What It Means to Be American
A National Conversation


Why “Real Men” Wear Davy Crockett Caps

Even as White Frontiersmen Battled Native Americans, They Adopted Their Symbols of Masculinity

Theodore Roosevelt in deerskin hunting suit. Photo courtesy of Library of Congress.

By Jimmy L. Bryan Jr.
March 12, 2018

In recent years, fashion leaders have provoked criticism for incorporating Native American imagery in their designs. In 2011, Urban Outfitters introduced a line of Navajo-themed clothing and accessories that included the “Vintage Woolrich Navajo Jacket,” the “Ecote Navajo Wool Tote Bag,” and the “Navajo Hipster Panty.”

The Navajo Nation sued the company for copyright infringement of its name and, after a five-year court battle, the two sides settled. At a 2012 Victoria’s Secret fashion show in New York, model Karlie …

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What Benjamin Franklin Ate When He Was Homesick

Living Abroad, the Founder From Philadelphia Saw America's Essence in Turkeys, Succotash, and Cranberries

Benjamin Franklin surrounded by the ladies of the French court. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

By Rae Katherine Eighmey
February 19, 2018

In the midst of the American Revolution, Benjamin Franklin envisioned the turkey as an exemplar of the ideal American citizen. In a 1783 letter home to his daughter Sally, written while Franklin was serving as chief diplomat to France, he wrote about the “ribbons and medals” presented to the French by grateful Americans in thanks for significant military and financial support. The tokens bore an image of an eagle—but, Franklin explained, some recipients complained that the workmanship was not up …

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The Civil War Art of Using Words to Assuage Fear and Convey Love

Soldiers and Their Families, Sometimes Barely Literate, Turned to Letters to Stay Close

Envelope for stationary packet, "Torch of Love," George W. Fisher Bookseller and Stationer, Rochester, New York. Image courtesy of the National Museum of American History.

By Christopher Hager
January 15, 2018

Sarepta Revis was a 17-year-old newlywed when her husband left their North Carolina home to fight in the Confederate States Army. Neither had much schooling, and writing did not come easily to them. Still, they exchanged letters with some regularity, telling each other how they were doing, expressing their love and longing. Once, after Daniel had been away for more than six months, Sarepta told him in a letter that she was “as fat as a pig.” This may not …

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The Cookbook That Declared America’s Culinary Independence

An 18th-Century Kitchen Guide Taught Americans How to Eat Simply but Sumptuously

After the Revolution, Americans sought a national identity. American Cookery, the first cookbook written and published in the country, proposed one approach to American cuisine. Photo courtesy of Tomwsulcer/Wikimedia Commons.

By Keith Stavely and Kathleen Fitzgerald
January 11, 2018

American Cookery, published by the “orphan” Amelia Simmons in 1796, was the first cookbook by an American to be published in the United States. Its 47 pages (in the first edition) contained fine recipes for roasts—stuffed goose, stuffed leg of veal, roast lamb. There were stews, too, and all manner of pies. But the cakes expressed best what this first cookbook had to say about its country. It was a place that acknowledged its British heritage, to be sure—but was …

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The Reporter Who Helped Persuade FDR to Tell the Truth About War

After Witnessing the Bloody Struggle with Japan, Robert Sherrod Thought the Public Should Face the 'Cruel' Facts

Major General Cates with War Correspondents Aboard Ship, Febraury 1945. Photo courtesy of USMC Archives/Flickr.

By Ray E. Boomhower
January 8, 2018

Betio, part of the Tarawa Atoll, is a small, bird-shaped island along the equator in the central Pacific. Early in the morning on November 20, 1943, elements of the Second Marine Division boarded tracked landing vehicles (“amtracs”) and headed for Betio’s beaches. As part of an operation codenamed Galvanic, the Marines hoped to clear the heavily defended island of Japanese forces under the command of Rear Admiral Keiji Shibasaki and capture its vital airfield. The Japanese commander had boasted to …

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The Alabama Recording Studios Where Music Was Never Segregated

How the Muscle Shoals Sound Made a Rich Brew out of Rock, Country, and R&B

Producer Rick Hall, the “father of the Muscle Shoals sound,” attends The 56th Annual Grammy Awards in Los Angeles in January, 2014. Photo courtesy of Todd Williamson/Associated Press.

By Carla Jean Whitley
January 4, 2018

Rod Stewart wasn’t pleased.

It was 1975, and the British rocker had traveled to Sheffield, Alabama, with a specific mission in mind: He wanted to record at Muscle Shoals Sound Studio with the musicians who created Aretha Franklin’s unforgettable, hit-making sound. Before she made the pilgrimage down South, Franklin was a Detroit gospel singer beginning to find success as a pop singer. She recorded her album “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Loved You)” in Alabama.

Stewart was seeking the …

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Why We French Canadians Are Neither French nor Canadian

An Intimate Family History of New England's Franco-Americans

T. Pariseau Ladies’ Outfitter, one of many businesses created and owned by Franco-Americans in Manchester. Photo by Ulric Bourgeois, 1915.

By Robert B. Perreault
December 7, 2017

Whenever my family visits Québec, people other than our relatives are surprised to hear Americans—even our grandchildren, ages five and six—speak fluent French. They’re amazed to learn that French is our mother tongue and that we also speak English without a French accent. Likewise, if we leave our native New Hampshire to travel elsewhere in the United States, we get blank stares upon mentioning that we’re Franco-Americans from New England.

“Franco-American, as in canned spaghetti?” some ask.

I roll my eyes and …

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When Burlap Underwear Was Fashionable

From the Mid-1800s Onward, an Ethic of Thrift and Ingenuity Was Woven Into American Clothing

Patterns were often classics that would not quickly be out of style and could accommodate different sizes. Image courtesy of the Commercial Pattern Archive.

By Joy Spanabel Emery
December 4, 2017

In 1928, when President Calvin Coolidge visited Chicago, the ladies of a Presbyterian church presented him with a set of pajamas made from flour sacks dyed lavender and finished with silk frogs and pearl buttons in appreciation of his program on economy and thrift.

It seems surprising now, but once the use of cloth feed bags for clothing and household items was a part of mainstream rural American culture—related to a long practice of utilizing all resources that is deeply …

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Why Americans Love Diners

For 135 Years, the Iconic Eateries Have Been Our Home Away From Home

The Boulevard Diner still operates on its original site—since 1937—in Worcester, Mass. This photograph dates from 1979, but the diner remains unchanged today. Photo by Richard J. S. Gutman.

By Richard J. S. Gutman
November 27, 2017

Driving north on Route 95 through Connecticut, I noticed a billboard advertising a local diner. Its immense letters spelled out: “Vegan, Vegetarian, Gluten-Free and Diner Classics.” I knew a seismic shift had occurred when Blue Plate Specials—hands-down favorites for nearly a century such as meat loaf, hot turkey sandwiches, and spaghetti and meatballs—were last on a list of diner offerings.

Over their long history, diners have been a subtle part of our built environment and also our inner landscapes. They …

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How Norway Taught Me to Balance My Hyphenated-Americanness

A Minnesotan Grapples With Identity in His Scandinavian "Homeland"

The author borrowed a Norwegian sweater, knickers, and a bunad to stage this photo in front of a quaint hytta to show everyone back in the Midwest that his family was fitting right in in Trondheim. Photo courtesy of Arild Juul.

By Eric Dregni
November 20, 2017

During the year I spent studying at the university in Trondheim, Norway, I sometimes learned more about my own country than Norway. One day, in my immigration studies class, my professor David Mauk, who hailed from Ohio, asked, “What does it mean to be American?”

I braced myself to hear the usual stereotypes from the news from the Norwegian students in my class. Then the professor clarified, “What to you is truly good about America?”

Even though I’m an American, I …

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