September 1, 2010

I encourage "that clicking sound"

In a really good discussion of how technology has altered historical research David Turner writes

My only complaint, and I don't know if this is a complaint to be aimed at the camera manufacturers or the historians, is that I wish that there wasn't such a loud clicking sound when cameras take photos.

He's right that most digital camera users at the archives could eliminate that clicking sound. Digital compact cameras have the clicking sound merely to replicate the aural experience of a "real camera". Digital SLRs (and film SLRs, though how many people do archival photography with film?!) have to make that clicking sound. It's the sound of the shutter opening and closing to expose the sensor (or film) to light.

My most popular post on this blog has been Amateur Digitization for Historians, and I would now add one further variable to that discussion about digital compacts versus SLRs in the archives.

By way of background most archives don't allow flash (protecting the documents and protecting you from flash glare on glossy paper obscuring your images), and some archives don't allow copy stands, tripods and other stabilizing equipment. So a big concern in the archives is taking sharp photographs in low light holding your camera by hand.

Digital compacts typically use very high f-stop values which means your typical photo from a digital compact is sharper across the whole image with a wide depth of field. The foreground, center and background are all close to being in focus. But a high f-stop is not great in lower light (even room light), so many digital compact photos from archives without flash come out slightly blurry.

By contrast a digital SLR allows much lower f-stops than compacts. Now, with a lower f-stop your depth of field is reduced, but this doesn't matter as much in typical archival situations. Most parts of the paper are the same distance from the lens. SLRs also allow the user to set a very high ISO. This means you can compensate for the lack of light. Whereas a high ISO on film used to give you a very grainy image, digital SLRs give a much greater range of usable ISO values.

So, the short version of my advice is that if you can't use a stabilizing device, consider using an SLR for archival photography. You will lose many fewer photographs to being blurry than with a digital compact.

Another non-trivial advantage of the digital SLR is that it is much quicker. On a digital compact I find I can take about 400 photos an hour in the archives (mindlessly flipping from page to page). With a digital SLR I have taken over 1000 photos in an hour.

I think Turner's right that laptops, digital photography, and digitization of text are making fundamental changes to the practice of being an historian. My senior thesis advisor told me in the mid-1990s that how we do history hadn't changed much since Ranke or Beatrice and Sidney Webb (who wrote a great book about social and historical research). People looked at documents with their own eyes, and took notes. Then they analyzed and wrote about what they'd seen. Distance was a barrier to archival research. To be sure, the writing became quicker with the introduction of word processors in the 1980s, and computerized archival and library catalogs meant searching for sources was easier. But the process of primary historical research with old documents has been transformed in the last decade. Distance is less of a barrier to historical research, and the productivity of historians will increase tremendously as we take fuller advantage of the new technologies.

Posted by eroberts at 2:45 PM

May 13, 2010

But now they can create a variable for overly_sensitive and dont_understand

This story is a doozy for academics (chronicle of higher ed version, sub required). Two business school professors sent a fake email to 6300 professors purporting to be from a prospective PhD student, with different versions of the email asking for an appointment now (today) or later (a week away). Different versions of the email also varied the apparent race and gender of the student.

Deception in the name of research. It's been done before and will be done again. A really important question is whether the impact on the deceived is outweighed by the scientific benefit of obtaining possibly better estimates of what people think and do. It's all very well for an historian to say "Involving colleagues, or any human beings, in a study without their knowledge and their prior consent is unethical," because historians rarely face this issue. Historians who use social science research so often delegate the dirty business of data collection to people long before us.

I happen to think that this kind of field experiment (it's not really survey research as some people think) is necessary. In the first instance there's the research done by sociologists and economists about racial and gender discrimination in housing and labor markets. You can't do this without deception, and there is to me a clear greater good in knowing the extent of discrimination in society.

But a more abstract and important question is how does measurement affect behavior? People say different things in surveys than they subconsciously reveal in laboratory experiments. But even in laboratory experiments people know they are being studied, and it's quite likely there's some kind of impact on their behavior in that setting. So field experiments where people don't know they're being studied, and might be [nearly] harmlessly manipulated are necessary to work out how people respond in different situations. Research involving deception has inherent risks, but that's a reason to monitor it closely and make sure the consequences for the deceived participants are low, not to never do it.

Posted by eroberts at 12:07 AM

April 8, 2010

There was no golden age of original content

Interesting discussion at Crooked Timber about how much original reporting there is on the internet. Not much. Or maybe a lot. All depends what your prior expectations are, I suppose. There is certainly a lot of recycling of content, and probably there always was.

Now that we are lucky enough as historians to have access to lots of digitized text we can see the scale of this problem historical question more easily. A decade ago or more when I first got my hands dirty in original research, I used to think there might have been some golden age in the nineteenth century where newspapers and magazines had a high proportion of original content.

Why the nineteenth century? I suspect that publications with lots of original content are going to come in highly literate societies with printing presses, but despite that relatively limited communication to the outside world. Now, this does describe some significant parts of the world in the nineteenth century, Australia and New Zealand, parts of the American Midwest and West, and South America; the "regions of recent settlement" to quote an imprecise but known scholarly phrase.

But once you get cheaper transport, and then the telegraph, I suspect that the books and magazines of these regions are going to start reprinting material from elsewhere. And why not? The locals (recent in-migrants) wanted to know what was happening elsewhere, where they'd come from, where their friends and relatives had gone, and where they might move too. Indeed you have whole sections in nineteenth century newspapers labeled "News on the latest ship" or "News from the wires" (or something like that).

Not only that but the nineteenth century is full of books that are nothing but reprints of extracts from newspapers and magazines.

The other thing the digitization of magazines and newspapers has shown me is that it wasn't only news that was reprinted and not original (tho' it might have appeared original), it was, of course, also opinion pieces. The obvious successor to the political pamphlet was the newspaper column. Small town and city newspapers were particularly rife with this kind of reprinted stuff.

In short, reporters have long been rewriting someone else's copy and passing it off as new. I'd start with the hypothesis that this is an historical constant and not a decline in modern standards.

Posted by eroberts at 8:56 PM

December 30, 2009

Technological fixes for terror

The response to the Northwest 253 attempted terrorist attack has been interesting. As after 9/11 and the Richard Reid shoe bombing attempts, one of the distinctively American response has been the reach for the technological response.

A common lament has been that if only there had been a body scanner or an explosive puffer, then Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab would not have gotten his flammable underpants onboard. Another lament, one I am more sympathetic to, is that if the data matching was better the existing screening system would have worked. After all, his name was in the big watchlist database, and then Abdulmutallab purchased a one way ticket with cash and showed up without any luggage. But again the lament is that technology will save us. Data matching is just another fallible technology. The fact that this suspect's names matched in some databases alerts us to one aspect of this case that could have been handled better with technology. But the next terrorist might have different names in different databases and elude easy matching. Americans seem to like technological fixes to their problems. In New Zealand the more common response to problems is that the government should do something, pass a law or establish an agency.

The response has also been interesting in that the technology and organization of suspicion that is encapsulated in screening airline passengers is pretty widely accepted by Americans. But the same logic that makes it OK to screen airline passengers also makes it OK to stop drivers to check for drugs or alcohol, install red light or speed cameras, or impose restrictions on gun use. But few of these interventions which would also save lives are politically acceptable in the United States.

Posted by eroberts at 3:13 PM

December 21, 2009

A tutorial (discussion section) attendance policy that worked (for me)

Tutorials (discussion sections, but referred to as tutorials throughout because it's shorter) are an important part of university education. Done well, students come away knowing and understanding a topic. Also, students make friends in this form of class. This is a non-trivial benefit. Done badly, they are excruciating in their silence and stupidity, and make a Catholic mass seem short. I refer here to discussions in the humanities and social sciences rather than focused problem-set oriented classes in sciences. The format is often that students have read some documents, perhaps a whole book (at graduate level), or some articles or chapters at undergraduate level. Questions about the readings are posed, and discussion is meant to ensue. But that discussion doesn't always happen in practice.

Done well the students get a great deal of benefit from preparing for the tutorial, and then add to that with their peers' contributions and different perspectives. A large part of the success of a good tutorial comes from a critical mass of prepared students who show up. The question is how to motivate good preparation and high attendance, while also respecting that university students are young adults who can make their own good or bad choices about whether to show up or not.

There are many models for how to motivate preparation and attendance. But I was not satisfied with policies I'd used previously. For example, many of my colleagues in New Zealand have a policy of requiring attendance at 8/11 tutorials during a semester. Missing more than 3 tutorials means that students have not met "mandatory course requirements," and are not permitted to complete the class. It's not uncommon in American colleges for 5-20% of the class grade to be for "participation and attendance."

What I tried this year in my second year (sophomore) social history class was the following policy for motivating preparation and attendance. It worked well.

  1. There were 10 tutorial sessions in the (12 week) semester, and a final week of student presentations in lecture and tutorial time.
  2. Five of the 10 tutorials (labeled "starred" tutorials) and the week of presentations had penalties for non-attendance
  3. Attendance was recorded at the starred tutorials by students submitting at least half a page of notes on the week's readings (1-3 journal articles or chapters, 30-60 pages of reading)
  4. Non-attendance was penalized with the following deductions from the final mark
    • 1st missed tutorial/presentation: 4%
    • 2nd missed tutorial/presentation: 8%
    • 3rd missed tutorial/presentation: 16%
    • 4th missed tutorial/presentation: 32% (highly likely fail)
    • 5th and subsequent missed tutorial/presentation: 64% (definite fail)
  5. Students were encouraged to be responsible about letting me know if they could not make a tutorial for a legitimate reason (sickness, other university event clashing), and that if they handed in their notes they would not have marks deducted.

It looks way more complicated than it really was. Since it was a policy that differed from the standard ones in our department (and cognate departments in the humanities and social sciences) there were some questions about it. But the students understood it without any problems.

With this policy, 27 of a class of 31 did not lose any marks. In other words, 90% of the class attended (or demonstrated their preparation if sick or otherwise legitimately absent) for all the tutorials they were responsible for coming to. One student lost 4% and another 8%. Two students failed after missing 4 tutorials.

So, the policy had a very beneficial impact on student attendance. Most students prepared for class by taking more notes than required, and class discussions went very well as a result.

The policy seemed to work well for the following inter-related reasons

  • I eliminated the common "mandatory course requirement" of (x-3) out of x tutorials that just permits absences from 3 tutorials. These absences are often concentrated around the deadlines for other classes, and especially at the end of semester. Students are busy and they reasonably prioritize things that are graded, or are fun. Wishing they loved learning more, and exhorting them to do so, just leads to disappointment.

  • The sharp break in the "mandatory course requirements" approach between the penalties for missing 3 and missing 4 tutorials is unfair, and not well designed to motivate consistent preparation and attendance.

  • The severe level of the penalties for frequent absences got students' attention, as it meant failing

  • The policy did not require me to grade participation per se. The burden on me in implementing the scheme was minimal (less than 5 minutes per class to scan the notes that were submitted and record who didn't submit notes).

  • A realistically small level of notes submitted for attendance (half page) was meant to achieve two goals

    • It was meant to be, and was, seen as a realistic amount for students to achieve.
    • I also encouraged the students to try and be concise in their note-taking, developing the skills of summarizing an article in a few lines -- that sometimes less is better for them. It was much nicer being able to tell students that they had somewhat over-prepared and discuss how they could do less work (but more effective!) next time.

  • I did not try to compel perfect attendance, but designated some tutorials as more important than others. 6 weeks in which attendance was rewarded seemed to strike the right balance between encouraging work on this class, and recognizing that there can't be something due every week. The "starred" tutorials were mostly in alternating weeks.

  • In the alternate weeks I ran practical workshops to help students with their research for the class. These were sometimes structured (worksheets on various aspects of the research), and sometimes an open computer lab. Clearly, not every class would need computer labs. The general idea was to do a more practical session where the success of the session did not rely as much on student preparation or attendance.

  • In practice (this being the winter of the swine flu) I was understanding of student absences, when notes were submitted. Students seemed to view the policy as reasonable. The policy did the work of motivating students to prepare. I did not have to exhort students to do the reading and prepare for class because there was an objective penalty for not doing it. This freed up my emotional energy for more important things in the class.

The policy seemed to have a positive effect on classroom relationships, as well as motivating preparation and attendance. The awful tutorials where people attend without having done the reading, and the discussion proceeds slowly until the instructor realizes students haven't done the reading. The instructor then gets cranky at the students for not preparing for the class, and the relationship between students and instructor suffers.

All in all this was a low-workload way of motivating student preparation and attendance, and it seemed to improve student outcomes. By making the penalties for not preparing and attending explicit I respected students' abilities to make their own decisions about their time. Attendance was not compulsory, but it was valued.

By penalizing non-attendance and preparation rather than grading participation and attendance I did not have to grade students' contributions to discussion. This meant the discussion atmosphere was relaxed, because students who attended had prepared, but knew they weren't being evaluated for what they said and did once in class.

The details of the policy would vary in other classes, but the key features I would replicate are

  • Preparation and attendance at about half the tutorials was valued

  • Other tutorials were less dependent on student preparation/attendance

  • Attendance was measured by a reasonable amount of non-graded work that nearly every student was able to regularly exceed

  • Penalties for non-preparation and attendance were small at first 'miss', but increasing.

Finally, I must gratefully acknowledge my colleague, Alexander Maxwell, who suggested aspects of this to me, but disagrees with some of my adaptations.

Posted by eroberts at 4:25 PM

April 11, 2009

Easter absurdities

New Zealand's laws about opening stores on Easter are more than a little silly. As the New Zealand Herald summarizes it:

Currently the law bans all but a few retailers such as service stations, cafes and dairies from trading on Easter Sunday.

Some tourist destinations in Queenstown and Taupo are also exempt.

Last year dozens of shops ignored the ban, many choosing to pay a $1000 fine in order to keep the doors open.

While New Zealand has no state religion, here we have a law that restricts trading on a religious holiday. I think it might be a legitimate state interest to restrict stores opening on days of genuine national significance like Waitangi Day and ANZAC Day, but Easter? Why should we compel people to recognize a religious holiday?

But the absurdity as always is in the exceptions. It's OK for supermarkets in tourist areas like Queenstown and Taupo to open, but not for supermarkets in "residential" areas to open. Quite what the animating principle behind this distinction is, I don't know. Public and religious holidays are important, but not when there's money to be made off tourists. Every principle has its price. Back in the olden days (1943 - 1977) when hardly any stores were open in New Zealand on the weekends similar absurdities sprung up. New Brighton near Christchurch and Paraparaumu near Wellington were defined—for the purposes of regulating store opening hours—to be outside Christchurch and Wellington because they were beach destinations. So, it was OK for shop assistants in those towns to work on the weekends but not elsewhere.

The Herald also reports that one proposed resolution to this situation is to take New Zealand back to another historical absurdity: the local referendum on store opening hours: "The most recent bill, drafted by Rotorua MP Todd McClay to be introduced to parliament's ballot, calls for a law change allowing local communities to decide whether shops would open."

This was the early twentieth century way of dealing with the problem in New Zealand. Every town, from the cities like Auckland and Wellington to the smallest town with just a few stores, had a referendum on whether stores would open on Wednesday afternoon or Saturday afternoon. The day stores were closed was known as the "half-holiday." The referendum had the appeal of being democratic, of letting the citizens and consumers determine when stores would open, but it had the classic problem of democracy: minority groups were compelled to accept the wishes of majorities. The store that wished to open on Wednesdays was instead made to open on Saturday, when the community might have benefited from having some open one day, and others open the other day.

The cost and internal contradictions of such a system were obvious by the 1930s, and the Labour government's response was instead to regulate in 1944 that virtually no stores be open on the weekend. When the National government liberalised the law somewhat in the 1950s it introduced a byzantine list of what was acceptable to sell on the weekend, necessities being OK and luxuries having to wait until 9am on Monday. A cottage industry in lockable covers to put over the "luxuries" (like magazines) during the weekend developed. The moral principle of restricting store hours had been whittled away. Why it was OK to sell milk but not magazines was not clear.

A similar absurdity is present with the Easter trading laws. Why it's OK to have smaller grocery stores open in every city, and the larger ones in some places but not in others, is not at all clear. The only clear principle is that everything closes by diktat or store owners get to make up their own minds. I suspect that many would choose to close, in the same way that few non-grocery/liquor/pharmacy stores in New Zealand take up their freedom to be open at 9.30pm at night.

Posted by eroberts at 11:09 PM

January 15, 2009

History on the south side

Last semester I taught a social history course that centred round students doing primary research with the 1924 Houghteling survey of 477 Chicago families. One of the students did a very interesting essay that mapped the distance to work of two groups of employees. Using the file of addresses that he had compiled I then set out to see some of the houses, and whether they still remained. Most of these houses are on the south side of Chicago, where there has been a bit of urban change in the last 80 years.

Setting out with a map and camera I had a list of 40 houses. I did this historical research on foot. To this degree I was being faithful to the original investigators who certainly walked around the Chicago neighborhoods collecting the surveys. With 40 houses to cover I ran. If you are familiar with the south side of Chicago you will appreciate that a white guy running around with a piece of paper and a camera taking photos of people's houses might attract attention. However, I only had one person ask me what I was doing. He was bemused by the explanation that I was an historian. I guess that's what the Chicago Police Department now call undercover agents -- historians. Covering 21 miles (2:50 running, 4:00 total out there) I only got to 31 houses. About half of them were probably the original 1924 house. The results are summarized in the table below for those who are interested.

The diversity of the transformation was interesting. Some of the houses had been replaced by UIC. Others had been replaced by gentrification, particularly in the Bucktown area. Yet others, particularly near UIC and around 18th - 21th St were now largely Hispanic neighborhoods, perhaps today's unskilled immigrant laborers*

This was a particularly fulfilling intersection of running, research and teaching. With the addresses of all 477 families computerized I could envisage a student project to map the transformation of all of these houses. This would even be possible from New Zealand with Google's Street View. But such a project would hearken back to an earlier era of social science which studied neighborhoods as things in themselves. Modern social scientist might perhaps declaim that study of the neighborhood as superseded by a methodological focus on the individual and family in different contexts. So, there goes the neighborhood.

You can see a picture of the transformation here: www.evanroberts.net/chicago_houses

* I hasten to add that I am not implying Hispanics to be unskilled laborers, but am echoing the title of the original research.

House is now Total
Presumed to be 1924 house 16
Newer construction, sympathetic style 2
replaced by industrial buildings 2
apartment building 1
Church parking lot 1
Newer construction, since abandoned 1
Parking lot for Howard-Orloff Jaguar Volvo car dealer and on-ramp for I-90/94 1
Presumed to be 1924 house, but front unit probably knocked down 1
Presumed to be 1924 house, but front unit probably knocked down? Original survey doesn't mention front units 1
Public housing units 1
replaced by commercial buildings 1
school(?) and park 1
UIC Environmental Safety Facility 1
UIC Parking lot for Eye & Ear Infirmary 1
Grand Total 31
Posted by eroberts at 10:20 PM

December 21, 2008

Marriage is not recession proof, let alone weddings

As the financial condition of the country worsens, the wedding industry, so long considered recession-proof, is seeing fairy-tale weddings stripped of their sprites, their sparkle and everything else that suggests splurge. (from the New York Times, "Recession? Time to Slash the Flower Budget"

This puzzled me. Last time we had a long and severe depression marriages plummeted, as you can see from the figure below. Perhaps the current recession will be different. We are starting from income levels significantly above those of 1929. The magnitude of people's reactions to the current recession will be different than in 1929, though the direction may be similar. There is now, as the same NYT article, suggests greater policy support for marriage with tax and health insurance arrangements prodding people into formalizing relationships that might otherwise just be people living together.

Source: Historical Statistics of the United States, Tables AE507-508.

Posted by eroberts at 9:01 PM

August 19, 2008

But the hemp industry wasn't very large in South Carolina ...

A little historical humor. For what it's worth I gave this one the point it deserved.

Posted by eroberts at 2:46 PM

December 21, 2007

Shooting rats, hitting people

How common was shooting at rats but hitting a person in early twentieth century America?

I pose this question because twice in the last couple of weeks I've come across small-town-newspaper stories from the early twentieth century Midwest that report on people shooting rats—trying to shoot rats might be a better description of activities—missing, and hitting a person. I haven't gone looking for these stories, I've just happened upon them while looking for stories about a [New Zealand] Maori entertainer in small-town America in the 1910s and 1920s. Maybe I got lucky, and I happened upon the couple of rare instances of "man shoots at rat, hits person" stories that ever appeared. But I suspect not. A cursory search on Newspaper Archive brings up more similar stories. Do a similar Google News search today and you don't get anything.

To my modern eyes these stories appear tragicomic, and a little absurd. But historians can't merely laugh at the past, they have to explain it. Why did people get hit by stray bullets aimed at rats? A plausible explanation would include the following elements

  • There really were more rats around the city in the late 19th and early 20th century. Cities were dirtier.
  • People were more inclined to shoot rats rather than trap them. Other articles about the sorry perpetrators of these shootings mentioned that hordes of rats undeterred by traps drove people to shoot them.
  • When there's no-one around to contradict your claim, what a convenient excuse for an accidental shooting!
  • What a great story for the newspaper! I suspect the tragicomic appeal of the story was not lost on the editors of small town papers competing for readers.

Merry Christmas, and don't get shot by the rat catcher!

Posted by eroberts at 9:49 AM

August 23, 2007

The AHA's muddled approach to classifying research

The American Historical Association (AHA) has a confused way of classifying its members' research interests. That confusion causes members some consternation when the AHA then proposes to eliminate certain categories.

The root of the confusion is that the AHA's taxonomy attempts to fit several dimensions of historical research into a one-dimensional list. The AHA claims that since members "can select up to three categories that interest them," a category that lacks support from at least five members must "lack a significant constituency" in the membership. Last year the AHA tried to eliminate "psychohistory," this year they propose to potentially eliminate various periods of Japanese history, New Zealand history, Sudanese history, and British Columbia because fewer than five members listed these categories as a research interest. In response I've gone and changed my membership profile to now include New Zealand history, perhaps to save it from the chopping block.

Apparently, some of the reasoning behind eliminating categories is to save space on the printed form that members fill out to indicate their research interests. In the age of the Internet it scarcely seems necessary to have printing technology dictate intellectual decisions about classifying the areas of historical research. A favorite rhetorical trick of historians is to say "What if your students said that?" Well, what if your students used similar logic? This is the AHA saying that it is revising intellectual distinctions because it ran out of notepaper. What if your students said that?

The AHA is at pains to point out that categories can be added back into the taxonomy of research interests, if enough members request it. This is hardly the way to organize a classification system. To be meaningful a classification system should be stable over time, not subject to the whims of membership votes. If a category is significant as a field of study it should be left in the taxonomy, so that if and when it re-emerges with more support that change can be accurately tracked.

The biggest confusion in the AHA's research taxonomy is its approach to combining geographical, chronological and topical classificiations into one dimension. A basic principle of classification is that you should not combine separate aspects into one. Take my own research, for example. A compact description of what I do is economic and business history of New Zealand and the United States between [about] 1860 and 1960. I think I have a relatively coherent research agenda, but the AHA's muddled research taxonomy doesn't allow me to adequately describe it in the three categories I'm allowed to choose.

How the AHA comes up with its categories I don't know. Under United States history you're allowed to choose various time periods, including in the modern era "1877-1920," and "since 1920." Every time I see this it mystifies me. I understand that 1877 is significant as the end of Reconstruction, but that surely privileges a particular master narrative of American history over any alternatives. And "since 1920"? You can make any sort of argument you like for the significance of 1920, but 1930 is pretty significant too, as well as 1932, and 1912, and well, you get the idea ...

The AHA should revise its research taxonomy entirely. It should allow members to separately

  • Select several countries they are interested in. If countries have important sub-national divisions, either historic or contemporary, they can be selected too. At present the AHA's categories for Canadian research are a mystery as well. You can select British Columbia or Québec as separate subjects, but Ontario must fall under the generic "Prairie Provinces." I know only a little about Canadian history (it's glorious!) but Ontario is a little different than Manitoba, principally on account of the city of Toronto and its environs.
  • Select the time period they are interested in. This could be specified as a starting year and ending year. It would then be trivial for analysis to combine similar years into categories and centuries for tabulation. More interesting information on the overlap in research time would result from this approach rather than the rigidly specified "1877-1920" approach taken at the moment.
  • Select several topical approaches they are interested in. The present list of topics is an alphabetically ordered soup of themes and methods. Comparative, economic and psychohistory are arguably methods, mixed in with themes or topics like labor, immigration, and the mysterious "General Studies". The latter is about three times more popular than New Zealand history, for what it's worth.

The AHA might reasonably respond that this would lead to an explosion of information. It is not clear whether the AHA's membership taxonomy is meant to be a survey of the core topics its members are prioritizing in their research right now, or a broad survey of the wider field members set their research in. The way it's set up at present you have to choose between different levels of specification. For example, say you're a Canadian historian and you're presently working on a topic in British Columbia. Which do you choose? The obvious answer would be both, with the choice being presented as the hierarchy of precision that it is. The current system forces a trade-off between narrow and broad visions of research without indicating what the system is designed to elicit.

The geographic and chronological categories reflect this confusion. Take those U.S. history time periods again. Why the 43 years between 1877 and 1920 deserve their own category while the modern era (87 years and counting) and the colonial period (about 200 years) are implicitly all of the same is not clear. Within these eras, few people are likely to be doing research on the whole period specified by the AHA. It can't possibly be a fair representation of what people are doing. If your research spans several of these artificial eras, what are you meant to do? My dissertation dealt with the period from 1850 to 1940. I could use all three of my apparently generous allocation of category choices to describe only my time period. If you do American Indian history your chronological divisions are Pre-contact, Colonial, 19th century, and 20th century. Perhaps there's a long 19th century concept in here that covers the 1776-1800 period, but that's not stated. And why does American Indian history work in neat centuries while the rest of American history pivots on wars and presidential elections?

Similar absurdities in chronological specificity are apparently present in the Asian history section. In the Chinese history section if you study Taiwan you're explicitly constrained to doing it after 1949, but if you study Hong Kong and Macao there's no time period. I can sort of divine the reasoning here, but it's not really clear. Moreover, "and"? What if you only studied one of Hong Kong or Macao?

The same error appears where "Australasia and Oceania" are specified as options. I appreciate the AHA specifying New Zealand as a separate option, but in case they don't know Australasia implies Australia and New Zealand. As it stands, it's the Australian historians who could complain they're not fairly represented. Moreover, while many historians of the Pacific islands (Oceania) have to consider Australasia, the converse is not true. Most Australian and New Zealand historians work in blissful ignorance of the Pacific islands, the islands being merely convenient transit points on the way to San Francisco or Vancouver by boat or telegraph. You could also be an historian of Oceania's interaction with the United States or other Pacific Rim countries without studying Australasia much, if at all. Lumping Oceania in with Australia and New Zealand misrepresents that field too.

In short, the taxonomy is a mess. It would be better to start over than keep building on the existing foundations.

Posted by eroberts at 4:44 PM

August 16, 2007

A short history of hill repeats

Arthur Lydiard is indelibly associated with the history of long distance running in New Zealand. It's a history of great achievements in the 1960s, lack of official recognition in the 1970s, and growing appreciation for Lydiard's achievements in the last two decades. It has been interesting for me to watch a talented guy in Arizona work through Lydiard's schedules, including hill repeats, faithful to the schedules Lydiard drew up in Auckland and beyond.

Although Lydiard is associated with New Zealand, within the country he is associated with Auckland running. Hill repeats are a good example of the association with Auckland. Around the country, the influence of Lydiard on New Zealand running is clear, though "the schedules" have been modified by succeeding generations of coaches who have been dissatisfied with the periodization or other aspects. I could not claim that no one in Wellington does hill repeats, or that no one ever has, but I will claim that there's a strong tradition in Wellington running that disregards hill repeats for the long or hard run "over the hills".

Lydiard's hill repeats are not a general theory of the best way to train, but a specific adaptation to the local environment. Compared to Wellington, Auckland has lower, fewer, and flatter hills. You really have to work hard to avoid the hills in Wellington, and you can design a relatively long run with regular steep climbs and steps that gives you all the benefits of the hill repeats with none of the structure. You come to a hill, you run up it hard. You come to a set of 200-500 steps. You run up them. As my high school coach used to say, "you can shuffle uphill, but if you shuffle up steps you'll break your legs." If you think hills are good for your leg strength, steps are even better. Taking them one at a time teaches quick movement, while bounding up two or more at a time builds power in your push off. If you have a flat stretch you might stride out a bit, but save something for the hills to come. You could plausibly do 20 miles or more in this fashion in Wellington. This is much less possible in Auckland. The hill repeats were the way to get in lots of hills in that environment.

The Wellingtonian attitude to hills is in no way a disdain for the idea that hills are really good for you. The disdain is for the idea that you need a formal structure to running on hills. When you live in a place where 300m of vertical gain in an hour's recovery run is normal you really don't to run hill repeats.

Posted by eroberts at 7:27 PM

July 1, 2007

Do they?

This is a fortune, but in reality I think that's an open question ...

Posted by eroberts at 12:28 PM

June 14, 2007

A short jaunt past history

This entry represents the confluence of two of my favorite things: running on trails and history. Meeker Island lock and dam was the first set of locks constructed on the upper Mississippi river in 1907. If you are strolling or running along the east bank of the river just where Minneapolis meets Saint Paul it has always been possible to go down some steps (in Minneapolis) or down a rutted little trail (in Saint Paul) to the riverbank and see the remnants of the dam. When the river level is low you can see a lot of what was there, if not the island itself which is submerged by the now much deeper channel of the river.

The lock and dam lasted just five years, and was then submerged by the raising of the river achieved with the construction of the much larger dam at the Ford Parkway.

Now with the centenary of the Meeker Island dam upon us, the Saint Paul city council has spruced up the area a little, added some tables and benches, and made the path alongside the river more runnable (or walkable). The best way to see this on a run is to run down the wagon road on the Saint Paul side, along the river, and then up some iron steps (beside a storm water outlet) into Minneapolis to emerge about 100 meters from where you went down the wagon road.

Lake St bridge

Minneapolis' beach on the Mississippi

National Parks Service book on the history of the Mississippi in the Twin Cities

Posted by eroberts at 5:29 PM

June 8, 2007

My work here is done

This entry got delayed and delayed because I had so many different ideas in my head about how to write it. That feels a bit like a metaphor for the whole dissertation ... I also hesitated over the title [of this entry]. Strictly speaking my work here is only very nearly done, as I have a few trivial footnotes to revise, forms to submit, and Graduate School bureaucracy to wait for, before the degree is conferred. That's a metaphor for life and history itself. Few things have clear endings.

All that is prelude to saying that last Friday I successfully defended my dissertation. The title is "Her real sphere? Married women's labor force participation in the United States, 1860-1940". If you really want to know more ... you can easily contact me.

It's a good feeling to be done. The best metaphor for what the defense was like, was that it was like a moderately long race. The defense lasted about 1 hour and 40 minutes, and once I'd settled into the ebb and flow of the discussion it was good. I was tired afterwards—like you would be after racing for that long—but I didn't feel totally wiped out by it. All the advice I've gotten suggests that I should put the dissertation topic aside for a few months before returning to any research on it. In that way, defending your dissertation is like a marathon. You've got to forget about it before you return to it. Except that few people try and defend a dissertation in all fifty states. (I've heard of people with two PhDs, or a PhD and a MD. Not common, but not unheard of. My grandfather told me, erroneously I just now learn, that Albert Schweitzer had four doctoral degrees. The always reliable internet tells me that Schweitzer was merely accomplished in theology, music, philosophy, and medicine. His doctorate and M.D. appear to be his only academic qualifications.)

It will be easy to take a break from studying millions of dead men's wives, because on 1 July I take up my new job as a Lecturer (equivalent to Assistant Professor in the North American academic system) in New Zealand and United States history at Victoria University of Wellington. This will not be news to some readers of this blog who I know in "real life," and will be news to others.

Hopefully time will allow me to maintain some blogging. That, after all, is the advantage of the magic internet. It's everywhere, even in New Zealand ... But who knows? In the last six months as I finished the dissertation it should have been obvious to regular readers that my intellectual energies were elsewhere. This blog has always been a eclectic mix of the personal, professional and political ... and I hope to keep it that way. The proportions of that mix are not fixed over time.

Academic readers may be curious to know whether the blog had any effect on my job search. If you go by the measure that I got the job, obviously not. I made no effort to highlight or hide the blog while I was applying for jobs. It's always been a useful discipline for me to imagine that people might read this while googling about my job application. If they exclude me on the basis of what I've written here, so be it. The blog is a good predictor of the kind of conservation you might have with me at morning or afternoon tea.

And on that note, time for an early morning cup of coffee ...

Posted by eroberts at 7:43 AM

May 29, 2007

Military history and other subfields

Memorial Day brought with it the opportunity for some people to lament the apparent passing of military history from the nation's universities. I'm sympathetic to the argument that military history is an important field, possibly somewhat neglected, but I don't believe there's any great conspiracy to chase military history out of history. Academia just doesn't work like that.

Change the nouns in those articles, and you have a template for complaining about the decline of "X history," and "Y economics," and "Z sociology." Military historians are hardly the only people to feel themselves on the outs. Indeed, please show me the sub-field anywhere that feels it is making out at the expense of all the others. Few academics feel that way. It's hardly motivating to feel you've conquered the academic world, and answered all the questions. Every academic needs to feel a little insecurity about the value of what they're studying. It keeps you on your toes. In the lab, archives, or library it's easy to convince yourself that what you're doing is self-evidently important. It isn't.

The rise and fall of topical interests in academia is chaotic rather than conspiratorial. People are rewarded for doing new and different scholarship. Inevitably that leads to golden ages followed by declines. Or, if you like, periods of excess in one direction, followed by corrections. Booms and busts. The military historians have a lot on their side for a resurgence. War has been a significant part of human history by any measure. It has changed the borders of nations, killed people, uprooted millions of men and women from their normal jobs and put them in the service of their country, brought down political leaders, and led to the rise of others. Significantly, war is often quite well documented, leaving much material for the later historian. People will return to military history because there really is something there to study, and precisely because there are fewer people doing it now.

Looking at faculty lists is a terrible single indicator of what anybody is studying now. The faculty at elite institutions represent what was happening in history at best a few years ago when the most recent hire selected a dissertation topic, and on average perhaps 15-20 years ago (a reasonable guess at median time since PhD graduation for all faculty in elite departments). Faculty webpages do not list what people are becoming interested in -- they represent conservative, historical information on what someone has done. Dissertations, conference papers and articles are a better leading indicator of what's going to be significant soon, though harder to compile and evaluate. 15-20 years ago history was in the middle of the "cultural turn." I'm glad that historians have learned that "language matters," but some of the excess along the way was not to my intellectual tastes. The new enthusiasm in history for transnational history shows its origins in cultural history. Basically, some transnational history is about how the same "texts" were read in different ways in different places. But once you start asking that question, you end up asking about how the places, people and events differed to give those different readings. You're not quite through the looking glass, but you're getting back to bigger questions than the intense analysis of obscure texts can support.

If transnational history can't open the door for a revival of military history, I'm not sure what will. It won't be the same military history that we had in the past, but nothing is ever the same the second time around. It might even be better after decades of intellectual marination. Take, for example, the economic history of institutions or business history. I cite these examples because I (sort of) know them. Back in the day (that would be the first half of the twentieth century) economic history was nearly entirely contiguous with the history of state institutions and policies, and the history of businesses, often the history of specific firms. With new ways to analyze old data, economic history in the second half of the twentieth century was (and I generalize broadly) concerned with questions that could be answered with microdata, and the macroeconomic question of what drives economic growth. But now lo and behold, there's renewed interest in business history and state policies and institutions. It looks quite different than it did 50 years ago.

A revived military history will not be about battles we already know about. It's been done. No one gets rewarded for literally reinventing the wheel. They get rewarded for finding new uses for old wheels, and marketing old wheels as new. Things change in 50 years. You can't go back, but you can take it with you.

Posted by eroberts at 10:34 AM

May 25, 2007

Advertising you don't see today

I found this advertisement in a 1937 issue of Fortune magazine. It's revealing, to say the least. Fortune was regarded as a relatively "progressive" business magazine, and before World War II had a staff of excellent journalists and photographers.

Among the interesting aspects of the advertisement is the black man working as a servant. The vast majority of black domestic service workers in the 1930s were women. Butlers—which this man appears to be—were not as common in the United States as in Britain. It's doubly interesting that this advertisement portrays having a black butler as part of a desirable lifestyle.

Posted by eroberts at 5:43 PM

April 13, 2007

Watch your denominators!

Interracial marriage is apparently on the rise—they're surging according to the New York Times, which makes me wonder how soon if ever it will be until the word "surge" gains an unfortunate connotation from the success or otherwise of the "surge" in Iraq, but I digress—.

My one quibble, and multiple questions, about this new trend relate to the near complete absence (at least in the article) of any context for some of the numbers. We learn, for example, that in 1970 there were 65,000 inter-racial marriages and 422,000 in 2005. That's all very well, but how many marriages were there in total? A quick trip over to the National Center for Health Statistics (who actually keep the data) shows there were 2,230,000 marriages in 2005. That's a pretty impressive flow of inter-racial marriages into the stock of marriages, on the order of about 1 in 4. Certainly it captures the trend better than the 7% of existing marriages being inter-racial.

Perhaps this is all covered in the book, but rates of inter-marriage are in part artifacts of the proportion of the population that are different races. Say you have 90% of the population white and 10% black (this is a reasonable approximation of the American population from 1870 to 1990), even if you assume marriage is totally random with respect to race, you're not going to get a very high rate of inter-racial marriage. Change the way you enumerate race in 2000 and you'll get a rapid increase in the number of non-white people, and a significantly greater chance that white people will end up married to non-white people (simply because white people are 75% of the population, a random inter-racial marriage will more often be a white person married to a non-white person than two different non-white races).

In other words, some of the increase in inter-racial marriage is probably algebraic rather than attitudinal.

Posted by eroberts at 2:12 PM

March 26, 2007

The best prophet

I don't think this is true.

Posted by eroberts at 4:16 PM

March 14, 2007

A desecration on the landscape

I think this blurb was meant to read "The Industrial Revolution has sometimes been regarded as a catastrophe ..." Otherwise, that's one very influential and damaging book.

(from the latest Oxford University Press catalog)

Posted by eroberts at 7:27 AM

March 1, 2007

Anthony Trollope on Wellington

Plus c'est la meme chose, plus ça change. Trollope wrote in 1874.

Posted by eroberts at 7:05 AM

February 21, 2007

But would you want your daughter to marry then?

Recently the New York Times ran a story about how "51% of women are now living without a spouse," and copped some criticism for including 15 year olds in that total of women. Some of the criticism revolved round the mathematical confusion between ≥ and >. Around such weighty matters does our public discourse revolve! Is the inequality strict or not?

But the better—more amusing—part of the debate was witnessing the outrage that 15 year olds were counted as women. It may shock modern morals to know that back in the late nineteenth century girls could marry as young as twelve, and sometimes earlier. The common law rule was that

If a child below the legal age should marry, the marriage is not necessarily invalid, provided he or she be above the age of seven years. If the parties continue to live together after both have attained legal age, the marriage is thus ratified, but either party may disaffirm it by ceasing to live with the other before that time arrives.
(From Leila Robinson, The Law of Husband and Wife, 1890 [PDF])

Above seven years old ... Good thing the New York Times didn't include eight year olds in its definition of women, or we would never have heard the end of it! The careful reader will note how apparently easy it was for nine year olds to escape their premature marriages, they "just" had to leave their spouse. Except that provisions in the common law for child marriage were not to allow play dates to turn into wedding ceremonies, but to unite families through marriage as a largely economic transaction. So, any children so united at an early age would likely have had little volition to leave their new spouse. It was this residual provision for the elite to marry their children young that survived into the nineteenth century. But with better means for families to combine their economic interests the rationale for child marriage was lost, yet the legal grounding for it survived. Few laws are passed with an expiration date. Provisions like this can hang around on the books for years without much use, only to be rediscovered as an "outrage" to modern sensibilities that must be corrected.

But the thing is, or was ... that by the late nineteenth century few early-to-mid-teenage "women" took advantage of their freedom to marry. In 1880 a scant 0.07% of 12 year old girls were married. Even at 15 just 1.4% were married, 4.2% at 16 and then 9.3% at 17, 14.5% at 18, and 25.6% at 19. 15 year olds were not rushing to the altar in the late nineteenth century, but 19 year olds were. In other words, the upward revision in the minimum age to legally marry has not been the cause of declining early-teenage marriage. For historical comparability it's completely appropriate to include 15 year olds with other women. But I wouldn't advise any girl to get married at that age. Unless he's really rich ...

Posted by eroberts at 9:14 AM

February 12, 2007



From the Appleton Post Crescent (Appleton, Wisconsin), Tuesday 21 June 1921, p.4.

Posted by eroberts at 4:20 PM

January 28, 2007

Death of a downtown department store

Filene's Basement flagship store in Boston is closing, if apparently only temporarily. Though it is now no longer part of the Filene's chain, it began as a way to sell discounted items from Edward Filene's department store. In the historiography of department stores, Filene's is significant because Susan Porter Benson used the store's archives (particularly its staff magazine) for her Counter Cultures book, where modern department store historiography really begins.

While I still believe the death of the department store has been exaggerated, this is sad news.

Posted by eroberts at 2:54 PM

January 12, 2007

It didn't [really] happen there, either

Seymour Martin Lipset has died (see here and here for commentary and round-up), and hopefully taken to his grave the mis-specified question of why there is no socialist party in the United States.

I say that with a great deal of admiration for Lipset's career, research interests, and writing. His writing was provocative in the best way, his research comparing Canada and the United States illuminated our understanding of both those countries (and others), and proved the basis for a long career. As one long interested in at least dabbling in comparative history you have to admire and engage Lipset's work. You do have to wonder a little how someone can make a career out of the logical trap of seeing the United States as "exceptional," yet also open to understanding by comparison.

Lipset was scarcely responsible for originating the question, since Werner Sombart got in well before him with his 1906 book, Why is there no socialism in the United States? (Google books link in German only!) Yet there was socialism in the United States. Not as a governing party anywhere, not as a winning political movement (unless you count wins against other left-wingers, which socialists have more often specialized in achieving), but certainly as an animating idea in the heads of many laborers and intellectuals. Lipset re-specified this already badly specified question a little by asking why there wasn't really even a social democratic party in the United States.

The changing question gives some of its own answer: the supposedly socialist Labo[u]r parties of Australasia and Britain had become social democratic to actually gain and maintain governments. As a swag of recent literature shows the actual policy differences between social democratic governments in Canada and Australasia, and American Democratic administrations were smaller than the difference in rhetoric would imply. Moreover, it's quite clear that the parties saw themselves as representing the same elements and ideas in their respective polities. The Australasian Labour parties saw the Democratic party as their American counterpart. While population differences meant the relationship was asymmetric, Democrats who did look abroad for inspiration saw the Labo[u]r parties.

The substantive difference to be explained is how socialist and social democratic ideas were incorporated into national governments in different ways in different places. As Lipset noted, socialists did win office in the United States. At the local and state level. But national office was something else. To win and maintain office, the Labour parties had to abandon much of what made them truly socialist.

The largest difference in policy between the Democratic party and the Labour parties would appear to be over national government ownership of companies. Specifically, in Australasia and Britain socialism became watered down to the national government owning the "commanding heights" of the economy: airlines, banks, energy and much else besides. Yet even here, the socialism was thin, and the contrasts with the United States overdrawn. For example, the federal government owns substantial amounts of land, particularly in the western states, that have been leased cheaply to private farmers. Fannie Mae was and continues to be a massive intervention in the residential property market by the federal government.

The arguments social democratic parties made for nationalizing businesses veered away from socialism, and towards market failures (often monopoly) and ensuring social opportunity for individuals and families—arguments similar to those made for United States federal government interventions in the economy. It remains broadly true also that the federal government is somewhat less important in the United States than the national governments in Australasia and Canada. A true accounting of the success of social democratic ideas would have to trace them across the states and provinces as well. United States governments (state and federal) have, broadly speaking, relied more on regulation and subsidy than outright ownership of private business. Placing some sort of value on these regulatory interventions, subsidies and tax breaks, and evaluating the rhetoric surrounding them would probably show smaller differences in the success of socialism or social democracy than Lipset allows.

Lipset's point that the Democratic party has never been a true social democratic party is mostly well made. If (if!) the Democratic party had evolved in the North only, perhaps it might have become a social democratic party. But for a century after the Civil War it remained the political vehicle for segregationist southern whites. If anything is allowed to stand for a single explanation of why social democracy did not flourish in the United States, that would be it.

Posted by eroberts at 2:06 PM

December 18, 2006

Tokyo Olympiad

Anyone with any interest in running history should rent and watch Tokyo Olympiad. Directed and produced by Kon Ichikawa this is the best moving footage of the Olympics I've seen from before the era of mass-televised coverage. The movie is in color, which instantly sets it apart from all the other Tokyo coverage I've seen (e.g; these YouTube links) If you are expecting, say, full coverage of the 10,000m you'll be disappointed. But they do have 3 minutes in full, clear color including the whole last lap and it is amazing to see how many lapped runners Mills, Gammoudi and Clarke had to pass as they swapped the lead in the last 400m. Other, shorter, races are covered in full.

The coverage is artistic, rather than functional, There could be coverage of more events in its 170 minutes. You might get frustrated at the women's 80m hurdles being replayed from multiple angles—from the front, focusing on their leg muscles etc—while the men's 1500m gets only the briefest finish shot. But that would be to miss Ichikawa's intentions of recording the human drama and artistry of the Olympics.

It is not entirely track and field, with gymnastics and swimming also being covered. But the "other sports" get surprisingly little coverage. Track and field, and especially Abebe Bikila's marathon, receive the most footage.

There is no plot to the coverage, so it's quite possible to watch it in snippets when you have the chance. I've been watching it while doing my daily stretches. It might make for good relief from boredom on the treadmill. However you watch it, if you instantly recognize some of these names—Hayes, Clarke, Gammoudi, Packer, Roelants, Odlozil, Tyus—you'll get more than a little enjoyment out of this film.

Links: New York Times review. Wikipedia

Posted by eroberts at 7:52 AM

November 30, 2006

Even better than the microfilm scanner

A couple of weeks ago I waxed poetic about the beauties of the microfilm/fiche scanner. Now I've discovered something quicker and often higher quality: using your digital camera to take photos of the microfilm screen.

One of the disadvantages of the microfilm scanner compared to the digital camera is speed. My best estimate is that in an hour you can take 400 digital photos or 130 scanned microfilm images. That's a substantial difference.

To do this well you will need a tripod so that you can hold the camera steady. You can get a perfectly adequate tripod for these purposes for $30, perhaps less. Or you may already own one. Then it's simple. Line up the camera so that is horizontal and facing at the microfilm screen, put your camera on the setting you use for taking photos of documents, and snap away to your heart's content.

So far I have only done this at my own university's library. There some of the staff and other patrons have just looked at me a little quizically about the tripod bag I'm carrying. It has an uncanny resemblance to a bag you might carry a gun in. No telling what the policies of other archives are about bringing in tripods, so you wouldn't want to rely on this method for reproducing material off microfilm. But a time saving tip worth knowing about if you need to reproduce microfilm images.

As always with microfilm the quality of your image will depend on the quality of the original microfilming. This varies tremendously, but the great thing about digital images of microfilm is that you can use photo editing software to alter the black-white balance to improve legibility if there are serious problems with the original microfilm copy.

Posted by eroberts at 8:40 AM

October 30, 2006

Shopping your ideas

Earlier this week the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that there was no governmental purpose in denying same-sex couples the benefits of marriage, and that the state had six months to remedy this. Gay marriage, per se, did not have to be one of the remedies, civil unions would also do.

In passing I'll note that this ruling has attracted much less public attention than previous rulings in Massachusetts and Vermont, which might suggest that American politics is heading towards some kind of compromise on this.

While there has been less debate about the decision you don't have to look hard to find [mostly Republican and right-leaning] people criticizing the courts for making this decision. It's telling that the conservative response is to criticize the venue of the decision—the courts— and not (entirely) the decision itself. It's fair to say that until very recently conservative parties in Anglo-American democracies saw the courts as the bulwark of tradition and order against populist change.

It's striking that in America there is a populist right that sees the judiciary and the common law as anti-democratic and revolutionary. Historically conservatives saw the courts as a bulwark against populist democratic change. There are traces of this attitude in Australasia, Canada and Britain, but it's less pronounced because social movements have not used the courts to try and achieve social change quite as much. Perhaps that is for the better, since changes are achieved with democratic support, but I suspect that it reflects rationally different choices in political strategy contingent on legislative and judicial structure.

Now, I'm no lawyer, but one of the defining characteristics of Anglo-American government is that laws are made both by the legislative/executive branches (statue law), and by judges interpreting the law in cases (common law). In almost every setting groups seeking social change use both mechanisms to try and affect change. This is such an established, bipartisan part of our broad political heritage that current critiques of it by people opposed to gay marriage are, I suspect, largely disengenuous.

For the sake of argument, wandering away from the issue at hand, look at the movement for the 8 hour day. Unions campaigned for this at three levels

  • Trying to achieve it through contracts with individual employers
  • Multi-employer contract negotiations (particularly the Australian and New Zealand arbitration systems
  • Legislative restrictions on working hours.

The 8 hour day was not achieved in any country in one go; it was achieved incrementally through success in different legal venues. Same with most other social changes one cares to look at.

Venue shopping by political and social movements is an inherent part of the Anglo-American political and legal structure. If some groups really do feel those rules of the "game" are unfair and should be changed, that's a problem, but I'm inclined to guess that for now they're being disengenuous and will happily shop their own ideas round whatever sympathetic legislature or court they feel will take them.

Posted by eroberts at 3:45 PM

October 20, 2006

Tip o' the day

Microfilm scanners are a wonderful invention, and I'm so enamored with them that in writing this post I browsed the web to see what they cost. At least as much as the top of the line Apple Powerbook and maybe as much as a VW Passat to put it in terms of other desirable items. Of course, the relative prices may change. Not buying any of those things for myself any time soon ...

Anyway, here's my tip for your microfilm scanning. As best I can tell what the scanner does is similar to what an automatic focus camera does—sensing the relative amounts of white and black in the viewfinder and then capturing the image. Now if you've ever taken photos on an automatic camera you'll know they are easy to fool by composing a shot that is a mix of both dark and light areas. Same goes, it seems, for the microfilm scanners.

If you have significant amounts of the black film between the pages in your images, the digital image will not be as well exposed for the part of the image you want. Previously my preference when using the microfilm scanner was to have the black space on the side of the page, rather than cropped parts of another page. This works OK for pages that are quite dark anyway (whole pages of text). It works poorly when you are trying to capture an image of a page that has a lot of white space in it—tabular data, for example—because then the automatic exposure settings can't cope very well, and will wash out the detail you are interested in.

Bottom line advice is this: For the best exposure on microfilm scanners try capturing an image without any of the black film space between pages.

Posted by eroberts at 2:21 PM

September 29, 2006

Articles or books?

This article in Perspectives is welcome news that leading historians may be giving more weight to articles than books. My view has long been that historians publish too many books and not enough articles, while economists have the opposite problem.

Posted by eroberts at 6:57 AM

September 3, 2006

Miracle off 34th St

Papers around the country are leading, or at least leading their business sections, with the story of how Federated is changing venerable old stores like Marshall Fields, Kaufmann's, and Foley's into Macy's.

All of the stories, though locally written and not from the wire services, have the same basic structure. They note the historic (centuries old!) roots of the store, and then use the occasion of the change-over to Macys to quote "retail consultants" saying things like

department stores have become dinosaurs ... [t]he department store model is eroding. Business models don't last forever

and (these are different people)
The whole department store base is questionable today

the power of such plans to inject new life into traditional department stores will prove out only over time, just as the segment took many years to decline

Color me just a little sceptical of the near-uniform pessimism about the prospects for department stores from "retail consultants." Now, it's not as if every business takeover story is revealed to be far-sighted prescience, but if the prospects for department stores were that bad, why would Federated be doubing down its investment in the sector?

A little historical perspective on this goes a long way.

Been here before
This is also a newspaper story I've seen before. If the department store is dying it is taking a mighty long time. You can read similar predictions from 1930s retail consultants when Woolworths was growing rapidly. When did you last shop at an American Woolworths? Quite a while ago. That's right.

Department store consolidation began in the 1920s, in the sense of consolidated ownership. But operations, from the name of the store to purchasing, were not really co-ordinated across these groups until computerized point-of-sale systems became both common and reliable. So, there is something different to what is going on today with greater centralization of purchasing and management by Federated.

As to whether department stores will survive, it's a basic point, but easily forgotten by some business journalists that just because you aren't growing doesn't mean you can't be consistently profitable. Now, department stores have had trouble being consistently profitable, but it's still worth remembering down the road. Department stores might not be the newest thing on the block, but they can rake in a steady cash flow which is no small advantage in any business.

What do department stores do, anyway?
Nearly all of the press coverage pits department stores against Target and Walmart, because they're all large and sell a variety of goods. Well, so does Home Depot if you think about it like that.

Let's start on the demand side. The demand for stores which sell a wide variety of apparently, and often genuinely, unrelated products is fundamentally a demand to save time. That's why the "big box" retailers have grown rapidly recently--people can and do buy 96 rolls of toilet paper at a time because the fixed time involved in buying 12 is about the same. Same goes for department stores, whose early business model was all about encouraging the idea you could get everything you wanted there. This had a lot of appeal before World War II when work hours were significantly longer than they are now.

On the other side of the market, the shopping mall has eroded some of the advantages of the department store. It is possible to visit multiple stores, and get all the goods you might have previously purchased at one department store.

One of the advantages department stores had over competitors (and some still do) is that situated downtown they were at the hub of public and private transport networks in their city. Not so much anymore (though there are exceptions in Chicago and New York, at least) in the United States. The real story here is the slow decline of downtown shopping in the United States, a decline aided and abetted by politicians and private business over a long time. Perhaps, perhaps, if gas prices stay high and American cities develop public transport that people feel comfortable using for shopping this will reverse. Downtowns have not died everywhere, and still have enough physical and locational capital invested in them, that they may revive.

To put it more simply, one shouldn't confuse the decline of the downtown department store with the decline of the department store itself.

On the other side of the market, department stores are fundamentally about aggregating a range of functions that have some scale economies when combined over a diverse selection of products. The most obvious are real estate management, labor relations, financial control, and advertising. Consolidation of stores into larger chains merely continues that search for scale economies further up the management hierarchy.

The Federated/Macy's expansion has better prospects of succeeding than previous attempts, if for no other reason than the previously cited change in technology. Historically department stores did rely on the local intelligence of department managers and salespeople to determine what to buy and sell because accounting systems were paper-based and communicating information across a large number of people, or across the country, was relatively slow and expensive.

Federated claims that one of their changes will be to target discounts and sales to customers who have an account with them, and reward them for shopping with the store. While this was possible back-in-the-day, it's cheaper to do on a large scale now, and makes sense. What department stores offer is not exclusive, you can get it elsewhere, and "loyalty" schemes are a rational attempt to bind customers to particular stores.

The key, as it probably ever was, for department stores is the merchandising side. If they can compete with the specialty clothing and housewares stores on the merchandise side, and offer the benefits of saving time, and accumulating loyalty rewards across combined purchases, department stores will probably survive. There is still a place for the salespeople, however, and I don't say that just out of misguided affection from having studied them.

While it's true that Sears and Montgomery Wards started in mail order, and that some department stores did well at mail order (the internet shopping of 1913), department stores' competitive advantage right now is going to be in selling goods people like to try on, touch, and experiment with before buying. It's just more difficult to try on pants online, right? In the end what department stores will be selling, over and above the goods, is what they always claimed to be in the business of providing: good service. If your pants don't fit quite right, you can come back and get them exchanged by an actual human being who is paid to pretend to care in a more convincing way than the person on "live chat" at the internet store.

Department stores are not the hot new business innovation of tomorrow, but they'll be around in some form for decades to come.

Posted by eroberts at 3:03 PM

August 3, 2006

East of Eden

It's easy to think of the situation in the Middle East as intractable, innate and insoluble—as if the current crisis, tensions, war, whatever you wish to call it, had been pre-destined since various improbable events like floods and burning bushes. But it's not. The specific conflict we're seeing now is entirely due to the founding and existence of Israel, which has itself only existed since 1948. Less than sixty years, which is an eternity going forward, but really not so long for historians looking backward. I mean this not to take sides on the question of Zionism or a Palestinian state, but rather that if Israel wasn't there we wouldn't have the current specific conflict. In the end that's a rather trivial statement. I think it fair to speculate, though it could never be shown, that even if Israel did not exist (if the Jewish state has been somewhere in Africa or North America) the Middle East would still not be filled with stable, democratic governments. Countries with borders shaped oddly by departing colonial powers and economies dependent on resource extraction tend that way.

Even going back fifty years you can see how dramatically things can turn. That much is clear from the Guardian's recent retrospective on the Suez crisis. In the current crisis, Israel and the United States are closely allied, with Britain at a small remove, and France seen by supporters of the Israeli government as a potentially duplicitous friend of autocratic regimes. But fifty years ago it was France, Britain and Israel that invaded Egypt while a Republican President in the United States urged caution, and worked to undermine the trio's plan for a military strike on Egypt. And then there's this fascinating backdrop to the whole disasterous caper into the canal: that before they invaded Egypt, Britain had plans for how to invade Israel if that proved necessary to fulfil treaty obligations with Arab states.

You can, if you like, draw parallels between Suez and Iraq, but I prefer to restrict myself to the more banal sentiment that just seeing how much has changed since 1956 show that the current crisis is not intractable, that things can change. Perhaps the current events will be resolved with an unstable truce, but there is always the possibility, at least, of real peace.

Posted by eroberts at 4:12 PM

June 27, 2006

Oxygen debt? At work?

More "great" quotes from the 1930s.

Women have obviously a great need for rest pauses during the work spell so that the oxygen debt will not accumulate and decrease their productivity. Special provision needs to be made for a comfortable restroom for women workers, a room fitted with couches and chairs in which they can really relax. Merely providing a rest period is not adequate, and by far the majority of provisions that are made are as unattractive as they are essential. A matron or nurse in the restroom in larger places is a wise investment. Women shoppers, too, need provision for comfortable places where they can rest for a few minutes to overcome growing fatigue and get back into a comfortable humor. That is why escalators make money for a store. In assigning women to work, and in their supervision, it must be remembered that, comparatively speaking, women are born anemic.
More Upholstery
Woman’s body is soft and attractively curved because as a species she has more fat to upholster her muscles and bones ...

Laird, Donald A. "Women Are Weaker." Factory Management and Maintenance, June 1937, 61.

I have read more material from before World War II on where and why to place chairs in department stores than may be advisable for a young man, but I don't recall seeing this argument made so explicitly that women were weaker. In the retailing literature it's all about giving people a chance to be comfortable and to linger and shop more. Moreover, some of the chairs were for those poor husbands who had to accompany their wives to the store.

Posted by eroberts at 8:21 AM

June 26, 2006

The future of aviation

Visions of a future that did not come. The pictures that accompany this article illustrate some of what we would now see as far-fetched.

From present indications planes of the future will be mostly tri-motored machines, carrying from 20 to 25 passengers. This means ample room must be provided for landing and takeoff. Airports must be designed with a view to future expansion as well as to present needs. As I visualize the future airport terminal, say for a city like New York, I can envision a Grand Central Station of air traffic, with hundreds of planes carrying commuters from their homes 100 to 200 miles away. I can see provision made for the safe landing of these planes every few seconds, just as subway trains pull into Times Square every few seconds without incident. Passengers will be taken directly into the air terminal by plane. From there they will be discharged into automobiles, subways or railroad trains The future airport that seems most logical to me at this time is of the beehive type ... A dome-shaped hotel 850 feet high—higher than New York's tallest skyscraper—on a plateau 1500 feet across dominates the circular field, 7500 feet in diameter. Below the surface of the field tunnels will provide direct access for automobiles, subways and railroad trains. The landing field will have runways of 3,000 feet, with a two and one-half per cent grade towad the center to slow up incoming planes and give additional speed to machines taking off. On these runways 44 planes can land or take off simultaneously. Regardless of the wind's direction, air traffic can start from and stop at the pivotal group of buildings. The hotel will be constructed in the outer crust of the dome, and will have several hundred rooms, each with bath. Every fifth story will have a terrace from which guests can watch the planes. On top of the hotel will be a mooring mast for dirigibles and a weather station .... Provision will be made for two-story hangars holding several thousand planes. Parking space for automobiles will be provided near the hangars.

Francis Keally, "Tomorrow's Airports: A prophetic view of the Grand Central Station of the air," Nation's Business April 1929, p.32.

Posted by eroberts at 4:48 PM

June 23, 2006

What about electricity?

The new Minneapolis public library deserves all the plaudits it has been getting. Open stacks to browse, plenty of room to add new collections, a comfortable feeling of both light and scholarship, and a cafe in the building ... what more could you want?

Working electrical outlets would be nice ... After a happy afternoon reading the Gas Age, the Coal Age, Electrical World, and other sirens of industrial triumphalism from the early twentieth century, and being able to connect to the magic internet via wireless that the power points aren't working! It seems I was just reading in a 1918 issue of Electrical World (while looking for an article about employing women as heavy coil winders) that the marvellous thing about electricity was its reliability ...

Rob MacDougall had a good post a year or so ago that drew some artful comparisons between early twentieth century telephone triumphalism and our latter-day turn of the century enthusiasm for the internet. Even the Coal Age (in 1918, when really, coal was not the coming technology) has that business press enthusiasm for the possibilities of human advancement you just don't get in other media.

Electricity. The marvel of the age.

Posted by eroberts at 3:21 PM

June 12, 2006

Finding Mackenzie King

Is anyone else interested in running through cemeteries, demographic history, and Commonwealth political history?

I thought Toronto was not a great running city, but today I had one of the best surprise discoveries of any run ever. There's no network of cross-city asphalt paths, so you find yourself running on the sidewalk a lot. Not that this is all bad, there is a great diversity of street life in Toronto that is worth seeing.

The best unpaved trail close to the city appeared to be the Belt Line trail on the north-eastern edge of downtown, so I ambled over there early on Sunday morning before my flight home. The trail takes you along the path of an old railway, up through a ravine, and to the entrance of Mount Pleasant Cemetery. The gates to the cemetery were closed though it was past the appointed opening hours, so I jumped the fence, following the lead of two women running slightly ahead of me.

A digression. Trust me, if you're waiting for Mackenzie King we'll get there ... Not to sound kooky, but running in cemeteries is one of life's little delights for the running historian. Not to mention the demographic historian. You can see the demographic history of the west as you run past graves. Infant mortality, and industrial accidents, and their twentieth century decline. The influenza pandemic of 1918. Drowning: "the New Zealand disease." Though no doubt others who crossed frontier rivers and lakes had high rates of death by drowning too. The remarkably high toll of the early railroad. They're all there. Infant mortality tells its simple tale just in the tiny gap between birth and death dates. Industrial accidents are less often marked on the graves, but the painful shock of death in a mine, or on the waterfront can be told in the space available on a gravestone. The rise in living standards that allowed even the working class to afford a small plot in the graveyard. North American and Australasian cemeteries are much less crowded than European ones. Sometimes the names, rather than the age and cause of death are interesting too. Local elite. Politicans. Industrial barons. Names you've also seen on storefronts.

It's almost always so peaceful in cemeteries. I grew up near Wellington's large, hilly, trail-covered Karori cemetery which was a popular place for walking and running and biking on its network of paved and unpaved paths. Some of the unpaved paths were originally paved, but like the bodies around them were reverting to a more primoridal form. And I've happily run through cemeteries in Melbourne, Hobart, Auckland, London, Bath, and Montreal. Americans, and I generalize here on the basis of Arlington National Cemetery and Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge (MA) are more apt to restrict recreation in cemeteries. Though I should mention that I've run undisturbed through Hillside Cemetery in Minneapolis, and the Mount Moriah cemetery in Deadwood (SD) (resting place of Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickock. Anyway, the good managers of Mount Pleasant Cemetery in Toronto have signs up encouraging you to walk, run, or bike through there.

Mount Pleasant, like a lot of New World cemeteries, has its Chinese immigrant section. The Chinese always appear to have gotten a spot far from the entrance, out of the way of the Catholics and the Protestants. I have no doubt this was deliberate; giving the Chinese the most marginal spot in the graveyard. But in both Karori and Notre-Dame-des-Neiges in Montréal the Chinese section for all its remoteness from the gates, were actually now in some of the prettiest spots of all.

Following the trail through Mount Pleasant on this unusually cool summer morning I was surprised to see a modern sign with a 100 word biography of William Lyon Mackenzie King, the longest serving Prime Minister in Commonwealth history. I stopped. Was his grave around here somewhere? I saw no large monument. Surely the great Grit was buried in something quite imposing. Mackenzie King is, after all, the Canadian equivalent of Franklin Roosevelt, Michael Joseph Savage, Peter Fraser, orJohn Curtin; leading his country through depression or war, or both. The Roosevelt and Savage memorials, at least, are sprawling.

But there it was, Mackenzie King's grave. A plain slab, with the simple words "Mackenzie King". Every grave around it was more assuming and imposing. There was a small, weather beaten Canadian flag on the grave, weighed down by a small stone. The grass around the grave was ragged. So there he was. Mackenzie King. Buried in a modest plot in a beautiful cemetery in Toronto, his grave distinguished from the others only by the small sign with his biography that you could easily miss.

There is, I find, a somewhat more substantial statue to the man in Ottawa (follow this link to see Lester Pearson speaking at its unveiling). But his grave was remarkable in its modesty and simplicity, and anonymity. Just there on the side of the path on my morning run. And that is why running through cemeteries is such a glorious thing.

(The Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada has a good list of the graves of Canadian prime ministers. People really do study demographic history using the data from headstones)

Posted by eroberts at 8:14 AM

June 1, 2006

Recent economic history in graphs

Google Gapminder shows recent (last thirty years) economic and demographic statistics on cool graphs.

Posted by eroberts at 9:02 AM

May 24, 2006

Amateur digitization for historians

This query about buying a digital camera stimulated me to put finger to keyboard and jot down my collected wisdom about using a digital camera for your research. Some of what I say will pertain mostly to historians—that will be the references to the mysterious archives that conveys a lot to historians and perhaps diddly to others—but the basic idea of substituting digital photography for photocopying will have general applicability for a lot of people.

Getting my caveats up front, I should note that, like photocopying itself, photographing material you could just be reading and taking notes on and being done with, is one of those productive forms of procrastination that feel like work but don't get the real job—writing—done.

That aside, what I outline here really can save time and money over a period of a couple of years. Digital photography is a lot quicker than photocopying (time is money); you can file your documents more compactly, which can be worth a lot if you anticipate/are moving homes or offices; and if you name your files or folders well (and use shortcuts/aliases) you can file your materials more effectively. Some people may ask, what about scanners? Don't bother, is my opinion. Scanners take much longer to record their image, are potentially more damaging to the documents, and are larger and heavier making them far less convenient for traveling to archives. Not to mention, ever tried taking a family photo with a scanner?

The bottom line figures for historians to keep in mind is that if you are photographing quickly and not stopping to examine and select material you can photograph up to 400 pages an hour. A linear foot of archival material is approximately 2000 pages. Thus, allowing for distractions and breaks to prevent RSI etc ... you could photograph a linear foot of archival material in an eight hour day. Do your own calculation here on how long it would take you to work through this reading and taking notes. If you can photograph material I think it quickly becomes an economical option for a lot of research.

The cost-benefit calculation of photographing the documents and returning home, versus going to the archives and reading the material there will depend on your situation. Most importantly, the archive or library has to allow self-copying with a digital camera. This is becoming more common, but may depend on precisely what you are looking at a particular place. As always, contact the archivist before you go! Other variables to consider in deciding whether to hit the archives, photograph and return include;

  1. What is the cost (time/money) of spending time at the archives? The higher the cost of research trips the more you want to consider the short trip to photograph material. It might be less obvious that the slower you read, the more you should consider the "photograph and run" approach to archival visits.
  2. Other ways of thinking about archival time versus time with your photographed images are;

    • How intensely are you taking notes from something? If you're basically transcribing a page, well, photograping is a lot quicker than sitting in an archive far from home. Taking dictation from dead people, as it were. Though I do grant that typing direct quotations from your sources is an unparalleled way of internalizing the sources you're looking at. In short, if you are doing more than a couple of lines summary of every page you look at, consider photographing it for posterity and note taking later. If you're looking at making some sort of systematic database of whatever (probates, wills, laundry lists, surveys) don't do data entry in the archives if you can avoid it. Photograph it and take it home. This also allows you to double key some of your entries if you have the time and inclination to do so. And once your data is all entered you can verify any strange entries.
    • How accurate do your notes have to be? If you write "taht" for "that" there's minimal damage to your research. Indeed, what with modern standards that we shouldn't even sic basic errors like that, maybe none. But if you change a 39 year old to a 93 year old on a census schedule (for example) suddenly someone who was a wife and mother looks like perhaps she should be a great grandmother and mother in law in the same house. That's quite a change. In other words, the more accurate your notes have to be, or the easier it is to make errors while taking notes quickly, the more you want to photograph.
    • Do you know in advance what you're looking for? The less you know what it is you're looking for, the more it helps to photograph the documents for later persual, in case your initial note-taking focused on the "wrong" thing. Lists and tables and the like are prime candidates for photographing as they defy easy, accurate and quick summary in notes. If it's in a table it's already a summary so you often can't just take one or two figures from it, as you might summarize a page of an argument in a couple of sentences. If you've ever reproduced a table of figures from an archival source in your notes you'll know what I mean, it takes a while. You have to count the columns and rows, and then decide which way to read the table to enter the data accurately etc. Photograph it and take it home.

  3. Are you going want to follow up leads you find in material you've copied? How well have you identified beforehand what you are going to copy? The most productive "hit the archives and copy" trips are those where you know precisely what you want to copy before you go, and aren't likely to be needing to use other collections.
  4. How much do you need to look at? If you only have a small amount of material to work through the traditional approach to visiting the archives should work. The larger the collection, the more you probably want to copy.
  5. Are you looking at images or small text that is difficult to read? Being able to view an enlargement of your material can be really, really useful in some situations. With a photograph you are not limited to the 200% enlargement you could get on a photocopier.
  6. Are you going to use it again? The more you are going to re-use a particular page, the more you want to photograph it.
  7. Do you anticipate giving presentations about your research where you might want to illustrate what you are talking about? Being able to show a slide of the sources you are using can be very interesting for conference presentations, and especially when you have images. As best I can tell from talking to archivists displaying an image in a conference presentation does not constitute reproduction that requires permission since there is no permanent copy of the item being distributed. You should check this for yourself for 'your' collections, but digital photography can open up new possibilities for what you include in teaching and conference presentations.

If you have decided to hit the archives to photograph material, what follows is potted practical advice on how to go about it. It bears repeating, check with the archivist you can do this before you start ...

Camera: To reproduce archival material or modern printed books and journals a camera with a "document" mode is ideal. The Nikon Coolpix range has this feature. Personally, I have been using the Coolpix 5900 which (of course, one year later) has been superseded by the 5600 which you can pick up for $250-300. Apparently Sony also has cameras with this setting. I have been very pleased with the Nikon as it is small and lightweight, while still having a large LCD screen. The 5900 has a 5 megapixel default setting, which is just about ideal for document photography.

Flash and macro settings: The document mode mentioned above defaults to black and white images with no flash. Many archives want you to avoid flash to protect the sources. However, if you're photographing modern material (journals/books) you may choose to use a flash to get better contrast. Beware of glossy pages and make sure that if you are using flash it is not reflecting on the pages. Many older books have non-glossy text and then glossy photographs, so be sure to be aware of this if you are photographing books with the flash on. If you get a camera without a document mode, you want to be sure you can turn the flash off, set it to black and white, and use a close-up or macro setting. This will allow you to focus closely on the pages and get high quality reproductions of the documents.

Memory cards: If you are copying a lot of material you will want high capacity memory cards. On a 5 megapixel document setting, each image is about 950kb, depending on how complicated the image is. Just for comparison, a regular colour photo will be about 2/3 larger again. The image for a nearly blank piece of paper might be as small as 700kb, but if there's lots of text then it might be around 1mb. A 1GB card can hold up to 1300 document images. Your needs will vary, so this is only a guide.

Power source: A lightweight camera (like the Nikon Coolpix range) runs on rechargable lithium batteries which run out relatively quickly. If you are using the battery you'll be lucky to make 400 images before having to change the battery or stop (for several hours) to recharge it. The bottom line is that if you are going to be photographing a lot of pages in a short period of time, then you need at least two batteries so you can be charging one while you are using the other, or buy a power adapter for the camera. A power adapter is relatively cheap, and can be purchased separately from the camera. Unless you are going to urgently photograph a lot of documents in a short period of time (e.g; you are at an archive for one day and can't return easily if you don't finish) start with a couple of batteries, and purchase the power adapter if there's a demonstrated need. Of course, if you have a research grant you need to spend on equipment ...

Copy stand or tripod: Tripods are widely available and with a little fiddling can be set up in such a way that you get good images. However, if you are going to be doing a lot of photography of sources, consider buying a portable copy stand. You can get a good one for approximately $70 (or see here, at buy.com). Note that you will also need a piece of cardboard to lay over the legs of the copy stand to put your documents on so they lie flat under the camera. The huge advantage of a copy stand is that the documents lie flat under the camera. Many tripods can only be configured to photograph the documents at a slight angle, reducing readability and accurate reproduction. If you have a copy stand you can—if you make good copies—do your own reproductions for publication (though be sure to get permission to publish). Many archives charge $10 (at least) for photographic reproductions of material suitable for publication. You don't have to do this many times to exceed the cost of the copy stand. A copy stand is not something any one person will be using all the time, so you might consider seeing if your department could purchase one for loan to people who need one.

How the copy stand works
Since I first published this post, people have asked the most questions about the copy stand. Hopefully these pictures will illustrate it better. As you can see the camera is looking directly down upon the documents, which is difficult to achieve with a tripod, unless you have a tripod arm. The height of the copy stand is adjustable. With the Testrite CS-7 I've been using I can photograph A3 or legal paper by having the camera at the highest point.

Document photography with the copystand proceeds most rapidly with loose leaf paper. The procedure is simple. Put the paper on the stand, photograph, move the next piece of paper on, photograph ... repeat. Doing this it is straightforward to achieve 300-400 pages per hour, though this gets tiring.

Books are slower, since you sometimes have to hold the books open at a particular page. Although this means getting partial images of your hands beside the document text, it is quicker than using beaded book weights to hold each page down.

Source information: Make sure that you include information on the source in the image, so you know where the material came from. If you know ahead of time what collections you will be photographing material from you can print out reference information that you cut into strips to lay beside the documents when you photograph them. These strips of paper should include the collection and library and other information. You can leave space on the paper to add any document-specific information with pencil, erase it, and use the same paper for the next document.

Transferring images and organizing files: If you are concerned with making the most of your time in the archives, wait until the end of the day to transfer images from the camera to your computer. If you have multiple images it can take quite a while, as most cameras transfer data via USB which is not that fast.

Once you have the images on your computer, it really is up to you to organize as you see fit. Since hard disk and other computer failures are more frequent than house fires, whatever you do should include backing up your images at least once. This need not be too complicated or expensive. If you are at a university, you should have access to some form of network server storage provided by the university that is backed up regularly and reliably (onto tapes and stored offsite ideally). This should probably be your first option for a backup. Don't rely on CDs or DVDs for long-term storage unless you want to be spending your time rotating disks and checking that one set hasn't failed etc etc ... Network storage is the way to go as your house is unlikely to burn down at the same time as the university does. If it does you are probably living in an area with geothermal risks or hurricane activity. Or Chicago in 1871.

Backing up is the most important thing everyone should do with their images. Beyond that my advice, for what it's worth, is that you find a way of organizing your files that does not take too much time, while still allowing you to find things quickly. You could spend a lot of time renaming all your files from the default digital camera name (DSCNxxxx.jpg, for example) or you could spend it doing something more productive. My approach, and I have more than 15,000 images for my research and this has worked well for me, particularly for documents from archival collections, is to group images into folders with usefully descriptive names. Sometimes a folder relates to just one document, and may only have a few images (pages) in there. Sometimes a folder will initially relate to a whole collection (e.g; all the photographs from a particular magazine over twenty years). When I examine the material in more depth I may create more folders. (Once documents are in folders, renaming them from DSCNxxxx.jpg to "something more meaningful xx.jpg" is relatively straightforward. If you're using OS X, see here. Also pretty quick on Unix. I can't speak as competently to what's possible in Windows)

When I am working with the images, principally what I am doing is reading and taking notes into Word documents. At the moment, for each of my five dissertation chapters I have between five and twenty Word files with my notes on variously defined sub-topics for the chapter. Basically, this is the old historians method of separate thematic note cards, but just done in Word so I can search it. I annotate my notes with both the original source citation and the name of the image file I have of the source. By having the original source citation right there, when I'm writing I can add in the footnote immediately without opening the image file again. But if I want to go back and re-examine the image of the source I can quickly find the name of the file too. This approach works well for loose leaf material from archives.

If you have photographed articles or whole books (old ones, of course, out of copyright) then the folders and original images approach can still be used, but making Acrobat files is even better. This allows you to have just one file for a whole article or book, which you can then organize by adding bookmarks for navigation, and using Acrobat's editing features to add your own comments and annotations. Acrobat can be had for $88 academic pricing. This is only worth the money if you have enough documents you'll be wanting to combine into one file to keep together.

OCR: One extension to this way of working that I am beginning to explore is the possibility of optical character recognition from photographs. If you have photographs of printed or typed sources then this may be something worth exploring to save re-typing information. My guess is that you would need to have a project where you need to re-type quite a lot of data to make this worthwhile. In my case, I have some printed tables that I want in a database. Because of the uniform layout of the material it should be possible to use OCR.

Adding it all up: To undertake your own personal digitization project you are looking at spending about $500-600 upfront.

1GB memory card $80
Copy stand $50
Extra battery $40
Optional to start with  
Power adapter $40
Acrobat $90

I have estimated these costs at somewhat above what you could end up paying so that the comparison with photocopying and spending time at the archives is conservative. Switching to digital photography costs money up front, but the savings in time and money over a period of a couple of years can be substantial. When you consider that most archives charge at least 10 cents per page for photocopying, and often more (50 cents is not uncommon) you are starting to break even between 2000 and 4000 pages copied, even without accounting for your time and travel expenses. Indeed, it's the time savings that can really make digital photography the economical option. If you can turn a two week research trip into a one week research trip, and save six nights at a mid-range hotel and meals on the road there's your $600 and more repaid just like that. One problem is that some funding sources for graduate students and faculty are rigid (backward or asinine, perhaps) in the categories of expenditure they allow. That is to say that travel and accommodation expenses will be paid without questions, but equipment purchases are not permissible. A reasoned statement of how equipment purchases will save money in the long run, and a willingness to make equipment available for colleagues can change minds.

Trivial practical hints: Spending all day photographing documents can be mind-numbingly dull. Bring your headphones and set iTunes to shuffle so that you have something else to think about. Repetitive strain injury is not impossible. Take a break every hour or so, even if you are blitzing through and photographing a box quickly. While CDs are not recommended for long-term storage they can be used for short-term backup while you're away from home. Then if your laptop dies you haven't lost all your work to date, just one day of work.

Other sources of useful information
Columbia: "Going digital in the archives"
Journal for Maritime Research: Historical research in the 'digital era'
George Mason's Electronic Researcher website
American Historical Association: Taking a Byte Out of the Archives: Making Technology Work for You

Notes: Edited on 1 June to add references to multiple file renaming tips.
update, 27 February 2007: This discussion at eh.net on the economic history mailing list is incredibly valuable. Note, in particular, the recommendation to go for ISO and image stabilization over megapixels as criteria for cameras that are good in the archives.

Posted by eroberts at 8:24 AM

May 16, 2006

Historical census occupations of the day


A sly comment, that probably went un-noticed by those it was meant to insult, but which we can still appreciate today.

Posted by eroberts at 6:30 PM

May 11, 2006

Historical census occupations of the day

An occasional entry in an irregular series


This is very probably a man selling fire engines for the American LaFrance company.


Your guess is as good as mine

Posted by eroberts at 6:39 PM

April 11, 2006

Transnational history: from topic to method

In an excellent series of recent posts, Caleb McDaniel, Robert K.C. Johnson, and Rob MacDougall debate the relationship of transnational history to other modes or topics in American history.

Caleb is right when he says that

It may even be misleading to speak of "transnational history" because that phrase seems to denote a field that stands in contradistinction to "political history" or "social history." It's better to think of transnational history as a posture or a methodological intervention that urges us to do political history and social history (and cultural history and intellectual history and so on) in a certain way. [emphasis original]

If I may simplify drastically, all new modes or topics in history go through these phases

  1. A manifesto phase where a field is largely composed of abstract articles saying that an approach or topic is worth doing. Examples of the power of the method or the importance of the topic are usually cribbed from the extant secondary literature, or the author's own previous primary research
  2. A contributionist phase where primary-based research appears, but generally overstates the importance of the topic or power of the approach. The argument of many works can be crudely summarized as "This factor was important too". But important is a variable quantity, not a value. How important? What is the threshold for importance? Yet though we see this in retrospect, at the time it is necessary. Just demonstrating that other people were there, other things mattered is a necessary first step. Historical understanding accumulates slowly and collaboratively. Specialist journals and conferences appear.
  3. A theoretical phase where the implicit theory underlying the early works is abstracted and re-stated in broader terms.
  4. A relational phase where the approach or topic is conceptualized in relation to other topics or approaches. Thus, the move from "women's" history to "gender" history; from "black" history to the history of race. Variables are distinguished from their values, where they were previously confused. Reviews, summaries, and the injection of the topic into textbooks are common. People involved qualify earlier overstated claims to revolutionary importance, and the topic or approach becomes mainstream. Opponents of the topic or approach make peace with it, by watering down its message. The relational and theoretical phases can overlap substantially.
  5. A splintering of the consensus with a return to the archives phase where a new generation of historians influenced sometimes unconsciously by the reviews, summaries and textbooks return to the archives to research particular questions that were inadequately answered in the contributionist phase.

I offer this as an hypothesis, based largely on my reading of "quantitative history," labor history and women's history. Now, though a diversion here, quantitative history is interesting. There was a brief moment when you could unite an otherwise diverse group of historians with that title. Not so much anymore. Economic, demographic and social history has reclaimed those historians (and vice-versa). Quantitative history was reshaped into smaller components, absorbed into other parts of the discipline, in what I call the relational phase.

So, what of transnational history? It seems that transnational history is now firmly in the contributionist phase, but probably moving into the relational or theoretical phase. There is a stream of dissertations and books coming out which are transnational history.

It seems that overstatements of the power of transnational history are fading, as the humble applied results of diligent research demonstrate what you can learn. I suspect that a more explicit restatement of where transnational approaches fit into American history are coming along soon. As transnational historians become more confident of the reception of their work they will likely begin to qualify and measure the importance of transnational influences in American history.

Obviously (obviously) this will vary by topic. It is hard to conceive of how immigration history—previously (and I overstate to make the point) a black box process where immigrants arrived and were assimilated or formed X-American communities—could go back from the transnational approach. Diplomatic history, similarly. Yet some topics which have benefited tremendously from comparative history—nineteenth century race relations in Australasia and North America, in particular—may be due for a more insular approach. How much was "native policy" in the different countries really influenced by what went on elsewhere? At least for Australasia and Canada you can connect things through London, but I suspect that the intellectual payoffs right now might be to start out with the hypothesis of operational independence in native policy, but with a shared intellectual background that is necessarily difficult to connect from place to place.

This would still be transnational history, but by going back against it a little skeptically, the credibility of the approach would even be enhanced. I'm confident, too, that if someone was to set out and skeptically ask "How international was the Progressive movement, really?" (i.e; attack Daniel Rodgers' Atlantic Crossings head on) that Rodgers' thesis would largely be sustained. In other words, one way forward for transnational historians is to stop assuming that the transnational was really that important, but set out to "measure" its influence anyway.

Posted by robe0419 at 2:25 PM

March 30, 2006

Cool maps

I've always been a little skeptical of the historical geography fascination with maps, as they seem to involve a lot of effort to generate description rather than analysis. Maps summarize averages well, but I've yet to see a good map that shows variation within the geographic units. No doubt it's possible with a little work ...

That said, people love pictures, especially people at conferences, so it seemed to be worth learning how to generate cool maps myself. Apparently there are ways to do maps in Excel, but why use Excel when you can use Stata? Here is the kind of stuff you can produce with the tmap package in Stata.

Black wives in the cotton south worked outside the home more than black wives elsewhere, and white wives anywhere ... something I knew already. But interesting to see in that form nevertheless. I could see the same thing on a table, where I could sort the columns and see more precisely the rate of labor force participation in various areas. But it would be hard on a table—even one where I grouped the states in geographic areas—to see the cotton south like you can see it here.

Anyone who's ever taught American history and done "the map exercise" (getting students to identify the states) knows that the general level of awareness of where the states are is pretty low. You can bemoan that all you like. I know I did at the time, "I'm a freaking foreigner and I know where the states are!!" kind of thinking, but really ... that is not going to get you far. Why should people know exactly where all fifty states are. I'm not sure that that is useful knowledge in and of itself. It's possible that as part of a good liberal education people will end up knowing where all fifty states are, but maybe they won't. It's also quite likely that the ability to visualize something that specific and commit it to memory is not common.

So while I don't see a lot of analytic value in maps communication and presentation is always a part of academic work, and often a very important part. It's easy to begrudge the extra work in making your analysis understandable to an audience, but that is to begrudge part of the job. Good graphs and maps are easier to understand quickly. A good graph or map can convey dramatic differences more clearly. Tables are more precise, to be sure, but will they grab your attention? Not as quickly as the same dramatic trend on a graph. Or a startling geographic trend on a map.

Posted by robe0419 at 3:59 PM

March 17, 2006

Look kids, it's snow

I've only been through six winters in Minnesota, and already the years when you got 60 inches of snow in a season are a memory. The last couple of winters have been pathetic. But this week has been great. Here's something you can show your kids in years to come! Remember when we had nearly a foot of snow on the ground ... When we had to shovel the sidewalk ... You young things don't know how tough it was back in the early years of the twenty first century ...

We even managed to snowshoe round Pike Island last night. It was glorious. But it seems to be a once in a season activity in the Twin Cities now.

Posted by robe0419 at 6:08 PM

March 16, 2006

What do people do all day?

When I was a kid one of my favourite books was Richard Scarry's What Do People Do All Day?. (Another of my favorites was Snow White, I liked them so much that my father refused to repeat them more than once every couple of days by the time I was four)

Now that I look back at Richard Scarry, some gender stereotypes in there where Daddy goes out to work and Mommy consumes ("Mommy loved her new earrings .... Grocer Cat bought a new dress for Mommy. She earned it by taking such good care of the house") that maybe my parents didn't want me to read. But I digress. Slightly. Perhaps this interest in Richard Scarry was my initial foray into labo[u]r and economic history.

I am still interested in what do people do all day. But these days it is more of an academic interest, and at the end of the year I have a conference paper due on the topic. Specifically about what I learned from trying to classify and code half a million different occupations into something tractable enough for research. So here ends the fun discussion of childrens' books (with pictures!) and here begins some jottings towards a conference paper. Keep reading, it will be like a campfire sing-along ... with marshmallows at the end.

In all seriousness, I do this because just the thought that somebody who is not that interested in how to analyze occupations might read this is a useful discipline on my writing.

I think it's always useful to begin talking about "what do people do all day" with some [throat clearing] preliminaries about why it's an important topic. For better or worse, we all do a lot of work. Work affects everyone, and we should study things that affect large numbers of people. For now all the question about whether that is for pay, whether all that work is a good thing, or whether it could be done differently are to the side. They're important but should be distinguished from the descriptive task of measuring and classifying what people do all day.

What to classify: When we're talking about classifying work, it is conventional to divide it up into occupation—the tasks and duties people perform— industry— and what the American census calls "class of worker," loosely speaking what kind of authority a person has in their job; whether they're an employer directing others, an employee, or working by and for themselves.

These standard divisions are useful, and these days when we want to find out about them we normally ask the right questions to do so. I think it's important to keep in mind two caveats.

The first is that there is some correlation between these three variables which people take as natural and therefore conflate aspects of their job that researchers would like to distinguish. An example of this correlation and conflation is that some occupations are rarely found outside of certain industries. Farmers are never outside agriculture. But we cannot, conversely, carry this conflation forward. It is tempting to think that if we come across a nurse that he's working in health and medicine, but there are enough examples of nurses employed in manufacturing and education and elsewhere that we should pause before doing so. At the very least, inferences guesses like this should be flagged in some way.

The second caveat is that the general public's appreciation of these distinctions between industry and occupation is not what social scientists would like it to me. For better or worse, people often have a clearer idea of what industry they (or their family members) are working in than precisely what they do. This caveat is probably somewhat related to the first one. It would be tempting to conclude that the general public should get with our academic program and understand this difference (or that we should study a different public) but regularities like this are interesting in their own right.

What I make of this observation that people tend to be clearer about industry than occupation are the following which I offer tentatively as hypotheses rather than definitive statements.

  • Industry, or what people produce, is the publicly visible aspect of work. It is easier to understand and describe an end product (turnips) than to understand and describe the different tasks that a farmer or farm laborer went through to produce the turnip.
  • Occupational titles often cover more variety in practice than industrial descriptions. To stick with the turnip example, you have two farms producing turnips. The turnips are the same, but the farms are organized quite differently. On farm A, the farm laborers are totally responsible for a plot of turnips and do all the work from turning the field to repairing their tools to harvesting. On farm B, the farm laborers are responsible for narrowly defined tasks. One laborer fixes tools all year round (though he might describe himself as a mechanic). Another turns the field. Yet another is responsible for irrigation. Another is responsible for harvesting.

    You can see this variety in what comes under the same occupational title by reading the modern responses to questions which aim to elicit the specific tasks people do. All farm laborers are not the same. Neither are all lawyers.

  • Occupations take on their social meaning within the workplace. It is our and our colleagues' particular understandings of what we do as farm laborers or academics that influence our daily lives the most.
  • Outside the workplace, occupations have meaning because of the characteristics others ascribe to them. For example, the American question "what do you do?" on meeting a new person is often aimed at asking someone what they do at work. In other words, what is your occupation? Typically what we learn from other people is the word or couple of words that conventionally describe their job. Lawyer. Farmer. Nurse. Teacher. Doctor. Machinist. Soldier. Manager. Foreman. Billing clerk. Dog walker. And thousands of others.

    While there are regularities in what people in these occupations do they are not absolute. In casual conversation this probably doesn't matter too much, but for research it does matter. When we see "lawyer, in a law firm" that is as much as we know.

    In short, ascribing characteristics to occupations is OK in social situations, but not so much in research. If we are going to ascribe something to an occupation—social status, for example—we should do it globally. Once we have classified all our data, we can re-classify it, simplify it, lump the professionals together, the clerks, the factory workers etc ...

  • Some descriptions of jobs that appear to describe the tasks being done probably reflect outside perceptions of work. Let me be more concrete. In the 19th century you see people in the census whose occupations are described as something along the lines of "works with machines," and today you see something similar "works with computers". Yet I don't think that "machinist" or "computer programmer" is the likely occupation. I should not overstate the frequency of these types of responses, but they are interesting insights into external perceptions of changing work practices. In mid-19th century America working with machines was unusual, and probably was a specialized task in some workplaces. Similarly, it wasn't that many years ago (it was in my lifetime) that working with computers was somewhat of a distinction between jobs.
  • There is also the sometime problem of what appears to be spurious precision. In coding the 19th century American censuses it is interesting to observe that musicians don't very often report themselves as such. They often identify the precise instrument they play. Similarly, musical instrument makers don't describe themselves as making musical instruments, they are "piano makers" and "violin makers." This would be fascinating if you were interested in musicians, but they are a tiny segment of the economy, and give in that little description more information than larger occupational groups. Teachers, lawyers and nurses surely do not all do the same thing, yet that is how they describe themselves. I suspect that this reflects something about the sociology of these professions, something internal to those workplaces and industries.

Classification and coding. For the purposes of this discussion I take "classification" to be the somewhat abstract process of deciding what distinctions we are going to make between different responses (do we accept lawyer and attorney as the same job, for example), and "coding," the somewhat mechanical process of looking at a response (or group of responses) and typing a numeric code so that "criminal lawyer" and "defence lawyer" and "defending bad guys in court" all get code xxx and can be distinguished from lawyer's secretary and farmer.

As a practical matter I think that accuracy and consistency are enhanced by making distinctions by introducing new variables, rather than making longer codes. As I understand it, in the not so distant past disk space was a real concern and having one variable of three digits that combined two ideas was genuinely better than two variables of two digits that kept them separate. But these days disk space and memory is trivially cheap, so distinct ideas should be kept distinct.

One of the challenges with coding is to stick to the literal text, and only code that. This is another way of saying that we can't ascribe [too much] when coding. For example, if someone says they are a custodian we only know their occupation. It would be nice to know if they were are a school custodian or a hospital custodian, but we don't know that.

As I mentioned, I have coded nearly half a million occupations in the space of a couple of years (with some help). How do you do that? As I noted above occupation and industry are correlated. There are a lot of farmers who work in agriculture. A lot of teachers who work in education. For responses like these it is most efficient to code occupation and industry at the same time. In other situations, particularly manufacturing workers, there is some dependence of occupation on industry but not as much. Often it was more efficient to code a group of industries together, based on keywords (specific products such as "cotton" or "timber", or descriptions of types of workplaces, such as "shop" or "mill" or "plant"), and then code the occupations based on keywords that distinguished tasks, or rough gradations in skill or authority.

It is not uncommon that when actually doing the coding, other distinctions or classifications that might be useful occur to us. For example, we might find that lawyers are unusually forthcoming on whether they are criminal or corporate lawyers. Rather than revising the coding scheme post hoc to incorporate this distinction it is better to flag the cases we want to retain extra information on, and revisit them once the first round of coding is complete.

An important choice in coding is whether to lump or split? Should we assume that "attorneys" and "lawyers" are the same, that "merchants" and "dealers" are the same? That a "sales clerk" and a "saleslady" are the same. Those are ones I can accept. But what about a "hammerman" and a "blacksmith"? Trickier. It does depend on the amount of data, and the time it takes to recode. In general, people making codes that others will use should probably err on the side of splitting rather than lumping. It is easy enough to lump later on to get a tractable number of categories for analysis, but discovering that apparently disparate groups have been lumped together is more frustrating.

These are [unfinished] reflections from the trenches, or just coming out of the trenches, of actually coding lots of data. What strikes me in looking at work across time in censuses and surveys, is not the change but the stasis, at least in terminology. Despite changes in technology and who is working, many of the terms we use to describe work today existed back then. There are, of course, new occupations that did not exist in 1880 or 1900. Aviation and computer programming probably the most obvious. But look at the terms we use to describe occupations in aviation. Pilot and Captain. Straight out of the maritime industry.

In other words, the language of occupations has not really changed much, despite what we know from closer studies of the workplace that what some occupations do has changed. Coding and classifying surveys of work can only be a starting point, a description and analysis of context, in the collective project of understanding what people do all day.

Posted by robe0419 at 1:38 PM

February 28, 2006

Middle school research on my dissertation topic

Don't ask how I came across this bizarre site. Here is a wacked out seventh grader's conclusions about women and paid work:

Jonathan Goode (grade 7) applied findings from many fields of science to support his conclusion that God designed women for homemaking: physics shows that women have a lower center of gravity than men, making them more suited to carrying groceries and laundry baskets; biology shows that women were designed to carry un-born babies in their wombs and to feed born babies milk, making them the natural choice for child rearing; social sciences show that the wages for women workers are lower than for normal workers, meaning that they are unable to work as well and thus earn equal pay; and exegetics shows that God created Eve as a companion for Adam, not as a co-worker.

I have a few follow-up questions for Jonathan, but I couldn't find his email address anywhere on the objective ministries website.

Posted by robe0419 at 11:21 AM

January 30, 2006

Dealing in slaves

In the database of the United States 1880 census there is a person whose occupation is transcribed as "DEALING IN SLAVES." There's another person whose occupation is transcribed as "DEALER IN SLAVES STOVES". I say "transcribed" because it's possible (likely) that with the civil war being 15 years over that the former person was dealing in, oh, "STAVES" or "STOVES." Such are the hazards of transcribing old handwriting from microfilm. "SLAVES STOVES" is at least plausible, since it may describe a kind of stove. We can deal with that!

Now that we're wrapping up our coding of this data by coding the products people were selling, the question arises how would you classify someone who really was dealing in slaves. The United Nations has a classification scheme for economic activity which understandably doesn't include trade in slaves. You know, declaration of human rights and all that ... The least inaccurate option would be to include slaves under "live animals."

In this case I'm inclined to give the person a code for "we don't really know," not because I'm squeamish about calling slaves animals (we're all animals, after all), but because I think this is a transcription error that has got this far.

Enjoy your freedom.

Posted by robe0419 at 3:43 PM

January 17, 2006

Historical census occupation of the day

An irregular entry in an occasional series


Mmmmm ...

Posted by robe0419 at 4:50 PM

January 12, 2006

Undivided spouses

Here are two recent headlines; one from the Washington Post, about the faux-19th century drama that ensued when the wife of Supreme Court nominee, Samuel Alito, left the Senate hearings in tears. The other is from the local alt-weekly, City Pages, about the possible influence of health-care executive Lois Quam on her husband's campaign to be the Democratic Attorney General of Minnesota. They're really unconnected in their details, but juxtaposed illustrate how the modern marriages of professionals co-exist in our society with still-prevalent 19th century and Shakespearean ideas about marriage and public politics.

It's interesting that Samuel Alito's wife does not go by the title, "Mrs Alito," though there's no shortage of commentators, left and right, who can't read a newspaper or use Google, and call her just that. A woman keeping her own surname is a long way from being the entirety of her and her husband's political philosophy, but it's a more liberal action than I would have expected from a judge being cast in the role of uber-conservative. It's less surprising that the DFL House minority leader in Minnesota is married to a woman who kept her surname. In both cases I'd guess that an independent career established before marriage was a (if not the only) factor in these women keeping their names.

Yet now the media yokes them together with their husbands, though in somewhat different ways. The flap over Ms. Bomgardner ("Mrs Alito") leaving the room in tears is, as I say, so 19th century in its allusions. The emotional woman who bears the sorrow of the thuggish political attacks on her husband, because she and he are one. And to a reduce a woman to tears is just beyond the bounds of civilized politics. Perhaps those Democrats were drunkards! After all, women are the moral guardian of the nation, if they could only vote they would establish a good and temperate republic. I exaggerate to make the point, but really only slightly. But the key to the faux-outrage expressed about "Mrs Alito" being reduced to tears is precisely that she is seen as an extension and part of her husband's persona and political appearance. None of the news reports appear to ask her what she was crying about. Because women shouldn't actually speak in public for themselves. Or something like that ...

The City Pages article on Lois Quam and Matt Entenza taps into a slightly different set of ideas about politics and marriage; more the improper influence of a Lady Macbeth figure. Yet again, one of the central assumptions of the article is that a man's politics are not independent of his wife's. On the one hand, of course a man's wife's career will have some influence on his politics. On the other, what is the remedy? Should people with potential conflicts of interest with their spouse's career not enter political life? There is no answer in the City Pages article, just a series of questions about potential conflicts, if Matt Entenza is elected Attorney General, if there are health care cases referred to the office. That's a lot of "ifs" to base an argument on.

Moreover it seems kind of silly that questions about health policy are being resolved in such a legalistic fashion through the Attorney General's office. It's understandable— the litigious nature of American life intersects with its corporate health care system, but still. Should the state Attorney General be a major player in health policy? Isn't that something the Governor and legislature should be dealing with instead? All of which is to say, that independently of whether his wife is Dr. Macbeth, Matt Entenza's seeming lack of interest in health care litigation might be the right policy.

In most ways these stories are unrelated. As more women pursue professional and political careers, and are married to similarly professional and political men, we'll see more articles like the one in City Pages. Yet at the same time, the "Mrs Alito" flap demonstrates that we haven't entirely lost our 19th century sense about marriage as an unequal pairing where women bear the emotional burdens and their husbands have the political and judicial careers.

Posted by robe0419 at 4:01 PM

December 21, 2005

Odd jobs



Posted by robe0419 at 6:01 PM

Nineteenth century occupation of the day

another entry in an irregular series

LAMPLIGHTER. It will probably surprise some people to read that most historical occupations have modern analogues and descendents. There are surprisingly few occupations that don't have a readily identifiable modern counterpart. This is because occupations and work are as much, if not more, the product of social and economic arrangements as they are defined by technological requirements.

We have fewer farmers than we did in 1880 (relatively and absolutely), but farming is still farming. One set of occupations that has just about disappeared is coach, stage and cart driver, but they live on in other forms. While your friendly UPS delivery man no longer whips a horse to make his deliveries, but the job of driver or delivery man has changed relatively little within companies and within wider society.

Lamplighters though are really an occupation that has disappeared, and has no modern counterpart [that I can think of]. The modern occupation of street light repairer is a more skilled job, and the nature of the work is responding to problems. Lamplighters trod a regular circuit lighting lamps. They were probably expected to repair broken lamps they could fix, but that was an exception to their normal tasks. In a large sense, their job was a service occupation, not producing anything tangible, and indeed producing something quite ephemeral. Yet the social impact of street lighting was significant and substantial -- it helped create urban culture as we know it today by allowing people to walk the streets in greater safety for longer. The demand for street lighting was high, and its adoption quite quick. Electrification came rapidly to American [and European and Australasian] cities, and by 1920 there were few lamplighters left outside small towns.

(from Library of Congress, American Memory website)

Further reading: Here are numerous images of lamplighters at work. Here is an interesting local history article about lamp lighters. Maria Cummins book The Lamplighter was a best-seller in the 1850s. Charles Dickens' short story "The Lamplighter" is online.

Posted by robe0419 at 9:32 AM

December 16, 2005

Historical census amusement of the day

"WORKS IN CUSTOM HOUSE AT DULUTH, WI" (From the 1880 census)

If you need it explained, it just won't be funny anymore ...

Posted by robe0419 at 4:06 PM

December 15, 2005

Historical medical literature

More cool historical databases. This time, online. Today I discovered IndexCat which indexes medical literature from 1880 to 1961.

While not relevant to everyone's research, medical journals have broader content than some might expect. For example, they will sometimes report on government and politics (especially as it relates to what we would now call health policy), issues of race and ethnicity, and social and economic conditions.

For example, I found a few useful references just searching on 'women' and 'industry' from around the time of World War I. In the manufacturing trade journals I found some concern expressed as more women moved into jobs in heavy industries, about (1) the impact industry would have on their and their children's health, and (2) women's capacities to do "heavy" work. Some of this debate is echoed in the medical and health literature.

Posted by robe0419 at 5:36 PM

Motherhood and work, today

Back in September there was a blogoflap (my neologism for flap in the blogosphere) about a New York Times article "Many Women at Elite Colleges Set Career Path to Motherhood." (See two posts by Kieran Healey at Crooked Timber, and Tim Burke, for good discussion). The gist of the article was that "many" young women at highly ranked colleges have plans to leave work when they have children. Since this is not unrelated to my dissertation topic I thought I should have something intelligent to say on the matter, but I couldn't think beyond my own prejudices and childhood experience, and felt I should take the time to write something coherent on a topic I know a little about (as opposed to nothing, like most of the other stuff I comment on ...)

A couple of things struck me then, that I didn't expand into a post. One is that there's a long way between what you think you'll do at 20, and what you end up doing at 29 when you have your first child. These women will learn that for themselves, as did we all. That said, expectations about your own life do have a powerful influence on outcomes (see this paper by Claudia Goldin). Another is that people at elite colleges are not exactly a big proportion of the American population. While fascination with what the east coast elites do is hardly unusual, it's a smaller and smaller proportion of American society so extrapolation is risky.

And in fact, that is the case. Heather Boushey at the Center for Economic Policy Research has some research that shows that, actually, the impact of motherhood on labor force participation has continued to fall (via Angrybear) In short, more mothers are opting in.

Another response to the New York Times article was by Linda Hirschman in the American Prospect, an article that received high praise from Yglesias and Atrios, but pretty strong criticism from educated women who have put family ahead of career.

A couple of things, at least, went missing in the debate.

One was much discussion of the role of fathers in caring for children. I thought this argument by Linda Hirschman addressed an all-too-common fallacy in people's child care decisions:

The economic temptation is to assign the cost of child care to the woman’s income . If a woman making $50,000 per year whose husband makes $100,000 decides to have a baby, and the cost of a full-time nanny is $30,000, the couple reason that, after paying 40 percent in taxes, she makes $30,000, just enough to pay the nanny. So she might as well stay home. This totally ignores that both adults are in the enterprise together and the demonstrable future loss of income, power, and security for the woman who quits. Instead, calculate that all parents make a total of $150,000 and take home $90,000. After paying a full-time nanny, they have $60,000 left to live on. (emphasis added)

Indeed. Even with the best will in the world to keep things equal, any relationship where one partner earns all the money, and the other partner earns nothing, is going to be unequal. Money begets power in subtle ways within romantic relationships and the households they form. If you doubt this, read Jane Austen and come back to me.

Moreover, any prospects that women will continue to advance their representation in American politics will slow down and founder if people get the idea that motherhood is a good full-time occupation. I say this not as a value judgment, but as an observation. Women that get elected to political office don't have to be good mothers, they just have to not be incompetent. For better or worse, the voting public tends to vote for women who have been successful in business, academia and civil society, not women who have home schooled four children.

Hours of work
Another thing that deserves a little attention is the expectations about hours of work in America, compared with other western countries, and in professional occupations in particular. First up, on average, Americans work more hours per week, and more weeks per year than Europeans (PDF). All that time working is time not spent with children, for both parents. If your choice is full-time or no-time, and some people face that choice because employers are inflexible about working hours, then it might make sense for families who can afford it to have one parent opt out.

The change in elite expectations about women's work is also striking, when you switch between the 1920s and 1930s, and current debates. The tone of the New York Times article, and a lot of other commentary, is that educated women should work. Think of that what you will, but it's quite the change from the early twentieth century. Things were somewhat different for the small minority of women who went to college, and then had to choose between career and family. It is striking to observe the number of professionaly successful women who remained single, whether that profession was managing an office or department in a department store, or teaching, nursing, law etc.

I don't want to step too far into a debate about whether feminism should be the handmaiden of capitalism, and merely seek to allow women to achieve success in the market. But it's a remarkable turn-around that current expectations in many quarters of society are that women should work. When you bring your head from the papers in which married women are castigated for having the desire to work just a little, the transformation to a world where they're expected to work 50 hour weeks is quite remarkable.

Posted by robe0419 at 2:00 PM

December 8, 2005

Industrial Arts Index

Good day in the archives. I came across a fat, fat publication called the Industrial Arts Index that indexed books and magazines in what we would now call business and technology. But in 1913 they called that kind of thing "industrial arts." Anyone doing any kind of research on early twentieth century American business or technological history should be acquainted with this publication. A quick World Cat search shows that it's widely held by libraries around the country, but not everywhere has complete runs (UMN Twin Cities does.)

Copying the index pages on "Woman -- employment" saved me from looking through multiple volumes of old journals like Factory and Industrial Management to find the articles about women in the workplace. They did not restrict their indexing efforts to manufacturing and extractive industries, also covering what they would have called "commerce" in the 1920s.

It is, of course, an old school index. You have to physically thumb through and look for your keywords. But there is extensive cross-referencing. Thus, under "Woman --" they pointed you to related terms such as "Business woman" or "Farm woman."

Posted by robe0419 at 6:26 PM

Things were different back then

More semi-interesting, not-related-to-my-research things noticed in the archives.

This ad is from 1911, it intrigued me that it appeared in a publication aimed at both men and women (a staff magazine in a department store). But notice how they differentiate themselves from their competition ...

Posted by robe0419 at 7:33 AM

December 7, 2005

Encounters with marathon history

I was about to give up on the remaining volumes of Edison Life—the staff magazine of the Boston Edison company—as after 1935 they reported fewer inter-office marriages, and gave less and less detail on what Edison brides were going to do after they married.

Then I found this article about Johnny Kelley. Yes, the Johnny Kelley, 1935 and 1945 winner of the Boston marathon, only American finisher in the 1936 Olympic marathon, 61 (yes, sixty one) times runner of the Boston marathon. In 1938 he'd been working at Edison a year or so, it seems from his obituary he kept working there.

(Click on image for larger version)

And then a few pages later I found stuff for my actual research. Good end to the day.

Posted by robe0419 at 7:18 AM

December 3, 2005

Politically informed consumption

I see, via CultureCat that there's a handy list of where you can get prescriptions filled at places that don't let their staff's religiously informed biases determine what prescriptions they will or won't give you.

Boycotts of stores have a mixed, to put it gently, record of success. When I was researching retail workers and their unions I often came across the tactic of encouraging boycotts of certain stores for whatever reason. In general, these strategies were ineffective for the unions who could barely influence their own members shopping choices let alone other union members, or the general public. And these were smaller, independent, stores which might have noticed that individual customers did not return. Target will not notice if you, personally, don't return. Even if they notice a drop in sales because of these boycotts they might not connect it with the boycott.

For these boycotts to succeed in anyway companies have to connect the drop in sales with the boycott. You have to write to them and tell them why you're shopping elsewhere. For good measure you can write to the new store, and tell them why you're shopping there.

Posted by robe0419 at 6:30 AM

November 23, 2005

Happy Thanksgiving

Have a great Thanksgiving.

Posted by robe0419 at 7:52 AM

November 15, 2005

Walmart as utopia

A little historical reflection about Walmart shows that its current public image troubles are the latest incarnation of anxiety about mass distribution.

Walmart was in the news a couple of weeks ago for an internal memo that suggested various ways the company might reduce its labor costs. Reaction from labor supporters, such as Nathan Newman, was rather critical. The mainstream media quoted lawyers as saying that the ideas could expose the company to litigation, or chided the not-unreasonable idea that jobs at the company could be designed so that all employees ("Associates") got more physical activity during their work-day.

The memo reveals Walmart's concern about its public image, stating bluntly that

Healthcare is one of the most pressing reputation issues facing Wal-Mart. Survey work done last summer shows that peoples perception of our wages and benefits is a key driver of Wal-Marts overall reputation. Several groups are now mounting attacks against Wal-Mart focused on our healthcare offering. These increasingly well-organized and well-funded critics especially the labor unions and related groups, such as Wal-Mart Watch have selected healthcare as their main avenue of attack. Moreover, federal and state governments are increasingly concerned about healthcare costs, and many view Wal-Mart as part of the problem (a view due, in part, to the work of Wal-Marts critics).

In short, Walmart perceives that public opinions of it are driven not by how it performs as a retailer, but as an employer. Walmart's role in production, not its role in consumption, is what attracts attention. This is not surprising, periodic, concentrated hostility to mass distributors is common in American history.

In the late 19th century, for example, the railroads were the target of significant hostility from farmers who perceived the railroads as non-productive and exploitative. The department store was perceived as putting the small store out of business, as well as being morally suspect. Department stores, it was argued, did not pay their single female employees enough, and those young women would turn to prostitution. There is at least a faint echo of these complaints in the complaints about Walmart not paying its workers enough, though the concerns have moved on from prostitution to adequate health insurance.

There was also, and here is where I get my title to this post, an eclectic utopian idea out there, that pondered a world where distribution was so efficient that everything would be available everywhere. An odd little novel, The World A Department Store, was one expression of this utopian view. In this utopian world the problem of distribution, of getting mass production to mass society, had been "solved." Perhaps a Walmart in every town is utopia.

In the 1920s and 1930s with department store ownership consolidating, and grocery chains expanding, the "chain store menace" was a phrase on the lips of economic losers (no value judgment intended) who were being displaced by more efficient chains. As with most economic changes, the losers in this process of increasingly concentrated ownership of, and expenditure at, retail stores, know who they are, and have a stronger self-identity than the winners. The winners tend to be everyday consumers who are not consciously aware that Walmart might be saving them 50 cents on a 12 pack of toilet paper, or $60 on a DVD player.

And these "losers" have a rich cultural heritage of hostility to distributive business (To say nothing of financial intermediaries. And the Merchant of Venice was shifty in part because he was a merchant ...) to draw on. The view of retail and distribution as parasitic and not producing anything may be flawed to the neo-classical economist, but it is not uncommon.

There are all sorts of legitimate questions about the role of Walmart in the American economy, whether local governments should smooth the path for its expansion, whether Walmart is just acting rationally in a screwed-up health insurance system, etc, etc ... And I don't want to come across as arguing that it's just natural, inexorable and all beneficial, that retailing will become more concentrated over time. But this is certainly not the first time that mass retailing has occasioned angst and hostility, and it won't be the last.

Posted by robe0419 at 6:10 PM

November 14, 2005

Brush with fame

Famous people have been reading my blog! My note of appreciation to the late Susan Porter Benson made it into her obituary in Perspectives, the newsletter of the American Historical Association.

I suppose I must be down to 14:59.50 worth of fame for my lifetime now ...

Posted by robe0419 at 12:13 AM

November 11, 2005

Armistice Day

It's Armistice Day. I noticed the 11th hour tick by [electronically] and paused momentarily to think of the First World War. I then also reflected—being in America—on how this anniversary passes by without much notice.

Here, by contrast, is the BBC news page for today

Still remembering World War I. Not a peep on any of the major American papers. But then the First World War barely touched America, the casualty rate was just 8%. In Australia and New Zealand the senselessness of war was brought home when 2/3 of men who went to a war that did not threaten their homes directly returned injured or did not return at all. The small towns of Australia and New Zealand are dotted with memorials to the men who paid the "ultimate sacrifice." Who died for King and Country. The social dislocation, the impact of half a generation missing, wounded or dead haunted both countries throughout the next twenty years.

As is the way with death and despair we are left with some great literature from the period, that probably captures better than any historian now could, the sense of loss. Indeed, the best history of New Zealand in that period is still Randal Burdon's The New Dominion because he'd lived through the period, and could sense what it meant to his contemporaries.

Whereas my impression of America in the inter-war period is a period of relative prosperity followed by a Depression, New Zealand between the wars was a place which struggled to get over the war, and may, just may have had a year or two (1925-1927) of normalcy, of a society that felt optimistic, before things headed south again. And the same goes, mutatis mutandis, for Australia.

Isolationism gets a bad name in the United States today, but a little bit of caution about rushing off to foreign wars is not a bad thing.

[late updateYes, yes, I know it's Veteran's Day. But really, that just proves my point that America is not really marking the end of World War I in the way that other combatant countries are.]

(Below the fold is a table of the casualty rates of major combatant countries)

Casualties of the First World War
Country Mobilized Killed Wounded Total Casualties
French Empire 7,500,000 1,385,000 4,266,000 5,651,000 75%
Austria-Hungary 6,500,000 1,200,000 3,620,000 4,820,000 74%
New Zealand 110,000 18,000 55,000 73,000 66%
Australia 330,000 59,000 152,000 211,000 64%
Bulgaria 400,000 101,000 153,000 254,000 64%
Russia 12,000,000 1,700,000 4,950,000 6,650,000 55%
Germany 11,000,000 1,718,000 4,234,000 5,952,000 54%
Turkey  1,600,000 336,000 400,000 736,000 46%
Great Britain 5,397,000 703,000 1,663,000 2,367,000 44%
Romania 750,000 200,000 120,000 320,000 43%
Canada 620,000 67,000 173,000 241,000 39%
Serbia 707,000 128,000 133,000 261,000 37%
Belgium 207,000 13,000 44,000 57,000 28%
Italy 5,500,000 60,000 947,000 1,407,000 26%
Montenegro 50,000 3,000 10,000 13,000 26%
Portugal 100,000 7,000 15,000 22,000 22%
The Caribbean2 21,000 1,000 3,000 4,000 19%
South Africa 149,000 7,000 12,000 19,000 13%
Greece 230,000 5,000 21,000 26,000 11%
USA 4,272,500 117,000 204,000 321,000 8%
India3 1,500,000 43,000 65,000 108,000 7%
Japan 800,000 250 1,000 1,250 0.20%
Africa1 55,000 10,000 unknown unknown -
Posted by robe0419 at 1:25 PM

November 10, 2005

Fun with mortality data

Human Mortality Database. What a great find.

Posted by robe0419 at 9:16 PM

November 9, 2005

Living history

Waiting to get a flu shot yesterday a colleague observed to me that as an historian perhaps I would enjoy the upcoming flu pandemic because then we could see what the 1918 pandemic was like.

Indeed! Since we seemed to be having a replay of the Scopes trial in Dover (PA) until the "intelligent design" supporting board members were turned out of office yesterday, why not have the flu. I also look forward to a depression with widespread poverty, and the government stamping out rebellions by homeless veterans, Japan invading China, not to mention fine jazz and great literature ...

Posted by robe0419 at 2:55 PM

October 25, 2005

Rosa Parks and Condi Rice

Ironic indeed that when a historic figure 92 years old dies in this day and age, that if you don't comment within 24 hours that you are left behind. I speak, of course, of Rosa Parks.

Others have more eloquently reminded us that Rosa Parks' actions were somewhat more organized protest than will be generally admitted today.

It's an interesting issue, and I'm not sure that it's specific to the civil rights movement, but I'll get to that in a moment.

As a general point, historians tend to over-emphasize the importance of organized social change. Organized groups leave records and appear before legislative committees, and send things to the newspapers to get them published. The changing of the minds of ordinary people, the sensibilities and opinions of the masses are less easily tracked, more easily overlooked.

When you turn to popular history and commonly held ideas about the past, I think that there's a bit of a tendency in American history for people to remember events as being more the lot of ordinary citizens standing up than organized groups orchestrating confrontations with what they oppose. The Boston Tea Party, for example, was more orchestrated than spontaneous, yet I would wager that most Americans think of it as the Sons of Liberty just getting fed up one day and smashing tea crates. It is just easier for most of us to remember historical events with a personal face, rather than an abstract organizational one.

It's not unique to the memory of the civil rights movement that people have a tendency to remember the personal actions, and slight the importance of organized groups. But you can add to this, I think, the general tendency in America—and other countries—to want a palatable history of one's country. It would be, it is, quite discomforting to think that until the civil rights movement organized and fought and suffered considerable violence against it, that the southern states of America were racist, only partially democratic, and that that political regime was enforced by violence widely—but not universally—supported by the white population. And if you want to push that analysis forward, the failure of the federal government to carry through the promises of the Civil War and the subsequent amendments to the Constitution, and dismantle the racist Southern political system, meant that America was not a truly democratic country. It's preferable for most people to think that this stain on democracy was small enough that small actions like a tired seamstress keeping her seat were enough to bring it down.

Thus, with Rosa Parks these two tendencies, first that we understand history through personal stories, and second the largely unconscious desire for a palatable history, reinforce the emphasis on her personal protest.

Moving right along from Rosa Parks to Condoleeza Rice. Profiles of Rice rarely fail to mention her proximity as a child to the events of the 1960s, and her childhood friendship with one of the girls killed in the Birmingham bombings. So it says something positive about the development of American politics that there is a Republican ginger group to nominate Rice for the presidency in 2008.

It would probably be a great thing for American gender and racial politics if a single, childless, black woman who is interested in classical music and has a PhD could be the Republican candidate for president. But I really doubt it will happen.

Rice has shown no inclination to run for any offices outside the confines of the university. Her national political offices have all been appointive ones. Very few people in this day and age start their elective political careers by running for President, and fewer still by winning that office.

Of course there are exceptions, like Dwight Eisenhower, but Eisenhower had successfully prosecuted the Allied campaign in Europe on the ground. This has more electoral appeal than being one of the desk-bound architects of the American debacle in Iraq.

While it is more likely that the first black president and the first female president will be Republicans, it won't be Condoleeza Rice. Her biography seems impressive, but it isn't the biography of someone who is going to go out and put together a winning campaign for president.

Posted by robe0419 at 8:36 PM

October 3, 2005

Emma Dunham Kelley-Hawkins

Back in March the history and literary blogs were busy discussing the case of Emma Dunham Kelley-Hawkins, a relatively obscure writer often identified as African-American, but who may have been white, according to the research of Holly Jackson at Brandeis.

Jackson did not mention any trace of Emma Dunham Kelley-Hawkins (EDKH) in the 1870 or 1880 censuses, and I did not find any potential matches in the 1880 census database, when searching with the assumption that she was named something resembling Emma Hawkins.

Somehow my post on this topic gets high ranking in Google, so it has attracted some comment, including one that should get more notice (scroll down to the comments by Neil).

In 1870 EDKH was living with her mother, sisters and grandmother, after her father had died. Then in 1880, she was living with her mother and sisters. Because her mother was enumerated under her maiden name, Quincy, Emma does not appear as a "Kelley" in these censuses.

Emma and her family are enumerated as white in both 1870 and 1880. I will just reiterate what I wrote back in March, that always being described as white is good evidence of being white, whatever meaning you want to ascribe to "being" and "white."

Posted by robe0419 at 10:16 AM

August 30, 2005

Historical occupations

More occupations you didn't know existed from the 1880 United States Census.


Posted by robe0419 at 3:35 PM

August 12, 2005

The new Scopes trial

One of my favorite topics in 7th form (senior year of high school) history was America in the 1920s. Who couldn't feel love for the hapless Warren Harding and his friends in high places and mistresses in the White House closets? Or Clarence Darrow in the Scopes trial?

I never thought I'd get to see a modern version of the Scopes trial, but I clearly underestimated the religious fervor of modern America. The modern Scopes trial, Kitzmiller et al. v. Dover Area School Board, will go ahead in September.

This week's New Republic has an fantastic (and lengthy) article explaining the stakes and how creationism intelligent design evolution is supported by the facts. Well worth reading.

Posted by robe0419 at 1:31 PM

August 9, 2005

Is past prologue?

They say that as a good graduate student you should have a good summary of your dissertation of various lengths; one minute (an elevator ride), five minutes (meeting a colleague in the corridor), or ten minutes. They also say that if you can't explain your dissertation to people at a party you don't understand what you're doing.

There's another challenge in explaining your dissertation topic at a party; the people who have a fixed idea about something relating to your topic, and aren't shaken by what you have to tell them. You're grateful that someone is interested, but it's like any conversation with a dogmatist—not much fun.

Back in the last century when I was researching department stores, people in New Zealand would often assume I was interested in the famous [in New Zealand] Ballantynes' store fire that killed 41 people in 1947. Little could be done to dissuade them from this belief, not even being told that I was most interested in the period before 1940. 1947. 1940. Just a long time ago.

My mother tells me that when she was writing her dissertation on New Zealand women authors of the early twentieth century, people would ask her if she could recommend any good new books. Jane Mander and Edith Grossman having been dead a while by 1978 she often didn't have so much to say.

I went to a party the other week, and met several of these types of people, who appear interested in what you're researching but really just want to tell you their opinion about a somewhat related subject.

As I may have mentioned my dissertation looks at married women's work in the United States between 1880 and 1940. I'm not unaware of the connection to current debates about "work and family." Indeed I wrote in a fellowship application, "The extent of paid work by married women remains controversial, with recurrent public and scholarly debates about the effects on children and marriages."

Not that I've promised to say anything about that current debate in the dissertation. Which is why I was sort of unprepared for two conversations in a row at a party where people tried to convince me that married women's paid employment was bad, bad, bad for children. Well, maybe ... It's quite a different question than the one I'm asking. I'm looking mostly at how families made decisions about whether wives worked, what factors (incomes, children, unemployment, racial differences etc ...) impacted those decisions, and what married women's experience in the pre-World War II workplace was like.

For the purposes of the dissertation I really couldn't care less about the kids! I exaggerate to make the point, of course. At least at that time, the impact of mothers work on children's lives was mixed. On the one hand, infant mortality amongst families with working mothers was much higher. On the other, mothers and wives going out to work let children in some families stay in school longer. It's not immediately clear to me what the relative costs and benefits for children of mother's working was in the early twentieth century. There's a calculation that would be interesting to do ...

My reading of current research about the effect of parents' work on children's lives is that it's pretty much a wash. Some good, some bad. It's probably the case that parents [understandably] over-estimate their own impact on their children, and also true that what works for some children and their families doesn't work for others. Personally, I feel that as an only child it was much, much better for me to be in daycare and meeting other kids than at home with my mother. <sarcasm>Daycare made me the well adjusted person that I am</sarcasm>

What I can't fathom is the notion that somehow the late nineteenth or early twentieth century was a better time to be a child because mothers were at home more. This was the proposition put to me at the party. First of all, there's just the huge general increase in material well-being in the western world that makes everyone's lives better today. Second, it's entirely fanciful to imagine that because mothers were at home that they spent lots of time on quality time with the kids. Not only did housewives spend a lot of time doing work around the house, there were also more children to take care of. Third, whatever the impact of mothers' work on infant mortality historically, infant and childhood death rates in the modern, developed world are much, much smaller than they were just 60 years ago. Those are huge, huge advantages to being a child today.

This is not to say that families choices about work and time with children are not subject to sharp constraints. The shortage of cheap daycare and inflexibility in working hours in many workplaces would be a national disgrace in America, if it weren't replicated in other countries making it an international one. But I will save my tongue-in-cheek advocacy of socialist daycare for another party ... It might make for more amusing conversation.

Posted by robe0419 at 10:56 AM

July 26, 2005

The New World conceit

America is uniquely screwed up about class. So are the other new world countries

As I write this I'm coding occupations from a database of the complete 1880 census of the United States. Mechanically, what I'm doing is looking at 80 character descriptions of people's jobs, and giving them 5 digit codes in an Access database. In the end this will allow anyone who cares (and is not a genealogist) to make some sense of the 550,000 different responses 37 million Americans (the other 13 million were under the age of 10, and thus ineligible to answer, or neglected to give a response) gave to the basic request for the "Profession, occupation, or trade of each person, male or female."

Right about now I am working my way through assorted odds and sods who work on the railroad, thinking about whether someone who describes their job as "tends station" is like a "station master" and kind of a manager, or whether "tends station" is more of a subordinate clerical position. And what about someone who "works at railroad station." What do they do? If they were the station master, surely they would say that? Probably "works at railroad station" means the man (this is 1880) does general duties at the station; perhaps selling tickets, unloading freight, calling the arrival and departure of trains. In the end, some of the actual meaning of the job is lost to history.

I mention this to dispel any lingering notions that historical demography and economic history are glamorous profession, but also to make the point by example that while clarity may be elusive the distinctions do matter. There was a substantial difference in pay and status between the station master and the grunt who unloaded goods or shoveled coal. Needless to say, being the President of the railroad was even more prestigious.

(At the risk of losing my readers in this digression, there were lots of small railroad companies in 19th century America, many of which were incorporated, so being president of a railroad could mean being president of a 6 mile transfer line, or being James J. Hill and holding sway over the plains and northwest. More of the former than the latter.)

Class is a slippery subject, and I have considerable sympathy for the New York Times endeavor to say something about class in America in their Class Matters series. They're not the only ones; the LA Times examined risk and inequality for families back in October 2004, and the Wall Street Journal looked at inter-generational income mobility in a May/June 2005 series (but for that you'll need a subscription, sorry).

The Times series gets the most criticism, because it was more ambitious, and because it's the New York Times. Paper of record, liberal elite and all that.

They cop it from all over the place --none of the people commenting on the series had much love for it after the obligatory "glad someone's looking at this" comment. Two of the more substantial criticisms come from Chris Lehmann in the Boston Phoenix, and Jack Schafer in Slate.

Lehmann's take is that:

Social class is at the core of the Times institutional identity, which prevents the paper from offering the sort of dispassionate, critically searching discussion the subject demands.

Anyone who has ever read the catalog of heiresses marrying scions (Yes. Still. In 2005), and doctors marrying lawyers (a more recent development) that is the Times' Weddings and Celebrations section will know the ring of truth in this charge.

Schafer's criticism is rambling, and all over the map (but then so is his target). He makes an advance on the argument that class is really moot these days, because most everyone has more and better material possessions than people did back in the day, which he defines as the 1960s.

Then he says relying on surveys that exclude immigrants--who have high relatively high inter-generational mobility--"places a cloud" over the "whole project. Really? When only 11% of the country is foreign born I'd say that places a cloud over, ummmm, 11% of the project. But whatever. What's 89% of the population when you have an axe to grind?

Then he says that because choices and circumstances differ (1) between individuals and families at a point in time, and (2) for one person over time, you can't make sense of class at all:

Lives are in such flux over any two points in timeone ages, marries, divorces, spawns, changes jobs, gets sick, gets sicker, gets well, moves to a new climate, etc.that it's maddeningly complex to determine whether one's stock is up or down .... No consumer price index, academic data, and statistical tool known to man can crack these nuts.

That's true, people's lives are up and down, but there are ways to account for these individual variations in circumstances.

Finally, Schafer lights upon the idea that journalists in New York are particularly envious of the people they report on. The whole series, he suggests, is really an expression of journalists own status anxiety:

Journalists are notoriously sensitive to matters of class and status, especially a New York journalist with a $125,000 salary that might make him an object of envy to a reporter living in Lansing, Mich., but that stigmatizes him as a knuckle-dragging proletarian on his home turf .... If they're blue about class in America, you can't blame them.

This is the admonition to look at an author's perspective motivation gone amok, beyond parody. Nobody can write about class because we're all so invested in our part of the class structure.

Now you can see the continuing appeal of Tocqueville . It's the foreign observer, mixing easily with the locals, traveling the country, who can see the people and their social relations as they really are. Something to aspire to.

But what I've seen, as a foreigner from another new world country, is that American ambivalence about the existence of class relations is not unique. It's unique in its particular forms—the usual things that can be used to explain why American social history is not the same as Canadian/Australian/New Zealand social history: race and religion—are relevant here too. But the national myth—or delusion—that class does not exist here persists.

Tocqueville observed about America in a section entitled "Influence of Democracy on Manners Properly so Called" that

In democracies servants are not only equal among themselves, but it may be said that they are, in some sort, the equals of their masters

When Tocqueville spoke of "manners" he didn't mean how you hold your knife and fork (<joke>and just as well for Americans whose incompetent use of these instruments is the disgrace of the civilized world</joke>), but rather of the way in which people of different economic circumstances conversed and interacted.

His observation that these interactions were less formal and more equal than in Britain was echoed in the Antipodes. In Australia and New Zealand it was said that:

'Jack's as good as his master' here, and even better in some cases

This rather echoes Tocqueville's observations from earlier in the century about the United States.

Contemporary [19th century] observers attributed this equality of interaction to the economic mobility in the new world, and one man one vote elections. If men could advance rapidly and far from humble origins (inter-generational mobility) and humble starts (career advancement) then servants might soon be masters. Moreover, in the voting booth servants and masters spoke with the same weight.

There was, of course, inequality in the new world. But these new world countries came of age with the justifiable belief that there was more economic mobility and political equality than in Europe. Comparing at least Britain and the United States we know this was true. Contemporary observers were not wrong. The national myths of the classless society was grounded in something real. It was always likely a bit of an exaggeration, but it expressed some reality, and reflected an important ideal.

In the last century two things have changed (just two? not really. two things that are relevant). We know the United States has become less economically mobile, (it's probably true for Australia and New Zealand too) compared to its past and to European countries; and old world Europe has become more politically equal.

The exceptionalism of the relationship between rich and poor, between the new world and the old, reflects an historical ideal, rather than a current reality. The myths of the new world classless societies attributed mobility and easy social relations to the character of immigrants and the bountiful opportunities of abundant land.

We tend to forget that economic mobility in a society does not spring just from the good character of its population and [what appears to be] free land. Policy, government policy, is important too.

Universal male suffrage created a constituency for policy that distributed benefits to many white men. When land appeared free it was easy to distribute benefits to the relatively poor without taking from the wealthy. That is a harder trick to play when land is no longer free, abundant or very useful. Policy that promotes economic mobility may advance the interests of many at the expense of some others. But governments that want to stay in office have to wonder about balancing the votes they will lose when they take and tax, with the votes they will win when they spend and distribute.

That's a harder trick to pull off. Getting the right balance between government intervention to ensure opportunity, and government interventions that do too much to ensure outcomes is not straightforward.

We should not kid ourselves in the New World that because we have a history of high economic mobility, and because we idealize mobility, that class does not exist and does not matter. Because class has many dimensions—measurable and not—we will never really understand it. But that does not mean that class doesn't exist. The belief that a history of opportunity and an ideal of mobility persists into the present is the conceit of the new world.

Posted by robe0419 at 4:41 PM

June 22, 2005

Susan Porter Benson

Susan Porter Benson, author of Counter Cultures, the path-breaking history of department store saleswomen in America has died at the age of 61.

I've probably read Counter Cultures more times than I've read any other monograph. (Saying "book" would be a lie, since there are plenty of children's books I've read more often!) It was reading Counter Cultures for the first time in 1995 that inspired me to do an essay on the Wellington shop assistants union, that turned into an Honours research essay, that turned into part of my successful applications to graduate school in America, that turned into where I am now. Picking up that book is part of how I came to be where I am, and to do what I do. I could have got to a similar place in other ways, but we don't run through life more than once over, and my reading of that book means a lot to me.

When I finished my Honours research essay (150 odd pages, including appendices) I sent an [unsolicited] copy to Susan Porter Benson. She replied with two pages of thanks and suggestions, and an invitation to meet her if the occasion presented it.

I always hoped that our conference schedules would overlap, or that my current research would take me to Storrs, CT (has anyone ever wished that they could go to Storrs?!) but it never happened and now it never will.

It's very sad that she won't complete the projects she's working on now (family economic decisions in the inter-war era) which are still similar to my own interests, even if I've pushed off in the direction of economic, as distinct from social, history.

Posted by robe0419 at 4:06 PM

June 6, 2005

Things to read together

Articles that unintentionally complement each other.

(1) In the Star Tribune they report that J.C. Penney is trying to reinvent itself, and shrug off that image which had people saying "I wouldn't be caught dead wearing J.C. Penney clothes." (See also here)

(2) The New York Times tells us (so it must be true?) that

Social class, once so easily assessed by the car in the driveway or the purse on the arm, has become harder to see in the things Americans buy. Rising incomes, flattening prices and easily available credit have given so many Americans access to such a wide array of high-end goods that traditional markers of status have lost much of their meaning.

Posted by robe0419 at 4:00 PM

June 2, 2005

Comparative Labour History

The latest issue of Labour History (Vol. 88. Not yet posted at History Cooperative) is a bumper one. At least for me.

Following on from their November 1996 issue comparing Australia and Canada, the latest issue looks at labour history in Australia and the United Kingdom. This is complemented by an article by Melanie Nolan summarizing comparative research in New Zealand labour history. She kindly has a paragraph about my own work on department stores in New Zealand and the United States. Always nice to be cited.

As if that wasn't quite enough to keep me reading, there's an article by Miles Fairburn and Stephen Haslett arguing that traditional explanations for why the New Zealand Labour party didn't win office until 1935 are wrong. The working class did not unite behind Labour, making the 1935 win a matter of picking up the small businesses and farmers; Labour had also to secure the skilled working class who were not supporters of it in the early twentieth century. As well as turning over the traditional argument Haslett and Fairburn develop a model for estimating correlations when one variable is measured at an individual level (occupation) and another at block level (voting behavior).

Today the latest issue of the Journal of Economic History arrived, bearing Jason Long's long awaited article on rural-urban migration and socioeconomic mobility in Victorian Britain. He finds (not a surprise) that mostly the people who could benefit from migration did, and others stayed home, though there were some inefficiencies in the labour market. Long makes use of the complete-count 1881 British census data, which you too can use if you have the need.

Posted by robe0419 at 12:52 PM

May 25, 2005

Lingerie department

Interesting article in local mag, The Rake, about men hanging round lingerie departments.

The problem of how to deal with men in women's departments used to vex department stores greatly. It probably still does. Look around next time you're in the women's shoe department at a department store. There will probably be many more comfortable chairs than in the men's shoe department.

Obviously these chairs are now not just for men accompanying their wives. Back in the early twentieth century trade magazines told department store managers to put in comfortable chairs as a respite from shopping for easily tired ladies, and a place a husband unfortunate enough to have to go shopping with his wife could sit aside from the feminine pursuit of shopping.

In any case I have my own Mr-Awkward-in-the-Lingerie-Department story. Just after I'd finished my thesis on New Zealand department stores I was wandering up the stairs at Kirkcaldie & Stains, Wellington's premiere department store. It was the first day of their annual February sale, and I was on my way to kitchenware on the 3nd floor.

The stairs took me past the lingerie department, and as I passed I noted the throngs of women standing at the sale bins, scrabbling for bargains, and jostling for the best position to grab that slip or bra. I paused and watched, and reflected on the early twentieth century newspaper articles that used to breathlessly report on how thousands of women pushed down plate glass windows they were so eager to get a bargain at a department store sale, at the stories of women fainting in the crowds on the first morning of a sale.

You can find these stories in papers all over the English-speaking world. The details change from year to year and place to place, but the trope is the same. Women are born shoppers, and they are quite unladylike when they sense a bargain.

Perhaps that "pausing" and "watching" turned into staring, for two woman looked up and did not see me reflecting on the social history of department stores, but saw me staring at women choosing lingerie. They glared. I looked away. I wanted to say "It's research! And I was just on my way to kitchenwares, anyway!" But I didn't. You know, women and the animal spirits that get a hold of them when they see a bargain ... You wouldn't want to be chased down and attacked with a hairpin and parasol.

I just turned tail, climbed the stairs, and found a cheap corkscrew to replace the one that had gone missing last we'd had a party at the flat. And took the front stairs past the toy department on the way out.

Posted by robe0419 at 12:35 AM

May 23, 2005

Give the single girls a chance!

I attended the Business History Conference over the past weekend. It was held in Minneapolis, which was very convenient and cheap. Even with the current gas prices my 1.5 mile drive to free street parking could not have cost much.

My session was distinguished by having the only two papers on the program that had exclamation marks in their title!! Actually, if you look at the program they don't have the "!" there, trust me that their title slide had the crucial "!"

In my paper I used interviews with 300 workers from the Western Electric company (the people that used to make all the telephones in America) conducted between 1929 and 1931 to look at what rank-and-file workers thought about married women being in paid employment.

During the Depression this was a topic of some concern, and nearly half the workers interviewed referred to the issue. (The interviews let employees choose the topics of conversation). The most identifiable group of workers opposed to married women remaining in employment were single women with dependent family members.

There were actually very few people who came out and said things like "a married womans place is at home . she can find plenty to do there" and

Theres plenty of work to be done at home, and in order to keep the home fires burning the way they should be, I dont think the womans place is down here. It is at home cooking good meals for her husband and doing the necessary work she should do.

Most employees opposed to married women working framed their opposition as a concern for equity amongst households while work was scarce. There was a widespread perception that families with both spouses working were spending all their money on "cars and fur coats," while struggling single girls had to support their parents.

At the same time, single women were also frustrated that men were delaying marriage proposals because of the Depression. The same ideology--that men's wages should support families--that criticized married women for working gave men pause about marrying.

The new thing about my paper is that it takes this literature into the factory, whereas much of the previous research about opposition to married women's work in the inter-war era has looked at women in clerical or professional occupations.

If you're truly interested, the paper is here. It's still a little loose and unformed, but gives me something to start hanging the rest of the fourth chapter around.

Posted by robe0419 at 11:35 AM

May 19, 2005

Caroline Manning and The Immigrant Woman and Her Job

The third substantive chapter in my dissertation (PDF proposal) looks at immigrant wives in the workforce in the early twentieth century.

The main source that I'm going to be using are the responses to a survey carried out in 1924 in Pennsylvania. The survey, in Philadelphia and some Lehigh Valley cities, asked 2,146 women four pages of questions about their lives and working conditions. It's an amazingly detailed source. Between now and having anything substantive to say about the survey, I have to go out to D.C. and spend a couple of weeks in the National Archives photographing the forms and then getting an undergraduate RA to type it all in.

The original report on the survey was published in 1930 by the Women's Bureau of the Department of Labor (still around after all these years) in The Immigrant Woman and Her Job by Caroline Manning. You can read (or download) a scanned copy of the book at Harvard University's Open Collections Program "Women Working, 1870-1930" site.

The book is not heavily cited (just 41 google hits, mostly used book-sellers), and even in JSTOR there's only 29 hits. Google Print brings up a few more references.

As part of my basic research I've been trying to find out what I can about Caroline Manning.

In the 1930 census there is a 53 year old single woman residing as a lodger in a "Government Hotel" in Washington, D.C. In the occupation column the initial entry is "Research," but this has been struck out and "Clerk" has been entered instead. It seems the same person made both the "Research" and "Clerk" entry.

"Research" would seem a more accurate description of what Manning did, since it's clear from the correspondence in the National Archives that she did, in fact, design and execute most of the research that she published in the Women's Bureau Bulletins. There's a nice irony in seeing a professional researcher on women's occupations have her occupation deskilled from "researcher" to "clerk." Ah, but it's all white collar, I suppose.

Manning was born in Minnesota in 1877, and her parents were English-Canadian. In 1880 she was living with her parents in Northfield (MN), and enumerated as "Carrie Maning." (1) Interestingly, her mother is not present in the house. The family has two servants. There's another daughter, and her father is working as a hardware merchant. Given that the U.S. census was de jure, the absence of her mother suggests either death or separation.

In 1910 she was working as a City Inspector in Philadelphia, and living in a social settlement house at 433 Christian St. with six women who were teachers. The head of the household she was living in was Anna F. Davies, a member of the Board of Directors of the National Consumers League. (2)

She completed her BA at Swarthmore, and then in 1945 a dissertation at Bryn Mawr, entitled "An Examination of Social Welfare Organization Methods in the Work of the National Committee on the Care of Transient and Homeless." (3)

While working at the Women's Bureau she contributed to several other Bulletins, including
The employment of women in slaughtering and meat packing (1932)
Women workers in some expanding wartime industries, New Jersey (1942)
The employment of women in the pineapple canneries of Hawaii (1930)
Women in Missouri industries :a study of hours and wages (1924)
Fluctuation of employment in the radio industry (1931)
Women in the fruit-growing and canning industries in the State of Washington (1926)
Wage-earning women and the industrial conditions of 1930 (1932)
The effects on women of changing conditions in the cigar and cigarette industries (1931)
The employment of women in Puerto Rico (1934)
Hours and earnings in tobacco stemmeries (1934)
Women in Delaware industries (1927)
Women in the candy industry in Chicago and St. Louis (1922)
The employment of women in the sewing trades of Connecticut (1935)
Women in Kentucky: a study of hours, wages and working conditions (1923)

While less famous than some of her contemporaries Manning was of a piece with other white women involved in welfare and labor research and reform from the Progressive to New Deal eras (4). She was unmarried, she was well educated, and she came out of the Midwest and spent much of her professional life on the East Coast. Her education at Bryn Mawr and Swarthmore is also not atypical -- both colleges had a tradition of graduating what you might call "practical activists."

To fill out this 2 hour research into her life, I will probably visit the Rice County recorders office in Faribault (MN) to find out more about Manning's birth and early family life; and see if I can find any papers or a copy of her dissertation when I'm in Philadelphia in fall.

On the very slim chance that any readers know anything about Manning's life, please get in touch.

(Notes below the fold)

(1) I was able to work this out by searching our database of the entire 1880 census, and looking for anyone born in Minnesota aged between 1 and 5, with both parents born in Canada.

(2) Josephine Goldmark; Francis McLean; James T. Bixby; Alice Lakey; Edith Kendall; Arthur N. Holcombe; Rosamond Kimball; G. Hermann Kinnicutt; Frederick C. Manvel, "Work of National Consumers' League, Volume II" Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science Vol. 38, Supplement (Sep., 1911), p.71.

Davies, it appears, was also involved with the American Association of University Women's Philadelphia branch.

(3) Students' Dissertations in Sociology, The American Journal of Sociology Vol. 52, No. 1 (Jul., 1946), pp. 56.

(4) See Linda Gordon's articles: "Social Insurance and Public Assistance: The Influence of Gender in Welfare Thought in the United States, 1890-1935." The American Historical Review. Vol. 97, No. 1 (Feb., 1992), pp. 19-54; and "Black and White Visions of Welfare: Women's Welfare Activism, 1890-1945." The Journal of American History. Vol. 78, No. 2 (Sep., 1991), pp. 559-590

Posted by robe0419 at 11:09 PM

May 18, 2005

Name that!

Long discussion on several blogs (Volohk Conspiracy, Matthew Yglesias, Marginal Revolution) about whether women should take their husband's name upon marriage.

The comments at both Volokh Conspiracy and Yglesias' site are fascinating. I have not seen a longer list of women explaining that their decision to take their husband's last name was not influenced by tradition, but was merely for convenience at the bank and at the kid's school and that they had always wanted to get rid of that four syllable-twelve letter German surname.

This would all be fine and their own choice (etc etc), but I find it exceedingly hard to believe that it is mostly women who end up with surnames they want to change. Are there really so few men out there with names they want to dispense with given the chance?

Now maybe I'll change my mind in years to come when I deal with these things myself, but the "inconvenient at the bank" and "teachers will be confused if I have a different name than my child" excuses are sort of shaky.

I've had joint financial arrangements with flatmates/roommates in the past, and now with my fiance, and you know, it really hasn't been difficult. No more difficult than opening any other bank account or insurance policy. Where are these banks and other companies that cannot keep track of a couple of different names on the account?

As for the "teachers will be confused" argument, I don't know from experience, but I think this would be no more difficult than the banks? Teachers have, what, 30 students in a class, at most. It surely wouldn't be beyond them after a while to remember that Joe X is the child of Sam Y. Perhaps the best teachers at the best schools keep written records of which children belong to which parents, it couldn't be hard.

Now this isn't to say that everyone in a family having the same name isn't a good idea -- it's a perfectly fine reason to change your name. I can understand the commitment it demonstrates to a relationship to both have the same name. But it does not lead logically to women taking their husband's names.

You can't ignore history here, and as I read it, the reality is that historically women changed their names as part of the system of coverture where married women lost a separate legal identity. Most of the legal traditions of coverture have been abolished in western countries, but women changing their names to their husbands is a social remenant of coverture.

In a truly equal society we'd see approximately equal numbers of men adopting their wives names. We don't.

None of the reasons given for women changing their names are special to the woman changing her name, as compared with both taking a new name or the husband taking the wife's name.

When those alternative practices are equally as common then it will be OK for women to adopt their husband's names. But until then there's a conflict of individual choice and advancing social equality. It will seem the height of arrogance to say this, but really, if people knew the background to the cultural practice of women changing their names it would be far less common.

On the other hand, if anyone has a good defence of why, in general, (not in your particular case) women should change their names to their husbands on marriage I'd be interested to hear it.

Upholding tradition is all well and dandy, but please know the tradition you're getting into first.

And donate to the Lucy Stone League.

Posted by robe0419 at 6:02 PM

May 14, 2005

Using maps as my ideas

Want to see the variation in social patterns across America?

Then check out Social Explorer, developed by Andy Beveridge (Sociology, Queens College) and colleagues.

Interesting stuff. Make sure you have a fast connection!

There's lots of quibbles to be had with mapping social data like this (it shows averages and not variations, it's hard to see the relationship between multiple variables), but it's an interesting way of seeing diversity across the country.

The title of the post is obscure. A chocolate fish to anyone who identifies the song I have deliberately misquoted ...

Posted by robe0419 at 3:39 PM

May 12, 2005

Crazy suburban types

City Pages reports on the craziness out in Minnetonka, where a vocal minority is opposing Minnetonka High School's introduction of the International Baccalaureate qualification to the district. Apparently, the IB is

"anti-American, anti-Christian, .... and rejects the Judeo-Christian values held by the majority of families in our district and instead promotes the atheistic Secular Humanist principles of multiculturalism, pacifism, one-world government, and moral relativism.

That well known godless communists George Bush has endorsed the IB, so it can't be all that bad.

One of the parents complaining about the IB says "Our education system is the envy of the world ... Why would we want to subordinate that to some organization connected with the United Nations?"

Umm, no. Or at least not according to the best international comparisons out there, available from the TIMSS study of international achievements in mathematics and science, and the PIRLS study of reading ability.

The United States' educational performance is virtually indistinguishable from Canada, Australasia, and Europe, and somewhat behind those hard-working kids in Singapore, Hong Kong and Japan.

Now you could make the claim that the U.S. education system is productive, since it achieves pretty good test scores for fewer hours in school (the same is approximately true of Australia and New Zealand, which also have low schooling hours compared to Europe and Asia). But that's a distinctly second order way of being the envy of the world.

(Also noted on Minnesota Politics)

Posted by robe0419 at 12:26 PM

May 5, 2005

Comparative history

Is comparative history on a sticky wicket?

Although Orlando Patterson and Jason Kaufman's article on cricket didn't strike me as very persuasive I admire their willingness to start painting in broad strokes and look at why cricket didn't become the summer game of North America.

Too much comparative history of the United States looks east to Europe for comparison. I've sometimes thought this reflects an undercurrent of anxiety among historians of America, as if the United States would be demeaned by being compared to piddling little countries like Australia or Canada, or illiberal embarrasments of the colonial era like South Africa, rather than obviously important countries like France or Britain.

For example, the huge volume that is Ira Katznelson and Aristide R. Zolberg, eds. Working-Class Formation: Nineteenth-Century Patterns in Western Europe and the United States. (Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 1986) largely ignores the comparisons that could be made between the United States and other immigrant societies. It's a fine, fine book but you wonder what additional insights about the dynamics of working class formation went missing when they largely ignored the copious labor historiography of Australia or Canada, for example.

Although the approach has its limitations, I think a good starting point for looking at comparative history is the one first put forth in the 1980s by people like Donald Denoon and John Fogarty: looking at [parts of] North America, Australasia, South America, and South Africa as "regions of recent settlement." The obvious limitation is that the elision writes the indigenes out of the approach. We're talking about "regions of recent European settlement," but the idea is a good one. Typically this approach has looked at regions where the European settlers quickly came to be a substantial proportion of the population, and often a majority.

The strength of this approach is that you can catch 10 countries in your net (Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Newfoundland, New Zealand, United States, South Africa, Uraguay); this is also the weakness. Who can do archival research in multiple countries before tenure? In it's totality it's a project for tenured historians, or sociologists who are more comfortable relying on the secondary literature.

Most of these countries, of course, encompassed relatively sub-national units with varying degrees of autonomy: states, provinces, or separate colonies. Some of these predate the country we now refer to. For example, it sort of supposes federation was inevitable to talk about Australia before 1901 but most people do. This gives more variation in laws and customs, and makes in-depth research more feasible. For example, the North American Midwest and Northwest coast was largely settled in the mid-late 19th century, as were the Australasian colonies. This comparison makes sense, in a way that comparing 17th century New England to 19th century Australia does not.

Another approach, long out of favor, is the "comparative dominions" approach. This took Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa as natural comparators from their status as white dominions. Alexander Brady's 1947 book, Democracy in the Dominions remains insightful today, though readers of modern sensibilities may note that South Africa's course towards apartheid is not exactly prominent. It's mostly about comparative democracy.

This is still valuable -- you can, I think, make the argument that Canada, Australia and New Zealand were more democratic than the United States in the nineteenth century. Arguing over who has more democracy or more egalitarianism is fun for national pride, but unless you have an unambiguous [quantitative] measure of democracy or egalitarianism, it's better to fall back on examining how and why things changed, rather than toting up moral points.

Beginning with the "regions of recent European settlement" approach still strikes me as the way to go. The nation state is recognized, but not reified. Demography, economic conditions and the environment are key explanatory variables and topics of study. Difference and similarity between countries becomes the study of overlapping experiences, rather than stark divides.

It is not just because I am working on a dissertation that I advocate article to dissertation sized research that starts with small sub-national areas as the unit of comparison. It's because a lot of comparative history is still a manifesto for comparative history, and not research itself. Take a look at the Journal of American History's issue on "Beyond the Nation State" from December 1999. The ratio of manifesto to research is still relatively high, although things improved from the 1980 American Historical Review that was 2/3 manifesto and 1/3 actual comparative research (JSTOR stable link to the contents).

I'd love to know why cricket took off in 19th century Melbourne, but baseball took off in Toronto of the same era. Rob McDougall suggests that it was probably marketing. The answer awaits the researcher who wants to delve into the archives in both cities and read back copies of The Age and The Globe. The answer does not lie in essentializing national characteristics about the egalitarian ethos. My agenda for comparative history supposes that sociologists will get their hands dirty on microfilm and newsprint, and that historians view their small scale comparisons of city and region as contributing to a larger cross-national comparative project.

(You may think "great idea! what have you done about it?" It's a fair question -- there are none so idealistic as the un-initiated. I've published two articles that, I think, took the foregoing approach to comparative history.)

[Updated at 2:55pm cdt to correct some of the discussion of states and provinces etc, and add more to the discussion of Brady]

Posted by robe0419 at 10:32 AM

April 8, 2005

Studying others and ourselves

Miriam Burstein offers some interesting thoughts on "X Studies" (where X might be women, African-American, Jewish, American ...) that follows on from a women's studies discussion on Alas, A Blog.

The question really is, should you study your own group?

Thinking about this issue brought me all the way to Minnesota. I decided that if I was ever going to do New Zealand history it would be better to do my professional training out of the country. But I selected between universities in [predominantly] English-speaking countries that were either similar receiving countries in the 19th century migration out of Europe (U.S., Canada, Australia), or Britain itself. This is not exactly expanding ones horizons as far as they could go, and when American-born historians of America say how non-parochial I am for studying America (this really has happened several times), I think "we're both pretty parochial ..."

I've never understood the critique that "women" or "ethnic" or "Jewish" studies are too narrow either; after all it's perfectly acceptable -- it used to be the height of good learning, in fact -- to specialize in the study of elite Greek and Roman society 2000 years past. Non-national groupings are just as valid as nationalities as the basis for studying the human experience.

Where the "studies" approach goes awry is when the number of people studied becomes so trivial, and the merits of a broader grouping for study get lost. Rather than inadvertently offend my predominantly American readership by selecting some American ethnic or religious group I'll say that studying the Jewish or African experience in New Zealand would be an example of a study too narrow.

Large numbers are important! Groups with big populations are important historically. ("Big," of course, is relative). Large groups should get studied more.

Of course, the amount of artefactual information left for historians by different groups is quite different. Near universal literacy is established enough in the West that "we" tend to forget that one hundred years ago, many people didn't really get the chance to randomly contribute to the historical record. It's been said that social history is the study of laundry lists, but if you can't even write a laundry list we're not going to be reading your novel or diary or newspaper column.

I think this alone accounts for some of the differences between the ways in which historians approach the study of groups, and the way in which contemporary "studies" departments set themselves up. Historians are trained to ask and answer the question of how their evidence came to survive to the present. In other words, methodology is important, and I share the concern that "studies" approaches can short change students' learning of methods and approaches. (At the college level, this is not as much of a worry as at graduate school).

But should you study yourself? I don't think that being of a group gives you privileged knowledge about that group's history. Americans born in the 20th century don't come fully equipped with knowledge of their history -- they have to learn it by reading just like the rest of us from far away.

But on the other hand, studying a group that you can be a part of cannot just be dismissed as parochial. If the past really is another country, it's all the study of somewhere else.

Posted by robe0419 at 1:52 PM

March 23, 2005

Bad jobs

Channel 4 (that would be the British Channel 4, not WCCO ...) has a series on the worst jobs in history.

It covers the Roman to Victorian periods based, it seems, on when the jobs first appeared. They list fullers (wool treaters) and lime burners as medieval jobs, but those jobs were still around in 1881. You can see for yourself.

(Via A Journey Through Time)

Posted by robe0419 at 1:36 PM

March 18, 2005

not as badly read as I thought

Normally reading The Little Professor's list of weekly book acquisitions makes me feel slightly ignorant and uncultured for never having heard of the authors or the books, let alone having read them! But this week, I've heard of all but one of the authors, have read Kate Atkinson's Human Croquet (great book, great author ...), and Middlesex is on the bookclub list for summer.

Not as much of a dolt as I thought I was ...

Posted by robe0419 at 2:29 PM

March 11, 2005

Historical census trivia of the day

Harriet Beecher Stowe reported her occupation to the 1880 census enumerators as "Authoress of Uncle Tom's Cabin."

Click on image for larger image

Unfortunately, the Census Bureau and everyone else classifying occupations will lump her in with thousands of less famous authors who didn't tell us what books they had written ...

Posted by robe0419 at 10:55 AM

March 8, 2005

The industrial age (again)

Apropos of yesterday's post about how the "Industrial Age" to "Information Age" transition was somewhat overblown. There have been changes in the length of time people spend with any one employer, in the way that employment contracts protect people from the risks of unemployment and ill-health (on this see Krugman's column today), and in the way that employers support retirement savings.

One reason that manufacturing jobs were associated with long job tenure, good health benefits, and pensions was that unions bargained for those benefits.

Perhaps I've missed it, but it seems odd that the union movement has not been more visible in the opposition to Social Security phase-out.

Posted by robe0419 at 11:12 AM

March 7, 2005

Bad economic history watch

Matthew Yglesias, Josh Marshall (twice), and Digby all wonder about Joe Klein's statement that:

I agree with Paul in that private accounts have nothing to do with solvency and solvency is the issue. I disagree with Paul [Krugman] because I think private accounts a terrific policy and that in the information age, you're going to need different kinds of structures in the entitlement area than you had in the industrial age. (emphasis added)

Ah, no. Most of the change in the industrial composition of the American labor force has come from declines in the share of the agricultural sector. Between 1940 and 2000, the share of the labor force in trade, services and government--which you might equate with the information sector--grew from 40 per cent of the labor force to 70 per cent.

More than half of this change was from agriculture's share declining from 17 per cent to around 2 per cent. Declines in the share of the workforce in manufacturing only accounted for a quarter of the shift into trade, service and government.

The industrial composition of the labor force has little to do with the arrangements we make for retirement income.

What is important is life cycle labor force participation--how much people work over their lifetimes--and the length of employment contracts and spells with the same employer. These things are somewhat related to the industrial make-up of the workforce, but not that closely.

(Click on image for larger view)
Data from the IPUMS.

Posted by robe0419 at 8:40 PM

March 3, 2005

Back to the nineteenth century (again)

Matthew Yglesias makes an effort at taking David Brooks' column seriously, and surprise! Brooks' argument is shot through with logical problems ... Who would have thought?

Posted by robe0419 at 2:18 PM

March 2, 2005

Whatever happened to Emma Dunham Kelley-Hawkins

Some regular readers will have missed it (others won't), but literary and historical types have been debating whether an obscure [and apparently tedious] writer called Emma Dunham Kelley-Hawkins was not African-American as has been argued, but actually white. The discovery was made by a Brandeis English lit graduate student, Holly Jackson.

In the interests of comprehensiveness (and trackback links) the issue is covered by Scott McLemee at Inside Higher Ed, Caleb McDaniel, The Reading Experience, Begging to Differ, Ralph Luker, and Timothy Burke.

I will mostly leave the issues of literary-historicism, identity, and whether this is another strike against Henry Louis-Gates, and comment on issues I have some professional expertise in.

I will say that in the end it's all English literature. It's written in English. What matters for literary history is not the demographic characteristics of the writer, but the language it's written in. It's a lot harder to find out what authors read, but it's a more accurate way of finding literary antecedents than external characteristics of the authors.

Caleb writes:

it's interesting to me that almost all of the evidence for her "whiteness" hinges on nineteenth-century census records .... Jackson considers this possibility -- that the family was "passing" -- but rejects it on the slender hypothesis that they could not have fooled the census-takers in a small Massachusetts town, where Kelly-Hawkins' family had lived for more than one generation when she was born .... Before accepting this hypothesis, I'd like to know more about the way the census was taken in Massachusetts at the time. In Maryland, for instance, my understanding is that the census was usually recorded in the antebellum period by hired census-takers, who went (more or less) from door to door, asking for names and ages. Presumably, they sometimes also asked for "race," since there was a column on the census for recording this, usually "W" for white, "B" for black, and "M" for "mulatto." But the column was usually labelled "color," not "race," and it's highly probable that white census-takers often simply identified a person's "color" with their own eyes. That is, if a person looked white, the census taker could mark down his "W" and move on, regardless of the person's own identification of himself or herself. Again, I don't know whether this was the way the census was taken in Kelly-Hawkins' case, but it's a question worth raising. I also don't know whether census takers necessarily knew the locals, as Jackson seems to assume.

Instructions to enumerators, and a procedural history of these censuses can be found here. What's important to know for the question at hand is that in small towns the census enumerator was often a local official, selected because he knew a lot of people. The 'people skills' to be a selectman had some overlap with those required to be an enumerator.

The postbellum censuses also conflated "color" and "race." You can see enumeration forms for all these censuses here. It's not until 1900 that the wording becomes "Color or race."

All of the pre-1950 censuses relied on an enumerator visiting the household, and asking questions of a respondent person. Because of this practice, mis-reporting and vague reporting of ages, occupations, birthplaces and the like is common in the 19th century census. If you weren't there, and someone answered for you, your information was more likely to be wrong. For the ten percent of the population that was boarding or lodging, this was more of a problem. (UPDATE, 5 March. Added "more" to penultimate sentence of this para, making it "was more likely to be wrong." I don't think the census was thatinaccurate.)

The enumerator instructions for the 1850-1890 censuses all stressed that an accurate 'register' of the color of the population was desired. Enumerators shouldn't leave the column blank for whites, and they should enquire about the proportion of black blood for those being marked as mulatto or black. Indeed in 1890 (for which most of the returns burned) they say:

The word "black" should be used to describe those persons who have three-fourths or more black blood; "mulatto," those persons who have from three-eighths to five-eighths black blood; "quadroon," those persons who have one-fourth black blood; and "octoroon," those persons who have one-eighth or any trace of black blood.

How this all played out in small Massachussetts towns in the late nineteenth century it's hard to know.

What I think is significant is that Emma Dunham Kelley-Hawkins and her ancestors are always described as white. That is firmer evidence of being white, whatever "being" and "white" mean.

In any case, whatever happened to Emma Dunham Kelley-Hawkins? Jackson's article locates her grandparents in the 1840-1860 censuses, and Kelley-Hawkins herself in the 1900-1930 censuses in Rhode Island.

What happened to Kelley-Hawkins between her birth and 1900? Jackson says:

Moving backward, I found the record of her parents' 1859 marriage, which provided all four of her grandparents' names. I located them (along with a sizable extended family) in the censuses from 1840 to 1860. Moving forward, I followed Kelley-Hawkins in Rhode Island in the first three decades of the 20th century. The last documents I uncovered were the obituary marking her death at home in Rumford on Oct. 22, 1938 ...

There are indexes (or indices?) to the 1870 and 1880 censuses.

But there appears to be no potential match for an Emma D. Kelley in the 1870 census. There is an "Emma D Kelly" living in New York born around 1863, but her birthplace is New York. And there are no "Emma Kelley"s or "Emma Dunham"s who have Massachusetts birthplaces.

What about 1880? 1880 is a little easier to search, as there is a machine readable database of the complete census (a little plug for my day job), that is available for non-genealogical research. If you search the genealogical indexes there is no "Emma Kelley," "Emma Kelly" or "Emma Dunham," born around 1863 in Massachusetts.

In June 1880, Emma Dunham Kelley would have been 16. So, there's a good chance she might have left home and was working somewhere. People who were out working were more likely to have their ages misreported than those who actually spoke to the enumerator.

I searched the 1880 data for anyone with a first name of "Emma," born in Massachusetts, and aged between 15 and 19 (inclusive). That returned 1520 young women.

Just two of them appear like they could be Emma Dunham Kelley. One is an Emma Dunham, born in MA with both parents born in MA, but living in Illinois on a farm with an aunt who was running a farm.

The other candidate is an Emma Kelly, born in MA with both parents born in MA, living in Quincy (MA) with her grandparents, Ephraim and Priscilla Deane. Ephraim Deane is listed as a "Superintendent," but no industry is reported. When you look at an image of the enumeration the context becomes clearer. (large file)

Ephraim Deane was the Superintendent of the Sailors Snug Harbor in Quincy, an old home for sailors. His wife, Priscilla, was the matron in 1880. They are listed as having a daughter, Minna Deane aged 16. The next listed person is an Emma Kelly, aged 18, and employed as a servant.

Is this Emma Dunham Kelley? Possibly. The sailors home makes sense, when you consider that she grew up in a seafaring community. Possibly not ...

UPDATE: And it turns out, NOT, as this was not her grandfather. So, what did happen to Dunham Kelley between 1870 and 1900?

Posted by robe0419 at 2:48 PM

March 1, 2005

Back to the nineteenth century

David Brooks has been given a new gig at the New York Times: writing the "Revisiting the 19th Century" column.

Posted by robe0419 at 11:51 AM

February 28, 2005

A clarification

Caleb McDaniel replies to my musings about qualitative and quantitative methods with the comment:

Historians had something like the navel-gazing debate you call for during the 1970s and 1980s controversies about "cliometric" history. But since the new cultural history defenders of qualitative history seemed to win out (at least institutionally) in those debates, the question doesn't seem to come up as much anymore. Frankly, if historians were still required by professional canons to crunch numbers, I would be in deep trouble.

Navel-gazing is right. When most of the profession devotes itself to how to do what it does, rather than just doing it, the amount of new knowledge got out is limited.

Economic, demographic and other forms of "quantitative history" have been making a quiet comeback since the early 1990s (not least because of the IPUMS). More humble about what they can achieve, they have become more integrated with the rest of the historical community.

The question that interests me--and a few others, I hope, because I won't get to it for some years--is the more limited one of why some-to-many people in some disciplines sometimes overstate the difference between qualitative and quantitative methods. It interests me because I don't see the difference is worth making much of.

What matters is: is the question a good one? That doesn't suppose any method or type of data to be best.

Posted by robe0419 at 8:20 PM

February 27, 2005

historical census trivia of the day

Saleratus is an impure bicarbonate of potash, and a common ingredient in baking soda. In 1880, seven people in the United States said they worked in a saleratus factory. One hundred and thirteen said they worked in making baking soda and baking powder.

Posted by robe0419 at 9:55 PM

Consolidation in the department store industry

Federated (owner of Macy's and Bloomingdale's) is going to buy May (owner of Marshall Field's and Lord & Taylor's). The consolidation of department store ownership continues.

Minneapolitans--who only recently saw Dayton's become Marshall Field's, and now Macy's--were sheltered from the death of the long-time name because their hometown store did so well.

When many department stores began in the late nineteenth century they were typically given the name of their founder, hence the persisting apostrophes. (Though the signs outside some stores lost the apostrophe, perhaps they are difficult for signwriters?) Most large cities had several stores.

Ownership and management passed to the second generation in the early twentieth century. Stores that felt the need to expand opened branch stores in newly developing suburbs from the 1920s onwards, with the branch stores proliferating in the late 1940s and 1950s.

The Depression of the 1930s forced co-operation in purchasing on department stores, who were able to negotiate better terms from manufacturers as a collective. Typically these groups were formed by stores from different cities, and no financial relationship beyond joint buying took place for most groups, except Federated. (1). But the foundations of consolidation had been laid, and from the 1950s onwards the family-owned, single-location department store began to be eclipsed by (a) the multiple location store with a downtown location and suburban branches, and (b) the consolidated department store holding firm with operations in several cities. Federated did well, very well, at buying up other stores.

Federated was lucky to survive its acquistion in the 1980s by Robert Campeau. Their corporate webpage understates> the near disaster.

And now they will dominate the Twin Cities department store market too. The department store is not dead, its death has been foretold since the 1920s, but its role in the retailing sector will be relatively smaller than it was at the turn of the previous century. Dayton's did well to survive the trend to consolidation for so long. There should be less lament for its passing, and more acknowledgment of its distinctiveness over a century and more.

UPDATE (28 February): The New York Times (bless 'em) finds two historians who are willing to go on record with a romantic portrayal of the department store's past.

And the Washington Post wonders what will happen to Hecht's (another apostrophe in the name).

McNair, M.P. 1931. "Trends in large scale retailing." Harvard Business Review 10 (1):30-39.

Posted by robe0419 at 7:57 PM

February 26, 2005

Quali, quanti, whatever ...

Profgrrrrl who (1) I should read more regularly and (2) I assume to be a sociologist based on this statement:

[I do] ... mixed methods work, in a field where all too frighteningly often I hear people describe themselves as either qualitative or quantitative researchers

has an interesting post about qualitative and quantitative research.

Quite so. It's clear to me from reading books like Howard Becker's Tricks of the Trade, and King, Verba and Keohane's Designing Scientific Inquiry that the problem of research design for accurate inference is common to all areas of the social sciences.

Social scientists essentially ask the question: "Why do people act the way they do?" There are variations on how you specify that question, but it's the basic question at the heart of all social science research. [he says humbly] How do people form expectations about how the price of goods and services change [inflation]? What makes people sexually attracted to others? Why did the assassination of a relatively minor Austrian archduke lead to a bloody and costly 4 year war that dragged in countries not even remotely near Sarajevo? You can assign disciplines to all these questions, if you like, but the form of the question is the same.

The data we have to answer these questions is often incomplete, either because (1) it would be prohibitively expensive to ask everyone what they thought about the issue, or (2) things get lost. The latter is the historians problem.

So we make the leap from incomplete data to attempting generalizations about the behavior in question. The formal structure of this inference is much clearer for quantitative research, though that is not to say that everyone always remembers what they're doing and the problems inherent in the exercise.

Moreover, data are not inherently qualitative or quantitative. The researcher makes an active choice about how to analyze them. Some data go better with some analyses than others. And new insights sometimes come from approaching the same old data with a different analysis.

To take an example from my own research, I tend to think about the dissertation as involving three primarily quantitative chapters, one primarilyqualitative chapter, and one (the introduction) which is a bit of a mixture. But that's a misnomer. In chapter two I ask "how did the income earned by husbands affect whether wives worked, and how did that change from 1890-1940?" And the numbers give me a certain sense for what's going on -- husband's income had a smaller effect over time. But they mean little-to-nothing without the extra information that's provided by people writing about what they thought about what was happening.

Academics are quite uninclined to study themselves, but I think the persistence of this qualitative/quantitative debate in certain disciplines (sociology especially, history in some areas) is well worth studying in itself ... if it hasn't been done already.

Posted by robe0419 at 6:10 PM

February 23, 2005

Gender, race and class

You'd think that a history department seeking to hire someone to teach " Twentieth Century United States HistoryGender, Race and Class" would know that "the problems of the big city" are often perceived to be related to race and class.

Maybe they mean traffic congestion when they talk about the problems of the big city. I hope so. Because a lot of people mean the poor non-white residents when they talk about the city having "problems."

On the other hand, maybe this department really does need someone to teach them about race and class in modern America ...

Posted by robe0419 at 4:58 PM

February 3, 2005

More fun and education

If you thought the original place-the-states game got too easy, try the advanced version. The states you've already placed don't show up. As always, if you get coastline -- including lakes -- or wiggly southern borders you're golden ... it's those dang interior states that get you.

Posted by robe0419 at 10:18 AM

January 30, 2005

Cancer, chemicals and history

Interesting article in The Nation about chemical companies attacking Rosner and Markowitz' book, Deceit and Denial about the chemical industry covering up knowledge of carcinogenic products.

Posted by robe0419 at 12:05 AM

January 26, 2005


Interesting article in TNR (subs. only) on Condoleeza Rice's Hegelian view of the world.

Posted by robe0419 at 9:10 AM

January 20, 2005

Fun, and educational

This game, where you attempt to place the states in their correct locations on the map, is fun.

It would also be highly educational for U.S. history classes, or any other class where you hope your students will know where things happened. The Missouri Compromise means a whole lot less if you don't know where 36° 30' was.

As for playing the game, if you get states with coastline, lake shore, or a border with Mexico you're off to a good start. West Virginia can be tricky if you have no surrounding states when you get it. Because the northern border is a straight line placing North Dakota, Montana, and Idaho on there is harder than you'd think.

Posted by robe0419 at 12:01 PM

January 18, 2005

More on David Brooks

I asked "why do they pay David Brooks to write drivel like this?"

Despite it being drivel, it does generate comment. Lots and lots of it.

But I still think that it's not a column that thoughtfully provokes comment -- it's a column that provokes comment because of so many unexamined assumptions, and as I mentioned, the contradictions with other ideas -- specifically, his glorification of suburban materialism -- that seem to be pretty fundamental to Brooks' world view.

Posted by robe0419 at 8:56 AM

January 17, 2005

Power in the home

Apropos of yesterday's post about David Brooks' "back to the hearth" column in the Times.

The decreasing inequality in the income earned by men and women within families has been critical, absolutely critical, to making families less dominated by husbands. The more equal the income brought into the household by men and women, the more equal decision-making processes are. Money begets power within families.

That's why any proposal that suggests that women should give up on the career while men forge ahead with theirs, is in part, a proposal that women give up some of their power within families and homes. You could use the word subservience here, it wouldn't be that out of place.

However "subservience" isn't quite as politically catchy as "family friendly."

As for Brooks' idea that women should "stay home, [to] raise children from age 25 to 35." Ummm, wouldn't another way of doing this be that both parents work 3-5 days a week? Then both keep developing their careers, while the kids get quality time with both parents during the week?

Indeed, the whole column is devoid of any suggestion that businesses might have to change their employment practices. Brooks does suggest government policies, but only to alter the incentives for families.

Posted by robe0419 at 2:15 PM

January 16, 2005

Drivel in the NYT

Really, why do they pay David Brooks to write drivel like this?

Pro-natalism is so 1950s. Any serious discussion of this issue has to recognize the -- you would have thought basic -- fact that men also have responsibility for looking after children, you know, adjusting their work hours etc... But not in Bobo's world. It's all about women giving up that silly little idea about having a career.

It's also kinda strange to see Brooks writing about the negative consequences of an acquisitive society. His books and many of his other columns glorify the large houses, the double car garage, the eating out, the vacations, the pointless stuff that Americans spend their money on.

Where does he think all that money is coming from to buy the 3000 square foot house, and the two Ford Escapes? One well-paid man working 40 hours a week? I doubt it. Some of it is from the bank, but that second steady income is critical to the middle class American lifestyle.

UPDATE (22 January 2005): I now see this post has been getting hits following a kind mention by Ralph Luker at Cliopatria. Welcome, Cliopatria readers! Please look around, and I hope you will click through to the main page.

Posted by robe0419 at 10:45 PM

January 11, 2005

link of the day

much real writing to do. but this was worth reading. don't assume other people care about your work! cheery, huh?

Posted by robe0419 at 3:19 PM

January 6, 2005

Families between the wars

Book review done!

Eudora has apparently not been made aware of the word "commodification," and suggested instead

  • Computerization (a more recent development in childhood)
  • Collectivization (sort of the opposite economic system, I suppose)
  • Commercialization (just about right)
  • Gentrification (ummm, not quite)

But I learnt some things from the book. First of all, I learnt to read a book all the way through again. Not something you get the luxury of doing every day while dissertating. I also learned that the "rule of two" for book reviews (never do more than two a year) is like red wine with red meat, white wine with white meat. You can break it if you [think] you know what you're doing.

I also learned that it's a nice touch if the journal sends you a bookmark with the book you're reviewing.

But I digress.

Cook argues that the children's clothing industry -- as opposed to an industry that sold clothing to people with smaller bodies -- didn't really begin until 1917. This is remarkably precise dating, but he is quite convincing.

The 1920s saw the industry establish itself, and by the end of the decade a separate children's clothing department was nearly universal in department stores and chain stores like Woolworths.

It was the 1930s that really saw a children's clothing market emerge, with the child's point of view being privileged and institutionalized. Advertisements focused on an appeal to the child as the consumer, and their senses of fashion and practical needs, not their parents' sense of what was appropriate and good value. ("Appropriate"? Well, Cook argues and he's in line with others that the whole notion of age-appropriateness, expectations of what's normal behavior for a certain age, is a pretty recent one. Recent as in since the Civil War.)

To summarize crudely, after World War II changes in the children's clothing industry are mostly a matter of adjusting hem lengths to suit what good thinking suburban folk thought was appropriate in their 7-17 year old daughters. See, it was OK for 5 year old girls to wear above-the-knee hemlines, but not OK for 11 year olds, 'cause that's "suggestive." Weren't the 1950s grand?!

I was particularly receptive to Cook's argument about what a rollicking period of change the 1920s and 1930s were, 'cause that's what I say too in my research. My sense at this early stage of my own research is that married women's work gained social acceptance pretty rapidly in the 1920s.

Let's qualify that a bit. Most people really weren't too concerned that around a third of black wives worked, because domestic service and agricultural labor really aren't much fun, and really don't pay so well. But as much as we can tell, in the early twentieth century it really wasn't the done thing for white wives to go out to work.

So the big change in the 1920s is that it becomes more socially acceptable for white wives to go to work. There was still concern about mothers working, but a young woman newly married no longer had to give up her sales clerking job just because the neighbours would disapprove.

It's not much of a surprise to find that during the Depression there was a lot of hostility to married women working. Maybe this argument is too clever by half (or just dumb) but I think that acceptance of married women's work didn't erode in the Depression that much. My sense is that because more married women were working, hostility was expressed in the abstract. Where people knew of friends or relatives where a wife was working it was harder to damn them all.

People who didn't know a family that needed both spouse's incomes found it easy to rationalize high unemployment by blaming wives working. And many people would qualify their opposition to wives working by saying that "of course, if her husband was sick or unemployed, then the wife could work." When pressed most people who expressed an opposition in the abstract to wives working couldn't name an actual example of a couple who got some sort of unfair advantage out of having both spouses in work.

All of this appears to take us a long way from the children's clothing market in the same decades. Except that parallel with the rise in wive's paid work was a massive decline in child labor, and a rising age at which young people were expected to go out to work.

So, at the same time as you had children earning less of their own income you had stores actively advertising to them as consumers. Their mothers (in the aggregate) were also pulling in more of the family income.

In short, the two decades between the World Wars appear to be when the economic arrangements of the modern American nuclear family really began to take shape. Children up 'til about the age of 15 were supported by their parents, and increasingly both parents were in work. In families where both parents worked -- meaning parents spent less time with their children -- parents substituted things that their children wanted for time spent with them.

Posted by robe0419 at 2:43 PM

January 5, 2005

A short history of the toddler

While people who have reached advanced ages have always been aged one, two or three at some point, the "toddler" is a recent creation.

The word itself can only be dated to the late eighteenth century, and the OED provides a quotation from 1876 that refers to toddlers of age six or seven!

It's not until around 1930 that the word came into common use in the trade press for clothing makers and clothes stores, and the late 1930s that it was in common use.

One of the interesting things I have learned in The Commodification of Childhood.

Posted by robe0419 at 1:53 PM

"Irony" in the New Republic

From an article on convenant marriage: "Ironically, it was Ronald Reagan who, as governor of California, signed the nation's first no-fault divorce law in 1969."

Irony? Reagan had been divorced himself. No irony in him making it easier for others to do so.

The rest of the article is interesting however, with bold statements like "The reality is that too many people are getting married who shouldn't .... the real question isn't how to force people to stay married, but how to prevent divorce candidates from getting married in the first place."

Posted by robe0419 at 10:37 AM

December 26, 2004

When winter would kill you

Happy Boxing Day*.

Amongst the reading I've enjoyed on this beautifully sunny and indolent day is this City Pages article on how cruel winter used to be before gas heating and polypropelene and other wonders of our age. In many ways a catalog of the cruel, painful ways you could die in the 19th century winter, it still left me interested in reading more about the topic ...

*Boxing Day is the day after Christmas. At least in Canada, Australia, NZ and Britain it was traditionally the day you left a gift out for the milkman (does anyone still get home milk delivery?), the mailman, and the rubbish man (=trash collector). Or, since it has now become a holiday itself when you don't get those services, you leave the gift out on the 27th.

Posted by robe0419 at 4:01 PM

December 20, 2004

Conservatives in academe

Taking up on last week's discussion of the suffering pseudonymous conservative in the classics department, William Pilger, I want to explore another angle.

Let's take Prof. Pilger at his word. It's likely true that the faculty in many university and college departments tends to vote Democratic. And it's also true that faculty occasionally lunch together as described in this heart-rending scene:

A couple of days later, during the Republican National Convention, I ate lunch with several colleagues. The discussion turned, inevitably, to politics. The anti-Republican tenor at the table remained unbroken, but reached its zenith with this vehement comment from one colleague, "I'm not even going to watch [the convention]. I can't stand it."

The contrived controversy over conservatives in academia has focused on the supposed effects in the classroom, but what about its effects in the faculty club?

Nearly sixty years ago in 1948 the Cornell sociologist William Foote Whyte published a book, Human Relations in the Restaurant Industry that described and analyzed Whyte's observations of the everyday work life of waitresses and cooks in Chicago restaurants.

Whyte had trained at Chicago in the heyday of the Chicago sociology's empirical approach to research, and the book received decidedly mixed reviews. Some reviewers saw it as aimed only at the narrow audience of restaurant supervisors and managers; others saw the connection between Whyte's work and the pioneering work in the field of observing workers at work: Roethlisberger and Dickson's Management and the Worker but none of that book's insights, and some others saw a powerful example of the value of basic observational research for studying how people got on at work.

In any case, time has smiled more kindly on Whyte's book than the initial reviews. Through the 1950s the human relations approach to studying the relationship of people within organizations was dominant. Among its insights -- which now may seem commonplace -- were two that have special relevance for understanding Prof. Pilger's plight.

  • Formal organizational structure does not determine behavior or relationships within a group
  • Relationships and views from outside the workplace can have a substantial impact on relationships in the work group.

As I say, nothing too profound there. But the human relations school overturned the inter-war received wisdom influenced by Frederick Taylor that viewed workers as elements in a system, rather than complex things that brought their problems, motivations, and ideals in from the outside.

The human relations school waned after the 1950s with a shift back towards understanding organizational structures, the prevailing social scientific move to quantification, and a move away from observation and intensive interviewing to questionnaires and mass interviewing.

If any setting would benefit from a study based on the human relations approach it would be academic departments. The number of people to be observed is on the scale of the restaurant or the hospital ward or the department in a store. And while we know casually that academic departments have hierarchies and relationships that exist way beyond any organizational chart, something beyond a David Lodge novel is needed to understand them.

A "Human Relations in an Academic Department" study would probably find that tenure -- a formal, organizational rule if ever there was one -- allows the otherwise socially marginalized a foothold in the power structure of departments not available to the outsider amongst the waitresses.

Moreover, the success of an academic department depends somewhat less on the co-operation of its members than a restaurant. Major divisions between the cooks and the waitresses, and pretty soon there will be poor service and spoiled food. But an academic department can more easily separate its fractious members -- X and Y will never be asked to teach the first year survey together, for example -- and so long as their individual research and teaching is adequate the department will survive.

Which is to say that within a workplace the individual eccentricities can have a big impact on how the place works, but comparing workplaces the formal rules will still be seen to matter.

The bottom line for Prof. Pilger is, be nice to your colleagues. Once you have tenure, you can break out a little. And if you think you're hard done by, try waiting tables.

UPDATE Just to confirm the relevancy of tenure. Robert "KC" Johnson at Cliopatria discusses a breaking case where an apparently great scholar and teacher is being denied tenure for being "uncollegial." In other words, the wait staff don't like the new water boy and can vote to kick him out.

Posted by robe0419 at 10:09 AM

December 17, 2004

Academic identity politics

Book review: done. Wireless network: still down ...

Anyway, a reader comments:

I'd also like to argue against one small point in "Academic Identity Politics":

"he's teaching classics. How often does (or should) discussion of contemporary politics come up?? "

This is a fundamental misunderstanding of the current value of classics as a discipline. In the original piece, Pilger describes exactly what he does in the classroom when making a classical work accessible to students now. As a comparative lit PhD with a classics background, I also make all kinds of references to contemporary events when discussing classical works with my students. And anyone who knows the roots of the words "discussion," "contemporary," and "politics," not to mention "Democrat" and "Republican," knows that the language, culture, and political forms of the classical Greek and Roman world remain very much a part of the fabric of today's world.

I stand corrected on how often contemporary politics will come up in the classics classroom.

You should be able to bring up discussion of current politics without that degenerating into a partisan discussion. There is the old standby of breaking students into small groups to come up with a joint argument. There is the technique of setting out the arguments for and against on the board. In short, if a topic is controversial and potentially partisan you want to separate the students from their own opinions. Make them argue the opposite of what they believe. Have them focus on small parts of the argument. Don't ask them whether events are right or wrong -- ask them how those events came to be. As a teacher you need to, from the start of class, be seen to argue both sides of issues so that students don't know your own political opinions, or at least can see that whatever your bumper sticker says, you don't bring that into the classroom.

... Right, onto the next book to review ...

Posted by robe0419 at 11:21 AM

December 15, 2004

Academic identity politics

The recent proliferation of stories like this one in the Chronicle about how Republicans suffer so in academia are fascinating as a study in how stories take on a life of their own. There is much here for some future historian of the politics of higher education.

Why now?This discussion doesn't seem to have been sparked by more than a couple of exit polls from the recent election, now augmented by tales of woe from Republican assistant professors (on which more later).

I think it's pretty clear that the Democratic lean of the professoriate is much higher than in the 1950s, but really, it's important to know if 2004 was that much different than 2000 or 1996; in other words if this is a real problem it would be helpful if the change could be dated so we know what it might be related to.

If the Democratic lean of faculty is related to long-term structural change in higher education (decline of tenure, increased participation by women and minorities) that's something different from faculty voting preferences attributable to who is President.

And as I've said before, it's not all about ideology. Democratic support for funding higher education has been stronger in the last couple of decades.

Many of the stories of partisan oppression don't demonstrate what they set out to

Take the Chronicle story, for example by the pseudonymous William Pilger.

"During an "Introduction to Political Science" class, for example, I was required to write paper on how to solve global warming. My paper suggested that perhaps there was no reason to, since the scientific evidence was inconclusive. I got a D."

Well, if you don't follow the requirements of the paper you probably deserve a D. In some papers students do get a chance to take their own position and argue it. Yet there is real intellectual value in being required to argue a position that you don't agree with. A real conservative intellectual would know that, and write the paper as requested.

This, of course, goes both ways. I don't expect students to agree with John Calhoun about nullification, but it would be a fine assignment to get them to write a paper supporting him.

In another class, I fell victim to my own indignation at having to use inclusive language in my papers. Flexing the muscle of my perceived linguistic superiority -- the masculine third-person singular pronoun across many languages functions as the generic, genderless third person, after all -- I argued that "he" should be in and "s/he" should be out. Another D paper.

Seemingly more damning. But if he thought the D was just for "he" instead of "s/he" why didn't he complain about the grade. In fact, the absence of a story about a grade appeal which was turned down, is evidence that the paper must have had other faults. Because if the grade appeal was turned down that would be even stronger evidence of bias in the academy.

With ample practice over the years -- and after several nave attempts to present myself as an enlightened conservative ended in rejection letters ... William Pilger is the pseudonym of an assistant professor of classics at a university in the South.

Classics! Why is "William Pilger" even letting his present-day, 2000-years later views on politics be known to his colleagues?

I had finally pushed the right button to get a reaction, but not the right button to encourage discussion. The students objected en masse to the political nature of the question. So I gave a cursory sketch of two opposite ways one might relate the Aeneid to Iraq, and moved on.

After class, I asked one of the students for his read on what had happened. How could the response be so heated but the question left unengaged? He replied: "You know how it is. Students don't want to disagree with their professors. Most of the students around here are pretty conservative, but they get the strong sense that their professors are liberal. And on issues like these, they're afraid to disagree." They had made assumptions about how I would think and were reluctant to contradict me.

One student. Who happens to agree with the professor. How convenient. Perhaps "William Pilger's" students are different, but it's difficult to get students to speak on any issue. Students are often reluctant to speak, not because they don't want to contradict the professor/instructor, but because they feel their own thoughts are not well thought out.

The interaction with colleagues Prof. Pilger cites is also just a little less supportive of the thesis than he thinks. For example:

A couple of days later, during the Republican National Convention, I ate lunch with several colleagues. The discussion turned, inevitably, to politics. The anti-Republican tenor at the table remained unbroken, but reached its zenith with this vehement comment from one colleague, "I'm not even going to watch [the convention]. I can't stand it."

I could no longer blame the students for shying away from hot-button issues like Iraq: For them, the academy does not foster thoughtful discussion of thorny issues, but harbors the potential at any time to unleash the visceral reactions of their superiors to what students think are their own reasoned political positions. For students, the risk of speaking up is much the same as it is for me: They risk losing the respect of professors and perhaps endangering their long-term aspirations.

"I can't stand it" My, <sarcasm>that strongly worded difference of opinion would be enough to make me feel out-of-place.</sarcasm>

Prof. Pilger if s/he exists is teaching classics. There's little to no sense in which what he's teaching has any connection with present day partisan American politics. His colleagues disagreement with him about things that happen today has little relation to their views on the classical past.

Notice also how Prof. Pilger cites the faculty discussion at lunch in support of his argument that students feel cowed by faculty views. Really? Were there students present at lunch? Faculty are as entitled as construction workers to be opinionated and boisterous in their opinions over lunch. It says little about what they do in the classroom where different conventions apply.

Prof. Pilger's argument would be stronger if he could point to one of his colleagues actually browbeating students into thinking something about politics. But again, he's teaching classics. How often does (or should) discussion of contemporary politics come up??

That Prof. Pilger is silent on this more direct source of evidence about how faculty views affect college life says he couldn't find better evidence.

So, at most we have evidence that some faculty express pro-Democratic positions over lunch, and no evidence at all that faculty in Prof. Pilger's department take their positions into the classroom.

Posted by robe0419 at 5:22 PM

December 13, 2004


Unlike the chasm that separated baby boom parents from their parents, many of todays teenagers share their parents tastes in clothes and music, as well as their political and social beliefs.

This assertion in the Star Tribune promised to be one of those newspapers-doing-social-history stories that is either
(1) a fluff piece promoting some new book
(2) a fluff piece based on anecdotes from friends of people in the newsroom.

So I was well prepared for an avalanche of anecdotes and little data. Lo and behold tho' -- actual data. The story actually reports on a survey that has been carried out since the 1970s that backs up the assertions in the headline! That's a story worth reporting in itself.

Posted by robe0419 at 8:08 AM

December 11, 2004

Things I have learnt from the past

Via Cliopatria I found Rob MacDougall's blog (another foreign historian of the American experience).

He writes:

[the early 20th century British author] does have a number of eccentricities that keep things lively. First, his tendency to Capitalize important Nouns (generally a good sign that you are approaching Crankville)

Capitalizing Important nouns is, I think a better sign that you reading something Published Before WW II. I came across the same Amusing (or Irritating?) Tendency in the inter-war sales and advertising advice literature.

Capitalization of mid-sentence letters that were not proper nouns was the lazy man's (they were almost all men) way of emphasizing the points he wanted you to make. Why read The Elements of Style to learn such elementary advice as using the order of the words in the sentence to emphasize things when you can just Capitalize them.

Nowadays we have bold and italic and underline for such things. Use them sparingly.

It's fair to say that business and advice literature dates pretty quickly, but then so do many of the novels of the time period. The stuff we remember (Fitzgerald, Woolf etc) is not at all representative of the fiction of the time.

Lest I leave you with the impression that all writing in the early twentieth century was execrable I should tell you several useful words I have learned.
ultimo is Latin for last month. The phrase "Referring to yours of the 17th ultimo" (or some other day than the 17th of the month) is common in formal letters from the 1920s and 1930s. Of course, with e-mail it's rare indeed you're replying to something sent more than two weeks ago ... but a handy phrase for those moment.

Similarly, the phrase "of the 17th instant" means the 17th of this month, and "on the 17th proximo" referred to the 17th of next month, so might be found in correspondence scheduling meetings.

I am sure you will all find these examples useful in your everday correspondence.

Posted by robe0419 at 1:29 PM

December 10, 2004

Infant thoughts

Tim Burke has a long, very interesting discussion of Home Alone America. He covers a lot of ground, but makes several important points;

  • It's difficult to say that the overall welfare of society has changed, even if there have been big changes in the way things are organized.
  • Even if you can identify big changes in particular measures -- such as the proportion of mothers working -- it doesn't automatically follow that those changes have a big effect on other aspects of our life.

I think that's right. On the second point, the most I would say is that the increase in married women's work is the most important change in the American labor market in the twentieth century. That I feel confident asserting. I don't feel comfortable saying that it was the biggest change for American women in the century, since to do so would be to deny the sweeping legal changes (suffrage and subsequent reforms) that occurred.

It's really quite stunning to observe that 84 years after women got the vote, only 1/7 of the House of Representatives are women. That says something about the entrenched nature of gender in some lines of work.

Posted by robe0419 at 10:08 AM

December 9, 2004

Impulse buy

Waiting in line at the Best Buy this morning gave me time to ponder, and then not make, an impulse purchase of Sports Illustrated or a Coke.

And then to remember that the 12 minutes I spent in line was not an accident, it might have been a bit too long than Best Buy would like, but most stores want you to wait a while.

You can date the science of trying to understand consumers to around the end of the nineteenth century. (I have written about this here, and can also recommend this book)

One of the first ideas the pioneers of scientific selling found to work well was suggesting associated goods. So, if someone was buying a dress, you should suggest a blouse. Likewise, you should put shoelaces and shoe polish in a little display on the counter at the shoe store.

Professional advice on how to lay out a store -- what to put where for maximum sales -- can be found as early as the late nineteenth century. Some of the early stuff was terribly unscientific, and laughable to modern eyes, such as the suggestion that a strict division between male and female departments should be observed. Men shouldn't have to walk past perfume to find a new tie, for example.

But pretty quickly, store managers and retailing academics and consultants, realized things we take for granted now; like the placement of 'heavy' or costly items at the back of the store (or the top floors). Hence the TVs residing towards the back at the Best Buy, and the furniture department being on the top floor of Marshall Fields.

Yet my reading of the pre-WWII sales literature suggests that there was a caution against pushing the customer too far. The explicit suggestion of unrelated goods was frowned upon. You shouldn't suggest a frying pan to a woman buying a hat, for example.

And the Best Buy sales clerk who answered my question about digital camera memory did not suggest I buy a Coke, he merely pointed me to the counter with the shortest line where I still had to wait for twelve minutes with all the temptations of Sports Illustrated and Coke in front of me ...

Posted by robe0419 at 3:58 PM

December 8, 2004

Black mothers

As mentioned any discussion of children being home alone has to acknowledge that black mothers were in the labor force since ... well, since they got their first opportunity to earn money for themselves rather than be sold as chattels. The graph below shows black mothers' labor force participation in the last 120 years. The figures are for black mothers living with their husbands, so as not to muddy the comparison with any black/white differentials in marriage dissolution.

(Click on image for larger version)

Posted by robe0419 at 2:51 PM

Home Alone America

It's a happy day when the first blog you check out links to a multi-entry review of a book relevant to your dissertation.

On a personal, anecdotal level books that argue that daycare screws you up make me suspicious. Because, you see, I went to daycare and it did me a lot of good. As an only child it probably saved me from being screwed up in lots of other ways.

But I digress. Now that this is relevant to my dissertation I have to be a little more scholarly about the whole thing, right?

First, labor force participation as measured by the census does count people who are working part-time. Thus, 64% of mothers working does not equal 64% of mothers working full-time.

Second, it strikes me as highly implausible that the change in the last fifty years from near-universal exit from work upon childbirth to the common juggling of both motherhood and paid work is something that all these women have been forced into.

Now I don't deny that at an individual level some, probably many, women feel that their choices about combining work and motherhood are not as free as they would like. In other words, it's difficult to find the time to give your children lots of attention, and make career progress.

But I think it's more likely that the widespread combination of work and motherhood actually reflects families choices about what they want to do with their time and money.

I haven't read the book, but when it comes via inter-library loan, I'll be interested to see if there's much discussion on how this is a trend intimately related to declining fertility. I'll also be interested to see how much the book focuses on the modern 'plight' of white, professional women with 1-2 children, and how much it acknowledges that around 1/4 of black mothers were in the labor force in the early twentieth century.

I'll also be interested to see what the book says about the motivations couples have for earning two incomes. For example, at fairly low household income level s Americans expect to have two cars per family. And in a way that's not unreasonable. The Twin Cities area has pretty good public transit, but in most of the suburbs your transit options get you to work downtown at 7.39am and back again at 4.54pm (so don't miss the bus!). They don't get a mother out of the house at 10.17am to go to play group with the four year old. Thus, the likely need for a second car, especially if Dad doesn't work downtown, but works in some freeway-intersection office park that doesn't get transit service. But the second car costs money, and that might mean Mom has to go out to work, even if she'd rather spend more time with the kids.

My point is that parents could choose for one parent to stay home, but they also want to live in the suburbs and they want to have material possessions and go on vacation now and then too ...

In the end mothers are working because families want to have children and other things too.

Posted by robe0419 at 12:20 PM

December 7, 2004

Jefferson Davis County

Exciting afternoon at work working on historical county codes ...

There's a lot of Washington counties (31 in 1880).

And Jefferson Davis county, I can understand that in 1880, end of Reconstruction and all. But today? In Mississippi and Louisiana.

Isn't it about time to accept that the Civil War was lost?

Posted by robe0419 at 3:10 PM

Misspecification tests

The debate about conservatives in academia (see Daniel Drezner for some links) strikes me as curiously mis-specified.

First, in many of the sciences there's little political content in whatever is taught. There's no earthly reason why faculty in, say, statistics should be influenced in the classroom by what they do in the privacy of their own voting booth.

Conversely, though, if faculty in subjects with little inherent political content vote one way or the other that should be a useful reminder that academics might lean Democratic for two wholly rational reasons
(1) As Mark Schmidt points out if academics perceive Democrats as more likely to increase research funding or state support for universities they are voting for the interests of their business. Nothing wrong with that.
(2) If you're a somewhat smart person, smart enough to get a PhD at least, and choose to go into a profession where the salary scale is relatively flat, and relatively low compared to other graduate/professional degreed occupations; there's an element of self-selection.

By way of comparison, take nursing. Until the recent shortage, somewhat lower salaries for the same level of education. Yet no-one's complaining about how nursing is dominated by Democratic women and that those poor male Republican nurses can't catch a break.

The reason nurses tend to vote Democratic is that people to self-select into a somewhat lower-paying, public service oriented job, tend to be people who vote Democratic. Same with psychiatrists and pediatricians, for what it's worth.

Second, in subjects which are more political -- maybe inherently so -- there's a confusion of partisanship with politics. The two ain't the same.

I don't think it's unfair to say that it has generally been Republicans who want the American history curriculum to focus less on the perceived flaws in that story, and more on the timeless ideals of the founders and the beacon of liberty the nation quickly became etc, etc ... cue national anthem now.

In any case, if we acknowledge that America was not really very democratic for much of its first century, and that slavery was a stain on the nation ... we end up showering more praise on the Republican party if we project our modern values and sympathies back into the past. For it was the Republican party that in the 19th century paid more attention to racial injustice than the Democratic party.

This is well known, but I think it's instructive in making some wider points about history teaching and research. None of these are particularly original, but they bear repeating.

The differences between the present day and even the comparatively recent past are larger than the differences between the parties. This is so obviously true for slavery, but it's true in lots of other ways as well. It was only just over 30 years ago that Richard Nixon could champion a form of universal health insurance. To take a topic from my own research for once, during the Depression members of both parties supported legislation that would have banned married women from holding a paid job in state government if their husbands were working. Neither party proposes such a thing now.

Analogies to the present are sometimes a useful way of helping our understanding, but many of the problems of the past cannot be understood in terms of present day two-party politics.

More fundamentally, and this reveals my own epistemology, a good historian must try to understand the opinions and thoughts that they disagree with, and feel -- temporarily, at least -- empathy for the people they are researching. I don't think you should bring your empathy for the slave owner back into your present day politics, but if you're going to understand them in the past you have to take them seriously and sympathetically.

Posted by robe0419 at 1:54 PM

December 3, 2004

Historical census amusement of the day

20 people living in Philadelphia recording their birthplaces as "West Phila[delphia]" getting a birthplace code for "Unknown East European country" ...

West Philadelphia, Westphalia, what's the difference?!

Posted by robe0419 at 12:43 PM

December 2, 2004

Mall of China

Fifty percent larger than the Mall of America.

The history of the mall began at Southdale, and the downtown department store began to die ...

(via Marginal Revolution)

Posted by robe0419 at 8:16 AM

November 30, 2004

Good question

A reader asks, after seeing the long decline of domestic service:

This surprises me rather. Nannies and au pairs are clearly domestic servants, and I would have thought that this category has exploded since the 1970s. Do your figures include child-minders?

Yes. The figures include all people working as housekeepers or domestic servants of any sort in private households.

The first good enumeration of occupations in the U.S. census was in 1880, and from then until 1990 it is easy to distinguish service workers in private households from service workers outside households. In 2000 the classification scheme changed, and a consistent definition of private household workers would take a couple of hours of recoding data ...

In any case, between 1980 and 1990 when we have a consistent classification of these things, the number of child care workers goes down, though proportionately less than the decline in cleaners and servants.

It's possible that the data can be reconciled with our anecdotal impressions if private household work has become largely part-time, casual employment which would lead to under-enumeration if workers have other "primary" jobs.

In any case, what's clear is that personal service work is moving out of the household and into the daycare center, and into the more organized marketplace of firms like MaidBrigade. The days of the live-in household worker are certainly past for most households.

Private household workers, 1980-1990Number
Launderers and Ironers3,1652,490
Cooks, private household18,46914,652
Housekeepers and butlers101,28246,192
Child care workers, private household248,466234,638
Private household cleaners and servants570,400499,681

Posted by robe0419 at 10:29 AM