Selling History to the Public

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A recent op-ed by Jim Grossman – “History isn’t a ‘useless’ major. It teaches critical thinking, something America needs plenty more of” – published earlier this week in the Los Angeles Times has made (and continues to make) the rounds on social media. Responses to the editorial are not surprising. Many, like me, reposted it to help circulate the message. Many more posted comments with the link to show their agreement with Grossman’s argument. Plenty of others challenged the claim that History is not a useless major; to quote one person who commented on the editorial (‘commenter2015’), “History is fun. But so is going to Six Flags, I wouldn’t major in it.”

What intrigued me were the handful of people on Twitter, fellow historians, who expressed frustration – not at the message of the editorial, but the fact that historians have to make this case over and over again. It seems that historians, and those who specialize in the humanities in general, are always on the defense. Politicians from both national parties mock the liberal arts (lest we forget President Obama’s infamous dig at Art History), funding for programs continues to dwindle, and now the soon-to-be nominee for the Republican Party is advocating an education plan that would actively discourage students from majoring in the liberal arts.

Those outside the profession may acknowledge the importance of learning past events, but the true meaning of studying history and the benefits it offers is still something a lot of people simply do not grasp. Coincidentally, the same day Grossman’s op-ed released, Patrick Johnson, the Vice Chancellor of Queen’s University Belfast, dropped a dismissive line in an interview, stating, “Society doesn’t need a 21-year-old who is a sixth century historian.” But, according to the Vice Chancellor, society does need, “a 21-year-old who really understands how to analyse things, understands the tenets of leadership and contributing to society, who is a thinker and someone who has the potential to help society drive forward.”

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Statements like this, or like the one stating History is “fun” but not worth majoring in, make historians and humanists alike want to bang their heads (repeatedly) against a wall (or desk, or door… any hard surface will suffice). Patrick Johnson’s description of an ideal graduate is – wait for it – a liberal arts major. Someone who can analyze (check), who is a thinker (check), and who can contribute to society/drive society forward/insert other generic comment about leadership here. That last point can apply to anyone, but it does not in any way exclude liberal arts majors, especially historians of the sixth century (solidarity, my medieval historian friends).

This is what is so maddening about the conversation, but it is also why pieces like Grossman’s are so important. For decades, humanists proclaim endlessly about the value of what we study, yet these words seem to fall on deaf ears every time. How do we change that? Grossman sells the economic value of majoring in history, because he has to. The idea of pursuing higher education that is not some blatant form of job training no longer makes sense to the general public. Degrees are investments, universities are businesses, and students go to college to get a job.

The discourse has grown so stark, it chills the bones.

Whether or not we will return to a day in which the value of education does not depend solely on economic returns is unclear. Maybe it will only happen in my dreams. Regardless, we (historians) know that history courses teach essential skills, and that history majors are in high demand, especially in the tech sector.

So why do we keep having this conversation?

Why are op-eds, like Grossman’s piece, still necessary, and yet still receive such criticism? Why do historians and humanists alike have to keep beating that poor, dead horse with the same defensive claims? What about this isn’t working?

I wish I had the answers. In my mind, the front line of history and public engagement is the classroom. Maybe that is where those in the liberal arts should focus (but certainly not limit) their attention. The classroom is the space in which we, the instructors, can at least show the next generation of economic and civic leaders what the liberal arts brings to the table. This would also mean a fundamental shift in the way academia values teaching, but that is a topic for another day.

Unless something changes, I do not see how this conversation can move forward. We seem to be stuck in a loop with each side talking past each other but never listening. There must be different tactics available to achieve some kind of progress.

But what if progress is already happening? Maybe the conversation has begun to change. It isn’t clear. Until we gain the distance of time to examine the shifting patterns of discourse, we may not yet be able to decipher and understand these developments. But engaging in that kind of analysis would require a certain set of critical skills… now, where on earth could we find that?

Subversive Brewers in Medieval England

This past week, I presented on the panel, “Beer and Taxes: Nothing Can Be So Certain,” at the Sixty-Second Annual Midwest Conference on British Studies in Detroit (hosted by Wayne State University). My paper, “Subversive Brewers: Ale and Tax Evasion in Medieval and Early Modern England” featured research completed for my M.A. thesis. I had not returned to my thesis in roughly six years, so it was an amusing, and at times cringeworthy, experience. Still, dusting off my thesis reminded me of how much fun I had researching the history of beer. It remains a topic near and dear to my heart.

For those interested, my entire thesis is available online, either through the Proquest thesis database or at Academia.edu, but a snippet of the paper I presented in Detroit is included below.

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Abb. 8: Jorg Prewmaister, Mendel Band I (1437), Seite 60 (Source: Historical depictions, guild signs and symbols of the brewing and malting handcraft; online thesis by Matthias Trum.)

Segment from, “Subversive Brewers: Ale and Tax Evasion in Medieval and Early Modern England” (please contact me if you wish to read the full paper):

Along with setting the price of ale, the English government also regulated the size and cost of serving measurements. The London Aldermen only allowed three measurements for selling ale: the quart, the pottle, and the gallon.[1] An Assize from 1277 declares that, “no brewster henceforth sell except by true measures, viz. the gallon, the pottle and the quart. And that they be marked by the seal of the Alderman.”[2] The law required all brewers to have their quart, pottle, and gallon containers inspected by an Alderman four times a year.[3] If a brewer brought any container to the Alderman that did not meet the measurement standard – the wooden serving containers shrank over time – the Alderman destroyed the vessel. Brewers who neglected to present their measures to the Aldermen had to pay a monetary fine.[4]

A section of the Liber Albus, the first book of English common law, lists the punishments for any brewer caught serving ale in a measurement that did not have the seal of an Alderman. According to the Liber Albus, those caught breaking the laws of appropriate measurements faced a fine of forty pence and the destruction of the brewer’s measures for the first offense. The punishments increased for multiple offenses: “The second time let her be amerced to the amount of half a mark. And the third time, let her be amerced to the amount of twenty shillings.”[5] As the government reissued the Assize of Ale, the punishments for breaking the law became harsher. A proclamation from 1316 set the cost of one gallon of ale at three farthings and one penny for the city of London.[6] Any brewer caught breaking the ale law lost her brewery for the first offense, and she lost access to engage in the trade completely for the second offense. For the third offense, the guilty party faced exile from the city.[7]

Ale brewers resisted the regulations implemented by the English government, either by openly objecting to the prices set by officials, or by subversive means of fraudulence. Multiple accounts appear of brewers approaching the Mayor and Aldermen with complaints of the legal price of ale appear, and often the brewers threatened to discontinue their service of providing ale to the public. The Plea and Memoranda Rolls feature many accounts of London brewers who appeared in the Mayor’s Court challenging or refusing to abide by the ale laws. The brewers made these objections in hopes they would receive higher wages, but their attempts to alter the ale laws ultimately failed.[8] London officials viewed such demands as particularly harmful to society, as threats to cut off or diminish the ale supply would directly affect the ability of London citizens to obtain the necessary victual. The majority of the brewers who threatened to cease brewing faced imprisonment as a result. The Liber Albus outlines such punishment, stating:

And if any brewer or brewster be not willing to brew, or brew less than such person was wont to brew, let such person be held to be a withholder of victuals from the City, and for such disobedience and malice incur the penalty of imprisonment, at the will of the Mayor for the time being; and nevertheless, let such person foreswear the said trade within the franchise of the City for ever.[9]

Brewers not only had to adhere to measurement and cost restrictions, but they faced an obligation to engage in the trade regularly to ensure a steady supply of ale to the public.

As the English government tightened its control over the brewing trade through the Assize, problems between brewers and local authority figures developed during the fourteenth century. On May 19, 1350, Adam le Brewere proclaimed before both the Mayor and the Sheriffs of London that brewers deserved exemption from the Alderman’s regulation and control. Adam states that he intended to “gather together the brewers, and they would agree not to take service except by day only and at the wage of 12d. [pence] a day.”[10] Adam’s threat to halt the availability of ale to the public resulted in his imprisonment, as, according to the Alderman, his demands directly displayed contempt for the King and the commonwealth of the people.[11]

Other brewers openly challenged and made threats in public and in the Mayor’s Court against ale taxation caused by the Assize. In 1375, a brewer named Simon Macchyng declared that the brewers of London “would or could not observe the recent proclamation” of the Assize, which put in him prison.[12] Like Simon, Thomas Goudsyre also faced charges of imprisonment in the same year for refusing to sell a gallon of ale at the legal price.[13] Another troublesome brewer named William Ronyn made a public declaration in a market place in November of 1375 that he and all other brewers of London would stop brewing due to the price set by the Assize.[16] William faced additional charges for carrying out his threat, as he convinced a portion of the brewers to cease production or refuse the price of the Assize.[17]

Ale brewers made up a unique area of England’s economy during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Due to the wide practice of the trade and the high demand for ale, the English government regulated brewing more than most other crafts. While brewing and baking shared a similar importance, the early thirteenth-century formation of the Bakers’ Gild provided bakers with a greater advantage than brewers. Bakers faced public humiliation for providing small loaves of bread, as did other craftsmen caught breaking the law by short-changing their customers, including brewers. Unlike brewers, however, neither bakers nor members of other trade gilds had to pay fines in order to engage in their ordinary work. Instead, the English government left control of the respective industries largely to the gilds.[18] Other craftsmen could freely manufacture goods in accordance with the law, but brewers had to pay standard fees simply because they made ale. The government regulated brewing more because it wanted to ensure the public had access to ale, but also because of the profits gained by taxing ale brewers.[19]

[1] A pottle measured around one-half of a gallon.

[2] Sharpe, ed., Letter Book A, folio 129 b, available online at http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=33031.

[3] Monckton, English Ale and Beer, 57.

[4] Monckton, English Ale and Beer, 57-58.

[5] Monckton, English Ale and Beer, 56-7. The feminine form appears in this declaration because women made up the majority of brewers during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. A half-mark was equal to six shillings and eight pence.

[6] A farthing was equal to a quarter of a penny. The price for a gallon of ale cost 1 ¾ pence.

[7] Sharpe, ed., Letter Book E, folio lvii, available online at http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=33100.

[8]A.H. Thomas, ed., Calendar of Plea and Memoranda Rolls Preserved Among the Archives of the Corporation of the City of London at the Gildhall: Rolls A1a-A9, A.D. 1323-1364, Volume I (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1926), 260-70; A.H. Thomas, ed., Calendar of the Plea and Memoranda Rolls of the City of London: Volume II (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1929), Roll A 21, Membr. 3 and 3b, available online at http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=36685. Specific details pertaining to Brewere, Macchyng, Goudsyre, and other disruptive brewers’ appearances before the Mayor’s Court appear in chapter five.

[9] John Carpenter, Liber Albus: The White Book of the City of London, trans. and ed. Henry Thomas Riley (London, 1861), 311.

[10] A.H. Thomas, ed., Calendar of Plea and Memoranda Rolls Preserved Among the Archives of the Corporation of the City of London at the Gildhall: Rolls A1a-A9, A.D. 1323-1364, Volume I (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1926), roll A6, membr. 5b, available online at http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=36660. Although wages increased following the outbreak of bubonic plague, Le Brewere’s demand of 12 d. is particularly high.

[11] Thomas, ed., Plea and Memoranda Rolls: Vol. I, roll A6, membr. 5b.

[12] A.H. Thomas, ed., Calendar of the Plea and Memoranda Rolls of the City of London: Volume II (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1929), roll A21, membr. 3b, available online at http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=36685.

[13] Thomas, ed., Plea and Memoranda Rolls: Vol. II, roll A21, membr. 3b, available online at http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=36685.

[14] Thomas, ed., Plea and Memoranda Rolls: Vol. I, roll A9, membr. 2b, available online at http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=36663.

[15] Thomas, ed., Plea and Memoranda Rolls: Vol. I, roll A9, membr. 2b, available online at http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=36663.

[16] The price of ale during listed in the record at this time was 1 ½ d. per gallon.

[17] Thomas, ed., Plea and Memoranda Rolls: Vol. II, roll A21, membr. 3b, available online at http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=36685.

[18] Salzman, English Industries of the Middle Ages, 313-15.

[19] Bennett, Ale, Beer, and Brewsters, 47; Salzman, English Industries in the Middle Ages, 297. Brewers remained below the ranks of other gilds, because an overall social perception that brewers were public servants existed at the time.

HIST 4388: Alcohol in the Atlantic World

Classes begin next week at UTA, which means the past few days have been full of course prep. I will say, having the chance to visit the local homebrew store to buy materials for class… well, it was a nice treat.

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My kind of school supplies.

A few seats remain. To any UTA students out there, jump in and join the fun!

To everyone else not at UTA, but who may be interested in the class (a number of you have contacted me over the past few weeks), I hope to post regular updates related to the course throughout the semester. You can also follow course discussions on Twitter via the hashtag: #H4388.

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The course syllabus is now available. You can find it online here.

Making Washington’s Whiskey: Living and Working at Mount Vernon

Those who have been following this page probably know that I spent the past fall semester working at the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington at Mount Vernon. I did this after receiving a three-month fellowship offered by the library (you can learn more about the fellowship program and how to apply here), which provided me with ample time to conduct research, write chapter drafts, and enjoy the events held at Mount Vernon. It would be an understatement to say that it was a remarkable experience, especially as I was there in the midst of the gorgeous Virginia fall weather.

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The Fred W. Smith National Library from the back.

Many of the events held at Mount Vernon seemed to be a perfect fit for my research. The whiskey and beer dinners were not only fun, but these events helped me get in touch with the folks who worked at the Mount Vernon whiskey distillery. The distillery offers tours to the public through the end of October – after that point, the distillery goes into operation. Therefore, the first two months of my fellowship were largely focused on manuscript research and writing. This was a true pleasure, as it included working with the original manuscript of James Anderson’s ledger for Washington’s distillery.

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With Anderson’s distillery ledger.

The size of the book surprised me, especially as the enterprise was a new one for Washington only agreed to the construction of a distillery after Anderson, his Scottish farm manager, convinced him to give it a shot (and after Washington conferred with John Fitzgerald, a rum distiller, to see if it actually was worth trying).

“Mr[.] Anderson has engaged me in a distillery, on a small scale, and is very desirous of encreasing [sic] it: assuring me from his own experience in this country, & in Europe, that I shall find my acct in it, particularly in the benefits my stock would derive from it. The thing is new to me, in toto; but in a distillery of another kind (Molasses) you must have a good general knowledge of its profits, & whether a ready sale of the Spirit[s] is to be calculated on from grain (principally to be raised on my own Farms) and the offal of my Mill. I, therefore, have taken the liberty of asking your opinion on the proposition of Mr[.] Anderson.”
– George Washington to John Fitzgerald, June 12, 1797

Fitzgerald responded to Washington’s inquiry affirming Anderson’s knowledge of distilling and claim that whiskey production would result in profit.

Washington ended up funding Anderson’s plan for a distillery, and once the distillery began operation, Anderson kept careful notes on its operation in the ledger pictured above. The distillery only operated for a short time. It began production in October of 1797, and by 1799 the distillery produced around 11,000 gallons of whiskey. Following Washington’s death at the end of 1799, though, the distillery never matched that output again. Anderson left a few years later, and in 1814, the distillery was destroyed by a fire. Between 1999 and 2006, archaeologists excavated the site, and a reconstructed building now stands in the spot of Washington’s original distillery.

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The reconstructed distillery.

People can visit the distillery, though not while it is in production. Distilling involves many hazards, and it is simply too dangerous for tour groups to mill around while the distillers are at work. Lucky for me, though, Steve Bashore, the Manager of Historic Trades and head distiller (also a UTA alum!), invited me to join them while they worked on a batch of rye whiskey.

Production began November 1, and I visited about four or five times throughout the month to see how the overall process of distillation operated. The distillers take great lengths to preserve the eighteen-century distilling methods, which provided me with a unique opportunity to wrap my head around early modern methods for producing spirits.

Steve Bashore shows how the process works in the reconstructed distillery in this video:

The few days I stopped by the distillery, I developed a great sense of admiration for the people who run the place today. I also gained a new perspective for the amount of labor that seventeenth and eighteenth century distillers – many who were enslaved – endured to keep the great rum industry running (whiskey production would match the scale of rum production in the nineteenth century).

The people who worked at the distillery were all incredibly kind and patient as I asked an unending stream of questions. Before seeing the process in action at Mount Vernon, I had only read about the distilling process in both modern and eighteenth century accounts and guides. I read about it, but I didn’t completely understand it. It was like trying to read a cookbook without having ever cooked a meal. But seeing distilling in action completely changed the way I understood the process.

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A still and condenser in the Mount Vernon whiskey distillery.

Terms that I had read became physical actions; cautionary guidelines became clear warnings against spoiling a batch. Words like “puke,” “worm,” and “break” took on new meanings. I was like a child attending school for the first time, and I took frantic mental notes throughout each day.

The distillery, when in operation, is a busy place. The water boiler and the smoke from the stills makes the air hazy and difficult to see through. Heavy buckets of mash, burning fires, and boiling water all present hazards that threaten injury. The distillers all take careful precautions to avoid hurting themselves or others, but it seemed that each person I spoke to had their own story of ways the distillery ‘bit back’ as they navigated the production process. Luckily, I managed to escape unscathed, but I also did a lot more hanging back and observing than the rest.

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The haziness caused by the boiler and the smoke from the stills makes visibility difficult at times.

I did participate at times, and I did my best to follow instructions. Goodness knows, I did not want to be responsible for ruining a batch of whiskey (though, I was assured by everyone there that such an outcome was highly unlikely – still, I remained cautious). Because the distillers try to preserve eighteenth-century methods, many of the steps that are now mechanized in modern distilleries are carried out by hand at Mount Vernon. Literally – by. hand.

Bags of rye, barley, and malt are poured into the fermenters by hand. Boiling water is carried from the boiler to the fermenters in buckets by hand. The mash is raked, you guessed it… by hand. The entire process is remarkably labor intensive, and I will admit I was not quite prepared for physical demands the first day I visited.

Raking the mash
Raking the mash.
Adding the malt
Adding the malt.

Still, they let me participate in almost all aspects of the process, and the experience is one I will never forget. After spending a few days at the distillery, I returned to my eighteenth-century distilling manuals, and they made sense in a way they never had before. This experience showed me how diving into the history and engaging with the actions captured within the text of primary sources can completely change the context of those words. It also underscored the difficulty historians face every time they try to recreate and understand such activities, like distilling or cooking in the early modern era. While I have gained new knowledge of distillation, it is important for me to remember what I participated in is a reconstruction and an interpretation of eighteenth-century distilling. Is it exact? Certainly not. But it was about as close as I am going to get.

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Cheers.

To all those who worked at the distillery during my time there I wish to offer my deepest thanks. Special thanks goes to Steve Bashore for inviting me to participate in the first place. You all have no idea what an impact your time and knowledge has had on my own work. Thank you.

Alcohol in the Atlantic World (HIST 4388)

One of these days I will get around to writing a post about the whiskey dinner I attended at Mount Vernon. I want to make sure that, when I do write it, I devote the proper amount of time and attention it deserves. Luckily, my tasting notes keep better than my memory, so there will be plenty of details to lay out (once I do it, that is). In short, it was wonderful.

For now, however, I simply wanted to share an early flyer for my course on Alcohol in the Atlantic World, which will be offered next semester at UT-Arlington. Cue the sigh of disappointment – my apologies. A fair amount of Mount Vernon whiskey posts are on the horizon. I promise.

Until then, I leave you with this:

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Cheers.

West Indies Porter: Thoughts on Historical Context

News broke early this month about two new ‘historical’ beers offered by Guinness: the Dublin Porter and the West Indies Porter. According to the reports, the brewers at Guinness made these through historical inspiration, specifically taking a few notes out of late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century brewers’ diary entries. Guinness is far from the first brewery to find inspiration in the past. Dogfish Head gained a lot of attention over the past several years for their Ancient Ale series, which strives to put the past into your glass in a literal way. Guinness is also looking to recreate the drinks of the past, though with a greater emphasis on historical ties to the brewery itself (as, according to the article, the diary entries were written by Guinness brewers).

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The two new historical offerings from Guinness. Photo credit: The Telegraph.

Guinness is a huge, well-liked brewery, and I believe these beers will make a splash as a result. Personally, I always enjoy a nice Guinness, and I look forward to the day that I can try these new beers. Though critiques may focus on the accuracy of recreating a historical brew, one point that stuck out to me was inclusion of the West Indies on one of the labels. A West Indies Porter may not sound too exciting to some, and it may appear as a simple play on the ever popular India Pale Ale (IPA) beer style. However, the Irish connection to the West Indies is one that features a hard and horrific history – the result of imperial interests, conquest, and forced labor.

When Americans think of Irish culture, many things come to mind, among them are the color green, Flogging Molly, and Guinness. These colors, sounds, and tastes roll out every year in March as Americans, whether of Irish descent or not, enjoy the excuse to carouse amongst friends. What people consider less when thinking about the Irish, especially in the midst of a party, is their long history of subjugation. For the Irish, the West Indies represents one particularly galling episode.

Oliver Cromwell. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

In the aftermath of the English Civil War (or English Revolution, depending on who you talk to), Oliver Cromwell launched a campaign of conquest in Scotland and in Ireland. Cromwell’s conquest of Ireland was brutal – so much so, that the population of Ireland fell from 1,466,000 to 616,000 between 1641 and 1659. No wonder Cromwell gained the nickname “The Butcher.”

A 19th century illustration of the Massacre at Drogheda, Mary Frances Cusack. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

One result of this conquest was the mass shipment of Irish prisoners to the West Indies. The act grew common enough that it became known as being “Barbadosed.” Even though they were officially labelled as indentured servants, historians have drawn comparisons between the forced migration and treatment of the Irish to the early years of African enslavement in the West Indies.

Today, a small population of the descendants of these laborers, known as Red Legs, remain in Barbados, where many continue to live in a state of poverty. Though this story does not often receive much attention, it is by no means a secret. In fact, the popular band Flogging Molly, whose songs gain a lot of play-time around St. Patrick’s Day, has a song about this specific episode in Irish history:

For these reasons, the appearance of “West Indies” on the new Guinness bottle struck me as historically complicated. The Irish have not forgotten the events of the mid-seventeenth century, but it is now a marketing point for Ireland’s most famous brewery. Though, considering the long and embittered history of British imperialism in India, which ultimately spawned the beloved hoppy style of beer, perhaps this reference to the horrors of forced migration and labor in the West Indies is nothing more than a play on words.

Working in the Archives

Work in the archives – it’s something historians will do at some point in their career. Even with the increasing number of documents becoming available in digital formats, there is still so much material that remains tucked away in individual archives. Recently, I began a one-month fellowship at the Massachusetts Historical Society, and while this is not the first archival research trip I’ve done, this is still a process that takes time to adapt to. Beginning this most recent trip, I’ve been reminded of all the little details that go into the preparation process. I have also been thinking back on how frustrating it was for me to learn this process from the outset. Naturally, I talked to faculty members about such trips, but I remember wishing someone would just tell me what to expect.

Unfortunately, that is difficult to do. People who made such research trips before told me this, but I was dissatisfied with the information. I wanted to know what it was like to walk into an archive and work with original documents. There were no clear guidelines, but I will try to convey some of the details I now know here.

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Working with some documents at the UK National Archives.

First: Every archive/library/special collections, etc. is different. Not simply in the sense that they are located in different areas or have different materials, but each place has its own way of doing things. It is important to familiarize yourself with these details before you leave. Does an archive allow photography? When is the last call to submit documents? What exactly can you carry with you into the reading room? Each place should have this information available online, but if you can’t find it, then give them a call. It is better to be prepared than caught off guard.

For example, in my first major research trip I visited four archives in London, and each place had different requirements before I would be allowed to work there. Every place will require some form of identification, but make sure you have the right kind (this should be stated on the archive’s website). Some places, like the UK National Archives, required two forms of identification, other places only required one. Some places, they will take your picture and print out an I.D. card that you have to use to scan your way in and out of the reading room, other places, like Lambeth Palace Library, require you bring a passport-style photo with you (to attach to your library I.D. card).

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The National Archives, UK (aka, Kew or PRO, Public Record Office).

So, each place has its own way of doing things, and for a number of procedures, you simply have to learn as you go. Also, don’t feel embarrassed if you feel confused or lost! My first day at the UK National Archives was the first time I worked at an archive, period. I was wandering around unsure of where to go when a security guard asked, “First time here?” It was pretty obvious, but that was ok. Archivists, reference librarians, and archival security guards are very nice people who can help you  navigate the building, the process of requesting materials, etc.

Second: Know what you are going for. This isn’t as crucial as making sure you have the right materials to enter the archive, but it helps to have a good idea of what you want to request. Browse the archive’s catalog, if it is online, and build a list of materials you wish to look at while there. It is possible you will have to request these materials a few days in advance, so, again, get in touch with the archivists and learn the procedure.

Organizing this information can be tricky, and you will have to find what works best for you. For me, I like to have a Word file that lists all the materials I plan to request.

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Here are two examples.

This way I know what I want to look at, what form it is available in, and roughly how big the collection is before I even get started. As I request and send back the materials, I strike through the call number so I know I don’t have to request it again. When you really begin to work through these documents, it becomes difficult to keep track of what you have and have not looked at.

For each archive, I also set up a separate file simply for taking notes. The graduate advisor in our department, and one of my committee members, suggested doing this, and it is a truly excellent idea. Keep that file up the entire time you are there to jot down any notes, questions, quotes, or any other details that may be useful to you later. It’s an easy way to help you keep track of a lot of information.

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My work station at the Kew. These tables had tripods built-in for cameras. This was very handy, but also not a common option at other archives.

FinallyDress and act professionally. This is a personal point for me, but I think it is an important one. You are at an archive to work, so dress accordingly. That being said, I have noticed people wearing jeans and t-shirts at almost every place I’ve worked at so far, and it is rarely a big deal. The archives certainly won’t turn you away (though double-check that point on their website just in case). It has been my impression that most people working at archives tend to dress in a professional manner, and I prefer to match that standard. Bring a light sweater or pull over with you – reading rooms can get pretty chilly after you have been in there for several hours. Each archive typically offers lockers to stow away bags, computer cases, and other materials not allowed in the reading room, so you can keep the sweater there if you don’t need it. I learned rather quickly that it is better to have that option available.

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Working at The Wellcome Library, London.

Ultimately, a trip to the archives is a wonderful experience. It can be tedious at times, sifting through page after page of a collection, just hoping something that applies to your project will appear. However, it can also be remarkably exciting. You get the opportunity to look at the remnants of lives, in some cases, long ended. You can read a letter from an 18th century merchant apologizing to a client for losing their purchased goods because of a pirate attack, or the first impressions of the “New World” by bewildered European explorers.

So have fun, be prepared, and good luck!

This is the advice of a young historian who is still learning the ropes, so if anyone else has their own piece of advice for archival research trips, please share them in the comments!

The History of Alcohol

Alcohol has existed alongside human settlement before the development of writing systems (and with it documented history). In spite of the era or the geographic location – with a few exceptions – humans have produced and heartily consumed fermented beverages. This history is my specialty. While the history of food and cuisine is also a strong area of interest, most of my time is spent researching the history of alcohol.

Currently, I am working on my doctoral dissertation, tentatively titled: “John Barleycorn vs. Sir Richard Rum: Alcohol, the Atlantic, and the Distilling of Colonial Identity, 1650-1800.” In this I am exploring a central question:  “Why did the temperance movement occur in the nineteenth century?” After millennia of continuous alcohol production and consumption patterns, why did this movement emerge to bring drinking to an end? To answer these questions, I am looking to the era prior to the nineteenth century, and the rise of mass-produced hard liquor (or, spirituous liquors) during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. My project will show how the changing patterns of consumption, along with the emerging theories of the Enlightenment, paved the way for the growing movement against alcohol in the 1800s.

This summer and fall, I will be conducting research on fellowship at the Massachusetts Historical Society and at the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington. Progress on my research, as well as posts on working in academia, will appear here along the way.

Thank you for take the time to visit – I look forward to hearing any thoughts you may have.

Cheers!