The Fascination of History
The church I go to in Colorado Springs is designated as a State Historical Building. It was built in 1893 as a Unitarian church, which means it has had the same liberal denomination for its entire (nearly) 118 year history. (The doors opened in January of that year.) I mention these things because it’s something I like to tell people who are new to the church. Without fail, they find this to be interesting information. Even more, they find it interesting that ours is the oldest continuous congregation in town. There are older churches, but their services have suffered interruptions when they did not have a minister. Unitarians have been lay-led when the need arose, so our services have not had an interruption since they started in 1891, two years before the building was built.
History has always been interesting to me, and it’s an interest I find most people have in varying degrees. The success of films like Titanic is in part due to the coverage of a major historical event and people’s interest in that event. Yes, there are other elements of interest, but it’s definitely interesting to see a portrayal how people lived in times past.
This, I think, is the key. We are quite familiar with present times, but anybody more than a few years old has seen the times change. I grew up without email, the internet, cable TV and microwaves. Microwaves had been around, but didn’t really become popular until somewhere in the 70’s, when I was in my second decade of life. Mom didn’t get a microwave oven until a few years ago, in fact, and I don’t think Dad has one yet. Cable TV came around in the 80’s–I remember watching HBO and MTV in college and loving it. All of these things are personal observations of changing times, and it’s interesting to look back at how people lived decades or even centuries before these conveniences came around.
Attitudes have changed, too. Think of the class separation depicted in Titanic. Sure, there’s still a bit of that, but it’s changed from then. Look at the view of teenage pregnancy today, something common enough before the twentieth century and often expected. Women who reached their twentieth birthday without getting married and having a couple of kids were considered to be “old maids.” Hell, that label could easily be applied to women who reached their sixteenth birthday without a marriage in the offering. Today, though, we gasp at the rise of nurseries in high schools.
So we look back at historical events and wonder what we might have done in such times. If we were on the Titanic, would we have been among its few survivors? If we lived in the U.S. in the mid-1800’s, would we have sided with the Union or the Confederacy? Would we have owned slaves? If we lived in the colonies in the late 1700’s, would we have fought for independence? If we lived in ancient Rome, what would our daily life be like?
I read a book awhile back about the Lewis and Clark expedition, Undaunted Courage. This book focused on Merriweather Lewis, discussing his life before and after the historic journey he went on. The journey itself was fascinating, but again it was the people on it and what they did which was more interesting. For example, there’s a passage in the book which describes Lewis’ first view of the Rocky Mountains. He and his companions knew, thanks to their Indian friends, they would have to traverse mountains on their journey, but their only mountain experience was the Appalachians in the eastern part of the U.S. They figured these mountains would be similar; nothing major to cross. But Lewis crested a rise and saw the Rockies and had what I would call an “Oh, shit!” moment. In kinder terms, he realized these mountains were not so friendly and would take more than a couple of days to cross. He said as much in his journal, and it is his description of this moment that gives light to how he and the others felt at the time, that connects we in the present time to Lewis and his companions then and there.
I suppose that’s also a big draw: Connecting people across time. There’s a photograph from 1838 which is currently recognized as the first photo of a human. It appears to be a man getting his shoe shined. This is incidental to the rest of the image, which is simply a street scene in Paris. It was taken by Louis Jacques-Mande Daguerre, who essentially invented photography. I don’t think he meant to take a picture of a person; he was trying to capture the scene. His techniques at the time were crude, and it took a bit of exposure to get an image, so capturing a person was, at best, chancy. Still, there he is, a man getting his shoe shined. Something somebody might do today. Anybody who has ever worn footwear which required polishing can connect with this image, this history. It could have been one of us in that image, had we lived in Paris back then. There’s no way to identify who the man is, and that makes it, to me, even more interesting. He’s an anonymous piece of history, in a role anybody could play.
Thus, the fascination, the draw of history. We are a part of it, and we often like to imagine ourselves in other pieces of it. See you…in future history!
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