Class 3/29, The Place of Video Games in Digital History

Privileging Form Over Content by Adam Chapman got a little repetitive, I think (not in a bad way, he just reiterated his main points over and over again), so I’ll try not to just go paragraph by paragraph to avoid over-repeating myself and him.

Chapman begins his article by saying that he hopes most historians are at least at the point where they can accept certain historical fiction games (He name-drops “Civilization” and “Assassin’s Creed” as examples) as being at least historical in some way. Chapman believes that video games should not be analyzed strictly by how historically accurate or inaccurate their content or narrative are, but how video games as a medium, or tool, can be used to teach. It is important, he says, that people try not to separate the “story” from the “game,” because the nature of video games make it impossible to understand each section independently from the other. Just focusing on content ignores the part the player has in the video game process, which is seeing historical problems/situations, analyzing those situations, and then choosing an action in-game based on that personal analysis. Because of this, how the game presents the narrative and allows players to interact with the narrative must also be studied.

Chapman uses past treatment of historical films as an example of the importance of joint narrative-form study. He states that when people criticized the content of historical film, they more often than not criticized it against historical documents rather than by its own standard. He argues that this is wholly problematic because it reinforces the idea that the only correct kind of history is the history written down in books, rather than the idea that books are simply one way to display history. In what I thought was a useful explanation, Chapman points out that the difference between a history book vs a history video game is “history as it can be written” vs “history as it can be played.”

I should mention that although Chapman implies that comparing historical tools is useless and limits opportunities for “collaboration,” his next sections seem much more biased in the pro-video game field than pro-teaching-medium-equality. He goes into how the “feeling” of history can often be more educationally informative than specific historical details, and having players play through historical situations helps comprehension more than simply telling people how things were. History taught through video games can also be taught without the requirement for players to already have an understanding of historical concepts, like many books and, specifically, college courses might. Chapman then goes into a little detail of how developers combine historical detail and algorithm to present a historical experience for players. He ends by saying that many of the people reading the article no doubt already agree with him, and that there should be a call to action for creating a better way to analyze games by form and not just by content.

Being Historical by Gilles Roy

Roy asks the question of where the popular historical video game theme of “creating history” fits into the common definition of “history.” More specifically, Roy wonders what happens when players take a subject like history, commonly thought of as being a record of set past events, and juxtapose themselves, or fictional representations of themselves, into it. Like Chapman, Roy name-drops Assassin’s Creed and Civilization as examples, where players get at least theoretical direct control over how the game’s world is shaped (as a side note: I say “theoretical” just because of how the game mechanics between the two titles differ, the sentiment is the same). Roy also name-drops real-life reenactment and LARP group Society for Creative Anachronism (fun fact, I have attended one of their weekend events!) as an example of the far reach and variety of historical gaming. Roy asserts that historical games allow players to “be historical” rather than just “learn history.”

Roy goes into brief detail of the history of the presentation of history. This transformation went from a want to describe the best feats by Greeks and not-Greeks, to trying to document the causes behind specific national conflicts, to more patriotic fantastical, ideal origin stories by the Romans. Roy states that this is around the time that the split between history as truth and history as political narrative popped up. “Popular history,” which Roy says games seem rely on because it focuses more on entertainment and narrative than education, falls somewhere between this split. Like Chapman, Roy also notes the importance of studying games as a medium, though while I used the words “medium” and “form” interchangeably in the summation of Chapman’s article Roy uses them definitively by saying that games are a medium and the way they communicate this “popular history” is the form they take. The specific “form” Roy then focuses on is the strategy game, which as noted comes in many different forms and has been around long before video games were invented. Roy compares two different genres of modern strategy games, the historical strategy and the space conquest, by saying that the genres share the theme of “continuity of the historical process.”

Roy then goes into an explanation of strategy game mechanics and themes, with helpful visual aids. I personally appreciate this part because although I’m familiar with different types of “progression trees” in game mechanics, they usually focused on what new powers my character would get rather than what new technology my settlement invented. Roy asserts that the game mechanics represented in the strategy games (“explore, expand, exploit, and exterminate”) are themes that have driven human progression throughout history, albeit very simplified versions of them. Therefore, these types of strategy games, which allow the player an integral part of shaping history, aren’t really rewriting our understanding of history so much as allowing players into the “historical process.”

History as it can be played by Jamie Taylor aka PastPlayer

The third of the traditional articles begins by reinforcing the idea that video games, despite (past, I think) popular belief, can be useful for other things besides quick entertainment. As Taylor states right in the first paragraph, “games allow for learning by stealth.” The versatility of video games is allowing more “serious” topics to be presented in what many used to think was an non-serious medium, which means more in-depth, less childish narratives can be produced. This also means daunting or too serious topics (like history) can be presented in more accessible ways. Taylor then actually quotes Chapman’s article from above to demonstrate how historical legitimacy of games like, again, Civilization and Assassin’s Creed.

While Chapman and Roy seem focused on making the argument that the mechanics and form of a game have to be focused on when analyzed, Taylor seems to be focused on actually analyzing (at least to some degree). Chapman and Roy brought up the argument that playing through a game helps a player gain an understanding of the historical process, but Taylor brings forward arguments that the amount of interactivity and choice a player runs the risk of making the historical back drop of the game just be a historical back drop. The reality of game development means that there will always be parameters in the game that the players cannot escape, limiting the amount of actual decision making or genuine learning about the historical process they receive. On the other hand, sometimes the parameters are so broad that players can choose to do something totally unrealistic or unhistorical, therefore entirely breaking the historical process. This is all assuming, Taylor points out as well, that the game even puts effort into historical accuracy or process.

Taylor quickly counters his own arguments, quoting Chapman once again by saying that one shouldn’t judge the historical validity of video games based on the standards of traditional history. Are video games less “history” just because a player can choose to mod the game so that they have a Steampunk empire with airships instead of reenacting the American Civil War? Taylor points out that if video games share a portion of historical narrative tropes that traditional history does, it should be considered “history.” From here, Taylor goes into the different types of historical narratives potentially available to consumers that reinforces both Chapman and Roy’s call for collaborative narrative efforts. Taylor ends by pointing out that regardless of anyone’s opinion on video games as history, video games definitely provide a way to “engage” with the past. The sheer popularity and spread of different types of digital games has literally changed the way people learn, and that in some ways games might be a more effective method of teaching history because of it.

Surviving History by Rachel N. Ponce

This seems to be a “choose your own adventure game,” so I will play through it and then comment.

(I lasted a little over two months)

It is a “choose your own,” very reminiscent of the physical books I used to read when I was younger. As opposed to more popular choice-based games such as RPGs like the Mass Effect or Dishonored series, this is able to pack a lot of historical information, such as specific dates, city and street names, people, and real-world events into each page. The trade-off of supplying so much information, besides the limited choices the player is given at the end of each page, is that the pages become dense and run the risk of losing player interest or patience. The graphics in the game were also broken on my browser, which is not typically a thing that needs to be constantly worried about in a self-contained, published game. With that being said, there were a few times I think I could feel at least a fraction of the helplessness the character did in treating others. I had no idea what proper medication in the 1700s was, or how to treat anything, or what the “right” choice was, so every time I made a decision whether or not to help another character I had a little bit of an internal battle.

While I don’t feel particularly educated by this game, I think that it would be hard to argue against the fact that this game has a realistic historical narrative that gives at least a little insight on how doctors were viewed in the 1700s, or lived their lives.

Why Mechanics Must Be Both Good and Accurate by Extra Credits

This video focuses on two questions: How accurate should historical games be, and can they be used as educational tools?

These questions were definitely touched upon in the three articles we read to some degree, but I think this video states the answer in a way more easily understood. Chapman, Roy, and Taylor all agree that video game narratives can’t be studied in a metaphorical vacuum, and that the mechanics of video games and how players interact with games have to be addressed to be able to completely analyze, I guess, the historical validity of the game. They assert that player interactivity allows for better understanding of the historical process. This video would agree to that statement, but rather than calling it an understanding of the “historical process,” it says that players are able to learn from themes of the past. Players learn that their decisions matter in how the “future” is shaped in within the game, and allows players a chance to learn from their mistakes, which is something the narrator believes is important about the study of history in general.

The narrator also points out a problem that Taylor mentioned in game development, which is that the “historical” part of the game often ends up being reduced to some arbitrary backdrop. While Taylor states that this sometimes come from giving the player too much freedom to do what they want in general (creating a kingdom in Civilization that literally only focuses on mining and nothing else, for example), the narrator of this video suggests that this problem comes from making all the tiny details of the background very historically accurate, then giving the player very historically inaccurate options to take (allowing players control over the development of every single character in a strategy game, even if those character options are realistic). This creates an inauthentic feeling, according to the narrator, because it stops the player from being forced to manage their people based on more realistic unpredictable risks and starts allowing players to just make all of their characters exactly the way that will most quickly advance them through the game. The narrator ends by asking for a call of historical games in other genres besides strategy and RPG-shooters.


1.1) Sure, games can certainly be historical and can give insight into historical themes (I know just from readings in past classes that some high school teachers are using Sid Meier’s civilization to try to explain the spread of Rome), but is it realistic to think that “traditional” history classes could be taught through video games? In other words, do you think it will be possible to teach a class on a subject as tricky and complicated as WWII, or the Cold War, or the American Civil War, etc, using games as the teaching tool as often as we use books?

1.2) Would it be more realistic to think that video games as a medium are better at broader concepts rather than more nuanced detail like dates and specific names and places? “Surviving History” was a fun little game, and I remember how I thought it was funny that marrying a doctor is considered by many to be a good thing in modern USA, but in the game it was something that gave the main character’s father in law pause. I remember that the game took place in Philadelphia and that yellow fever killed a lot of people very quickly. But I can’t actually remember the other doctor’s name, or the exact year the game took place, or the street names that the game took time to tell me.

2) Does the level of player freedom act as a legitimate advantage or disadvantage to the historical value of a game? Assuming one is making a game to be more educational than entertaining, would it be better to limit player freedom to give them a more “traditional” narrative and historical lesson, or broaden player freedom so that they can experience, as the authors have suggested, the “historical process?”

3) In all three articles, “Civilization” and “Assassin’s Creed” were referenced by name as examples of historical games. These games, specifically, were created for entertainment purposes. This makes the authors’ argument about analyzing their game mechanics as well as their story a little moot, considering the games weren’t created to be analyzed by academics at all. With the growing hype about the potential of using video games for teaching history, do you think that upcoming games should strive for historical accuracy? In other words: now that gaming developers are under the spotlight of academics as well as casual consumers, are they under obligation to deliver a more realistic product? Are they under obligation to create a product that can stand up to scrutiny in both narrative and mechanics?

GIS and Spatial History: Uses and Limitations

The first reading for this week, “Making a Map with QGIS” covered how to install and use QGIS. QGIS is a geographic information system that allows users to add different types of data using different types of “layers.” The article focused a lot on the frustrations that users face when trying to create a project using QGIS. The author described the program as a “general mapping tool” which does not automatically carry out functions without explicit instructions from the user. For anyone who has used QGIS “general” does not seem like the right word, as the user can easily be overwhelmed by the amount of functions on the screen. The symbols representing these functions do not seem to exist elsewhere, so the program requires lots of trial and error.
One of the reasons that first-time users often get frustrated is that QGIS does not automatically display a map. The user can choose the type of map they would like to use (like google maps) and then layer geographic and social data on top of that map. The author argues that by pulling in this information yourself and creating from scratch exactly what you are trying to display is why QGIS is such a powerful tool. This is because QGIS is not just used for geographic analysis. The user can analyze “people, commodities, ideas, political power…” and then relate that information to geographic space.
The next reading on the same site called “Linking and Styling Data with QGIS” walked the reader through how to make meaning out of data the user chooses to put into the program. “The challenge lies in finding (or creating) the data you need, as well as making different sets of data work with each other.” The author shows the user how to relate census information (population by U.S. counties) to the geographic information imported into the program in “Making a Map with QGIS.” It is the user’s responsibility to pull in all relevant information, but also to delete irrelevant information within the data (in this case, population by state). Through this process, the user not only places data in geographic space, but makes sense of it visually. Because the author of both these articles focused so much on the difficulties of using QGIS, it makes the reader hesitant to try a program like this. Having to “haul” oneself up the learning curve of QGIS sounds painful (it totally is).
“What is Spatial History?” by Richard White ( The Middle Ground Richard White) covers the way that historians have used and resisted digital history to study spatial history. White does not see spatial history as a major “turn” in the way that history is practiced, he just sees it as a new way to do history. While he may not see it as a turn, the early examples of data visualization of space seem to come from the same time that environmental history as we know it today became popular. William Cronon (White’s first example) is considered one of the pioneers of environmental history and White himself has frequently fallen into this category throughout his career. While not all of White’s examples in the article can be tied to environmental history, these two methods seem to be coming out of the same historical moment.

White argues that spatial history differs from traditional history in a few important ways. Spatial history is more collaborative. It often requires collaboration between historians, students, GIS specialists, and computer scientists. There is also a focus on visualization rather than text and it relies much more heavily on digital history. He says the most important difference is the “focus conceptually on space.” White then defines the ways that space can be studied, based on the work of a philosopher in “The Production of Space.” According to the philosopher, there is a difference between spatial practice, representations of space, and representational space. Spatial practice “involves the segregation of certain kinds of constructed spaces and their linkages through human movement.” Representations of space are things created by people like architects or surveyors that try to shape how people live and move. Representational space is the space that overlaps physical space but has symbolic meaning to people and shapes the way they live, like a church.

White argues that what ties all of these spatial constructions together is movement. This is why spatial studies cannot rely on maps and text alone. Text and maps are static while movement is not. Another issue that White brings up is that historians like GIS because it allows historians to make sense of historical maps using modern mapping systems and conceptions of space. While GIS can help to reveal something on the original map that was not obvious before, some historians have been resistant to this use of GIS as the construction of space has not been consisted across time or between cultures. White also points out that there is a difference between what he calls “absolute physical space” and “relational space.” This is particularly interesting for those working on the walking tours as physical space would be something measurable, like distance. Relational space could be anything from time of day the person was traveling, traffic, or mode of transportation. By creating a walking tour, we know the mode of transportation (and if it were scheduled, the time of day) and in a way are constructing space in relation to historic spaces.

White’s final point is what he considers most important. To him, visualization and spatial history is a means of doing research, not a way to display information discovered elsewhere. Creating these projects is a way to come up with new questions and see relationships that may not have been revealed using other methods. Spatial history is there to support research, not be the research itself. The final reading was a spatial history project that White worked on with some of his students. The project “Western Railroads and Eastern Capital” seemed to be a mix between a project created with GIS and a network project. It was not the easiest project to understand based just on the visualization, but the description showed that the project was intended to analyze how running a railroad in the west was tied to friends, families and investors in the east.

Discussion Questions:

Why does the author of “Making a Map in QGIS” differentiate geographic data from the social data tied to the maps (like census data from individual states)?

While the social data is not inherently geographic, how is the author understanding how the data is categorized if not by geographic (or constructed geographic, like state boundaries) space?

Do you see a strong connection between spatial history and environmental history? If spatial history is just a tool for writing traditional history, where do the other projects in the article fit?

Do you see any problems with using “modern space and mapping conventions” to georeference historical 2D maps? What potential problems or limitations could a user trying to overlay these maps run into?

Did you find the visualizations in Western Railroads and Eastern Capital” difficult to read? How helpful was the descriptive information accompanying the visualization?


Today’s downloads:

Today’s readings:

Great Awakenings and Anti-Catholicism in America

During the 19th century, many changes occurred in the United States. The Union was nearly torn apart when the South seceded and the Civil War was being fought. There was also a change in culture and industry. The United States began to transition from a WASP-y agrarian culture to one that was more industrial and less anglo-saxon, although this would be confined to much of the late 19th century. Christianity also began to change during this time too. As immigrants from Europe began to settle in the country, they brought different forms of Christianity. Irish Catholics in particular, would come to dominate Catholicism by the end of the 19th century, and the beginning of the early 20th century, especially in the Northeastern United States. However, there were some issues regarding the increasing number of Catholics in the United States, and anti-Catholic/nativist movements became increasingly prominent. It was during this time that evangelical protestantism began to appear in the country. Movements stemming from the Great Awakenings that occurred in waves during the 18th and 19th centuries were beginning to have larger affects on mainline protestantism. In this selection of scholarly works, these movements and demographic changes will be examined on a national, regional, and statewide scale.

In order to understand Christianity in the United States, it is necessary to discuss the religion of the colonies, and how religious diversification began to happen in the 19th century. In David, Wills’s Christianity in the United States, (specifically the chapter, “Colonies in the Atlantic World”) he lays a groundwork for the reader to understand the various sects of the religion as they have come to exist in the United States. Wills makes the case that in order to understand Christianity in the United States, it is important to know that it is rooted in the history of the Atlantic States (Wills, 5). This would make sense, as most of the voyages of exploration that occurred from the 15th century onward ended in the Americas, and thus would be the basis for the countries that would form out of this discovery. Wills makes the point that Protestants weren’t always the dominant group in North America, as many Catholics from Spain, Portugal, and France had already settled in parts of the continent by the early 17th century (Wills, 7). It wasn’t until the Dutch and the English began claiming territory that demographics began to change. When permanent settlements were established (Jamestown, Providence, the Massachusetts Bay Colony), British Christianity in particular began to grow (Wills, 7-9). Wills goes on to say that the three regions of the colonies (New England, Middle, and Southern) all had different defining characteristics. New England’s religious groups tended to support morality and social justice, while the Middle Colonies, which were more ethnically diverse focused on toleration and religious liberty(a by product of Quaker settlement, apparently) (Wills, 11-13). The South, in contrast with the other two, would resemble the colonies in New England, if not for the separation of religious groups based on race, and the fact that different religious traditions (Islam and traditional forms of African religion) were brought into the country by enslaved Africans (Wills, 13-14). As Wills continues, he writes about how there are disputes as to whether the United States was formed under the auspices of European Enlightenment ideals, or Great Awakening theology. While he doesn’t give a conclusive answer, he does provide evidence that the First Great Awakening was made more important retrospectively, than it actually was in the 19th century (Wills, 15). He also states that, under the leadership of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, who were both deistically inclined, instituted religious freedom into the Constitution through the ratification of the First Amendment (Wills, 15). The actions here would have repercussions in the next century, as not everyone was overjoyed with this foundational principle. While Wills’s book is a great introduction, its brevity causes some issues, as he doesn’t go as in depth as other authors do.

The next book, Religion in America, by Denis Lacorne, deals with similar issues as Wills, but with greater depth (see above criticism). Concentrating on the chapter, “Evangelical Awakenings” and “Bible Wars”, Lacorne picks up where Wills ended, and deals with the religious revivals that occurred in the United States during the 18th and 19th centuries. Lacorne describes how the democratization of religion challenged Puritanical religious thought in the 19th century, and would affect relations between religion and politics for decades to come, and would play a role in causing revivals (Lacorne, 44). These Awakenings also disproportionately affected Protestant sects, with Baptists and Methodists enjoying greater growth than older sects (Presbyterian and Episcopalian, Lacorne, 44-45). When the Great Awakenings began, philosophers and writers, for example Alexis de Tocqueville, saw the rise of evangelical Protestantism as a passing phenomenon that would not affect many people, which would be incorrect, as Lacorne writes that Tocqueville underestimated the power of these new sects (Lacorne, 55).
In the following chapter, “Bible Wars”, Lacorne shifts from just the Great Awakenings and rise of evangelical Christianity to the conflicts that arose between Catholics and evangelicals during the 19th century. While Catholics in the colonies were in the minority of Christian denominations in the late 18th century, there was an explosive amount of growth during the 19th century as Irish, Italian, and German Catholics immigrated to the United States. By the 1850s, there were over a million Catholics in the country, up from about 35,000 just sixty years prior (Lacorne, 64). Anti-Catholic sentiment already existed due to English propaganda, which regarded the largely Irish immigrants as papists who threatened American democracy (Lacorne, 65). Combined with bad press and evangelical Protestantism, anti-Catholic riots began to occur throughout the 1830s, with Irish neighborhoods in Boston being looted, while a convent in Charleston was set ablaze by rioters (Lacorne, 65-66). Riots would continue into the next decade, culminating in a period of a few months in Philadelphia (Kensington to be exact), where Irish neighborhoods were, again, attacked and looted (Lacorne,77). A source of the issues between Protestants and Catholics in the United States was over which translation was used. According to Lacorne, Irish Catholics in particular favored the Douai Bible, while Protestants used the King James Version (apparently there are major differences, hell if I know though, they all sound the same to me, Lacorne, 69). One of the key events in the dispute over Bibles occurred in 1859, when an Irish student at a public school refused to recite the King James version of the Ten Commandments. As a result, his knuckles were whipped until they bled, and when other Irish students stood in solidarity, they were expelled (Lacorne, 72-73). This led to legal battle over whether or not the student should have been punished so severely, but it was eventually decided that refusing to recite the King James commandments was a violation of student obligations in Boston public schools (Lacorne, 73). While the court case was a failure, the student became a martyr in the eyes of Catholics around the country, and would be used as a symbol against anti-Catholicism (Lacorne, 77). While Lacorne makes the case that anti-Catholicism was part of the reason for violence on the part of Protestants, he also adds that there were other reasons for this occurring. The Irish, during the mid-19th century, were seen as low wage workers who were stealing jobs from hardworking Americans (that sounds familiar), not only threatening the political and social stability of the United States, but also the economic livelihood of “native-born” citizens (Lacorne, 78). Compared to Wills’s book, Lacorne’s is much more in depth, as stated earlier, but there are some issues, one of which was the fact that he goes out of order, listing the events of the “Bible War” before the Kensington riots, even though the it happened in 1859, while the riots occurred in 1844. There is also a problem with the fact that when he describes the criticisms of the Great Awakenings, he uses only four sources, Tocqueville, Fanny Trollope, Michel Chevalier, and Gustave Beaumont, leading to a skewed perspective as to what philosophers and foreign visitors thought of the revivals of the 19th century.

Coinciding with the rise of Protestant Evangelicalism was an increase in anti-Catholicism. While the Great Awakenings and nativist thought may not have been mutually exclusive, Charles Hambrick-Stowe makes the case for there being a direct connection between the two. According to Hambrick-Stowe in his article, “Charles G. Finney and Evangelical Anti-Catholicism”, this movement was rooted in animosity towards the “official disestablishment of churches and rising religious diversity” (Hambrick-Stowe, 39). This would make sense, as during the 18th century, the rise of Enlightenment Era thought in the United States, coupled with the immigration that occurred in the 19th century, may have been disconcerting to Protestants who felt that their status as majority was in danger of being threatened.
The man at the center of this article, Charles G. Finney, was a minister from the Burned-Over-District of Western New York (a phrase that he coined, coincidentally). The Burned-Over-District, which encapsulated at least a dozen or so counties in New York, was a hotbed for religious revivals in the 19th century (including the establishment of Mormonism), one of which involved Finney. The preacher felt, with regards to Catholics, that they were bound by outdated tradition that prevented the dissemination of the Gospel in America (Hambrick-Stowe, 43). While Finney never explicitly attacked Catholicism (concentrating more on converting and “saving” them from sin, Hambrick-Stowe, 44), his rhetoric was important in fostering the development of anti-Catholic sentiment in the United States later in the 19th century( Hambrick-Stowe, 41). In this way, Finney was more subtle than his contemporaries, such as Lyman Beecher, who claimed that the Catholic Church was “the most skillful, powerful, dreadful system of corruption to those who wield it” (Hambrick-Stowe, 42), instead, he appeared to be preparing Protestants for future “battles” with Catholics. While Hambrick-Stowe dedicates half of this article to anti-Catholicism, he makes the point that Finney disliked organizations other than the Catholic Church, including German Protestants, political parties, and masons, feeling that they all presented similar threats to evangelical Protestantism as the Catholics (Hambrick-Stowe, 46-48). In terms of criticism of this article, there are some issues with length, being thirteen pages means it isn’t that long, and sometimes the scope is too narrow. While Finney is an interesting figure from this movement, including more about his contemporaries would have been useful.

In conclusion, the books that were chosen for this project all present views on Christianity in America. Wills and Lacorne provide a context through which the religious makeup of the country can be viewed, but in two different ways. Wills writes in much broader terms than Lacorne, encapsulating hundreds of years in a few pages. In contrast, Lacorne takes a more detailed approach, writing about specifics in regards to the Great Awakenings, and the animosity between Protestants and Catholics in 19th century America. Both styles have their strengths, and are useful, but the amount of information provided by Lacorne is much better. To compare with the other two, is Hambrick-Stowe’s article, which, as stated previously, was had a more narrow view than previously expected. It might be easier to say that Hambrick-Stowe’s piece is a combination of the other two, mostly because, while he deals with specifics, like Lacorne, the amount of attention he dedicates to certain subjects is similar to Wills.

Hambrick-Stowe, Charles E., “Charles G. Finney and Evangelical Anti-Catholicism”, U.S Catholic Historian, Volume 14, No.4 (1996) 39-52.
Lacorne, Denis, Religion in America: a Political History (New York, Columbia University Press, 2011).
Wills, David W., Christianity in the United States: a Historical Survey and Interpretation (Notre Dame, University of Notre Dame Press, 2005.

Breweries in Albany NY/Albany Ale

For my walking tour I decided to focus on the breweries that were located in the city in the era before prohibition. Prior to the Eighteenth Amendment the area held a number of breweries that went beyond small scale operations and had influence across the Northeastern US. As the Albany area was settled long before today’s beer capitol in the Midwest specifically Milwaukee our area had a head start in the local manufacturing of goods including beer. Also prior to refrigeration perishable products like beer could only be made so far from the intended market and Albany with its river access and close proximity to the then expanding industrial areas of New York, Rochester, and Buffalo was ideally suited to supply both itself and the surrounding region with beer. The reason behind my decision to halt at prohibition was that after the ban on alcohol aka the Volstead Act breweries in Albany and across the country found themselves without a product to sell. Only the larger breweries such as Anheuser Busch were able to survive until prohibitions repeal in 1933 which centralized America’s brewing industry and also lead to only a few styles of beer being available nationally. For Albany brewers even with beer once again being legal Albany’s previous geographic advantages were rendered moot with refrigeration technology allowing Midwestern brewers to ship their product nation wide and local operations were not able to compete. Finally even before prohibition the rise of the Midwest breweries showed a shift in both the beer industry and the American population that hurt the prospects of both the companies in Albany and the styles of beer being produced in the area. The Midwestern operations favored beers based around the German lager or pilsner style as opposed to the previously favored English ale. Lager is a lighter style of beer meant to be refreshing for the drinker, pilsner originating in Pilsen in what is today the Czech Republic with the most popular American variety being Miller is also a lighter beer designed for refreshing drinkability, and ale being a heavier and more filling product with origins in the United Kingdom explaining its popularity with the early settlers in the English colonies. Demographically lager surpassing ale in US markets showed the tastes of newly arrived immigrant populations entering the mainstream popularity in the nineteenth century.
The topic of beer in Albany first caught my interest when I saw a subsection in the Flicker page detailing breweries and distilleries. This subsection is somewhat mislabeled as the photographs within are almost exclusively breweries. What inspired me to address this topic is that beyond the surprise I personally had when I began researching the topic in regards to the extent of beer making in Albany it is also a topical subject with the rise of the micro brewing trend over the past decade. In addition to the interest in smaller breweries making more unique varieties of beer there has also been a renewed interest in both the methods and styles of beer that existed in the past going all the way back to the beers of the ancient world. This trend allows the historian to connect with the general public by offering information on a topic that the average person would find interesting and while beer is easy to see as a non academic subject the history of beer making does go all the way back to the dawn of civilization. As beer has been and continues to be a staple of many of the world’s diets it is a topic possessing both a large amount of material and importance to many of the world’s cultures. Beyond the effects of alcohol beer gave people the ability to use excess grain without it spoiling which was essential in the days before refrigeration.
Before entering into the details of the tour itself it is important to lay out an abbreviated summary of what differentiated the beers made in Albany from other localities and the summary of beer making in Albany and the capital region. Albany like other colonial era settlements in the New World began producing beer shortly after the area was settled by Europeans and by the Revolutionary War era had like other regions had developed a unique style. Albany Ale is XX strength ale that has its origins in the late eighteenth century. This reflected the popularity of ales in the colonies and latter the United States through the mid nineteenth century with today’s favored lager or pilsner style being brought over by German immigrants later on additionally prior to the Anheuser Busch company creating the refrigerated railcar the production of lager on a lager scale was problematic with the Albany Ale Project noting “Lager had been in the U.S since the 1840s, but since it needs to be cold-fermented and then chilled for a number of months”1.
Sources I have found on the topic of so far have been the “Albany Ale Project” a webpage that was started by beer bloggers Alan McLeod and Craig Gravina to detail both the specific ale style as well as brewing in the Albany area. The site has a partnership with two local breweries C.H. Evans Brewing Company at Albany Pump Station and The Home Brew Emporium and has worked with these businesses to create a recreation of Albany Ale Amsdell’s 1901 Albany XX Ale which I will probably try over the next several weeks for purely research purposes. Another resource is the article The History of Beer: Albany, New York, Once the Largest Brewing Hub in America written by Hudson Valley Magazine which gives a quick summary of brewing in the area through the years. Moving on to the website Old Breweries which gives a list breweries in a given area which importantly includes breweries that are no longer operational, the site gives a brief summary of the businesses history, years it was in operation, and less critically perceived value of merchandise from the company.
A potential problem with developing the waling tour is that the breweries as previously mentioned went out of business by the seventies and consequently the buildings that housed the breweries are also gone. To overcome this issue alternate sites will need to be found, there are two possible ways to accomplish this the fist being to see if the original sites contained notable architectural styles and then to find sites in Albany that retain said style. The second work around would be to use existing breweries in Albany particularly if they work with historical styles of beer notably the “Albany Ale” that has appeared in the articles I have found such as the Pump Station in downtown Albany. Another issue is that the demographic for this tour would for legal reasons need to be the twenty one and over crowd which would exclude the primary school as well as a large part of the undergraduate university audience which limits its ability to be employed for scholarly purposes.
In conclusion while there will a small number of roadblocks the topic of beer making in the capital region is a topic that can be used for the walking tour project. While the city has long lost its place as a beer making center the select few microbreweries in the city have helped keep the tradition alive if not well and the history behind the beer industry in Albany ensures that the project has the potential to connect a modern audience with the cities past. So to close once the research has been complete the history of Albany’s beer business should be an informative look at both local businesses as well as how a staple American product evolved with a changing population and legal status.

1. Albany Ale Project,

Albany and the Hudson

During the 19th century, Albany New York had an important and growing relationship with its waterfront on the Hudson River. This relationship helped to change not only the city of Albany, but the nation as well. The river provided inspiration to artists, power for factories, connection to politics, and the transportation for travel and trade. With the development of infrastructure during the 19th century, most notably for this topic the creation and completion of the Erie Canal, Albany became a hub of connectivity. Within a block from the waterfront were some of the most important banks, businesses, and transportation centers of the time. The 19th century was most certainly the peak of this relationship between river and residents for Albany. Now, for many local residents, the waterfront is mostly inaccessible and the ruins of formerly booming industries litter the banks of the river. There has been a push to rebuild the waterfront and reestablish that relationship. The history of the Hudson River in Albany is important on a local and national level, and if the relationship is to be restored the people should be aware of the milestones and changes that were created and amplified by this connection.
One of the most large scale impacts in which the Hudson River played a role is discussed in John Larson’s book, The Market Revolution, in the chapter ‘Marvelous Improvements Everywhere’ in which Larson discusses the creation of the Erie Canal and how the connection of waterways in New York State was able to impact the way goods were produced and shipped nationwide. Goods that had previously gone to local markets could now be distributed with the entire Atlantic world, which meant that goods from the American interior went from local markets to global markets. The Erie Canal allowed goods to be shipped quickly and inexpensively. This helped to create a commercial industrial economy that changed the face of the nation. Larson quotes important American leaders like Thomas Jefferson on the success of the Erie Canal stating that, “Thomas Jefferson thought the Erie Canal would bless New York’s” decedents with wealth and prosperity” while proving to “mankind the superior wisdom of employing the resources of industry in works of improvement”. (Page 50) Larson goes on to say that ambitious men and women during the 19th century ‘flocked’ to Upstate New York to benefit from the access to markets, trade, and travel that region provided. In Albany, the market for transportation boomed. The waterfront had steamships running on a regular schedule, and similarly a block away from the waterfront Albany’s Union stations had railroads connecting the state. This competition for travel methods would drive costs down. After the construction of the Erie Canal the market for local companies expanded and allowed them to trade on a larger scale and compete with more companies along the Hudson. Places like Beverwyck Brewing Company and Albany Lumber saw their sales expand. Larson’s book discusses the origins of the Market Revolution in America and the technological advancements seen early on in New York State but continues with how the revolution spread throughout the nation and how the Market Revolution’s deep roots connect to the economic structure of modern day.
Building on to the origins of the Market Revolution, the advancements in the technology for travel, trade, and communication are discussed in John McEneny’s book Albany: The Capital City on the Hudson. McEneny discusses how Albany was at the forefront of these advancements. He discusses Robert Fulton’s steamship the Clermont and its journey from New York City to Albany as a display of power. The Clermont would be the “first commercially successful steamboat” having a regular scheduled service carrying passengers between the two cities. (Page 92) McEneny credits steamships and the canal to Albany’s advancement in a similar way that Larson had in his book. However, McEneny also cites the early installation of the telegraph in 1845 and the strong railroad system at the time for improving not only Albany’s economic power but political position as well. McEneny states on page 134, “… at the crossroads of both commercial and political traffic between New York City, Montreal, Buffalo, and Boston, whether by land or waterway, Albany played a vital role in the development of the state of New York. It has frequently taken an important part in national politics as well…”. Through McEneny’s chronological narrative he is able to discuss the long history of local peoples connection to the Hudson River dating back to indigenous tribes and stretching into the 21st century. While the first half of the book explains the patterns of settlement, the importance of the Hudson River, and the advancements in technology that assisted in Albany’s growth; the second half of the book focuses on politics by century in the city of Albany. Although not expressly explained, one can see through the McEneny’s work that the relationship between the residents and the river looses its importance throughout the 20th century.
In the book Wedding the Waters by Peter Bernstein he is able to combine the local importance that McEneny captures with the national significance that Larson discussed. Bernstein explains the impact of trade and transportation on the Hudson River and on the Erie Canal had on Albany’s industrial boom. Beyond the numbers that show the outward impact on the nations economic system, he is able to show the spirit of Albany and how quickly residents understood the importance of the canal. Immediately following the completion of the Erie Canal, local residents lined the banks of the river to celebrate. Bernstein quotes on page 274 Cadwallader D. Colden who said, “The pencil could not do justice to the scene presented on the fine autumnal morning when the Albany lock was first opened”. Bernstein goes on to say, “The crowds filled the windows and the tops of houses, jammed the open spaces in the fields, and lined the banks of the canals for a number of miles”. In Wedding the Waters, Bernstein truly captures the grandness of small-scale impact on Albany.
Clearly the Hudson River was important to more than just the people who worked on the water and for more reasons than the Erie Canal. While not solely focused on Albany in David Schuyler’s book Sanctified Landscape: Writers, Artists, and the Hudson River Valley, 1820-1909 is able to capture the ways in which the Hudson River impacted the culture of America beyond trade and transportation. The Hudson River became a muse for the arts during the 19th century, which inspired famous works that would shape a national identity. Schuyler’s book looks into the paintings of the Hudson River School who’s movement of landscape paintings was the first American art movement. He goes on to depict the impact that small towns on the Hudson River impacted the writings of famous authors like Washington Irving and now nature itself inspired the essays of naturalist John Burroughs.
In Rinaldi and Yasinsac’s Hudson Valley Ruins: Forgotten Landmarks of an American Landscape, the authors pay homage to the booming history of the Hudson River in the 19th century while also pointing out the troubling fact that the history has been disappearing before our very eyes. The book discusses the history of companies like Powell and Minnock Brick Company in Coeymans and the Fort Orange Paper Company in Castleton, both of which are close to Albany and benefitted from the Albany waterfront. Both were thriving companies until the 20th century when the economy shifted with the impact of the world wars and changing technology. The relationship between Albany and the waterfront changed, leaving behind the ruins of these companies among other historic sites. This book helps strengthen the historiography by providing a history of the individual sites and a broad history of the region while also engaging in a question of how local history is taught and maintained.
Albany has a long and rich history with the Hudson River, but the connection between the residents and the river has been all but lost. There are movements to enhance the waterfront and books like Hudson Valley Ruins pose the challenge to maintain the history of the waterfront. Overall these books all showed the importance of the region during the 19th century and the connection that Albany and the Hudson had to the Market Revolution as a hub of connectivity.

Larson, John Lauritz. The Market Revolution in America: Liberty, Ambition, and the Eclipse of the Common Good. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

McGreevy, Patrick. Stairway to Empire: Lockport, the Erie Canal, and the Shaping of America. Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2009.

Bernstein, Peter L. Wedding of the Waters: The Erie Canal and the Making of a Great Nation. New York: W.W. Norton, 2005.

Schuyler, David. Sanctified Landscape: Writers, Artists, and the Hudson River Valley, 1820-1909. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2012.

McEneny, John J., Dennis Holzman, and Robert W. Arnold. Albany, Capital City on the Hudson: An Illustrated History. Sun Valley, CA: American Historical Press, 2006.

Rinaldi, Thomas E., and Rob Yasinsac. Hudson Valley Ruins: Forgotten Landmarks of an American Landscape. Hanover: University Press of New England, 2006.

Jewish Communities in Antebellum America

The journey of Jews in American history is a multifaceted, layered, and rich collection of experiences and individuals. Perhaps the most well known period of immigration, the late 1800s through the first decades of the nineteenth century, saw a wave of Jewish immigrants, many of them from Eastern Europe. This period is widely studied and debated within scholarship, and is key in understanding the Jewish experience in America, even in the twenty-first century. However, another wave of Jewish immigration which occurred during the antebellum period may tell us much more about Jewish community and tradition as it relates to Jews in the present-day.
In my research, I explored four different pieces of scholarship that deal with this specific moment in in the Jewish experience in the United states. Though unique in their execution of their particular subject matter, the historians behind these works paint a cohesive portrait of community,family,and identity.Thrust into a predominantly Protestant, Christian society, where the pressure of assimilation and antisemitism, American Jews created new traditions and cultural identities. Beyond the scope of culture and religious dogma they were able, even in small number, create a presence in business and other ventures that would nonetheless give them influence in American cities.The following will demonstrate the direction of recent scholarship of this particular period and shed light on the Jewish experience before the Civil War.
The first piece in my exploration was written by Harvard research fellow, Rowena Olegario and was featured in the Business History Review in the 1999 Summer issue. This was a unique essay because it dealt with Jewish influence on business throughout the nineteenth century, while also giving insight into the tight-knit, and often secretive Jewish communities in American urban centers. Her main argument is that Jews had an important impact on the nineteenth century American economy, while also maintaining less-than-transparent business transactions. In relating to the wider story of Jews in the United States, the author attributes the preservation of religious and cultural traditions that the isolation and marginalization of Jews in their European homelands led to isolated communities in the United States, thus continuing ancient traditions(Olegario,5). Olegario contends that in a still largely agricultural economy, Jews often migrated to larger cities, where their presence was often resented by city fathers and the upper class(Olegario,4). She than goes on to state that though their migration rates from 1840 to 1880 were quite small, Jews were nonetheless visible in the communities in which they chose to build their new lives, especially in the business sector(Olegario,5).
Jews seemed to be very aware of the public’s perception of them, and the stereotypes that they faced at every turn. Olegario states that antisemitism was more a product of larger cities than towns or western settlements. In many cities they were admitted to popular social groups and secret organizations such as the odd fellows and freemasons(Olegario,27). Beginning in the 1840s, a group of Jewish men had started an exclusively Jewish organization, the B’nai B’rith, built upon the rituals of American organizations, this was one way in which Jews created community in the United States.
Another condition of Jewish seemingly smooth assimilation into American society was the fact that Rabbis and organized religious bodies were a later addition to the Jewish experience (Olegario,27). In fact, the more secularized Jewish communities were less threatening to the Protestant status quo than other religious and cultural groups such as Roman Catholics, whose strict church social structure and ritual led Protestants to be more weary(Olegario,27-28). This is quite telling, since scholars often discuss the anti semitism,missionizing, and stereotypes attributed to Jews and that scholarship of struggle has been so pervasive especially following World War II.
A second piece deals with the changing scholarship of Jewish history, and includes a study of how historians are approaching the subject of Antebellum Jewish life. The author, Jonathan Sarna, writes his piece with the aim of informing scholars about the current state of Jewish historical scholarship and includes within his introduction a quantified graphic of how the number of articles written on the subject of Jewish American history has risen from just 175 publications in 1965 to 515 publications in 1989, a year before his piece was written (Sarna,1). In dealing with the antebellum period, Sarna contends that the 1840s and subsequent decades saw the most development within Jewish communities, due to a rise in immigration. Jew immigrated from all over Europe, but the greatest numbers during this period were from Germany, which prompted many historians to call this the “German Period”(Sarna,5).
In studying this timeframe, Sarna states that the most pressing questions facing historians is how Jews viewed themselves and their communities. Many historians, Sarna contends, have chosen to focus on the German aspect of this relationship of a people to their religion and culture(Sarna,6). Exploration into German-Jewish immigrants daily lives have shown that many participated in the wider Germanic community, thus showing a strong connection to their homeland, while still maintaining ties to their ethnic and religious traditions(Sarna,6). Another aspect of this time period that is important in recent scholarship concerning Jews in America is how they dealt with antisemitism and missionizing attempts. One conclusion that historians have come to is that Jews, even when they were assimilated into American society felt that they were also denied an equal standing among their fellow, Christian citizens (Sarna,6). Beyond cultural acceptance, religion is also undoubtedly one of the most important studies of recent academics. Sarna states in his work that scholars were beginning to delve deeper into the Synagogue, its place in the community and the importance of ritual and myth in Jewish religious practice(Sarna,7-8).
A third piece,written by historian Bobbie Malone, deals with a specific group and place, but nonetheless shows the continuity of scholarship concerning this period of Jewish-American history. Featured in the Journal of the Louisiana Historical Society Malone focusses this narrative on the Jews of uptown New Orleans, particularly the Congregation of the Gates of Prayer. By studying the minutes of this Synagogue, historians have made strides in understanding and interpreting the lives of Jews in a large, urban center. This particular congregation was founded in the 1820s by a wealthy Jewish businessman from New York who upon his visit was compelled to establish a synagogue because he could find no matzo for his passover celebration(Malone,5). The fact that the minutes of the Gates of Prayer were first written in German show that German Jews were settling in the southern cities as much as in the northern ones(Malone,8). It also shows that scholarship continues to focus on the “German Period” mentioned by Jonathan Sarna in the article previously discussed.
Their new lives in a new country was also molded by their experience in a predominantly Protestant nation. Many sought to just gain the economic means to survive and establish businesses. Because of this, Malone contends, many Jews during this period were not entirely concerned with Jewish law(Malone,12). As a result, reform Judaism began to grow in popularity. A reaction to increased conflict between American and Jewish cultural norms, Reform Judaism was less stringent and allowed Jews to function more seamlessly in their day to day lives in the United States(Malone,12-13). In this was, scholarship can focus on this fact as it relates to present-day reform Judaism and the part in plays in the lives of Jewish-Americans.
The fourth article dealing with this particular scholarship deals with a unique experience amongst Jewish immigrants in America in the nineteenth century. In “Between Vision and Reality:reassessing Jewish agricultural projects in nineteenth century America”, author Tobias Brinkmann, a professor and historian of Jewish studies, demonstrates how Jews formed communities and created ties that would allow them to be successful in their new homeland. In his piece, Brinkmann tells the story found in much scholarship of the time and subject. Jews, though making up a relatively small group immigrated to the United States. Once they arrived,many resorted to becoming peddlers, a fact that made many established American Jews nervous over how their people would be viewed by other Americans. It was because of this that the idea of a settlement for peddlers to be formed in the west was first proposed. The settlement, which was to be founded in Chicago, would go on to form the basis of what would be the larger Jewish community in the Chicago area(Brinkmann,4).
William Renau is credited with forming this community in the early 1840s,this area would soon be called Schaumberg,and today makes up part of Chicago’s suburban center. One of the main driving factors in the formation of this and other communities like it was the emancipation of Jews in Central Europe, another argument that can figure strongly in present-day scholarship(Brinkmann,310). Brinkmann also contends that another motive for these communities was a desire to knock stereotypes that were pervading American cities(Brinkmann,311). It demonstrates how Jews, more than anyone were aware of just how important it was to assimilate in many ways to be able to “make it” in America. Though many of these communities proved to be failures, the ideas and message they demonstrate cannot be overlooked. The creation of these settlements shows a clear attempt by Jews to empower each other in a time where their entire world was evolving. Agricultural settlements are just another example of the creation of bonds of community that are still so important to Jewish-Americans today.
How the Jewish story is interpreted in America is evolving even in the last decades, as evidenced in the scholarship above. As history and the humanities as a whole come to a crossroads, the way we interpret and do history is also constantly changing. In a time of academic crisis, historians are trying to make sense of recent developments and are trying to pay close attention to stories or narratives that perhaps were never fully explored or given full attention. Like womens or black history, I feel Jewish history has been seen as a neglected history, or one that leaves much out in favor of studying one event or aspect of Jewish cultural or religious practice. What these four essays demonstrate is that the Jewish-American identity is something that is not so simple to understand;in fact is as abstract and complex as any idea of social, cultural, or religious identity is.
Recent scholarship, more than anything perhaps, has shed light on how Jews viewed themselves within their wider communities, and even amongst their own families or congregations. Their story is filled with both struggle and progress, as their world changed from Orthodox European communities to more secularized reform ones in America. For scholars, I believe that is important to understand how Jews viewed themselves, and I think that this could be the direction further inquiries into this particular subject take.
The nineteenth century was a time defined by the changing tides of society, industry, and demography. America was moving from an agricultural to a more industrial economic system. Cities were growing up from small towns,and immigrants were taking their own piece of these communities and making history in their new land. Jews were coming from Central Europe, a region still marred by ethnic prejudice and ancient anti semitic feelings. Though they faced prejudice in the United States, it was there that they were able to form their own unique community bonds, own successful businesses, and participate in organizations that in Europe would more likely than not be closed to them. This moment in history shaped how Jews live and share their cultural and religious heritage today, in a country where their numbers are greater and their lives more visible than in the 1840s or 1850s. That being said, I think that the scholarship concerning this time period can still evolve and uncover more about this people steeped in rich history and looking towards the future.

Brinkmann, Tobias. “Between Vision and reality:reassessing Jewish Agricultural Colony Projects in Nineteenth Century America”.Jewish History,21 no.¾(2007):305-324.
Malone,Bobbie. “New Orleans Uptown Jewish Immigrants the Community of the Congregation Gates of Prayer,1850-1860”. Louisiana History:the Journal of the Louisiana Historical Society,32 no.3(1991):239-278.
Olegario, Rowena. “That Mysterious People” Jewish Merchants, Transparency, and Community in Mid-nineteenth Century America”. The Business History Review,73 no. 2(1999):161-189.
Sarna, Jonathan D. “American Jewish History”. Modern Judaism,10 vol.3 (1990):343-365.