Cultural History

Can We Right the Past? Memory and the Present

By Caroline E. Janney

Last night, the National Geographic Channel aired the first episode of Katie Couric’s new six-part documentary series, America Inside Out. In Re-Righting History, Couric investigated the contentious and at times violent battles that have erupted in the past three years over the removal of Confederate symbols and names from the public landscape. Beginning with extensive coverage of Charlottesville where Couric was on site for the far-right rally ostensibly to protect a statue of Robert E. Lee, the episode offers an opportunity to reflect on how contemporary Americans continue to both romanticize and struggle to come to terms with the more complex and less triumphant aspects of the nation’s history.

Swinging in the Sun: The History and Business of Spring Baseball

Each year, in a tradition dating back over a century, major league clubs head to warm locales in the southern United States to play baseball before the regular season starts. And each year, in a tradition dating back almost as long, hometown fans and newspaper reporters follow. The history of spring training is a history of both business and media. 

Defying Gravity: The Origins of American Space Tourism

By Emily A. Margolis

On the morning of February 20, 1962, Mrs. Curtis Hamilton served her family a “good, hot breakfast,” just as she did every day. But on this day her family dined al fresco, sipping coffee from thermoses on the dunes of Cocoa Beach, Florida, as they awaited the start of America’s first crewed orbital spaceflight. Her parents, Mr. and Mrs. Joe Hicks, drove in with their granddaughter Debra from Waco, Texas, to join the catered launch party. Meanwhile many more onlookers gazed skyward from the Beach Causeway, which now resembled a parking lot rather than a roadway.

A History Dissertation Goes Digital

A few months ago, Celeste Sharpe, then a graduate student at George Mason University (GMU), defended what is purportedly the first born-digital dissertation in the discipline of history. Sharpe describes her project, They Need You! Disability, Visual Culture, and the Poster Child, 1945–1980, as an examination of “the history of the national poster child—an official representative for both a disease and an organization—in post–World War II America.” In her project, Sharpe argues that “poster child imagery is vital for understanding the cultural pervasiveness of the idea of disability as diagnosis and how that understanding marginalized political avenues and policies outside of disease eradication in 20th-century America.” AHA Today caught up with Sharpe recently about the process of creating a born-digital dissertation, advice for graduate students considering similar projects, and future prospects. 

Chronicling “America’s African Instrument”: Laurent Dubois on the Cultural History of the Banjo

In The Banjo: America’s African Instrument (Harvard Univ. Press, 2016), Laurent Dubois weaves a narrative of how this instrument was created by enslaved Africans in the midst of bondage in the Caribbean and Americas. He documents its journey from 17th- and 18th-century plantations to 19th-century minstrel shows to the bluegrass of Appalachia to the folk revival of the mid-20th century. In the process, Dubois documents how the banjo came to symbolize community, slavery, resistance, and ultimately America itself. A historian of the Caribbean and a banjo player himself, Dubois relied on the work of academic historians as well as insights from musicians, collectors, and banjo makers to tell this story.

Creating Circumstances: Edward Bernays, Psychoanalysis, and the Making of American Consumer Culture

By Joseph Malherek

In 1929, it was socially acceptable for women to smoke at home and in certain public spaces, such as a hotel lobby. Smoking on the streets, however, was another matter altogether. George Washington Hill, the president of the American Tobacco Company, sought to quash this old taboo. He enlisted a public relations consultant, Edward Bernays, who had, in his years as a press agent, perfected the art of “creating circumstances” that would attract favorable coverage—and thus free publicity—in newspapers.