Not A Raisin in the Sun

elephant“We are such stuff as dreams are made on…”
William Shakespeare
The Tempest

At the end of each year I get hit with a double dose of nostalgia and romanticism. I feel regret at the time I wasted from the year before but believe in the opportunity of the many days left ahead. So this year when I sent out my holiday/new year cards I asked my friends, co-workers, and loved ones for their dreams for the coming year.

But what are dreams? They are wishes and hopes. They are goals and tasks for a better life. For others it is a broadening of skills and minds.

Dreams are a search for something more, something different. They are an acknowledgement of change. Often though dreams cannot be bound by a single year, and need to be broken up into pieces.

Sometimes dreams are for others. They are a hope for strength, for well-being, and a wish for them to have peace of mind.

My dreams aren’t simple. In my first post of the year I laid out some resolutions: to become more focused, take control, and to define success for myself. My dreams are linked to these resolutions. I hope to control the uncontrollable while also letting fate take its course.

tardisIn clearer terms. I want to know I’ll always be happy. Satisfied. Able to withstand change, loss, and uncertainty. I want to be able to accept love or disaster when they arrive at my doorstep. I want to know how the story ends. I want to be brave. So really, I want a TARDIS of my very own.

Having said that there is one clear point I need to make. Continue reading “Not A Raisin in the Sun”

Putting the Puzzle Together: Reflections on Travel in Seattle

Cross posted at PreservationNation.

Dale Chihuly Gardens of Glass Exhibition.

A metaphor I often use when talking about the past is that of a puzzle. Getting to know the whole picture of place means fitting together a number of disparate pieces that when snapped together give you a single picture — a snapshot in time that is one in a series that make up the past.

I also approach visiting new cities through this lens. A few weeks ago as a prelude to my visit to Spokane for the National Preservation Conference, I went to Seattle to visit with some friends and family. What I ended up doing was not just visiting to a popular tourist destination but also getting a sense of the place itself.

Continue reading “Putting the Puzzle Together: Reflections on Travel in Seattle”

A Long Time Ago…

I am a woman who loves history. I am a woman who loves storytelling and narratives of heroines and heroes that look beyond the black and white of good versus evil.

I am a woman who loves Star Wars.

This is not the blog post I intended to post earlier this week, that will probably come in a few days. Rather the sudden news yesterday that the Walt Disney Corporation has purchased Lucasfilm demanded a quick reflection.
Continue reading “A Long Time Ago…”

Influence That Never Stops, Inspiration That Lasts An Eternity

In an article between the Civil War Trust and James Percoco (one that includes some great images of him in action), my high school history teacher, stated “I think what will serve as my legacy is the numbers of young people who found their calling for life through their experiences in my classroom. The American historian, journalist, and educator Henry Adams once wrote, ‘A teacher effects eternity, he can never tell where his influence stops.’ ”

At his retirement party yesterday that influence was self-evident as former students (including me), family members, and colleagues stood up to talk about his accomplishments.

I know I’ve talked about Jim’s influence on my love of history (last year in a piece on the day of his induction into the National Teacher’s Hall of Fame) , and so I thought I would reflect on Percoco’s remarks at the gathering last night.

Continue reading “Influence That Never Stops, Inspiration That Lasts An Eternity”

Downton Abbey and the Pull of Place in Popular Television

I’ve been angling for a reason to write about Downton Abbey on this blog, and an opportunity presented itself in this fun Friday post that went up today on the blog. You can read the post with the awesome-as-usual Downton Abbey images here but I’ve also included the text below.

PS: I also use it as an excuse to mention other awesome shows like The West Wing, LOST, Dr. Who, and Battlestar Galactica. Because what would each of these shows be without the familiar hallways of the White House, the forests of our favorite Island, and a spaceship serving as home for a drifting civilization (or in the case of Dr. Who, the ability to hop from place to place in time)?

Downton Abbey and the Pull of Place in Popular Television


I think by now many of the regular readers on this blog know three things about me. I love history. I love writing about history. And I pretty much think about history, and place, and the past about 367 million times a day.

So it shouldn’t be a surprise that I think about the power of place and the past when doing the most mundane things — walking, cooking, and watching television.

Like many, many people, I’ve been enamored with the British period drama Downton Abbey, which just finished its second season run on PBS. For those that haven’t seen it, it begins in pre-World War I England and gives viewers a glimpse into the aristocratic Crawley family and their servants through the intervening years.

What I love about Downton Abbey is that the story centers around the estate, a magnificent house full of both grand (for the lords and ladies) and humble (for the staff) public and private spaces that serves as a mechanism for how a family and their employees lived in the early 20th century. The way the building is used over the two seasons reflects society and class as changes in women’s roles, war, and disease take its toll. But Downton is used as more than a set piece. The home is a crucial character in itself, and plays a crucial role for how each of the characters defines themselves.

This isn’t necessarily something new. After all, the whole premise of the show Cheers is to tell the story of a group of bar patrons in a particular space. Then there are three of my favorites — The West Wing, LOST, and (nerd alert) Battlestar Galactica — which are incredibly place-centric, as ninety percent of each episode occurs within their respective main locations: The White House, an island, or a giant spaceship that serves as the only defender against the enemies of humanity (try saying that three times fast).

What other shows out there use place to tell their story? We know of course that there are plenty of serials and sitcoms that use cities as the backdrop to their storylines. The stories in Mad Men, for example, are integrally tied to their place in mid-century New York.

The point, perhaps, that I am trying to make is that as a preservationist and a historian, I’m drawn to shows that integrate where they are with the people whose lives intersect in those spaces. And it’s the same for the real world, since the places we save are often inherently important because of the mark of individuals or groups on them, or our own modern interactions or associations with them.

I recently watched an episode of Dr. Who (a show with a time-traveling theme) where the main character presents a theory that there are fixed points in time that can never change — that events will always happen in this time and this place no matter what tries to influence them. It’s a fanciful idea, one that appeals to me as a historian because of how we think about the “power of place” — that an important way that we can tell the story of our past and make it tangible is by recognizing the confluence of people, places, and events in time.

What do you think? Do you love a television show because it reminds you of history, place, or preservation? Sound off below!

Preservation and a Pressure Cooker (A Reflection on the Materiality of Preservation)

The materiality of preservation is very much rooted in these places and objects ability to tell a story – to evoke the intangible in such a way that makes it more certain, more reliable, more real.

For work this week I wrote a piece reflecting on the stuff of preservation. I also managed to loop in a paper I wrote during my undergraduate coursework about a pressure cooker. Trust me, it makes sense.

I’m working on a few ideas for end of the year posts. So stay tuned!


I also wanted also wanted to point out to any Baltimorians who might be reading my blog that there is an Unconference going on in Baltimore today. You can see what they’re talking about here and on Twitter #bmorehistoric.

Hodge Podge: On Vice, Designations, and Reviewing a Home

Happy Thanksgiving! As we head on into the long weekend I thought it would be nice to think about food and foodways as a lead in to an event I attended at Woodlawn, the importance of our latest National Monument at Fort Monroe, and a review of a book about the evolution of a particular hearth and home.

On Vice and Food

Woodlawn during the 2011 Vices that Made Virginia Event. Image from the Neighborhood Restaurant Group Flickr Page

When I was an undergraduate student I had the opportunity to take a course on foodways. We learned about the sugar and salt trade and their role in global economies while also examining objects from our kitchens to see and understand everyday life.

A few days ago I learned that my professor from this course, Barbara Carson, had passed away, and so I wanted to take a moment to reflect on what I learned from her.

Food can tell us a lot of things about the past. On one level we learn about diets—how our ancestors (or grandparents even) got their nutrition. We learn about how advances in canning and preservatives allowed food from California to be eaten in Vermont. And with more and more advances in transportation commodities like tea, sugar, salt, and spices became less of a luxury and more accessible—removing these items as limited only to the rich.

How this food was prepared gives us insight into familial roles—and the role of mealtimes in the cult of domesticity. We learned more about how that expectation changed, and the how advent of TV dinners moved families from the dinner table to the couch.

This was on my mind when I attended the second annual “Vices that Made Virginia” program at Woodlawn Plantation in Alexandria, VA. A National Trust property, this fund raiser was put on by Arcadia: Center for Sustainable Food and Agriculture —a non-profit organization bringing farming back to Woodlawn while educating children and adults on how food comes from the farm to the table.

The program itself was set up to highlight Virginia vices: cigars, bourbon, wine and of course the fresh produce, while introducing visitors to the farm and the historic site where it lay. It was, in one word, delicious.

Thinking about local food, and eating local harvests is a current trend in being sustainable not only economically but also in establishing a healthy lifestyle. It is a matter of looking back into our pasts and recognizing that sometimes the best things to eat is in your backyard.

Professor Carson’s course gave me a foundation to understand the shifts in thinking about how we eat, when we eat, and why we eat…what we eat. She also provided me with the essential underpinnings on how to look at material culture and find meaning. For that, I will be forever grateful.

Designating a National Monument

A few months ago I had the opportunity to sit in on a conversation at Lincoln’s Cottage in Washington, DC. This mini-conference was a brainstorming session, a place for attendees to envision a way to save a piece of history that is not often talked about: the history of the contraband.

In short, in May 1861, a little over a month following the shots at Fort Sumter a trio of slaves ran away to Union lines at Fort Monroe in Hampton, VA. When they arrived, the general, Benjamin Butler,chose to hold the runaways (Shepard Mallory, Frank Baker, and James Townsend) as “contraband” rather then honor the Fugitive Slave Law and return them to their owner in the Confederacy. By the end of the war half a million formerly enslaved people had looked for freedom in the same way. Their legacy, which included camps in and around Washington, DC hastened Abraham Lincoln’s decision to issue the Emancipation Proclamation and bring an end to slavery. [Learn more]

During the brainstorming session a key suggestion from those attending was to urge President Obama to use his powers under the 1906 Antiquities Act and designate Fort Monroe, or “Freedom’s Fortress”, a national monument.

And guess what. this past month, he did.

Political affiliations aside, this is a “win” for everyone. I know that we are in turmoil—that finding common ground between the left and the right is a place that our politicians can’t seem find. In designating Fort Monroe as a national monument, President Obama (in my opinion, of course) emphasized how important our cultural heritage is in our identity as Americans—not merely as liberals or conservatives, Democrats or Republicans. That is, finding common ground may involve taking a risk that will make our country stronger.

Forty years ago, historians came together to look at American history through different eyes: the eyes of women, immigrants, and African-Americans. Today, we are still working towards that goal—looking at “the forgotten” and telling their story. This National Monument at Fort Monroe is one more step in the right direction–recognizing the wide breath of stories in the American past

Reviewing At Home


Finally, I wanted to say a few words about Bill Bryson’s At Home. It’s a book that came out a few years ago that looks at a particular home, his home to be exact, and searches for the histories of particular rooms. I’ve read Bryson before (A Walk in the Woods), and have liked his meandering tales. However, this wasn’t quite what I expected.

It’s not that it wasn’t in the same style as his other books. He uses the house—an old rectory in England—as a touchstone in telling broader stories about social changes in European architecture, family life and industry. But I had hoped for something a little bit more….structured.

I know, I know. Having read Bryson before I should have known better—but it was a little disconcerting at times to go from talking about a bedroom or a kitchen to the history of bedbugs and then to a discussion on funerary arrangements and graveyards.

That minor disappointment aside, At Home is one example of how a broader story can be told through a particular structure. Certainly not the first to use this mechanism, however it provides insights into how rooms can spark interest in the unexpected.


And with that I would like to wish everyone a very happy Thanksgiving. Eat well, be merry, (shop local), and live large.

Life is Bigger

I am sure many of you have heard the news. REM is over. After 31 years of working together Michael Stipe, Peter Buck, and Mike Mills have decided to move on.

I’ve taken so long to write this post, one because I was traveling (I started this on an airplane and am now finishing it on another trip), but also because I wanted to think about how I felt, especially since reactions elsewhere ran the gamut from surprise, befuddlement, to sadness.

A band born two years before my birth I am quick to admit that my gateway song into REM fandom was the ever popular Losing My Religion. As my musical education grew I found myself being drawn to songs that were a little off the beaten track (by which I mean, not Orange Crush, Stand, Man on the Moon, or Nightswimming). At present my favorite is Walk Unafraid.

Walk unafraid
I’ll be clumsy instead
Hold my love me or leave me

Say “keep within the boundaries if you want to play”
Say “contradiction only makes it harder”
How can I be
What I want to be?
When all I want to do is strip away
These stilled constraints
And crush this charade
Shred this sad masquerade
I don’t need no persuading
I’ll trip, fall, pick myself up and

Walk unafraid
I’ll be clumsy instead
Hold my love me or leave me

I’ll also admit that I kind of loved the CD reviled by many (Reveal). Especially She Just Wants To Be.

It’s not that she walked away,
Her world got smaller.
All the usual places,
The same destinations,
Only something’s changed.

It’s not that she wasn’t rewarded
With pomegranate afternoons
And Mingus, Chet Baker and chess.
It’s not the stampeding fortune,
Of prim affectations.
She’s off on her own
But she knows

Now is greater than the whole of the past
Is greater, and now she knows

She just wants to be somewhere
She just wants to be
She just wants to be somewhere
She just wants to be.

Perhaps I can say that my relationship with REM was solidified by seeing them live at the Patriot Center in 2003 where despite floor seats among a largely apathetic crowd I loved Michael Stipe’s dancing and steady vocals in addition to the energy from the whole band.

That being said REM’s last swing through Merriweather Post a few years ago with Modest Mouse and The National remains the best concert I’ve been to. With three fairly well known bands I expected a short set but REM stayed on for over two hours and put the other two to shame.

While I wrote this post I was listening to an old episode of All Songs Considered called “Splitsville: Breaking Up With Your Favorite Band“. I know that many fans out there broke up with REM a long time ago. Perhaps it’s because nothing could really compare to other earlier work, or because they stayed within their musical boundaries, which dated their sound in a world of Lady Gaga and pop music. Whatever the case may be, there is something sad about never hearing another new nonsensical yet soulful lyric.

As my bro in law said when I shared the news:

“You know, everybody hurts but I find that if I surround myself with shiny happy people holding hands, I don’t feel like I’m losing my religion…in fact, I feel like the man in the moon.”

I think what I will miss the most of all is the poetry of REM. The way the lyrics flung me into new visions and played in the background of all of my early attempts to write fiction. Despite their disbanding I look forward to their catalog inspiring me for years to come.

Oh this lonely world is wasted
Pathetic eyes, high alive
Blind to the tide that turns the sea
This storm that came up strong
It shook the trees, and blew away our fear
I couldn’t even hear


Oh this could be the saddest dusk I’ve ever seen
Turn to a miracle, high alive
My mind is racing, as it always will
My hands tired, my heart aches
I’m half a world away

Outside the Box: Strong Female Characters and Moving Out

Quick post before I head out on vacation for the rest of the week. In the last month I’ve been busy working on two different blog posts. The first was personal about big life changes, while the second took a look at some of my interests outside history (namely my love of reading). So here are the two links. I’m working on a few more posts before I head out to the 2011 National Preservation Conference in Buffalo at the end of October.

My first blog was for the Smithsonian Homespun Project where I talked about the act of Moving Out.  Not an easy thing to do, but something that forces you to think about your past, present, and future. Check out You Can Take it With You  here.

In a slight departure from my normal blog writing I recently wrote a post for a blog called Fangirl.  In the post I try to look at what makes a up a strong female character. By no means a definitive recipe for success it was a great exercise in thinking about why I’m drawn to some books over others, and how dynamic and interesting female characters can be. Read my take on The Anatomy of a Strong Female Character on

The Power of the Cover

At first glance it is the color that forces me to stop. Something about the way they play together—within shapes, images, old photographs. The different hues mash together into an emotion….

…as I read the words. The Bluest Eye, Cat’s Cradle, A Dance with Dragons.

Together the design serves as a teaser for the text that lies between—a teaser for the good, the bad, and the horribly disappointing.

This post is about the power of the Cover, and how sometimes the cover is the difference between reading the summary flap or just walking by without a second glance.

When I was in college I worked at a Barnes and Noble where one of our jobs was to go through the shelves and do face outs to make the shelves look full. This also served as a way to highlight a specific title. Often times when I walked through I tended to be influenced by what had read, or heard about from others,  and those were the books that got that extra attention. But sometimes the cover that I highlighted was one that was beautiful, intriguing, and expressive.  Because our store was a hub of tourist activity (it was in the middle of Merchant’s Square in Colonial Williamsburg) we tended to get a lot more browsers in addition to our regular customers and so making sure that those shelves were especially attractive was important.

Another part of my job involved working at the information desk. On more than one occasion I would have conversation that went like this:

Customer: Hi I’m looking for a particular book.

Me: Sure, can you tell me the title?

Customer: No.

Me: How about the author?

Customer: Nope.


Customer: …but I do know that the book was redish orange, with a circle in the middle. And it was set in Scotland?

More seriously, this is where the power that lies within a cover came up. If it was a piece of popular fiction more often than not one of us would recognize it based on the cover description, and would be able to find the book for the customer.  It provides an element of identification, a marker for those looking to read it. In other cases if we could narrow down the genre just walking through the shelves sometimes produced results.

So let’s take a moment and look at the book cover as an object/a piece of material culture:

Observation: The cover serves a variety of purposes. As mentioned above it is an illustration of what exists with in the book. A symbolic summary of what we will learn, enjoy, and experience. It is also meant to be, perhaps first and foremost, a piece of information. What is this book called, who is its author. You know that when you pull the book off the shelf, the back cover will tell you either more about the title or provide titillating one sentence reviews of the book from similar authors, and newspapers. Thirdly, the cover is a marketing piece. It distinguishes this particular book from that particular book.  Sometimes the cover design distinguishes one publisher from another (my favorite? Vintage Classics).

According to this essay in the Guardian, illustrated book covers, particularly early dust jackets, did not come into vogue until the late 19th century. Until then the covers of books were served as protection or as a space for advertising what other books the publisher was producing rather than the specific title in hand. The article, as do many other sites around the web, also point out the importance of the book cover/dust jacket/book jacket in the mode of identification—something that I described in an earlier blog post “Prelude to the Power of the Cover.

Continued Analysis leads me to acknowledge that even over the years book covers change with time. If one were to trace the evolution of an older title one would find multiple versions of the book depending on who and when it was published. Even today it has become popular practice to publish new reprints of books in tandem with the movie adaptation, and despite liking said adaptation, these covers often invoke a sense of impurity. A sense that is especially frustrating when the movie adaptation is nothing like the words that you have grown to love.

Just for fun, open a new browser window and do a search under Google Images. Type in “Lord of the Rings Book Covers.” to see how many different versions pop up. The version I have (left below) is very different from the version my roommate (right below). I’m sure that somewhere out there are book cover collectors who can identify who the artist and the creator of each edition of their favorite book is by—and the availability of said edition determines worth. I know that when choosing a book to own and when presented with multiple cover options (all other things being equal)–I tend to lean towards the more aesthetically pleasing edition.

Interpreting covers is a larger conversation—and probably demands a lot more research that I have had time to give. However, each edition, each design, says something about the times in which we live (see above commentary on movie covers). And in an age of e-books the purpose of covers has changed—e-ink doesn’t allow for full color imaging, despite making the ability to read text easier on the eye. Additionally the art on the page is probably a reflection of imagination, but also cultural influences in that particular period of time.  More specifically I find myself thinking about how the widespread censorship in Nazi Germany dictated how books were designed and marketed–and what we can learn by looking at these different covers about the messages that the Nazi’s were propagating.

As a piece of every day life, a cover says a lot about what we as a country and as a society are reading. In an age of mass marketing, seeing the cover everywhere only stimulates the brain into wanting to know more, learn more, and experience it first hand.

The Guessing Game

I first started thinking about this blog post almost a year ago when CBS Sunday Morning put together this segment (watch it here). Narrated by Erin Moriarty the piece looks at book covers as an element of our visual landscape—that they are, in fact, pieces of art.  Art  provides a glimpse into how people are feeling about particular events in the outward world–and like the Mona Lisa, a Mark Rothko painting, or Monet’s Water Lilies covers are seared into our minds. So let’s play a little game:

Can you identify this book by its cover?

How about this one?

or this one?

This exercise made me think about the book cover as it moves into its next phase of existence, where (as both the Guardian and the Sunday Morning piece explain) the digital world is using the cover in entirely new ways that shift the function of the book into a new medium (after all you can’t see what someone is reading when they are on a Kindle or a Nook). In fact, when I start reading a book on my Kindle it starts on the first page, automatically bypassing the title/author acknowledgement/index.  In this way the cover is perhaps reduced to playing merely an informational role, without the vivid colors and design elements translating easily into e-ink.  I do acknowledge that on color e-readers you can see covers in much the same way as you see them off screen–but even then its a digitized form, without the texture of the physical copy.

Of course books aren’t completely gone from our physical landscape, and I very much doubt that they will ever be completely eradicated.  I also recognize that not everyone cares as much as I do about the face of a book–and look to word of mouth to find new titles. I do hope, however that we’ll still be able to see a book cover that is as with iconic as the covers for Catch-22, Jurassic Park, and The Great Gatsby.

Personal Inspiration

In preparing this post I thought it would be fun to look at some of my favorites. So here are a few book covers that I love:

Tana French’s book is startlingly creepy–the branches of the tree emblematic of the complexity of the mystery that lies within. This is my favorite cover of Little Dorrit partially because it juxtaposes the door of the Marshalsea with Amy’s form. The way her hand clutches her skirt indicates movement as she passes from her father’s walled prison into the chaos of London. I love this cover of Stardust primarily for its whimsy.

As I mentioned on this blog, a few weeks ago a dear friend passed away. Before she died we had talked about “the power of the cover” and she took the time to send a few of her favorites my way:

I also sent the request out over Twitter, and one of my followers pointed out these two covers. When I asked for an explanation @EttaHRichardson tweeted that the covers are attractive because of “the grandeur that the building maintains” for the first and “it’s the style, a bit Voo-doo & Cartoon but fresh and edgy” for the second.

I guess for me, the power of the cover is in its ability to inspire imagination. That the artwork, the layout, and the text all provides that initial jump into the unknown,  into a world that is filled with tales of heroic acts or dastardly deeds, a world filled with the enigmatic, the charismatic, the magical, and the ordinary, and a world filled with stories, and storytellers.  It is the power of the cover which starts us on this journey, one that begins  long before you even open the book in your hand.

Note: Just a note that for those of you that are in DC that you should visit the National Book Festival down on the National Mall. It will take place September 24-25, 2011.

Image Credits: Courtesy of Google Images,,