What It Means to Be American
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Identities

When the Idea of Home Was Key to American Identity

From Log Cabins to Gilded Age Mansions, How You Lived Determined Whether You Belonged

Parlor scene of G. Burk, Warwick, New York. 3D stereoscopic photos of house interiors in New York in the 1800's.

By Richard White
September 11, 2017

Like viewers using an old-fashioned stereoscope, historians look at the past from two slightly different angles—then and now. The past is its own country, different from today. But we can only see that past world from our own present. And, as in a stereoscope, the two views merge.

I have been living in America’s second Gilded Age—our current era that began in the 1980s and took off in the 1990s—while writing about the first, which began in the 1870s and continued …

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Ideas

How Universities Migrated into Cities and Democratized Higher Education

Colleges Once Thought the Countryside Bred Character. Now They Use Cities for "Hands-On Learning"

The dedication of the City College of New York campus in 1908. Image courtesy of Library of Congress.

By Steven J. Diner
August 31, 2017

Since the end of World War II, most American college students have attended schools in cities and metropolitan areas. Mirroring the rapid urbanization of the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, this trend reflects the democratization of college access and the enormous growth in the numbers of commuter students who live at home while attending college.

Going to college in the city seems so normal now that it’s difficult to comprehend that it once represented a …

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Encounters

What Riding Trains Taught Me About Americans

Rail Travel Induces a Reverie and Intimacy Among Its Diverse Passengers

The Southwest Chief in Colorado. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

By James McCommons
August 17, 2017

Amos, a one-legged Amish man, was having trouble with his new prosthesis. He left the leg in his sleeping compartment and came to the diner on crutches—a hazardous ambulation on a moving train.

Because Amish do not buy health insurance nor take Medicare or Social Security, he rode The Southwest Chief from Chicago to California and went to Mexico to see a doctor. He paid cash for the leg in Tijuana.

“A van picked us up at border and took us to …

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Encounters

An L.A. Woman Embraces Her Ancestral New Orleans Home

How Family Reunions Revealed That My Grandparents’ Stories Are My Own

The author’s grandfather, Frank (left); New Orleans charm bracelet, a gift from the author’s grandfather (right). Images courtesy of Lynell George.

By Lynell George
July 27, 2017

Zigzagging through the crush of rush-hour commuters at L.A.’s Union Station, I’m hoping to make up for lost time. Suddenly, out of the edges of my vision, a man crosses in front of me, planting himself directly in my path. In a broad-brimmed Panama hat, cream-colored slacks and shoes to match, he’s a vision of not just another place, but another era.

“Where you from?” he asks.

I hold him in my gaze just long enough to assess the question:  …

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Ideas

How Sears Industrialized, Suburbanized, and Fractured the American Economy

The Iconic Retail Giant Turned Thrift into Profit, But Couldn’t Keep Pace with Modern Consumer Culture

A Sears Outlet Store in Downers Grove, Illinois shuttered its doors in September, 1993. Photo by Charles Bennett/Associated Press.

By Vicki Howard
July 20, 2017

The lifetime of Sears has spanned, and embodied, the rise of modern American consumer culture. The 130-year-old mass merchandiser that was once the largest retailer in the United States is part of the fabric of American society.

From its start as a 19th-century mail-order firm, to its heyday on Main Street and in suburban malls, and from its late 20th-century reorientation toward credit and financial products to its attempted return to its original retail identity, Sears has mirrored the ups …

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Encounters

Was Wounded Knee a Battle for Religious Freedom?

By Clamping Down on the Indian Ghost Dance, the U.S. Government Sparked a Tragedy

Sioux tribespeople taking part in the Ghost Dance, 1890, drawn by Frederic Remington based on sketches from Pine Ridge, South Dakota. Image courtesy of Library of Congress.

By Louis S. Warren
July 6, 2017

The Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890 appears in many history textbooks as the “end of the Indian Wars” and a signal moment in the closing of the Western frontier. The atrocity had many causes, but its immediate one was the U.S. government’s effort to ban a religion: the Ghost Dance, a new Indian faith that had swept Western reservations over the previous year.

The history of this episode—in which the U.S. Army opened fire on a mostly unarmed village of …

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Identities

When Pac-Man Started a National “Media Panic”

Video Games Revived a Perpetual Debate Over the Virtues and Vices of Technology for Kids

A youth tries a Ms. Pac-Man TV game in New York, in October 2004. Photo by Richard Drew/Associated Press.

By Michael Z. Newman
May 25, 2017

In the early 1980s, spurred by the incredible popularity of Atari, Space Invaders and Pac-Man, everyone seemed to be talking about video games, if not obsessively playing them. A 1982 cover of Time magazine screamed “GRONK! FLASH! ZAP! Video Games are Blitzing the World!” If you turned on the radio that year you’d likely hear “Pac-Man Fever,” a Top 40 hit by Buckner & Garcia. Children begged their parents to buy them an Atari for Christmas or to give them …

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Identities

How Andrew Carnegie’s Genius and Blue-Collar Grit Made Pittsburgh the Steel City

A Third-Generation Mill Worker Pays Homage to the Controversial Industrialist

Teeming a crucible of steel at the Colonial Steel Company, Pittsburgh in 1912. Photo courtesy of Colonial Steel Collection, University of Pittsburgh, Archives Service Center.

By Ken Kobus
April 7, 2017

I’m a retired steelworker—third generation at the Jones & Laughlin Steel Corp. on the south side of Pittsburgh. Both of my grandfathers were steelworkers, and my father was a first helper, meaning he was in charge of one of the steelmaking furnaces in the plant. When my father was ill and dying and on a lot of pain medication, he would mystify doctors with certain motions he would make with his hands and arms. But I knew right away that …

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Identities

In Atlanta, Honoring Two Civil War Generals Opens a Discussion on Race and History

Restoring Twin Monuments to the Blue and Gray Unites a Changing Neighborhood

The McPerson Monument in East Atlanta, as rendered on an German-made 1880s postcard. Image courtesy of Henry Bryant and Katina Van Cronkhite.

By Henry Bryant
March 3, 2017

One hundred and fifty years ago, my colorful East Atlanta neighborhood sat two miles outside of the city limits. By July 22, 1864, Union troops had set up their front lines along a trail that later became our main street. When the Confederates decided to bring the fight to their enemy, these quiet woods became the location of the devastating Battle of Atlanta, where some 12,000 men were killed—including, rather unusually, two opposing generals.

Today, a short walk from my house, …

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Places

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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