With only a few days remaining before Christmas, time is running out to purchase a gift for your favorite history buff (or yourself!) As our gift to you, the editors of U.S. History Scene have compiled a list of some of their favorite history books new and old, in a wide variety of subject areas, to satisfy all historical tastes. These books are appropriate for any one with a basic knowledge of American history, yet will provide new information and entertainment to even experts. Everyone gives fudge; impress everyone and give a really classy gift this year – in addition to the fudge, of course. Everybody loves fudge.
Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812 (1990)
A Pulitzer Prize winner from 1991, A Midwife’s Tale explores the life of Martha Ballard, a midwife from Hallowell, Maine, who kept an exceptionally detailed diary between 1785 and 1812. The book provides an incredibly rare window into the daily experiences of women’s domestic and professional life in pre-industrial America while showing the communal aspects of women’s health care, medicine, and reproduction. In the eighteenth and early nineteenth century, midwives were both part time physicians and the highest paid females in the United States. Using Martha’s diary as a framework, Harvard historian Laurel Ulrich reveals the transformation of medicine from a female world of “social medicine” to a system of male physicians and female assistant nurses by the antebellum era. She shows both the separateness and interconnectedness of men’s and women’s work and trade. Martha was both a housewife who produced food and textiles and a midwife who performed 816 deliveries at a higher success rate than some medical facilities today without the benefit of surgery. She worked “in tandem” with men in her family and community, but she participated independently in a complicated system of economic exchange; there were, for example, two family economies in the Ballard household—one managed by Martha, the other by her husband Ephraim. Not content to focus on these issues alone, Ulrich also explores how marriage, courting, infertility, aging, premarital sex, fornication, adultery, and rape were treated in unexpected ways during this early American era. Ulrich provides an fascinating glimpse into daily life in early America from a rare vantage point. Think a real life historical portrait of a Dr. Quinn type, but a century earlier and without sexy Sully’s muscles.
Best for: gift exchanges among female friends; anyone interested in the medical field; gender or Early American history fans
Wilkerson, Isabel. The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration. (2010)
Isabel Wilkerson’s New York Times bestseller The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration is the product of a decade’s worth of labor. Wilkerson interviewed nearly 10,000 people who made the migration out of the Jim Crow South to find three incredible individuals whose life stories embody this American saga. The Great Migration was a mass movement of six million African American men, women, and children, that made the exodus out of the rural South and into the industrial North to cities like Chicago, Detroit, Washington DC, New York, Boston, and the West Coast (primarily Los Angeles and Oakland) between 1915 and 1970. It was the largest migration in North America during the twentieth century.
This book is not simply for those interested in African American history. It speaks to anyone whose ancestors took a monumental leap of faith and dared to believe that life somewhere else would be better for them and their offspring, even if they hadn’t seen this promised new land with their own eyes. The book follows three everyday people who lead extraordinary lives while being representative of this movement: Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, a sharecropper who moved to Chicago from Mississippi in 1937; George Swanson Starling who fled Florida’s laborious citrus groves for New York City after a an attempt to lynch him for organizing fellow laborers, and Robert Joseph Pershing Foster who left behind Monroe, Louisiana for the City of Dreams, Los Angeles, California.
Best for: music lovers; descendents of the Great Migration; those interested in the urban history of the Midwest and West
Chauncey, George. Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Makings of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940. (1994)
On a smoldering summer day in 1929, throngs of New Yorkers flocked to the beach to watch a mock male beauty contest held at the Coney Island Washington Bath. The men, whom an on-hand reporter from Variety identified as “floosies,” wore make-up and “pranced before the camera and threw kisses to the audience” causing a sensation in ways organizers had not anticipated (184). In fact, according to Yale historian George Chauncey, the Bowery was a glittering hub of gay life attracting men from around the world to “Gay New York” as early as 1890. Throughout the 1930s, Harlem, Greenwich Village, and Times Square developed distinct gay cultures organized by class and ethnicity. Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940, recaptures a vibrant pre-World War II universe where gay men seemed “to be an almost ubiquitous presence” throughout New York’s “streets, parks, and beaches,” (179) in a period when their existence is unrecognized. Chauncey’s book comprises three parts. The first grapples with gay identities and sexual practices. The second describes how gay men reappropriated public places, and explores the ethnic and class dimensions of this typography. The third part deals with how in the 1930s people created a collective identity for homosexuals, while excluding them from dominant society.
For readers who crave New York history, Chauncey creates a palimpsest of the landscape, and provides endless landmarks to explore. Visiting Astor Hotel, Grant’s Tomb, or taking a stroll in Central Park turn into a historical retracing of “Bitches Walk” conjuring a different world from the establishments’ pasts. Anyone allied with the gay community will relish these details as they make this world of sexuality prideful and tangible. Chauncey shows that ordinary people and their daily lives in this gay culture were historically meaningful. By telling their stories, he can hopefully give historical precedence to future struggles to continually expand gay culture in New York and elsewhere.
Best for: Queer-studies friend; New Yorkers and those who wish they were; anyone with the hots for Carey Grant in Bringing Up Baby who’d like to understand the inside joke of this scene…
Blight, David W. Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory. (2001)
For a war that ended nearly a hundred and fifty years ago, the Civil War continues to provide ample material for political debate even into the twenty-first century. Those looking for a close reading on the battles of the Civil War will be disappointed, as Blight’s book picks up where the war ended, as people began to pick up the pieces, bury their dead, and attempt to make sense out of the lengthy, destructive battle. Race and Reunion traces the evolution of the Civil War in popular memory and the continual battle over the “meaning” of the war. According to Blight, three visions of the Civil War have “collided and combined” over time: the reconciliationist vision, born from the process of dealing with war deaths; the white supremacist vision, a vision that coalesced quite thoroughly with many reconciliationists; and the emancipationist vision of African-Americans’ “complex remembrance of their own freedom, in the politics of Radical Reconstruction, and in conceptions of the war as the reinvention of the republic and the liberation of blacks to citizenship and Constitutional equality.” (2) Every school-aged child knows who “won’ the civil war, but – since reunion seems so inevitable from our vantage point – we forget just how deeply divided the country was after the war. Blight’s book investigates how the nation sewed up these old wounds – and at what cost.
Best for: That friend who always wants to discuss “the cause of the Civil War;” Ken Burns fans; your favorite Civil War reenactor; Conan O’Brien
Fenn, Elizabeth A. Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775-82. (2001)
Many history lovers believe that Americans did not reach the Pacific Ocean until Lewis and Clark’s expedition after the 1803 Louisiana Purchase. Elizabeth Fenn discredits this by examining the smallpox epidemic that ravaged North America between 1775-1782, arguing that the epidemic became the first instance of continental spread of a disease, that it was more deadly and destructive than the concurrent American Revolution, and that it reveals a vast web of human contact that spanned what would become the American Empire. The smallpox epidemic was of great concern to George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and the Adams family, all of whom scrambled to figure out how to protect and inoculate the Continental Army during the Siege of Boston, the Siege of Quebec, and Lord Dunmore’s “Ethiopian Regiment.”
Some of the more interesting chapters chronicle the spread of Small Pox through Native American societies in the Southwest by Spanish missionaries between New Mexico, Mexico City, and Ecuador and in the North (present day Canada) by the French. Ultimately, Fenn attempts to answer how this disease decreased Native populations such as the Creeks, Cherokee, and Iroquois on the Western frontier, making them susceptible to European encroachment, why African slaves in the American South were resistant, and how it changed the balance of power in the American Revolution.
Best for: Your earth-loving bestie; scholars of Native American or Western history
Onassis, Jacqueline Kennedy, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Michael R. Beschloss, and Caroline Kennedy. Jacqueline Kennedy: Historic Conversations on Life with John F. Kennedy, Interviews with Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., 1964. (2011)
The hardcover edition is pricey and the cover photo not altogether flattered, but for lovers of Camelot and those interested in a great oral history of JFK (Jacqueline recorded these tapes mere months after his assassination), Jacqueline Kennedy is a must-read. Jacqueline’s conversations with Arthur Schlesinger covered a wide swath of topics from politics to married life to JFK’s reading habits. The tome is peppered with photographs of the Kennedy family and provides fascinating reading for even the casual Kennedy fan or someone interested in the 1960s. The companion website (www.jfk50.org) is also worth a visit. In her preface to the book, daughter Caroline Kennedy states that her parents shared a love a history because “[t]o them, the past was not an academic concern, but a gathering of the most fascinating people you could ever hope to meet.” [xii]. If your definition of history is the same, this book provides a good place to start.
Best for: Your stylish Mom or Aunt; Your politically-savvy Uncle; Kennedyphiles; Mad Men fans; anyone who secretly wishes they could buy the entire Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis jewelry line on QVC…don’t front.
Peiss, Kathy Lee. Cheap Amusements: Working Women and Leisure in Turn-of-the-Century New York. (1986)
Woody Allen’s character in Annie Hall claims that he grew up in a house directly underneath Coney Island’s Cyclone. For hundreds of thousands of men and women coming of age in New York City between 1880-1920, that was seemingly true as they spent all their leisure time at the dance halls and amusement parks by the sea including Luna Land and Steeplechase. Coney Island attracted 60 thousand people on Sundays, deeming it “Sodom by the Sea.” Peiss shows how amusement park tycoon George Tilyou designed rides that included sexual intrigue and bodily sensations (such as parachute drops that blew women’s skirts up, exposing their legs) that made the thrill twofold: your stomache flipped from the fall and everyone on the ground enjoyed a taboo view up your dress.
Kathy Peiss argues that at the turn of the century, young working women helped reorient American culture and labor from being gender separated to an urban world that included bars, saloons, movie theaters, dance halls, and amusement parks where it was appropriate for men and women to attend together. While revolutionizing urban leisure, they also transformed the American sexuality and dating system.
Best for: Young career women in the big city; lovers of pop culture trivia; the sibling who tricked you onto Space Mountain by telling you it was Small World.
Shapiro, Laura. Something from the Oven: Reinventing Dinner in 1950s America. (2005)
Jamie Oliver would have probably never needed to begin his own food revolution if not for the one that occurred in the United States at mid-century. As Laura Shapiro’s book demonstrates, the 1950s represented a huge shift for the American plate. In the 1950s, the food industry elbowed its way into American kitchens with more force than ever before. Advertisements sang the praises of canned vegetables that would lessen the burden on harried housewives and allow them to live a life of leisure. The combined forces of automobiles and grocery stores meant yards could be used for just for mowing and not for growing. Canned ham would make modern life worth living! And yet, despite all of these promises, women (for Shapiro does focus mostly on women in her book) did not automatically embrace these conveniences of the modern kitchen. There was no specific point in time when American families handed over the garden hoe for the Spaghetti-os. As Shapiro portrays it, the food revolution was more of negotiation as families adopted new food items that fit their needs and their understanding of food. Something from the Oven is a great, easy read for anyone interested in the burgeoning field of food history, or popular culture in general. Expect Jell-o…. lots and lots of Jell-o.
Best for: future Jamie Olivers; your gourmand best friend