#582: History in the Dumpster

January 15th, 2016

The box sat on top of the heap of garbage. It was fresh, dry and new, recently deposited in a dumpster in a streetlamp-lit winter alley in a brick-lined residential strip of North Center.

It was a history teacher’s box of history.

Issues of American History Illustrated from the early 1970s. Illinois History Teacher magazine from the early 2000s. Chicago History going as far back as 1993. The magazines that were addressed were sent to a mishmash of different teachers and high schools throughout the city and suburbs.

The box held other treasures. A warped photo book of the South Side community of Douglas/Grand Boulevard. A rather disturbing Jefferson Davis Coloring Book lionizing the Confederate leader. Presidential postcards and bookmarks from various museums and memorials in four states and the capital. A health care company’s promotional plastic ruler with all the U.S. presidents on the back, a near-twin of the one I got at the Truman Library when I was a kid, just with four new presidents added.

It was a lovingly tended, near-mint collection of the history used to teach high school students as far back as the 1970s.

And it was in the dumpster.

The metaphor of history dumped in a garbage bin is poignant, but I think it’s wrong.

Whoever shepherded this collection in his or her own home, keeping every magazine, book and card in as mint condition as possible considering they’ve passed through the hands of an unknown number of high school teachers and grubby little students through the decades, did not suddenly decide “I hate history.”

Retirement? Move? Winter decluttering? Sudden realization that the increase of online capacity has led to an age of historical research where what could have been a small line item in that 1993 magazine about a neat diary someone found can now become an interactive multimedia exploration of the life and times of 1800s Chicago streetcar driver Elmer Whiting?

It’s not the history that was dumped. Just the history of history.

I recently read a fascinating article on the history of European Jewry former U.S. President William Howard Taft wrote for National Geographic in 1919. It was complete with stunning black-and-white illustrations and photos of what life was like for Jews around the world up through the end of World War I.

It was in a stack of National Geographics a coffee shop threw in the corner for bored customers to read.

I wonder what will happen to the history of history. How we saw the past in a less-distant past can tell us about both eras.

Isn’t it telling to know that Chicago Tribune experts saw a bright future in 1993 because the paper went “online at 8:00 a.m. each day through Chicago Online”? That as late as 1982, The Jefferson Davis Coloring Book was still presenting Southern children a version of the Civil War that did not mention slavery?

That two months before 20-year-old Corporal Adolf Hitler wrote his first lines on the “Jewish Question,” a former U.S. president wrote confidently that the League of Nations will be powerful enough to keep European Jews free from persecution?

The true historians and archivists are still poring through source documents, lovingly preserving the initial detritus of life that gives us our means for conceiving of a past. They should. They’re the best ones for it.

But what about the rest of us? The average joes and janes who still have a cultural need to understand our past, but who don’t have immediate access to the original 1895 ad for First Communion Day shoes from M. Dwyer, 191 Blue Island Avenue, or photos of a late 1940s Serenes v. Ting-a-Lings all-Japanese women’s basketball playoffs through the Chicago Nisei Athletic Association.

I can find the Taft article on Google Books. I can find a history of Japanese-American post-internment resettlement in Chicago, complete with videos of internment camp survivors in the middle of the night on a moment’s notice just by typing “chicago nisei japanese” into DuckDuckGo.

But how on earth would I know to type those words without a bunch of old magazines I found in a dumpster?

I don’t know what I’m going to do with a bunch of old historical magazines. I could hot potato them to my local library or rack my brains for any teacher I know who might want them.

Maybe they’ll find their way to a new dumpster. I occasionally declutter too.

But for the moment, I’ll treasure my little pile. I’ll enjoy my relics of the history of history before I also move on, hopefully knowing a little more by then than I do right now.

A museum keeping a hidden history alive

My most recent historical post (it’s got space)

I should keep promoting the Chicago History Museum’s “Chicago Authored” exhibit I’m part of

And here’s a guy who learned not to ask a speed date about prison

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