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

 

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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!

 

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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

 

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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!

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

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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.

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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.

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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:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Westborough Local History Pastimes – December 4, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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:

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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

 

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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.

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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.

 

 

 

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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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:

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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

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  • 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.

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  • 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.”

 

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

 

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  • 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.

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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.)

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  • 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!