Beware of nostalgia in primary sources

Nostalgia – a sentimental longing for the past. Many primary source texts and images suggest the past was a better place. But was it really? The word comes from Greek roots: nostos means to return home, aliga/alegein means pain, to care about, longing.   Homesickness is a similar feeling – a longing for home.

Historical sources are often nostalgic, skewing our views of the past. You’ve heard modern references to the halcyon days when people didn’t need to lock the doors of their homes, when neighbors always helped neighbors, when men were brave and chivalrous, women virtuous, and students always did their homework and behaved. In every historical era, references are made to previous golden age. But was a previous era really that good?

Probably not. Every culture throughout time had the good and the bad. Nostalgic primary sources say more about the creators’ views of their own contemporary eras than an idealized past.

Nostalgia in Primary Source Images
late medieval depiction of idealized chivlary
At the 16th century Renaissance kings Henry VIII and Francis I , chivalry was nostalgic for past eras of warfare before the destruction caused by the new weapon – gunpowder.

For example, in the late Middle Ages, (1300s -1400s), the nobility was obsessed with chivalry and elaborate tournaments. At the same time, mounted knights in war were becoming obsolete due to the introduction of gunpowder. At the Field of the Cloth of Gold (1520), jousts between King Henry VIII of England and King Francis I of France were nostalgic re-enactments of battle, not the reality of 16th century warfare. Times were changing and the past was idealized.

In the late 1800s, more and more Americans were leaving the farm to live and work in towns and cities. At the same time, nostalgic lithograph prints depicting idealized rural farm homes were especially popular. The 1877 lithograph used as a header image for this post is entitled “Home Sweet Home.” A rural family is relaxing on the porch of a perfect home. No references to the hard labor required by men, women, and children on a late 19th century farm.  Many people were yearning for this nostalgic, peaceful life after the economic disaster caused by the Panic of 1873 and a year of the labor unrest, the Great Railroad Strike, Indian Wars, and violence.

Analyzing Primary Sources in the Classroom

Ask your students to consider modern media depictions of the 1950s. The “mid-century” nostalgic trend portrays a time when families were “traditional” – dads worked, moms got to stay at home and loved it, and kids could “play all day outside and didn’t come home until dark” because the world was a much safer place. Historical study of the real 1950s reveals that most people did not live this utopian life. Everyone was not suburban middle class and sexism and racism were prominent features of daily life.

Ask students to consider what broader modern trends cause Americans to yearn for the idealized1950s. Future historians will probably conclude that concerns about job security due to technological change and globalization and changing family patterns are the “real” history of the early 21st century.

Primary Source Images: Context Matters

Looking for primary source images for social studies lessons? Beware of Google image searches – you may get more junk than historical sources. Knowing the date and original context of a historical image is essential for a good primary source lesson.
If you locate an interesting image on the internet that does not include historical documentation – try using a reverse image search to find the same picture on other websites. You may find the documentation you need in ensure that the image is actually from the time period you plan to teach. To learn more – see Search for images with reverse images search

Save time doing searches that may not yield good results by bookmarking a few favorite and reliable websites. Here are a few of my favorites:

Primary Source Mysteries

Start out the school year with a lesson that illustrates how historical context matters. Create primary source image “mystery” activities for your students.  Choose various images that seem time-period appropriate and ask students to search the internet for the image and historical documentation. Be sure to include images that are from the time period being studied and a few that seem “real” but are from a different time period or hoaxes.

primary source image mystery
Real or hoax? Purpose? Date? Challenge your students to solve primary source mysteries.

The Museum of Hoaxes is a great resource.

For example, is this poster promoting temperance real? Or a hoax? In what time period was it created? For the answer and an example of how to discover the origins of internet images, see Prohibition Poster – Fact or Fiction?

 

 

 

 


Header Image:  Illinois WPA Art Project, created between 1936 and 1940. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

Pilgrimage as a Medieval “Vacation”

“What did you do and see on your pilgrimage?” This question was probably the medieval equivalent of “What did you do on your vacation?” If your curriculum includes history of the European Middle Ages, studying medieval pilgrimage can offer insight into the lives pre-industrial people as well as our own modern motivations for travel.

Mixed Motives of Pilgrims

Since pilgrimage is a journey to a religious shrine, we often assume that historical pilgrims had purely religious motivations. But most pilgrims also enjoyed seeing new places, meeting new people, and having new experiences. A twelfth-century French bishop commented on the mixed motives of pilgrims when he said “Some light-minded and inquisitive persons went on pilgrimage to the holy places, not so much out of devotion as out of curiosity and love of novelty, that they might travel to unknown lands, and with great toil . . .might prove the stories which they had heard about the East.”

St. James wears the distinctive clothing of a medieval pilgrim - a long tunic called a sclavein, a wooden staff, and scrip to carry his belongings at his waist. The broad brimmed hat turned up in the front, commonly depicted on pilgrims by the mid-thirteenth century, has a cockle shell badge, the symbol of his shrine. Bare feet were considered a type of penance, a self-punishment for one’s sins. He is also carrying a knife and a book, not typical for a pilgrim. The book symbolizes James’ status as an apostle; the knife symbolizes his role as Saint James, the Moor Slayer or may refer to the dangers on the pilgrim route. In the background, on the right, a pilgrim is being attacked. This painting is on the outside, left shutter of the three panel triptych entitled The Last Judgement painted in the late fifteenth or early sixteenth century.
St. James as a pilgrim by Hieronymus Bosch, circa 1450–1516. St. James wears the distinctive clothing of a medieval pilgrim.

Primary source texts and images give us clues about the motivation of medieval pilgrims. The pilgrims in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales met new people and entertained themselves with stories on the journey to the Shrine of Saint Thomas Becket. Crusaders, armed knights who took the pilgrim’s vow to fight for Christianity in the Holy Land, were also inspired by the adventure, riches, and exotic sites and experiences in the East.

Medieval pilgrims, just like modern tourists, purchased souvenirs and showed them off to their friends back home. The most common souvenir sold was the pilgrim’s badge. These small tokens, usually metal and stamped with the symbol of the saint, could be worn on the clothing of the pilgrim to show where he or she had visited.

Modern tourists still make pilgrimages to religious and secular sites. The Camino De Santiago, or route to the Shrine of St. James in northwestern Spain, was popular in the Middle Ages, and a popular destination today. An example of a secular  “pilgrimages” are trips to the birthplaces, homes, or graves of presidents or other well-known people from popular culture. Elvis Presley’s home and grave site at Graceland has been visited by over 20 million visitors since it opened in 1982.

Medieval Primary Sources

More ideas and primary sources for teaching about medieval pilgrimage see Chapter 2 in Exploring Vacation and Etiquette Themes in Social Studies

Twelfth century quote above by Jacques De Vitry in The History of Jerusalem A.D. 1190, trans. Aubrey Stewart (London, UK: Palestine Pilgrims’ Text Society, 1885), 90. https://archive.org/details/cu31924028534422

Header Image: Medieval pilgrims from the Ghent Altarpiece (c. 1430s) by Hubert and Jan van Eyck. Note the pilgrim badges on the hat of the pilgrim on the left. The scallop shell was the symbol of St. James. For more detailed images of this work see http://closertovaneyck.kikirpa.be/

The problem with asking students “What did you do on your summer vacation?”

Motion Picture Camera Ad, 1919
“Come back with a moving picture of the good times you have had.” This 1919 advertising message mirrors the purpose of vacation photos in social media – to tell your friends about your vacation. Vacation photos and stories promote vacation destinations and the idea that everyone should go on a vacation.

What did you do on your summer vacation? Teachers often start the school year by asking students about their summer vacations. Modern media is full advice about how, when, where, and what to do on a vacation. Vacationing is such a popular media topic that it appears everyone takes a vacation.

But many families are unable to travel for leisure. A recent poll found that 43% of Americans don’t plan to take a vacation this summer. Why? The cost and inability to take time off work are key reasons. Many working Americans in do not receive paid time off for holidays or vacations.

Time off from work for leisure is relatively new in human history. For most of human history, only the wealthiest could take time away from daily routines or afford to travel for leisure. Only with 19th century industrialization were a new middle class of workers earning enough to pay the expenses for a short vacation. Over time, those with white-collar jobs got at least one or two weeks of paid or unpaid vacation. Vacationing became a sign that one had achieved middle class status. But it was a luxury not typically available to working-class Americans in the late 19th and early 20th century. Sadly, this is still true one hundred years later.

Vacation Primary Sources for the Classroom
Seneca Camera Ad, 1919
Vacations are promoted by advertisers in order to sell goods, services, and experiences. In this 1919 advertisement, readers are informed that a snapshot camera is needed to record and share a vacation.

Vacations required spending money – for transportation, accommodations, entertainments, vacation clothing, and equipment. Many primary sources from the 19th, 20th and 21st century promote vacation and vacation purchases. Student analysis of past and present advertisements and articles about vacation hones skills for historical critical analysis and those needed by modern informed consumers.

Snapshot cameras, first marketed in the early 1900s, were promoted as a vacation necessity.  Vacation photographs could be shown to friends and family and further promoted the idea of vacation and destinations in popular culture. Ask students to consider the impact of vacation snapshots on modern social media? What messages are conveyed about taking vacations? About where people should go and what they should do on vacations?

More Resources

More about vacation photographs in modern popular culture see The Tyranny of Other People’s Vacation Photos

More ideas about using vacations as a theme in the classroom see Exploring Vacation and Etiquette Themes in Social Studies

Hotels in the Nineteenth Century: Place-based Primary Sources

Hotel Advertising Cards, late 1800s, place-based primary sources

Your local library, historical society, or university archives is a treasure trove of primary sources from your community – letters, diaries, scrapbooks, photographs, local publications, and all sorts of other ephemera. In most cases, these local institutions are thrilled to work with teachers developing place-based lessons. The staff will know about local history and have primary sources that you didn’t even know existed.
These hotel advertising cards, all from the late 1800s, are from a scrapbook in Eastern Kentucky University’s Archives. The scrapbook was created by French Tipton (1848 – 1900), a Richmond, Kentucky editor, lawyer, judge, IRS Revenue Agent, and journalist. These hotels existed in an era when railroads were the primary form of transportation for long distance travel. Hotels were located close to the railroad depot, instead of the interstate highway exit.
Teachers can create place-based education mysteries for students to solve. Do these businesses still exist? If not, are the buildings still there? If so, how have they been re-purposed? What changes in American vacationing, travel, and transportation caused them to close? Be sure to connect these wider trends to the present – why do businesses, like hotels, close in the 21st century?

Sanborn maps are valuable resources for locating old business in your town. These maps were created to assess fire insurance liability in towns and cities in the United States from 1867 to 2007. When you visit your local library, historical society, or university archives, ask for the historic Sanborn maps for your town. Many are also available on the internet.

Advertising Ephemera: Primary Sources for the Classroom

 

1929 Advertising as a primary source
Letter from the Natural Body Brace Company, 1929

What are ephemera?  Ephemera are everyday documents that are usually discarded – tickets, calendars, advertisements, cards, etc. Ephemera are excellent primary sources for the classroom! These items can help tell the story of an individual or a family. These primary sources also tell a larger story about the history of hobbies, leisure, advertising, or about changes in technology and communications. Below are a couple of examples from my collection. This letter and brochure were use for direct mail marketing in 1929. I also have the original envelope with stamps and postmark.

Ephemera as a Classroom Primary Source

How can these throwaway items from the past be used in the classroom? Students could compare and contrast how items were advertised and marketed in the 1920s and today (changes in technology) and analyze the claims made by advertisers about their products (techniques of marketing and persuasion). Note that addresses in the 1920s were much simpler – students can research the history of the postal service in the United States and when and how zip codes were introduced, and how electronic communications are changing the way we live today.


Start your ephemera primary source collection today!
For more about ephemera – see the following:
The Ephemera Society of America
An American Time Capsule: Three Centuries of Broadsides and Other Printed Ephemera at the Library of Congress