Primary Sources in the Classroom


Freedom of Movement: The Shocking Life of Isadora Duncan

Isadora Duncan (May 27, 1877 - September 14, 1927). Image from America's Historical Newspapers

Isadora Duncan was dance-struck as a young child in San Francisco. By the time she was six, she was teaching neighborhood children how to move like ocean waves. The strict rules of ballet and conventions of the music hall never held her interest. Indeed, throughout her life as a dancer and teacher, she rebelled against the forms and costumes of traditional dance, preferring movements based on nature and emotion. In 1895, still a teenager, she moved to Chicago and joined the Augustin Daly Company, touring from the Midwest to New York to London. While in London, she also danced solo performances at society events.

Freedom of Movement: The Shocking Life of Isadora Duncan

The "Sensational, Hair-Raising, Blood-Curdling, Penny-Awful" American Life of Ned Buntline

What activities might make up the archetypal life of a 19th-century American man?  Items on such a checklist could include:  Samuel Clemens checked off many of these items: He was a sailor, if on the Mississippi. He went west to make his fortune. He had served briefly in the Civil War. He was a journalist and popular lecturer. He reinvented himself as the author Mark Twain. He became an entrepreneur, and he lost a fortune.

Ned Buntline (1821-1886) from Early American Newspapers

The "Sensational, Hair-Raising, Blood-Curdling, Penny-Awful" American Life of Ned Buntline

The Vermilion Bridge: One of the World’s Most Admired Human Achievements

May 27, 2012, is the 75th anniversary of the opening celebrations of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. When it opened, it was the longest suspension bridge in the world.  It spanned the mile-wide strait entering San Francisco Bay, a feat that had been dreamed of, and deemed impossible, for a century.  On May 27, 1937, over 200,000 pedestrians streamed over the bridge in a festive display of wonder and enthusiasm.

Dallas Morning News (May 28, 1937)

The Vermilion Bridge: One of the World’s Most Admired Human Achievements

Hoochie Coochie: The Lure of the Forbidden Belly Dance in Victorian America

“It was downright indecent.  I saw women go out after the creatures had begun what they call their dance.  I did not stay it through. I just couldn’t.”1

(A woman’s indignant account of her visit to the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893)

From America's Historical Newspapers

Danse du ventre, oriental dance, the hoochie coochie, coochie coochie, muscle dance, or better known to us as belly dance, was almost unknown in the United States until 1893 when brightly colored dancers dressed in exotic garb from the Middle East appeared at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago.  Their dancing both fascinated and scandalized Victorians.  The Exposition, also known as the Chicago World’s Fair, commemorated the 400-year anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s discovery of the New World.  It was the first world’s fair with an area of amusements set aside from exhibitions.  This area was known as the Midway Plaisance.  One of the most popular attractions on the Midway was “A Street in Cairo,” where the dancers performed.  Over 27 million people attended the Exposition during its six-month run.2 "The Streets of Cairo” was one of its more memorable attractions for many visitors, as well as one of its most controversial. Victorian visitors often viewed the dancers, now identified from the published descriptions of their costumes as gypsy ghawazi from Egypt3, with a mixture of fascination, amusement and moralistic revulsion:

Hoochie Coochie: The Lure of the Forbidden Belly Dance in Victorian America

Surviving the Titanic: The Stories Behind the Story

No novelist would dare to picture such an array of beautiful climatic conditions—the rosy dawn, the morning star, the moon on the horizon, the sea stretching in level beauty to the skyline—and on this sea to place an ice-field like the Arctic regions and icebergs in numbers everywhere—white and turning pink and deadly cold,—and near them, rowing round the icebergs to avoid them, little boats coming suddenly out of the mid-ocean, with passengers rescued from the most wonderful ship the world has known. 

—Lawrence Beesley, The Loss of the S.S. Titanic (June 1912)

The Titanic. Source: George Grantham Bain Collection (Library of Congress).

Surviving the Titanic: The Stories Behind the Story

The Titanic and Her Passengers: Using America’s Historical Newspapers to Uncover Tales of Tragedy and Love

Thousands of ships over centuries have lined the ocean floor, but even 100 years after it sank, the Titanic still fascinates. James Cameron’s 1997 critically acclaimed "Titanic"—the second bestselling film in U.S. history—was re-released this month in 3-D. The Titanic has also been the subject of several TV documentaries retelling and exploring the disaster. In its own time, no news event was more covered in exacting detail through the pages of the press. News of the Titanic’s shocking demise made front pages across the nation.

The Boston Journal (Source: America's Historical Newspapers)

The Titanic and Her Passengers: Using America’s Historical Newspapers to Uncover Tales of Tragedy and Love

Surgeon and Abolitionist James McCune Smith: An African American Pioneer

Dr. James McCune Smith. Source: New-York Historical Society

Surgeon and Abolitionist James McCune Smith: An African American Pioneer

Location, location, location!

Nothing says “home” quite like a map of Alaska and adjacent lands shown as Russian and British territory—with annotations in French! 

“Map showing Russian territory of Alaska and coastline of western Canada. Alaskan Boundary Tribunal” (1903). Source: U.S. Congressional Serial Set, Readex

Location, location, location!

The World’s Greatest Aviator: Daredevil Lincoln Beachey and the Dip of Death

Lincoln J. Beachey (March 3, 1887 – March 14, 1915)

In the early 20th century, aviator Lincoln Beachey and his Curtis biplane amazed and delighted crowds with the “Dip of Death” and his mastery of “looping the loop.” Or by daring to fly upside down, which on one occasion shook $300 from his pocket and led him to quip,
I am willing to take a chance of losing my life flying upside down but it’s certainly tough to be torn loose from my bank roll, too.1
A groundbreaking aviator and breathtaking stuntman, he could boast of having performed for over 20 million spectators, or about one fifth of the U.S. population at the time. Yet 100 years later his name is largely unknown.

Source: Jackson (Mich.) Citizen Press; Jan. 30, 1914. Click open full article in PDF.

The World’s Greatest Aviator: Daredevil Lincoln Beachey and the Dip of Death

The Lady’s Maid: A Life in Service in America

Downton Abbey, a drama that recently ended its second season on PBS about the English aristocracy and their servants during the Edwardian era, has become a cult hit in the United States. A great deal of its appeal is nostalgia for an elegant way of life unfamiliar to most of us. And there is likely not a woman alive who has not wished for a lady’s maid (of a nicer sort) than the dour and scheming O’Brien, lady’s maid to Lady Grantham (Cora Crawley). Ladies’ maids were part seamstress, masseuse, hairdresser, beautician and secretary. Unlike the rest of the servants, they reported directly to the lady of the house rather than to the housekeeper or butler, which set them apart from the others. As Downton Abbey makes abundantly clear, a strict hierarchy ruled "below stairs" too. The butler, housekeeper and ladies' maids were at the top. Because of the close nature of the relationship between the lady of the house and her maid, maids were carefully selected. According to The Lady’s Maid: Her Duties and How to Perform Them, a manual published in 1870,
The Lady’s Maid: A Life in Service in America

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