Saturday, January 31, 2015

Primary Document Party (or This is How We Do It)

As my two loyal blog readers know, I'm rather fond of keeping an eye on SHEG.  Although I think their hearts are in the right place, they've had scaling issues.  Because they emphasize particular types of sources, and emphasize assessing the reliability of the source authors, they tend to privilege the points of view of elites who tend to understand their own circumstances better and produce copious amount of eyewitness accounts as events happen.  And quite frankly, while I haven't looked at all their lesson plans, it seems like they don't pay much attention to silences in documents or reading against a document's intent.  The result are exercises that privilege some very narrow viewpoints.

So rather than hit up another post about how SHEG was missing the mark (trust me: the explanation for the Sepoy Mutiny exercise is crummy), I thought I'd post one of my own primary document exercises*.

In this case the assignment is a prompt for thinking about how the Industrial Revolution changed cities.  Here is the assignment in full.  Then I'll walk you through the steps:

Using these resources look at the census data and maps for the following two blocks in the 1880s era and the 1920s era.  Then choose one of the blocks and write a brief (3 paragraph) description of one of the blocks, how it changed, and hypothesize how it changed. 
200 block of S. Sixth
200 block of Arch

1880 Census  
Blocks 200 Blocks S. Sixth 759/831
           200 Arch 789/831

1920 Census
S. Arch 416/1162

S. Sixth 198/1162

1880 era map  

1920 era map

Write a one to two page description of how your block has changed over time.  You should be able to describe your block in one paragraph for 1880 and one paragraph for 1920.  Finally, in a third short paragraph, hypothesize what caused the changes between 1880 and 1920 that you see. 

 Please read the following instructions carefully before beginning to write.  You do not need to answer every single question listed below.

Start by carefully describing each time period.  Look at the information that you have gathered about your block in 1880 and1920.  The following questions may help you describe the function and appearance of your block:
·           Describe the variety of buildings.
·           Do all the buildings appear to be from the same time period?  Different time periods?  How can you tell?  What materials are used in the exterior construction that may give you clues to a time period?
·           Is there open or unused space pictured?  Is it green space or vacant lot?  Do you think that the space has always been open or was it a change?  What evidence do you have to support your answer?
·           What were the functions of the buildings in the area?  Do you see evidence of any recent changes in function?  What would you have to know in order to answer these questions?  Where might you look for those answers?
·           Does the block have a function as a whole?  What might that function be?
The following questions may help you describe the residents of, visitors to, workers on your block:
·           Who would have lived or worked here? 
·           Did the residents work here or elsewhere?  Did the workers live here or elsewhere?
·           Why would people have come to your block? 
·           What was the socio-economic class of your block? 
·           What was the ethnic, racial, and gender makeup of the block? 

When you have finished these descriptions begin to compare them.  Consider how you block changed from one time period to the next.  Begin to consider what might have caused these changes.  Use the following questions to help you think about this:
·           What was happening in Philadelphia during these time periods that may have influenced your block?
·           Political movements, economic depression/recessions, economic booms, shifts in technology or industry?
·           What were living conditions like for people in each time period, how did they change and why?
·           What transportation may they have used? 
·           How might they have dressed? 
·           What appliances might they have had - for communication, lighting, heat, cooking, cleaning?  
·           What jobs might they have had?
·           What kind of working conditions might there have been?
·           What hours might they have worked?  Wages?  Health benefits?  Unions?
·           Why might people have come to your block or the neighborhood around it?  How did that change over time and why?
·           Are there any entertainment venues on your block? Theaters? Movie houses?  Are there government buildings?  Religious institutions? Educational institutions?  Public spaces - gardens, parks?
·           If the mix of residential and business on your block changed, why might that have happened?
·           If the mix of people changed on your block, why might that have happened?
·           Do you think your block was on its way up or down the socio-economic ladder at each time period?  Was the change continuous?  What might effect its socio-economic status?

 *                                                            *                                                     *

For the sake of brevity, I'll focus on the Arch Street block.  Following the link to the map takes you to the index map.  If you locate the 200 block of Arch St., you'll recognize that it's between plates 8 1/2 and 9.  Also note the key is on this page.   

 Click in the box in the Upper Right Corner and a dropdown menu appears.  Click on Plate 8 1/2 and zoom in on Arch Street and you'll see something that looks like this:

  Checking against the key, we see that this is a commercial block (that green color means warehouses) and that some of those buildings are also stores and that some also function as dwellings.  This is a fire insurance map, so there's also a lot of information we don't particularly care about having to do with how quickly those building could burn down.

Now let's look at that piece of the block  around 1920:

There's been some changes on the block, even this tiny portion of it.  In the comments let me know what you come up with.  (Since the assignment is due Monday, I don't want to give too much away).

Now let's check the census data.  Go ahead and click over there using the link above and scroll over to frame 789.  The little finger on the bottom of the screen will help you out if you shift to page view and I recommend only viewing one page at a time unless you have practice using microfilm on a computer. 

Here's a typical entry:

(Pro-tip:  When using the reader at don't zoom with your computer, use the plus button on the reader.  The scans get increasingly high resolution as you zoom in this way and it's easier to read.)   And hey, the've got a 14 year old living with them in their hotel and he's a student boarder not related to the family.

Why is he living with them?  Well, if we scroll over....

How about that,  everybody in this unit is German or the child of someone German.  (NB: those are various places in Germany since there wasn't a Germany when most of these folks were born).  Scroll around the census data on your own some more.  I'll wait. 

Now in 1920 you click and.....  there's far fewer people.  Why?

And what's this piece:

From being primarily German, it's gone to being Russian and Polish.  And at least some of those people speak Yiddish.  The Jews have moved in!

How and why did this block change?  The students don't know.  Those questions are what they are trying to answer over the next several weeks as we work on Industrialization and the Gilded Age.

So you know, that's how we do it.  Cue the music.  

* My own here means that I use it.  This assignment was originally developed by Helen Grady, and later modified by Janelle Collett, Margot Pollans, and is in it's current incarnation with the help of James Spagnoletti and Tereneh Kerley. 


  1. The Great Philadelphia Pork Sausage Plague ...

  2. Okay, Withy, the joke's over my head. Explain.

  3. Fewer people ... Jews survive, Germans don't ...

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.