One of my favorite Christmas traditions is watching “It’s A Wonderful Life” with my mom and whoever else will join us. We have watched it on the big screen together twice, once in New York City when we visited my brother for Christmas, and once in my hometown, in downtown Wilson, North Carolina at our local historic theater. But most years, it’s pajamas and fuzzy socks at home. This year we won’t be able to watch it in person together since we are taking precautions because of the pandemic. I still plan to watch it though and perhaps we will watch it “together” via FaceTime and text messages throughout. We’ve seen it a dozen times at least and yet the end still makes us cry each year. That I don’t see changing this year–in fact I may cry more than ever.
I am still looking forward to this year’s viewing and in honor of the tradition, I’ve compiled a few fun facts about this 1946 Christmas classic.
Both Frank Capra (the director) and James Stewart (who plays the main character George Bailey) served in World War II, with this film being the first they had worked on postwar. Frank Capra, Italian by birth, volunteered to enlist at the age of 44 after Pearl Harbor and put his film talents to patriotic use, creating documentaries about the war to boost morale among troops. Most notably he produced the “Why We Fight” series. James Stewart served as a pilot in WWII rising to the rank of Brigadier General in the United States Air Force Reserve and becoming the highest-ranking actor in military history. He was also the first Hollywood star to enlist to fight in World War II.
Donna Reed, who played Mary Hatch Bailey, the film’s leading lady, said that the film was “the most difficult film I ever did. No director ever demanded as much of me.”
The film didn’t do as well as expected at the box office because of strong competition, but it was nominated for 6 Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (James Stewart), Best Film Editing, and Best Sound Recording.
The one award that the film won was the Technical Achievement Award given to the Special Effects crew for developing a new technique for simulating falling snow on motion picture sets. Before It’s a Wonderful Life, snow was made using painted cornflakes; however, these were rather noisy when stepped on, causing scenes to need redubbing. The special effects team on It’s a Wonderful Life developed a new way to create snow using water, soap flakes, foamite, and sugar, which was much quieter than cornflakes.
The film is based on a short story titled “The Greatest Gift” by Philip Van Doren Stern, which was written in 1939 and published privately in 1943. Good Housekeeping magazine published the story in their January 1945 edition under the title “The Man Who Was Never Born.” The studio became interested in the story and Cary Grant was initially interested in playing the lead role that would ultimately go to James Stewart.
The swimming pool under the gym floor that features in the famous dance scene of the movie still exists at Beverly Hills High School where it was in use at least until 2013.
The film is listed on the American Film Institute’s 100 Best American Films Ever Made, placing number 11 on the initial 1998 list and number 20 on the revised 2007 list.
The pet raven of Uncle Billy’s was in several of Capra’s films beginning with You Can’t Take it With You. His name was Jimmy.
Like many of Capra’s films, the movie told a moral story with a positive, heartwarming and patriotic message about a downtrodden “every man.”
4.7 million people tuned in to NBC’s Christmas Eve broadcast of the movie in 2017. Will you be watching this year?
All images and video clips are owned by Republic Pictures who retains the copyright for the film, the story it is based on, and the film’s music.
“So this is Christmas and what have you done? Another year over, a new one just begun… A very merry Christmas and a happy new year, let’s hope it’s a good one without any fear.”
These lyrics feel especially apt as we get ready to head into 2021 after a difficult year facing a global pandemic and intense political divisions. However, at the time these lyrics were written they expressed hope for the end of the Vietnam War rather than the end of the coronavirus pandemic. “Happy Xmas (War is Over)” (1971) is a Christmas song by John Lennon and Yoko Ono, but it is also a protest song. Lennon and Ono made music and led activism promoting peace and condemning the Vietnam War in the 1960s and 70s and their Christmas song was no different.
Specifically, “Happy Xmas” promoted personal accountability and empowerment to stop the war in Vietnam with lines like “war is over if you want it” and “so this is Christmas and what have you done?” and “Let’s stop all the fight.”
The song shared the same message as a billboard campaign that Lennon and Ono put together in December of 1969, 2 years before the song’s release. They had billboards put up in major cities all over the world that read, “”WAR IS OVER! If You Want It – Happy Christmas from John & Yoko.”
A few more interesting facts about the song:
In the opening, whispered lines of the song Yoko wishes her daughter (from a previous marriage) Kyoko a happy Christmas followed by John doing the same to his son (from his previous marriage) Julian. The couple’s son Sean had not been born yet.
The song was written and recorded in New York City and the children’s voices featured on the song are from the Harlem Community Choir.
The song has been extensively covered over the years including by Sarah McLachlan, The Fray, Neil Diamond, Celine Dion, and many others.
The song was not an immediate hit, but has come to be a Christmas classic that invokes introspection and a renewed call for peace.
In our current times, may this holiday classic inspire you to do your part in the fight against the pandemic by wearing a mask, keeping your distance, staying home as much as possible, and washing your hands frequently. Stay safe and be well this holiday season and let’s look forward to a happier new year!
(Happy Christmas, Kyoko
Happy Christmas, Julian)
So this is Christmas
And what have you done?
Another year over
And a new one just begun
And so this is Christmas
I hope you have fun
The near and the dear ones
The old and the young
A very Merry Christmas
And a happy New Year
Let’s hope it’s a good one
Without any fear
And so this is Christmas (War is over!)
For weak and for strong (If you want it)
For rich and the poor ones (War is over!)
The road is so long (Now!)
And so happy Christmas (War is over!)
For black and for white (If you want it)
For yellow and red ones (War is over!)
Let’s stop all the fight (Now!)
A very Merry Christmas
And a happy New Year
Let’s hope it’s a good one
Without any fear
And so this is Christmas (War is over!)
And what have we done? (If you want it)
Another year over (War is over!)
And a new one just begun (Now!)
And so happy Christmas (War is over!)
We hope you have fun (If you want it)
The near and the dear ones (War is over!)
The old and the young (Now!)
A very Merry Christmas
And a happy New Year
Let’s hope it’s a good one
Without any fear
Museum lovers, below is a list of some of the Black museums in North Carolina that preserve and present the history, culture, and voices of the Black community. Check them out, follow them on social media, plan visits once they reopen after COVID-19, and consider donating to support their work. I know I will be making plans to visit several of these as soon as possible.
1. Freeman Round House Museum – Wilson, NC
Starting in my city with the Freeman Round House Museum. This museum is small but important. Oliver Nestus Freeman was a craftsman and master mason who worked with stone in unique and innovative ways. The Museum consists of a round house he built as well as a visitors center with exhibits that tell the history of East Wilson, a historically Black community in the city of Wilson.
2. Charlotte Hawkins Brown Museum State Historic Site – Gibsonville, NC
Dr. Charlotte Hawkins Brown was an African American woman who founded the Palmer Memorial Institute in 1902 to provide quality education to Black students. The site was the first NC State Historic Site to honor African American heritage. As a State site it is free to visit.
3. International Civil Rights Center & Museum – Greensboro, NC
Located on the site of the Greensboro Woolworth’s, where one of the most well-known non-violent sit-in protests took place at the lunch counter, the museum shares the history of the Civil Rights Movement.
The former home of Dr. M.T. Pope, a doctor who attended Shaw University’s Leonard Medical Center and a prominent African American citizen of Raleigh. The Pope House offers a glimpse into the life of Dr. Manassa Thomas Pope, who was also the only African-American man to run for mayor of a Southern capital in the midst of the Jim Crow Era.
The Delta Arts Center is an art gallery and cultural center that emphasizes the contributions of African Americans to the arts. It is located in the heart of the historically African American community in East Winston-Salem.
6. Harvey B. Gantt Center for African American Arts & Culture – Charlotte, NC
The Harvey B. Gantt Center, named for Charlotte’s first Black mayor who was also the first Black student admitted to Clemson University, celebrates the contributions of Africans and African-Americans to American history and culture with a focus on the arts: music, dance, theater, visual art, and film.
8. LATIBAH Collard Green Museum – Tours & Programs
The LATIBAH (Life and Times in Black American History) Collard Green Museum originated in Charlotte, NC. Currently without a physical location, the museum has some online resources and offers tours and outreach programs.
The Hayti Heritage Center is a historic cultural center that preserves African and African American heritage and promotes greater cultural understanding and appreciation through arts education programming.
Museums have been ramping up their digital offerings in order to continue providing content to and engaging with their audiences. Chances are your favorite museum has made some resources or material available on their website or social media. Show your favorite museum some support by following, liking and sharing their content! You may even get to see behind the scenes content you would never get to see even if you visited in person. If you are looking for something new or to add a little culture, art or history to spice up your quarantine life, check out what I’ve been working on with my museum clients below.
I’ve been working hard with my current museum clients, the Tobacco Farm Life Museum and the Ava Gardner Museum, to create new content and repurpose existing materials in order to offer their visitors and followers some resources to keep learning about the collections, exhibits, and more from the safety of home.
Tobacco Farm Life Museum
At the Tobacco Farm Life Museum, I’ve been working with staff to create several ongoing series and shift some of what the museum offers to the museum’s digital platforms.
#MuseumAlphabet – this ongoing social media series is one lots of museums are participating in. From A to Z we’ve been sharing an artifact from the museum’s collection for each letter of the alphabet. Follow along on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter. I selected the artifacts with some help from museum staff and wrote the copy for these posts.
On Mondays we’ve been alternating between a series we started pre-pandemic featuring community members’ memories of the museum and why they love it and a series of videos giving short tours of some of the exhibits and historic buildings. Check out the museum’s social media or visit its Sharing Our Heritage YouTube Channel for the tour videos as well as the museum’s existing educational videos about artifacts and related topics. You may find a familiar face and voice in the recent tour videos.
Check out the Museum’s blog. I wrote a piece about Capturing Our Past, sharing some documentaries available to watch and learn about North Carolina culture. I also wrote a blog post summarizing all that the museum has to offer in support of the museum’s Giving Tuesday Now campaign.
Relax with some digital jigsaw puzzles. Another museum world trend I shared with my museum clients, these puzzles have been very popular with both museums’ followers. Check out the Tobacco Farm Life Museum’s digital puzzles here. They feature scenes from around the museum, inside and out.
In addition to creating new digital resources, we’ve been sharing existing resources including the Honors and Memorials program, an online database featuring user generated listing of community members, sharing life stories and local and family history in the process. I assisted with transferring this resource to the museum’s new website last fall.
The Museum’s director has started a Facebook live series using newspaper clippings to share local history tidbits. The series, called Clips of Time, is on Fridays at 2pm. I will be planning and presenting that program this week so join us live on Friday on Facebook.
We’ve also been sharing fun facts from a forthcoming exhibit about the history and science of soil and water conservation. This exhibit was set to open in April, but has of course been postponed. I worked with students from the University of Mount Olive on researching and putting this exhibit together. I added historical research to it and have been working with a graphic designer on bringing it to life. Since it’s been delayed, we’ve been sharing some sneak peeks on the museum’s social media each Saturday.
The museum’s visitor services coordinator has also been working on some educational materials and the museum’s coloring book and some supplemental activities are available to download. Check out the museum’s At Home Learning page for more info.
Ava Gardner Museum
At the Ava Gardner Museum I’ve been doing some of the same things to respond to industry trends right now. At both museums, I’ve worked with staff to engage with popular museum world hashtags in order to capitalize on the momentum and popularity of those trends while also engaging and interacting with other museums. Both museums participated in #MuseumBouquet which was a fun way to show some love between museums. Both museums are participating in #NCMuseumsUnlocked and #MuseumWeek as well. I’ve been involved in the Ava Gardner Museum’s digital initiatives since August. At that time we steadily began increasing social media presence and activity and in the fall we relaunched the museum blog. We’ve continued these efforts even more now that the museum is physically closed.
#MuseumAlphabet – like the Tobacco Farm Life Museum, the Ava Gardner Museum is participating in this series with an artifact for each letter of the alphabet. Lora Stocker, a board member at AGM, designed the graphics to accompany. We selected artifacts as a team with museum director Lynell Seabold and I wrote the copy. This series is across all social platforms including Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
Digital jigsaw puzzles have been a big hit at both museums. Ava Gardner Museum’s puzzles use portraits of Ava painted by Dutch artist Bert Pfeiffer.
The Ava Gardner Museum recycled a virtual tour it created for the Live Living Network (with permission). I helped roll out this resource by posting clips with captions over several weeks. The tour clips are available on the museum’s YouTube Channel.
We’ve been continuing to update the blog. I have written several recent posts. One shares a few downloadable coloring pages from the museum’s coloring and activity book. Another makes movie recommendations featuring Ava and focusing on movies readily available on streaming platforms. We also continue to share topical posts. Around Easter I co-wrote a piece about Ava’s roles in Biblical epics.
We’ve made book recommendations and shared the online gift shop more frequently.
If you are looking for a little culture in quarantine, I hope you will enjoy the resources above! Stay safe and stay well.
I am available to help museums and other organizations develop and share digital content in this trying time. Please contact me if you would like to discuss your museum’s digital resources.
Now more than ever possibly digital engagement is necessary and important for museums of all sizes. I compiled the below tips before the corona virus pandemic, but they hold true even in these strange times.
I know these are trying times, but I believe museums have a lot to offer the public now as always and staying connected with communities now will lead to more people through museum doors once this situation passes. I have experience managing multiple social media platforms for a large multinational company as well as for small non-profit museums. Many of the tips below are true across the board -from large company to small non-profit -while a few are more specific to smaller institutions.
If you need more help developing digital content or using social media tools, please reach out. It is one of the services I offer and I can work within your budget. It also one of several of my services that can be done remotely for your safety as well as mine.
1. Have goals for your use of social media. Don’t just have accounts because you feel like you should in today’s media age. (Although many, especially younger audiences, will expect to find your institution on the web and on social media and not being there could cost you visitors.) Be clear about what you want to achieve with your platforms. Make goals for your audience or engagement levels and aim to use social media to ultimately increase interest in your mission, provide mission-based content, and increase visitation to your institution. Everything you do should be mission based including social media.
2. Tie historical content to the present. To increase reach and interest tailor your content to current events and relevant topics such as holidays, anniversaries, seasons, events, and this day in history type posts, etc. Be prepared to write about how history informs, impacts, and compares with the present. This helps your audience relate to your content and demonstrates the importance of history as lessons for the present.
3. Keep it short and sweet. As much as I completely understand the desire to be educational and share as much information as you can, keep posts short or link to longer content. Social media is a competition for attention spans. Keep it short and catchy and always try to include something visual to draw readers’ attention. Posting a link to your website for more information allows your audience to read more if they’d like without bombarding them with a ton of text in one post. Also, keeping it short may pique your readers’ interest enough to bring them through the doors to learn more. Each platform has varying optimum caption lengths with Facebook and Instagram allowing more characters and longer captions performing better.
4. Take advantage of popular hashtags to reach a larger audience. #ThrowbackThursday for any content from the past; #TransformationTuesday for compare/contrast photos of a place/person/etc. in the past and today; #FlashbackFriday; #WaybackWednesday, etc. If a trending hashtag applies to your institution, take advantage and weigh in. Popular hashtags so far during the pandemic for museums include #MuseumAtHome & #MuseumAlphabet
5. But be unique. In addition to standard hashtags that you can piggy back on – branch out and come up with your own unique social media posts that fit your collection – examples – a medical museum I once worked at used #FreakyFriday for followers to guess the use of strange looking medical instruments from the museum’s collection. Know your collection and your strengths and play to them.
6. Plan in advance. Schedule posts out so you aren’t scrambling for content at the last minute. Take a look through your archives and collections for interesting and relevant content for the next month and plan out posts, images, etc. This helps you to get all of your social media planning done at once and takes up less of your time. Take advantage of Facebook’s scheduling feature and look into HootSuite or similar for scheduling tweets.
7. Be flexible though. Fortuitous, relevant finds in your archives can make for great posts; world events might result in changes needed to your scheduled posts – be prepared to edit or switch out posts after you’ve planned them. This is especially true now when you are postponing and cancelling events, aren’t sure when you’ll reopen, and may be working hard to create new content or take your museum virtual or digital for the first time. Take your time to create good content, but do so efficiently.
8. Know your limits. You don’t have to post historical content every day, especially when you are just starting out. Determine how much staff time can be devoted to social media planning. Also, you don’t want to exhaust all your best content too quickly – spread it out so you aren’t repeating topics too closely together. Some posts can be simple & fun. Some can pose questions to your audience or ask for user-generated content. You can repost something you shared months ago. You can and should make use of any existing web or digital content you have.
9. Check your stats. Pay attention to engagement results and gear your posts towards what your audience seems to respond to the most. You can also use analytics to find out who your audience is and who you may need to try to reach better.
10. Go behind the scenes. Consider sharing behind the scenes photos and videos about unique and interesting aspects of the museum or collections care. Instagram and Facebook Live are platforms well-suited to behind the scenes action. You may or may not be able to get on-site to create this content right now, but if you have behind the scenes images or can create videos, do so. It helps audiences to connect personally with your staff and institution and see all of the hard work it takes to run your museum.
11. You don’t have to have them all. Focus on the platforms that work the best for you and reach your primary audiences. You don’t have to have Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Snapchat, YouTube, Flickr, Tumblr, etc. You can pick the 2-3 platforms that make the most sense for your content and your audiences. Mostly sharing photos of artifacts? Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook are probably plenty, but Flickr may interest you as a way to store and organize images into virtual galleries. Videos? YouTube, Instagram, and Facebook may be the three you want to focus on.
12. Diversify your content. Don’t always post the same thing to all of your platforms. It’s OK to replicate posts across platforms, but also try to diversify your posts. Facebook is better for longer posts, article shares, and video. Instagram is best for images and short videos. Twitter for short announcements, images, article links, and short videos. Mix and match and have some content be exclusive to a specific platform.
13. Be Social. Try to respond to reviews, comments, questions, and messages that come in through your social media platforms. A quick “like” or simple thank you message would suffice for many comments. Interact with your audience and learn from their feedback. Ask questions, conduct polls, like and follow other institutions that relate to your mission. Reshare content from relevant and reliable sources.
14. Keep up your profile. Make sure your institution’s profile is up-to-date with correct hours, address, contact information, and website. Also, keep a consistent style, tone, and voice across your profile, platforms, and posts that fits with your goals for social media as well as your overall mission and brand. Now especially, it’s important to let your followers know how you’re responding to the pandemic.
15. Don’t overwhelm your followers. This is usually a very important point, but right now with so much saturation of news and many people spending more time at home with increased screen time, it’s ok to experiment with posting times and amounts. But you still don’t want to post too many times in one day. You don’t want to overwhelm or annoy your followers. 1-3 times a day is usually enough on Facebook and Instagram. Twitter can be used more, especially if you are live tweeting something or retweeting relevant, interesting materials for your followers.
Let me know what you think of these tips or if you have any more to add for small museums. Let me know how you are going digital in these strange times or if you have questions about how to do so. And above all, stay well and do your part to flatten the curve by staying home if you can.
The images in this article are screenshots from two museums I currently assist with social media, the Ava Gardner Museum and the Tobacco Farm Life Museum. All images appearing in these social media posts belong to the respective museum or were available for fair use.
Over the last few years, I’ve taken up baking as a hobby and as a historian this brought me to questions of why and how home baking has historically been gendered female. As research often does, especially when starting with a broad topic, my look into questions of the history of baking and women’s roles took an interesting turn toward questions of why there has been a resurgence of interest in DIY and made from scratch products (apparent in the popularity of Pinterest & YouTube tutorial videos.)
I began gathering resources and perused lots of mid-20th century advertisements for baking products. (This reminded me of an exhibit I saw at aSHEville Museum in Asheville, North Carolina a couple of years ago, profiling the way women have been portrayed in advertisements, which in turn led me down a rabbit hole of advertisements for all sorts of products and the way they portrayed women-perhaps a topic to expand on later.)
I also found a number of interesting articles, blogs, and other sources. One blog I was already familiar with is called Modern Wife, Modern Life and is the web accompaniment of a traveling exhibition about 1960s women’s magazines in Ireland curated by Ciara Meehan. The exhibition explores the advice given to newly married women and how that advice changed with the spread of home technologies. Women were expected to no longer just keep a beautiful home, but also to do so by being modern wives who made use of the newest technology. You can check out more about this exhibit here: https://modernwifemodernlifeexhibition.com/
Next, I came across a research guide put together as a project of Boston University students. The site, called Guided History, includes history research guides on a number of topics. One, Material Culture of the American Household, discusses themes of gender through material culture and recommends a number of books for further reading. The guide discusses how rooms within the American home became gendered, with the kitchen and dining rooms being associated with women. Two books on this topic were recommended and I have added them to my list for future research.
Cromley, Elizabeth C. The Food Axis: Cooking, Eating, and the Architecture of American Houses. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2010.
Inness, Sherrie A., ed. Kitchen Culture in America. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001.
The research guide also included a section on individual object studies with one recommended about the rise of Tupperware and women’s use of it.
Clarke, Alison. Tupperware The Promise of Plastic In 1950s America. Washington DC: Smithsonian Institute, 1999.
Another site, Gender, Food, and Culture, populated by students in a Harvard University Summer School course entitled “Gender, Food & Culture in American History,” offered up an article specifically about cake, “From Celebration to Procrastination: Cakes and Creativity in the 1950s.” This article discusses the shift from cakes as special treats for important occasions such as weddings and birthdays to everyday desserts because of the rise of the cake mix. Easy and quick to make, cake mixes made everyday cake possible.
With the availability of cake mixes and ready made desserts, all of this research about women’s roles in the kitchen & inventions meant to make those roles more efficient, led me to wonder about the rise of Pinterest recipes, DIY, and my own interest in baking from scratch as opposed to using a mix. Is this regressing? My own interest in baking from scratch stems from a desire to make something authentic, by myself, and to learn what I see as something taking skill.
Emily Matcharargues in her book,Homeward Bound: Why Women Are Embracing the New Domesticitythat a “homespun rebellion” is taking place with young adults “embracing the domestic in the service of environmentalism, DIY culture, and personal fulfillment.” Matchar’s book looks at DIY, the rise of young artisans, handmade products in Etsy shops, etc. When pursued for this purpose, this return to the domestic is not a return to old-fashioned gender roles, but instead, a response to feeling let down by mass culture & big corporations.
So the question of why & how baking has historically been gendered female brought me instead to questions about how and why modern women (and some men) are returning to traditionally domestic, made from scratch hobbies. Interesting how research can do that. Have I raised more questions than I answered? Probably, but that’s all in the fun of research.
I offer research and writing services to museums and businesses. When researching for a client, I prepare research questions for the client to review at the start of the project. I love doing research and pride myself on being thorough. The above blog post is the result of my passion for research — I did it just for fun! Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org if I can help you with a historical research project!
In the field of public history, the interpretation of women’s history has become a hot topic with increasing attention and emphasis being placed on including women’s perspectives in museum exhibits and other public history initiatives. This post is a literature review and essay on how women’s history has historically been presented via museums and historic sites. Women’s history should be more fully explored in all of its diversity and possibility at museums and historic sites of all types, especially in view of women’s historic and continued impact on the field of public history, with museums especially often considered a pink collar profession.
Social History’s Influence
Both public and women’s history as disciplines developed around the same time as social history, which began calling for the inclusion of marginalized histories like those of women, as well as racial minorities. Influenced by the social history movement of the 1970s and 80s, as well as the urgings of female staff at museums and sites, public interpretation at historic sites and museums has increasingly incorporated women’s history. Even more recently, the fields of preservation and museums have pushed for progressively critical and analytical interpretations that move beyond simply adding the biographies of ‘great’ women to go alongside those of ‘great men,’ emphasizing the potential of making the history of all women more visible through the use of tangible resources.
Despite continued appeals over three decades, and a general increase in representation, there is still a need for more integration and better interpretation of women’s history at sites and museums. However, museums and preservation professionals have each identified different areas of women’s lives that are most in need of better interpretation. Museum professionals write that too much emphasis has been put on women’s public roles, while preservationists and those involved with historic sites push for more interpretation of women’s lives outside of the home, feeling that the domestic sphere is over-interpreted through the prevalence of house museums.
This interesting dichotomy may be the result of differences in the development of the two fields, the availability of the material culture used at each type of institution or issues of funding and sponsorship.
Women’s History in Museums
Edith Mayo’s 1983 article, “Women’s History and Public History: The Museum Connection,” was written only 5 years after public history, as a newly established self-identified field, published its own journal and is one of the earliest calls for increased representation of women’s history via public history. Mayo provides an overview of the field of public history and its divergence from academic history in order to explain why women’s history had not been heavily incorporated into public history at that time. Arguing that public history and academic history separated due to increased specialization in training for academics and the propensity for academics to then see those who worked in preservation or museums as amateurs or antiquarians, Mayo then points out that women, who originally spearheaded preservation movements, were usually not trained historians. When the field of preservation began to professionalize, this lack of training began to phase out women from public history.
Mayo traces women’s involvement in public history back to the preservation movement of the nineteenth century in which women in their role as “culture bearer and preserver” led movements to save the houses of great men, including, most famously, Mount Vernon. By giving an introduction to women’s historic involvement in the field of public history, Mayo points out the irony that women’s history is “still largely neglected by public historians.” Women’s history’s growing popularity in the academy as well as women’s traditional role as preservers of culture and history point to the need for more interpretation of women’s history in museums and historic sites.
Ultimately, museums should be a vehicle that brings women’s history from the academy to the public and should continue to respond to the increase in women’s history scholarship by incorporating interpretation of women into their exhibits and programs.
However, mere incorporation and inclusion is not enough as it needs to be balanced in order to present an accurate picture of women’s lived experiences. In the past, women’s history in museums has been focused on presenting “notable” women to go alongside the stories of noteworthy men.
Barbara Melosh’s “Speaking of Women: Museum’s Representations of Women’s History” finds that museums have had more success at interpreting women’s public roles, such as political achievements and labor roles outside the home, rather than their domestic lives. This phenomenon is partially due to the driving principle of “finding” women on the same terms as men. Melosh shows that the exhibits of women’s public roles have been more common and more successful in terms of engaging with the available scholarship.
Those exhibits that do present domestic life of women leave out any reference to subjects related to women’s bodies, sexuality, or domestic conflict. For example, Melosh found only one exhibit at the time to actually address domestic conflict in examining the household as a place of labor. The exhibit “Impact: Technology in the Kitchen” described the changes over time in kitchen tools and appliances, but rather than indicating a narrative of progress the exhibit explained how improvements in technology have not changed the amount of time that women spend on housework. This lone example is in contrast to the proliferation of scholarship on women’s domestic conflicts, sexuality, and relationships.
While social history has greatly added to the interpretation of women’s history in museums, museums have not fully incorporated scholarship to the detriment of representations of women’s domestic lives. This issue stems from a continued discomfort with discussing matters of women’s sexuality and family conflict and violence. Part of the lack of critical analysis of women’s domestic lives is a collections issue because matters like divorce or domestic violence do not produce very many tangible objects, especially any which are saved over time. However, Melosh argues the major barrier to a completely scholarship-infused interpretation is the museum’s “code of civility” that tries to evade subject matter that would be upsetting to its constituencies. This issue is largely tied to the need for funding and sponsorship, either from the public or corporations. Melosh encourages museums to resist letting outside sponsors dictate how the exhibits are interpreted and instead pushes upon museums their “social responsibility to close the gap between scholarly and popular conceptions of the past, to convey a more complex sense of history.”
Laura Brandon’s 2010 essay, entitled “Looking for the ‘Total’ Woman in Wartime: A Museological Work in Progress,” discusses the lack of artifacts related to certain experiences of women and the propensity of museums to interpret women in relationship to men or in roles that offer a parallel to men’s rather than looking at women’s experiences in their own right. Brandon reasons that since women make up the majority of the population, their experience of war is important for a complete understanding of wartime; however, war has traditionally been interpreted as a masculine event.
The museum her case study is focused on, which has been traditionally focused on military history rather than social or cultural circumstances of war, had recently made attempts to incorporate women’s experiences. However, the inclusion of women was still in the context of the fighting or in relationship to men. Brandon calls for more interpretation of the actual wartime experiences of the majority of women on the home front such as knitting circles, rationing and making do, working, and receiving letters from male family members. Instead of offering interpretation of the home front, representations of women have been limited to certain types such as nurses and female service personnel, two roles very much in the context of fighting. Brandon outlines the various challenges faced by the Canadian War Museum in new attempts to build a picture of the total woman including adjusting collections policies, finding creative solutions to fill gaps made by past collection policies, and improving cataloging methods in order to better locate the few items that do relate to women’s experiences.
The available artifacts were collected by men and are limited to those objects most closely associated with the fighting, such as guns and uniforms. The lack of both art and artifacts related to women’s experiences is caused largely by past collection policies which sought the tangible remains fit for interpreting traditional military history. Therefore, current curators and museum historians are faced with the challenge of finding representations of women’s experiences. Brandon makes several suggestions to aid this process. She calls upon making use of archival records and changing the system of cataloging to help find objects based on their context and significance rather than simply their function. This method of cataloging would allow staff to pull up objects that relate to women’s experiences because of the personal story attached rather than its formal use. However, even with these methods, the main issue is that wartime material culture that reflects the changes women had to make in their lives on the home front is missing from the Canadian War Museum’s collections. Brandon finds that this issue is largely related to the underestimating of women’s experiences both in history and today. Women do not identify their own material culture relating to war as important or relevant to war museum collections. Furthermore, Brandon finds that women’s history in the academy has had less effect on masculine-oriented, war museums.
The root issue is a lack of interpreting the whole woman, or in other words, the neglect to convey a comprehensive view of women’s pasts, both in and out of the home.
Museums have followed scholars’ lead in increasing the interpretation of women’s lives and experiences; however, that scholarship has not been applied uniformly. As time progressed, the mere inclusion was not enough and interpretation continues to present issues, concerns, and questions about the best approaches and methods for interpreting all aspects of women’s history.
Women’s History in Historic Preservation & Historic Sites
Like museums, historic sites have experienced great changes in terms of the interpretation of women’s lives, experiences, and perceptions because of the influence of social history and women’s history scholarship. However, unlike museums, historic sites have emphasized moving away from interpreting historic houses solely as domestic spaces or as the sole spaces of women, leading to a push for the interpretation of women’s spaces outside of the home.
Much of the reason for a lack of sites related to women’s public roles are the lack of preservation of the evidence. However, there are still numerous ways to find all aspects of women’s lives in the built environment. Beginning with the early calls for increased identification of sites of women’s history, the field then adapted to an increased need for improved interpretation in sites already identified as women’s sites and for the expansion of interpretation into less-obvious sites of women’s experiences.
Like in museums, women’s history in historic sites and preservation began with the call for mere inclusion. Page Putnam Miller presented the following findings in her introduction to the 1992 edited collection, Reclaiming the Past: Landmarks of Women’s History. As recently as 1990, only four parks out of the National Park Service’s 356 units focused on women and less than 2 percent of the 1,942 National Historic Landmarks were designated because of their relationship to women’s history. These statistics quantitatively demonstrate Miller’s motivations for the volume. The goal of the work as a whole was to encourage the fields of women’s history and historic preservation to collaborate in identifying and interpreting historic sites for their place in women’s history. Miller and her colleagues focused on properties that might qualify for National Historic Landmark designation, which, as Miller explained, offers sites more protections than nonprofits and individuals are often able to. Thus, this volume argues, designating women’s history sites as National Historic Landmarks would be the best way to ensure their preservation and proper interpretation for the public.
Reclaiming the Past: Landmarks of Women’s History was very successful in demonstrating the lack of interpretive sites of women’s history in the federal system of landmarks. The volume also successfully showed how historic structures can be a valuable resource for interpreting women’s history. Each essay reflects Miller’s assertion that “[b]uildings may be examined from many viewpoints and reflect social function, technological development, aesthetic taste, and economic factors.” Sites also offer a powerful sense of place, which Miller regards as “equally as important as the research potential of these tangible resources.” Place can provide insight otherwise not easily understood.
Other authors have written proposals and guides to applying some of the same approaches to identifying and interpreting women’s history to local initiatives rather than national landmarks designation. A case study in new ways to interpret women’s history through preservation and the built environment, Gail Lee Dubrow’s 1992 article, “Claiming Public Space for Women’s History in Boston: A Proposal for Preservation, Public Art, and Public Historical Interpretation,” does just what its title implies, proposing that the three approaches be applied in various combinations to interpret women’s history.
Dubrow focuses on issues of public, outdoor space, including structures as well as open areas, in order to emphasize making women’s history visible to the public. She uses the city of Boston, where she undertook a survey of the available resources for interpreting women’s pasts, to show how recent scholarship could be applied to advance an accurate and complete presentation of women’s roles and contributions. This article begins with the need for identification of places of women’s experiences, seeking to begin interpreting women’s history by locating it on the physical landscape. Dubrow argues specifically for using preservation, public art, and public historical interpretation in tandem.
In order to better interpret women’s history, Dubrow calls for less emphasis on notable women and more on “women’s collective accomplishments and activities and to fully encompass the diversity of female historical experience.” However, she still focuses largely on celebrating contributions of women and movements for reform rather than representing ordinary women or a more critical, complicated interpretation of the past. Dubrow does push beyond mere identification of sites though. She argues that the importance of these sites must be made publicly visible. Dubrow cites the quintessential example of a project that combines preservation with art and historical interpretation in order to interpret women’s past. Dolores Hayden’s “Power of Place” project identified sites relevant to women’s history; however, many were no longer standing or were substantially changed. Therefore, public art projects were commissioned on the sites to represent the women’s stories. This successful project serves as an exalted example of what could be achieved through the combined efforts of public history interpretation, preservation, and public art with art’s ability to attract public interest and engagement, “especially where there are few tangible reminders or in situ physical clues about the historical significance of the place.”
This lack of remaining built structures is due to previous lack of identification of women’s history sites, an issue largely tied to the field of preservation’s emphasis on architectural integrity. Many women’s sites are not located in buildings that are otherwise significant for their architectural style.
The field of historic preservation has pushed not only for more interpretation of women’s history but also more comprehensive and critical interpretations that push beyond women’s domestic role which is interpreted over and over again in historic house museums. There has been and remains a need to present women’s history outside of domestic settings and to reinterpret domestic settings for the lives beyond the notable women or wives of famous men that lived there.
Her Past Around Us: Interpreting Sites for Women’s History, a collection of essays edited by Polly Wells Kaufman and Katharine T. Corbett, aimed to be a guide for local teachers and historical societies that were trying to include women’s stories in their local histories or sites. The volume includes eleven case studies that examine a wide variety of sites, some not generally associated with women’s history, some places of forgotten women’s activities, and some usually assumed to be in women’s domain but reinterpreted to present a more complicated view. This volume highlights the value of tangible resources and their ability to connect the public to the past and argues that local sites can offer Americans the specific connections to their present that they so desire when learning about the past.
The chapters are not organized into sections; instead, each chapter focuses on a different kind of public interpretation of women’s pasts. The topics include the development of walking trails or tours of women’s history, the imbalance between the number of statues and monuments honoring individual women as compared to men, Native American women’s efforts at cultural retention, reinterpreting historic house museums to reflect not only the man who owned the house but the women, free, servant, or slave as well. Several chapters address the need to reinterpret historic houses in order to take these marginalized women into account; however, the volume then devotes the largest number of chapters to address the need to represent women’s lives outside the home in order to avoid the “erroneous belief that women worked only in homes, either their own or someone else’s.” Thus the volume includes essays on interpretation of women in familiar yet public places such as cemeteries, businesses, entire cities, and public commemorative celebrations and events.
The volume is a valuable guide for reinterpreting both domestic and public places in order to provide a comprehensive view of women. One example of the volume’s contribution to the improvement of historic house interpretation is Pamela K. Sanfilippo’s essay, “Sunlight and Shadow: Free Space/Slave Space at White Haven,” which examines the lives of the women who lived at Ulysses S. Grant’s Missouri farm home. This shift in focus from the male owner of the home to the women, both his wife as well as the female slaves, represents a trend in the interpretation of historic houses to be more inclusive of all members of the household. The essay analyzes not only the written sources about the women’s lives, but also uses the architecture itself to uncover information about the relationships the women had to physical space and each other within the home. This use of the built environment is seen in the description of the differences between the comfortable areas of the home used by the privileged Julia Grant and the dark kitchens and bedrooms used by slaves. Also using archaeology, the study of White Haven revealed details about the enslaved women’s lives, such as having to hide broken dishes under the floorboards for fear of punishment. Like many of the other works in the volume, this essay demonstrates the possible successes of using material culture, and the built environment more specifically, to discover information about women’s pasts.
The volume also provides unique ideas for interpretation of both women’s public roles and the public, visible commemoration of women. One essay describes the need for increased interpretation of women as entrepreneurs. Candace A. Kanes’ essay, “Revisiting Main Street: Uncovering Women Entrepreneurs,” explains why women’s place in business has been overlooked due to history’s focus on big business and women’s predominance in the domestic sphere. However, Kane explains that some women owned and operated small businesses that were important within their communities. She calls for those local businesses to be identified and properly acknowledged through various interpretive approaches including maps, interpretive panels, or plaques.
Restoring Women’s History through Historic Preservation is a more extensive and comprehensive collection of essays regarding the interpretation of women’s history, specifically in the context of preservation projects. It makes a call for moving toward questions of women’s motivations, specifically in women’s involvement in the preservation movement. By improving understanding of women’s reasons for involvement and their contributions to the movement, those women can better be understood in their context. Explaining the advances in the interpretation of historic houses, the volume still maintains that other kinds of spaces are necessary to prevent spreading “the myth of women’s confinement in the domestic sphere while missing vital opportunities for marking women’s history in the more public arenas of the paid labor force and the community.”
The incorporation of women’s history into public historical interpretation has been an ongoing process that began in both museums and historic sites as mere inclusion. However, with time and the continued efforts of women both in the academy and in public history institutions, the field has begun to push for more critical representations of women’s lives, experiences, contributions, and perspectives. Despite differences in interpretation between museums, which have better interpreted public roles of women, and historic sites, which have traditionally preserved and presented the domestic sphere, many common goals and approaches can be seen. It is clearly widely acknowledged by both preservation and museum professionals that public historians need to apply the best of women’s history scholarship in their representations to the public and present the most comprehensive view of women possible. Public historians need to fulfill the need for the ‘total woman,’ including the public and private spheres, the noteworthy and unusual, as well as the anonymous and the ordinary.
 Barbara Melosh, “Speaking of Women: Museums’ Representation of Women’s History,” History Museums in the United States: A Critical Assessment, Edited by Warren Leon and Roy Rosenzweig, (Urbana: University of Illinois Press), 1989, 183-214.
Brandon, Laura. “Looking for the ‘Total’ Woman in Wartime: A Museological Work in Progress.” Gender, Sexuality, and Museums: A Routledge Reader. Edited by Amy K. Levin. (London: Routledge). 2010.
Dubrow, Gail Lee. “Claiming Public Space for Women’s History in Boston: A Proposal for Preservation, Public Art, and Public Historical Interpretation.” Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies. (13:1). 1992. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3346948. Accessed November 22, 2013.
Dubrow, Gail Lee, and Jennifer B. Goodman, editors. Restoring Women’s History through Historic Preservation. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press), 2003.
Kaufman, Polly Welts, and Katharine T. Corbett, editors. Her Past Around Us: Interpreting Sites for Women’s History. (Malabar, Florida: Krieger Publishing Company). 2003.
Mayo, Edith P. “Women’s History and Public History: The Museum Connection.” The Public Historian. (5:2). 1983. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3377251. Accessed November 20, 2013.
Melosh, Barbara. “Speaking of Women: Museums’ Representation of Women’s History.” History Museums in the United States: A Critical Assessment. Edited by Warren Leon and Roy Rosenzweig. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press). 1989, 183-214.
Miller, Page Putnam, editor. Reclaiming the Past: Landmarks of Women’s History. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press). 1992.
The long road to freedom and the abolition of slavery was paved by many people working towards that goal, including men and women, black and white, Northerners & Southerners.
Many African American abolitionists were former slaves, who had either gained freedom through “official” means (were emancipated by those who enslaved them) or had escaped slavery. Free blacks in the north were often part of the abolitionist movement as well.
Harriet Jacobs was born into slavery in Edenton, North Carolina in 1813. She is most well-known as the author of a series of newspaper articles later turned book entitled Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl which was a memoir of her life in slavery. The book was published in 1861 and is one of the earliest accounts of the struggles women especially faced when enslaved including sexual harassment and abuse and roles as enslaved mothers without legal rights to their own children. Harriet escaped into hiding in 1835 and then in 1842 was able to flee to the North. She became involved in the American Anti-Slavery Society, giving talks to support the cause and raise money. Her later memoir was also used to raise awareness, encourage the Civil War to be rightfully seen as a war against slavery by Union backers, and to especially appeal to white women by focusing on how slavery impacted black women’s ability to remain chaste and to be good mothers. During and after the war, Jacobs worked with fleeing refugees, and former slaves helping to provide food, shelter, etc. in the Washington, D.C. area where she lived the rest of her life.
Whites who were involved in the abolitionist movement were often members of liberal religious groups, such as the Quakers, which saw all souls as equal. White women, especially those of middle and upper classes had more ability to be involved in the movement than black women owing to being allowed more education, more freedom of movement, and access to resources and financing that allowed them to concentrate their time on the effort. Many northern abolitionists are well known such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B Anthony, and Harriet Beecher Stowe and many went on to also be prominent in the women’s suffrage movement.
Southern white women abolitionists are less often spoken about. One such woman was Abigail Stanley. She and her husband, who were part of a Quaker community in Guilford County, made their home part of the Underground Railroad and owned a wagon with a false bottom that they would use to help enslaved people escape. When many Quakers left the state as the debate over slavery grew increasingly heated, Abigail and her husband Joshua remained in North Carolina. Abigail petitioned the North Carolina legislature in 1838 to abolish slavery and worked to that end through her participation in the Underground Railroad and her writings.
I did a lot of brainstorming and soul searching trying to decide which woman from the past, who is often overlooked, I should devote my attention to. Because of the anniversary of women’s suffrage I thought of Lucy Burns, the suffragist who endured prison, forced feedings, and more in the fight for women’s right to vote. I thought of Lucretia Mott, a major driving force in both women’s rights activism and abolitionism. Of Iba B. Wells, a major figure in civil rights, co-founder of the NAACP, and women’s rights activist, often left out of the circles of white women’s rights activists. I thought of Mamie Till, the mother of Emmett Till, the young black boy who was murdered for talking to a white woman. This grieving mother boldly and bravely insisted her son’s coffin be left open for the world to see what had been done to him and allowed media to use graphic images of her son’s beaten body in order to advance civil rights, using her grief and her son’s tragically short life to affect change for others.
I thought of these and many other women, but I couldn’t decide on one woman to highlight or profile. One “hidden heroine.” There are so many women whose stories aren’t well known. Or aren’t as well known as other women’s stories. But they are all worth telling.
I decided instead to write about why women’s stories are hidden, less well-known than their male counterparts, and why some women’s stories are less told than others.
Why Are Our Heroines Hidden?
Issue 1: Sexism – Women were (& are) not offered the same opportunities as men. Speaking of history generally, women had less access to formal education and therefore more difficulties in achieving goals in academic fields and research. Legal restrictions on women’s right to vote, to own property, etc. kept them from enacting change. Societal expectations have kept many women in the home as wives and mothers, relegating them to domestic work. The field of history has traditionally been dominated by male academics. Prior to the wave of social history that swept through the academy in the 1970s and 80s, many historians focused on major public figures (historically predominantly male due to the restrictions on women mentioned above), military and state history. Social history began looking at history “from below” and taking into account minority voices, ordinary people, and the lived experience of people from many walks of life. But for years and still today, textbooks largely stick to the national narrative which prioritizes state and military history–domains traditionally and at times legally reserved for men.
Issue 2: Racism – Women of color have been doubly restricted from aspects of public life, facing racism and sexism simultaneously. Their stories are even harder to find and have more often not been preserved.
Issue 3: Sources – Despite the above limitations women still led lives of importance, of interest, and of value. Of course some women made notable, public achievements in the face of discrimination, but even more women were hidden heroines, living in their own space, making an impact on the lives around them, much as many of us live today. Their stories are worth studying as it illuminates what daily life was like for the majority of people in any given historical era, not just those who held power or made public strides. It is the actions of the populace that move culture and society, not just those of great men or great women. These women’s lives are harder to uncover though since fewer written historical sources were made by women and even fewer have been saved. Women’s identities are sometimes obscured by the tradition of naming them only as Mrs. Husband’s Name in public sources. Women who lived in eras where they participated minimally in public life will have less written sources left behind than men in the same era and women of color are often even more difficult to find written sources for. While there may be less sources, they do exist.
Issue 4: Interpretation/Public History – Strides are being made in this regard all the time, but the study of women’s history needs to go beyond the academy. Historians are increasingly studying women’s and minorities’ lives, but these findings need to be disseminated to the public via history classes and museums. The public is interested in the past and wants to know how it relates to them. This has been shown in studies, in the popularity of popular historical dramas, and other media. Half the population are women and so half of what’s included in museums should be about women. More public interpretation of women’s history, both notable women and ordinary lives, can help bring these stories forward and integrate them better into our national narrative.
Why else do you think women’s stories remain hidden? Who is your favorite “Hidden Heroine?”
This post was originally written in response to the US National Archives’ #19forthe19th Instagram Challenge in 2019, which celebrated the 100th anniversary of the 19th amendment. On June 4, 1919, Congress voted to pass the amendment which would then go to the states for ratification before becoming law of the land in 1920. I participated in the #19forthe19th challenge. You can find all of my posts on my Instagram feed: @bethnevarezhistory.
In honor of Black History Month I have been visiting local historical sites with strong ties to Black history and sharing my experiences. I have already written about Boyette Slave House in Kenly, NC, the Freeman Round House Museum in downtown Wilson, NC and St. John AME Zion Church in downtown Wilson, NC. The last site I will share about this month is Mercy Hospital, also in downtown Wilson, NC.
Originally started in 1913 as the Wilson Hospital and Tubercular Home, the hospital began when Dr. Frank S. Hargrave, a black physician who had been practicing in a local home, gave 504 Green Street East to Samuel H. Vick and J.D. Reid. Together they raised enough money to officially establish the hospital at the Green Street location. It was one of three African-American hospitals in North Carolina at the time. The hospital was staffed by Black and white doctors, but all of the nurses were Black and the hospital served the Black community of East Wilson.
The hospital had no ambulances so if a community member had an emergency they would contact one of the Black funeral homes to send a hearse to transport them to Mercy. However, no surgeries were done at Mercy—a patient would be transported (again by hearse) to Carolina General Hospital. Supplies from Mercy would be used and then the patient would be returned to Mercy for recuperation.
The hospital closed briefly because of financial issues in 1929 but reopened in 1930 with the Mercy Hospital name. Mercy offered 50 beds and 8 full-time employees. Throughout the 30s and 40s the hospital struggled financially and underwent a few ownership changes in order to secure creative financing. Through it all though the hospital was supported by the local Black community and served patients who otherwise would not have had access to healthcare. The hospital closed in 1964 when the City of Wilson integrated its new hospital in order to receive federal funds.
I must give another big shout out to the Freeman Round House Museum which provided the bulk of the information above. The Mercy Hospital building has a historic plaque out front, but the building itself is now home to the Wilson Community Improvement Association. To learn more about Mercy Hospital check out the Freeman Round House Museum and the blog of Lisa Y. Henderson (who curated the exhibits at the Round House Museum). You can search “Mercy” and find her posts on the topic. I highly recommend visiting the Museum and checking out Lisa’s great genealogy and local history work!