Westborough Center Pastimes – April 2, 2021

(Library of Congress)

To Be Human, Part II

In a past newsletter, I posed three questions that I believe we should periodically ask ourselves over the course of our lives.

This issue continues the list of activities I posted in my last issue that help answer the second question: How can we fully experience what it means to be human?

  • Learn to play a musical instrument. Okay, it turns out that Neanderthals also played musical instruments 60,000 years ago, but human beings have been playing music for most if not all of our history as well. Musical instruments often have steep learning curves, especially at the beginning, but once you get over the first hump and start producing more pleasant sounds, that achievement and each subsequent one gives you a chance to marvel at our human ability to learn and process something new. And if you can’t play an instrument, then sing. If you can’t sing, then dance (which also involves music and the body). And if you can’t dance, well, then, I can’t help you. Okay, then at least LISTEN to music and clap along.

Suggested Reading: How Music Works by David Byrne. The leader of the Talking Heads is not only a musician. He thinks deeply about music and life. This book will give you a whole new perspective on music, its history, and its important role in societies.

  • Learn to cook. We all have to eat, so why not work on perfecting what’s on your plate before you put in your mouth? We cook our food, as opposed to eating it raw, because doing so allows us to consume more easily the number of calories we need to feed our big, energy-consuming brains. And if you cook the food you have grown in your garden (see the first part of this list), then you are really getting to know what it is to be human.

Suggested Reading: Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat: Mastering the Elements of Good Cooking by Samin Nosrat. Nosrat argues that by mastering these four elements you can elevate your cooking and even confidently walk into a grocery store without a recipe and cook up something delicious. It sure worked for me!

  • Take a hike and connect with nature. Actually, there are lots of ways to convene with nature besides hiking. But as you walk through the woods or look up in the sky at night, gather your questions and then turn to science to see how our collective wisdom and intellectual perseverance has made it possible to provide answers. After all, science is ultimately our most accomplished method for solving deep questions about the world around us.

Suggested Reading: The Songs of Trees: Stories from Nature’s Great Connectors by David George Haskell. Haskell repeatedly visited a dozen trees around the world to examine how they are connected to their environment, even when that environment is dominated by people.

  • Engage in politics. Human beings are social animals, and we hold the ability to organize and change how we want to live together by instituting laws and social rules. Luckily, we in live in a democracy here in Westborough, so if we believe that the society in which we are living is not perfect, we can at least have our say about how it should be designed and try to persuade others to make change along with us. Such a luxury rarely comes around during the course of world history, so take advantage of our current system of government and get involved.

Suggested Reading: The Narrow Corridor: States, Societies, and the Fate of Liberty by Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson. The two authors delve into the nature of liberty and explain why so few people have ever experienced it over the course of history.

  • Teach. We as human beings have created civilization, and enjoy the physical comforts that we do, by effectively passing along the knowledge we accumulate to others. Beyond not having to start from scratch each time, the beneficiaries of our knowledge can then build upon what we have already learned and achieve even greater heights. You don’t have to become a formal teacher, but you can become more mindful about identifying your skills and passing them along to someone else. Such knowledge transfer can happen in the family, at work, among friends, in formal settings—practically anywhere. Be generous with your knowledge, because others were necessarily generous in sharing theirs with you.

Suggested Reading: The River of Consciousness by Oliver Sacks. In the chapter, “The Creative Self,” Sacks counterintuitively focuses on the value that imitation and mimicry essentially plays for creative people. Even more, the book itself is a self-reflection on Sack’s own reliance on, and dialogue with, his scientific and creative heroes from the past.

That’s my list. I admit, it’s by no means exhaustive. How did I come up with the items on it? Well, one of the ways was by strolling up and down the book aisles of the Westborough Public Library looking for human-based topics and activities. (By the way, did you know that the library recently reorganized its nonfiction section to make it easier to browse by subject? Stop by and check it out!) The lesson here is that libraries partly exist to help us in our quest to engage in activities that express our humanness. Museums are also great places to explore and experience our humanness.

Each activity that I list above and in my last newsletter offers many ways to approach and practice our humanness. We can plant various foods in our garden and cook all kinds of dishes and cuisines; practice religion and spirituality in lots of different ways; exercise our bodies through a variety of movements; and adopt different political models for organizing our societies. When these forms of human activity begin to form distinct patterns within a specific group of people, a culture emerges. Cultures, then, are different ways to express and practice our humanness, which is why I love exploring and learning about them. When we are attuned to the varieties of cultures in the world, we are better able to see the endless possibilities for fully feeling and experiencing what it means to be human.

Did I miss anything on my list? Share it in the comment section.

–Anthony Vaver, Local History Librarian

Finally, we will tackle my third and final question in the next issue: What is the meaning of life?

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In my last newsletter I showcased books in the Westborough Center Circulating Collection about the stone walls of New England. Here are a couple books to help you identify hiking trails where you may come across those stone walls (not that you need to look hard) and other historical features of our area of the world.

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Calling all chefs/foodies ages 6 to 10 & a parent/caregiver: Join our town’s historic farm for Veg Out @ Nourse Farm [Online Program], THURSDAY, APRIL 22 or FRIDAY, APRIL 23 , 3:30—4:30 PM.

The culinary crew from Veg Out @ Nourse Farm is offering a fun, interactive, and delicious food experience. They’ll explore the connection between food, nutrition, and eating through a food-themed story and a plant-based recipe.

Registration required (Thursday registration / Friday registration).  An ingredients list will be emailed the week before. The program will be the same on both days, so please only sign up for one of the two sessions.

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Did you enjoy reading this Westborough Local History Pastimes newsletter? Then subscribe by e-mail and have the newsletter and other notices from the Westborough Center for History and Culture at the Westborough Public Library delivered directly to your e-mail inbox: https://www.westboroughcenter.org/subscribe-to-updates/.

 

Westborough Center Pastimes – March 19, 2021

(Library of Congress)

To Be Human

In a past newsletter, I posed three questions that I believe we should ask ourselves throughout the course of our lives. In this issue, I am going to address the second of the three questions: How can we fully experience what it means to be human?

Human beings are amazing creatures. We are clever and resourceful. We are so social that we are cultural. We alone are able to debate the extent to which we are different from other animals. And within a short period of time we have learned how to control and manipulate our environment to such a degree that we now have the ability to wipe out our very existence from the face of the planet, and in a variety of ways, no less.

Human beings are incredibly special, so it makes sense that we want to engage in activities at which we happen to excel. To do so, as I briefly argued in my last newsletter, is a crucial component to living a Good Life. Here is a list of activities that, for the most part, are special to humans, and by engaging in them, I would argue, allow us to feel and enjoy our humanness.

  • Engage in literacy. Of course a librarian would start with this one! Human beings learned to write 5,500 years ago and communicated through speech well before then. The ability to read and write is a major driver of civilization, because it allows us to store and pass along complex thoughts and ideas more easily through time and space. So write a short story, compose your memoirs, or at least pick up a book, or a magazine, or a newspaper, or a website, and read!

Suggested Reading: Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer by Roy Peter Clark. Every good writer always looks for ways to improve. Clark offers practical advice that every writer can use in a non-threatening tone.

  • Exercise. When I learned years ago that our bodies were specially designed to run long distances, so that we could hunt down our prey by chasing it until it became exhausted, I decided to get back into running. After all, I figured, we should do what we’re designed to do. Now that I am creeping up in age, I no longer run, but I still go to the gym, which also has a long history that traces back at least to the Greeks (in fact, the word “gymnasium” itself derives from Greek).

Suggested Reading: The First 20 Minutes: Surprising Science Reveals How We Can Exercise Better, Train Smarter, Live Better by Gretchen Reynolds. I always enjoy reading Reynolds’s fitness column in the New York Times. Here, she discusses best practices for a variety of fitness goals.

  • Get a dog. – The relationship between dogs and humans is special—few species interact and rely on each other to the degree that we do. In fact, our relationship is so special that I would argue that getting a dog is important to experiencing what it means to be human. I hear you, cat people! But cats aren’t nearly as interested in us as we are in them. But if cats work for you, then go for it (or goats, or pigs, or hamsters, or fish . . .)! After all, animals have a lot to teach us about what it means to be human.

Suggested Reading: The Well-Adjusted Dog: Dr. Dodman’s Seven Steps to Lifelong Health and Happiness for Your Best Friend by Nicholas H. Dodman. Dodman is a local dog expert and is Professor Emeritus at the Tufts veterinary school. In his book, he covers the art, and science, of dog ownership.

  • Explore spirituality and religions besides your own. Human beings are storytellers, and religions are full of stories that are heavily embedded with meaning and that ultimately are meant to teach us what it means to be human. I, for one, enjoy reading mythology (after all, they once formed the basis of a past civilization’s religion) but all religions can give us clues into helping us figure out what is important in our human world (and, perhaps, in the world above and beyond). And if religion isn’t your thing, try philosophy!

Suggested Reading: Living with the Gods: On Beliefs and Peoples by Neil MacGregor. The former director of the British Museum surveys the variety of ways that people across the globe have imagined their place in the cosmic universe and what happens when they conflict with one another.

  • Start a garden. For better and for worse, human beings began to engage in agriculture around 10,000 years ago. While agriculture theoretically helped us better control our food supply, it also tied us to the land, lengthened the amount of time and effort we had to put in to securing our food, and created some severe consequences for our global environment. But now it’s a crucial part of who we are, so why not try growing some of your own food? Don’t have a green thumb? At least patronize one of our local farms or farmer’s markets.

Suggested Reading: Kitchen Gardening for Beginners: A Simple Guide to Growing Fruit and Vegetables by Simon Akeryod. There are any number of books about growing your own food, and some even show you how to do so without a yard. This book covers the basics without overwhelming the beginning gardener.

  • Create art and/or engage in a craft. Humans are creative in many ways, especially when it comes to working with our hands. Our ability to create something that has the power to move us or simply tickle our fancy out of essentially nothing is joyful and awe-inspiring. Don’t worry if your first attempt looks like Homer Simpson’s spice rack. Your next attempt will be much better.

Suggested Reading: A Craftsman’s Legacy: Why Working with Our Hands Gives Us Meaning by Eric Gorges. I love watching this series on PBS. This book goes into more detail about Eric Gorges’s philosophy and the importance of craft.

Yikes! I’ve run out of room, and I’m only half-way through my list! I guess human beings are much too complex and interesting to cover in one newsletter. Stay tuned for my next issue where I continue my list.

In the meantime, do you want to take a guess about what will appear on my list next time? Share your guesses in the comment section.

–Anthony Vaver, Local History Librarian

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Another great way to experience our humanness is to be kind to one another!

Join Westborough Connects for Spring Kindness Week (3/21-3/27). They will be kicking off the week on Sunday, March 21st at 1 p.m. with a virtual presentation by the Ben’s Bells. This inspirational program will focus on the importance of (and science behind) intentional kindness, and the role kindness plays in connecting communities. It is intended for all ages.

HERE is a link to register for the program. For those registered, Take-and-Spread Kindness Toolkits will be available to “grab and go” after the presentation to help spread kindness the rest of the week. Each day, celebrate with a different themed activity with Partners in Kindness (several businesses and organizations in town) who will be spreading and recognizing kindness in a variety of ways.

You can keep up to date on Spring Kindness Week events on the Westborough Connects website, their Facebook page, or by signing up to be on the Westborough Connects mailing list.

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Now that the snow has melted for good (let’s hope!), a walk in the woods reveals like no other time of the year those mysterious stone walls that run throughout our New England countryside. Who put them there, and why? You can find answers to these questions and more in these books, which are available in the Westborough Center Circulating Collection outside the entrance to the Westborough Center inside the library.

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Why is there a sleigh weathervane on Town Hall? Zoom into the Westborough Historical Society’s free program, “William Sibley (1821-1890): Citizen, Soldier, Sleighmaker,” on Monday, March 29, at 7:00 p.m. to find the answer.

Jim O’Connor chronicles the life of William Sibley, a Westborough sleighmaker, at a time of national crisis and dissension. A respected citizen, Sibley joined Westborough’s Company K when he accepted President Lincoln’s call for volunteers after the attack on Ft. Sumter and the succession of the Southern states. Upon his return from war, he became one of the leading sleigh manufacturers in Westborough in the 1850s. William Sibley built the 1844 Greek Revival home at 13 Parkman St., including his sleigh shop. The Sibley House is now the headquarters of the Westborough Historical Society.

Attendance is limited to 100 and requires registering in advance for this meeting:

https://us02web.zoom.us/meeting/register/tZ0vcu6ppjgpH91gH7b73btEdvQIaAYzvR5b

After registering, you will receive a confirmation email containing a unique link to join the meeting.

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Did you enjoy reading this Westborough Local History Pastimes newsletter? Then subscribe by e-mail and have the newsletter and other notices from the Westborough Center for History and Culture at the Westborough Public Library delivered directly to your e-mail inbox: https://www.westboroughcenter.org/subscribe-to-updates/. The newsletter is published every first and third Friday of the month.

 

Westborough Local History Pastimes – March 5, 2021

The Good Life

Mr. Curmudgeon: The Good Life

In my last newsletter, I posed three questions that I believe we should ask ourselves throughout the course of our lives. In this issue, I am going to address the first of the three questions: What does it mean to live a good life?

Media and popular culture work hard to convince us that the answer to this question lies in the amount of money we have, the number of possessions we own, the relative quality of those possessions (the more luxurious, the better!), and the number of extravagant experiences we can accumulate. Examples abound. My Lottery Dream Home, Bahama Beachfront, and other house hunting shows (my latest television obsession) all portray people searching for the perfect home that will set them up with a “happy-ever-after” lifestyle. Commercials show people living satisfying lives after having purchased a given product. And Social Media Influencers make it their “job” to live fabulous lives by traveling to expensive resorts, wearing fancy clothes, and using luxury products—and then try to convince us to follow their lead and purchase the same.

It’s not a surprise. Our capitalist system relies on us buying into the notion that we should always be striving to accumulate more and better things. The problem is that such goals rarely lead to personal fulfillment. Actually, the system is designed in precisely these terms: if, in the end, we remain personally unsatisfied after our recent purchase, then the solution obviously must reside in our next purchase.

Similarly, we are conditioned to believe that advances in technology and industrial production have vastly improved the quality of our lives over time, but before we accept this belief wholesale, we must pause. If we are all spending one to two hours a day commuting back and forth to work to maintain this “improved” lifestyle, is that a good life? Studies of happiness have shown that there is a strong inverse relationship to the amount of time one commutes and one’s overall well-being. (One of the few positive outcomes from the current pandemic may be the realization that the hamster wheels we had been running on are not as desirable, or as necessary, as we once thought.)

In fact, before we settle in to the idea that our enjoyment of advanced civilization offsets the relative misery of our working lifestyle, consider the following. Small-scale tribal societies, who normally rank as “primitive” by our economic and technological standards, enjoyed much more leisure time, lower stress, and greater personal connections within their communities than we do. One study shows that a member of the Ju/’hoansi “Bushmen” tribe, who lived an isolated existence in Namibia and Botswana up until the late 20th century, spent a total of 17 hours per week searching for food and another 20 hours on chores, whereas average full-time employees in the U.S. now spend 44 hours per week on work before they even get to domestic chores and childcare. The Ju/’hoansi enjoyed far more time than we do to lounge, gossip, dance, sing, and tell stories. Their lifestyle sounds a lot like the one that my television house hunters are seeking!

The supposed superiority of our Western lifestyle takes another blow when we consider American colonial history, where we can easily find cases of individual European settlers deciding to abandon their settlements and live instead with Native people. On the other hand, the opposite—Native people freely deciding to abandon their tribe and live among Europeans—is extremely rare in the historical record. Westborough’s story of the abduction of the Rice Boys in 1704 offers one case in point, with Silas and Timothy Rice preferring to stay with the tribe that abducted them rather than return to Westborough with their father when he finally located them.

Other people may find answers to living the good life simply in accumulating wealth, which brings with it security and stability. I have to admit that there is a lot of appeal to this approach, because I really value security and stability. But then I came across the following passage while recently reading The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky:

[E]very one strives to keep his individuality as apart as possible, wishes to secure the greatest possible fullness of life for himself; but meantime all his efforts result not in attaining fullness of life but self-destruction, for instead of self-realization he ends by arriving at complete solitude. . . . He heaps up riches by himself and thinks, ‘How strong I am now and how secure,’ and in his madness he does not understand that the more he heaps up, the more he sinks into self-destructive impotence. For he is accustomed to rely upon himself alone and to cut himself off from the whole; he has trained himself not to believe in the help of others, in men and in humanity, and only trembles for fear he should lose his money and the privileges that he has won for himself. Everywhere in these days men have, in their mockery, ceased to understand that the true security is to be found in social solidarity rather than in isolated individual effort. (2.6.2 d)

Hm, I never thought of wealth in that way.

My central aim here is not to argue the (de)merits of capitalism and technological development. Nor do I want to imply that economic comfort should not be part of what it means to live a good life. I only raise the above examples because of the easy hold they seem to have on all of us and to show how the seemingly simple question that I ask may be far more complicated—yet personally fulfilling—to answer than we may first think.

For me, my answer to the question, “What does it mean to live a good life?” lies in being able to explore and experience to the best of my ability the full extent of what it means to be human, which leads to our next question. . .

Next up: How can we fully experience what it means to be human?

–Anthony Vaver, Local History Librarian

What do you think makes up a “good life”? Share your thoughts in the Comment section.

Suggested Reading

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Lyman School Baseball Team, ca. 1905-1912

The arrival of spring brings the arrival of baseball! Stop by the display case outside of the Westborough Center and check out the new exhibit, Westborough Baseball, to see the game through the eyes of Westborough history.

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Historical church records can shed tremendous light on the lives of everyday people living in 17th– and 18th-century colonial America, and no town knows that more than Westborough. New England’s Hidden Histories, a project of the Congregational Library and Archives and a crucial partner in the Westborough Center’s Ebenezer Parkman Project website, seeks to digitize these historical records and make them freely available to the public.

Learn more about this exciting digitization project in the YouTube video, New England’s Hidden Histories: A Roundtable Discussion. James (Jeff) Cooper, the director of the project, and his guests talk about the challenges of hunting down, collecting, capturing, and storing these fragile records in digital form. Who knew that dusty church records could be so interesting?!

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Did you enjoy reading this Westborough Local History Pastimes newsletter? Then subscribe by e-mail and have the newsletter and other notices from the Westborough Center for History and Culture at the Westborough Public Library delivered directly to your e-mail inbox: https://www.westboroughcenter.org/subscribe-to-updates/.

 

Westborough Local History Pastimes – February 19, 2021

Three BIG Questions

Unless we live in a large city, like Chicago or New York City, we tend to think about local history in small ways. The term “local” itself minimizes the apparent significance of the field through its implicit geographical comparison to larger histories, such as national or world histories. Yet, in a local history newsletter, no less, I am going to wax philosophical and encourage you to think big, really big. But don’t worry, I will circle back to local history eventually.

I have come to believe that we, as human beings, should be trying to answer three big questions throughout the course of our lives: 1) What does it mean to live a good life?; 2) How can we fully experience what it means to be human?; and 3) What is the meaning of life? I told you I was going big!

All three questions interrelate—although their subtle differences demand that each be tackled separately—and answers to one provides building blocks for answering the others. I am not going to pretend that I hold the key to answering them; besides, my answers will be different from yours, and the ones you develop will necessarily be deeply personal, unique, and subject to constant revision. Rather, I am more interested in arguing the value of asking each question and raising various ways to consider them.

In a society that increasingly demands quantifiable outcomes to justify our use of time and money on a given activity, the arts and humanities, with their more qualifiable outcomes, have become embattled fields over recent decades. Every year, arts and humanities organizations that rely on government funding must spend more and more of their valuable time justifying the value of their very existence, let alone maintaining the level of their budget lines (heaven forbid that they ask for an increase!). Humanities fields in universities are squeezed and eliminated, as students are encouraged to pursue more “practical” and high-paying majors, as though learning to live a quality life in the fullest sense of the term does not have any practical application. (By the way, studies have shown that while science and technology majors make more money right out of college, humanities majors out-earn them over time, because the latter are more likely to move into management positions later in life.)

And if my two chosen fields, English and history, think they have it bad, consider philosophy, which seems to remain the butt of everyone’s disciplinary joke. Yet, the fundamental questions about life that I pose above are taken directly from philosophy, and it turns out that these seemingly basic questions are extremely complicated to answer. Lucky for us, people way smarter than you and I (and most of humanity) have thought long and deeply about them and can provide guidance.

Why are these questions so important? Well, let’s look at the consequences of our recent neglect of the arts and humanities. We have technology companies founded by CEOs who may be brilliant with computers, but who generally failed to graduate from college and were never exposed to the arts and humanities in any deep and meaningful way. Is it any surprise that these CEOs now flounder while trying to make decisions about their companies and products, decisions that profoundly affect our society and the way we relate to one another? (I’m looking directly at you, Mark Zuckerberg—but he is not the only one.) We have influential people who manipulate history to justify their preconceived belief system rather than follow the facts to their logical, and sometimes contradictory, conclusions—and, perhaps worse, have people who actually believe them. And we have people who read and interpret art with the goal of dividing society, rather than see art as an ultimately safe space to explore new ideas and visions for our society, which we are then free to accept or reject.

I will address each of these three questions over the next three newsletters and in the process try to connect them to local history. I obviously will not have the space, nor the intellectual command, to consider the intricacies of each one in the way that philosophers have over millennia. The reading list below already suggests as much. But my ultimate goal is to help you consider your life in ways that can enhance and enrich your experience here on earth, which is the ultimate aim of the arts and humanities.

–Anthony Vaver, Local History Librarian

Next: What does it mean to live a good life?

Suggested Reading

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Eli Whitney has been on the minds of a lot of people in Westborough, given the recent controversy about whether the cotton gin should be removed from the Town’s logo because of its connection with slavery. Now is your chance to learn more about him through the Westborough Historical Society.

This Monday, February 22, 2021 at 7:00 p.m. on Zoom, Cary Mulrain, former WHS president, will present “Eli Whitney, Father of American Mass Production. Westborough’s Eli Whitney (1765-1825) perfected the cotton gin to remove seeds from short-stem cotton and inadvertently increased the demand for slave labor on Southern plantations. He then went on to apply mass production to the manufacture of guns at the Whitney Arms Company in Hartford, CT.

Join Zoom Meeting
https://us02web.zoom.us/j/86451366489?pwd=TkJ0SU9hV0VRc240bXo3UkFydnc2QT09

Meeting ID: 864 5136 6489
Passcode: 072932

Phone- Audio only:
+1 346 248 7799
Meeting ID: 864 5136 6489
Passcode: 072932

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My mom was recently reading David McCullough’s The Pioneers: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West and came across a reference to Westborough in it. It turns out the wife of one of the book’s protagonists, Rufus Putnam, was Persis Rice (1737-1820), who was born and lived in Westborough before their marriage. You can learn more about her here: https://www.wikitree.com/wiki/Rice-2942.

Persis was a direct descendant of Thomas and Mary (King) Rice, the parents of four boys who were abducted by a group of Native Americans in 1704 and taken from Westborough to Canada to live with them. You can read what Rev. Ebenezer Parkman, our town’s first minister wrote about the episode (although Parkman was only a boy and did not live in Westborough at the time): https://archive.org/details/storyofriceboysc00park.

Thanks, Mom, for alerting us to our town’s reference in McCullough’s book!

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Did you enjoy reading this Westborough Local History Pastimes newsletter? Then subscribe by e-mail and have the newsletter and other notices from the Westborough Center for History and Culture at the Westborough Public Library delivered directly to your e-mail inbox: https://www.westboroughcenter.org/subscribe-to-updates/.

 

Westborough Local History Pastimes – February 5, 2021

Amanda Gorman recites her inaugural poem, “The Hill We Climb,” during the 59th Presidential Inauguration ceremony in Washington, Jan. 20, 2021. (DOD Photo)
Walt Whitman, age 35, from the frontispiece to “Leaves of Grass,” 1854.

Becoming America

There is nothing more American than to talk about who we are and what we want to be. People from other, older parts of the world do not experience the constant identity crisis that we do. After all, they live in cultures that have had the chance to coalesce over a much longer period of time. But Americans are always in search of the new, and attempts to pin down and define who we are always seems to disintegrate in the face of historical and cultural contradictions, which then starts the cycle of trying to define who we are all over again.

The American concern over who we are and what we want to be is partly the result of the unique history of where we live. When Europeans started to move to the Americas and inhabit the “New World,” they saw a land that offered new and endless opportunities (although, as we well know, this liberatory move also involved displacing and subjugating the people who lived here before them and set up one of America’s long-standing and defining contradictions). As a consequence, those of us who live in the Americas—and when I say “the Americas” I include both North and South due to our shared historical development and common cultural outlook—we focus more of our attention and efforts on creating the future than on preserving the past, and we work hard to realize our vision for what we believe will be a better society for us and for future generations. America and Americans, in short, are always in the process of Becoming.

Amanda Gorman captured the essence of these reflections in a much more articulate way in her electrifying poem, “The Hill We Climb,” which she read at the Presidential Inauguration Ceremonies on January 20, 2021. Gorman and her poem justifiably became the talk of the Inauguration, and there is no shortage of available commentary and analysis of her poem on the web and in the media. But as I listen to and read her words, the spirit of Walt Whitman flashes over me, especially his poem, “I Hear America Singing” (1860) from Leaves of Grass:

I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,

Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong,

The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,

The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work,

The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deckhand singing on the steamboat deck,

The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing as he stands,

The wood-cutter’s song, the ploughboy’s on his way in the morning, or at noon intermission or at sundown,

The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work, or of the girl sewing or washing,

Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,

The day what belongs to the day—at night the party of young fellows, robust, friendly,

Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.

Whitman’s poem lacks the verbal pyrotechnics that Gorman commands in hers, but both show how our shared sense of possibility can lead to unity. Whitman’s poem singles out the “songs” that each worker creates during the course of plying his or her trade. While all of them are hard at work trying to improve the lives of them, their families, and, consequently, of America, each one of them is unique and special, with “Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else.” At night, the young ones abandon their daily differences to congregate and join together in “strong melodious songs.” But for the poet, the “varied carols I hear” of all of their work during the day come together to create the true song of America.

The work of being American is never finished, as much as we may want to reach that end goal and revel in our finished product. Our economic system values the latter, but our democratic system demands the former. This contradiction is also a part of what makes us who we are. We justifiably get frustrated when we seemingly fail to realize our individual political goals and desires over and over again. That’s the time, however, when we need to step back and recognize that even though we are all singing different songs, that the cacophony that we are creating is America and is the sound of our Becoming.

–Anthony Vaver, Local History Librarian

Suggested Resources

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“Westboro, July 4, 1899” – Westoborough residents gathered in front of the Old Capt. John Maynard Home. The flag says, “Welcome Comrades.”
Demonstrating on the Rotary, 2018 (Photograph by Brandin Tumeinski)

Along with poetry, photographs have the power to help us visualize the Becoming of America. The Westborough Digital Repository has two collections that, when put side-by-side, illustrate the Becoming of America at our local level here in Westborough.

The Historical Photographs of Westborough collection covers Westborough’s early history and the Photographer-in-Residence collection of photographs by Brandin Tumeinski give a more recent look at Westborough becoming what it is today. Take some time to browse through both collections and think about where we have come, what we are now, and what we can be in the future.

* * *

In a past newsletter, I discussed the importance of building historical timelines in our mind while learning about history (although we also want to be careful not to fall into the trap of thinking that history is merely a set of dates and events!). Here are two more websites that can help us build our historical timelines, one more worldly and one more local.

  • The Museum of the World from the British Museum – This collaboration between the British Museum and the Google Arts and Culture Lab allows you to explore items from the museum’s collection and connect cultures and ideas through an interactive timeline. Click the “Launch Experiment” button to get started and enter a 3-D world of culture, time, and place (unfortunately, the website only works on desktop computers).
  • MassMoments a project of MassHumanities – This interactive timeline provides both a daily “This day in Massachusetts history” entry and a way to explore Massachusetts history chronologically through the years. You can also sign up to have Daily eMoments delivered every day to your e-mail address.

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Did you enjoy reading this Westborough Local History Pastimes newsletter? Then subscribe by e-mail and have the newsletter and other notices from the Westborough Center for History and Culture at the Westborough Public Library delivered directly to your e-mail inbox: https://www.westboroughcenter.org/subscribe-to-updates/.

 

Westborough Local History Pastimes – January 22, 2021

Family Enjoying the Snow (Brandin Tumeinski, photographer; Photographer-in-Residence Photograph Collection)

Hygge

The fifth-grade curriculum in Illinois where I went to school in the ‘70’s included a study of world cultures. Throughout the year we focused on various areas of the world and then studied the countries and the people who inhabited them. At the time I loved learning, imagining, and playacting what life would be like if I lived in different parts of the world.

Maybe it was my enjoyment of reading the fairy tales of Hans Christian Anderson or the wooden toy soldiers that a relative brought back for me from her travels, but when we were asked to pick a European country to present to the class, I jumped at the chance to research Denmark. I remember dressing up for my presentation as a Danish farmer, which included a pair of clogs my teacher brought in for me to wear so as to make my outfit more authentic. The curriculum taught me that there are many ways to live out what it means to be human, and since that time I have always embraced experiencing new cultural practices, trying different foods, learning new philosophies, and perhaps adopting some of these as my own if they improved my life.

This year, facing a winter that promised to be even harsher and more isolating than in years past due to the pandemic, I decided that I needed to change my approach. The loss of daylight in recent winters had started to cast a pall over my days as I anxiously waited for longer periods of sun to take hold. And even though I have always enjoyed winter, the prospect of shoveling out the driveway after a heavy snowstorm was beginning to lose its appeal as I aged.

Maybe it was time, I thought, to turn once again to Denmark. Scandinavians regularly land at the top of happiest-people-on-earth lists, yet they live in an area of the world that receives less sunlight and longer winters than most places. How do they do that? And can I adjust my life so that I can tap into some of the happiness that they seem to be getting during winter? That’s how, in attempting to answer these questions, I discovered hygge (pronounced HOO-GA).

Hygge is a set of cultural practices that create feelings of comfort, coziness, togetherness, and well-being, and these practices tend to focus on light, food and drink, clothing, social interaction, and interior decorating. As I researched hygge, the practice that spoke directly to my situation is the idea that there is no bad weather, only bad clothing. Even though the weather gets cold and dark during winter, the Scandinavians continue to enjoy outdoor activities because they dress appropriately to the conditions. So I made sure going into winter that I had all the warm clothing I needed—including Norwegian sweaters!—so that I could enjoy the outdoors no matter the conditions.

Equipped with my comfy coats and sweaters, I also vowed that no matter the weather I would take a walk every morning, by myself (no dogs!). My morning walks allow me to enjoy the rhythms of the weather, the rising of the sun, the cold air, and the animal life beginning to stir. I now start the day connected to my surroundings and feel ready to take on whatever the day holds.

The success of my walk emboldened me to bring hygge to my family. Before my two daughters recently left home to return to their adult lives, we met out on our back deck for 15-20 minutes just before dinner, again, no matter the weather. Standing outside in our winter coats, we watched Mars every night as it moved across the sky; we noticed how fast the cold air chills the drinks in our glasses; and the intimate space created by standing together in the chilly darkness freed us to talk about our thoughts, our developing philosophies, and quirky events that recently happened to us. We had conversations that did not seem to happen at any other time throughout the day, including at the dinner table.

What makes hygge effective? I think it has to do with maintaining control in a comforting way despite facing adverse conditions. My daily walk in the morning puts me face-to-face with the harsh winter weather, but because I am properly dressed, I come to realize that I can surmount the challenge, and in fact that challenge can be invigorating and empowering. What a way to start the day! And the act of putting on our coats with no other reason than to stand around in the cold, crisp air on the back deck creates a comfy space for camaraderie as we mark the end of the day together. Then, as we reenter our house, we appreciate its warmth even more as we settle down to dinner, perhaps lit by candles.

The mild winter we are experiencing may be helping me get through this winter more than I think, but practicing hygge has helped me to escape for at least short periods of time the doldrums of the pandemic, our country’s politics, and the winter. Now, I actually look forward to some harsher weather, so that I can put on my Norwegian sweater, my parka, and my winter boots and head outside equipped for the cold.

–Anthony Vaver, Local History Librarian

Suggested Resources

 

* * *

Looking for an excuse to put on your winter coat and connect with your surroundings? Then why not go on a self-guided architecture tour of Westborough?

The Architectural Walking Tours page on the Westborough Center website has a formal, self-directed tour of the downtown and PDF versions of the information packets created by R. Chris Noonan and Luanne Crosby for their popular architecture tours.

Hygge is also about companionship with a few, select friends or family members, so gather a small group together, bundle up, and explore why Westborough looks the way it does together (remember, of course, to remain socially distant from non-household members). Bonus points if you take a tour while it is snowing!

 

* * *

Coziness is central to hygge, so pour yourself a cup of hot chocolate, put on some fuzzy socks, light a few candles, crawl under a throw, and then sit back and learn about Westborough maps on Monday, January 25, when the Westborough Historical Society and the Civic Club present “Charting Westborough’s History.” The program will take place on Zoom and is free and open to the public.

Here are the details:

Monday, January 25

7:00 – 7:30 p.m. – 2021 Westborough Historical Society Annual Meeting

7:30 – 9:00 p.m. – “Charting Westborough’s History”

Maps record the geographical information of a community, yet some maps tell stories.  Maps are created by individuals who decide the subject of a map at a certain point in time from their point of view.  Join the Westborough Historical Society as they reprise one of their 300th anniversary presentations, “Mapping Westborough – a timeline of Westborough maps from 1630 to 2012.”  Leslie M. Leslie, curator, Westborough Historical Society, will present her many years of research on how Westborough’s development has been charted through maps. Co-sponsored by the Westborough Civic Club.

Zoom Link: 

Time: Jan 25, 2021, 7:00 PM Annual Meeting; 7:30 PM Map Program

Join Zoom Meeting
https://us02web.zoom.us/j/88644640593?pwd=eG8wR1RyNlpsOUtkMzZJa0VJOHREUT09

Meeting ID: 886 4464 0593
Passcode: 219849

Phone for audio only:
+1 346 248 7799
Meeting ID: 886 4464 0593
Passcode: 219849

 

* * *

On a final note, I just have to add that if you missed the “Celebrating America” concert on the evening of the Presidential Inauguration on Wednesday, January 20, I highly encourage you to watch it. Here is the recording from PBS: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DJFNOvXaToI.

The concert included performers from diverse genres, and all of them were excellent. After the awful desecration of our nation’s capital building and the resulting build-up of security around the National Mall, the concert served to reclaim that space, at least emotionally, for all of the American people, and it demonstrates the power that the arts have for healing and giving us direction when we seem to be adrift.

If nothing else, be sure to catch the awesome fireworks display at the end. I’ve never seen one so spectacular!

* * *

Did you enjoy reading this Westborough Local History Pastimes newsletter? Then subscribe by e-mail and have the newsletter and other notices from the Westborough Center for History and Culture at the Westborough Public Library delivered directly to your e-mail inbox: https://www.westboroughcenter.org/subscribe-to-updates/.

Westborough Local History Pastimes – January 8, 2021

Renewal

At last, we can view the light at the end of our pandemic tunnel—although it remains tantalizingly faint and we are told that we are now traveling through its darkest part. Still, that we can realistically imagine reaching the exit means that we can begin to think about who, what, and how we want to be once restrictions are finally lifted.

My sister-in-law is a chief medical officer at a large hospital network, and she openly wonders how the end will come about once most of us receive our vaccines. Will the end be gradual, with liberties slowly being doled back out until only in retrospect we realize that our lives have begun to approximate what we think of as normal life? Or will the opening be as sudden as the shutdown, a time when one day we were commuting and working a normal day and the next we were quickly grabbing resources and supplies so that we could work indefinitely at home? For me, the announcement that I can go into a grocery store here in Massachusetts without my mask will be the sudden sign that I have been waiting for and will be cause for great celebration (even if I have to wait a little longer to travel again).

But once we reach that end point, however we define it, our idea of normalcy will have changed. We will no longer be the persons we were when the pandemic first started. Our perspective of the world will be different. We will have developed coping skills that we did not know we had. And there will be certain behaviors that we may not want to participate in anymore. But as we build back our social existence, we each have a special opportunity to redefine both ourselves and our individual place within our community.

These kinds of reflections, or variants of them, are not new in the cycle of dealing with profound illness. In fact, they were common back in colonial New England.

Last month, the American Antiquarian Society held a virtual program entitled, “Before COVID: Illness in Everyday Life in Early New England,” that featured Ben Mutschler, author of The Province of Affliction: Illness and the Making of Early New England. (See below for more information.) During the program, in response to a question about whether Puritans connected illness with moral short-comings, Mutschler contends, “There is a common providential refrain of trying to understand the purpose of illness, how one is supposed to react to it, and it changes over time. But there is an overall sense that illness can be a chance for self-examination, for repentance, and renewal—to let go of things of the temporal world, a kind of correction.”

If we are indeed rounding the corner for the final push to conquer the coronavirus, we may end up back in the “fast lane” sooner than we expect. In these dark days, now is the time to engage in some thought about how much we want to return to the way things were, what we may want to build in their stead, and what steps we can take to maintain as much of the positive aspects that emerged during this unique period of isolation as possible. And by engaging in such reflection, we will be joining our historical forebears in viewing illness as an opportunity to improve and renew our lives.

I wish all of you a Happy New Year, and I look forward to our collective creation of Westborough’s new normal!

–Anthony Vaver, Local History Librarian

Suggested Reading

* * *

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

You can view the entire program, “Before COVID: Illness in Everyday Life in Early New England,” which includes a conversation between Ben Mutschler and Ashley Cataldo, Curator of Manuscripts at the American Antiquarian Society, on YouTube: https://youtu.be/XR0opqGL7cY.

And there is added incentive to check out the program, because Westborough’s own Rev. Ebenezer Parkman is prominently featured. Beginning around minute 16:30, you can view a prepared video of what it is like to see and read parts of Parkman’s diary held at the American Antiquarian Society while Mutschler and Cataldo discuss its significance and its value for studying illness in colonial America. During his research, Mutschler relied heavily on Parkman’s diary—and he extensively used the Westborough Public Library’s online edition of Parkman’s diary on the Ebenezer Parkman Project website. In fact, during the program he gave the Ebenezer Parkman Project a shout-out!

You can also watch a short video of Cataldo talking about the value of diaries as part of the promotion for her conversation with Mutschler, and, as you can probably already guess, Cataldo notably focuses on Parkman and his diary: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ccRFq8mgrpE&feature=youtu.be.

* * *

Rev. Ebenezer Parkman

Now, why not go to the source?! Prof. Ross W. Beales, Jr.—whose transcribed version of Parkman’s diary is the one that appears on the Ebenezer Parkman Project website—has compiled various entries dealing with medical concerns: http://diary.ebenezerparkman.org/diary-themes-topics/. These entries provide real insight into how Parkman and the people of colonial Westborough dealt with health problems, such as cancer, dysentery, measles, rickets, and small pox.

***

Why wait until the pandemic’s end to begin the process of social renewal? Westborough Connects, Central MA Connections in Faith (CMACIF), Westborough Interfaith Association, and the Westborough Public Schools are co-hosting the third annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Community Celebration on Monday, January 18 from 11:00 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. on Zoom.

This year’s theme is “Standing in My Shoes: Love, Inclusion, Trust” and will feature a keynote address by poet, activist, and Brandeis University Dean of Students, Jamele Adams, also known as Harlem 1two5.

Part of the festivities also involves a National Day of Service, where community members are invited to pick up a Black Lives Matter rock painting project kit at the Westborough Public Library’s front steps on January 18th to take home and paint. The project is sponsored by WeCARE – Westborough Committee for Anti-Racism in Education. Celebration registrants are also encouraged to make a donation to the Westborough Food Pantry at the Fire Station Lobby, Roche Bros. or Lyman Street Stop & Shop.

More information can be found about the program found at www.westboroughconnects.org/programs. Closed captioning in English and Live Spanish language interpretation will be available during the live event. Westborough TV will also re-broadcast the program.

IMPORTANT NOTE: Due to the program format, pre-registration is required and space is limited. Registration is available in English HERE, and a Spanish-language registration is available HERE.

 

 

 

Westborough Local History Pastimes – December 18, 2020

Cathedrale Saint Jean Lyon Astronomical clock dial B

Time

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:

* * *

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?

* * *

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)

Fashion

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

* * *

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!

* * *

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.

* * *

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.

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.

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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.