals that bones of wild animals were found in many African-American cellars and he hypothesizes that slaves most likely ate them to supplement their diet. This indicates that slaves had free time to hunt, which contradicts the historical record, which assumes that their white owners fully controlled their lives. Deetz mainly covers New England and the Chesapeake area because those are the locations of sites that he where he did the majority of his work. Although Deetz touches on the national and international context of his findings, for the most part he maintains a regional focus.

By studying everyday objects like dishes, houses, and gravestones, Deetz clearly draws the connection between history and archaeology, as well as the relationship to modern day life. Each chapter of In Small Things Forgotten explores a different aspect of historical archaeology. For example, chapter five, “I Would Have the Howse Stronge in Timber,” is especially fascinating because Deetz examines houses as material culture and writes about how saving houses creates its own issues. The last chapter, on Africans and African-Americans in America, is the most interesting. The written record is predominantly from white landowners and so the artifacts that slaves left behind allow historians to better understand their daily lives. Deetz also details how European housing differs from the housing that African-Americans had in America. Interestingly, he finds that the shotgun houses in America are more similar to those found in Haiti than those in West Africa.

Deetz uses a variety of sources throughout the book to support his arguments, including photos, journals, articles and books. A few of these sources include Noel Hume’s A Guide to Artifacts of Colonial America, which is a great book to help date early American objects and William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation 1620-1647. The numerous illustrations are useful and well drawn, adding significantly to the book’s readability because they help to visually explain Deetz’s arguments.

While it is a pleasure to read Deetz’s In Small Things Forgotten, it also features clear language and structure. The book provides a new way to learn about early America because it serves as a counterpoint to the written record. Deetz has successfully updated this detailed and insightful book, explaining the importance of seemingly insignificant artifacts in a straightforward. It is a book that one can reread several times and continue to learn something new. The book is recommended for those interested in early American history or even those interested in genealogy.


Erik Bauer

One Night Only, Frederick Douglass

“Come with me, Douglass; I will defend you with my life. I want you for a special purpose.”

John Brown to Frederick Douglass before the Harpers Ferry Raid

Frederick Douglass, ca. 1879.  George K. Warren. (National Archives Gift Collection) Exact Date Shot Unknown NARA FILE #:  200-FL-22 WAR & CONFLICT BOOK #:  113
Frederick Douglass, ca. 1879. George K. Warren. (National Archives Gift Collection)
Exact Date Shot Unknown
NARA FILE #: 200-FL-22

Of the many people who have spoken at the Peabody Institute, few could speak to the types of experiences that Frederick Douglass faced when he spoke on Tuesday, December 16, 1873. When the doors to the Lyceum opened at 7 PM “every available chair in the building was pressed into service and the platform furnished seats for a few more, […] both aisles and the gallery were overflowing also,” The Peabody Press reported. It was estimated that nearly 300 people had to be turned away. Before Douglass, the most well attended event at the Peabody Institute was Gillmore’s Band, which performed in the Lyceum.

Why did so many people want to hear Douglass speak? This escaped slave turned famous orator was by 1873 well-known both nationally and internationally, in part because of his autobiography: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, and American Slave, which was published in 1845. Douglass was also an outspoken supporter of the women’s suffrage movement. The year before Douglass’ speech at the Peabody Institute Lyceum, he was nominated for Vice President of the United States – the first African American ever nominated for that position – on the Equal Rights Party ticket.

Back at the Lyceum in 1873, the lucky ones who attended Douglass’ lecture faced additional issues. Because of the stale air and cigarette and cigar smoke, along with poor ventilation because the lecture was held during the winter, some in attendance fainted, which “caused much sympathy from many others oppressed” by the heat and foul air. Douglass was not the only person on the stage. He shared it with the Mayor of Lynn and Rev. Beebe of England who also had his daughter along. Yet when Douglass started to speak, everyone listened, transfixed, for the nearly two hour duration of his speech.

The name of Douglass’ lecture was titled “Reminiscences of Slavery and Anti-Slavery” and since the lecture took place less than ten years after the end of the Civil War, it would have resonated significantly with most in the crowd. He spoke not of his own experiences, which he had done in the area previously, but of a moment that he had with John Brown regarding Harpers Ferry. While there is no existing transcript of Douglass’ speech, based on The Peabody Press article, as well as other sources, Douglass may have spoken about his last meeting with John Brown in Chambersburg, PA where Brown made his final arrangements to raid Harpers Ferry.

In Douglass’ autobiography The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, he talks about his final meeting with Brown and how Brown had finally committed to taking hostages at Harpers Ferry, which would allow Brown to “dictate terms of egress from the town.” Douglass told Brown that his plan would not work and that he was “striking a blow which should instantly rouse the country […].” He was against Brown’s plan and urged him not to go through with it. Despite Douglass’ pleas, John Brown followed through on his plans to take Harpers Ferry. He failed, was tried, found guilty and hung. To many abolitionists, Brown died a martyr, but others blamed him for fueling the fire that helped lead to the Civil War. We may never know Douglass’ thoughts at the Lyceum lecture, but in a speech given about John Brown at the Fourteenth Anniversary of Storer College (a historically black college located in Harpers Ferry) in 1881, Douglass noted that those who perpetuated slavery were more to blame than Brown.

Although Douglass was about fifty-five at the time of his Lyceum lecture, the Peabody Press states “his voice was clear, his diction faultless, his style vigorous and masterly and no prejudice can fail to accord him high hours as master in the art of eloquence.” Once Douglass finished he received a thunderous applause from the audience. According to the Twenty-Second Peabody Institute Annual Report, Douglas was paid $100 to speak which would be about $1,948.10 today.

Though Douglass only spoke at the Library once, his topic and message may have struck a chord with Library Trustees on the Lyceum Committee. In the Annual Report the Lyceum Committee members noted that “It is of the highest importance that first class lecturers be secured, while it is of less importance what is the theme […].” In prior years the lectures were formed around a theme or had similarities that ran through the lecture series. And from the 1873 lecture series onward, the lectures would cover wider topics and themes.