Category Archives: History

Google (Re)Discovers the 19th Century

An article over at the Chronicle of Higher Education looks at an interesting effect of Google's book digitization program:

Google Books is a kind of Victorian portal that takes me into a mare magnum of out-of-print authors, many of whom helped launch disciplines. Or who wrote essays, novels, and histories that did not transcend their time. Or who anonymously produced the paperwork of emerging bureaucracies, organizations, and businesses that, because printed, has been scanned and, because scanned, is now available.

I am not a scholar of the 19th century but have found its digitization to be one of the most fascinating new resource for understanding the centuries that precede it.

It is not by chance that the 19th century gave birth to projects such as the Oxford English Dictionary. The OED is the tip of an iceberg of genteel scholars, male and female, who had the time and resources to dig through vast mounds of material and make something of it. Those researchers lived in closer chronological proximity to their subjects than we do; they often worked amid the dimly lit bookshelves and attics of private homes. As a result, their experience of a historical subject captures a sense of intimacy that might otherwise be lost.

 

Historical Marker Database

I use Google Reader to follow the Google alerts I've set up for various topics and a few of those topics are things like "Lewisville + North Carolina", "Foryth County + North Carolina", "Winston-Salem + North Carolina", etc. Over the weekend I noticed a lot of headlines like West Salem Historic District Marker showing up and decided I needed to take a look. That's when I found what promises to be a huge timesuck, the Historical Markers Database, an online database of historical markers from around the country that provides a separate page for each marker that contains the GPS location, inscription, a list of other nearby markers and a map. Way cool.

Will I Ever Outgrow the Wonder?

I've been an enthusiastic online traveler for about 15 years, maybe a little longer, and I've always wondered when the wonder of it would wear off.  As long as I keep stumbling across things like this blog post about triangular letters used by Soviet soldiers to send news back home from the front in World War II I doubt it ever will. An excerpt:

Folding had one more advantage: that the content of the letter was easy to check. Therefore, it was forbidden to seal them in any way. The censors working at the front did not primarily search for letters reviling the system – according to the analysis of the surviving front letters, almost none of them includes any political reference or Stalin’s name –, but whether they include any indication from which military movements and plans could be deduced. These were erased with black ink, but the mail was still transmitted.

Sovietletter

New York City Subway 1986

Something that's normally mundane can become interesting in the proper context.  Video shot in the subway is pretty boring stuff, unless of course the video is 25 years old and provides a snapshot in time.  The video below was shot in the NYC subway system in 1986 and it's fascinating to me because if you didn't know the date of the filming you'd have to look fairly closely to figure out what's different about it.  Sure there are some women wearing dresses with shoulder pads, and some of the shoes have a decidedly old school look to them, but unlike every 80s movie ever made there's not a single pair of parachute pants or Thriller-esque leather jacket to be found.  What you will notice after a while is that not a single person is carrying a phone or other mobile device, which means that people are standing or walking without distraction.  You'll also notice an incredible amount of graffiti on the trains compared to today, and it's a reminder of what it was like before New York adopted the broken windows theory in the 90s.  So yes, this seemingly mundane film is actually a fascinating piece of history.

1980

This past Tuesday night was a busy one at the day job – we had our annual awards dinner and we rolled out a new name and logo for the organization.  The organization was founded in 1980 and as I prepared for my emcee duties I decided to do a little research so that I could do a little retrospective on what the world was like 31 years ago.  It was fun, especially since I was in 8th grade in 1980 and while I do remember things like seeing Jimmy Carter on the news, I was your average self-absorbed teen and really wasn't aware of what was going on in my parents' day-to-day lives as they made their way through life.  Here's a taste of what I found using various sites online — I'm not going to vouch for absolute perfection on the numbers, but they're all close enough to give you a sense of what was going on at the time:

  • Soviet Union was in Afghanistan
  • US boycotted the Moscow Olympics
  • Pink Floyd’s Another Brick in the Wall was top song
  • A bunch of people tuned into Dallas to see who shot JR Ewing and Bo and Luke Duke were driving around being chased by the dumbest sheriff ever born.
  • First fax machines were available in Japan
  • Average 30 year mortgage rate was 15.28%
  • Yearly rate of inflation was 13.58%
  • Median value of a house in NC was $36,000 ($101,000 in today’s dollars)
  • Average monthly gross rent in NC was $205 ($577 in today’s dollars)
  • Gallon of gas cost $1.19 ($3.35 in today’s dollars)
  • NC unemployment rate in March, 1980 was 5.2%

The first time I ever signed my name to a mortgage was in 1993 and I remember the loan officer telling me and my wife that we were really lucky to be able to get our sub-9% mortgage, and telling us what a wonderful thing PMI was so that we didn't have to put down more than 10% for our loan. I remember agreeing with him because I could remember my mom and stepfather talking about their wonderful 16% note just 14 years earlier (mainly because I was bored to death sitting at the closing for that purchase when I was a self-absorbed teenager).  I also remember sweating bullets as we were asked uncomfortable questions about payments that were a week late on store charge cards a couple of years earlier, and even about some late payments I'd had in college. You can imagine my shock when I started reading about no-look loans, and you can also probably imagine why I'm not particularly sympathetic to those who get their panties in a twist when mortgage rates bounce up a scootch to 4.7%.  It's all a matter of perspective.