Westborough Local History Pastimes – November 20, 2020

Detail from the Bayeux Tapestry, which chronicles the Battle of Hastings in 1066 when the French invaded and took control of England. Click on the image to learn more.


1492, 1620, 1776 . . .

These years and their significance were drilled into our heads in elementary school history classes (respectively, the years when Columbus set off to “discover America,” the Pilgrims landed in Massachusetts, and the Declaration of Independence was signed). They, and others like them, are so common in our minds that we rarely give them much thought beyond their seemingly innate connection to the historical event that they represent.

For as long as I remember I have been fascinated by history. The museums and historic sites I visited, the books I read, and the movies set in historical time periods I watched were all reminders that people used to live life very differently than I do. They dressed differently. They used different kinds of transportation. They generally worked different kinds of jobs. They thought differently. And they held different attitudes towards life. How strange that if either of us landed in the other’s time period that we would feel totally out of place! And what does this insight mean as we head into the future? How different will that time be from what I think is “normal” now?

But my real understanding of history did not begin until I made the conscious decision not only to note the dates of when events happened, but to fix those date in my mind and place them in relation to all the other dates rolling around in my head. Sounds pretty basic, right? Don’t we all know to do that when we think about history? Maybe, maybe not. I’m not exactly sure when I made this commitment to myself somewhere along my personal timeline, but I do know that it was embarrassingly later in my life than I would like to admit. Nonetheless my decision was a game-changer! As I assembled dates into a mental timeline, my understanding of history deepened to a degree that I did not anticipate.

As way of example, let’s historicize our practice of thinking about historical timelines. I am currently reading A World Lit Only By Fire: The Medieval Mind and the Renaissance, Portrait of an Age by William Manchester about the transition from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance. Manchester contends that most people living in medieval Europe had no awareness of time, at least not in the way that we do in the twenty-first century. Not only could they not tell us the time of day (they had no clocks), but they could not tell us what century they were living in, because it just did not matter to them. As Manchester points out, the difference between life in 1791 and 1991 is huge, but everyday life in 791 and 991 was essentially the same. In the Middle Ages, one generation blurred into the next one, yearly harvest cycles and religious holidays circled round and round, and people’s lives followed a set path marked mostly by church rituals (baptism, marriage, funerals).

And now we can place this difference on a timeline that gives us a deeper understanding of how people lived and thought between and around the years 791 and 991 when compared to two hundred years ago or today. We may also ponder the advantages of living in an era when time as we know it is not even a concept, especially as we rush out the door to make it on time to work or to our daughter’s soccer practice.

Now when you learn about history, I encourage you to pay close attention to dates and place them along your own mental timeline of other historical dates that you know. I guarantee that a richer tapestry of history and the human experience will begin to emerge.

–Anthony Vaver, Local History Librarian

Suggested Reading:

* * *

Here are some years when important events took place in the history of Westborough. Can you name the event associated with each year? Click on the link for hints or to learn more.











* * *

Stop by the library to see the brand new exhibit, Selections from the Westborough Players’ Club Records, in the display case outside of the Westborough Center, or learn more about this organization in the online exhibit.

* * *

The Library of Congress has a great series of timelines that use primary source materials in its vast collection to illustrate the movement of history in the United States. The U.S. History Primary Source Timeline starts with colonial settlement in the 1600s and goes up to 1968 and the post-war era.

Generous text describes the period under consideration and is followed by a list of links that go to significant documents and historical materials that illustrate that time. It’s a great way to see, learn about, and understand the historical sweep of our nation.

Westborough Local History Pastimes – November 6, 2020

The colossal statue of Ramesses II, the Younger Memnon, on display in the British Museum – the possible inspiration for Shelley’s poem, “Ozymandias”

The Ravages of Nature and Time on Public Memory

“Ozymandias” (1818), by Percy Bysshe Shelley

I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

This sonnet by Percy Bysshe Shelley comes to mind whenever I read articles about the debates over public monuments.

The poem is about the fragility of history and the ravaging effect of time on public memory. Here, a monument that is supposed to serve as testament to the power of Ozymandias, “King of Kings,” has instead decayed to the point where it ironically demonstrates how fleeting and ultimately inconsequential political power is. The sands of time have literally wiped away the civilization over which Ozymandias ruled and were it not for his broken statue, both could have easily disappeared into the proverbial “dustbin of history” and no one would have known the difference.

History enters the picture at the beginning of the poem, and even its appearance creates a distancing effect. The narrator is relating a report from an anonymous traveler who comes “from an antique land.” This traveler serves as a kind of historian and commands the stage from the second line of the poem to the end. Yet the details that the traveler provides about the king are scant because so little evidence survives. In fact, almost all of the evidence the traveler presents is aesthetic in noting how well the sculptor captured Ozymandias’s “frown,” “wrinkled lip,” and “sneer of cold command.”

As readers, we are left to ponder how Ozymandias’s belief that memorializing his image in a massive, permanent monument will be a means of securing his unrivaled reputation forever, yet his decaying image now ironically proves the abstract principle that even the hardest stone is not impervious to the ultimate power of nature and time. Rather than creating awe, Ozymandias instead looks foolish for believing his power will ripple through time immemorial. His commanding words inscribed at the base of his statue now come across as pitiful.

Shelley’s poem raises profound existential questions about monuments and their ability to hold and promote history over time. But what are we to think about the problematic monuments, statues, and official images that occupy our public sphere today? What are we to do about the Westborough seal and its glorification of Eli Whitney’s cotton gin? While Shelley’s poem provides important context for any monument that was erected with the intention of permanence, it does not provide pragmatic guidance for whether or not to tolerate problematic historical markers no matter what, to place them in a new context, to relocate them to an out of the way place, or simply to allow nature and time to take its toll.

There are no easy answers to these questions, and I do not have the space to address the intricacies of each option in a newsletter such as this one (although I may address some of them over time in the future). Luckily, the Westborough Public Library has resources that can help us think more about these kinds of issues so that we can come to a better understanding of what it means to put up a monument and how it may take on additional meanings in a future that we may not be able to anticipate.

–Anthony Vaver, Local History Librarian

Suggested Reading:

This anthology has lots of thought-provoking essays by historians, museum professionals, and community leaders that address current concerns over controversial monuments and memorials. Many of the essays focus on Confederate monuments, but others reflect on Native American representations, how to listen and respond to communities and their views, and even how The Simpsons use satire to comment on heroes. If you are looking for an in-depth resource on this topic, this one is it!

Even history has a history. We often take for granted that history is a necessary component of the public sphere, but that has not always been the case. This book shows how public history grew out of new efforts by the U.S. federal government to collect and preserve natural and cultural resources in the nineteenth century, and how the interpretation of history eventually became an important component in those efforts in the 1920s and 1930s.

Recent controversies over problematic monuments and statues have clouded over the celebratory nature that such memorials can have in general. This practical book cites best practices for any consideration of a celebratory anniversary or milestone. The volume is appropriate not just for museums or historic sites, but also for churches, towns, libraries, arts organizations or any other group looking to celebrate past achievements.

If you are interested in the themes that appear in Shelley’s “Ozymandias,” then you might enjoy this book. Savoy both literally and figuratively explores the American geography and landscape and connects them to history, civilization, time, and memory. As she travels across the United States, Savoy reflects on people who inhabited the country in the past, her family and personal connections to the land, what it means to live with the memory of others.

* * *

Regular readers of my “Pastimes” newsletter know that one of the themes I have been interested in lately is nuance, complexity, and ambiguity. The Norman B. Leventhal Map & Education Center at the Boston Public Library continues to impress me with their imaginative exhibits involving maps and representational data, and their latest interactive, online exhibit (which originally was supposed to be a physical exhibit until the BPL was closed as a result of the pandemic) follows this theme.

Rather than have me describe the exhibit, though, I am going to quote from their newsletter:

With the arrival of the fall season, we are ever more aware of how our country is in a series of crises, on issues ranging from health and elections, to the ongoing struggles for racial and social justice. As an educational institution within a library we are concerned not only with how facts and data have been historically treated, but also how their modern-day use must be accompanied by transparency and clarity.

A central idea in our online exhibition Bending Lines: Maps and Data from Distortion to Deception is data justice—the recognition that data is an important factor in how people live, how they are governed, and how decisions get made that affect their lives. In the exhibition section Demystifying Data, we show how even when cartographers and designers aren’t deliberately trying to mislead their viewers, one must still be careful to recognize the biases and choices that lurk within data sets.




Online Exhibit: Selections from the Westborough Players’ Club Records

The Westborough Players’ Club officially started in 1937 and was active on the stage for eighty years, up until its last staged production in 2017. The Westborough Public Library owns the club’s records from 1937 to 1981, which are compiled into three scrapbooks and includes playbills, newspaper clippings, ticket stubs, and photographs.

This short exhibit highlights three significant productions staged by the Westborough Players’ Club during the first half of its existence: The Late Christopher Bean, The Crucible, and Hello Dolly!.

The First Production: The Late Christopher Bean

The very first play presented by the Westborough Players’ Club was The Late Christopher Bean, a three-act comedy by Sidney Howard, on Monday, October 18, 1937 at Town Hall.

The action of the play takes place in a small town outside of Boston and centers on the Haggett family after they learn that several canvases they own by the late, acclaimed artist Christopher Bean have greatly increased in value. Only Abby, the family servant who owns the most valuable work, is able to resist the corrupting effect of this new knowledge about the artworks, and the play ends when she is revealed to have secretly been Bean’s wife.

Anniversary Production: The Crucible

As part of the 250th anniversary celebration of the founding of Westborough and to mark the 30th anniversary of the founding of their club, the Westborough Players’ Club staged The Crucible by Arthur Miller on May 26 and 27, 1967 at the High School Auditorium.

The play chronicles the Salem Witch Trials and was an appropriate choice for the occasion, given that one of the characters in the play is Rebecca Nurse, whose family in real life moved to Westborough after her execution in Salem for supposedly practicing witchcraft.

Blockbuster Production: Hello Dolly!

On April 22, 23, and 24, 1971, the Westborough Players’ Club presented Hello Dolly! at the Junior High School on Fisher St. The production was a mammoth undertaking and involved 18 speaking roles, a song-and-dance chorus of 35, a large production staff, and a live nine-piece orchestra.

The musical takes place in Yonkers, NY and is about a matchmaker who lands her own husband after successfully uniting a small group of younger couples who at first seemed hopeless in their ability to find love. After staging this production, the club subsequently presented a string of musicals throughout the early 1970s, including South Pacific, Oklahoma, and Brigadoon.