Category: past and present

    'Keep Clean'

    WPA poster promoting public hygiene:

    WPA poster by Erik Hans Krause, ca. 1936–39. Repository: Library of Congress.

    Getting the News

    lithograph with gray tint stone

    Crowds lining up to get their letters and newspapers at the post office on Pike and Clay Streets in San Francisco, California, ca. 1850. This was a decade before the East and West Coasts were linked by rail and telegraph. Besides getting news through the mails, note the many conversations people were having while they did so.

    Source: Library of Congress PPOC,

    Children Watching

    “The Children Were Watching,” dir. Robert Drew and Richard Leacock, USA 1961, 25 min. – This documentary doesn’t feel as old to me as I wish it did. In part that’s because I watched it in Trump’s America during an especially difficult year, but something deeper is at play. The film’s ongoing relevance represents an ambiguous answer to its directors' main question: What were the children of a New Orleans neighborhood learning as they watched their parents during the conflicts surrounding school integration in November 1960?

    Depression in Two Senses of the Word

    Men on a bench, two talking, three with their face covered, trying to sleep. They look unemployed and depressed in this Great Depression–era photo

    Shot in Haddon Heights, New Jersey, in 1934. Source: Library of Congress,

    'Mr Smith Goes to Washington'

    I watched "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" (1939) last night. Despite the many differences to today's world and the oversimplification of the state political machine, the politics in the film strike me as relevant to our own time. Thing is, though, it would probably resonate with Americans regardless of ideological or party orientation. Anti-Trump people could take its anti-corruption and pro-democracy message to heart. Pro-Trump people could embrace how the Washington outsider triumphs, and credulous pro-Trumpers could go for the anti-corruption, pro-democracy stuff too. Finally, the rough-and-tumble quality of the political game would resonate across the political spectrum.

    'The Public Health' (1840)

    Via JSTOR Daily, which describes an 1840 pamphlet advocating "a four-pronged approach to public healthcare that sounds remarkably like our own."

    Two Faces of America

    To stand in Mann’s study today, with editions of Goethe and Schiller on the shelves, is to feel pride in the country that took him in and shame for the country that drove him out—not two Americas but one. In this room, the erstwhile “Greatest Living Man of Letters” fell prey to the clammy fear of the hunted. Was the year 1933 about to repeat itself? Would he be detained, interrogated, even imprisoned? In 1952, Mann took a final walk through his house and made his exit. He died in Zurich, in 1955—no longer an émigré German but an American in exile.

    Alex Ross (The New Yorker)

    Happening Here

    WPA poster, stylized, featuring Lady Liberty in blue, a white background, text in black with some white and red, depending on the background, and a torch with big red flames coming out.

    WPA Federal Art Project in New York City, ca. 1936/37. The play was based on a novel about fascism happening here.

    Repository: Library of Congress.


    Uncle Sam peers from behind the walls of a fort built of a literacy test and armed with pens. A flag in the background reads 'The Land of the Free'. Outside the fortress wall is a family just arrived on the shore looking up at Uncle Sam and his wall. Caption:

    Speaking of imagined walls, here’s one from 1916, courtesy of the Library of Congress.

    The Changing Faces of Nationalism

    As a historian who sometimes teaches about Europe in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, I have to give Trump credit for one thing: His constant upending of the broad political consensus that emerged after World War II and the Cold War means that basic historical terms are constantly making it into the news and national discourse as quasi new problems, new questions. As upsetting as these times are, as abhorrent as Trump is, it is hard to deny the value of Ron Elving’s reaction to the president’s recent statement about being a nationalist: “We are about to have a national conversation about the word nationalist. And Elving wants to offer nuances to the term’s meanings in past and present—well, as much as anyone can in some 1,100 words.

    Emperor Mussolini

    Satirical magazine cover depicting Mussolini as Caesar on a ship, his arm raised in a fascist salute, behind him are two uniformed fascists doing the same. The resemblance to US president DJT is uncanny.

    The caption reads, "I've decided to accept God, but he has to become Italian." The German here for "accept," "gelten lassen," could also be translated as "allow."

    Source: Simplicissimus, May 3, 1926,

    Angry America

    Jeet Heer’s provocative commentary in the New Republic is worth a read: “America Has Always Been Angry and Violent." The historical rhetoric he offers is startling. I definitely need to read more U.S. history.

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