Blogs > Cliopatria > Summer Reading

May 6, 2009 10:49 pm

Summer Reading

Children can make anything into a toy. Among my daughter's favorite toys these days are tampons. If she can get her hands on a box of Tampax, she is in heaven. Not only does she get to open the box, in of itself a process entailing a variety of motor skills she is delighting in trying out, but she also delights in unwrapping each individual tampon and then carrying it around the house by its string. Kids like to carry things with strings but alas, due to liability issues, toymakers rarely make toys with strings anymore, hence her affection for tampons. Her habit of destroying the boxes to get to the tampons has enhanced (er, make that modified) our decorating scheme. In some homes, you are welcomed into the bath with a bowl of potpourri; in our home it’s a bowl of tampons. While we tolerate my daughter playing with tampons inside the house, my wife steadfastly refuses to allow my daughter to take the tampons to the car, much less anywhere else in public. This is not true of some of my daughter's other toys such as keys, remote controls, or coin jars. Which got me to asking myself, "Why is this? And also, "What is the history of tampons?" and "Why don't I know more about the history of social practices around menstruation in U.S. culture?" In Judaism we have Mikvahs; the Navajo have a kinaalda ceremony to celebrate a girl's first period. All of this is a roundabout way to get at today's topic: summer reading.

There are some summer reading lists for history floating around at other websites, but I'm not going to link to them because I think they are very boring, more wars, and presidents, and that kind of thing. Really, how many books on the Civil War can people read before they say, "Hey, maybe something else happened in American History?" At least for us adults, summer reading is voluntary, for the rising 10th grade (all girls), no such luck. However, they are in for a treat, no really, they are. This summer they get to read Laurel Thatcher Ulrich's A Midwife's Tale. It's a great book and the best introduction to doing history that I can think of. Ulrich provides extended excerpts from the diary, which appear to be banal. She then unpacks the entries using other primary and secondary sources. She reveals a complex world caught in the midst of change. Read it and you'll learn stuff about early America you did not even think you could know. But there is this one odd curiosity: nowhere in the book is menstruation mentioned. I tried searching the diary (which is on-line) for menstruation along with a couple of other keywords. No luck. There is lots of stuff about childbirth and worms and women's economy and battle over land but apparently at no time is menstruation discussed. Not once did she concoct something to help someone with cramps or bloating? Was there no colonial Pamprin? I'm thinking somebody could get a good at least a good article on this and the crossover potential for a book would be pretty spectacular. Maybe a whole field could get started. Just think, one day you will walk into Borders and there will be a whole shelf of books about the history of menstruation right across from the Civil War shelves. It ain't gonna happen, but if you haven't read the Ulrich, go read it, now. Or at least play on the web site, it's one of the best out there and it's hosted by the same folks who host HNN.

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Grant W Jones - 6/21/2004

Thanks for the book tips. Another good one is _Empires of Light:Edison, Tesla, Westinghouse and the Race to Electify the World_ by Jill Jonnes

There doesn't seem to be many books on the phenomenom of businessmen/inventors such as Colt, McCormick, Whitney, the Wright brothers, to our own era of computer companies.

I don't know enough about recent military campaigns to answer your last question. I would just say that battles are fought to further a strategic objective. Grant did not win a battle in his spring/summer 1864 campaign against Lee. Some of that was Meade's fault and they did come close at the Bloody Angle. Anyways, without a clearcut battlefield victory, Grant largely acheived his strategic goals. I guess one should go by a case by case basis in judging battles and campaigns.

Hanson's _Ripples of Battle_ is interesting in that he looks at how three battles, Delium, Shiloh and Okinawa affected the participants. At Delium most of the Thebans were killed and Socrates barely escaped with his life.

At Shiloh, Lew Wallace was unfairly blamed for arriving late, but he went on to write Ben Hur. While Sherman and Bedford Forest rose to prominence.

Hanson's namesake, Victor Hanson, was killed at Okinawa. The horror of that battle influenced the decision to drop the A-bombs. Hanson's own father was a gunner on a B-29 in the fire bomb raids of Curtis LeMay. The book presents an interesting thesis on how battles, win, lose or draw affect the people and sociaties involved.

David Lion Salmanson - 6/21/2004

Grant, sorry to take so long to get back to you. Mother-in-law in town and my brain is a bit scrambled with father's day activity. There is a new US textbook that basically takes this approach although the name escapes me right now. It got a ton of press so should be easy to find. An old classic on this front is Walter Prescott Webb's the Great Plains which looks at five inventions that shaped the West. I hear rumors of things in the works or of stuff published that I haven't read that are in the stack of things to get to in my spare time (yeah right). There is a allegedly a very good book on the history of air conditioning on LSU press, Virginia Scharff has a book called Taking the Wheel about women and the automobile that was kind of eye opening. There is some mediocre stuff on highways. Another classis is Gideon Mechanization Takes Command which starts with the invention of the three legged stool. I believe Connections the TV series is out on DVD now and it did what you are asking very well indeed.

One of the reasons why I am interested in this stuff is because it is so wide open. There is very little social history of technology. Something similar is Bill Cronon's Nature's Metropolis which looks at railroads and things like the invention of futures markets all based around Chicago. Also Richard White has a book called the Organic Machine that is more of an environmental history but kind of does what I am looking for. I checked with my department chair and she suggested Joseph Needham, Arnold Pacey (although she said it is very boring).

I absolutely agree some battles are more important than others. Am I right in thinking, however, that the closer we get to the present, the less individual battles matter as opposed to strategy?

Grant W Jones - 6/18/2004

I agree, the Union largely won the Civil War in the west. But, the Union could only have lost the war in the east. If Lee won at Gettysburg his army probably could have subsisted off the rich Pennsylvanian countryside. If Lee could have attacked and taken Washington D.C. then it's over. You do admit that a Confederate victory would have changed the political situation. On that score there is no predicting the results. Perhaps the New York draft riots would have taken on a much larger significance.

Some battles are over-rated. But if the British were successful in the Saratoga campaign, there is no telling how this would have affected further events. Or if Joe Johnston could have held Sherman in Northern Georgia, who knows? Not I.

Other battles from Midway, Salamis, Trafalgar, Marathon, Normandy, Lepanto, Waterloo, the Battle of Britain and many lessor known are important. They decisively changed the issue. Or they changed the psychology of those engaged in the contest. On that score Washington's victory at Trenton provided a morale boast for the Patriot cause. Other famous battles, the Little Bighorn for example, were of little lasting importance. Unless, of course, you were a participant. Other battles are important because the represent a shift in the existing power relationships.

Victor Davis Hanson's recent work "The Soul of War" and "Ripples of Battle" deal with the importance of certain battles. Don't get me wrong, I don't think he proves his case on the "primacy of military history." I just would argue that military history is no less important than the any other branch of the field. See my post below. I hope you can give me some leads on that matter.

Thanks, Grant

Grant W Jones - 6/18/2004

You raise a fascinating issue with technological development and social change. On October 21 1929 there was a celebration honoring Thomas Edison on the fiftieth anniversary of the invention of the light bulb. The pace of change in this period of fifty years (or fifty-three, with the invention of the telephone) is breathtaking. From the era of buggy whips and kerosene lamps to "talkies," airplanes, electric appliances, automobiles, refrigeration, telephone, high speed printing presses, indoor plumbing, advances in medicine and drugs, phonograph, etc.

While much is made of the social and artistic merits of the Columbian Exposition, the most important thing about it, in my mind, is that Edison, Tesla and Westinghouse participated with their newest inventions (motion pictures and Tesla's A.C. polyphase power distribution system, an invention of singular genius).

My question is do you know of worthwhile books on the history of technology in the 19th and early 20th century that focuses on the process of invention. How one invention, the light bulb for example, can lead to the unforeseen advances made by Marconi, Deforest and Fleming? Also another interesting topic is the importance of the inventor/businessman, personified by Edison.

I don't think these inventors should be taken for granted, "If Edison didn't invent all these marvels, someone else would of." So any books that you can suggest on this topic would be appreciated.

David Lion Salmanson - 6/18/2004

Holy Cow Grant, are you a mind-reader? I deleted a whole thing on why Lee winning at Gettysburg wouldn't necessarily change the military situation (political situation, yes) and I how I use it to shut up the annoying guy next to me on the plane who starts talking about Civil War history the minute he finds out I'm a historian. Let's say Lee wins, he's still got a starving, shoeless army in the middle of nowhere Pennsylvania. He's still got crappy supply lines and a government back home that borders on the incompetent that wants him to fight a defensive war because it's cheaper. What's he gonna do, attack Baltimore? And there's a little matter of the war in the West that is slowly choking the Confederacy to death.(Usually, they guy on the plane says New York or DC, home come the guy on the plane doesn't know geography but can name every Civil War officer and their horses?)

Sometimes I try to shut him up by mentioning that I do Western US, but that always leads to the dreaded cowboys and Indians discussion. Which leads to an interesting question. You are going to participate on Frontier House, would rather take the collected works of Robert Utley or Walter Prescott Webb (or even John Faragher's Women and Men on the Overland Trail?)

Tom started the counterfactual game over at Big Tent, I'm just playing by his rules.

Last question, name one battle besides Yorktown and Trenton George Washington decisively won. Quite frankly individidual battles are over-rated in terms of winning wars.

Grant W Jones - 6/18/2004

If the Japanese won the Battle of Coral Sea, let's start by assuming that the U.S. lose both Lexington and Yorktown. This will greatly alter the Battle of Midway. By winning at Coral Sea, the Japanese invasion fleet takes Port Moresby. Also, without a decisive victory at Midway, there is no American counter-attack at Guadalcanal. This results in the subsequent Japanese invasions of Fiji, Samoa, New Caladonia and elsewhere in the South Pacific. Australia becames isolated. This state of affairs would have meant that the war in the Pacific would drag on for much longer than it did. On the other hand, if the U.S. took a strickly defensive posture in the Pacific, maybe Germany would have been defeated sooner. My crystal ball is rusty, so there is no way to predict all the ramifications of these events. One thing I'm sure of, it would have affected the lives of tens-of-millions.

This is kind of a "chicken and egg" discussion. Could one imagine the rise of the sun-belt if Lee was victorious at Gettyburg and America became two (three? four?) countries?

David Lion Salmanson - 6/18/2004

Okay, here is the argument from my perspective. Everyday life has a profound importance. Because it shapes the background it appears to be pretty insignificant, change is slow and incremental and it is hard to fathom how it effects people. On the other hand, military history and politics are dramatic and more easily definable. They appear to have clear consequences. Let's do a thought experiment. Suppose the Japanes win the Battle of the Coral Sea (your example from your blog), does this change the fact that a million or so Japanese men are bogged down fighting an invisible enemy in China? That the Japanese can't keep pace with US production? That the USSR is going to enter the war after the fighting in Europe is done? That the US is developing atomic weapons? I can forsee one possible future where it matters a lot, but a whole set of futures where it doesn't. Now let's think about something banal. Since it's 90 degrees here in Philly, I am at school where there is air conditioning as opposed to my house, built in 1864, where there is none. Small thing, right? But can you imagine the rise of the Sunbelt without air conditioning? No way do Phoenix and Houston become larger than Philly without climate control. And can you imagine what the country would look like politically and economically without the rise of the Sunbelt? I honestly can't.

One of the beauties of Ulrich's book is that it catches Martha Ballard at a time of radical transition in her social and economic world. The market revolution is coming on and doctors are replacing midwives. However, to Martha, this stuff is not particularly evident. With Ulrich's careful research and description, she makes the changes that martha can't see clearer and also explains to us readers just how different Martha's world is from our own. Only by understanding the minutia of everyday life (maybe even including menstruation) can we recognize these differences and through seeing those differences understand our own world a bit better.

Tom Bruscino - 6/18/2004

Over at Big Tent (mostly because it has been a slow week and I was wondering if anyone was paying attention) I wrote:

The guest blogger [David Salmanson] at Cliopatria has gone off the deep end. I find myself doing more and more social and cultural history in my work, and I suppose if done right--not some whimpering "evil men made women cover up the beautiful nature of their bodily processes" bit of nonsense--a history of menstruation might provide some interesting insights into the social-cultural lives of women in earlier times. But I think you might be missing a little perspective if even half-jokingly you call for shelves of books on a topic that really boils down to trivia while lamenting the proliferation of studies on world changing events and people like wars and presidents.

I once had a professor pose a question from a feminist historian that went something like: "What did teenage Maori girls on New Zealand care about World War II?" My reply then as now is if the United States had decisively lost the Battle of the Coral Sea, I imagine those girls would have cared quite a bit. Let me add that that would be true whether or not they had their periods. i know this might be controversial, but wars and presidents are more important than menstruation."

David responded:

Geez Tom,
If you are going to diss me, at least use my name. I guess the hyperbole of a whole shelf of books on menstruation was over the top. The whole, but seriously go read the Ulrich didn't get the point across. Some people are so literal.

Okay now that that's out of the way, let's talk about whether the practice of everyday life is or is not more important than military history. But let's do it at Cliopatria cause I don't like this sign in thing here.

Done. We are back at Cliopatria. Any takers?

Derek Charles Catsam - 6/18/2004

Ralph --
I'm not certain what marriage has to do with familiarity with the equipment! This isn't 1926, and Ma and Pa aren't gonna come after me with a shotgun in order to make Lurleen an honest gal. To steal from Seinfeld, you know you have a girlfriend when there are tampons in your apartment. I'm not certain most of those girlfriends would have wanted that to be a major topic of conversation! In any case, if David's wife is down with it, more power to him and his daughter.

Ralph E. Luker - 6/17/2004

There has to be a career after the classroom!

David Lion Salmanson - 6/17/2004

She plans to post a response if she has time. Very busy weekend for her, workwise. I do know she forwarded the link to a bunch of people, plus she told me she liked it. She did accuse me of using Clio to polish my stand-up routine.

Ralph E. Luker - 6/17/2004

When Derek gets married, he will learn that we are talking about equipment that virtually all women find useful on a fairly regular basis. What's to shy away from, when it is common to half the population? But, while we are just talking among ourselves, I've posted some things at Cliopatria that my wife hasn't particularly wanted in common currency. I'm just not telling _you_ what they are!

Derek Charles Catsam - 6/17/2004

I bet the wife is thrilled with the anecdote!