Expanding the Narrative of a Beautiful City

When our class began to discuss Harrisburg history and digitization, I thought I would be ready for the onset of information. Of course, there is so much more to learn, but I knew thousands of early 20th-century Harrisburg residents by name and worked comprehensively with digitizing historical Harrisburg. That’s a good base, right?

Here is a larger-scale example of a historical website, in this case from the Pennsylvania State Museum.

Similar to last week, I was surprised by the amount of work and thought that goes into this field. Once again, I will refer to Cohen and Rosenzweig’s text on digital history, for it is an informative and essential component to studying and enacting the responsible digitization of history. A great way to get information to a broader public is by presenting it on a website, which Cohen and Rosenzweig define as “basically a collection of webpages on a server.” A webpage is “simply a file produced or stored on one computer.” During this age of information and technology, few may contemplate the inner-workings behind various Internet sites. How did the webpage you are currently viewing come to exist? Whether supported by basic HTML and CSS language or powered by a less-intensive content management system like this platform, WordPress, there is much preparation and time invested in even a simple site. Beyond this initial step, one would have to set up a server to host his or the site, name the website appropriately, decide how to design the site and what information to include, and make sure his or her goals are feasible within a limited budget. Of course, this individual would have to create quality content, which may include high-quality pictures or other forms of multimedia like audio or interactive maps.

So, how are we taking part in this endeavor? (Other than publishing a blog post about it, which as I mentioned last time is an excellent opportunity to express ideas unreservedly and publicly.) Our goal is to organize unique exhibitions surrounding a topic relating to Harrisburg’s City Beautiful movement.  With this overarching theme, each of the nine of us will arrange our collections to display our own individual exhibits on the City Beautiful website.

To begin this process, we chose topics varying from floods to fires to politics and religious communities. Seeing the change of Harrisburg’s population over the early 20th century, I was fascinated by the concentration of mills in the southernmost section. How did the rapid industrialization of the late 19th century impact the city as a whole? This interest related to the current project since historian William Wilson has argued that the dismal product of industrialism inspired numerous elite Harrisburgers to make a change in their community. With this topic in mind, I searched the website of two local archives the day before our visit. Looking for manuscript groups and particular artifacts beforehand was reminiscent of playing pin the tail on the donkey, but most preliminary research is. It is not until you have the items in front of you, in context with each other, that you can properly begin to understand your topic. At least, that is how research has worked for me so far.

Pennsylvania State Archive: MG-85, J. Horace McFarland Papers, Lantern slide #2855; displaying the pollution and smoke in the industrial city

Early on a winter Thursday, our group filed into a fifteen-passenger van and made our voyage from Grantham to the state capital. Our first stop was the Pennsylvania State Archive, an imposing building that seemed to reach into the sky. Here we were, a group of young history students entering a grand edifice of historical records. After overcoming the initial nervousness resulting from entering such an expansive and important building, I began to enjoy my time in the archive. The formality of filling out call slips for archival material, and having boxes wheeled out to you from the many levels above is empowering. Pulling on special archival gloves to page through documents or handle delicate glass slides to photograph gives the same impression. Through the generous guidance of the archival workers present, I was able to find multiple collections relating to industrial blight. Two well-known individuals from our class, J. Horace McFarland and Mira Dock, both had collections with multitudes of valuable information. For example, in his 1980 article on the City Beautiful project, William Wilson states that McFarland did not like billboards and struggled to keep the city free of them. Today, I found a glass plate with an image of a building covered with numerous posters and immediately thought of McFarland. Seeing small connections makes the research journey much more fulfilling.

The Historical Society of Dauphin County, Alexander Family Library in Harrisburg

Our second stop was the Historical Society of Dauphin County. Though understandably not as extensive as the state archive, the county archive had no less research value. Sitting around a long singular table, we were able to experience a close-quarters research session. The leader of the archivists was very accommodating and conversational, and this made the task feel more like a field trip than an assignment. This trip involved more boxes and folders and digital photographs. After reading two pamphlets on charity meetings of the city, I could see the class division surrounding the City Beautiful movement. The attending members of these conferences were heavyweight names like Boas or McCormick. Women were present at these events, but they did not hold leadership positions. Viewing this dynamic reminded me of the tables Wilson included in his article. The chart displayed the voting distribution across Harrisburg wards: the poorer individuals of the first and second wards were less enthusiastic about the proposed bond issues for urban improvement, and those of the more affluent areas highly supported the idea of “City Beautiful.”

After a productive day at the archives, now it is time to download our images and craft a distinct exhibition online. Though research is not an efficient and lucid process, the end product always makes the time and effort worthwhile.

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