Archive for February, 2011

On February 28, 1854, the Republican party was envisioned in a Ripon, Wisconsin, school house (which still stands today), by 30 men who felt a new party must be formed with the intention of halting the spread of slavery throughout the United States and its territories. There is still some debate about the official beginning of the party, as the first meeting of a group officially calling themselves Republicans did not occur until July 1854 in Jackson, Michigan, but the Ripon meeting laid an important foundation for the party’s development.

An aerial view of Ripon, Wisconsin, as it stood in 1867. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress

The group met primarily in opposition to the Kansas-Nebraska Act, an 1854 bill passed under the leadership of future Democratic presidential candidate Stephen A. Douglas. The new law nullified the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which would have forbidden slavery in Kansas or Nebraska, and instead instituted popular sovereignty, which allowed for residents to vote on whether to bring the territories into the Union as “slave states” or “free states.” The most famous Republican of his time, Abraham Lincoln engaged Douglas in seven well-known debates in 1858, discussing issues such as the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the Dred Scott case. These debates helped bring Lincoln to national prominence, and in 1860 he became the first Republican to successfully run for president (John C. Fremont ran unsuccessfully in 1856.).

A portrait of Abraham Lincoln in 1858, the year of the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates. Image courtesy of Northern Illinois University

Opening History provides many resources related to the history of the Republican Party, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and Abraham Lincoln. Territorial Kansas Online, a project of the Kansas State Historical Society and University of Kansas, sheds light on the politics and violence that stemmed from the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and the Abraham Lincoln Historical Digitization Project from Northern Illinois University offers a focus on Lincoln’s Illinois years. The Iowa Women’s Archives Founders collection from the University of Iowa offers a later view of the Republican Party, including materials on Louise Noun, the first female chair of the Republican National Committee.


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The opening of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (the Met) on February 20, 1872, signified the beginning of one of the world’s most iconic arts institutions. Though the museum opened in a relatively small building on Fifth Avenue in New York City with only 174 paintings and a Roman sarcophagus, the institution and its collection quickly grew. In 1880, the museum moved to its present location, and since that time the building has expanded to more than 20 times its original size. Today, the Met covers more than 2,000,000 square feet of space and includes 17 curatorial departments.

An advertisement for free "Victory Concerts" held by the Met in partnership with Juilliard School of Music and the New York Public Library, ca. 1936-1941. The concerts were supported by the Works Progress Administration (WPA), renamed the Work Projects Administration in 1939. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress

The Met in October 1957. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress

Opening History offers some interesting materials related to the Met and other art museums. The Charles W. Cushman Collection at Indiana University includes images of Cushman’s own photographs of paintings in the museum, including works by Claude Monet and Francisco de Goya.  Other notable collections related to the visual arts include the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum Art Collection, the Joslyn Art Museum’s American Indian collection, and Public Art in the Bronx, through the City University of New York’s Lehman College Art Gallery.

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A Valentine's Day preschool party at Garvey Memorial Park in San Gabriel, California, in 1958. Image courtesy of the University of Southern California

February 14 has become known in the United States and Europe as a day to acknowledge those we love, though the holiday has been shaped as much by legend and marketing as by fact. In 496 A.D., Pope Gelasius dedicated the holiday in honor of a Catholic martyr, whose precise identity remains in question. While there is little indication that the day was immediately connected to romantic love, the association strengthened over time. By the 17th century, Valentine’s Day was a popular holiday, and writers such as Geoffrey Chaucer and William Shakespeare had alluded to it in their work. The rise of mass production in Britain and America in the late 19th century secured the success of the greeting card industry, and the iconic look of many valentines sent during this era remains popular today.

Opening History contains several collections related to Valentine’s Day and other holidays, most notably the Victorian Valentines collection at the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County (where you can also choose a card from the collection to send as your own e-Valentine).

A Victorian-era Valentine's Day card. Image courtesy of the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County

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On February 9, 1870, President Ulysses S. Grant signed the law that brought the Weather Bureau, today’s National Weather Service, into existence. The law, the product of a resolution passed by the United States Congress, made the Secretary of War and the military responsible for “taking meteorological observations” and “giving notice…of the approach and force of storms” on lakes and coasts. The U.S. Army’s Signal Corps undertook this mission, and by November trained men were reporting on the weather from 25 stations across the country.

While early weather reporting was relatively unscientific by today’s standards, widespread use of the telegraph beginning in the early 1860s made it much easier to quickly gather information about the weather from many different points at the same time. Particularly in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, meteorology began to take shape as a developed field, and the American Meteorological Society was established in 1920. The Weather Bureau became a civilian institution in 1890 with its move to the Department of Agriculture, and its increasingly important role in aviation helped spur another move to the Department of Commerce in 1940.

"Umbrella Man" Robert Patton was famous in early 20th century Seattle for his remarkably accurate, albeit unscientific, weather predictions. Image courtesy of the University of Washington Libraries


A rotary snow plow in Ivanhoe, Colorado, ca. 1879-1894. Image courtesy of Brigham Young University

Today, the National Weather Service’s duties have expanded far beyond the original charges of observation and limited forecasting. Because of the many advances in technology over the past half-century, the NWS is able to predict a wide variety of conditions such as floods, hurricanes, fire weather, and climate with increased accuracy. Its many services and reports are indispensable to the public, but also to the military and other government groups.

As a constant part of our daily lives and the source of many natural disasters, weather forms a significant component of many of the collections available through Opening History. In particular, the Hurricane Katrina Oral History Project through the Louisiana State Museum offers invaluable information about the hurricane and its effects on the lives of those who experienced it. The Mississippi River Flood Album of 1927 from the LOUISiana Digital Library, as well as the 1936 Gainesville Tornado collection from the Digital Library of Georgia, also offer images of two major natural disasters of the past century.

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On February 3, 1870, the Fifteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution was ratified, allowing African American men to vote throughout the nation. The amendment signified one among many legislative and social actions taken during post-Civil War reconstruction to address the needs and rights of black Americans in a nation without slavery.

Like the Thirteenth Amendment, which expanded on Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation to abolish slavery across the country, and the Fourteenth Amendment, which gave full citizenship to black Americans, the Fifteenth Amendment sparked significant political controversy over civil rights. Democratic senators, many of whom had supported the continuation of slavery or been part of the Confederate States of America, wished to curtail such rights, and not one voted to pass the amendment. Even after it became national law, numerous states, including border states such as Kentucky and Maryland, refused to formally ratify the amendment until well into the 20th century.

This cartoon illustrates a variety of people and events involved in bringing about black suffrage, as well as the positive effects of civil liberties on the African American community. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress

For many African Americans, however, the promises of the Fifteenth Amendment and other laws passed during Reconstruction remained largely unfulfilled as they continued to face many hurdles on the way to independence and civil rights. During Reconstruction, strong federal enforcement kept most voter intimidation at bay, but by the late 19th century it was increasingly common, particularly in the Southern U.S., for black Americans to be kept from voting through poll taxes, literacy tests, or even violence.

This political cartoon by Thomas Nast appeared in the March 16, 1867, issue of Harper's Weekly. Its purpose was to point out that black voters were as responsible, if not more so, than many of the white voters who rejected African American suffrage. Image courtesy of the LOUISiana Digital Library

Opening History has an array of collections with items related to Reconstruction, slavery, Jim Crow laws, and other issues. The Harper’s Weekly Journal of Civilization and Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper Collection from the LOUISiana Digital Library especially provides many examples of political cartoons directly related to black suffrage. The Civil War Photographs collection at the Library of Congress also contains many images of black troops and those recently freed from slavery.

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