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.

Timelines

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.

1704

1717

1774

1776

1849

1901

1908

1953

2017

 

* * *

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.

Westborough Local History Pastimes – October 16, 2020

Marcel Proust, 1895

Memory, Identity, and History

In the opening to Marcel Proust’s epic novel, À la recherche du temps perdu (variously translated from the French as In Search of Lost Time or Remembrance of Things Past), the narrator reflects on those times when we lie half-asleep in bed and inhabit a world that seamlessly flows in and between dreams, memory, and our waking identity. During these moments, we lose track of who we are. What is dream and what is reality? Are the memories that pass through our head real, what is our present self, and is there a difference between the two?

We are who we are as individuals because we have memories that are unique to ourselves. Memory anchors us to our past. Without it, how do we know who we are? We only overcome those moments of indecision about who we are, those moments that Proust describes, after we slowly piece back together in our heads the primary narrative of our past that we use to formulate both our present identity and our sense of who we are. Once morning arrives, we get out of bed, start our day, and continue to add to the narrative of our life.

In similar ways, memory is central to our notions and practice of history. History is the cumulation of narratives that we tell ourselves in order to help us better understand who we are as a people. This cultural memory helps us to explain why we as a people do some of the things that we do, believe some of the things we believe, and got to be who we are.

But as central as memory is to shaping who we are as individuals and who we are as a society, we also know that memory can be faulty. As individuals, we sometimes remember events as we want to remember them, not as they truly happened. We even forget large portions of our lives entirely on a regular basis. We forget because many moments of our life are so seemingly mundane that they would take up too much brain space to make remembering them worthwhile. At other times we forget because some events are too traumatic or simply unpleasant to revisit, and in these cases, such forgetting can happen either willfully or unconsciously.

We often distort memories or suppress them because their reality does not neatly fit into the primary narrative of our past. Better to sacrifice the individual memory than to upend entirely the narrative that we have been piecing together in our head throughout our life. Of course, such distortions draw into question the validity of our own personal narrative, and when that narrative is corrupted by so much distortion that it impedes us from functioning in reality, many of us go into therapy in an attempt to rewrite it.

Faulty memory also happens in history. Sometimes we discover evidence that had been hidden away or went unnoticed for whatever reason. But like our individual memory, we are always “forgetting” elements of lived experience when we write history. We highlight certain facts and suppress others in order to create a more coherent narrative. And like our individual memory, sometimes these forms of “forgetting” are willful while others are unconsciously carried out.

When the distortion we use to uphold the history that we tell ourselves becomes too great in the face of contradictory evidence or competing narratives that can better accommodate known evidence, such historical narratives drift more and more into myth. Myths can still tell us a lot about ourselves both as individuals and as a society, but such stories have also lost their grounding in truth and consequently their grounding in history.

After I drafted the above reflections, I saw an article in the New York Times on September 29 about a group of historians calling to make “More History.” The idea is to fill in more details in our histories, details that have either been forgotten or ignored, so that we can tell a fuller story about ourselves than we have in the past. History, like much else in our society lately, has become politicized and is used to divide us. Maybe now is the time to engage in some historical therapy, to recover some of the gaps in the national narrative that we tell ourselves, so that we can create a better, fuller, and less divided understanding of who we are and how we got here.

–Anthony Vaver, Local History Librarian

Suggested Reading:

And see below for some ways to add “More History” to our understanding of Westborough.

* * *

Rev. Ebenezer Parkman, Diary, September 5-7, 1774
(American Antiquarian Society)

The Ebenezer Parkman Project – Every time I read sections of Rev. Ebenezer Parkman’s diary, I learn something new and profound about Westborough’s colonial history. Parkman scholar and professor Ross W. Beales, Jr. has compiled a list of all the instances when Africans and African-Americans appear in Parkman’s diary (PDF link). Surprisingly, his list is eleven pages long and its contents raise questions about our common notions about New England and its participation and role in the practices of slavery.

* * *

The Westborough Chronotype office and printing press

Another rich source for discovering hidden or forgotten aspects of Westborough history is our deep archive of historical newspapers, which go back to 1849. The archive is freely available online, so pull up an early issue or two and be prepared to be transported to another place and time.

* * *

American Memory was an early Library of Congress digitization program, but the library has recently migrated all of these early collections into their centralized list of all digitized collections. The breadth and depth of content is breathtaking, and there is sure to be some topic that will catch your eye and lead you down into a rabbit hole of strange yet familiar history.

Illustration by John Tenniel from Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” 1865

Westborough Local History Pastimes – September 18, 2020

Nuance, Complexity, and Ambiguity

History often teaches us to embrace ambiguity, to understand there aren’t simple answers to complex questions, and Americans tend to like simple answers to complex questions. So the challenge is to use history to help the public feel comfortable with nuance and complexity.

Lonnie Bunch, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, New York Times interview

As we have been moving out of the Industrial Age and into the Digital Age over the last few decades, both our educational system and our society has placed more and more emphasis on STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Medicine). By their nature, these fields seek and require black and white answers to our questions, and as computers rule more aspects of our daily lives, the very underpinning of our culture keeps moving towards being governed by a binary system of ones and zeroes.

This STEM emphasis, however, has often come at the expense of “softer” fields like the humanities, arts, and social sciences, which often require zeroes, ones, and twos (if not threes, fours and fives).

As we have progressively transformed our life and culture into digital surrogates and have pursued mastery over nature and our environment through science, I ask: have we been losing our ability to ask complex questions, to hold several answers to the same question in our minds at the same time, to see the world through multiple lenses, and to compromise when situations require it?

One or two humanities classes in a liberal arts curriculum is not enough to develop the complex skills needed to perform these feats of mental and social dexterity, so the hope is that we continue to pursue them in our adult lives. It is difficult if not impossible to pursue these ends by ourselves, so our society has created cultural institutions, such as libraries and museums, to help us out.

As both a librarian and a cultural historian, part of my role, as Lonnie Bunch indicates above, is to help people become comfortable with nuance, complexity, and ambiguity. Below are some suggested activities to help you exercise some of your cultural muscles and think about the world in new and exciting ways.

–Anthony Vaver, Local History Librarian

* * *

View First Day of School Photos Submitted to the Westborough ArchiveThe WPL’s Kids’ Department and the Westborough Center has teamed up to collect First Day of School Photos during the start of this unusual school year, and many are available now in the Westborough Digital Repository. There is still time to submit your child’s photo and tell us about your experiences on this important day.

* * *

I don’t need to tell you that the season of politics is upon us. Even though many colleges and universities have “Political Science” programs, politics in the end is more of an art than a science—the 2016 surprise election certainly taught us that! No politician is going to make all of your views about how our government should be run happen, as much as that person may try to convince you otherwise or use media outlets to try to bring you into a single line of thinking. The art of politics comes in when trying to decide which politician represents your interests more, but can still get elected through building a coalition of other people with views different from your own. Ask for and expect too much, and you may end up with nothing. In many ways, the current gridlock in the federal government comes from expectations and promises that we should be unsatisfied with not getting everything we want.

The time to make your artful decision is near. The Westborough Center is partnering with the Westborough Town Clerk to celebrate National Voter Registration Day on Tuesday, Sept. 22 and to encourage all U.S. citizens to vote. Make sure you can enact your civic responsibility: Register to Vote (or Confirm Your Voter Registration). Registering takes only a few minutes to complete, so do it today!

Suggested reading:

* * *

Phyllis Shafly demonstrating against the Equal Rights Amendment, February 4, 1977. (Library of Congress)

On Tuesday, the Westborough Center and the Westborough Historical Society co-sponsored a talk by Barbara Berenson on Women’s Rights after the 19th Amendment,” and you can view it now on Westborough TV. People who attended the talk agree that it was entertaining and informative—and as an added bonus, if you stay until the end you can see Kris Allen in her Woman’s Suffrage outfit ask a question!

Berenson is author of Massachusetts in the Woman Suffrage Movement. Her talk discusses how women fared politically and legally once they finally won access to the ballot and connects the passage of the 19th Amendment to the struggles to pass the Equal Rights Amendment, which was first proposed in the 1920’s.

Westborough Local History Pastimes – September 1, 2020

“The great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it . . . History is literally present in all that we do.” –James Baldwin

My last Westborough Local History Pastimes newsletter appeared back in May. Since that time, I have been busy over the summer writing and speaking about the controversy surrounding our Town Seal, thinking about ways to improve the Westborough Center and its mission, and planning for the library’s reopening. Alas, even though the library is open to the public now, our “Quick Browsing Hours” limit library activity to 20 minutes per person, so we decided to keep the Westborough Center closed since working with in-house, archival materials often requires longer periods of time. 

But just because the physical center is closed does not mean that local history activities are not taking place, so I have decided to revive this newsletter as we head into the fall. As usual, I will use it to continue to discuss important issues of history and culture, highlight local history resources and cultural activities, and encourage residents to use this knowledge to think about and discuss what we want Westborough to be in the future.

This fall will prove to be historically momentous. We have a consequential national election in November that will determine the direction of our country for years to come. We will be discussing the fate of our Town Seal at our fall Town Meeting, although wrapped up in this discussion will be the far more important question of what we think should define and embody the spirit of our town. And we will be holding our breaths as we continue to explore how much “normalcy” we can bring back to our lives in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic as we head into colder weather and more enclosed spaces. 

I have come to realize how crucial history and culture is to understanding and making smart decisions about these events, so I will be using future issues of this newsletter as a forum for learning more about how culture and the practice of history works, why the humanities are so important to our lives, and what the words of James Baldwin that open this newsletter really mean.

–Anthony Vaver, Local History Librarian

* * *

  • Register to Vote (or Confirm Your Voter Registration) – Voting is a civic responsibility, because democracy does not work without your participation. The Westborough Center is partnering with the Westborough Town Clerk to celebrate National Voter Registration Day on Tuesday, Sept. 22.

If you are not registered to vote, or want to make sure that you are, click on the link above and follow the instructions. It will take only a few minutes to complete, but this short task will ensure that you have the ability to help determine the future direction of our society.

* * *

* * *

  • Last month marked the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment, which guaranteed the right of women to participate in elections. To commemorate this important event, the Westborough Center and the Westborough Historical Society are sponsoring a talk by Barbara Berenson on “Women’s Rights after the 19th Amendment.” The talk will take place on Tuesday, September 15, 7:00 p.m. as a Zoom Event so pre-registration is required so that we can send you a link to view the event the day before. 

Berenson is author of Massachusetts in the Woman Suffrage Movement and will discuss how women fared politically and legally once they finally won access to the ballot. She will begin with the controversies surrounding the Equal Rights Amendment when it was first proposed in the 1920’s and will review key successes and setbacks for women’s rights through the present.

And if you want to learn more about how the issue of allowing women the right to vote was debated in Westborough, visit the Westborough Center’s “The Fight for Women’s Suffrage in Westborough: An Online Exhibit.”

 

The Westborough Public Library Celebrates Women’s Equality Day!

August 26, 2020 marks the 100th anniversary of the certification of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which gave women the right to vote nationally in elections. In 1973, the U.S. Congress designated August 26 as Women’s Equality Day both to commemorate the passage of the 19th Amendment and to draw attention to the work that still needs to be done to reach full equality for women.

Learn more about Westborough and the Women’s Suffrage Movement in the online exhibit, “The Fight for Women’s Suffrage in Westborough.”

Also add to your calendar a talk by Barbara Berenson on “Women’s Rights after the 19th Amendment” on Tuesday, September 15 at 7:00 p.m. Berenson is the author of Massachusetts in the Woman Suffrage Movement and other books. The program will be a Zoom event, so advanced registration is required. This special program is co-sponsored by the Westborough Center for History and Culture and the Westborough Historical Society.

Advertisement for the National Woman Suffrage Convention in Westborough, 1884.

Westborough History Connections: History and the Westborough Seal

As the Local History Librarian at the Westborough Public Library, I have recently received requests for information about the history of the Westborough town seal, given recent discussions about replacing it due to its depiction of Eli Whitney’s cotton gin. The controversy centers on the cotton gin’s role in making cotton production in the United States much more profitable, which consequently preserved and prolonged slavery throughout the American South right at a time when it was beginning to wane.

Beginning in 1899, every city and town in Massachusetts was required to have a seal after the General Court of Massachusetts passed Chapter 256, and town clerks were given the responsibility of maintaining their custody. Westborough’s first town seal began to appear on its Annual Town Report in 1913. The design is fairly generic, although to my modern eye it has an antique charm to it.

The original Westborough town seal as it appears on the 1913 Annual Town Report.

As part of the celebration of its 250th Anniversary in 1967, Westborough decided to change its town seal. According to the Commemorative Booklet for the celebration, art students from Westborough High School were invited to submit drawings for a new seal design. The Anniversary Committee ended up selecting four drawings to be used as a composite for the official seal: a sketch of the tower on Town Hall, an outline of a map of Westborough proclaiming it as the 100th town in Massachusetts, a “pie crust” edge around the seal, and a drawing of Eli Whitney’s cotton gin based on his patent.

The new Westborough seal design, as it appears on the 250th anniversary Commemorative Booklet.

The new seal appeared on the front cover of the Commemorative Booklet and was used to create a commemorative coin. On the reverse side of the booklet and the coin is another drawing by a high school art student depicting an “Indian lad in a deep forest setting.” The Westborough Center for History and Culture in the Westborough Public Library has one of the coins in its collection. (I am happy to show it to anyone who is interested once the library opens up again.)

The back cover of the 250th anniversary Commemorative Booklet.

Eli Whitney was born in Westborough in 1765 and left the town for good in 1789 to attend Yale College. He received a patent for his cotton gin in 1794. Cotton gins had been around before Whitney’s invention, most notably in India, which dominated the world’s cotton market well before the American South began producing and exporting cotton. But the particular strain of cotton that grew in the South had fibers that were tightly attached to its seeds, and the Indian cotton gins could not separate the two. 

Whitney never realized the profits he expected to gain from his invention. Instead of selling cotton gins directly to cotton growers, he and his partner decided to charge farmers to clean their cotton for them, much like grist mills charged to grind corn or wheat. The simplicity of his cotton gin design, however, made it easy to copy, so the two ended up using all of their profits to fight patent infringements and the company went bankrupt in 1797.

Whereas one person could clean about a pound of cotton a day, Whitney’s cotton gin increased cotton production by 4,900 percent. With great profits to be made, this increased production capacity prompted cotton growers in the American South to expand their operations and created increased demand for arable land in the West. Since these growers relied on slaves to cultivate and process their cotton, the institution of slavery greatly expanded as well, and slaves were required to work longer and harder to meet production capacities.

* * *

During the course of researching the history of the Westborough seal and the role of the 250th anniversary celebration in its creation, I came across some pretty offensive cultural content given today’s standards. I highly doubt that the people who produced the content intentionally meant to be offensive at the time, but the reaction that this content elicits today illustrates how attitudes change with historical perspective.

One of the events that was held as part of the anniversary celebration was a “Minstrel Show,” which as far as I can tell was basically a talent show. Judging by the character of other events held during the celebration and by pictures I came across of people dressed up in 19th-century costume, the Anniversary Committee probably selected “Minstrel” for the title of the talent show in order to sound“old timey.” A similar example of 19th-century inspired nostalgia, for example, was a beard and mustache growing contest. People got so into it that they held a ceremony to bury a few beard whiskers and three of the razors used in a “shaving of the beards” ritual. Later, the tombstone marking the burial site was stolen, which caused newspaper headlines. In selecting “Minstrel” for the title of their talent show, the Anniversary Committee members failed to take into account the racism that structures this specific form of entertainment. Subsequent historical scholarship on the history of minstrel shows would now make such an oversight neglectful.

I also came across a picture and article about the “Hoccomocco Indians” that appeared in the “Hoccomocco Herald” (the newsletter for the anniversary). A word of warning, some people may find elements of the article to be offensive and upsetting.

“Hoccomocco Indians” from The Hoccomocco Herald.

The use of Native American racist tropes (“pretty squaws,” “fierce braves,” “smoke signals,” and “scalps”) certainly jumps out, as well as the apparent need at the end of the article to draw intentional attention to the use of “color” as a pun, where it refers both to a common term used to designate behavior outside of the norm and to the tone of Native American skin, by putting it in quotation marks.

But also notable is the article’s perpetuation of colonialist attitudes and ideologies in its characterization of interactions between native people and European colonizers. European contact with people who lived in North America was inevitable, but such contact could be approached in one of two ways: as a meeting of two civilizations with the aim of sharing cultures, engaging in trade, and respectfully recognizing the sovereignty of the people who already inhabited the land; or as an act of conquest with the aim of exploiting both the people and land they encountered. The Europeans landing in North America decided to go with the latter option. (Note that when it came to exploring and meeting civilizations in Asia, these same countries generally went with the former option. See the Westborough Connections series on Westborough-India for more on the reasons why such a difference existed). As a means of justifying their conquest of North America, Europeans ideologically flipped the combative relationship between the two civilizations on its head, and the 1967 article continues to reproduce such an ideology by positioning the Native Americans as the (potential) aggressors and “the white man” as innocent victims. (Did you also catch the reference to the beard contest in the first paragraph?)

What is clear in the article is that the people involved in making the costumes believe that they are honoring Native Americans and their culture through careful research and design of their clothing. Unfortunately, there is no mention one way or another of the group reaching out to or involving Native Americans in their efforts. But if they had done so, it is possible that they would have found a more sensitive way to honor the first inhabitants of where we live now.

History never fossilizes. Our picture of the past is always shaped by our evolving perspectives over time. As we move further away from an event, we are better able to see the ideologies—both good and bad–that unconsciously informed the actions and thoughts of people living during that particular time. The irony is that the further we move away from a historical moment–both in time and in ideology–the better our position is to understand the social, economic, and cultural processes that were at play. Current events swirl around us, and we make the best decisions we can at the moment they happen given the circumstances, but we can only come to a true understanding of what that moment means through time and distance.

I hope that the Westborough Center for History and Culture is a place where we can explore these difficult issues in a non-threatening way based on the historical materials and resources available to us. That’s hard to do. The people who put the cotton gin on our seal, or called a talent show a minstrel show, or dressed up in Native American costume and wrote about it were not bad people. They simply did not have the historical tools that now inform our standards today to see the implications of their actions–in the same way that we today do not have the proper historical tools at our disposal to see how future generations will judge us. Others may disagree with my assertion here and believe that these people in the past should have known better. Still others may believe that what was good for people living in the past should be good for us living today. I welcome the dialog.

Respectfully respond in the Comments, drop me an e-mail, or stop by the Westborough Center to chat when I am around once the library reopens. I promise that if you do, I will give your ideas respectful consideration and will provide a safe space to explore them together.

 

 

Westborough Local History Pastimes – June 24, 2020

Even though the Westborough Public Library is not yet open to the public, librarians are back in the building catching up on collection processing and preparing the building for when we can open our doors again.

As part of these efforts, I have been working on a “special enhancement” to the new exhibit space in the Westborough Center that is going to significantly improve our ability to share information about Westborough’s history and culture. (I am going to keep it a secret to create some suspense for our reopening and to use it as an incentive for you to stop by when we do). I have also been busy adding the first batch of photographs to the new Photographer-in-Residence Program Photographs collection in the Westborough Digital Repository.

And every summer, I evaluate the activities of the  Westborough Center and come up with ideas to try to improve what we are doing. I am in the process of carrying out such an evaluation now, and I am excited about some of my initial ideas to make the Westborough Center an even better place for exploration, creativity, and celebration of Westborough history and culture.

I can’t wait to see you in person once again and hope that you will stop in the Westborough Center to check it out once we reopen. And if you have any ideas for what you would like to do or see happen at the Westborough Center, send me an e-mail!

–Anthony Vaver, Local History Librarian, avaver@cwmars.org

 

* * *

  • Photographer-in-Residence Program Photographs – The photographs of the 2018-2019 Photographer-in-Residence, Brandin Tumeinski, are now available in the Digital Repository. Once the library opens up again, stop by the Westborough Center to see an enhanced exhibit of his work.

* * *

Library Director Maureen Ambrosino (in case you couldn’t tell) with Holly.
  • Continue Submitting Your Face Mask Selfies – I know, you are are probably tired of me asking, but the contributions so far have been so great and say so much about who we are during these strange times that I can’t help it. Become a part of history and submit your photo! Future residents of Westborough will thank you. (Just click on the link and select “Face Mask Selfie” from the drop down menu to submit yours.)

* * *

  • Bending Lines: Maps and Data from Distortion to Deception (online exhibit at the Norman B. Leventhal Map & Education Center at the Boston Public Library) – We tend to attribute notions of trust and authority to the maps we use, but they are just as prone to distortion as any other form of representation. I love the work of the Leventhal Map Center, and their latest online exhibit addresses the gap between physical reality and how maps and other forms of visual data represent that reality. Let’s hope we can see the physical version soon!

Westborough Local History Pastimes – For the Week of May 25, 2020

Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote,
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan Zephirus eek with his swete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halve cours yronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open ye,
(So priketh hem nature in hir corages);
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes,
To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;
And specially, from every shires ende
Of Engelond, to Caunterbury they wende,
The hooly blisful martir for to seke,
That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke.

–Geoffrey Chaucer, opening lines of the Prologue
to The Canterbury Tales, 1387

Geoffrey Chaucer

I started the Pastimes newsletter back in March in response to the closing of our library during the coronavirus pandemic. In that first issue I featured Boccaccio’s The Decameron, which is a collection of 100 tales that are all framed by the story of a group of ten nobles who each agree to tell a story a day during the ten days while they are quarantined in the countryside avoiding the Black Death.

Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales is often discussed along with Boccaccio’s work because its collection of stories are also joined together by a frame tale: a group of religious pilgrims find themselves traveling together to Canterbury, England and each one agrees to tell a total of four stories to entertain each other along the way. But what also unites these two works is the specter of the plague. Chaucer’s pilgrims are traveling to visit the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral after praying for his help during the spread of the Black Death. So while The Decameron starts near the beginning of the plague, The Canterbury Tales begins at its end.

Unlike Chaucer’s pilgrims, we may have missed out on enjoying our April (and most of May), but now that we share with the travelers the emergence of spring and the beginning phases for ending our quarantine we should join them by getting outside and making some of our own “pilgrimages” around town (see the entries below for ideas)–and, if you were an English major in college and were required to memorize the opening lines to The Canterbury Tales as I was, recite some Chaucer along the way. 

–Anthony Vaver, Local History Librarian

* * *

* * *

  • Make a “Pilgrimage” to the Burial Site of Our Town’s First MinisterRev. Ebenezer Parkman is buried in Memorial Cemetery on West Main Street (between the Forbes Municipal Building and Westborough TV), and his gravesite is so elaborate in comparison to the others that you will easily find it. 

Once you also finish wandering among the gravestones of other Westborough residents who lived during Parkman’s time, walk down the street to the Congregational Church, and, if you are lucky enough to find it open, visit the Parkman Memorial Chapel. The chapel has the same dimensions as Westborough’s original meeting house, and in it you can see Parkman’s Bible and stand behind the pulpit from which he gave his sermons.

* * *

Blue Jay from Birds of New England and Adjacent States, 1870
  • Celebrate Along with the Birds the Arrival of Springtime and Our New Limited Freedoms – Chaucer describes spring as a time when smale foweles maken melodye,” so let’s pay attention and enjoy their songs. The New York Times has a nice set of seven tips to help those of us who have never engaged in formal birdwatching to become more attuned to the lives of birds. I, for one, plan to use it while sitting out on my back deck as the weather continues to warm up.