Another one bites the dust.

7 07 2014

Over the weekend, I finished the manuscript for Refrigerator:

RefrigeratorCover 2

OK, maybe “Another One Bites the Dust” is a little strong here. I have a complete draft now, but I still have to do some more tinkering myself (stuff along the lines of “Do I really need that many quotations?” The answer is always no.) before I turn the thing in to my extremely supportive editors at Bloomsbury a few weeks from now. Nevertheless, it really feels marvelous to have written something like an actual book in just two months. Here are the two secrets of that success: 1) The manuscript is only 25,000 words long, which is exactly the length the publisher wanted. And 2) I had most of the research done already. I think the only new research I did consisted of me going to Lowe’s and Sears and just looking around, picking up pamphlets as I went or reading refrigerator reviews on the Internet.*

The weird thing though is that, without meaning to, I seem to have stumbled into what is at least for me a brand new publishing strategy: More than one book from the same set of research. While some of what I already knew from Refrigeration Nation went into this new book, the most important reason I could write Refrigerator so quickly (and this derives from reason #2 above) is that I had huge chunks of refrigerator-related material already written. This is the stuff that ended up on the proverbial cutting room floor writing Refrigeration Nation, but it fit well into the kind of book that Bloomsbury wanted – not too serious, and definitely not academic. For example, most of the part on refrigerators and global warming that I originally wrote for Refrigeration Nation made no sense in an academic history, but fit this book perfectly.

Oddly enough, it looks like the next book I get done will be a book devoted entirely to the icebox for Johns Hopkins again. The idea here is to write a short undergraduate-level textbook to explain all the very complicated technologies that made the extremely simple technology of the icebox possible. On this subject, I literally have drawerfuls and databases full of material that never made it into Refrigeration Nation. That’s what thirteen years worth of research can do for you.

To top it all off, none other than my older brother the economics professor (and his co-author) invited me to collaborate on at least one math-laden study about the effects of the introduction mechanical refrigeration into American cities on public health. Besides the sheer irony of me producing anything that has math in it for an economics journal no less, it just seems like an interesting thing to do. As an added benefit, it would make our Dad very happy.

So why does all this matter to you? Well, if you’re not an historian, it might not matter at all. However, if you happen to be a member of my particular academic cult, I think there may be many good reasons not to wait ten years between books.  Here are three of them: 1) The money is hopefully way better this way. More books means more chances for royalties and speaking fees – and as someone in the same salary situation that Historiann describes here, that’s no small benefit. 2) Researching vertically – meaning one subject deeper rather than many subjects lightly – gives you a chance to correct your mistakes. I’m not confessing to mistakes in Refrigeration Nation…at least not yet, but there were omissions.  For example, I really wish I could have included the stuff I got about frozen foods for this books in the last one too. And 3) Since the powers that be at my school now say that I have to justify keeping three courses per semester every single, solitary year, publishing this way is actually the best way for me to keep more time to write.

I still have an interesting longterm publishing project: my Harvey Wiley biography. Maybe by the time I get back to it, I’ll figure out the perfect angle to get an agent and a trade book contract. Until that day comes, I’ll just keep plugging along.

* Did you know that you can buy a refrigerator at Amazon? They don’t ship it via UPS. Buy one and they’ll call you within three days to set up a drop off date and get one out to you direct from the manufacturer’s warehouse.


Surprise refrigeration post!!!

10 04 2014

I’m here in Atlanta for the Organization of American Historians convention. Instead of attending panels, I spent about three hours in the library of the American Society of Heating, Air Conditioning and Refrigeration Engineers taking pictures of old refrigerator ads. Honestly, I’m not sure it was worth the pressure of driving in Atlanta (and that’s only because driving in Atlanta really is THAT bad), but as this was the first time I ever walked into a library or an archive with a camera and a tripod, I thought I’d share.

First, you’ll notice that most of these pictures aren’t that good. When you need them for text rather than pictures I guess this doesn’t matter, but since I wanted these for a potential refrigeration roadshow I was hoping for better. After a little while I ditched the tripod entirely just so that they all wouldn’t look like I was photographing them from the side (which I had to do while the camera was on the tripod). Second, the content of all these ads really is wonderful. I think there is something about refrigerators that leads their manufacturers to project society’s anxieties upon them. This is particularly true of gender.

As advertisements aren’t protected by copyright, let me do at least a little show and tell here, with pictures that are hopefully big enough for you to read the wonderful fine print. None of these were dated unless the magazine’s date was on the reverse:

My Time Is My Own

This is one of what I’ve come to call “Refrigerator as Liberation” ads. Yes, it’s for a whole kitchen, but the refrigerator is the biggest part. I think it’s interesting that the appliance is marketed directly at women. In earlier days when these things were more expensive, that wasn’t always the case.


This one reminds me of those old Listerine ads: “Suspect yourself first.” Selling refrigerators through anxiety is possible only because the controls on the appliances were so bad that they needed constant maintenance. Kelvinator may have been “fully automatic” but it still needed defrosting and cleaning. This is also, of course, another ad aimed at women. [Men, of course, don’t get anxious about their kitchens in this era of American History.]


Here’s one of my earlier bad shots with the tripod. It’s for refrigerators in general rather than one brand in particular, but it beautifully illustrates the gender marketing of refrigerators in the early Thirties (which is when it came out). I also like it because the talking baby kind of creeps me out, like in those E-Trade commercials.

Sorry if you can’t read all the fine print in these, but thank goodness I can in iPhoto. Maybe I’ll have to pull out quotes for the slides in my traveling refrigerator roadshow. It will even include iceboxes!

Just another boring old refrigeration history post.

12 12 2013

Over at the blog of the Historical Society.

MOOCs are in Joan Rivers, but they’re trying to get out.

22 10 2013

During the 1840s and early-1850s, American ice harvesters tried to sell their product in Great Britain for the first time. It was the technological marvel of its day – clear ice cut from lakes and ponds in New England shipped intact across the ocean. When you think about it, it’s still an impressive technological feat. Cut ice in regular blocks and pack it in a ship, the blocks separated with sawdust like mortar in a brick wall and 50-75% of the ice will still be intact when you take it to the other side of the world.

London had never seen anything like it. One supplier displayed a block in their window on the Strand. People would stop and gawk on it (not realizing that they would replace the block as it melted). That same supplier convinced Queen Victoria to endorse their product. Another brought over American bartenders to make “American” iced drinks. Unfortunately, the hype couldn’t sell enough of this novel product to keep the market afloat.

While natural ice was a sensation with the upper crust for a few seasons, the product never penetrated the middle or lower classes. Cost explains that result to some extent, but so does culture. The British just didn’t much care for iced drinks. For decades, the only place you could buy ice in England was at the fishmonger, where they used it to display their catch. It’s been seven years since the last time I was in England, but I remember it was next to impossible to get ice cubes there even then. Because I didn’t want to be an Ugly American i just stopped asking.

Why am I writing about ice cubes in what’s clearly a MOOC post? Well, there’s the fact that I’d much rather be promoting my book than going to this well yet again, but this piece really did make me think of the longstanding British distaste for ice cubes:

How do critics expect a MOOC to simply come in and present itself as a viable and legitimate replacement as a signal of student competence against some of our most revered and trusted institutions? Harvard, Yale, and Princeton opened their gates in 1636, 1701 and 1746. I daresay that it is asking a tad much of this nascent experiment to eclipse the prestige of these institutions after a meagre few years.

Harvard, Yale and Princeton, bless their hearts had paying students right from the beginning. MOOCs, alas for the techno-utopians among us, have no business model to speak of at all. American ice providers would have loved a few extra years in order to convince British people to consume cold drinks, but Mean Mr. Market didn’t give any to them. I think the same thing will be true for MOOCs, no matter how successful their experiment happens to be.

While I think we have enough evidence to pronounce MOOCs a pedagogical failure (if not a business one), the author of this piece has a much rosier view of education technology. If you’re stomach is strong enough to click this link, you’ll see that it’s response to Sarah Kendzior’s recent Aljazeera piece on MOOCs, “When MOOCs Profit, Who Pays?” Luckily for me, Sarah Kendzior is more than capable of taking care of herself so I have no need to violate my pledge not to rehash arguments from the “Year of the MOOC” that I’ve been over 1,000 times before in this space.

Nevertheless, there is something new and different here. The faith-based manner in which the author accepts arguments of the Masters of MOOC Creation is almost touching in its naiveté. That’s why a long excerpt is in order:

The very notion that MOOC providers are wedging income groups further and further apart is laughable after just a cursory read of the quixotic and lofty aims that their founders propagate. To say that MOOCs are an accomplice to the hardships suffered by students because of the tortured state of higher education is to fail to understand what one actually is and why the mode came into being.

Their founders talk of goals such as bringing the highest quality education to the remotest parts of the world, to offer students the same level and depth of instruction, irrespective of their financial or ethnic background. How can a concept so fundamentally egalitarian and open be accused of creating educational inequalities? MOOC providers can boast stories of their courses giving new leases on life to Syrians suffering the tolls of war and giving humanitarians new tools to inform their field work. Is this not the exact opposite of increasing inequality? And given that MOOC providers have not the ambition nor aspiration for their platforms replace the institutions of university, there is no immediately conceivable possibility of a two-tiered education system arising as a result of their existence.

This is pure faith-based education reform if I’ve ever seen it. The author sees the potential for helping suffering Syrians and therefore assumes that all of us must accept one and only version of the potential future so that those Syrians can get their MOOCs. If the people being helped can’t actually pay for their MOOCs, then American college students have a duty to propel this experiment forward.

If I see Elvis everywhere, does that mean we need to go to Graceland and dig up his body just to make sure he’s really dead? It reminds me of one of those charities that’s all smiles in their infomercials, but 95% of the donations go to the founder’s bank accounts. We’re helping because we say so. Period. End of story. Don’t follow the money or you’ll hurt the people we’re helping.

MOOCs, in short, have become all things to all people. For the naive techies of the world, they will end inequality. To investors in Udacity and Coursera, they will hopefully make enough to aggravate it. To superprofessors, they will bring quality learning to the masses. To the retired physics professors of the world who take every MOOC in sight, they’re more of an opportunity for entertainment that beats whatever is on television. All of this is a product of the fact that MOOC providers have absolutely no idea what their market even is. Unfortunately for them, they’ll have better luck bringing Elvis back from the dead than they will satisfying all these constituencies at once.

Why do Americans have such big refrigerators?

4 10 2013

So I got published in the Atlantic this morning. Ironically, while looking for it I found a piece that shows just how outdated my household refrigerator size numbers are. Our refrigerators no longer average 17.5 cubic feet in volume. They’re now up to 22.5 cubic feet.

Luckily, my stated reasoning still applies.

Textbooks as instruments of oppression.

25 01 2012

My first job was at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington. I went from a graduate program that was dominated by graduate students in American History (Go Badgers!) to a college where American historians were in the minority. The old hands there teased me mercilessly because I readily admitted that I really didn’t know much about anything that happened outside the borders of the United States.

That has changed. For the last 10+ years I’ve been going out of my way to read European and World History in my spare time out of a combination of embarrassment and enjoyment since so much of it has been completely new to me. I’ve also been working on a global history of the ice and refrigeration industries which has taken my narrative all over the world by using American reports on foreign inventions and companies.

While the deal isn’t finalized yet, it looks as if I’ll be teaching in South Korea for about a month this summer. They want me to do Western Civilization. All of it. In less than a month. If it weren’t for my years of reading I would never even consider it, but I’m going to need a textbook.

I can teach American history without a textbook because I am an expert in American history. I need a textbook to cover Western Civilization because textbooks are a crutch. I don’t mean that anyone who uses them is necessarily ignorant, but if you aren’t sure about what you are teaching they make it far easier to sound as if you do. I won’t be so much teaching out of the textbook as using it as a starting point for deeper discussion, but if I really had no idea what I was doing this would be an easy way to get by.

In the video I posted yesterday, Dan Czitrom of Mount Holyoke tells a story of visiting East Tennessee State shortly after his textbook first came out in order to talk that large department into adopting it. He was rightfully concerned about this mission because 1) Making people teach out of the same textbook has academic freedom implications and 2) Everyone in that department had to teach a section of US History whether they specialized in US history or not. Without textbooks, neither of these problems could ever have existed.

Czitrom also states that he was shocked, shocked to see gambling at that establishment at how bad the working conditions were at East Tennessee State. He then suggests that the wonderful accoutrements that his and other publishers provide are a lifesaver for people who face large classes with no help. I hate to disagree with a fellow Badger, particularly since I’m sure his heart is in the right place, but I would argue that the exact opposite is true.

When publishers create tools that make less-than-ideal situations tenable, they make it easier and more acceptable for administrations to make those circumstances even less tenable in the future. After all, what’s another hundred students if you’re grading multiple choice tests with a computer program? More importantly, if your textbook (or the web in general for that matter) is providing the content and the computer is doing your grading for you, why do they need you at all? And how are you ever going to get out from under those difficult working conditions if your “friends” in the publishing industry keep making it easier for colleges to teach more students with less-qualified instructors? There’s probably a shortage of Western historians of any kind in Korea, so my flawed expertise is better than nothing at all. What’s East Tennessee State’s excuse?

Teaching out of your textbook isn’t just bad for your students. In an environment when textbook publishers want to become online education providers, it’s bad for you too. That’s especially true for adjunct faculty who can be replaced by a machine in the blink of an eye any time their employer decides it would rather spend more on online learning rather than face-to-face education.

I don’t think I have to tell you how much your “friends” in the publishing industry will do for you the moment that happens.

The power of place.

26 06 2011

Perhaps my favorite part of these TAH teacher trips is when we do what I affectionately refer to as dog-and-pony shows at major American archives. In the last five years or so, the archivists and curators at places like the Franklin Institute, the California Historical Society and the State Historical Society of Wisconsin have gone into their collections and brought out documents and objects to offer our teachers a sophisticated version of show and tell.

I’ve been through the dog-and-pony show at the Massachusetts Historical Society three times now, and it definitely gets the best reaction of any of those places. To be fair though, not all of those places have centuries old copies of the Declaration of Independence. This, for example, is the Dunlap broadside printing of the Declaration made up right after it was signed and read aloud to annonce independence:

A few years ago, Norman Mailer bought a similar version of that document for nine and a half million dollars. If you want to see one-of-a-kind documents, here is the original copy of the Abigail Adams letter in which she asks her husband to “remember the ladies”:

These pictures are just some of many that students post on their blogs, and one of the great things about blogging these trips* is that students can pull pictures from each other, just as I’ve done here. I’m not sure there have ever been so many pictures from a dog-and-pony show as I’ve seen from the one at MHS in the last few weeks. Maybe it’s the age of the documents or maybe it’s just the fact that it’s the Declaration of Independence they’re seeing.

But I have a confession to make: a few original documents don’t do that much for me. After all, MHS has been good enough to put up an awful lot of the best stuff from its collections online. I could get the ideas from these important documents at home in Colorado if I were so inclined. I like these days because of the look on the teachers faces when they see these documents rather than from the documents themselves.

Lest you think I’m totally jaded, I did get that look on my face myself a few days ago. After covering Lexington and Concord for the second time, we made an unscheduled stop at Walden Pond for what was my first visit there:

Certainly, the photo isn’t particularly impressive (as it was pouring rain at the time we were there, and, by the way, who knew you could swim in it?). I think what got me is that I knew exactly what happened there. Heck, I have about two pages of my current manuscript on the icecutters who bothered Thoreau when he stayed along its shores. That’s why I bought myself a Henry David Thoreau t-shirt despite the fact that my wife keeps telling me that I have far too many t-shirts already.

While there is no question that I prefer Thoreau to Jefferson in the great scheme of things, I think my differing reaction is more a testament to the power of place than anything else. Documents are fragile things, but place is forever. People put up plaques to events in the place where they happened even if the buildings that they happened in have already been lost. I’m used to culling ideas from the world’s great archives, but if it’s not Colorado history that I’m dealing with I usually have to get on an airplane to see where the stories I’m telling happened with my own eyes. Sometimes I get that feeling when I walk into a particularly good library, but usually I have to be let into the stacks to partake of the full effect.

Maybe it’s the sense of discovery that gets me. The unfamiliar rather than the familiar is what allows me to be thoroughly surprised. Or perhaps I’ve just been spending too much time around Boston lately.

* If you want to read some of our teachers’ work, click at the above link and tool around in the blogroll there.

The future of footnotes.

27 12 2010

I got my wife an iPad for Christmas, with the understanding that it would double as an ebook reader for me as long as she’s not using it. I downloaded my first book yesterday, Jonathan Bloom’s American Wasteland, thinking it would be the perfect example of something I would blow through quickly and not need again. It’s actually much more useful for someone writing a history of refrigeration in America than I thought, so I’m stuck on the horns of a dilemma: How do you cite an e-book?

Naive person that I am, I think I expected e-books to look something like the screen on Google Books: All the pages are intact, but they’re electronic. At worst, I might have expected that a complete e-book would look like the old scans over at Documenting the American South: The text is different than as it was originally published, but there are red lines where the original page breaks occurred. In fact, at least when using the Kindle for iPad app, there are no page numbers at all. There are these long 4+ digit location numbers, but they don’t precisely match the words on the page and I don’t see any way to use them to locate particular snippets of text. I suspect this is because page numbers would differ depending upon what device you read the e-book on or even at what magnification you set your own device. While this is perfectly fine for reading a novel that you’ll never open again, for historians this ought to pose a problem. How can we tell people where we found what we found?

What’s equally annoying to me is that the hyperlinks for Bloom’s footnotes don’t work on our iPad when I touch them. The hyperlinks to other sites work find and are kind of cool (albeit distracting), but it’s clear that I’m not going to be able to read about Bloom’s sources until I’m done with the whole thing unless I want to lose my place every time I look. As I wrote the last time I pondered the subject of footnotes, what bothers me the most about this is that publishers and perhaps readers probably don’t care. Historians should though as footnotes are an absolutely vital element of the research process. They’re certainly the best way to understand the historiography of anything and are practically what make any well-researched book possible. What’s going to happen if libraries disappear and footnotes become impossible? Will there be anything left to do for research besides Googling your topic?

By coincidence, there’s a very nice post on footnotes up today over at the Historical Society blog. The author, Lisa Clark Diller, quotes Anthony Grafton* on this subject:

Grafton reminds us that “in documenting the thought and research that underpin the narrative above them, footnotes prove that it is a historically contingent product, dependent on the forms of research, opportunities, and states of particular questions that existed when the historian went to work” (23).

That’s obviously true in the sense that historians did not always have as high standards about what constitutes a footnote as they did today, but I always figured todays standards are pretty clear: 1) Give enough information so that future researchers (or your suspicious professor) can trace precisely where you got your information if they are so inclined. 2) Use the same citation style, throughout the entire text. Am I missing something?

As far as I can tell, any changes to this historical contingency in the future could only loosen those standards. Maybe the change would be cultural, but more likely it would involve a significant change in the nature of texts. Replacing paper with pixels would be such a change, and I’m increasingly convinced that that’s not a good thing. I’m still planning on downloading new novels and political tracts at half the price of the hardback copies, but it looks like all my history texts are going to have to be delivered to me the old-fashioned way in the future if there’s any chance I might want to cite them some time.

* Note to self: Read Grafton’s footnote book ASAP. Remember to order used paperback copy so that I can quote it later.

Update: Greetings AHA Today readers! If anyone cares, I managed to get the footnote links to work before I finished the book. To get the page numbers I need to cite, I’m now thinking I’ll go to the free preview on

The best source is the one that fits your argument.

20 10 2010

There is an article in this month’s AHA Perspectives which got me thinking about the research process yet again. Here’s David Ransel from Indiana:

The Australian anthropologist-historian Greg Dening observed that the perceived value of a source increases in proportion to the difficulty of gaining access to it. He demonstrated this effect in a delightful story of his search for the letters of William Gooch, a young Englishman who had traveled in 1792 to the South Pacific as an astronomer on a supply ship and met a violent end at the hands of Hawaiian natives. Dening traveled to England and had to overcome a number of obstacles before obtaining permission to read the letters—and, accordingly, attached great importance to their contents. The story has a powerful resonance for those of us who work in far-off lands where library and archive access is even more difficult than in the United Kingdom. We are indeed apt to attach excessive importance to materials for which permission to read or copy requires lengthy battles with bureaucrats and archivists. By the same logic, we can easily undervalue sources that fall into our laps. I once acquired—in a casual trade with an illegal book trader in the Soviet Union—an 18th-century Russian letter-writer’s guide. It struck me as a quaint souvenir and possible reference for official titles and forms of address. It was only when I showed it to a senior colleague and heard him exclaim that the book contained a capsule social history that I realized how useful it could be in reinforcing the arguments of my first monograph on the importance of patronage and personal clienteles in Russian politics. This book of model letters constituted a primer in how to initiate, reestablish, nourish, or end a patron or client relationship. I soon produced a couple of articles based on the letter-writer.

Despite the fact that I’m an American historian and I don’t (usually) go off to far-off lands to find my sources, I do identify with the point. I remember way back in ancient history (before Google Books) when I would play stump the librarian with the government documents guy at the State Historical Society of Wisconsin or keep going back to the Library of Congress with two pages of requests because I wanted to track down a particular obscure source in order to make my point.

However, it’s not often like that for me anymore. I still go to archives. [In fact, I’ve been trying to arrange an upcoming archives trip most of today.] With respect to published sources though, almost everything I’d ever want seems to be available online. While I might have said that doesn’t fly for stuff published after 1923, the more I explore HathiTrust, the more good stuff I find published after 1923 in full view format. [How is that possible anyway? Anybody out there understand copyright law?]

After spending ten years or so in various libraries looking at refrigerating equipment manuals, I found one on Hathitrust published in 1933 on Monday that I had never seen before. This made me very happy. It’s going to get cited in the book manuscript in five or six places. I didn’t have to travel outside my office to find it.

So while having to scour the ends of the earth to find something certainly makes that something appear important, and (as Ransel suggests) reading easy to reach sources in new ways can also be very interesting, I think what really matters is whether any source helps you make your point effectively. And thanks to technology, that’s easier to do than ever.

No footnotes please, we’re Americans.

18 10 2010

I spent a big chunk of my weekend reading Bill Bryson’s book At Home: A Short History of Private Life. I’ve known about Bryson for ages having been slipped a few of his books by British friends long before he made big here in his home country.

What made me fork out my cash for the hardcover was this review I found through AHA Today. It’s not just that it’s a good review, but it was there that I realized that Bryson deals with the history of ice and if any book deals with ice then reading it becomes a professional responsibility for me.

The book is rambling in the most delightful way. The premise is that he tours his house and gives you the history of everyday objects and architectural arrangements as he goes. In fact, he might as well have called it A Short History of Nearly Everything again as it goes in directions that I neither expected or understood the connection between the room he was supposedly in and the history he was covering. What do bedbugs have to do with the study, for example?

But while the book is a mess organizationally, the history it covers is absolutely fascinating. Indeed, I found myself moving for the footnotes multiple times (not just in the history of ice section) so that I could read more about some of these topics. There’s where my real problem with the book lies.

The footnotes aren’t there. Actually, there are footnotes, but you have to go online to the book’s website to read them in .pdf format. I think I’ve heard of that before even if I had never encountered it yet myself, but that’s not the end of my problem. When I got to the section on the history ice and really needed to check every source I quickly realized that the pages numbers in the book didn’t match the page numbers in the notes. The online notes were the notes for Bryson’s British edition. Nobody had bothered to write up the notes for the American version!

Footnotes may be an expensive bother to the average publisher, but they should be an absolute obligation to anyone writing history. At the very least, they should be there to convey a sense that the work is trustworthy and to serve as suggestions for further reading. I’m sure this is the publisher’s fault rather than Bryson’s, but my unduly long quest to find his references still bothers the heck out of me because I fear that it might become the future of research.

One hundred years from now, if we’re all reading books on our souped-up tablet devices, I can imagine footnotes going through something of a renaissance. How does the author know that? Tap the number and find out. Publishers don’t seem to care about such things, though. If readers stop caring about such things too, then what if nobody bothers to program the links?

It’s bad enough that whole books are going totally electronic. If nobody cares about footnotes and they go electronic too, how long will they last? Where will researchers find the most appropriate references if all they have to go by are the largest databases ever known? How will they find the needles in the proverbial haystack without guidance from those who came before?

If this is the future of the research process it will be like drowning in the ocean while simultaneously dying of thirst.

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