The thing I love most about history is its quirky little pieces. Don’t get me wrong- names, dates, and places on a map are all important, and provide a necessary context for understanding. But it’s the strange bits of information that can really capture a person’s curiosity and help us relate to the people that lived long ago. They’re also the most fun things to share with our guests and get the best reactions from students. Some of my favorites include:
• During the Civil War, a woman named Emma Edmonds disguised herself as a man and joined the Union army. Then, still thinking she was a man, her commanding officers asked her to disguise herself as an Irish peddler woman and spy on the Confederates. She was a woman pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman.
• Lye for soap comes from running water through wood ashes. You need dirt in order to get clean.
• Beaver fur from the frontier was used to make high-quality felt for fashionable hats in Europe. Unfortunately, the chemical process used to transform the fur into felt involved mercury. Hat makers often got mercury poisoning, and thus the expression “mad as a hatter.”
• In nature, honeybees frequently live in hollowed out trees. Beekeepers developed the idea of “smoking” their bees before entering the hives because when bees smell the smoke, they instinctively think their hive is on fire. They then eat a lot of honey in case they need to escape, but then they are too full to bend over and sting.
• In “The American Frugal Housewife,” (the Better Homes and Gardens of its day) the author recommends using ear wax as lip balm.
Posted: 3/2/2012 3:43:19 PM
| with 0 comments
In an earlier blog I wrote of some of the online “libraries and archives” that have brought so many sources to the fingertips of historians and researchers. In addition to the “free” sites such as the American Memory project at the Library of Congress, a growing number of fee-based sites offering genealogical materials, records databases, government documents and other primary sources have appeared online in recent years.
I have used three of these pay-sites extensively over the last year: Ancestry.com
. All are geared to the genealogist, but contain much for those looking for other material. Here is my quick review of them.
Ancestry is the best of the genealogy sites. In additions to census and naturalization records, it has added full texts of periodicals, local histories, and city directories. Its sophisticated search engine allows multiple options for refining your search, and it delivers the materials in a crisp, readable format, as well as providing original documents when available. Footnote is/was site with most potential for pure research. It works closely with the National Archives and specialized in military and government records (it has case files of the precursor to the FBI and captured Nazi documents, among others). It was purchased by Ancestry last year and just this week it was announced that Footnote will be renamed Fold3 (in honor of the military flag folding ceremony) and its content made available on Ancestry.com. It appears that it will concentrate on adding military records in the future.
In many ways, Newspaperarchive is my favorite of the three. Using it, I can immerse myself in the language, attitudes and reporting of the past. It offers searchable full texts of millions of pages of newspapers from around the world. Its principal drawback is that it contains mainly small-town newspapers (most major newspapers offer their own individual sites with fee-based retrieval of their archives). There are also some technical problems with the site. It has relatively unsophisticated search engine that can bring wildly different results from the same search. Its promise that your research term “hit” will be highlighted in blue in the text mainly goes unfulfilled and the user is left to squint to find what he seeks. Still, it can be a very valuable and enjoyable site.
Yearly charges for the sites range from $79.00 to $129.00 per year, but are available free at your local library or may be accessed online via the library website using your card.
Posted: 8/26/2011 3:40:43 PM
| with 0 comments
The incredible expansion of technology and the internet have revolutionized the world of the historian just as they have so many others’ lives. I can now “travel” to conduct research at archives, libraries and museums throughout the world without leaving my chair. I can read hundreds of years of newspapers from across the globe simply by entering a password. Millions of pages of primary source documents are added to this digital river every month. The historian must apply the same standards of external and internal criticism to these documents (perhaps even more so in an age when so much can be easily fabricated by new technologies) as before, but the important thing is that they there.
Which brings to mind that Conner Prairie was an early tributary in this river of knowledge. I was the designer and creator of our website during its first five years online. Putting an historian in charge of a website can be a dangerous thing. That is why when it debuted in April of 1996, our website featured a major section devoted to providing the public with historic information, original research and primary documents. Originally called “History Online
,” this material and much more is still available in our “Learn & Do” sections.
This added depth to our website when most museums (the few that were online) were mainly online brochures led to the Conner Prairie website being the first permanent website to receive an Award of Merit from the Association for State and Local History.
One of the exciting additions resulted from our partnership with the IUPUI University Library
. This collaboration has made possible the “Digital Collections
” found on the site. It features rotating 3D imagery, video, and descriptions of valued items from our archive and collections. Digital versions of some our now out of print collections will soon be added. We will soon inaugurate a new feature in which staff members will tell you about some of their favorite artifacts in our collection. I encourage you to take a look.
As much as I sometimes hate to admit it, the internet is as valuable tool for the historian as the libraries and archives I still love to haunt. If readers are interested, I will devote a future blog to evaluating some of the sites I use most often and how to get the most out of them. Historians, after all, must keep up with the times.
Posted: 5/11/2011 2:36:36 PM
| with 0 comments
Stephanie West - Guest Blogger: Collections Tech
There are many things that have gone into bringing the 1863 Civil War Journey
at Conner Prairie to life. The recreated town of Dupont, Indiana will feature a dry goods store and a farmhouse following General John Hunt Morgan’s raid. The last several months have brought many entertaining challenges that will appear seamless once our exciting, new experience opens June 4th.
At Conner Prairie we balance a mix of historic artifacts and reproduction objects. One example is using period appropriate reproduction glass lamps instead of original Civil War pieces. Believe it or not, oil lamps that would have been used in an 1863 Indiana home aren’t readily available at your local home store! We searched far and wide and finally found the right style reproduction lamps. To my dismay when I attempted to order these gorgeous lamps, I was informed there were only a few left as they were no longer being manufactured. I have since been guarding my box of lamps with my life!
You may have previously read about the Civil War era fashions being made at Conner Prairie. Women’s fashions in 1863 included hoops being worn under the dress’ skirts, creating a large bell shape. Most of us in 2011 don’t worry about our clothing knocking things over as we walk around a room, but that was a real concern in 1863. Although I don’t doubt it would be extremely entertaining watching our staff create havoc as they walk about, that’s not exactly the part of history we’d like guest to concentrate on. So before the Historic Clothing Department could start creating the storekeeper’s skirt, they had to know how much room there would be between the store’s furnishings to make it easy for the storekeeper to easily traverse the floor without knocking anything over.
Home decorating styles change from year to year today, and that holds true for styles in the 1800s. Using research and looking for resources that are available today, we picked out a reproduction wallpaper pattern and paint color for the parlor of the 1863 Farmhouse that are historically accurate. I have to be honest, my modern sensibilities were offended and I know I wasn’t alone in that sentiment. Sure enough a few weeks ago I received a call; the painter was extremely concerned because the color he was painting the woodwork in the parlor was horrible. I laughed, and confirmed that burnt orange is indeed the correct color. As the room comes together, with the wallpaper and paint, I must admit it is actually stunning.
For Conner Prairie, balancing guest safety and comfort against caring for 150+ year old objects can be challenging, especially when it comes to seating. We often let guests sit on our chairs, but a chair that is over 100 years old, may not be in a condition to sit in safely for either guest or the chair. For this reason most of our chairs are reproductions of historic styles made by our woodworkers based on artifacts in our permanent collection. Another challenge is the durability of our seating options. We have to consider what will stand up to every day wear and tear. For our sofas that means durable upholstery. What is historically appropriate upholstery yet will stand up to thousands of visitors? Answer: horsehair fabric. It was often used on finer chairs and sofas during the 1800s, and fortunately for us, it is still made today, and is just as industrial in strength as it was then.
There were many packaged products available in the Civil War era. Many of these historic items have been salvaged from sunken steamboats of that era. We have been studiously reproducing these boxed, bottled and bagged items to furnish the new dry goods store. Most recently I brainstormed a way to recreate bagged coffee and beans. It would be extremely impractical and expensive to fill a dozen large burlap bags with actual coffee and beans. And, I was also worried about pests feeding off these things. The final solution was to fill the bags with a mix of pillows and packing peanuts. Why pillows? Well, if you are a power shopper like I am, you can find them cheaper than fiber-fill. Why packing peanuts? Because they give the bags the lumpy affect of coffee or beans.
Now that I have shared some of my behind the scenes secrets I hope that you come see the new 1863 Civil War Journey this summer and watch how the magic unfolds.
Posted: 3/25/2011 1:58:11 PM
| with 0 comments
Tim Crumrin - Experience Delivery Director/Senior Historian
For many reasons, Conner Prairie rarely presents “actual” individuals from history. Instead, we research many past lives and use them to form the basis of the “people” you encounter when you visit Conner Prairie.
Such is the case with “William,” a character who will be part of our new Civil War Journey experience
. William, an escaped slave, was taken in by an abolitionist family in Corydon, captured by Morgan’s raiders, escaped once more, and eventually joined the 28th Regiment, USCT
(United States Colored Troops).
The genesis of William were brief mentions in letters written by young Attia Porter of Corydon, Indiana. She referred to “our little contraband” (a period term for escaped slaves) and wrote, “They [Morgan’s raiders] kidnapped our little negro… but he got away.” This struck us as a compelling story we might want to tell, but first we had to learn more about him and his story. It was much easier said than done.
First we had to identify “our little contraband.” Who was he? What was his name? What happened to him?
For weeks I and others searched in vain for his name and information about him. Scores of book, articles, letters and online resources were checked. We contacted Porter family descendents, but no one knew his name. Finally, five of us went to the local history library in Corydon. There, VP for Experience, Dan Freas found a single mention in a local history book. His name was Albert Cheatham.
We now had a solid starting point. Indiana Civil War records were searched. There was no “Albert Cheatham,” but there was an Albert Chatam (variations in spellings were common in the 19th century) who served in the 28th and was buried in a military cemetery in Louisville. Was this our man?
Using this information I searched through various online databases and other resources. There he was, Albert Cheatham (or Chatam, or Chatain). This gave us his service records. As he died in Louisville, I searched Kentucky census records. There he was again.
So, what do we know about Albert? Not enough, but much of that is due to the fact that African Americans during this period lived their lives on the barely acknowledged fringe of American life. Their lives were little noted or recorded. But we were able to put some flesh on the skeleton of Albert’s known life.
Albert was born into slavery in Tennessee or Alabama (he listed both states as his place of birth) in 1844. Sometime after the war began he escaped and made his way to Indiana and was taken in by the Porter family. He was “kidnapped” by Morgan’s men, but was either later released or escaped and returned to Corydon. Eventually he made his way to the Indianapolis area. He then agreed to be a substitute (those with enough funds and a disinclination to serve could pay a bounty and have another person serve in their place in the military) for a white man named James Faught of Hendricks County.
Albert was mustered into Company K of the 28th USCT on August 25, 1864. He was 5’5 ½,” nineteen years-old, and could not write his name. He went to Virginia with the 28th, but does not appear to have seen any fighting. Most of the time he was listed on the company rolls as “absent sick” as he suffered from chronic bronchitis. In fact he was mustered out in August 1865 from a military hospital in Alexandria, Virginia.
Albert is lost to us again until the 1880 census of Louisville, Kentucky. In the interim, Albert had learned to read and write, married his wife Laura in 1879, and worked in a lead and oil business. He and Laura rented a home on 12th Street in Louisville. There they lived the rest of their lives. They had a son named Llewellyn. Albert died in 1921 and was buried in Cave Hill National Cemetery. After his death, Laura applied to receive his Civil War pension.
Not much to be known about a life that lasted over 75 years, but enough to tell an important story.
Posted: 1/21/2011 4:58:14 PM
| with 4 comments
Why a Soldier Returns to Civil War Days
See, Feel, Smell the Civil War
Our Mother’s Day Tradition is Conner Prairie
A Year in the Life of a Conner Prairie Volunteer