A Return to Things

This summer, I’m finally getting back to things. Literally. After a decade or more of casting my lot almost exclusively with public history, I’m delving back—even if briefly—into the world of material culture studies, which once upon a time was my intellectual home of choice. That I even think of these fields as discrete is evidence of how deeply I’ve fallen into academia’s disciplinary furrows. Realizing this, in fact, was what prompted me to apply for a Windgate ITE Residential Fellowship at Philadelphia’s Center for Art in Wood. The good news is that I got the fellowship! Now it’s time to consider how a reunion with things, and a stint away from the university, might turn up new directions for my research and teaching.

But first, a few words about the fellowship. The Center for Art in Wood opened in 1986 to promote just that: wood as a medium for artistic expression. Its activities, therefore, are wide ranging, and include gallery exhibits, a permanent research collection, and educational programs. This year will be the twentieth that the Center has hosted fellows for its Windgate ITE Residency. Each year the residency brings five wood artists, one photojournalist, and one scholar to the Center to work and live together for several weeks. The culminating event is an exhibit wherein the group shares with a public audience what they’ve learned and made together over the summer.

As this year’s scholar, my job is to embed with the artists for a week and write about what I discover. Presumably I’ll reflect on their work through my particular scholarly lens, but it’s also the scholar’s job to produce text for the final exhibit and for promotional materials. All in all, it’s a fairly straightforward assignment, though with few parameters. So, how to approach it? My first instinct was to begin by reading, to sift through recent work coming out of material culture studies, arts and crafts scholarship, maker studies, and so on. It occurred to me, though, that the very reason I applied for this gig was to force myself away from these paradigms and to step away from the methodological status quo. I needed a way out of the furrows.

So, instead, I decided to build a retaining wall. By way of context, I confess to being a consummate tinkerer, a decent finish carpenter, and not a bad cabinetmaker. I am not, however, an engineer or a landscape architect, though I did promise my daughter I’d build her a swing set despite not having an inch of flat ground to put it on. We’d need a small retaining wall to make it work. What better way, I thought, than to prepare for my fellowship by creating something that would push the limits of my mechanical skills, force me to use new and unfamiliar materials, and require that I think hard about how what I make intersects with the lives of people I care about. After all, aren’t these exactly the types of challenges that my fellow fellows would be grappling with at the Center for Art in Wood?

Perhaps, though I suspect they’ll be considerably more successful than I was. After several weeks and an unfortunate turn in the weather, my “wall” is still just a couple of trenches, some tamped stone, and about a half course of landscape timbers. But, for my efforts, I did end up with more than just a sore back. The new tools I’ve acquired—especially the 3 lb. hammer I can’t now imagine being without—already have me thinking differently about what kind of work I can do, and how to accomplish it. The time I’ve spent toiling in what I once considered a remote corner of our property has fundamentally reoriented my view of our landscape and its relationship to our neighbors. And, of course, doing this with and for my daughter has created a mnemonic marker of sorts. I’ll likely always recall her fourth summer as the one during which I built that damn wall.

Retaining wall project, Summer 2015, with June as gauge for measuring trench depth.

June as a living gauge for measuring trench depth, Summer 2015.

From these observations, then, I cull a set of big questions that have long interested me and will be particularly useful, I think, this summer:

1. Modes of Production: How do the ways that we work with things shape our lives, and, vice versa?

2. Thinking with Objects: In what ways do objects expand or curtail (or both) our sense of possibility?

3. Stuff and Memory: What are the processes that bring memory and objects into symbiosis?

These are old questions, and familiar to anyone who studies material culture, but they’re also remarkably durable and useful for getting situated in any new project.

The retaining wall, however, begs one more question that bears particular relevance to the problem of academic furrows: does doing stuff make us better at thinking about stuff? Obviously I think the answer is “yes,” but I’m eager to imagine ways that we might test the hypothesis in college classrooms, where the alleged crisis in the humanities is premised on the notion that people who study English and History and Philosophy can’t actually do anything. The success of the Center’s fellowship program seems to demonstrate the opposite. How, I wonder, might I bring that lesson back to Temple?

So, there it is, my agenda for the summer: get reacquainted with things, spend some time with folks who take them seriously, and see what I can gather from the experience that might reinvigorate what we do in the classroom.

Then, maybe I can finish that damn wall.

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RIP Critical Thinking: A Field Report

More news of weak links in American higher education has made the rounds in recent weeks. Researchers tell us that thirty percent of college seniors are no better at writing or thinking critically than they were as freshmen. This revelation probably doesn’t surprise many of us who work in the academy. Nonetheless, it’s not easy to hear, especially if you care about teaching. And I do. A lot.

It’s because I care about teaching, in fact, that I recently partnered with a school district north of Philadelphia to apply for a Teaching American History (TAH) grant. For those of you who don’t know, TAH grants are competitively awarded by the U.S. Department of Education to help K-12 teachers fine tune their history chops. Big wads of Federal cash support partnerships between school districts and organizations with “content expertise” (e.g. a university history department or a professional association like the NCPH) that, together, work toward improving our kids’ ability to–this is the important part–think critically about history. It’s a crucial program that, of course, is in imminent danger of being cut.

In any event, I offered Temple’s Center for Public History as a vehicle through which to launch what I thought was a pretty smart three-year course of TAH seminars and summer institutes for about 30 high school teachers. Imagine my surprise, however, when I arrived at our first planning meeting to discover that my partner had asked a third party, a professional TAH grant getter, to join our meeting. This had evidently been a last-minute request, born of fears that my partner’s own grant writer and the Center’s collateral expertise might not be enough to get the proposal in on time.

Some background. Almost as soon as the TAH program began in 2001, professional TAH hacks started popping up everywhere. These businesses, with official sounding names like the “American Institute for History and so and so,” are parasitic in the same way tha
t test prep companies like Kaplan are. The test prep folks feed off of the demand created by educational standards that American schools are perpetually unable to achieve by themselves. The TAH hacks feed off of K-12 educators’ inability (perceived rather than real, I’d argue) to gather the time and resources necessary to wade through a cumbersome grant application. The hack makes money by taking a cut of the grant in trade for assembling the application materials and contracting with university faculty who sign on as talking heads.

In other words, TAH hacks write TAH grants and they do it fast and reliably. That’s not a bad thing, necessarily. The problem is that even hacks have to make a living. Here’s where we get into trouble…

Hacks are good at getting grants because: 1) they’ve got the manpower; 2) they’re fluent in granteese (and regional dialects therein); 3) they assemble reliable pools of cash-hungry faculty, er, content expertise; and, 4) they dress their proposals up with a lot of spiffy extras like client-ready websites with, and this is key in K-12 circles, lots of “free” course materials (e.g. handouts about Ben Franklin and stuff). The hacks are good at getting grants because they’ve put together a strong business model.

There are at least four very big problems, however, with this particular business model. First, it is a business model. In other words, what these folks do is motivated not so much by a commitment to critical thinking (remember the purpose of the TAH grant?) as it is a commitment to, well, staying in business. Second, when a school district partners with a hack, it partners with a business, not a community of historians. This is a bad recipe for ongoing partnerships between school districts and regional colleges and universities. Third, toward improving their odds of securing the grant, hacks design safe programs that emulate past successes. So much for innovative pedagogy. And finally, in our case at least, the hack’s business model demanded a closed shop. If my partner chose to work with the hack, then I and my plan would be…history.

Faced with a choice between convenience and vision, and even though the teachers preferred my plan, my partner chose the hack.

I’m mad about this. I’m mad that my partner sold me out so easily. I’m mad that I invested so much time in developing a proposal that, at best, will be ignored and, at worst, will be co-opted by the hack. I’m mad that the Center, whose interest in this project was primarily intellectual, got outmaneuvered by a hack whose interest was primarily pecuniary. But what really irks me is knowing what my partner will get if the hack’s plan is funded.

An example. I proposed using the grant to help teachers and students curate their own digital (and 100% free, by the way) local history archive in cooperation with several regional museums and historical societies. We even had a cool tie-in lined up with ExplorePAHistory.com. This was going to be a fun, cheap, and fairly innovative way to confront students with hard questions about which parts of our past get remembered, and which do not.

The hack countered with his company’s canned WEB resource. An “award-winning” website packed full of freebies and with all the javaesque glitz of the internet a la 1997. Granted, a crummy WEB site isn’t necessarily the end of the world. It’s how you use it. The hack showed us how to use his. Pointing to a digital reproduction of Emanuel Leutze’s iconic Washington Crossing the Delaware (1851), the hack demonstrated an interactive feature that revealed flaws in the artist’s rendering. He made a game of it:

“O.k., everyone, what’s wrong with this painting?”

“The sun is shining,” someone offered.

“Good!,” said the hack, “Remember that Washington crossed at night.”

Another someone: “Why’s he standing?”

“Ha,” the hack snorted, “would somebody as smart as George Washington really stand up in a rickety old boat!?”

And so forth. We never got to juicier questions about why Leutze painted this scene seventy-five years after the fact (and in Europe, no less) or why Americans have come to cherish such a “flawed” painting. What’s more, the hack’s larger vision for the TAH grant was as generic as the Leutze exercise—a big one-size-fits-all themes-and-issues-in-American-history routine, even though the school district had specifically requested an emphasis on local history that might help young folks understand the devastating poverty that had overcome its rural coal-mining community during the last generation.

Underwhelming website and limited vision notwithstanding, the brutal reality of this unfortunate episode is that what passes as “critical thinking” among our nation’s TAH hacks and their various educational products seems to be, in this case at least, a vacuous true-and-false game in the myth buster tradition. Difficult questions are traded for platitudes. Teachable moments are lost to content experts whose expertise doesn’t necessarily pertain to the places where school kids struggle to make sense of their own worlds. Teachers never realize that the classroom freebies offered by hacks are freely available elsewhere and that co-authoring new and free digital tools with students requires little more than a few days training. It’s not hard to see, in this light, how long-term gains in critical thinking loose out to short-term profits.

And the American education system stumbles along on its path to oblivion…

So, who is to blame for this problem? The hack? Maybe the Fed’s byzantine grant apparatus? What about all those professors who cash in on TAH gigs without really understanding how the money works, or doesn’t work? The list could go on since, in one way or the other, all of us with a hand in the education game are implicated. My concern, however, is not to point fingers or even to beat up too much on the hack. All of us, after all, are trying to make a living. I’m more worried about how to make my colleagues aware of the impact they have, even if unwittingly, at every level of the American education system. If it’s critical thinking that we want, then all of us must ensure that it’s critical thinking we get. Talk to K-12 teachers, learn what they’re dealing with, leverage your university resources, and create partnerships with these folks that prevent them from having to choose between innovative vision and the promise of convenience.

And, perhaps most importantly, show your advisees that doing history well requires an ethical commitment to doing the best work possible, no matter what the context. We can’t get rid of the hacks, but we can encourage a new generation of entrepreneurial historians to find a better balance between profit and professionalism.

Posted in grants, Leutze, Teaching American History, Temple University | 1 Comment

A Tea Party in Colonial Williamsburg

In a recent Washington Post story, staff reporter Amy Gardner reminds us that history museums play a vital role in ongoing debates about nation and citizenship. Virginia’s Colonial Williamsburg has witnessed a recent wave of Tea Party activists who’ve come to cheer on Patrick Henry and follow George Washington to battle. These Tea Partiers find in Williamsburg’s story a historical parallel to their own struggle against high taxes and big government. Gardner reports that the Tea Party worries that the nation has drifted from its founders’ ideals. Those who’ve “forgotten about America,” proclaims a retired plumber from New York, “should come here [Colonial Williamsburg] and listen.”

Novel as it may seem, this episode recalls an earlier moment in the history of American museums. Museums like Colonial Williamsburg, the kind that mingle history lessons with restored buildings and costumed guides, became wildly popular in this country at the turn of the last century. They appealed especially to middle and upper class white Americans who were concerned that decades of labor unrest, combined with an onslaught of foreign immigrants, and the lingering complexities of Reconstruction threatened to obscure what really mattered in America. Colonial Williamsburg was born amid and of these worries during the late 1920s. Americans marveled at the new museum in a dramatic color photo essay printed in a 1937 issue of The National Geographic Magazine. One picture featured two black children flanked by British Redcoats and “up to their ears in watermelon.” “There is one custom,” the caption continued, “that time has not changed.”

Much has changed, fortunately, in the intervening decades. Colonial Williamsburg has worked hard to ensure that the jingoism at play during its early years is kept at bay—and even scrutinized from time to time—by serious hard-won critical history. As Gardner reports, Tea Partiers are sometimes rebuffed by a George Washington who is neither as religious nor as quick to revolt as they expect. Keeping the record straight, however, is a constant challenge in a nation where public memory and politics are synonymous. Consider, for instance, the anti-immigration VDARE Foundation that takes its name from Virginia Dare, the celebrated first English (read: white) child born in America. VDARE, like the North Carolinians who opposed suffrage for Black women during the 1920s “in the name of Virginia Dare,” offers just one more example of change-fearing Americans looking to history for constancy and affirmation—precisely what the Tea Partiers expect to find at Colonial Williamsburg.

The persistence of that expectation is bad news for historians because it shows us that we have largely failed to educate the public that change is, in fact, the essence of history. Although Colonial Williamsburg’s president hopes that visitors leave “having learned something about the nuance and messiness of history,” the influx of Tea Partiers suggests that Americans who distrust change still seek solace there. Museums have become much better in recent years at challenging our expectations of the past. I wonder, though, when the rest of our nation’s historians will join the effort in earnest. With important exceptions, I’m shocked by how few credentialed historians share their expertise with local museums. I’m surprised even more by how many fewer initiate those conversations. Why is it that more of us don’t introduce ourselves to the good people who run our local museums? Why are there so few professional historians on the boards of small museums? Is it that we expect to be asked? To be paid?

Colonial Williamsburg already has its share of historians. The audience that needs us most is waiting at those of our small community museums that can barely pay the bills, let alone respond to the most complicated political questions of our time. Because they can’t afford to come find us, it’s up to us to take the first step. George Washington didn’t win as many battles as we’d like to think. He’ll lose this one too without some help.

Posted in Colonial Williamsburg, museum, Tea Party, Virginia Dare | Leave a comment

America’s “Best Idea” a Good Idea for Today’s History Sites

Ken Burns has done it again. His latest series, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea, has bloggers abuzz with paeans to Steven Mather, Shelton Johnson, and other unsung heroes of our national park system. And, like any Burns docudrama, The National Parks will surely agitate a few historians. In this rich visual dreamscape, political and social discord melts away into the soothing hum of acoustic Americana. And although the parks are certainly a great idea, I’ve heard colleagues quip about the possibility that, say, universal suffrage was pretty good too.

Criticism aside, there is an important lesson in Burns’s latest success for historians working in museums and historic sites. Burns shows us that people—at least the people in his audience—may be as interested in how places like national parks get made as they are in visiting those places on summer vacations. He’s certainly not the first to tell these stories. The National Park Service has been churning out histories of its various units—“administrative histories” in bureau parlance—for a very long time. And although administrative historians don’t deliver dramatic monologues in The National Parks, their work is evident throughout. It is also available free of charge and cinematic mediation at www.nps.gov/history/history.

Burns’s latest project does, however, point to (and may be creating) a public audience for administrative history. And if Amazon.com’s sales rankings for the DVD and soundtrack are any indication, that audience has money to spare. This is good news for museums and historic sites at a time when they need it most. Interpreting institutional history can put a fresh spin on old history. The National Park Service has tried it at several sites, including in Brookline, MA where Rose Kennedy’s careful crafting of her son’s story is a key theme at the JFK National Historic Site. Closer to home, Eastern State Penitentiary delights with the shear heft of its institutional history. Cliveden of the National Trust recently made headlines for discussing how history is made there. And we can only hope that the nascent President’s House memorial on Independence Mall will help us understand the controversies that have already gathered in its short shadow.

Pulling back the curtain at these sites demonstrates just how contested our public memory can be. That’s an important story for all of us to hear. In it we find an empowering message about the ability of ordinary individuals to shape the past. But there’s a cautionary tale here too, a reminder that we’re all responsible for being careful consumers of history. In that regard, although Burns’s nationalist hyperbole may not be the best idea in history, The National Parks suggests new possibilities for museums unafraid to look in the mirror.

Posted in Cliveden, Eastern State Penitentary, JFK National Historic Site, Ken Burns, National Park Service, Shelton Johnson, Steven Mather | 1 Comment

Broken Budget? Bake Bread!

Amid last weekend’s rising rivers and lightening strikes, Hilary and I fled the city and headed south into the Brandywine River Valley. I wanted Wyeth country, but with the afternoon almost gone, we settled for a quick tour of the John Chads House. John Chads–after whom Chadds Ford, PA is named–built this three-story stone house during the 1720s. It’s a wonderful example of early Pennsylvania architecture that features original woodwork and masonry. The Chadds Ford Historical Society owns the place and offers regular tours although, as our guide indicated, visitation is way down this season. As of 4:30 on a Sunday afternoon, we were the day’s first visitors!

How that can be confounds me because, despite hard times for nearly all historic sites, the John Chads House boasts what may very well be the most irresistible souvenir that I’ve encountered anywhere in recent memory: fresh bread! Every year, in the run up to September’s Chadds Ford Days festival, master bread baker Lise Taylor churns thousands of loaves of bread out of the building’s beehive oven. Most of the bread is frozen until September when it’s thawed and sold to festival goers. The rest is gobbled up by house visitors, like us, lucky enough to show up at the end of a baking day. $4 buys you a steamy fresh-baked loaf; $10 buys three. It’s well worth it.

There’s nothing new about house museums selling baked goods out of colonial kitchens. In fact, this is precisely the kind of thing that got Americans excited about historic tourism in the first place. Take for example the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia where a “real” colonial kitchen turned out to be a big crowd pleaser. A century later, colonial kitchens–and their wares–remained a staple of living history museums during the nation’s 1976 bicentennial celebrations. Eating the stuff costumed interpreters make in bygone kitchens has since grown less common. I imagine this has partly to do with health and liability issues. Additionally, big operations like Colonial Williamsburg have learned how to make more money by funneling visitors into centralized stores that sell “authentic” copies of food and other products made throughout the museum.

The John Chads house, however, is a pretty small operation, but all the more charming as a result. And it doesn’t take itself too seriously. You won’t get a certificate of authenticity with your bread nor promises that it tastes just like it would have two centuries ago. It is, like all good sourvenirs, a charming (and tasty) reminder of an interesting experience. And in this case, charm pays. Charm is a prickly proposition at museums and historic sites. For starters, it’s very diffcult to define. What is charm? How do you budget for it? When done carefully, charm enhances educational missions and keeps visitors coming back. If mishandled, though, charm can quickly turn good history into naive nostalgia or, in extreme cases, heavy-handed ideology. One way or the other, it’s hard to deny that charm makes good business sense. Fresh baked bread may not solve all budget woes, but in these hard times, pehaps modern historic sites can learn a thing or two from their predecessors.

Posted in 1876 Centennial Exposition, Brandywine Valley, Bread, Chadds Ford, Charm, Hilary, John Chads, John Chads House, Philadelphia, Wyeth | Leave a comment

de Maistre’s Revenge

In my last post, I mentioned the remarkable influence of context shift on our relationship to everyday objects. If it’s context shift you’re looking for, check out Microsoft’s Photosynth. This server-side visualization software allows you to translate a slew of still-photographs into a very cool interactive panorama. It’s easy to use (just a few minutes to generate my office synth), lots of fun, but also highly addicitve, so be careful. Thanks to Bill Turkel for the suggestion.

Posted in Bill Turkel, panorama, Photosynth | 1 Comment

Big Boats

I had a surprising run in with an old friend early last month while visiting Connecticut’s Mystic Seaport museum. Last November, Mystic hauled the Charles W. Morgan out of the water and laid it up in dry dock for an extensive overhaul (click here for the full story). This was no small endeavor. At 340 tons and almost 170 years old, the Morgan requires a firm, but gentle hand. She is, after all, a National Historic Landmark and, according to the good folks at Mystic, the world’s last remaining wooden whaling ship. But, beyond all of that, the Morgan is beloved by throngs of people like myself who remember first discovering her on family vacations long ago. And seeing as how tourists have been flocking to the Morgan since 1941, that’s a whole lot of memories.

But what amazed me on my most recent visit was how BIG the Morgan really is. Seeing her out of the water is a remarkable experience. Others agree. One museum staffer recalls an old-timer who quipped, “you don’t know anything about that boat until you’ve seen her out of the water.” Now, before I go on, perhaps it’s worth noting that I am a longstanding maritime history junky. Those early trips to Mystic really worked their magic and I’ll probably drag my own kids there whether they like it or not. I can’t help but imagine though that even someone without my particular obsession with nineteenth-century maritime stuff would be impressed by the Morgan‘s shear girth. Don’t get me wrong, she looks big in the water, but out of her element, the Morgan’s size is really striking. These ships were built broad and deep to accommodate the thousands of barrels of whale oil crews pursued for years on end. As a result, whale ships in dry dock dwarf the buildings that surround them–then and now.

Stumbling upon this particular moment in the Morgan‘s long life was a real treat because it brought me as close as I’ll probably ever get to seeing what a working nineteenth-century shipyard was really like. But it also reminded me just how dramatically our understanding of an object can change with a shift in context. The Morgan is a very different thing out of the water and that difference is worth thinking about in a museum. Everyone who visits Mystic learns about the hardships of life at sea. The Morgan‘s tiny crew quarters make the point well enough. But, from the current vantage point, the ratio of crew space to cargo space is even more evident. Astute museum goers will see in the ship’s remarkable proportions a harsh truth about the cheapness of human labor in the early decades of American industrial capitalism. This is not to say that you can’t know anything about the Morgan while she’s in the water, but her overhaul clearly presents exciting opportunities for reflection as well as repair.

Posted in boat, Charles W. Morgan, Connecticut, Mystic Seaport, whaling | Leave a comment

In Search of Birthplaces

In conjunction with a new book project, I’m attempting to compile a comprehensive map of recognized (read: marked and or celebrated) birthplace monuments in the U.S. and beyond. Check out my progress so far and help me fill in the gaps.

View Birthplace Monuments in a larger map

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Preservation Prevented

I’ve been involved with historic preservation long enough to know that old buildings can disappear fast no matter who values them nor how much. Even so, I still can’t quite believe how quickly the old Shoemaker House vanished. Wreckers razed the three-hundred year-old building early last week after reports of a fuel oil leak led Upper Dublin Township Fire Marshal Timothy Schuck to the house, which stood on a remote corner of Temple University’s Ambler Campus. A local news report failed to explain why the building was demolished, although rumors suggest that Schuck made the final call. One way or another, it was a significant decision that resulted in the destruction of one of the Delaware Valley’s oldest standing buildings.

There’s certainly nothing unique about this story; this sort of thing happens all the time. The great irony in this case, however, is that I and several other Temple colleagues had recently pooled our resources toward resuscitating the old Shoemaker House. Our plan wasn’t to restore the place, but rather to stabilize it and create there a living classroom where faculty might encourage students to consider the complicated intersections between history, the environment, and a sustainable future. In fact, we had just submitted a grant proposal that I’m fairly confident would have been supported. How we proceed now is unclear. All hope is not lost, but still I can’t help but marvel at the shear scope of miscommunication and historical disregard responsible for the Shoemaker House’s untimely demise.

What follows is a brief history of the Shoemaker House excerpted from the grant proposal we hoped would protect the building. As you can tell by the before-and-after pictures, there remains precious little to protect:

Tucked into the southwestern corner of Temple University’s Ambler College campus, just south of the soccer fields near the corner of Butler Pike and Meetinghouse Road, stands a tumbledown stone building half reclaimed by the overgrowth that surrounds it. The Shoemaker House’s humble façade obscures its rich history. Built nearly three hundred years ago, this building ranks among the oldest surviving structures in Upper Dublin Township, let alone in all of southeastern Pennsylvania. Its story is indelibly linked with the story of Pennsylvania and, consequently, the story of our nation.

The land that encompasses Ambler College today lay at the periphery of Philadelphia’s rural hinterland by the late seventeenth century. Opportunities abounded there for wealthy investors like Samuel Finney who, sympathetic to William Penn’s liberal policies, purchased land in 1699 and erected a log structure on the present Shoemaker House site. Although we do not know what that first building looked like or what it was used for, we do know that it represented Finney’s success in a burgeoning Atlantic World. Finney, who had been born into a wealthy North West England family, apprenticed at an early age with a West Indian merchant out of London. The merchant trade served Finney well, eventually leading him to Barbados where he built a fortune on the backs of African slaves forced to labor on sugar and cotton plantations. In the meantime, Finney’s ascent within planter society brought him into a wide circle of prominent friends including William Penn.

Penn’s affiliation with a slave-owning planter may seem strange today, but it is precisely in this way that the Shoemaker House preserves our nuanced past. In this case, it reminds us that slavery existed throughout the colonies, and that even Quakers like William Penn were complicit. It was more likely money than morals that bound Finney to Penn. Their bond appears to have been remarkably strong. Not only did Penn travel with Finney to Pennsylvania in 1699, he also appointed him to the colony’s provincial council in 1703 on which Finney served as judge periodically between 1702 and 1706 and for a final term before his death in 1711. All the while, Finney bought thousands of acres of land and played an integral role in the early history of Upper Dublin Township, which was established under his watch in 1701. Consequently, although the Shoemaker House likely began as little more than a log shed on Finney’s property, by linking us to him it brings into focus the heady mix of religion, slavery, and economic mobility underlying our nation’s shared heritage.

But Finney’s story is only one of many we discover by studying the Shoemaker House. For nearly three hundred years the building has changed with each new owner. Cadwallader Ellis, who traveled to Pennsylvania among the first waves of Welsh Quakers inspired by William Penn, purchased the log building from Finney in 1706. Ellis improved Finney’s building, possibly rebuilding it in stone, to provide shelter for his family. Unlike Finney, for whom settling in Pennsylvania capped a long life of achievement, Ellis aspired from humble beginnings to build a new life of faith and prosperity in the New World. By 1725 the Shoemaker House had grown even more, mirroring the accomplishments of Ellis and his successors. In this way, the Shoemaker House passed from one owner to the next, reflecting in its architectural evolution the struggles and achievements of each generation. The house attained roughly its current configuration in the hands of the Shoemaker family who, besides giving it its name, owned the building for an incredible one hundred and fifty years. Their story alone is worth telling and reminds us that, despite appearances, the unassuming Shoemaker House preserves in its crumbling mortar a memory of profound depth.

The Pennsylvania School of Horticulture for Women purchased the old house from the Shoemaker family in a “good state of repair” in 1943. Over the years, however, inappropriate use and misguided additions compromised the building’s structural integrity. Temple University inadvertently acquired the building (and, briefly, its last tenants) in 1958 when Ambler Junior College merged with the Pennsylvania School of Horticulture. Despite the following decades’ embrace of historical preservation, Temple disregarded the Shoemaker House and even threatened to demolish it only months after the Ambler Women’s Committee published a 1972 report demonstrating the building’s significance. Renewed attempts to protect the building in subsequent decades raised awareness, but never secured financial support. Most recently, the Ambler Campus Council for a Sustainable Campus has brought together volunteers to clear the site of overgrowth and hopes to link these activities with a speaker series concerning sustainability and historic preservation. Without substantial support, however, the future of this remarkable building hangs in the balance.

Posted in Ambler College, historic preservation, public history, Shoemaker House, Temple University | 12 Comments

The Windows Remember

From time to time my job leads me to local museums and historic sites. It’s a great gig for a museum junky like myself. And, better yet, I occasionally get to see stuff that doesn’t turn up on the usual tours. Take, for example, this amazing window that I discovered (thanks, Blanche) on a recent visit to Cliveden (rhymes with “lived in”), a National Trust historic site north of downtown Philly in Germantown, PA. For nearly two centuries, Cliveden’s owners encouraged their guests to “sign” the building’s windows with a diamond scribe. Look closely and, in just this single pane, you’ll find nearly one hundred and thirty years worth of names, dates, and well wishes. The window is a guest book in glass, the result of a charming tradition that literally etched family friends into Cliveden’s memory.

Folks who, like myself, spend a lot of time doing history with things know full well that objects seldom speak so clearly of their pasts. This window owes its remarkable prolixity to Benjamin Chew and his progeny. Chew, a lapsed Quaker who made big money managing the Penn family’s legal affairs, built Cliveden as a summer home in the 1760s. The house is most famous for sheltering a handful of British soldiers who, garrisoned behind the building’s three-foot thick stone walls, managed to stall General Washington’s advance toward Philadelphia in October 1777 during the Battle of Germantown. Chew sold the place after the Revolution, but reacquired it shortly before his death. The home passed from generation to generation until 1972 when the Chew family presented Cliveden to the National Trust. That they did speaks strongly to the family’s awareness of its own significant historical legacy.

Cliveden’s windows are, in this light, striking evidence of one family’s desire to commemorate itself. And what a striking commemoration it is. To look through this window is to see one’s self reflected in the deep memory of a building, and a landscape beyond, that witnessed the unfolding of our national story. And, at the same time, the window is itself a unique kind of historic text. It chronicles the comings and goings of some of this country’s most prominent people over a remarkable span of time. The absence of less prominent names reminds us that not even objects have perfect memories. In any event, much could be made of this by a historian with an ear for objects. How one footnotes a window is another matter entirely.

Posted in Battle of Germantown, Benjamin Chew, Cliveden, George Washington, National Trust, windows | 1 Comment