This month I started a new position as the Associate Director and Oral Historian for the Center for the History of Business, Technology, and Society at the Hagley Museum and Library. I’m eager to continue the public and oral history work I began with Under Connecticut Skies, to have a chance to utilize my curatorial and digital media skills, and to work with the amazing people and collections here at Hagley. It’s also a delight to come each day to the stunning nineteenth-century industrial landscape that is the lower Brandywine. Come see our amazing machine shop if you’re in Wilmington!
One of the wonderful things about finishing the Ph.D. is the way it frees you up to think about new projects. There are two that have been percolating for me of late: one, which relates to what I’ve come to think of as the “sciences of rural life”—fields like agricultural economics, rural sociology, and large swaths of home economics—and the way they organize and create knowledge; and a second, which deals with the history of the modern office, in particular the clerical work and information organization that support it.
Since beginning my postdoc at the National Museum of American History, I have realized that the Smithsonian has great resources for this second project, and it would be a good idea to start doing some research in that vein while I’m here. I’m thinking in particular about the collection of trade catalogs the museum has, as well as the Warshaw Collection of Business Americana, and the Dibner Library. For instance, one of the things I’m really interested in is stenography and shorthand: I found a slew of books and manuals on phonography (the general term for sound-based shorthand systems), as well as such interesting items as the brochures and catalogs for business colleges like Bryant & Stratton in Boston, and the Troy Business College in Troy, NY. These not only give the researcher an idea of the kinds of things that were taught at such institutions, but what the classroom space looked like, and how instruction happened. As such colleges were set up to recreate for their students the experience of working in an office as closely as possible, they offer a wonderful glimpse into how offices of the late nineteenth century were organized.
I’ll be posting more on this subject as I move forward. I’m hoping to offer some samples of interesting items from the archives and libraries that give a sense of what’s available and how someone like me might use it. For now, I should probably be getting to the office myself!
One of the great things about working at a major history museum is the proximity one has to really amazing artifacts. The fellows’ offices are in the basement, close to the loading dock. At first, I was a little disappointed at being in a subterranean lair with no light, far away from the curators’ offices on the upper floors, but I think that, today, I have made my peace with our location. Here’s what did it.
On my way out to eat lunch, I noticed that two enormous wooden crates had appeared in the hallway. Upon close inspection, I saw that they had information written on them.
The first, a crate about five feet by six feet by six feet, read:
SI, NMAH Work + Industry
Control Unit for GM-Fanuc
S-380 Robotic Car Arm
The second crate was even more impressive, in both its size and its contents. This one was about four feet by seven feet by ten feet, and on the side was printed:
Medicine + Science
Hanford Nuclear Control Console
When I got back from lunch, another crate, this one partially open, was being transported down to the basement. It was unlabeled, but contained another piece of electronics, about the size of the Hanford console, whose purpose I could not ascertain. But: woah.
Of course, each item is labeled with its acquisition and collection number, just like a box in an archive. Except these are huge wooden crates that need several people as well as special machinery to transport. One box, one huge electromechanical artifact at a time, please, researchers. Oh, and I hear that the off-site storage facilities are amazing, just what you’d imagine. I can’t believe I didn’t bring my camera today.
Nonetheless: cool. Very, very, very cool.
My daily commute takes me past some of the great monuments to our country’s history. This past week, I was pleased to note the distinctly agricultural motto that graces the west side of the southern steps to the National Archives on Constitution Avenue:
Here’s to the seed! And to those who cultivate it. And to all tomorrow’s harvests.
One of the things I love to see in logos is a geographical sensibility. I can think of several contemporary examples of this among companies that really capitalize on their locality, such as Finger Lakes Distilling and New Glarus Brewing. The logotype for the Tennessee Farmers Cooperative in the 1950s took a similar tack:
I’m a huge fan of the perspective and color in this one. A simple, timeless design, one that holds up quite well, I think. This is one of my favorites from the archives. (Too bad they didn’t stick with the old design!)
One of the things I have enjoyed doing as a little side project while going through archival records is snapping pictures of interesting letterhead from different moments in history. Sometimes I admire the design, sometimes the ostentatiousness or elaborate nature of the logotypes, and sometimes it’s just something that gives me a chuckle in the midst of a long day of research. I’ve been stumbling across these while working on the current dissertation chapter, and though I would share one with you today. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the pinnacle of luxury, Memphis’s Hotel Gayoso, the “South’s Most Aristocratic Hotel.”
I’ll be posting more as I wade through these archival photos. Get ready for some midcentury design, people!
Last Friday, I came across this wonderful piece of advice from a 1945 Wisconsin Extension circular: How to Relax.
I would like to note that the lower left hand picture looks suspiciously like the napping habits of certain persons near and dear to me. Namely, Henrys.
Now that reminds me of another archival zat I should post soon… Stay tuned! And try to relax. (If you’re having difficulty, please consult the circular.)
This week I am putting together a conference paper, and in the process am wrestling with some big questions in the dissertation. How do local people, county leaders, land-grant specialists, and USDA officials collaborate to create agricultural knowledge? How does the knowledge that each of these groups creates differ? How do these different people make use of that knowledge, and put it to work? And how does it circulate and change across these different levels of administration, expertise, and practice?
These are difficult questions to answer, and the issue of scale — the fact that agricultural research and change happens not just at the federal and state levels, but at the county and locality and farm levels as well — makes them even more complicated. How do you trace an idea or a fact or a practice or a technique through this knowledge-making system? What documents should you look at to do so?
My dissertation pivots on the notion that one set of documents you can utilize to gain insight into these matters are extension records, in particular those relating to 4-H club work. The Cooperative Extension Service, created by an act of Congress in 1914, was in many ways the capstone to the Morrill Act of 1862, which granted federal land (or scrip for land) to the states to establish colleges for the agricultural and mechanic arts. This was the first step in a process whereby federal monies were made available to encourage the doing and sharing of scientific agricultural research. (Other important milestones included establishing the Experiment Stations and the 1890 Institutions.) The creation of the Extension Service was a response to continued poor conditions in the countryside, and a sense among many that the fruits of scientific research weren’t really being disseminated widely enough. The 1914 act called for face-to-face and in-person contact, demonstrations, and object lessons in both agriculture and home economics to supplement the printed material coming out of the Colleges and Experiment Stations. It was directed at people not enrolled or resident in the colleges; in a real sense, it was about bringing the university to the people. As such, it entailed involving local people in the process of knowledge-creation — through demonstrations and experiments on their farms, using their labor and their land and their experience — and knowledge-circulation.
As is probably clear, I come at this topic with a belief that the county, local, and even farm levels matter in answering these questions about agricultural knowledge-making: that what rural people do to get a living from the land, and how they respond to extension efforts to modify, guide, reshape, or even drastically change the means by which they do so, is integral to understanding agricultural research programs and their effects. That what we generally think of as a top-down process of transmission — of knowledge, of information, of methods, of tools and seeds and livestock and other artifacts — from urban or land-grant-college/experiment-station center to rural periphery, from expert to layperson, from scientist to farmer, is in reality far more complicated. The language of these bills — with its repeated references to distribution and diffusion — implies a one-way movement of ideas; yet it is more accurate to say that ideas circulated, were appropriated by different groups, were reproduced in new ways. Dissemination, I think, offers a good metaphor: scattering seeds widely, which then take on lives of their own. The seed metaphor helps us further: the seeds mature differently, depending on where they are planted. Place and locality matter. Likewise with ideas, practices, techniques.
I’ve been thinking about these questions through the lens of an image I came across in the Cornell Archives that illustrates a 4-H “chain of knowledge” linking the land-grant-college specialist, the 4-H agent, the local leader, and the club member. Though this schematic is obviously quite simplified, I think it represents a good tool to think with. The chain is not a straight line, but a loop: knowledge can flow in both directions. The chain is comprised of more local- and county-level links than it is of state- and federal-level ones (in fact, in this representation, the federal level is completely absent): knowledge circulation happens on a highly localized scale. Furthermore, the chain puts the land-grant specialist in direct contact with the club member, linking individuals across several scales and kinds of knowledge. This indeed happens in the context of club congresses, camps, fairs, and other gatherings that bring youth and experts into personal contact, supplementing the more distant contact of, say, a club member reading an extension circular authored by a specialist. Finally, the links in the chain are not static: people can (and often do) pass through several of them, becoming different nodes in the network at different points in time. 4-H club members who grow up to be club leaders, or extension agents, or land-grant-college professors, or USDA officials represent one way of traversing this network, following people as well as ideas and practices.
Which brings me to another point: organisms and artifacts move through this network as well. Pigs, ears of corn, vegetables, canned goods, dresses, poultry, eggs… The products of 4-H club work also circulate. And they circulate through two overlapping and mutually constitutive systems: the knowledge system of the land-grant complex, and the economic system of markets in agricultural and domestic products. Production for home use and for sale: this is central to the 4-H idea from the beginning, and this economic or market orientation sets 4-H apart from other youth movements coming out of the Progressive Era. These markets are also critical in making agricultural knowledge, something I’m hoping to talk about in this paper as well.
Catch me next week, and I’ll probably have a better-theorized way of explaining all of this, but these are the ideas I’m grappling with right now. For the moment: back to making knowledge (on a different level) about agriculture.
Overcome my aversion to the words and ideas I have spent the last month or so formulating, revising, and often just getting down on the page… and read chapter six as it stands right now, with an eye to whipping it into some serious shape. By the end of the week.
Because chapter five needs work, too, and the two are so interrelated at this point that I can’t waste all this good stuff that’s in my short-term memory now and move to a completely different part of the project. (I’ll have to do that soon anyway — ASEH paper…) No, I gotta get these two together.
Seems like a good thing to do over morning coffee. Set me up for a good day of writing, rather than reading articles or more sources.