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Monday, October 31, 2011

More from CHS

NERFC fellow makes some interesting discoveries including Geography Cards!

Do you ever wonder what young scholars are researching and what CHS is doing to help them? Robyn Davis McMillin, a PhD scholar from The University of Oklahoma is a 2011-2012 NERFC fellow – that’s the acronym for New England Regional Fellowship Consortium. Her topic of study is “Science in the American Style: A School of Fashion and Philosophy, of Liberty and People.” What drew her to CHS was the collection, “But it was not just the collections that made my trip so very, very productive. The staff at CHS is unmatched and I send my warmest thanks to everyone who worked with me. You set the bar high, my friends!”

Robyn describes her subject this way: “I move beyond the long shadow cast by that first Scientific American, Benjamin Franklin, and demonstrate that science formed an important element of Anglo-American life throughout the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and not only for a well-educated or well-heeled elite.

Even at the fringes of empire, many Americans managed to participate in the international circulation of scientific goods, ideas and practices. From gentlemen’s cabinets to displays in shops, via traveling curiosity shows and public lectures, through sociable self-improvement associations and philosophical societies, and with the help of books and print ephemera, many people partook of the new sciences. In private and public realms, in commercial as well as social settings, an extensive range of people used science for amusement and education, to signal refinement and status, and to gain entrĂ©e to a wide world of ideas.

This vernacular transmission of ideas set the stage for the rise of an authentically American culture of science. At first, engagement with scientific practices helped Americans integrate more fully into the larger metropolitan world of the British Empire and imagine themselves as Britons. Later, it influenced the development of an American consciousness, distinct from and at times in conflict with, that hard-won identity as Anglo-Americans.

My research at CHS was fruitful. There was Thaddeus Leavitt, a storekeeper from Suffield, and an accurate and diligent observer of natural phenomena, who recorded the scientific information he read in magazines. And Hannah Hadassah Hickok, who wrote in her diary of her impatience for an education. What a joy to then discover Geographical Cards much like the ones Hannah played after she had spent days reading in her “Geography book.” Not only manuscripts but museum objects also enhance my argument about the popular reach of science and its multiple roles in helping shape an American identity – like the terrestrial globe crafted from a gourd or the hand-stitched pelisse depicting the life cycle of wheat from seedling to ripened grain. CHS had it all!”

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