Pumpkin Flavored History


It didn’t used to be like this. Only five years ago, I swear that pumpkin-flavored stuff was still a bit of an anomaly. Oh, you could get a pumpkin spiced latte at Starbucks, and your standard pumpkin pies and pastries lined bakery sections everywhere, but now it seems that the very minute autumn begins to peek out from summer’s sweaty, smothering armpit, the pumpkin conglomerate unleashes a now ubiquitous barrage of pumpkin spice-flavored everything. Its fall and you must eat pumpkins! There’s even a pumpkin pie flavored vodka, because Russian alcoholics enjoy the fall season too, dammit.

So what’s the deal with everything being pumpkin flavored? Well, as with so many things these days, it all goes back to the 19th century. Pumpkins function as big, squashy symbols of idealized rural life, and rural nostalgia has always been popular with Americans. For a people stuck in the high-tech, urbanized twenty-first century world, pumpkins invoke more simple times and landscapes dotted with small family farms untainted by modernity’s impersonal touch.

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The GOP, the Debt Ceiling, and the History of Killing Political Legitimacy

Poster advertising a "Save the Union" meeting, Frederick, Maryland, September, 1860.

Poster advertising a “Save the Union” meeting, Frederick, Maryland, September, 1860.

The situation was unprecedented in scope. The conservative party in America, its hardcore base mostly relegated to the South, had just suffered a devastating electoral defeat in which a lawyer and political progressive from Illinois won the U.S. presidency along mostly sectional lines, carrying primarily northern and west coast states. In response to the stinging rebuke of their policies by the majority of the American people, the conservative party decided that rather than accept the outcome of the presidential election, they would instead try to prevent the victorious party from governing by denying their very political legitimacy. In so doing, the conservative party in America waged war against democracy itself.

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Abe Lincoln Resurfaces, Still Helping with our Better Angels

An image taken in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania on November 19, 1863 that very well might show a previously un-noticied picture of President Abraham Lincoln. Picture by Alexander Gardner/Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

A picture taken at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania that very well might show a previously unnoticed image of President Abraham Lincoln. Picture by Alexander Gardner/Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Recently, news broke that a keen-eyed former Disney animator named Christopher Oakley had discovered a previously unknown image of President Abraham Lincoln in an old picture taken by photographer Alexander Gardner. Gardener took the photo on November 19, 1863, the day Lincoln delivered his “Gettysburg Address,” perhaps the most famous – and shortest – speech in the history of the United States. If this admittedly blurry and tiny image does indeed show Old Abe, and the evidence looks fairly convincing that it does, then it would be one of the very few images of the 16th president not taken in a posed, studio setting.

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Banks and Rough Justice: Why Lynching Imagery Matters

The August, 1930 public lynching of two young men in Marion, Indiana. This is not the same thing as criticizing plutocrats.

The August 1930 public lynching of two young men in Marion, Indiana. This is not the same thing as criticizing plutocrats.

It the annuals of foot-in-mouth syndrome, few will ever be able to compete with Bob Benmosche, the entitled gas bag and so-called “in your face” CEO of American International Group (AIG). AIG is one of the most powerful multinational insurance corporations/mafioso syndicates in the world. It also just happens to be one of the mega-banks that melted under the weight of its own greed and had to be bailed out by taxpayers in 2008 to the tune of over $180 billion dollars. Why does that matter?

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A Race Against Time: The South and the Fight Against Social Welfare

1930s poster advertising the benefits of Social Security. The South accpeted this program on condition that African Americans be excluded from its benefits.

1930s poster advertising the benefits of Social Security. The South accepted this program on condition that African-Americans be excluded from its benefits.

This October, some of the major benefits of President Obama’s signature health care reform bill will start being implemented across the U.S. Of course, ever since the bill’s passage back in 2010, the Republican Party has stood in strident opposition to a supposedly Stanliesque health reform law that was inspired by… the Heritage Foundation: a Republican think tank that over a decade ago proposed the idea of mandated individual health insurance. Among the GOP’s most vociferous opponents of Obamacare has been Ted Cruz, the junior senator from Texas who is aiming for the title of senate Wingnut Royale. Cruz has made headlines of late by defiantly claiming that he’ll find a way to destroy Obamacare even in the face of procedural impossibilities in the Senate.

Cruz’s Quixotic quest to defund the health care law is, in large part, a rhetorical attempt to regurgitate just enough political innards into the gaping maws of his nested Tea Party backers in exchange for their continued support. But Cruz’s anti-Obamacare stance is also standard politics for a conservative politician from the South: Cruz, as did many southerners in the past, opposes social welfare programs. Historically, however, conservative southerners’ opposition to welfare has been far from total; rather, as scholars like Lisa Disch and many others have observed, it has been selective along lines of class and, especially, race.

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The Bible Says it…Right? American Politicians, Scripture, and the Legacy of the Slavery Debate

Rep. Kevin Cramer (R-Hell) quotes the Bible to justify slashing food assistance programs. Photo by AP.

Rep. Kevin Cramer (R-Hell) quotes the Bible to justify slashing food assistance programs. Photo by AP.

This week, the dignified monkey cage and lobotomy experiment laboratory known as the House of Representatives, which, thanks to gerrymandering during the 2010 midterm elections, is dominated by the Republican Party, voted to slash $39 billion in food stamps from the Federal budget. While such a move is not unknown for a party that may, or may not, get thrills from shooting kittens and orphans out of skeet launchers, Rep. Kevin Cramer (R-ND) justified the vote using what he, and a good many other Americans consider to be, the ultimate authority on everything from policy decisions to haircuts: the bible. Quoting 2 Thessalonians 3:10 from the English Standard Bible, Cramer stated that “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat.”

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“American Pickers” and Buying Nostalgia in the U.S.A.

Frank Fritz and Mike Wolff of History's American Pickers. Holding a rusty motorcycle in a field if so 'Murica.

Frank Fritz and Mike Wolfe of History’s “American Pickers.” Holding a rusty motorcycle in a field is so ‘Murica.

Despite what I claimed in a piece for Salon about A&E’s smash show “Duck Dynasty,” even without cable, I do, on occasion, catch t.v. shows online. Although it might seem crass and opportunistic to frame an article on American history through reality t.v. (hint: it IS crass and opportunistic), these types of shows offer a window into how history is filtered through popular culture.

One of the most successfull history-themed reality shows of the last few years has been History’s “American Pickers.” The show first premiered back in 2010 and it was an instant success that brought the world of hard-core antique collecting geekitude to a massive audience. As I’ve watched the show, however, it got me to thinking about just why the seemingly innocuous subject of junking – a subject considered so boring that a string of production companies passed on “American Pickers” before it was finally picked up by the History network – is so darn popular. Then, it all became clear: “American Pickers” is popular because it feeds off of the age-old American love for consuming nostalgia.

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Obama Calling Lincoln: History as the Great Legitimizer

President Barack Obama meets "President Abe Lincoln" during a 2012 campaign rally in Iowa.

President Barack Obama meets a fellow prairie stater, “President Abe Lincoln,” during a 2012 campaign rally in Iowa.

Over the summer, President Barack Obama made a series of speeches designed to drum up public and private support for better infrastructure investment as part of his broader long-term economic recovery plan. This speeches were mostly political, insofar as no such plan has any chance of squeezing through the fatalistic lunatic factory that is the current Republican controlled Congress. The president knows this, of course, but his speeches gave him the chance to do what all politicians do during their time in office: invoke history to legitimize the present…and the future.

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American Guns, American Tradition

The Battle of Little Big Horn, also known as Custer's last stand, epitomizes the role of guns in shaping an expantionist American identity.

The Battle of Little Bighorn, also known as Custer’s Last Stand, epitomizes the role of guns in shaping an expansionist American identity.

Amidst news of yet another mass shooting on American soil, this time at a naval yard in Washington D.C., the calls for more examinations of the prevalence of gun violence in American culture are being made once again. These calls will float around the cultural atmosphere long enough to gain a few approving nods, mostly from the suffering victims of gun violence, before they are quietly plugged back into the mysterious black hole of moral ambiguity dug by the NRA and its supporters in government. Indeed, following a stunningly successful recall in Colorado of Democratic state senators who supported additional gun control, and only a few days after the Atlantic announced the sad Death of Gun Control, the idea that we could have any rational debate about guns in American culture seems ludicrous on its face.

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The American Civil War Rages on…in England

Members of the U.K. based Southern Skirmish Association shout the Rebel yell.

Members of the U.K. based Southern Skirmish Association shout the Rebel yell.

This past weekend, a bloody battle raged between entrenched Confederate forces and determined Union attackers in Bath, U.K. That’s right, the Brits also like to reenact the American Civil War. Today I thought I’d follow up a bit on an earlier, and deeply profound (just trust me on that) post about Civil War reenactments by highlighting an annual event held by British Civil War enthusiasts.

As the Bath Chronicle reported:

Gunfire rang out around the edge of Bath at the weekend as hundreds of people re-enacted some of the drama of the American Civil War.

The American Museum at Claverton has been hosting the annual weekend-long re-enactment since 1970 and this year welcomed around 200 members of the Southern Skirmish Association to the attraction, dressed in full 19th century battle regalia.

The event is associated with the American Museum in Britain, which bills itself as “the only museum of American decorative and folk art outside of the United States.” The reenactors themselves are members of the Southern Skirmish Association, a group of British Civil War buffs that date back to 1968, making them “the oldest American Civil War Re-enacting Society outside of the United States.” The SSA is a registered U.K. charity and its mission statement is as follows:

Our aim is to honour the fallen of the American Civil War and we do this by means of “living history” re-enactments, with most members camping out in period costume and accommodation although modern camps are also available. We recreate realistic battle scenes and skirmishes, including artillery, cavalry as well as infantry forces.  

The group’s Civil War reenactments seem to be reasonably popular, as far as these things go, and, like similar events in the U.S., the reenactments attract visitors hoping for a rush of history without the blood and mayhem:

Around 700 visitors came through the doors of the museum over the weekend, and both skirmishers and officials were delighted with the event.

Zoe Dennington, head of learning and events programming for the museum, said: “We have lots of visitors who come especially for the re-enactment. It’s quite a specialist thing and it appeals to people who have a specific interest in the civil war. People come from across the country to see the event, and it also appeals to families because it’s such a spectacle.

Of course, its more than just mock fighting. The event also relies on a good dose of nineteenth century nostalgia:

Skirmishers spent the weekend camped outside the museum living life as it was back in the 1860s, holding several events including two hour-long skirmishes with firing displays, prize ceremonies and displays of medical equipment used in the period.

While its interesting to note the popularity of the American Civil War in other countries (I’m writing a post about it, so it must be important), the existence of a British Civil War reenactment group isn’t really that surprising. The U.K. also boasts a West Yorkshire-based group called the American Civil War Society that does “living history” style demonstrations and reenactments, and of course, the British also like to reenact their own civil war. A similar state-side phenomenon is the popularity of Medieval and Renaissance faires, in which Americans of all stripes leave their comic book shops and parents’ basements for a few days and re-create the supposed chivalrous heroism of Europe’s Dark Ages and ensuing enlightenment.

American "knights" recreate European days of yore.

American “knights” recreate European days of yore.

These types of historical reenactments are ways in which contemporary folks can experience history in a very selective and bloodless manner by playing up notions of honor, chivalry, and the general pleasures associated with allegedly simpler times. Certainly, the big draw of these types of events is the chance to see some historical violence without having to see any actual violence, and there’s something mildly uncomfortable about that notion. Its neutering the past to make it less threatening for the present. Then again, it’s no doubt a good idea to leave the nineteenth and other centuries’ worst violence in the past. Better to have a fake civil war than another real one…right?