Thursday, January 29, 2009

History Books

I have been having a great run on historically-oriented books lately - my reading time is filled to the rim! They mostly deal with everyday life of the mid-19th century and I am finding that they are helping me to gain so much more knowledge of the era. These books will help me tremendously in my re-enacting/living history presentations, as well as 'colorize' the story I am writing.
First off is one called "Interpreting Historic House Museums" which is edited by Jessica Foy Donnelly - it is actually written by numerous historical curators and historians. It tells of new ways to make your historical building or museum come to life by use of many different perspectives instead of the same old stodgy presentations.

I enjoyed it because it it opened my eyes to just what goes into every detail of a museum, from placement of furniture accurately inside of each room to the knick-knacks that are put on the shelves. It also delves into the museums that succeed throughout America and why they succeed.
There is even an excellent chapter about how my favorite open-air museum, Greenfield Village, decided to come up with their own presentations.
No, this is not necessarily a book for reenactors. Just something that is of particular interest to me.

"Death in the Dining Room" by Kenneth Ames is another book that is great for museum interpretations. But, it is also an excellent guide for social historians. In this book Mr. Ames gets into the psyche of the Victorians - the whys and wherefores of room furnishings: why were pump organs so important to Victorian women? For what reason did men lean back on the chairs, raising the front legs up off the ground? Hall trees, rocking chairs, samplers, sideboards, hall chairs, wall paper...if it was in a Victorian house, there is probably a story about it here. It really delves into the psychological realm of the Victorian home. Fascinating, but only if you are into details.

I'm not from Maryland and have only been to that beautiful state once (when I went to Antietam), but the next book I am reviewing, "Maryland Voices of the Civil War" by Charles W. Mitchell, is filled with first person history of the Civil War events that took place in that state. It is literally FILLED with excerpts from journals, diaries, newspaper articles, notices, letters, and speeches from that time. It's this sort of book that I enjoy most because it just brings history to life - I always imagine being the recipient of one of the letters or the writer of a journal from the time. I try to imagine what they saw or thought when they wrote or received the words written. Yeah, I'm a bit eccentric, I admit it. But, I certainly get the most out of a book like this!

Another book along these lines is the surprise gift of the Christmas Season for me (given by my lovely wife) - "Notes on the Life of Noah Webster" part one and two compiled by Emily Ellsworth Fowler Ford. Originally published in 1912, this is a two-book collection of (mostly) letters written by Noah Webster, friends and acquaintances of Noah Webster, and family of Noah Webster, as well as diary entries. Webster and his family wrote very descriptively and, because of this, we can almost *see* what was written.
Here is a sample (from 1830):
Dear Husband,
Professor Gibbs handed me your letter on Wednesday eve. The weather is chilly and I have to warm myself at the kitchen fire frequently. Julia is well, the babe rather drooping but not sick. Rose at half past five, made a fire, and put on the tea-kettle and while I was sweeping the room below, R. set the breakfast table and made some tea and toast with eggs. Lute clean'd the knives and help'd me wash the dishes, beside acting as nurse to Lucy.
(by the way, what you have just read took place in the home now located at Greenfield Village).

"The Victorian Homefront: American Thought and Culture, 1860 - 1880" by Louise L. Stevenson is a book that I found used for $4 on Amazon and took a chance. I'm glad I did! From the very first page of Ms. Stevenson's preface, I knew this would be an excellent book. In it, she states: "'Victorians read in their parlors. They had not used their bedroom chambers as the primary sites for reading.' So much work had preceded these two declarative sentences!" And then proceeds to write substantial overviews of everyday life in Victorian America. Now, considering the important historical events of the years covered in this book, surprisingly little is written about the Civil War or reconstruction. But, that's OK, because, instead, we are treated to the private and public life of the middle class person of the mid to late 19th century.
A fine find!

"My Likeness Taken: Daguerreian Portraits in America" by Joan L. Severa is an excellent (and a bit pricey) tome on American fashion from 1840 to 1860 and includes men, women, and children in its high quality pages. A fairly detailed description is written for each of the nearly 300 images here so anyone can learn about the variety of clothing during the mid -Victorian era.
Yeah, I know...I'm a guy and I have this book of fashion. But, more than that, I look at the faces - the expressions - of the long dead folks inside and wonder about them...their lives...their thoughts...where and how they lived...

And then I realize - - - - just by reading the books mentioned above (amongst the many, many others in my collection), I can get a pretty accurate picture of how they lived, and these people in Ms. Severa's book come to life for me! They are the ones I try to emulate whenever I don my period clothing. So, you see, it's not just a collection of fashion photographs.

There are so many other great social history books available - these are just a few of my most recent purchases/gifts.
The computer is a wonderful thing. TV and movies are a wonderful thing. But, I don't believe the written word will ever be surpassed.

Every one of these books can be found, usually at a good price, on I have yet to find them in any of the local bookstores.

(By the way, I am also reading "Time and Again" by Jack Finney - slow but interesting. Some great details (a little too detailed at times!) about time travel. Well...not exactly time travel. More like mind travel. In other words, reenacting. Kind of.)


Mrs. G said...

I *love* "My Likeness Taken", I only borrowed it from the library but it's on my list of books to purchase. I liked it even better than Severa's first book "Dressed For The Photographer". I haven't read the others you listed but I'll see what my library can do. Thanks for mentioning them.


Historical Ken said...

I agree with you about liking My Likeness Taken better than Dressed for the Photographer. Probably because Likeness is more of 'my' era.
Thank you.