Fifty Years Ago

Crystal Park, Worcester, Massachusetts

Like most members of my generation, I remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when I heard that President Kennedy had been shot.

I was a freshman at South High School in Worcester, and my class attended the afternoon session due to overcrowding. That November day I was sitting in Mr. Timon’s Latin class, trying to pay attention. I remember Mr. Timon’s little jokes — if you couldn’t answer quickly, he’d say “Tempus is fugiting!” The classroom door opened and the Assistant Principal came in and announced that President Kennedy had been shot in Dallas. That’s all he said — he looked shocked, gave us the news and walked out. If I remember correctly, our classroom was near the office and I think he just needed to tell someone. We were all sitting there looking at each other waiting for Mr. Timon to say something and just a minute later we heard the chimes of the PA system followed by the announcement that President Kennedy was dead. Then there was some confusion, and they sent us back to our homerooms and dismissed us early. I remember the awkward feeling of everyone standing around not knowing quite how to react, what to say. I left the building with a group of friends and we just stood around on the sidewalk on Main Street by the Main South library branch in a block with some stores and a coffee shop. I remember looking in the window and seeing the shocked-looking customers sharing the news. Eventually we walked over to the corner of Main and Maywood Streets, across from Clark University and in front of Crystal Park. (There was a sign identifying this as University Park, but I never heard anyone call it that.)

We just stood around there for a while, feeling historical. Someone mentioned that this was like when Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, and we talked about how there was no television then, and maybe a guy on a horse would have ridden up to our school to give us the news three days later. We knew this was a major event, sad and also scary. We had grown up during the Cold War, hearing about the Atomic Bomb and fallout shelters and watching Khrushchev bang his shoe on the table at the UN. The previous autumn, we had lived through the Cuban Missile Crisis, watching President Kennedy on television addressing the nation, and we could see this was serious. I watched the address at a friend’s house at the top of our hill, and when I was walking home I remember looking at my street, my house, the streetlights illuminating the leaves on the ground, a chill in the air, thinking how beautiful and special it all was, my world in all its ordinariness. Would the peace be broken with the sound of planes about to drop bombs on us, ending it all? And that’s what was on my mind when we were standing around at the edge of Crystal Park — what did the President’s assassination mean? What would happen next? Please let things just go back to being ordinary again.

Caroline Kennedy and her pony MacaroniWe stood around on Main Street talking until it started to get dark, and my friends got on buses to take them to their neighborhoods, and I walked home. I dreaded going in the house and having to talk about the death of our young, handsome President, who seemed like a regular dad playing around with his young children. My own father had died a few years before, and I tried to avoid thinking about that, or saying anything that might remind my mother of our loss.

The next few days were rough. Our life centered around the news on television, and we went to a memorial service at a church downtown. I tried to avoid connecting the assassination with the loss of my father, but on the second night I remember going into my room and crying uncontrollably for a long time, holding the pillow over my face to try to muffle the sound. Then I wrote a lengthy sympathy note to Caroline Kennedy, telling her how sorry I was that she had lost her father and that I understood just how she felt. I remember saying random things that I hoped would somehow make her feel better, like that I thought she was pretty and that I loved her pony and thought “Macaroni” was a really cute name. But writing the letter just made me upset so I ripped it up.

Riderless Horse at President Kennedy's FuneralThe news came so fast in the next few days. We saw Lyndon B. Johnson sworn in as President, Lee Harvey Oswald caught and then shot by Jack Ruby. We saw endless photographs and video of Jackie Kennedy looking beautiful and tragic, and heartbreaking pictures of the Kennedy children. I had not attended my own father’s funeral (my choice, one I deeply regret) and I became somewhat obsessed watching the President’s funeral and looking at all the photographs in the newspaper and Time magazine. I think I conflated the two funerals in my mind, and to this day when I imagine my father’s funeral I picture a riderless horse and a flag-draped coffin.

I don’t have an ending for this. My friends and I grew up listening to our parents’ generation talking about where they were when they heard the news about Pearl Harbor. We knew this was going to be our generation’s “where were you…” moment, and I just wanted to record mine.

The Tramp House

I stopped in Middleton yesterday to take some pictures of the Old Town Hall, an 1848 building, expanded in 1878, that I’ve long admired. I pulled into the parking lot behind the building to turn my car around and discovered the Tramp House, built in 1878 and recently restored. I didn’t know this building existed, and I’d never heard of “Tramp Houses” before, but a quick search on Google turned o

Tramp House
(Behind old Town Hall)
38 Maple Street
Middleton, Massachusetts

Text from Placque

In the decades following the Civil War, thousands of itinerant men, ‘tramps,’ followed the railrose to points north in search of work. By the 1870’s, the problem of coping with the increasing numbers of tramps prompted the town to purchase a plot of land from A.A. Averill for $25, and to contract with George B. Flint to build a lock-up or ‘Tramp House’ for $355. The Tramp House was completed in 1878, and was used to temporarily shelter these homeless men. In the early 20th century, as the tramp problem diminished, the Tramp House was utilized as a jail and briefly as the Police Station.

A Few Tramp House Links:

Diamond Jubilee

The celebration of Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee reminds me of something my Scottish grandmother once shared with me. I asked her to tell me her earliest memory a historical event. She thought for a minute and said it was Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897. She was seven years old and saw a fancy display of decorated cakes for the Jubilee, complete with flags, ribbons and a big picture of the Queen, in a bakery shop window in Aberdeen. She said she had only been vaguely aware of the Queen before seeing this impressive display. I was only a child myself when we had this conversation, and I was surprised to realize that my own grandmother could remember Queen Victoria, who I thought of as a figure from ancient history. It still thrills me a bit to think I knew someone who knew Queen Victoria, even though she only knew her through a window display.

She also remembered another display in that same bakery window. It was dedicated to the Klondike Gold Rush, with little prospector figures and lots of fluffy cream and gleaming sugar representing snow. She described these scenes to me in great detail — I wonder if whoever did those window displays knew how lovingly his or her work would be appreciated and remembered! But this was a time before movie theaters and television, and poor families like my grandmother’s couldn’t afford to visit museums or to buy newspapers, magazines or books, so these shop windows must have truly been windows to the world for my grandmother.

In the Garden of Beasts

In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin

In 1933, the quiet, scholarly history professor William E. Dodd accepted his first (and last) diplomatic post and became the United States Ambassador to Germany. His wife Mattie, son Bill, Jr. and daughter Martha accompanied him to Berlin. Dodd and his wife were ill-suited for the diplomatic lifestyle, leaving dinner parties early to go home so Dodd could have stewed peaches and a glass of milk and retire early. Dodd was essentially an academic, unaccustomed to social and political wranglings his new post retired, but as a student of history he saw the true danger that Hitler and his followers posed earlier than most of his colleagues, including his friend President Roosevelt. His daughter Martha, meanwhile, threw herself into the social life of Berlin, made many friends and even more lovers, including a high-ranking Nazi official and a Soviet spy.

It’s a fascinating story by a master of narrative nonfiction, but I found this book depressing and am relieved I finished it. It’s so hard to look at the actions of people in the early 1930s and not judge them too harshly with the wisdom of hindsight. I finished this book without much sympathy for any of the main characters. Martha was just awful. I rather liked her father for a while, but I lost all respect for him toward the end of the book when I read about his involvement in an automobile accident in his later years back in the United States.

It’s a great book and I’m glad I read it, but I’m also glad I borrowed the ebook from the library instead of buying it. I’m done with those people and never want to reread the book, discuss it in a book group, see the movie, or have anything more to do with them.

Women of Science

Elizabeth Lee Hazen (1888-1975) and Rachel Brown (1898-1980)

I love this Smithsonian photograph of Elizabeth Lee Hazen (1888-1975) and Rachel Brown (1898-1980.) It was taken in 1955 when they won the first Squibb Award for Achievements in Chemotherapy.

Women like this were my role models when I was growing up in the 1950s and 60s. I knew they were out there. I wanted to be a microbiologist. I dreamed of curing cancer. I wanted to wear a crisp white lab coat and pour mysterious substances from a beaker into a test tube. I got a little toy microscope when I was around five years old and a real one a few years later. I had a Bunsen burner and I feel bad about lighting the curtains on fire. No serious damage done, though, and I continued dreaming of my future career in science.

About halfway through high school, I sadly came to the conclusion that science required a level of focus that is just not the way my brain works. But when I look at a photograph like this, I can’t help but think, “Well, maybe if I had just made a little more effort…”


  • Elizabeth Lee Hazen and Rachel Fuller Brown — “E. R. Squibb bought the rights to the patent, conducted clinical trials, and licensed the production and marketing to a wide variety of drug companies. Royalties from these activities were funneled back into the scientific world by the Research Corporation via the Brown-Hazen Research Fund, which gave grants to scientists in the life sciences during the life of the patent.”
    [From the Chemical Heritage Foundation website]
  • Inventor Profile: Elizabeth Lee Hazen — National Inventors Hall of Fame
  • Inventor Profile: Rachel Fuller Brown — National Inventors Hall of Fame

Did Your Mother Come from Ireland?

Post Office, Clare IslandOr your grandfather or your great grandparents? If so, you should check out the National Library of Ireland, the newest member of the Flickr Commons. They have an interesting collection of photographs and will be adding more.

The Flickr Commons is a program that encourages museums, archives and libraries to share collections of historical images on Flickr where the active community of members can not only enjoy them, but add comments, notes and tags to help make them more searchable. Flickr members often identify people, places and events, and add other interesting information about the images.

Cooperage, Killarney, Co.KerryYou might recognize a photograph of a relative here, pr a photograph of the town where your great grandfather was born. Even if you don’t find anything that relates so directly to your own relatives, it’s interesting to look through these photographs just to see the faces, the clothes, the toys and tools and houses and landscapes.



Just in case the title of this post made you want to hear the song, here’s the late, great Gracie Fields (1898–1979) :

On This Day in History: September 19

Up, Up and Away!

On September 19, 1783, the Montgolfier Brothers launched the first hot air balloon carrying passengers: a sheep, a duck and a rooster. The balloon was launched from the gardens of the Palace of Versailles and witnessed by King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. The flight lasted eight minutes and the balloon traveled nearly three miles before landing safely. The three animals were unharmed.

Hot Air: The (Mostly) True Story of the First Hot-Air Balloon Ride by Marjorie Priceman, tells the story of this flight with a few pages of text followed by a series of glorious, nearly wordless illustrations of the flight itself, from the perspective of ballooning’s “first brave passengers.” The adventures of the animals in flight include encounters with a flock of birds, a boy with a bow and arrow, laundry and a church steeple — these incidents are not part of the historical record but the author claims she “heard this part of the story from a duck, who heard it from a sheep, who heard it from a rooster a long, long time ago.”

In Flanders Field

No Mans Land, Flanders Field, France, 1919 (LOC)
No Mans Land, Flanders Field, France, 1919

In Flanders Field
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

— Lt.-Col. John McCrae (1872 – 1918)

When I was a child, my parents had an old recording of this song and I loved it’s rousing, patriotic cheerfulness, sending the boys off to the War to End All Wars. But in school my teacher recited In Flanders Field to the class, and I found the middle verse chilling: “We are the dead. Short days ago, we lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow…” I still do, and think of it every time I read more young men and women going off to war and dying.

Over There, by George M. Cohan, sung by Enrico Caruso, from the 78RPM Collection on the Internet Archive

Commenting the Commons

Every time the Library of Congress adds new photographs to their Flickr Commons site, I jump right on them, flipping through looking for interesting photographs.

I especially love the News in the 1910s set, black-and-white news photographs from the Bain News Service. The Commons has an active community of fans and volunteers. People add notes directly on the photographs, identifying particular objects in the picture, calling attention to details or transcribing text from signs and packages, and they add tags to improve the findability of the photographs.

But my main interest is adding comments that provide more information about the person or event shown in the picture. The Bain collection is perfect for this — one of the reasons the Library of Congress selected this collection for Flickr is that they had minimal information for most of these pictures, and I’m not the only person who likes working on these. I often have to look through several pictures that other people have identified and described to find one to work on. (I almost wrote “to find one that needs me,” which is really how I think of this.)

And I wonder, sometimes, why we do this. I’m a librarian, and I do this kind of work for a living. Why are so many people jumping in to help research and catalog these photographs for free? If this were my job, it wouldn’t be nearly so much fun. I can’t speak for the whole Commons community, of course, but I know why I like participating in this. It’s satisfying to add that first comment to a photograph, providing basic information. It’s like being a kid at school raising my hand to answer a question: “I know! I know!” It feels good to be helpful, and to be part of a project. There’s often some back-and-forth discussion among the people leaving comments, as we do our detective work to identify some of these pictures.

But in addition to community spirit, we also have access to resources that make it pretty easy to get the information we need. This work wouldn’t have been nearly as much fun back in the old days, working with printed indexes and microfilm readers.

Here are some of the resources that I have found especially useful in working with the Library of Congress Flickr collection:

  • Wikipedia — Wikipedia links are often the first to appear on Commons photographs, identifying a person or event. It’s amazing how many articles there are, even on fairly obscure people, places and events, and how good most of the articles are. And as a free and open resource, it’s so very linkable.
  • New York Times Archive — The archives from 1951-1922 are available online as scanned images in PDF format, free and linkable. This is an incredible resource for all kinds of historical research, but it’s especially useful for the Bain photographs because of the date range.
  • Time — Time makes their complete archives available from 1923 on. For the Bain collection, Time articles can provide additional information on the life of people shown in the photographs. The obituaries are especially helpful in providing biographical information for political figures.
  • Google Books — These searchable books can be a great resource. For this photograph of actress Irene Bordoni, Flickr user swanq provides a link to a directly to biographical information in a book called Vaudeville, Old and New. For this photograph of Dr. Anna Shaw, I added a link to her autobiography on Google Books.

Government websites are useful for biographical information on political figures: for example, see this photograph of Morris Sheppard with a link to the Senate website. Even YouTube can be a useful source in certain instances — for example, I added links to YouTube videos to a photograph of Titta Ruffo, an opera singer.

There are many other useful sites — I nearly always start with Google and see where it leads me.

Flickr Commons Links

  • Flickr: The Commons — “The key goals of The Commons on Flickr are to firstly show you hidden treasures in the world’s public photography archives, and secondly to show how your input and knowledge can help make these collections even richer.”
  • Flickr Commons group — “A place for the Commons Community to share and discuss the truly awesome collections being made available in the Flickr Commons”
  • Indicommons — “The Indicommons blog represents outreach from the Flickr Commons group beyond Flickr, to broaden knowledge of The Commons among the public and civic institutions around the world and to increase participation by the public in the Commons.”

Suffrage Pageant Flower Girls

Suffrage Pageant - flower girls  L.I., N.Y. (LOC)

Here’s a great photograph of suffragists to kick off Women’s History Month. It’s from the Library of Congress collection on Flickr. The Library of Congress was the first participant in The Commons on Flickr, a project where cultural institutions share historical images that are free of copyright restrictions, and encourage members of the Flickr community to add notes, tags and comments.

Suffrage Pageant Flower Girls — Photo page on Flickr

Hempstead Aglow in Suffrage Hues — Here’s a 1913 article from the New York Times about the event shown in this photograph, a Suffrage Pageant on Long Island organized by “General” Rosalie Jones.

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