Comments on life, the universe and everything from an aging Sixties survivor.

Location: Massachusetts, United States

Ummm, isn't "about me" part of the point of the blog?

Saturday, March 19, 2016

The value of historical context

I read a good deal of popular history. Some of it  rises to a scholarly standard, while some gets bogged down. The swamps that entrap popular historians include an obsession with descriptive detail, forgetting that most readers of popular history already know this stuff. It breaks up the narrative and belongs in footnotes, not the text. Some sink into the pit of antiquarianism. Authors may spend so much time discussing the doings of a small area of geography or population that, again, they lose sight of the broader picture. Finally, they may wander into wetlands where flourish historical legends which have gained truth only by repetition.

One of the more annoying is that involving the historian Samuel Eliot Morison. It is true that as a junior faculty member at Harvard (beginning in 1915) he travelled between the campus and his home on Beacon Hill on horseback. He wrote about it himself. The legendary part of this is the "oh ha ha" business that goes with the repetition, and the tendency to picture Morison riding alone through streets filled with cars, trucks, and trolleys.

In context, this isn't as foolish as it sounds. Those laughing seem to overlook that the horse played a role in urban and rural transportation well into the 20th century. There was no sudden takeover by automobiles, but rather a long transition from one mode of transportation to another. In 1915 mass-produced cars and trucks were new and had not shed their aura of novelty.  Ten years later, it was clear that automobiles were here to stay, and that the horse was fading as a mode of urban transportation. Twenty years later, horses had all but disappeared from city streets, and it appears that Morison's days of riding to Harvard were long in the past.

The horse hung around somewhat longer in smaller cities. For example, my wife's family ran a livery stable in Holyoke, MA into the 1930s. Her mother rode, and while she didn't encourage her children to learn (too many injuries) they all grew up as natural horsewomen: in the genes, apparently.

In my neighbourhood in Concord, NH, there were still horses at work when I was very small. The city used horse drawn sidewalk plows until 1952 or 1953, and I remember being sad when the horses were replaced by machines. A few people near us still used iceboxes, and the ice came to them on a wagon. That rig disappeared when the iceboxes did.

The last holdout was a local farmer who sold hulled corn. It may surprise southerners, who know the product as samp or hominy, that there was a market for this so deep in Yankeeland. My mother wanted no part of it, being suspicious of the process used to make it. That involves boiling the corn in lye water. He was still selling from his wagon after we moved to East Concord in 1955, and I'm not sure when and why he stopped.

At any rate, Morison's ride from Beacon Hill to Harvard was neither hilarious nor eccentric in context. The transition from horses to internal combustion engines is a rather interesting period, one that some transportation historian ought to examine in more depth.

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Blogger massmarrier said...

Well now, what about bicycles? Allegedly the roads were for cycles before automobiles existed. Did he giggle about running bikers off the road?

9:32 pm  

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