Sunday, February 28, 2010

For Social History, Don't Over-look Books Geared Toward the Youth

I have a pretty large history book collection...literally hundreds. No, I don't sit and read each one front to back. Rather, I pick and choose what I'm interested in at any particular time. In doing so I never cease to find other wonderful bits of information that'll keep me bopping around in the research mode.
There are a few books, however, that I do read front to back. My latest is a wonderfully condensed version of the life of the Lincolns called The Lincolns: A Scrapbook Look at Abraham and Mary by Candace Fleming - a wonderfully engulfing (and quick) read that gives a fine overview without going into minute detail on the lives of Abraham and Mary. It is loaded with original photographs, which helps greatly to visually bring the Lincoln's to life. I also have last year's book about our 16th president,
A. Lincoln: A Biography by Ronald C. White, and found that to be much more detailed and yet not boring in the least.
I can tell you, however, when I am looking for that certain something I need about Mr. Lincoln, chances are I will grab the scrapbook, for it's lay out is very user-friendly and, dare I say, geared toward a younger age of readers.
I have found history books for the youth market can be much more interesting and, in most cases, they cover different aspects of history than the so-called scholarly books. For instance, Bobbie Kalman has written countless social history books, covering angles in American history that most adult books over-look. If you recall my blog from last September, History in School Musings, I wrote how I did not do well in history class while in school. Covering all of the political dealings and many of the wars just didn't pique my interest as much as learning about everyday life of the settlers and pioneers. But, there were very few books around at that time that dealt with everyday life in American history (that has changed quite dramatically in the decades since - there are quite a few new social history books readily available today thankfully). And those that were available - this is during the early 1970's - were so hard to find. That's probably why I enjoyed going to Greenfield Village ( ) so often, because it actually dealt with the lives of the average people in history (OK, I know that Thomas Edison, the Wright Bros., and Henry Ford were not your average everyday people, but they began that way!).
So, authors such as Bobbie Kalman and others have, over the last 20 years or so, printed books that deal strictly with the social history of the 18th and 19th centuries. Ms. Kalman's collection includes Early Schools, Early Pleasures and Pastimes, Early Travel, Early Artisans, Early City Life, Early Farm Life, Early Village Life, Early Health and get the idea. She has many more than what I've listed and they are written for the youth but have enough detailed information that adults can enjoy (and learn from) them as well.
There is another book in which I am particularly fond of. It's called and I can't think of a better book that puts flesh on the bones about this era in American history.
My own review of this book on states,

"There are times when history books written for the younger set are wonderful sources of information that most 'adult' (or mature) history books do not touch upon. And "A Pioneer Sampler" is one of those books. It is written in storyform about the daily lives of the Robertson family, pioneers living on a backwoods farm in the 1840's. Throughout this 237 page book we learn, in a fun and interesting way, how this family dealt with the everyday living that a typical family of the time might have lived: their chores, crafts, eating habits, their spare time. Tools used, how to milk a cow, making maple sugar, harvest time, visiting a general store, building a much interesting historical living written in a very simplistic manner. Interspersed throughout are sidelines of information pertaining to the subject being written. For instance, there is a chapter about a peddler's visit to the family and the families reaction to this traveling salesman. But, at the end of the chapter, there are a few pages thrown in speaking of individual peddler's trades and how they do their crafts. Most of the chapters are set up in this way, which adds greatly to understanding more fully the chapters. I would love to see more books in this form for other era's in American history, as this style or history writing can entertain and teach all - kids as well as adults - who have an interest. Highly recommended."

Then there is the fantastic collection of books by Eric Sloane ( many of which deal with tools
A Museum of Early American Tools, covered bridges and barns American Barns and Covered Bridges, and numerous other over-looked factions of everyday life. In one particular book he expanded on this concept in a unique way toshow life in 1805 America -
Diary of an Early American Boy: Noah Blake 1805, in which he uses a unique and interesting idea: take a diary of a 15 year old boy and write a virtual living history book around it by interspersing the original 1805 writings of Noah Blake with Mr. Sloanes own knowledge of the period.
But, I must say, my favorite books by Sloane are The Seasons of America Past, Our Vanishing Landscape, and
American Yesterday.
I have written reviews for the Seasons of America Past and American Yesterday on Amazon and shall like to present them here:
The Seasons of America Past
"Possibly as a result of long dependence upon strong electric lighting, we seem to have much poorer night vision today than the average man had a century or two ago."
It's this sort of historical information that brings the past to life. As a social historian (not accredited, mind you, but I'll go against most any so-called history major), I spend much time and money searching out tid-bits of this type to help give me the understanding of the ways and lives of times past. Seasons of America Past by Eric Sloane is an excellent source of American life in the late 18th and 19th centuries. Taking the reader through a full year of everyday life - month by month - Mr. Sloane shows through his many sketches and fluid writing so many aspects of the lives of our ancestors (including what was most likely considered mundane by those who lived it!) that most supposed historians do not even touch upon. Put into a seasonal order, one will see how each of our four seasons affected the lives of our long past relatives. Here are a few more bits of information strewn throughout this book: "May was once the season for sending May baskets, now a forgotten custom. The first spring flowers were gathered by young girls and left in baskets on the doorsteps for their parents..." "The American farmer...drank cider daily at his table instead of water or milk..." "Plow Monday was the first day after the end of Christmas festivities, when the back-to-work spirit started with getting all farm equipment in shape." "Stump pulling was one of the few cash businesses, and at twenty five cents a stump - the standard price in 1850 - a man could pull twenty to fifty stumps a day and make a most exceptional living." "Independence Day...was first ushered in by bell-ringing and shooting. When Chinese firecrackers entered the scene of Independence Day (in the early 1800's), bell-ringing vanished." "Today the word PICKLE brings to mind a prepared cucumber, but pickle in the old days was a verb that referred to the...process and not to the actual product." 149 pages filled with everyday life of times gone by. Winter clothing, ice houses, broom making, sugaring time, seasonal cooking, wells, farm sleds and sleighs, spinning wheels, gathering of splint wood for baskets, herb dyes and the colors they made, and so much more packed into an easy to read format. With this and other books by Eric Sloane, as well as the wonderful 'Everyday Life' books (such as 'Expansion of Everyday Life') one can almost feel as if they can live in a different time."


American Yesterday
"Folks, these books by Eric Sloane are a wealth of information at such a reasonably low price. If you are interested in the way our ancestors lived, or just have a want in knowing about the daily lives of average Americans from the late 1700's through the early 1900's then these series of books by Mr. Sloane are what you are looking for. In "American Yesterday," Mr. Sloane explores the church, home, town, and occupations of the above stated time period. In particular, he writes of the details that many historians never seem to think of. For one small example, in the chapter about the church, descriptions of the pews that those from the past sat in are given in great detail. He also describes what a typical Sunday sevice was like, from the tolling of the church bells to seating arrangements to heating (or lack of, as the case may be). The homes that our ancestors lived in are given equal time as well. He goes into detail in describing the differences between city and rural (or farm) houses. He tells of clapboards, hipping joints, lean-to's, and braces, as well as the different stylings and shapes of the homes. Full descriptions of furniture are given, from pine-rockers to bedsteps to dressers to tubs to cradles. The pantry and its use is explained in great detail, as is the cellar. Next we head into town, and not even many living history museums can show what it was like in comparison with Mr. Sloane's descriptions. From traveling the distance to the village (over the rough roads, through a covered bridge, etc.) to the sights and sounds of the village - it's all here, and written in a way that one can envision with all their senses what it was like. Even a history of streets is given! The section on occupations gives the reader the knowledge that not everyone was a farmer or merchant in the old days. Ice cutters, grindstone workers, sandwich sign men, loggers, wrights (wheel, mill, carriage, etc.), blacksmiths - so many jobs that no longer exist, for better or worse, because of modern technology. I find interesting the comparisons from yesterday to today that are interspersed through out the text. Eric Sloane's books are easy to read and fully illustrated by his own sketches. If you want to know in detail of times past then you cannot go wrong in purchasing any of Mr. Sloane's books."

And here's a quick story about how I found the final book I am including in this entry: As a public school custodian, one of the rooms I clean nightly is the elementary school library, which caters to kindergarten through 5th graders. As I was vacuuming the carpet, a book on display caught my eye - it was a book about mills, something I had never seen in any of the school libraries. I have a keen interest in mills, especially gristmills, due to their over-looked - yet so very important - positions in virtually every aspect of our pre-20th century history. I glanced through the pages quickly - I knew I had to own it. I wrote out the info, went home after work, and immediately ordered it. The name? Mill by David MacAulay. After reading the entire thing I wrote another Amazon review:

"This is a fascinating account of the life and times of a millwright and his trade. Details on choosing a location for the mill, building the mill, and how the machinery to grind the grain worked puts the reader in the position as the millwright himself. This book is written as part history book, part informational, and even part journal, using fictional diary entries to give the reader a sense of the everyday life of a miller. A touch of drama is thrown in as we read of mill-workers who are injured and/or killed while on the job -
"1864 August 15: Mary McDonnell was drawn into the machinery by the belting today and lost her right arm below the elbow. I fear the heat will not help her recovery
August 17: Mary McDonnell died today, the infection having spread too quickly from her injury. I will send her wages on to her mother in Southbridge."
This book is supposedly written for children - I first discovered it in an elementary school library - but I find it more suitable for adults. I have found that many history books geared toward the younger set can have information not found in the more adult-oriented books. The Mill by David Macaulay is one of them. The illustrations themselves are very well done, and the details of running a mill is probably the best I have seen thus far.
Great reading about the lifeblood of a 19th century community."

When searching out social history, remember not to over-look the books meant for school-age children. There are wonderful gems waiting to be found amongst them that the so-called scholarly books rarely seem to touch upon.

(I'll write an entry on the fine social history books that have been written for the adult market soon.)


1 comment:

Chandra said...

Thanks Ken! I'll have to keep these in mind for when I finish my biography on Laura Ingalls Wilder.