What It Means to Be American
A National Conversation

Identities

Why Do So Many Public Buildings in the U.S. Look Like Greek Temples?

In the Architectural Void of a New Nation, William Strickland Borrowed from Ancient Athens to Express America's Democratic Ethos

By Robert Russell
September 20, 2018

President Andrew Jackson took a keen interest in the construction of the federal mint in Philadelphia, a grand, columned edifice, inspired by the temples of ancient Greece, that opened in 1833. Jackson was not a man known for his appreciation of cultural and artistic pursuits. A populist who famously railed against the elites, he had initially wanted to construct a simple building for minting money quickly, because there was a severe shortage of specie—coins—in the country at the time.

Gradually, though, he came around to the idea of a grander mint, and became personally involved in many aspects …

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What Kind of an American Am I?

From Witches to Baptist Ministers to Native Americans, My Family Heritage Holds Many Stories. But I'm Not Sure Which Ones Are Mine.

By Isaac Windes
August 23, 2018

I am American. That much I know—but my life’s experience has never taken me beyond that in any way, up until this point. While many Americans embrace their ancestry as part of their national identity, I never have parsed my own beyond simply being, well, American. And white.

I certainly have stories of my family’s past, shaped by witches, warfare, and the Wild West. But with every generation, an ancestral tradition has been shed, a cultural touchstone tweaked, through choice …

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The One-Size-Fits-All Sock That’s a Democratic Fashion Statement

Originally Marketed as Sportswear, the Tube Sock Became a Stylish Accessory Thanks to Farrah Fawcett and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

By Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell
August 16, 2018

If you’re an American down to your toes, those toes have probably been clad in tube socks at one time or another.

These once-ubiquitous, one-size-fits-all socks are a product of Americans’ simultaneous love of sports, technological innovation, and nostalgic fashion statements.

The tube sock’s trajectory is knitted into the growth of organized sports in America, particularly basketball and soccer, both of which were popularized around the turn of the century. Basketball was a new and uniquely American diversion, played in YMCAs and …

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The Chinese-Born Doctor Who Brought Tofu to America

Yamei Kin Was a Scientific Prodigy Who Promoted the Chinese Art of Living to U.S. Audiences

By Matthew Roth
August 13, 2018

On a hot summer day in 1918, syndicated reporter Sarah McDougal paid a visit to an unusual laboratory of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Bureau of Chemistry, a predecessor to the Food and Drug Administration, in its Romanesque Revival building near the piers of New York City’s Hudson River. The bureau usually worried itself with detecting adulterants in imports, but its role had expanded during wartime to investigate “meritorious substitutes” for foods made scarce by the trade disruptions and hungry …

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What Our Gargantuan Appetite for Meat Says About America

It Symbolizes Affluence and Social Status, Showcases Regional Differences, and Reveals Shifting Attitudes Toward Health

By Wilson J. Warren
August 9, 2018

Americans have always been distinguished by their love of meat. Where does that love come from?

One short answer: our ethnic heritage. Among whites, the English and Germans were two of the greatest meat-eating cultures in Europe.

But that answer is about as satisfying as an overcooked steak. So there is a longer and tastier explanation: Americans’ relationship to meat production and consumption is long-standing, and built on core beliefs that meat is not only tasty but essential to good …

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The Sarcastic Civil War Diarist Who Chronicled the Confederacy’s Fall

Raised in Plantation Privilege, Mary Boykin Chesnut Was Unprepared for the Trauma of War and Defeat

By Mary DeCredico
August 6, 2018

“February 18, 1861…. I do not allow myself vain regrets or sad foreboding. This Southern Confederacy must be supported now by calm determination and cool brains. We have risked all, and we must play our best, for the stake is life or death.”

With that entry, Mary Boykin Chesnut began her diary, chronicling the momentous four years that encompassed the American Civil War. Chesnut’s diary is one of the most significant and intimate sources for understanding the Southern Confederacy. Chesnut …

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The Wondrous Life of America’s First Male Impersonator

Annie Hindle Scandalized and Titillated Audiences, But Her Talent Won Them Over

By Gillian Rodger
July 30, 2018

On June 6, 1886, Kerr B. Tupper, a Baptist minister in Grand Rapids, Michigan, presided over the marriage of a young couple. The groom gave his name as Charles E. Hindle and listed his profession as “actor” on the marriage license. The bride’s name was Anna Ryan. The marriage was not the first for the groom, although there was no indication on the license that he had been married before. There was also no indication that Charles Hindle was, in …

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The Enslaved Chefs Who Invented Southern Hospitality

Black Cooks Created the Feasts that Gave the South Its Reputation for Gracious Living 

By Kelley Fanto Deetz
July 19, 2018

“We need to forget about this so we can heal,” said an elderly white woman, as she left my lecture on the history of enslaved cooks and their influence on American cuisine.  Something I said, or perhaps everything I said, upset her.

My presentation covered 300 years of American history that started with the forced enslavement of millions of Africans, and which still echoes in our culture today, from the myth of the “happy servant” (think Aunt Jemima on the syrup …

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How Attending Elite Universities Helped Mormons Enter the Mainstream

Through Higher Education, Latter-day Saints Joined the U.S. Meritocracy and Transformed Their Own Identity

By Thomas W. Simpson
July 9, 2018

The history of Mormon “Americanization” has long puzzled those who try to understand it.

In the last quarter of the 19th century, Mormons, under immense pressure from local and federal authorities, jettisoned their utopian separatism in favor of monogamy, market capitalism, public schools, national political parties, and military service. The question is, how can any human institution—much less a religion that historian Martin Marty has called the 19th century’s “most despised large group”—change so much so quickly?

The answer lies in understanding …

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How the NFL and American Politicians Politicized (and Helped Merchandise) Pro Football

In the '60s and '70s, Gridiron Fans Like Richard Nixon and Bobby Kennedy Embraced the Sport That Wanted Their Attention

By Jesse Berrett
July 5, 2018

In January 1942, as the United States committed itself fully to World War II, President Franklin Roosevelt decided that baseball, then the national pastime, should sustain civilian morale during the lengthy struggle ahead. He implored its commissioner, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, to make sure the games went on, despite worldwide armed conflict. And so they did. Professional baseball players, Roosevelt argued, “are a definite recreational asset.”

Roosevelt did not extend that consideration to professional football players, whose sport did not register …

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