Sunday, September 3, 2017

Thinking about History during Back-to- School Season

As the summer wanes, it is the time of year we prepare for going back-to-school. The start of each school year is accompanied by annual traditions from buying school supplies to meeting the teacher.  The school supply list like everything else has changed some over time. A new addition in the late 20th century was the graphing calculator. My first graphing calculator was a Casio. It was the first technology purchased for me to use at school. Supply lists from more recent years listed tech items like usb drives and headphones as recommend. This year you can go back to school with the history of common school supplies. 

Lunch Boxes

Lunch boxes began as utilitarian products. As the 20th century progressed and school attendance became mandatory, the lunch box became a consumer item market for children. The lunch box was a way for children to share their interests. From Star Wars to Barbie, there was a lunch box for every interest and fashion. More than one Histocrat had a Star Wars lunch box. The Smithsonian has some great examples for you to enjoy. If you find lunch box art interesting, you can even visit the Lunch Box Museum in Columbus, Georgia.  NPR will give you a sneak peek before you go with their exploration of The History of Lunch Box.


School is one of the many venues for which pencils are produced. Even without standardized testing, the #2 pencil is common school supply. The history of the pencil is riddled with tales of Henry David Thoreau and innovations by NASA.  Pencils as well have become a canvas for pop culture imagery.  From cartoon images to pithy statements, the pencil has moved beyond its origin as a simple writing tool.  Many children of the 1990s remember the vivid colors and patterns of Lisa Frank school supplies.


Backpacks are another staple of the modern school experience. The history of the backpack can be traced to the great outdoors.  Innovations in hiking equipment and rucksacks contributed to the birth of the modern school backpack. This timeline highlights the contributions of Gerry Outdoors to the backpack like the use of nylon. The demand for backpacks in modern times gave birth to new products. JanSport began making backpacks in 1967. The product has changed over time. In the 1990s, headphone ports were added to backpack. The backpacks of the 2017 Back-to-School season come in a variety of colors and sizes with features for modern school tools like laptops.

What was your most prized school supply? What are your favorite memories of the start of the school year?  How will you mark the occasion this year?  No matter how you get started make plans to enjoy a history this school year.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Everyday Objects in Your Home Capture Recent History

History is captured in everyday objects. Items you have around the house illustrate recent history and the impact of technology on our daily lives.  As Histocrats, we appreciate how these objects tell more recent stories and how they make it possible to bring these moments to life in class. Here are of a few of the objects you might find in your house that help illustrate recent history. What other objects would you include?

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Enjoying George Washington’s Peach Brandy

By David Duncan

Our Founding Father and First President George Washington was the largest distiller of whiskey in the United States.  As part of his whiskey distillery operations, Washington produced small amounts of Peach Brandy in 1798 and 1799.  A small portion of this special batch would be sold at the market but most of the Peach Brandy would be set aside to be used at Mount Vernon.  The peaches used in making the brandy would be harvested from orchards on the Mount Vernon estate. 

At Mount Vernon, the Distillery from Washington’s time period has been reconstructed and mainly rye whiskey is made there.  On a tour, visitors can learn all about the stages of whiskey production and periodically the whiskey and brandy produced as part of the demonstration process is put on sale.  The Peach Brandy was produced using traditional 18th century methods.  The brandy was double-distilled in copper pot stills heated by wood fires.  Overall, making the brandy is as close to what would have been George Washington’s original recipe as possible.

The Peach Brandy sold today has been aged for eighteen months in used bourbon barrels at Mount Vernon.  It is produced using Mount Vernon staff and craft distiller consultants using traditional methods.  Sadly, Washington’s exact recipe and instructions for distilling Peach Brandy are not known. However, the distillation of fruit brandy is pretty basic and has not changed much over the centuries.  So, the Peach Brandy made today is as close to what Washington would have produced as possible.

In order to give the brandy its peach flavor, the peaches had to be prepared, crushed or pressed. Then, resulting juice was loaded with yeast and allowed to ferment for 10 to 15 days. The resulting fermented juice was then double distilled to achieve the Peach Brandy.

Washington’s peach brandy was produced and sold in very limited quantities. During his lifetime, only 60 gallons of the brandy were produced each year compared to 11,000 gallon of the rye whiskey.  The vast majority of the Brandy produced would be reserved for the family and guests. Very little would actually be sold.  Unlike the Peach Brandy sold at Mount Vernon today, in Washington’s time the brandy would not have been aged in barrels but sold in its unaged clear, colorless form.

Cheers to Founding Father and Distiller in Chief, George Washington! 

Friday, March 3, 2017

What’s in Your Genes?

By Jeff Burns

For Christmas, my wife and I unknowingly chose the same gift for each other as a stocking stuffer:  a DNA analysis kit from  We’re both into history and family history in particular, and we thought it would be fun and informative to see what our backgrounds were.  Plus, they were on sale for the holidays!

When you order a kit, you get a small box containing a vial and directions. All you do is spit into the vial, seal it, and put the box back in the mail.  The disclaimer says to allow six to eight weeks for processing, depending on volume.  We figured it would take a while because of the Christmas rush.  Even though ours were mailed on the same day, my wife’s analysis was completed in about 5 weeks, and mine took over nine weeks.

My wife wasn’t expecting any big surprises.  Her parents had done their tests a few months before, and they pretty much confirmed known family history.  She knew that her paternal great-grandparents were Jewish and had immigrated to the US from the Poland-Ukraine-Russia region around the turn of the 20th century and that her maternal line was most likely of British and/or Irish descent.

I thought my results were pretty predictable too.  I’ve dabbled in genealogy for years, and I’ve been fortunate to have cousins who have done extensive work.  On the Burns side, I figured Scottish descent was pretty much a lock. We have more research on my maternal family line, Mosley.  I can trace my direct ancestors back to their arrival as indentured servants in mid-18th century Virginia. Published work takes the history back to English and Flemish wool merchants in the 1400s.

There has always been a little mystery, however, and it turns out my wife’s family had the same mystery. Is there Native American ancestry?  There had been rumors of distant Cherokee relations in my wife’s family, on both sides. Among my Mosley relatives, there has always been talk about Native American blood.  Many of us have dark complexions that tan and hold tans easily and dark hair.

It’s actually a mystery common to many southern families, black and white.  If you ask any group of southerners if they are part Indian, the majority would raise their hands. Statistically and historically speaking, it’s highly unlikely that they are correct. According to most studies, the number of Americans with Indian ancestry is very small.   There was little opportunity for most white and black ancestors to have had intimate relationships, and even when possible, social prejudices would have made it extremely rare. 

Why do so many southerners believe they have Indian blood? Part of the answer is romanticism, the ideal of the “noble savage” that has persisted since first European-Native contact; for southerners, Indian blood provides a real connection to the land and history of the South. For other families, it is thought that such claims were concocted to divert suspicions of Jewish or African ancestry, suspicions that may have negatively impacted individuals. And, of course, southern Indians like the Cherokee and the Creek were among the most likely Indians to interact with southern settlers.  They traded and intermarried with whites for centuries.  They also worked hard to assimilate into southern culture, quickly adopting English customs, including owning African slaves.

So what did my analysis reveal? I’m very western European, 88% British and Irish, and zero Native American.

It was all very interesting, but there’s always a little disappointment when a mystery is solved. That just means I have to find the time to go deeper in my research and uncover new mysteries.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Can a Histocrat make it to Jeopardy?

By Jeff Burns

Do you play along with Jeopardy every night? Do you dream of appearing as a contestant one day? Have you ever wondered what the contestant selection process is like?

Well, I haven’t made it to the show yet, but I am currently in the contestant pool for the next eighteen months and could conceivably be called to fly to Los Angeles at any time within that eighteen months.  Of course, this is the sixth or seventh time I’ve been in the pool, so who knows? Because of my twenty-five years of experience in quiz bowl academic competition, I also know about a dozen people who have appeared on the show, including a couple of big money winners. So, I know it’s possible to get the call, but my bags aren’t packed yet.

Here’s how the process works.  Every year, Jeopardy conducts an online test.  The test consists of 50 high dollar value questions in various categories.  The clues appear on your screen one at a time, and you have a few seconds to type an answer. Passing is about ¾ correct.  According to the chief contestant coordinator, about 75,000 took this year’s test, and about 3,500 pass it.  From that 3,500, about 600 are chosen and invited to audition at about 8 sites around the country.    Making it to an audition means you’ve made the pool.  Each year, Jeopardy uses about 300 to 350 contestants from that 600 or so.

My audition site was Charleston South Carolina, so I took a couple of days off school and my wife and I had a great long weekend in the city before the audition on Tuesday.  On the day of the audition, the coordinators see 3 or 4 groups of 20-30 per group.  Once seated, the coordinators introduce themselves and run through a brief warmup, displaying clues on the screen and calling on contestants who raise their hands.  Then, you take another test, this time written.  It works the same as the online test, except that contestants write the answers.

The coordinators then take the answer sheets and the completed questionnaires that contestants brought with them to another room to look over.  At this audition, there was a special guest, Jimmy of the Clue Crew, who talked about his job and experiences with the show while the coordinators were gone.  Once the coordinators are back, the real fun begins:  buzzer play! Contestants are called to the front in threes, and each one gets a buzzer, just like the show.  A game board with categories and amounts appears on the screen, and each trio plays for a few minutes, buzzing in, answering when called on, and choosing the next clue. Sure, the coordinators are looking for right answers, but they are also looking, they tell the contestants, for people who project, handle the buzzer well, and move the game along without delay.  After a few minutes, the trio puts down their buzzers, and the coordinators talk to them.  First, there’s the dreaded “Tell us about yourself” question, and then the coordinators engage the contestants in conversation about what they say or what they have written on their questionnaires.

Finally, after a couple of hours, it’s over, and contestants wait for the next 18 months to see if they made the cut. Cross your fingers to see a Histocrat on Jeopardy bantering with Alex one day!

(Jimmy of the Clue Crew on the right)