Westborough Local History Pastimes – December 18, 2020

Cathedrale Saint Jean Lyon Astronomical clock dial B


As I contemplate some of the central themes of local history, I have been thinking a lot about time. After all, if we do not have time, we do not have history. So I decided to step out of my usual humanities comfort zone to see what physics can teach me about time by reading two books by Carlo Rovelli, Seven Brief Lessons on Physics and The Order of Time.

We normally think that time has a singular, uniform progression that everyone experiences together in the same way and that this flow of time has a past, present, and future. Rovelli upends these common notions about time, and in doing so, he raises interesting questions about the practice of history.

Time itself slows down whenever we travel or whenever we are close to a large mass. So if one twin likes to walk and the other prefers to sit around and watch television, the walker will age more slowly than sedentary one (and we’re not talking about health here). Likewise, if one twin lives on the beach along the ocean and the other on top of a mountain, the beachcomber who lives closer to the earth will age less than the one living up in the thinner air. Indeed, even a clock placed on the floor runs more slowly than one sitting on a table just above it. But since we all live together on earth (which forms a relatively closed system) the time differences we experience between those who travel and those who live closer to sea level are imperceptible, although the differences exist nonetheless.

History is the study of change and its effect on human beings over time. But it turns out that change goes further than that, because, to quote Rovelli, “the world is nothing but change.” He goes on: “the world is a network of events,” and “The entire evolution of science would suggest that the best grammar for thinking about the world is that of change, not of permanence. Not of being, but of becoming.” Time moves forward, but it does so chaotically, diffused, and scattered. Rocks and their solidity make them our prototypical idea of a thing, but in reality, a rock is simply a long event, “a complex vibration of quantum fields, a momentary interaction of forces, a process that for a brief moment manages to keep its shape, hold itself in equilibrium before disintegrating again into dust.”

What do these insights have to do with history? I think there are many, and some are quite complicated, but I am quickly going to give a few a shot here. Many of them come down to how we think about, talk about, and metaphorically conceptualize time.

Even though I argued in a previous newsletter about the value of paying attention to timelines, we must also not fall into the trap of thinking that history is nothing more than a list of things that occurred at particular moments. They are actually events and processes that interact with one another, and this network is necessarily chaotic, diffused, and scattered. Timelines give us the impression that history follows an orderly path, but like our common perception of time, this impression is false.

Likewise, much like time, the events we experience or study are always contextual. Many people in the Middle Ages believed that the earth was flat, but what does it mean when a person living today continues to believe this verifiably false notion? Can this person be said to be living in a different time—if not literally then perhaps metaphorically? Our experience of time is unique to ourselves, because we ultimately form our own closed system, but that also separates me from you and from everyone else. Yet we also move forward in time relative to each other, because we also inhabit larger closed systems. We experience and talk about history in similar ways, which at times makes historical debate so heated, yet also so interesting.

And finally, if we are not surrounded by things but by events, what does that say about the historical records sitting in the Westborough Center? Rovelli points out, “the past leaves traces of itself in the present”; Westborough’s historical records and other traces of the past allow us to practice history. But they also constitute events, and as much as I try to slow down their process of decay so that we they can continue to serve as testimonials to actions of the past, they are inevitably moving towards their final end. But the fact that they are implicated in this inevitable process gives these records their power: because they are actual events in and of themselves, we are literally time traveling and experiencing an event of the past as it is happening right in front of us whenever we take these records out to look at them.

–Anthony Vaver, Local History Librarian

Suggested Reading:

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Looking for a last-minute gift this season for anyone who loves Westborough? Consider Phil Kittredge’s brand-new book, Westborough, part of the Images of America series.

For many years, Westborough has inexplicably been an outlier in not having a representative book in this series, despite enthusiastic interest in our town’s deep and rich history by residents. But now Westborough can boast two books from this series with the publication of Katherine Anderson’s Westborough State Hospital last year. In fact, why not buy both and give them as a matched set?

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Saturn, top, and Jupiter, below, are seen after sunset from Shenandoah National Park, Sunday, Dec. 13, 2020, in Luray, Virginia.

Time and its cousin, light, are central elements of our holiday season.

The fact that we celebrate some of our most significant holidays during the darkest time of the year is no accident. As the lack of sunlight and the cold slow down our activities, we have more time to reflect on the past year and look forward to the next one. Our rituals tied to these holidays allow us to remember all the other times that we engaged in similar activities, and this repetition also helps us to mark time by seeing how each celebration in the past was different in its own unique way. Themes of light and renewal appear in our holiday iconography (menorahs, the Star of Bethlehem, the Diwali festival, Christmas trees, holly, the ball drop in New York City’s Times Square on New Year’s Eve, etc.), and they work to counteract the darkness and remind us that longer days and greener times lie ahead.

But this year we have yet another event involving time, light, and history worth celebrating as two planets, Jupiter and Saturn, align in a rare celestial event.

On Monday, December 21, look southwest into the sky right after sunset and you will see what looks to be an incredibly large planet when Jupiter and Saturn will appear to sit on top of one another. The last time people were able to see such an alignment of two planets was back in 1226 during the Middle Ages. Even more, the alignment this year is taking place on the Winter Solstice, the longest night of the year, which means that we will begin to experience more and more daylight going forward. You can read more about this once-in-a-lifetime event and get tips on how best to see it on NASA’s website: https://www.nasa.gov/feature/the-great-conjunction-of-jupiter-and-saturn.

I don’t know if the people in the Middle Ages took the planetary alignment as a special sign of divine providence, but after the year we have just experienced, I’ll take anything. So let’s hope for a clear night, step outside, and celebrate the possibility that this alignment signals our world finally getting back in order in the upcoming year!



Westborough Local History Pastimes – December 4, 2020

Hairstyle 1860-1865 (Photograph of Clara Louise Kellogg taken by Mathew Brady, National Archives and Records Administration)
Hairstyle, ca. 1934 (Exhibit Committee of Hairdressers – 1934, Library of Congress)


My family consists of a wife and two daughters, so I am more fashion-conscious than I would like to be. On any normal day, I am exposed to conversations about which stores have the best clothes, whether or not it is time to shake up a hair or clothing style, and if it is okay to wear a jeans jacket with jeans if they are both blue (the strong consensus is not!). And I have been subjected to seemingly endless episodes of Project Runway, What Not to Wear, and Queer Eye during family TV time.

If I had my druthers, I would probably end up dressing every day in a t-shirt picked up in a brewpub or an old sweatshirt from my college days. But I feel the pressure to up my fashion game at least a little when I am out with my family so that people don’t look at us and think, “Wow, those three women look great, but why are they hanging out with that slob?”

But when I reflect on how fashion changes over time and consequently has a history, now I’m interested! Theoretically, fashion is supposedly an expression of individuality, yet it ironically follows a collective pattern that changes over time and forms what we call fashion trends. Nowadays, we tend to categorize fashion trends by decades: we can all recognize the hippie styles of the ‘60’s, the bell-bottomed pants and wild prints of the ‘70’s, the broad shoulder pads of the ‘80’s, . . . need I go on?

And even when “decade fashions” cycle back and are in vogue again, stylistic differences tied to the present tend to dominate. When the ‘90’s look came back in fashion a few years ago I pulled out my old Eddie Bauer flannel shirt that I keep in my closet out of nostalgia for my grunge days and thought I’d give it a try. But immediately after putting it on, it went right back in the closet because it was so oversized that I would have looked ridiculous wearing it, even though it was authentically retro. Apparently, saving that outfit for when it comes back in fashion just doesn’t work.

Fashion connects to our daily habits, which becomes more apparent as we go back in time. Today we chuckle at how everyone used to dress up whenever they made a trip into town to go shopping. Such a practice wasn’t just confined to cities; it was prevalent even here in Westborough! We marvel at the hoop skirts that women commonly wore in the nineteenth century—and think about the effort needed simply to fit into them, let alone the widened hallways in period hotels to accommodate their width. And we begin to sweat while just imagining soldiers from the American Civil War having to march in their heavy wool uniforms in the Southern summer heat. The sacrifices we make for fashion!

I recently attended a Zoom seminar on how to date historic photographs when they do not have a date or caption (although, as we learned, captions can be notoriously wrong). Given my discussion above, it will come as no surprise that fashion is one of the clues we can use to assign a date to a photograph. Sears catalogs, it turns out, can be especially useful for dating twentieth-century photographs since so many people relied on them to obtain everyday items, including clothing (see below for access information).

Do you have any family photographs that need dating or more identification? I have recently added several books to the Westborough Center’s circulating collection on how to use fashion and hair styles to date and identify photographs to help you out (see the list below). So even if we need to curtail family gatherings as a result of the pandemic this holiday season, maybe now is the time to “visit” some old family members through their photographs, do some detective work, and take an historical look at fashions past—and extra credit goes to anyone who can reproduce any of the elaborate hairstyles depicted in the books!

–Anthony Vaver, Local History Librarian

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Photographs have a better chance of being dated and identified if you first make a list of clues that follow the “Who? What? Where? When? and Why?” in the image. Here are some more specific questions to ask:

  • Who is in the photograph?
  • Who owned the photograph?
  • What is happening in the photograph?
  • Where was the photograph taken?
  • When was the photograph taken?
  • Who was the photographer? If the photograph was taken professionally, when and where did the person who took it generally work?
  • Why was the photograph taken? Why did the people pose in the way that they do?
  • Why did your family member have this photograph in his or her collection?
  • Why do you have the photograph in your collection?
  • What kind of technology was used to create the photograph and when was it commonly used?

Answers to the above questions can help guide further research via family stories, genealogical research, or family networks.

Here are some newly added books in the Westborough Center’s circulating collection that can also help you out:

Of course, one way to avoid this problem in the future is to add dates and labels to your current family photographs, which we generally do not do because we already know who is in the photograph and roughly when it was taken. But future family members, we have to remember, will not have the knowledge that we do!

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Does dating your family’s historical photographs inspire you to dig deeper into your family’s history? Do you have a hunch about who might be in your family photograph, but need more supporting information?

The Westborough Public Library has some great online genealogical resources, and they are free to use! Here is a guide to our Online Genealogical Resources.

All of the listed online resources can be accessed from your home with a library card except for the Ancestry Library Edition, which can only be accessed while you are in the library. Note that the Ancestry Library Edition database also includes digitized copies of Sears, Roebuck, and Co. catalogs, from 1896-1993.

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If you missed the article on the Westborough Center for History and Culture in the Community Advocate last week, you can read it here.

The article nicely summarizes the vision and goals that I have for the Westborough Center. If you have a question about Westborough and its history or an idea about enriching the culture of our town that you want to pursue, the Westborough Center is here to assist you. Feel free to e-mail me at avaver@cwmars.org.

AAS Program: “Before COVID: Illness in Everyday Life in Early New England”

The American Antiquarian Society is holding a virtual program tonight (12/2/20) at 8:00 p.m. that promises to highlight Westborough’s first minister, Rev. Ebenezer Parkman.

The program is titled, “Before COVID: Illness in Everyday Life in Early New England,” and will feature Ben Mutschler, author of The Province of Affliction: Illness and the Making of Early New England, in conversation with Ashley Cataldo, Curator of Manuscripts at the American Antiquarian Society. Mutschler relied on Parkman’s diary and the Westborough Public Library’s Ebenezer Parkman Project website while researching his book. The program is free, but requires advanced registration.  Click here for more information about the talk and to register for it.

Also be sure to check out a short video of Ashley Cataldo talking about Parkman’s diary to promote the program. It’s a chance to see how the American Antiquarian Society houses the Parkman diary and to follow along as Cataldo reads entries that discuss pandemics and illnesses from actual pages in the diary.