Over the past few months, I have been wrapped up in projects as I work on finishing my Capstone Project for the Archives and Public History M.A. Program at NYU. I have chosen to forgo the traditional thesis paper in favor of a digital history project that will bring scholarship and attention to one of my favorite moments in American history, the Whiskey Rebellion. The project has a lot of moving parts – an interactive map, a responsive timeline, an audio tour, and more! – and I can’t wait to share the full thing with you when it’s done! In the meantime, here’s some of my thoughts on one of the most important digital tools I am using for the project, Neatline.

Neatline is a suite of add-on tools for the open-source content management system Omeka. Omeka, developed by the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University, has become the standard for digital humanities projects.

My main goal for this project was to map the important sites of the Whiskey Rebellion in one publicly-accessible place, so scholars and the interested public could better understand the geography of western Pennsylvania, and the way in which the Whiskey Rebellion played out on that landscape. I have always believed in the fundamental importance of place, especially when it comes to understanding history. The Whiskey Rebellion took place in an area that is almost as remote now as it was then – the very, very southwestern corner of Pennsylvania. The Rebellion occurred over the course of about four years (1791 – 1794), all over the corner of the state, and I felt it would be an asset to the scholarship if I could lay out the important places of the Rebellion on a map, to help further the understanding of this space and its history. So I turned to Neatline as a tool for creating an interactive digital map of the Whiskey Rebellion.

The learning curve for using Neatline is pretty steep, especially for someone like me who is a WordPress-lover and pretty unfamiliar with the Omeka platform. My first step included a lot of Googling, and a thorough reading of the Neatline Documentation. I was also lucky to have the guidance of the fantastic NYU Digital Studio, who really got me started with Omeka/Neatline and took care of the hosting for my site. Once I got the hang of it, I found it fairly intuitive to work with, and I am ultimately happy with the end result.

Photo & Video Sharing by SmugMugEnjoying an ice cream at site of Couch’s Fort, now a McDonalds.

The hardest part of my mapping project was finding the places to begin with. To my knowledge, a consolidated list of the geographic points of the Whiskey Rebellion doesn’t exist, and many of these places are only referenced in primary source documents from the 1790s. It took me weeks, and a long trip to western Pennsylvania, to compose a working list of 10-15 important places of the Rebellion, and to confirm their geographic coordinates.

During most of this initial place-finding work, I felt like a detective. With only a few references to a place as it was in the 1790s, and perhaps a secondary source or two with a little additional information, I had to piece everything together to locate the place in the present-day. Most of the Whiskey Rebellion sites don’t exist today as they did back then (a few of them were actually destroyed during the Rebellion, the rest mostly just disappeared over time), so it’s a lot of trial-and-error, and sometimes all I could do was give my best guess. I used contemporary paintings and illustrations, letters, wills and deeds, and newspaper accounts to help me find the places. My best friend became the historical marker list for the State of Pennsylvania, since more than a few of the Whiskey Rebellion sites are marked by a (largely forgotten) historical marker. Ultimately, my proudest moment was discovering Couch’s Fort, a fort used by the Whiskey Rebels during the Battle of Bower Hill and a leftover of the French and Indian War. Couch’s Fort is now a McDonald’s (!).

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Neatline comes with a variety of existing maps you can use as your base spatial layer, such as the suite of Google maps and some really good-looking Stamen maps. I chose to use OpenStreetMap because it was the cleanest and easiest. You also have the option of layering your own map into Neatline, and people have done really cool things with contemporary maps overlaid on the base layer map. For me, using a map from the 1790s didn’t make a lot of sense for my scholarship, even though it would have looked nice, since my ultimate goal is to help people locate these sites as they are today.

Mapping the coordinates in Neatline was tricky at first, because Neatline doesn’t recognize latitude and longitude coordinates or street addresses. Instead, Neatline uses a different language for vector geometry, called Well-Known Text (WKT). Luckily, I found an awesome tool to convert street addresses to the coordinate system used by Neatline – the Reed College Geocoding Application. This made plotting the coordinates easy peasy. As soon as I plugged them into the Geocoding App and learned the POINT information, I plugged it right into Neatline and the rest was magic!

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My next challenge was linking multiple images and documents, as well as a rich scholarly description, to a single point on the map. Omeka relies on item records, and each item (such as a photograph) featured on Neatline should ideally be linked to its Omeka item record, which gives all the Dublin Core information for the item such as provenance and date. You can link Neatline points to their Omeka item just by clicking “Item” in the Neatline editor and plugging in the item name. However, I found this very limiting, because you can only link one item to each Neatline record. Instead, I decided to plug in items using HTML, embedding them in the body description and then just hyperlinking them back to their Omeka item record. This enabled me to embed multiple items into the pop-up bubble, in addition to a rich description of each place.

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I also had (a little too much fun) with the point image, which I made into a tiny whiskey bottle. I did this just by playing around with the “Style” section on the Neatline editor, uploading my own image URL into the “Point Image” box.

Neatline also has the ability to overlay a timeline onto the map, with a plugin called SIMILIE Timeline. You can link each Neatline record with a temporal start and end date, and it will automatically be added to a timeline which is placed on top of the map. I initially made use of the SIMILIE Timeline plugin, but I found that it didn’t exactly do what I wanted it to do. If I had more CSS skills, I could have customized it to look exactly like I wanted it to, but unfortunately my CSS knowledge and ability is pretty limited. I decided to forgo the SIMILIE Timeline in favor of a different open-source timeline program, TimelineJS, which I embedded onto a different part of my website. (More on that in another post, coming later this month!)

You can view my complete Neatline map of the Whiskey Rebellion here. It’s still a work-in-progress, but I’d love to know what you think! I have had a lot of fun learning Neatline, and customizing it just enough to suit my purposes. If I had many more months and a little more CSS knowledge, I’m sure I could create something even more amazing, but it’s great to know that Neatline is available and I look forward to building more beautiful Neatline maps in the future.

Ever your cartographer,

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The Conference Guide for Grad Students

In a few weeks, I will be presenting at the National Council on Public History Annual Conference in Nashville, Tennessee. The opportunity to present at the NCPH Conference, a prestigious conference in the public history field, has me reflecting on my experience last year when I presented a poster at NCPH’s 2014 Conference in Monterey, California. A version of this post was originally posted in NYU’s Archives and Public History Program blog in May 2014.

Last March, I traveled to the National Council on Public History Annual Conference in Monterey, CA to present a poster inspired by my work with incorporating African American history into small public history institutions. At the NCPH Conference, I had the opportunity to network with fellow graduate students and public history professionals and to hear from on-the-ground public historians about the pitfalls, triumphs, and issues currently facing those who work in the field.

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A conference selfie with my poster.

Although the NCPH Conference was a success for me, there are things I learned along the way and things I plan to do differently at my next conference (which is coming up soon!). I encourage every graduate student to attend at least one professional conference during your time at graduate school, ideally as a presenter. It is a valuable learning and networking experience. My experience at the NCPH Conference inspired me to create this list of conference tips for graduate students.

Bring business cards. Most universities will print business cards for graduate students, or there are services such as that let you design your own high-quality business card just the way you want it. Before you attend a conference, have professional business cards printed. Hand out your cards to people who you have meaningful conversations with during the conference, and don’t forget to take their card too.
Pro tip: If you do receive other people’s business cards, it is a good idea to follow-up on your conversation after the conference is over through a quick email or tweet.

Apply for travel funding. Almost all graduate programs have funding available for students to attend conferences, particularly students who have been accepted as presenters. I have received travel funding from diverse sources at NYU, from the Department of History to the Dean’s Office. If you’re lost about where to apply for funding, consult your Program Director or ask your on-campus student activities center.
Pro tip: The conference you are attending might also offer scholarships or travel grants for graduate students.

Sign up for a workshop. Many conferences offer intensive workshops, which usually take place a day or two before the official conference begins. These workshops are generally on a very specific topic and offer participants the opportunity to explore this narrow topic in great depth. To me, this sounded exactly like graduate school, so I decided I did not need to attend a workshop. However, what I learned at the conference was that workshops can be a great networking opportunity as well as a learning opportunity. They also offer a good opportunity to get comfortable with the style and content of the conference hosts so that you can hit the ground running when the official conference begins.
Pro tip: Most workshops cost money, but conferences often have scholarships for graduate students.

Participate in the mentor/mentee program. Professional organizations usually have mentor/mentee programs designed to connect graduate students and young professionals with seasoned professionals within the field. At the NCPH Conference, mentors and mentees were able to meet each other at a separate reception on the first night of the conference. Many of the pairs went out to lunch the next day to talk further. I didn’t participate, but I heard from fellow conference-goers that the mentors were an incredibly valuable resource.
Pro tip: Sign-up usually happens a month or two ahead of time, so plan early and search the conference website for directions on how to participate.

Don’t attend every session. Here’s the big secret that the professionals don’t tell you: It’s okay to not go to a session at all every now and then! Conferences are exhausting. You are going to be given a lot of content to think about. Attend several sessions, but don’t wear yourself out. I find that I get more out of a conference when I allow myself time to process information and don’t get too obsessed with attending everything.
Pro tip: Your downtime outside of sessions can also be a great time to have conversations and build relationships with people at the conference.

Participate in an activity. The NCPH Conference offered several locally-based activities such as walking tours, a trip to a local attraction, and peer group lunches. I skipped a session on one morning in favor of a conference-promoted walking tour of Historic Monterey. It was great to get out of the Convention Center for a morning – I got some fresh air, I learned about the history of Monterey, and I made connections with the people who were on the tour with me. I even met a few graduate students that I ended up chatting with about future collaborations.
Pro tip: It isn’t “cheating” to take a step out of the Convention Center every once in a while!

Tweet! Conferences often have a hashtag that participants can use to tweet throughout the conference. The NCPH hashtag this year is #NCPH2015. This hashtag is already active a few weeks before the conference as people prepare and it will continue to be a place for people’s follow-up ideas after the conference is over. During the conference, many people live-tweet sessions, share interesting ideas, or propose a lunch meetup through Twitter. I live-tweeted one session at the 2014 conference, which really helped me parse out the interesting ideas from the session and summarize them, and also created a forum for conversation with people who were not in the room.
Pro tip: Even if you don’t feel like live-tweeting yourself, follow the hashtag on Twitter – you never know what information you might find!

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Conferences are an awesome place to dive deeper into your field. Above all else, have fun at your conference! Prepare, participate, and share your experiences with your peers when you return.

Ready for Nashville,

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The Brooklyn Navy Yard

Although we sometimes forget it today, New York City has always been a city with a bustling waterfront. Afterall, New York is basically a city of islands. One of the most interesting waterfront histories, from my (slightly biased) perspective, is the history of the Brooklyn Navy Yard. The Navy Yard has been an important New York waterfront space since the 17th century – and its importance only grew during the 19th and 20th centuries, as it became a key part of our wartime operations.

Photo & Video Sharing by SmugMugView of New York from the Brooklyn Navy Yard, 1860.
From the Collections of the Museum of the City of New York.

The Brooklyn Navy Yard’s history begins long before it was called the “Navy Yard,” back when that area of the waterfront was known as Wallabout Bay. It was one of the first areas of Long Island settled by Europeans – several French-speaking Walloon families purchased land in the Wallabout area in the early 1630s. Throughout the 17th century, the area was farmed by Walloons who leased the land from the Dutch East India Company. One enterprising Dutchman, Cornelis Dircksen, set up the first East River Ferry, from Wallabout to Manhattan, in 1637.

During the time of the American Revolution, from 1776-1783, the British used Wallabout Bay as a place to moor prison ships. These prison ships, the most famous being the HMS Jersey, were hellholes used to hold thousands of Continental Army soldiers and sailors (and sometimes private citizens) who became prisoners of war. Over 10,000 prisoners of war died on these prison ships in Wallabout Bay during the American Revolution. (The Prison Ship Martyrs’ Monument in Fort Greene Park, a subject of a previous blog entry, honors the memory of the thousands that died on these ships.)

Photo & Video Sharing by SmugMugNavy Yard, ca. 1880. From the Collections of the Museum of the City of New York.

In 1801, the Wallabout Bay area was purchased by the United States federal government and, by 1806, the site became an official U.S. Navy shipyard. The Brooklyn Navy Yard was active from 1806, and many important U.S. ships (including Robert Fulton’s steam frigate Fulton and the armored cruiser USS Maine) were built at the Navy Yard during the 19th century.

As you might imagine, the Navy Yard experienced the most development during times of war. The American Civil War, World War I, and World War II all mark major periods of growth for the Brooklyn  Navy Yard. The Works Progress Administration of the 1930s contributed to major growth of the Navy Yard. In 1938, 10,000 people were employed at the Navy Yard (at least 1/3 of them were WPA workers).

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Brooklyn Navy Yard, 1942. LIFE Magazine.

World War II is definitely the “peak” of the Navy Yard’s long history. It was at this time that the Yard earned its nickname, the “Can-Do Yard.” During World War II, the Brooklyn Navy Yard employed 70,000 people, working 24 hours a day to keep our nation’s Navy going strong. In the 1940s, the Navy Yard built essential battleships such as the Iowa and Missouri, and massive aircraft carriers. In addition to the ships being built from scratch, over 5,000 U.S. ships were repaired at the Yard by the tens of thousands of World War II-era workers.

Photo & Video Sharing by SmugMugWomen workers head home from the Navy Yard at quitting time, 1942. From the New York Times.

Importantly, the Brooklyn Navy Yard employed large numbers of female and African American defense workers in an era when white men still dominated the industrial workforce. “Rosie the Riveters” went to work at the Brooklyn Navy Yard as production workers such as welders and assembly workers. By the end of the war, women were employed in nearly every phase of shipbuilding and repair at the Navy Yard. Notably, black women made up a large portion of the female workforce during World War II.

In 1966, the U.S. Navy decommissioned the Brooklyn Navy Yard, and it became a privately-owned space for the first time since 1801. Shipbuilding (on a smaller scale) still took place at the Brooklyn Navy Yard while it was under private ownership during the 1970s.

Today, the Brooklyn Navy Yard is again a thriving industrial space – though it is not used for shipbuilding as it once was. The yard is owned by the City of New York, but it is operated by the Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corporation, which has created a modern and sustainable industrial park that houses more than 200 small manufacturing businesses as well as other unique businesses such as a rooftop farm, a museum, and a major production studio. BNYDC, and the businesses located in the Navy Yard, have supported some really interesting sustainability initiatives such as building NYC’s first roof-mounted wind turbines, using green technologies for renovations and maintenance, requiring all new buildings and renovated buildings to be LEED Silver, and installing solar-powered trash compactors and solar and wind-powered street lamps.

I highly recommend a visit to the Brooklyn Navy Yard’s excellent museum, BLDG 92. Although it can seem difficult to access, it’s relatively accessible by subway, bus, and bike. Just take the F train to York Street or the A or C trains to High Street/Brooklyn Bridge – and if you don’t feel like walking, BNYDC offers free shuttles from the subway to the Navy Yard! The Navy Yard is also a BIG supporter of CitiBike, and CitiBike stations are everywhere around the area. While you’re there, take a walking tour of the Brooklyn Navy Yard, led by the expert guides at Turnstile Tours – it is really the best way to explore the yard first-hand. There are tons of great places to eat in the area, once you work up an appetite from your walking tour. I recommend walking over to Myrtle Avenue to try out a local joint – I love The Runner for brunch or Lulu and Po for a cozy dinner.


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Top 10 (Non-Mainstream!) History Movies

For this week’s post, I’m thrilled to welcome Ryan Linthicum of The History Film as a guest blogger. Ryan is a public historian and film historian who recently graduated with an M.A. from Simmons College in Boston. She regularly presents at scholarly conferences and is a history educator. Through her blog, she explores the reinterpretation of history in film.

When asked, what is your favorite history movie of all time, most people would probably answer Braveheart, Gone with the Wind, or Saving Private Ryan. Though these movies provide high entertainment value and emphasize extraordinary historical events, their banal representation of the past, in my opinion, trivializes it.

So what is a good history movie? A good history movie must go beyond people, dates, and events. History is much more than simply replicating the past; it’s about communicating issues that continue to affect us today. I like movies that are multidimensional, break traditional perceptions, and consider different perspectives and consequences. This post-modern history outlook can be construed as controversial, but if modern history movies aim for accuracy and authenticity, I have to wonder, by whose standards are they measuring historical accuracy?

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Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida.

Pawel Pawlikowski’s 2014 award winning history film Ida is defiantly one of my favorite history films. This Polish film focuses on Ana, a young orphan brought up by nuns in a Covent in 1962. Before taking her vows Ana visits her only living relative, Wanda, who tells her that she is actually Jewish. Together they journey to find where Ana’s parents are buried and discover their true identity. As Ana discovers more about her heritage, family, and country, her understanding of religion and identity come into question. What I love so much about Ida is that it shows the rarely-seen consequences of the Second World War. The films stillness allows time to really question and ponder not only the immediate fallout of the Second World War, but also the rippling religious, societal and cultural consequences of war. Furthermore, as we follow Ana through her journey of self-discovery we too begin to question religion, nationalism, family, and identity. Many films tell us war is bad, but few films are able to tackle the other resulting problems, questions, and unseen consequences of war. Pawlikowski’s Ida accomplishes the feat very well, because he not only asks these questions but he leaves the audience with few answers. This history movie, just as history itself, remains unfulfilled.

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Hans-Jurgen Syberberg’s, Hitler: A Film from Germany

Hans-Jurgen Syberberg’s, Hitler: A Film from Germany, also discusses these critical post-war issues in his seven-hour film. This 1977 extensive film touches upon a critical issue in post-war Germany, how to deal with the devastating results of Nazi control. Similar to Pawlikowski’s Ida, Syberberg’s Hitler asks many questions but gives few answers. As both directors understand, dealing with the trauma of history also means dealing with unanswered questions and the realities of ones past. Traumatic history cuts and wounds the present. Left untreated this can have crippling consequences. In Hitler, the multiple issues of Nazi-Germany are discussed, such as the damaging cult of Nazi propaganda, the Holocaust and ideology behind it, and post-war Nazi tourism and entertainment industry. Hitler deals with the elephant in the room issues that affected so many post-war Germans and Europeans.

In addition to Hitler and Ida, here are some of my other favorite movies: Hiroshima mon amour (Alain Resnais, 1959 – Japan/France); Andre Rublev (Andrei Tarkovskii, 1966 – Soviet Union); Ceddo (Ousmane Sembene, 1977- Senegal); Shoah (Claude Lanzmann, 1985 – France); Surname Viet Given Name Nam (Trinh T. Minh-ha, 1989 – USA); The Last Bolshevik (Chris Marker, 1992 – France); Ararat (Atom Egoyan, 2002 – Canada/France); The Watermelon Woman (Cheryl Dunye, 1997 – USA).

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With some exceptions, period pieces tend to romanticize and trivialize the past. Categorizing history into grandiose generalizations, and often times, stereotype people and events in the process. History is not as simple as many Hollywood films make it out to be. The history movies mentioned in this article stand out for their complex approach to understanding the past. These films create a post-modern history that redefines and re-remembers war, race, politics, nationalism, and genocide, and re-examines how the past continues to affect us today. Though I am encouraged by many of the history movies that aim to break away from traditional Hollywood norms of history, such as Selma (2014), The Imitation Game, (2014), and Milk (2008), these films continue to express simplistic attitudes about the past. I encourage filmmakers to not only translate suppressed events onto the silver screen, but I also employ them to push their boundaries and explore the psychological, societal, and cultural dimensions of history and filmmaking.

With thanks to Ryan,

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First Ladies’ Dresses

By now, you’re probably tired of hearing about “the dress” that broke the Internet. Whether you see white and gold or blue and black (or some combination of the two), you’re most likely over arguing about it with your friends and family (who will never see what you see anyway!).

But all this talk about dresses has inspired me to reflect on some of the most awesome dresses in American history, worn by powerful and influential First Ladies. Ever since I got my hands on some fiber during a fellowship at Historic Deerfield (their Textile Gallery is amazing), I have been fascinated by fashion history. Clothes are such a great artifact for helping us envision what it would have been like to live throughout periods in history. Can you imagine walking around all day in a heavy dress, constricted by a corset and still trying to keep up with the busy schedule of Marie Antoinette? (How she ate any cake in those clothes is beyond me!)

I rounded up seven dresses (although one, notably, isn’t a dress) worn by First Ladies throughout American history that are totally iconic, and important in their own right. (And I promise they won’t become the subject of heated water cooler debate!)

1. Martha Washington’s Silk Gown


It’s tempting to envision Martha Washington in a simple colonial mop cap and cotton dress. That’s certainly how she’s portrayed in many images. But this version of Martha is actually propaganda, designed to make her look humble and relatable to the “common people.” In reality, Martha ordered fine silks and laces from England. She understood the importance of fashion in society, and she “dressed the part” of a fine lady from Virginia with high quality fabrics and jewelry (she spent about $150 a year on jewelry, a small fortune!). Although she wasn’t over-the-top, Martha wore simple fashions of the finest quality. This silk gown from the Smithsonian Institution perfectly embodies Martha’s style. Not fussy or elaborate, but made of fine silks and perfectly in style for the early 1780s.  This gown is the only full-intact dress in existence that was worn by Martha Washington.

2. Dolley Madison’s Silk Gown


Dolley Madison was a fashion icon in her time. Written records prove that Dolley was a talking-point of her social circle, and her outfits are frequently mentioned in letters. Dolley had a signature turban that she wore almost always, which was often adorned by feathers or pearls One woman recounted in a letter from 1814 hat Dolley wore a turban with white ostrich feathers sticking out of it to a New Year’s party. Dolley’s turban was usually paired with a low-cut gown made of French silk. This particular gown, from the Smithsonian Institution, is representative of the height of fashion in the late 1810s. It is hand-embroidered and unapologetically elegant. I can just imagine Dolley in this gown and a feather-topped turban, all eyes on her as she makes her way through a party.

3. Mary Todd Lincoln’s Purple Dress


This purple dress, worn by Mary Todd Lincoln during her winter social season in 1861-62, is a truly special. The dress itself is lovely – made of purple velvet, piped with white satin, and trimmed with mother-of-pearl buttons. But the importance of this dress lies in who made it – an African American woman named Elizabeth Keckley (sometimes spelled “Keckly”). Keckley was a former slave who was eventually able to establish her own dressmaking business in Washington DC. Mary Todd hired Keckley to make many of her dresses, and the two women formed an “unusual friendship,” which Keckley later chronicled in her fascinating autobiography.

4. Eleanor Roosevelt’s Inaugural Dress


Eleanor Roosevelt never did anything small. Her inaugural dress was so popular that the press dubbed the color “Eleanor blue” (though, really it’s lavender…but let’s not go down that rabbit hole again). This dress, worn at FDR’s first inauguration, was made of crystelle velvet and was an instant hit. The press was particularly pleased that Eleanor’s dress was made in the United States by dressmaker Arnold Constable. One article described Eleanor as, “Tall, slim and girlish, in a dark blue ensemble and hat … the next First Lady looked more nearly like an elder sister than the mother of Mrs. Curtis Dall, her daughter [Anna]….”

5. Jackie Onassis Kennedy’s Pink Chanel Suit


Everything worn by Jackie O. is an instant fashion hit. However, one of her most iconic outfits is not remembered for its style, but rather for the tragic occasion it represents. Jackie wore this pink Chanel suit on November 22, 1963, the day President John F. Kennedy was shot in Dallas. The Chanel suit was a symbol of fashion in the 1950s and 60s, and this pink suit with matching pillbox hat was beyond stylish. But most of us remember this suit in a different state – stained with blood during the swearing-in of Lyndon Johnson. Because of its dual importance as the epitome of Jackie O.’s mid-century style and an illustration of Kennedy’s tragic assassination, this Chanel suit is one of the most important pieces of clothing in American history.

6. Hillary Clinton’s Ubiquitous Pantsuit


Hillary Clinton is truly a modern and groundbreaking First Lady, and Democratic Presidential candidate. Since her time on her husband’s campaign trail in the 1990s, Clinton has been getting flack for her pantsuits. Happily, Hillary has always been a good sport and willing to joke about the seemingly unending amount of pantsuits she owns and wears to every occasion. She has had some great one-liners about pantsuits, and even added “pantsuit aficionado” to her Twitter bio. My favorite: “In my White House, we’ll know who wears the pantsuits.”

7. Michelle Obama’s Inaugural Gown


Michelle Obama is a beautiful, strong woman who would be a style icon in almost anything. One of the reasons her fashion has become so iconic is that she tends to wear brands that are affordable and accessible, like J. Crew and H&M. But, for Barack’s Inaugural Ball in 2009, Michelle decided to kick it up a notch in a stunning one-shoulder dress by Taiwan-born young designer Jason Wu. Michelle’s white inaugural gown was an instant hit – so much so that she decided to repeat the performance. For Barack’s second inaugural ball in 2013, Michelle again wore a beautiful red gown made by the same designer.

Fashion is so much more than textiles – what adds meaning to these artifacts is the stories behind them, and the history that they hold. Our country has a long list of fashionable First Ladies, and many of their dresses (and pantsuits!) hold meaning far beyond their value as designer fashion.

Still staring at “the dress”,

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Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton”

I have always felt close to Alexander Hamilton. Eight years ago, I found myself on a little island in the Caribbean called Nevis, where it turns out Hamilton was born and raised. I walked in his shoes, and even spent some soul-searching time in the place in which his mom died of fever (a tiny room on the island of St. Croix, not far from Nevis). A year later, I moved to New York, Hamilton’s second home. I became a scholar of the Whiskey Rebellion (a subject I have published on, and continue to study), in which Hamilton played a major role. Hamilton haunts me.

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When I learned of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hip-hop opera (for lack of a better term) about Alexander Hamilton, I had to see it – even though the cost of the ticket crippled me almost as much as Hamilton’s 1791 excise tax would have. Miranda teased Hamilton back in 2009, when he performed the show’s first song at the White House poetry slam. Six years later, the full (almost 3-hour) Hamilton is live on stage at The Public Theater – and it’s the hottest ticket in town. I was lucky to score a ticket to see the performance during previews last week, and I was blown away.

Hamilton is based almost entirely on Ron Chernow’s 800-page biography of Hamilton. Chernow is a respected historian, and his book is well-researched. Still, it is one man’s perspective on Hamilton. The fact that Manuel’s Hamilton is so thoroughly inspired by Chernow’s Hamilton means that Miranda’s interpretation is necessarily limited. The actual history reflected in the play is a fairly typical biographic account of Hamilton’s life – his birth, move to New York, role in US government, private life, and of course his famous death in the duel with Aaron Burr. Still, Miranda’s perspective is so fresh, and so unique, that this relatively classic story feels totally new.

Photo & Video Sharing by SmugMug(Left to right) Marquis de Lafayette, Hercules Mulligan, John Laurens, and Alexander Hamilton
Photo courtesy of The Public Theater.

The early America featured in Hamilton is almost unrecognizable, save for the fact that the actors are wearing period costumes. For one thing, almost every major character in the play – from George Washington to Aaron Burr to Thomas Jefferson to Hamilton himself – is not white. The multi-racial cast flies in the face of traditional images of the Founding Fathers and their world. The New York Daily News calls this “color-blind casting,” but I don’t agree. I think the multi-racial casting choices were entirely purposeful. When confronted with a mostly-black cast portraying our white, slave-owning Founding Fathers, thoughts of equality are unavoidable. Through its casting, Hamilton brings up major questions about freedom and equality without directly addressing them. And the world of Hamilton feels real and relatable in a way that most depictions of 18th-century New York do not. Miranda’s emphasis on Hamilton as an orphaned immigrant (actually, a “bastard orphan son of a whore and a Scotsman”) who came to New York to make something of himself could come from a much later period in American history. Hamilton’s story feels like our collective American story.

Montage courtesy of The Public Theater.

The most stunning part of Hamilton is the music. Musical styles as diverse as rap, hip-hop, R&B, pop, and traditional “musical theater” are all mixed together in one big Hamilton stew. Jefferson and Hamilton rap-battle about the Whiskey Rebellion (“When Britain taxed our tea we got frisky, imagine what gon’ happen when you try and tax our WHISKEY.”). The Schuyler sisters sing a melodic, Destiny’s Child-style pop song. King George III belts out a straight-up breakup song to the American people (With lyrics like, “When push comes to shove, I will send a fully armed battalion, to remind you of my love.”) that sounds an awful lot like The Monkees’ Daydream Believer. Like Alexander Hamilton himself, Lin-Manuel Miranda is an excellent writer. The intelligence and wit of the lyrics throughout Hamilton‘s musical numbers is what ties the differing song styles together into a fully-formed modern opera.

Photo & Video Sharing by SmugMugThe Schuyler sisters.
Photo courtesy of The New York Daily News.

Miranda’s Hamilton (and Chernow’s Hamilton, and probably the real Hamilton) is flawed at best. He is a hustler and a player. He almost definitely had a “thing” with his wife’s sister Angelica. In the play, Hamilton greets Angelica for the first time with, “Excuse me miss, I know it’s not funny, but your perfume smells like your daddy’s got money.” He definitely had a three-year “thing” with Maria Reynolds while paying her husband to keep it a secret. He pissed a lot of people off, including Aaron Burr. Still, Miranda’s Hamilton is a sympathetic, scrappy protagonist (“I’m just like my country,” he claims, “I’m young, scrappy, and hungry.”). You find yourself rooting for him, despite the fact that he is kind of an asshole. Even Aaron Burr has a soft spot for him (until, you know, he doesn’t).

Hamilton is the best show I have seen on or off Broadway since I moved to New York in 2009. As a history lover, I loved Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson, but it was gimmicky and too self-conscious. Somehow, Hamilton has managed to do a similar thing without coming off as either. Its run at The Public Theater is sold out, but it won’t be long before Hamilton comes to Broadway. Even though the tickets will cost a little more than “a Hamilton,” I highly recommend the splurge. Right now, you’ll have to settle for Ron Chernow’s biography and a trip to Hamilton Grange.

All about Hamilton,

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The Times Square Ball Drop

Photo & Video Sharing by SmugMugTimes Square’s New Year’s Eve Ball, 1978. From The New York Times.

Tonight, all eyes will be on Times Square as the famous New Year’s Eve ball makes its drop at the stroke of midnight to welcome 2015! Although most New Yorkers avoid Times Square at all costs on New Year’s Eve (last year I had to have a police escort to my 45th Street office), we all appreciate the tradition of the ball drop and the special place that it has made New York during this time of year. The Times Square ball drop is a quintessential New York tradition – and it’s over a century old! The first ball drop was held on December 31, 1907 to celebrate the beginning of 1908. With the exception of the wartime years of 1942 and 1943, the Times Square ball drop has been held annually since 1907.

Photo & Video Sharing by SmugMugThe Times Building, 1905. From the Collections of the Museum of the City of New York.

The Times Square ball drop was first organized as an early publicity stunt for The New York Times newspaper. Adolph Ochs, owner of The New York Times, started with the idea of shooting off fireworks at midnight on New Year’s Eve, in part to promote the new One Times Square headquarters of the newspaper in 1903. The fireworks were a hit – close to 200,000 people attended the first all-day celebration and midnight fireworks display to welcome the 1904 new year. It was said that the cheers of the crowd in 1904 could be heard thirty miles north across the Hudson River.

Photo & Video Sharing by SmugMugTimes Square on New Year’s Eve, 1937.

But by 1907, New York City banned the fireworks display. Ochs was unfazed by this legal hiccup – he was ready for something bigger than a fireworks display on New Year’s Eve. His electrician suggested an electrically-lit “time ball” which would descend slowly to mark the stoke of midnight. Ochs commissioned the sign-maker Artkraft Strauss to build a “time ball,” which would descend down a flagpole at the One Times Square building at midnight. The original ball was made of wood and iron, and lit by 100 incandescent 25-watt bulbs.

The idea of a ball drop to mark time was not Ochs’. Time balls have existed since the early-19th century as a time-signaling device, used primarily by ship’s navigators to set their chronometers. The first ball drop took place at England’s Royal Observatory in Greenwich, where a ball has been lowered daily at 1 pm since 1833.

Photo & Video Sharing by SmugMugTimes Square on New Year’s Eve, 1937.

The original Times Square ball was used for twelve years, until it was replaced in 1920 with one made of wrought iron. In 1955, the Times Square ball was replaced again – this time with a 200-pound aluminum ball. This 1955 ball lasted a long time – it was basically unchanged until the 1980s, when it was replaced. From then on, the ball has been upgraded and replaced with some regularity as the New Year’s Eve celebration is such a television spectacle. As of this year, there have been a total of five balls since 1907, though the more recent balls have had many “versions.” The ball that drops tonight was introduced in 2008, though it will have new panels on it this year.

Photo & Video Sharing by SmugMugNew Year’s Ball, 1994. Photo by John Simon/AP.

The Times Square New Year’s Eve celebration is about more than just the ball – but the glistening time ball has always been at the center of the action. The ball drop made Times Square the New Year’s Eve destination it is today, and contributed to the atmosphere of the Times Square area over the past century. The Times Square ball drop is a major broadcast event, seen by an estimated one billion people annually. One million spectators are expected to pack the streets of Times Square tonight to view the ball drop in person! Although I don’t have any desire to stand outside at Times Square in 20-degree temperatures, I love watching the ball drop on TV as I ring in the new year with friends and family. I hope your New Year’s Eve plans will take you some place where you’ll be able to catch a glimpse of this year’s fantastic Times Square ball drop!

Happy New Year,

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Much of what we think of as distinctly American is actually Dutch in origin. Since the Dutch were the first large, permanent European group of settlers in New Amsterdam, their cultural and social traditions inevitably shaped some of the culture in New Amsterdam (and, later, New York – and the rest of the country!). My favorite Dutch oral tradition is the legend of Sinterklaas – which is particularly appropriate to this time of year!

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The modern-day legend of Santa Claus is derived from the Dutch legend of Sinterklaas. The legend of Sinterklaas came out of the feast of Saint Nicholas, who is the patron saint of Amsterdam, during the Middle Ages in Holland. Sinterklaas Day is connected to Saint Nicholas Day on December 6th, and is celebrated on the evening of the 5th or the morning of the 6th – not on Christmas – but the tradition is very much the precursor to our American Christmas celebration.

Sinterklaas is a stately old  man with a big white beard (sound familiar?), and, like Santa Claus, he has a troupe of helpers. His main helper and companion is Zwarte Piet (Black Pete). The character of Zwarte Piet is a Moor from Spain, and he is, rather troublingly, typically depicted by an actor wearing blackface, red lipstick, and earrings in a racist slave caricature which dates to the 1850s. In some stories, Zwarte Piet is represented as a former slave who was freed by Sinterklaas. Some modern accounts prefer to say that he is black from “chimney soot” from the chimneys he climbs down to deliver presents, rather than a Moorish slave. Zwarte Piet is Sinterklaas’ sidekick, and plays a role similar to Santa’s elves (though a little more deranged). He passes out candy to good children, but he also punishes bad children – sometimes with a birch rod, other times through straight-up kidnapping (he takes the kidnapped children to Spain, which doesn’t seem so bad if you ask me!).

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According to the legend, Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet traditionally arrive in the Netherlands in mid-November. They don’t come from the North Pole – they come from Madrid, Spain. Scholars think that Sinterklaas’ origins became tied to Madrid because of traditional associations between mandarin oranges and Saint Nicholas. Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet are greeted with a parade and Zwarte Piet throws candy and cookies to the children in the crowd. Every year, the arrival of Sinterklaas and Company is “reenacted” in the Netherlands and televised throughout the Netherlands and Belgium.

Sinterklaas does various charitable acts in the time between Thanksgiving and December 5, but his big night is the 5th. On that night, children leave their shoes by the fireplace – along with a little treat (such as sugar cubes) for Sinterklaas’ horse. (The parallels between leaving stockings on the mantle and a treat for Santa’s reindeer are obvious.) The next morning, the children’s shoes are filled with candy and small presents.

The origins of the Sinterklaas myth are debated. Some believe it partially arose from Germanic mythology, since there are parallels between the Norse god Odin and Sinterklaas. The legend definitely arose at least partially out of medieval depictions of Saint Nicholas. Medieval Saint Nicholas had a little “devil helper” called Krampus, who played a similar role to Zwarte Piet.

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Scholars also debate exactly when the legend of Sinterklaas came to North America, and how it morphed into the Santa Claus story we know today. Many scholars do think the Sinterklass story came with the first Dutch to New Amsterdam in the 17th century, though it is likely that the Sinterklaas tradition wasn’t popularized in America until the 19th century. Dutch writer Washington Irving was definitely responsible for the beginnings of the shift from Sinterklaas to Santa Claus – he wrote about Saint Nicholas flying over rooftops in a sleigh in 1812.

As you celebrate Christmas (and the North American Santa Claus tradition) this year, think about Sinterklaas and the Dutch origins of Santa Claus (and be glad that you don’t have to worry about Zwarte Piet beating you with a birch rod or spiriting you away!). As the Sinterklaas story demonstrates, our American traditions are typically not ours alone – they come to us from our rich cultural history as a place of immigrants.

Merry Christmas,

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There are a lot of things that I like about the Metropolitan Museum of Art. One of the best spots at the Met is their famous collection of ancient Egyptian art. This collection contains some amazing pieces – not least of which is the amazing Temple of Dendur. Despite all of the large and important Egyptian pieces owned by the Met, a very tiny artifact has become beloved among Met-lovers of all ages – a small blue hippopotamus named William. William is the unofficial mascot of the Met, and all you need to do is visit the Met’s Museum Store to realize that he has truly become the symbol of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He is also one of my favorite things ever!

As I was visiting the Met last weekend and did my usual round past William in Gallery 111, I started realizing that I don’t really know much about him…What was this little blue hippo’s purpose? Who did he belong to? (And why is his name William?) It turns out that William reveals a whole lot about Ancient Egyptian life, their belief system, and even their geography.

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William is a statuette of a hippopotamus from the Middle Kingdom of Egypt, dated to approximately 1981–1885 BCE. This statuette is small and well-formed with a brilliant blue body. It is made of a non-clay based ceramic pottery called faience. Although it is a depiction of a huge animal, the statuette is very small; it is only 11.2 cm x 20 cm and could fit into the palm of a hand. Aside from the disparity in the size of William versus the size of an actual hippopotamus, the form of the statuette fairly realistically depicts a hippopotamus.

Many of the aspects of William demonstrate an ancient Egyptian focus on the natural world, and particularly on the Nile River. Elements, such as the illustrations of river plants with which William is decorated, serve to demonstrate the importance and prominence of the Nile in the daily lives of Ancient Egyptians. The bright blue-green color and the illustrations of lotus blossoms and river plants that decorate his body are reminiscent of the shallow marshes of the Nile River, the place where Ancient Egyptian hippopotami would have lived.

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Illustration by Shirley Parker Levine, Paper and Threads.

Hippopotami are native to the Nile River and were a common feature of life around in the Nile in the Middle Kingdom. Although the William statuette depicts a docile (and even cute!) animal, hippopotami are not gentle creatures. Hippos are deadly animals, capable of killing a human without much effort. In a society such as Ancient Egypt in which people relied so much on daily interaction with the Nile, a dangerous hippopotamus would have posed a threat to livelihood when it came to those who participated in fishing, boating, and other water-based activities – and even to those who just lived and worked close to the Nile. The symbol of a hippopotamus would have provoked fear among Ancient Egyptians.

The Ancient Egyptian religion, and particularly their belief in the afterlife, is also evident in William. He was found in the tomb of Senabi II at Meir, an Upper Egyptian site about thirty miles south of modern Asyut, and he was part of Senabi II’s burial equipment. Ancient Egyptians’ preoccupation with the Nile continued into the afterlife – they believed that the deceased traveled along waterways on his way to the afterlife. Additionally, the Ancient Egyptians believed in continuity after death – that your possessions and body carry over after death, so anything you are buried with stays with you into the afterlife.

Photo & Video Sharing by SmugMugWilliam as drawn by a first-grader.

Senabi II was buried with William as well as with numerous pieces of boating equipment to prepare him for his nautical journey into the afterlife. The Ancient Egyptian would encounter hippopotami on the Nile in the earthly world and in the waterways of the afterlife. It is evident through an examination of William that three of his legs have been purposefully broken. This is meaningful because – like sculpting the hippo looking docile and in a small scale – breaking William’s legs weakens the hippo and ensures that he will not be a danger to the deceased as Senabi II makes his way to the afterlife. The defeated-looking hippopotamus was probably a totem for Senabi II to bring into the afterlife to ward off other would-be hippopotamus attackers and to bring Senabi II safely through the Nile.

Photo & Video Sharing by SmugMugFrom Petit Noun, L’Hippopotame Bleu by Geraldine Elschner.

William is not the only hippopotamus statuette of Middle Kingdom Egypt – I have come across similar hippopotami statuettes from the same era in the Louvre in Paris, for instance (that one is named Petit Noun!). The popularity of this type of statuette speaks to the significance of the Nile to Ancient Egyptians as well as the widespread belief in continuity after death. The symbolic nature of controlling the hippopotami by breaking his legs reflects the Ancient Egyptian’s lack of control of the Nile and need to feel dominant over nature.

Ultimately, William represents more than a hippopotamus – he represents the Ancient Egyptian’s preoccupation with all aspects of the Nile River, from its predicable flooding to the beauty of the marshes to the fear associated with the massive animals of the Nile and the afterlife. In every element of William’s aesthetics is an element of the Nile – its plants, its blue color, its animals, and its need to be controlled. When Senabi II was buried with William, he was essentially buried with the key to controlling the Nile River.

William was brought to the Met in 1917, though he remained an unnamed blue hippo until 1931. In 1931, an Englishman named Captain H. M. Raleigh gave him the name William in an article first published in London-based Punch magazine, and then reprinted in the Metropolitan Museum’s June 1931 bulletin.

You can view William any time in Gallery 111 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Although he might be small and a bit hard to spot in the large gallery, don’t walk past him – he is one of the most fascinating and important pieces at the Met!

From Gallery 111,

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The Rockefeller Center Tree

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Christmas in New York is a wonderful time of year. The subways are a little less crowded, the shop windows are a little brighter, and the city just feels festive. My must-see Christmas spot in New York is the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree. I go there every year on my birthday (December 6!) to see the lit-up tree and watch the ice skaters on the rink. To me, it isn’t Christmas season until I’ve gotten my picture taken in front of the tree (I have one from every year for the past 6 years)!

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Samuel H. Gottscho, Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree at Night, 1934.
From the Collections of the Museum of the City of New York.

The Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree is as old as Rockefeller Center itself – it is truly an iconic and historic part of Christmas in New York. The tradition began during the Depression-era construction of Rockefeller Center. On Christmas Eve in 1931, construction workers put up the first tree in Rockefeller Center – an adorable 20-foot balsam fir (in contrast to this year’s 85-footer!). In his book on the history of Rockefeller Center, Great Fortune, Daniel Okrent recounts that the workers decorated this first tree with “strings of cranberries, garlands of paper, and even a few tin cans.” It wasn’t much, but it brightened the workers’ Christmas spirits…and it began a long Christmas tradition that continues today.

For whatever reason (the Great Depression was probably a big part of it, and Rockefeller Center was still under construction at the time), there wasn’t a Christmas tree in 1932. But 1933 marks the first year that an “official” tree was erected – and there has been a Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center every year since! The 1933 tree was 40 feet tall (double the size of the first!). In 1936, the ice rink was added to Rockefeller Center – which definitely enhanced the visibility of the tree. The tree-lighting was first broadcast on NBC in 1951, on the Kate Smith Show.

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New York Times Company, Christmas Tree, Radio City, 1948.
From the Collections of the Museum of the City of New York.

There were times when the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree reflected current events in the country. During World War II (in 1942 and 1943), the tree was left unlit – and was decorated with red, white, and blue “non-essential” materials. During the 1973 oil crisis, the lights were only kept on for short periods of time.

In 2007, the tree was lit with energy-efficient LED lights – a new tradition which continues through today (this year’s tree will have 45, 000 LED lights on it!). This year’s 85-foot tree (with thousands of lights and a huge Swarovski star at the top!) is a far cry from the humble 1931 balsam fir. But there is something really special that the Christmas tree tradition is as old as Rockefeller Center itself. I can’t wait to visit the tree this year, and to add another photo to my collection!

With Christmas cheer,

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