I never knew candy corn grew on trees until I ran across these bushes on a recent hike. Nonetheless, I tend to be somewhat of a curmudgeon about Halloween. Its level of commercialization seems nearly to have caught up with that of Christmas. The neighborhood is now littered with plastic skeletons, spider webs from a can, and limp hanging ghosts. The worst look all too much like the lynchings of yore. And the underlying message is seems a lot less uplifting than that of Christmas. More about death and the dead than about life and the living.
If I'm forced to meditate on the spirits of Halloween, I prefer the woods and nature to plastic skulls and alien ghouls. The season is appropriate, with its foretastes of winter. As the leaves are swept away, their susurration inevitably yields to the hollow howls of January, blowing down off the mountains. Only the skeletons remain. Death, after all, is a part of life too.
I was working on an informal study guide for A Little History of the United States when I came across one of my favorite stories in Charles Grandison Finney's Memoirs. Finney was a revivalist preacher who traveled along the canal through upstate New York in the mid-nineteenth century. Perhaps his biggest revival campaign took place in Rochester during the autumn and winter of 1830-1831.
The drawing above, by Gordon Allen, shows the canal a few decades later, where it bends and actually passes over the Genesee River (seen at the left side of the drawing, flowing under the aqueduct arches of the canal). Rochester looked a bit less industrial in 1830, though it was still bursting at the seams. Basil Hall, an English traveler, passed through three years earlier and commented that all was in motion. "The very streets seemed to be starting up of their own accord, ready-made...the lime seemed hardly dry in the masonry of the aqueduct, in the bridges, and in the numberless great saw-mills and manufactories. In many of these buildings the people were at work [at their regular jobs], while at top the carpenters were busy nailing on the planks of the roof...In the centre of the town the spire of a Presbyterian church rose to a great height... I need not say that these half-finished, whole-finished, and embryo streets were crowded with people, carts, stages, cattle, pigs, far beyond the reach of numbers;—and as all these were lifting up their voices together, in keeping with the clatter of hammers, the ringing of axes, and the creaking of machinery, there was a fine concert, I assure you!"
And it was here that Finney came in 1830 and went to work at First Presbyterian Church:
The church didn’t collapse, though its walls did continue to spread, so the revival was moved to the nearby “Brick” church—which, as it happened, was where my family worshiped over a century later when I grew up in Rochester.
Gave a talk at a great independent bookstore last weekend, the Concord Book Shop in Concord, Massachusetts. Very enthusiastic and engaged audience...the folks in Concord know their history, as you might expect. Hat tip to Dawn Rennert for the photo and for her hospitality.
When my son and daughter were growing up, I read them bedtime stories from a wide variety of children’s books, some newly issued, others that were classics still available decades after their first issue. A game I played with myself while reading was to try to guess the year of original publication (or at least the decade) by the style of illustrations, the layout and content. Color schemes were often a giveaway: older books were in 2-color. Illustration style was another clue; books from different periods had decidedly different looks.
The same is true for illustrations in American history. Having had to do picture research for several survey textbooks, I’ve found it interesting to note changing styles and conventions. In today’s full-color texts, making good use of color is always a plus. Paradoxically, the search for color becomes harder as you march into the early twentieth century. Photographs more frequently replace color paintings, but the photos are in black and white…and largely continue that way until newspapers and magazines began printing in color (and therefore demanding color from their news photographers).
Of course, the Great Depression seems tailor-made for black and white. The haunting photo of “Migrant Mother” by Dorothea Lange nicely echoes the bleak times. One of my favorites along the same line is a shot taken by Arthur Rothstein, working for the Farm Security Administration, of a jalopy crossing the Texas panhandle as a dust storm comes barreling along behind it. (Library of Congress)
But toward the end of the Depression, Kodachrome color slides began to enter the scene; and quite a few such transparencies are displayed from the Library of Congress in Bound for Glory: America in Color, 1939-1943 (2004). They are also available on the Web in the LC’s Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Collections. Browsing the transparencies, after seeing so much in black and white, is a bit like watching The Wizard of Oz--which first appeared in 1939 too. As you move from dusty Kansas to colorful Oz, it’s like entering a whole different world!
On the main street of Cascade, Idaho.
Russell Lee, July 1941
Faro and Doris Caudill, homesteaders, Pie Town, New Mexico.
Russell Lee, October 1940
Boy near Cincinnati, Ohio. John Vachon, 1939-1943
James West Davidson
Occasional thoughts on history, teaching, paddling and the outdoors