What It Means to Be American
A National Conversation

Places

When Variety Theaters Tantalized the Frontier West

In 19th-Century Spokane, Risqué Performances Set off a Battle Over Civil Morality

A map from the 1890s indicates how mining, water power, and other enterprises were turning Spokane into a boom town. Art courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

By Holly George
November 6, 2017

In the spring of 1897, Spokane, Washington’s Spokesman-Review published an exposé of its city’s thriving red light district—known as Howard Street. The newspaper lingered on distasteful scenes in variety theaters with names like the Comique or the Coeur d’Alene: Places where a man could pick up a game of keno, watch a show, and—for the cost of a drink—enjoy the flirtations of “waiter girls” in short skirts. The most controversial and profitable feature of the Howard Street varieties were their …

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Every October, on Martha’s Vineyard, We Celebrate Cranberry Day

For as Long as Anyone Knows, the Wampanoag Have Connected to Their History Through the Fruit and the Bogs Where It Grows

Just-picked cranberries drying on newspaper, the day after a hard rain.  Photo by Beverly Wright.

By Beverly Wright
October 9, 2017

Many know the place I live, an island off the southern coast of Massachusetts, as Martha’s Vineyard, a vacation spot for celebrities including Presidents Clinton and Obama. But those of us in the Aquinnah Wampanoag Tribe know it as Noepe, our home for at least 13,000 years. Though the whole island used to be our traditional homelands, today, our homelands form the westernmost part of the island, centered on the Town of Aquinnah and including many cranberry bogs. It’s there—on …

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The 1938 Hurricane That Revived New England’s Fall Colors

An Epic Natural Disaster Restored the Forest of an Earlier America

A southern New Hampshire pine forest was entirely blown down in the hurricane of 1938. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Forest Service.

By Stephen Long
September 21, 2017

This morning, while driving in central Vermont, listening to the latest news about hurricanes in Florida and Texas, I caught up with my first leaf peeper of the season. Poking along at about 20 mph in his rental car, the tourist was peering at our hills of orange and crimson and gold leaves while simultaneously looking for a place to pull over to snap a photo.

Fall foliage and hurricane season go hand in hand in New England. But what …

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How Prince Introduced Us to the “Minneapolis Sound”

From Polka to Punk-Funk, the Twin Cities Assimilated New Genres From Their Migrant Roots

A mural commemorating Prince in Minneapolis' uptown neighborhood. The city's unique demographics were as important as the pop virtuoso's genius in shaping his music. Photo by Jim Mone/Associated Press.

By Rashad Shabazz
September 7, 2017

The pop music genius Prince Rogers Nelson, better known to most of us as Prince, made his national television debut on American Bandstand in 1980. Performing “I Wanna Be Your Lover,” his first big hit in the United States, he gave the country its first taste of the Minneapolis Sound, an infectious blend of rock, R&B, funk, and New Wave that would become a significant force in American pop music during the 1980s, ’90s, and early 2000s. An astounded Dick …

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The Bostonian Who Armed the Anti-Slavery Settlers in “Bleeding Kansas”

Amos Lawrence Backed Abolitionist Pioneers in the Town That Bears His Name

A print from Harper’s showing Quantrill’s raid on Lawrence, Kansas, August 21, 1863. Image courtesy of Library of Congress.

By Robert K. Sutton
August 8, 2017

On May 24, 1854, Anthony Burns, a young African-American man, was captured on his way home from work. He had escaped from slavery in Virginia and had made his way to Boston, where he was employed in a men’s clothing store. His owner tracked him down and had him arrested. Under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 and the United States Constitution, Burns had no rights whatsoever.

To the people of Boston, his capture was an outrage. Seven thousand citizens …

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How Charleston Celebrated Its Last July 4 Before the Civil War

As the South Carolina City Prepared to Break From the Union, Its People Swung Between Nostalgia and Rebellion

Ruins seen from the Circular Church, Charleston, S.C., 1865. Image courtesy of National Archives.

By Paul Starobin
June 29, 2017

In the cooling evening air, Charleston, South Carolina’s notable citizens filed into Hibernian Hall on Meeting Street for the traditional banquet to close their July 4th festivities. The year was 1860, and the host, as always, was the ’76 Association, a society formed by elite Charlestonians in 1810 to pay homage to the Declaration of Independence.

The guest of honor was one of the city’s most beloved figures, William Porcher Miles, Charleston’s representative in the U.S. Congress in Washington. A …

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The Circus Spectacular That Spawned American Giantism

How the “Greatest Show on Earth” Enthralled Small-Town Crowds and Inspired Shopping Malls

A promotional poster for the Barnum and Bailey circus, dating to around 1895, offered audiences a sneak peek of the menagerie tent.

By Janet M. Davis
March 17, 2017

When Barnum and Bailey’s “Greatest Show on Earth” rolled into American towns in the 1880s, daily life abruptly stopped. Months before the show arrived, an advance team saturated the surrounding region with brilliantly colored lithographs of the extraordinary: elephants, bearded ladies, clowns, tigers, acrobats, and trick riders.

On “Circus Day” (as it was known), huge crowds gathered to observe the predawn arrival of “herds and droves” of camels, zebras, and other exotic animals—the spoils of European colonialism. Families witnessed the …

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Were the Bald Knobbers Law-and-Order Folk Heroes or Murderous Thugs?

In the Lawless Post-Civil War Ozarks, the Vigilante Bald Knobbers Took Government's Place

An illustration depicts Bald Knobbers riding in black horned masks. Courtesy of the Route 66 Museum and Research Center, Lebanon, Missouri.

By Lisa Hix
February 24, 2017

When I was seven years old, in 1983, my family took a road trip from Stillwater, Oklahoma, to Branson, Missouri, a family-oriented resort town deep in the Ozark Mountains. Our destination was Silver Dollar City, a Christian-owned theme park that is like Disneyland reimagined as a 19th century mining village, all built around a cave that was a bat guano mine in the 1880s. There, I went on a frightening dark ride called Fire in the Hole.

In the waiting area, …

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The Monster That Stoked Americans’ Devotion to Faith Over Science

How a New York Farmer's Elaborate Hoax "Proved" Giants Roamed the Earth

feder-on-cardiff-giant-lead

By Ken Feder
October 27, 2016

One Sunday afternoon in October of 1869, Stubb Newell, a farmer in upstate New York, invited his neighbors over to view the remarkable discovery he made while digging a well on his Cardiff farm. When they arrived, he showed them the body of a ten-foot-tall “petrified” man, lying at the bottom of a shallow pit where Newell had instructed workmen to dig.

The giant was a magnificent sight: A stone man naked in repose, seemingly at peace. It could hardly have …

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L.A.’s Forgotten Avenue of the Athletes

Thirty-Two Grimy Bronze Plaques Are All That Remain of a Grand Vision to Create a Walk of Fame for Sports

Irish-born American Welterweight boxer Jimmy McLarnin during a traininf session at a gym in America, June 8, 1934. (AP Photo)

By David Davis
August 4, 2016

Walking along Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles the other day I stumbled across an old acquaintance. On a small bronze plaque embedded into the sidewalk was the name Jimmy McLarnin, alongside a set of boxing gloves. In his prime, in the 1920s and 1930s, McLarnin was one of the baddest welterweights to climb into the ring. A two-time world champ, he fought at a time when the best Irish boxers were routinely pitted against the top Italian and Jewish pugs. …

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