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Local History Makes Good-sometimes

July 2024
15min read

The systematic collection of the sources of local, as well as of national, history began in the United States with the organization in 1791 of the Massachusetts Historical Society. This small body, composed of clergymen, lawyers, physicians, and what used to be called merchants (now known as businessmen), undertook the preservation of books, manuscripts, and records that would conduce “to mark the genius, delineate the manners, and trace the progress of society in the United States.” They were fully aware that such sources must be collected before they could be preserved. This they undertook energetically, guided by this statement made by the Reverend Jeremy Belknap, the founder, in a letter of February 19, 1791, to Ebenezer Hazard: We intend to be an active , not a passive , literary body; not to be waiting, like a bed of oysters, for the tide (of communication) to flow in upon us, but to seek and find , to preserve and communicate , literary intelligence, especially in the historical way.

The pattern established in Boston was so widely emulated that by the outbreak of the Civil War more than sixty similar societies had been started. The New-York Historical Society was founded in 1804; the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1812. Along the Atlantic seaboard, privately supported historical societies that have survived to the present were organized in Maine, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, and Pennsylvania in the 1820’s; in Virginia, Vermont, Connecticut, and Georgia in the iSßo’s; in Maryland and New Jersey in the 1840’s; in South Carolina in the 1850’s. By 1860 every state east of Texas, with the single exception of Delaware, had such a society; in 1859 United States Army officers even organized one in the territory of New Mexico.

On the frontier, historical societies were founded early, sometimes before there was any substantial body of history to record. In 1849, less than eight months after the establishment of Minnesota Territory, when most of the area was still occupied by Indians, the fifth act of the territorial legislature was the incorporation of a Minnesota Historical Society. This cheerful anachronism, comparable to the notion of establishing historical societies at Jamestown in 1607 or at Plymouth in 1620, occurred at a time when the five thousand white inhabitants of Minnesota were confined to a small wedge between the St. Croix and Mississippi rivers. In such frontier regions support had to come from the state through legislative appropriation. In the older cities, where prosperity permitted some leisure for literary and historical pursuits, historical societies continued to depend upon voluntary support.

Not all the organizations that were so hopefully founded accomplished anything or even long survived. Those that did owed their success to devoted individuals like the Boston clergyman Jeremy Belknap, the New York merchant John Pintard, or the scholar-printer Isaiah Thomas, who were the founders, respectively, of the Massachusetts and the New-York historical societies and the American Antiquarian Society. When the New Jersey Historical Society was being founded in 1845, the Reverend Samuel Miller offered the new organization a piece of advice, based on experience with the New-York Historical Society, which he had helped John Pintard to found forty-one years earlier. “I have observed,” he wrote, “in regard to all the literary and scientific societies with which I have ever been connected, that, however numerous the members, some dozen or two of them performed all the work.” It should be noted that these workers were chiefly professional men or merchants, not usually associated with academic institutions, for, until the foundation of the American Historical Association in 1884, universities and colleges concerned themselves relatively little with American history. Where there were devoted amateurs or local antiquaries who were willing to work, historical societies flourished; where they were in short supply, or lazy, such organizations foundered. The inglorious career of the Historical Society of Mississippi will serve as an example. Not long after its foundation in 1858 it was discovered that only three members had paid the very reasonable dues of one dollar; the society therefore gave up the ghost in discouragement.


But the older historical societies that have lasted, for periods ranging from one hundred to 181 years, have, as their chief excuse for existence, collected, preserved, made available to scholars, and published source materials of American history. They have done so, without fanfare, from private funds that are astonishingly small for the results achieved. Until the last quarter of the nineteenth century, these old eastern state historical societies carried on virtuallyunaided the work of preserving sources and making them available. In the twentieth century other organizations became concerned with American history—private and university libraries, federal and state archival agencies, historical museums and restorations. Yet these newer allies have not supplanted the older historical societies, as one will readily see by examining current historical literature. Few books of American history arc published today without some expression of the author’s gratitude to one of the older societies for assistance or for permission to publish manuscripts in their possession.

The library of the Massachusetts Historical Society is locally oriented, for it specializes in basic printed materials relating to Massachusetts and, in a broader sense, to New England. Its manuscript collection has a far wider scope, and, being second only to that of the Library of Congress, it is an essential source for national as well as local history. It is, moreover, quite as concerned with the present as with earlier centuries. A 1968 pamphlet, American History and the Massachusetts Historical Society , contains this significant paragraph: It is an unfortunate but not uncommon error to suppose that historical societies, this one included, are concerned only with the quaint and antique and distant past, just as schoolchildren (and too many of their parents and teachers) suppose that history is something in costume and ended soon after 1800, or at the latest at Appomattox Court House. No one at the Massachusetts Historical Society wears a powdered wig, and today in its storage areas the sources for recent history compete for shrinking shelf room with colonial diaries and whalers’ logs. Modern files of papers tend to be bulkier than older ones; the recent gift of Senator Leverett Saltonstall’s [U.S. Senator from Massachusetts, 1944-67] papers, for example, weighed seven tons as delivered from Washington in General Service Administration trucks. The Society’s Director estimated in 1967 that the physical bulk of our manuscript acquisitions had quadrupled since the Second World War.

Although the Massachusetts Historical Society is supported, as it has been since 1791, by a rigidly limited body of semihonorary members, its resources are freely available to any qualified scholar, irrespective of membership. And through its numerous publications they are in part available to people who never set foot in Boston. The society has published more than 250 volumes in letterpress— Collections , Proceedings , and special series; it pioneered fiftyfive years ago with a series of Photostat Americana , by which hundreds of rare pamphlets, runs of early newspapers, and certain rare books and manuscripts were duplicated for subscribing libraries. It has more recently, in cooperation with the National Historical Publications Commission, published a number of important groups of manuscripts on microfilm, as well as editing, for letterpress publication by the Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, numerous volumes of The Adams Papers .

Other of the older historical societies have, in addition to maintaining important libraries and manuscript collections, made their resources available not only through books but through quarterly journals. The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography has been published since 1877 by the Historical Society of Pennsylvania; the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography since 1893 by the Virginia Historical Society; while the New-York Historical Society Quarterly has appeared regularly since 1917. The American Antiquarian Society, whose interests once somewhat resembled those of the Society of Antiquaries of London, has become today a national library of American history, specializing in American imprints and in newspaper collections. One of its remarkable contributions to learning is Early American Imprints , edited by Clifford K. Shipton, which is a microprint edition of every extant book, pamphlet, and broadside printed in what is now the United States from 1639 to the end of the year 1800.

While these and a number of the other old, privately supported state historical societies have deliberately focused their activities upon efforts to assist serious scholars, many of the publicly supported societies, particularly in the Mississippi Valley, have also been concerned with the popularization of local history among the residents of their states. The State Historical Society of Wisconsin, for example, has long combined scholarly activities with an aggressive program of what it likes to call “taking history to the people.” Thus in addition to publishing serious biographies and historical monographs and such valuable works of reference as Guide to Wisconsin Newspapers, 1833-1957 , and a Dictionary of Wisconsin Biography , it issues such juvenile titles as A Merry Briton in Pioneer Wisconsin; It Happened Here; Stones of Wisconsin; and Side Roads: Excursions into Wisconsin’s Past , in which “one of Wisconsin’s favorite storytellers,” Fred Holmes, “spins tales of nostalgia about his native state’s ice cream parlors, barbershops, country stores, German beer gardens, and Christmas customs at the turn of the century.” This nostalgic aspect of the not very distant past is also often emphasized in the society’s museum in Madison by the display of a Model T Ford, barbershop mugs, the reconstruction of a drugstore, or other objects certain to give any citizen of Wisconsin who happens in a pleasing shock of recognition. The society maintains various sites and buildings throughout the state, including a stagecoach inn at Greenbush, a farm and craft museum at Cassville, and the Circus World Museum at Baraboo. At the latter, elephant rides, cotton candy, pink lemonade are to be had, and, among other delights offered by the society’s flyer: You can have yourself photographed in a cage with a living, roaring, black-maned African lion assuring yourself and your children a triumph of indescribable sensations and novel photographs.

And all without risk, for these modern Daniels are well protected by invisible glass from the living, roaring animal into whose cage, for a consideration, they are permitted to enter. The society further encourages children to become “junior historians” —a phrase I find as irritating as the euphemistic “senior citizens, ” so often applied today in the United States to anyone over sixty-five. Operation on so many levels is, of course, only possible in an institution liberally supported by public grants, for much of the appeal “to a wide audience never before exposed to the society or to history” is, consciously or otherwise, a confirmation of a remark made in 1909 by Reuben Gold Thwaites (the distinguished head of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin from 1887 to 1913) that “legislatures and the public at large that they represent require coddling if their support is to be obtained.”

While the state historical societies, whether publicly or privately supported, often contain resources of national as well as local interest, there is a multitude of purely local ones. Although in recent years certain of the larger publicly supported state historical societies, of which Minnesota is the most conspicuous example, have systematically inspired the organization of county counterparts which receive some assistance from taxes, the greater part of local historical societies owe their origin to the interest and devotion of people on the spot who genuinely care for the characteristics of their region. Some go back into the nineteenth century, but the greater part are of twentieth-century foundation.

My own Massachusetts county has its society, the Essex Institute in Salem, organized in 1848 through the amalgamation of societies going back to 1821 and 1833. Among county societies in the United States, it unquestionably takes first place for the extent and richness of its library and manuscripts and its centurylong record of continuous scholarly publication. One might think that the Essex Institute would, by itself, be able to minister to all the historical needs of the immediate region, for Essex is not a large county. It contains 355,840 acres. After deducting tidal marsh, ponds, rivers, and swamps, it has only 299,551 acres useful for tillage, woodlands, and the sites of its thirty-four cities and towns. But this small area has, for the United States, a long and varied history, for its settlement goes back to the i02o’s. It has, in addition, a preoccupation with history that is out of all proportion to its size, for twenty-seven out of its thirty-four cities and towns have local societies of their own. Thus Essex County has a historical society for every 10,660 acres of dry land, which must constitute some sort of a record, even for a country of “joiners.” Some have worthwhile collections, adequate financial support, competent professional staff that justify their existence. Others, at least in my jaundiced view, are centers of nostalgia, serving chiefly as insecure and leaky bastions against change, and scarcely would be missed.

This is far from all, when one considers the specialized activities of the Peabody Museum of Salem (founded in 1799; maritime and natural history), the Robert S. Peabody Foundation for Archaeology (American Indian) and the Addison Gallery of American Art at Phillips Academy, Andover, the Merrimack Valley Textile Museum in North Andover, and the reconstruction of a seventeenth-century ironworks in Saugus, now maintained by the National Park Service. In addition, the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities maintains three historic houses each in Ipswich and Newbury, two in Danvers, one each in Gloucester, Rowley, and Saugus, and the Rocky Hill Meeting House of 1785 in Amesbury. The Trustees of Reservations (which antedate the National Trust in Great Britain) preserve not only great tracts of land but houses in Ipswich and North Andover, while the birthplace of the poet John Grcenleaf Whittier in Haverhill and his home in Amesbury are exhibited by separate charitable corporations organized for that express purpose. Indeed, the multiplicity of historical organizations within this small area reminds me of nothing so much as Augustus de Morgan’s inelegant jingle:


Great fleas have little fleas upon their hacks to bite ‘em, And little fleas have lesser fleas and so ad infinitum. …

Essex County, Massachusetts, is an extreme case, but throughout the United States there are more local historical societies than anyone can accurately count. The American Association for State and Local History, founded in 1940 in the hope of tying some of this diffuse activity together, a decade ago sent questionnaires to approximately 1,700 local historical societies across the country. From the replies of the 565 who troubled to answer, as well as from 120 personal visits, Dr. Richmond D. Williams, who conducted this survey, drew various conclusions. Among them was the saddening discovery of a twenty-year “life cycle” for birth and death. Of the 1,343 societies listed in the association’s 1944 directory, 502 seemed to have died by the 1961 revision. The answer is not hard to find. Frequently, in New England at least, a single determined lady, who might pull poison ivy from colonial gravestones with her own hands until the town authorities were shamed into taking better care of a seventeenth-century cemetery, would badger her neighbors into the preservation of a local building and thus initiate both a society and a collection. But if she and her coadjutors failed to recruit adequate younger successors, the society might well die with them, leaving a house in poor repair, with a plow, a wing chair, a flax spinning wheel, a luster tea set, somebody’s wedding dress, a tin oven, and other objects too good to throw away jumbled together in its rooms.

The restoration of Williamsburg, Virginia, begun in 1927 through the extraordinary generosity of the late John D. Rockefeller, Jr., who before his death in 1960 had given some 68.5 million dollars to the project, produced a unique example of le temps perdu sous cloche . As the intention was to turn back the clock and return the town to its appearance as a colonial capital, some six hundred nineteenth- and twentieth-century buildings were eventually torn down or moved outside the restoration area; eighty-five surviving eighteenth-century buildings were restored to their original appearance; while the Capitol, Governor’s Palace, and the Raleigh Tavern, which had disappeared, were meticulously reconstructed. Today Williamsburg is a museum piece, an eighteenthcentury fantasy in which the more pleasing aspects of colonial life are evoked (with the omission of smells, flies, pigs, dirt, and slave quarters), sheltered from the outside world (figuratively if not literally) by a vast glass case. In her recent New Lives , New Landscapes , Nan Fairbrother classified amenity and preservation societies in three progressive states, as Reversers, Shunters, and Translators. Reversers are simple: they want to put the clock back. They would like us all to live happily in a beautiful pre-industrial world, despite the fact that no one would now tolerate the pre-industrial life.

Williamsburg is the most brilliant and most extensive example in the United States of Reversers at work.

The immense popularity of WiIliamsburg, which coincided with the widespread proliferation of automobiles, led to the creation after the Second World War of a number of open-air museums, to which old buildings in danger on their original sites were moved. At Cooperstown the New York State Historical Association collected together a school, church, country store, tavern, and small offices to form a “Village Crossroads” as an adjunct to its imaginative and beautifully installed Farmers’ Museum. At Mystic, Connecticut, the Marine Historical Association, Inc., assembled ships, smaller craft, and buildings to create a synthetic seaport of the nineteenth century, of equally nostalgic intent. Two other assemblies of old buildings in New England have become institutions from the enthusiastic acquisitiveness of private collectors. Old Sturbridge Village in Sturbridge, Massachusetts, sprang from the antique collecting of Albert B. and J. Cheney Wells of Southbridge; the Shelburne Museum in Vermont from the omnivorous accumulations of the late Mrs. J. Watson Webb. Old Sturbridge Village presents a pleasing illusion of an actual New England community; at Shelburne the impression is simply of a fine field in which buildings from various parts of New England have been reassembled after moving, to house Mrs. Webb’s miscellaneous collections. Sometimes it seems that these efforts confuse rather than enhance local history, for although they have rescued from destruction some buildings by moving, their primary purpose is the creation of a well-walled illusion within which the visitor may enjoy a synthetic “past” that relieves the ugliness and monotony of the tedium in which he spends most of his life. “There is,” in addition, as the city planner Carl Feiss has pointed out, a curious contradiction in the great popularity of the simulated villages used as museums, while real villages, one after the other, are subject to the deterioration and misuse caused by the automobile age. In fact, villages on the way to Sturbridge and several other historic museums, which in their own right had at one time great beauty and artistic value, are being destroyed by those very tourists who are looking for quaintness and culture at the museums. In just the same way that the flower market, the Place Verte in Brussels, has been converted to a parking lot, so have village green after village green in New England.


The instigators of these nostalgic dream images of an immutable past consider their villages legitimate offspring of the open-air folk museums of Scandinavia. It should be remembered, however, that the prototype of these institutions, Skansen in Stockholm, was founded by Artur Hazelius at a moment in the 1880’s when Sweden was rapidly being industrialized and numerous artists and writers were consoling themselves by reviving the memory of a simpler agricultural world in which none of these nasty things existed. As Dr. Ingvar Anderson has remarked, “They harked back to a world of fantasy that bore no relation to modern Sweden.” … According to Nan Fairbrother’s definition, the proponents of open-air museums are Shunters, “more realistic but less sympathetic” than Reversers:They accept that modern living means unattractive developments like cement works and pylons, but propose to shunt them into someone else’s territories.

According to her, The Translators are the most advanced and therefore most useful: they appreciate the past but accept the future, and aim to incorporate the inevitable changes with least harm, and even with benefit, to the environment. Most serious societies (whatever the still-blinkered attitudes of some of their members) are now reaching this advanced stage of realism and responsibility.

This is equally true in the United States. For many decades, whenever anyone succeeded in rescuing a fine old building, the principal use contemplated was to turn it into a museum for the edification and inspiration of visitors. The United States already has on exhibition more historic houses and museums than it needs or can afford or are good for it as a nation. And some of these deal out, in the sacred name of “education,” some pretty dubious nostalgia, disguised as “history.” But the Translators are now at the helm. Historic Preservation Tomorrow , issued by the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 1967, states unequivocally on page 1 : Only in exceptional cases should a historic building be converted to museum use. The objective is to conserve buildings by continuing to use them for their original, or compatible purposes.

Again it is stated that “the emphasis should be on the historic structures and their sites as components of viable neighborhoods.” Such an approach gives hope that local history will count buildings, as well as books and manuscripts, among its documents in the future.

During the nineteenth century countless histories of towns were written, especially in New England. In the last third of the century, with the simultaneous (but unrelated) development of the “scientific” study of American history at universities and the ancestor hunting of persons attempting to qualify for membership in newly formed hereditary patriotic societies, history and genealogy became estranged. Although it was long the fashion for historians to ignore, or speak patronizingly of, the older town histories, these same books today often prove invaluable sources for social history and demography, since they contain so much specific information about actual people.

Although most recent town histories are chiefly of interest to residents, there are occasional happy exceptions, like Edward Pierce Hamilton’s A History of Milton , published by the Milton Historical Society in 1957. I could wish that we had had more American equivalents of the late Reginald L. Hine’s delightful volumes on every possible aspect of the history of his Hertfordshire town of Hitchin. In Massachusetts a good deal of local history gets written because of the personal enthusiasms of historians who have other strings for their bows. … J. Frank Dobie’s Guide to Life and Literature of the Southwest , first published in 1942 and “revised and enlarged in both knowledge and wisdom” in 1952, contains a passage that is of universal application in regard to local history: I have heard so much silly bragging by Texans that I now think it would be a blessing to themselves—and a relief to others—if the braggers did not know they lived in Texas. Yet the time is not likely to come when a human being will not be better adapted to his environments by knowing their nature; on the other hand, to study a provincial setting from a provincial point of view is restricting. Nobody should specialize on provincial writings before he has the perspective that only a good deal of good literature and wide history can give. I think it is more important that a dweller in the Southwest read the trial and death of Socrates than all the books extant on killings by Billy the Kid. I think this dweller will fit his land better by understanding Thomas Jefferson’s oath (“I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man”) than by reading all the books that have been written on ranch life and people. There are no substitutes for nobility, beauty, and wisdom. One of the chief impediments to amplitude and intellectual freedom is provincial inbreeding. I am sorry to see the writings of the Southwest substituted for noble and beautiful and wise literature to which all people everywhere are inheritors.

Local history is admirable when its subject is recognized as a microcosm, as an epitome of the great world. Reginald L. Hine knew this when he spoke of the comfort which the parish historian needs to hug to his heart. His little corner of the universe, wherein he seems to sit alone whispering to himself, is the universe itself; or as old writers were fond of saying, speculum mundi —a little mirror of the world. However the lords of creation may despise him he may hold up his head, for the story of an English town is the story of England itself; and I am not sure whether the spectacle of human life is not more vividly seen refracted through the private experience of a single parish.

When, however, local history becomes an end in itself, a substitute for knowledge of the rest of the world, or a legal requirement in school and college curricula, as is the case in some American states, there is grave danger of its doing harm. Three more sentences of Frank Dobie’s, to which Reginald L. Hine would have subscribed had he ever seen them, furnish good guideposts for anyone concerned with local history: “Good writing about any region is good only to the extent that it has universal appeal. Nothing is too trivial for art, but good art treats nothing in a trivial way. Nothing is too provincial for the regional writer, but he cannot be provincial-minded toward it.”

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