Archive by Author

Connecting the Atlantic with the Pacific by rail: “un fait accompli”

This summer, with the help of the National Endowment for the Humanities, we will be looking into just what a big deal the first transcontinental railroad was. And we invite you to join us. Read on.


On the morning of May 10, 1869, railroad workers laid two rails opposite one another: one for the Union Pacific Railroad and one for the Central Pacific Railroad. When the hammer struck the final spike to hold the rails in place, a single route connected the East Coast with the West Coast by rail. Telegraph wires attached to the spike informed both coasts that the crowd gathered in Promontory, Utah witnessed the completion of the first transcontinental railroad.

As he commemorated the moment in poetry, Bret Harte wondered:

What was it the Engines said,
Pilots touching,–head to head,
Facing on the single track,
Half a world behind each back?

In that morning’s New York Times, the Wells Fargo company had already issued an advertisement for tickets or cargo on the railroad, boasting faster travel times than anyone had ever heard of, “Overland to California. Seven Days from the Missouri River to the Pacific Ocean.”


Indeed, completion of the railroad reduced transcontinental travel time for the average person from three to six months down to one week. It was a world-changing innovation. According to William Deverell,

the invention also brought about profound changes in the understanding of time and the relationship between time and space. To nineteenth-century observers, at first unable to adjust to the changes wrought by the machine, the railroad simply “annihilated time and space.”


Quaker Oats railroad cars crossing the Rockies, from ad booklet distributed at the Columbian Exposition, Chicago, IL, 1893

If you are a teacher and you would like to join us this summer as we learn more about the Transcontinental Railroad, consider applying for a seat on The Transcontinental Railroad: Transforming California and the Nation, an NEH funded Landmarks of American History and Culture Workshop.

Other railroad images in The Marchand Archive

More about this NEH Landmark Workshop

ebooks, memory, and resisting change

John P. Oertel “Things as they were, and Things as they are” (1853)

John P. Oertel “Things as they were, and Things as they are” (1853)

In John P. Oertel’s “Things as they were, and Things as they are,” the artist renders Johann Gutenberg (on the pedestal) a villain whose invention sparked a never-ending series of cultural revolutions, each one taking us further from the bucolic era of simpler times. Oertel dramatizes the presumption that the handwritten text is morally superior to mechanically reproduced text. The drawing shows that anxiety over disruptive technologies has been a concern of cultural critics and commentators since at least the 1850s. If we take the artist’s suggestion that Gutenberg’s printing press is the source of our anxiety, then in fact the preoccupation is much older, dating back to the 1440s.

Like most Kindle owners, I have had conversations with ebook skeptics as well as fellow Kindle/nook/iPad owners about how we all recognize the topographical relationship between memory and printed books. Most people have had the experience of remembering approximately where in a book (the first, second, or third third of a physical book or codex) an event takes place or a character is introduced. And while we may not be able to call a page number to the tip of the tongue, we could, if challenged, flip the paperback’s pages to the scene pretty quickly.

Now, psychologists are studying the phenomenon to see whether human memory relies on topographical clues and, if it does, what implications this has for a cultural transition to electronic books, or books without topography.

“My personal library serves as extension of my brain,” says Mark Changizi in Psychology Today. And while we don’t remember everything we read, Changizi continues “what I remember is where in my library my knowledge sits, and I can look it up when I need it. But I can only [sic] look it up because my books are geographically arranged in a fixed spatial organization, with visual landmarks.”

Within a printed book, the argument goes, we can flip to the right page quickly because the text doesn’t move. Electronic text, however, is fluid, not static. Text on the web and in ebook readers has no fixed position. In fact, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Sony and other ebook reader manufacturers cite the ebook readers’ unique ability to “reflow text” or modify the line breaks on a page to fit the font size as an advantage over traditional print. The reader can always adjust the font and size of the text to his or her liking.

Changizi goes on to argue that “the web and e-books… are deeply lacking in spatial navigability, and so they don’t yet serve the brain-extension role that is within their potential.”

Of course, the subjects tested in these psychological experiments grew up reading print, and therefore have a lifetime of using the topography of the physical book for mnemonic cues. Ereaders are so new that it will be another decade or more before social scientists can query a generation who will have grown up immersed in stories told through e-ink.

And therein lies a problem for Changizi and others who are quick to assign physical books and deny ebooks the role of proxy memory. We don’t yet know what it would be like to have grown up with iPads in classrooms, nooks in lockers, and Kindles on campus.

Odysseus and the sirensTo try and say more at this point borders on the kind of neo-luddism depicted in Oertel’s 1853 drawing. For millennia Odysseus has sailed between the dual threats Scylla and Charybdis before washing up on the shore of Ithaca, regardless what form the story takes. In that time, the text of The Odyssey made the transition from oral recitation to scroll to movable type to linotype to paperback to ebook. So far, the variety of formats has not derailed the knowledge based economy.

What disruptive technologies do you think will have the greatest impact on teaching over the next decade? Leave your comment below.

From advertising to middle age

Today’s post comes to us from Patricia Cohen, a reporter for the New York Times and the author of the new book, In Our Prime: The Invention of Middle Age. She has previously worked at the Washington Post and Rolling Stone magazine.

After finishing Roland Marchand’s Advertising the American Dream: Making Way for Modernity, I felt that distinct combination of admiration and envy: I wished I had written it. When I did get around to writing my own book, a social and cultural history of middle age titled  In Our Prime: The Invention of Middle Age, I found his research extraordinarily useful. His insights informed a lot of my own thinking about how advertising helped shape views of what life’s middle years were supposed to look and act like.

This imagined midlife lies at the intersection of self-improvement and mass consumption, two of the most powerful movements of the twentieth century. Faith in the perfectibility of man through his own efforts, combined with the promise of the marketplace’s transformative abilities have created what I call (to crib President Eisenhower’s phrase) the Midlife Industrial Complex.

This amalgam is a complex in both the institutional and emotional sense: a massive industrial network that manufactures and sells products and procedures to combat supposed afflictions associated with middle age; and a mental syndrome that exaggerates angst about waning powers, failure, and uselessness in one’s middle years. Zeroing in on the physical body, the market whips up insecurities, creating a sense of inferiority, then sells the tools that promise to allay those fears.

The origins of the Midlife Industrial Complex date back to the 1920s, when America became a visual culture – what the poet Vachel Lindsay called a “hieroglyphic civilization” – and consumerism attached itself to the growing self-help movement. A perfect example can be found in the Marchand archives. “She looks old enough to be his mother,” two women remark about a friend in a 1928 advertisement for Lysol disinfectant. “And the pity of it is that, in this enlightened age, so often a woman has only herself to blame if she fails to stay young with her husband and with her women friends.”

The poor Lysol-less woman was not fated to a life of neglect and aging: she could have done something about it. In this democratic arena, youthful beauty is not confined to genetic luck or wealthy pampering; it is within everyone’s reach, part of an individual’s inalienable right to pursue happiness. As Helena Rubinstein reputedly said, there are no ugly women, only lazy ones. In the language of self-improvement, middle age doesn’t simply happen to you; it is what you make of it.

What reviewers are saying about In Our Prime:

“A brilliant, wide-ranging book…Cohen’s lively prose and thoughtful insights make this a joy to read.”—Kate Tuttle, Boston Globe

“Very fine…lucid, straightforward and conversational… a thorough—and thoroughly fascinating—cultural history of aging.”—Julia Keller, Chicago Tribune

“Her book is a fascinating biography of the idea of middle age, ‘a story we tell about ourselves.’  — Gail Sheehy, The New York Times. 

Chicago, Yesterday and Today

Image title: “Chicago Day at the Exposition,” 1893

Today, if you were to visit the site where, on October 9, 1893, more than 751,000 people visited the Columbian Exposition in Chicago, you would find a tranquil city park with a massive museum at its north end.

The crowd amassed on Chicago Day included more people than had ever gathered for any peace-time event in the known history of the world. According to Erik Larson, “the [Chicago] Tribune argued that the only greater gathering was the massing of Xerxes’ army of over five million souls in the fifth century B.C.”

They had come to see the White City, a city built in south Chicago’s Jackson Park and built specifically for the Columbian Exposition. The buildings were temporary structures, but their neo-classical design, the boulevards that ran between them, the dredged and re-configured Jackson Park, and the civic spirit that made it possible to build the Exposition in less than three years all left their permanent mark on the city of Chicago.

In January 2012, I visited Chicago to attend the American Historical Association’s annual meeting. I finished reading Erik Larson’s Devil in the White City just days before my trip, so while I was in the Windy City I visited Jackson Park. The Palace of Fine Arts (reinforced with stone in the late 1920s and now Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry) is all that remains of the White City. The Japanese Garden on Wooded Island stands as the only visible trace of landscaping. Frederick Law Olmsted’s radical designs grew as he intended: so that future visitors would not be able to detect the changes he made. The rest of Jackson Park appears as though it has always looked as it does now.

So the image “Chicago Day at the Exposition” is important because it shows just how radically Daniel Burnham, Frederick Law Olmsted, and others changed the face of Jackson Park and Chicago. Without photographs from the 1893 Columbian Exposition, it is difficult to imagine the scale of the spectacle. It is difficult to get a sense of the majesty of the event at which Juicy Fruit, Pabst Blue Ribbon, Cracker Jack, Shredded Wheat, Aunt Jemima’s pancakes, and the Ferris wheel all made their debut.

Further Reading:
1. Theodore Dreiser, Sister Carrie (New York: B. W. Dodge, 1907).
2. Erik Larson, The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America, 1st ed. (New York: Crown Publishers, 2003).
3. Carl Smith, “Where All the Trains Ran: Chicago,” Common-Place 3, no. 4 (July 2003),

Marchand’s Lessons Inspire In-Class Innovation

Today’s post is from Bruce Lesh, a high school teacher in Maryland and author of “Why Won’t You Just Tell Us the Answer?”: Teaching Historical Thinking in Grades 7-12.

Several years ago, in the midst of changing my instructional program in order to put my high school students in the position of investigating the past, I came across the work of Roland Marchand. Tipped off by a professional colleague from California, I felt as if a door had been opened. Here, within one website, were the assiduously collected materials of a fellow history teacher who understood that students need to be immersed in the materials of the past in order to find value in its study and to develop the skills necessary to be productive members of society. Not only had Marchand collected a wide variety of historical sources, he had the foresight to organize them under thoughtful historical questions which structured their investigation. Ideas that had been germinating in my classroom coalesced as I saw how Marchand organized instruction around student debate about historical evidence. Much of the work I encountered became the basis for the historical investigations I use with my students. While exploring the site, The Bonus Army quickly drew my interest. The interplay between the following sources convinced me that the question of responsibility for the removal of the Bonus Marchers was fertile ground for my high school students to investigate:

  • Excerpts from The Memoirs of Herbert Hoover: The Great Depression published in 1952.
  • Excerpts from Douglas MacArthur’s Reminiscences, published in 1964.
  • Statement to the press by General MacArthur, July 28.
  • Excerpt from General George Van Horn Moseley’s unpublished autobiography, One Soldier’s Journey
  • In At Ease: Stories I Tell To Friends (1967) Dwight D. Eisenhower

Over the years, my instinct about The Bonus Army has been rewarded with students investigating the evidence, applying that evidence to the overarching historical question, and developing interpretations substantiated with information derived from the evidence. Marchand’s Documentary Source Problems are the instructional forerunner of much of the work that has been done in history education. I still frequently find myself accessing the site for information, sources, and inspiration. My only regret is that I never got to meet Roland and pick what must have been a brain bountiful with ideas about inspirational history instruction.

Further reading:

Related lesson in the Marchand Collection:

From the publisher’s description of Why Won’t You Just Tell Us the Answer?”

Every major measure of students’ historical understanding since 1917 has demonstrated that students do not retain, understand, or enjoy their school experiences with history. Bruce Lesh believes that this is due to the way we teach history — lecture and memorization. Over the last fifteen years, Bruce has refined a method of teaching history that mirrors the process used by historians, where students are taught to ask questions of evidence and develop historical explanations. And now in his new book “Why Won’t You Just Tell Us the Answer?” he shows teachers how to successfully implement his methods in the classroom.

Why Won’t You Just Tell Us the Answer?” is available from IndieBound, Amazon, or directly from Stenhouse.