More Americans seem to be discovering a passion for the past.
By Amber Lanier Nagle
The events and records of the past help us understand where we came from, how we came to be where we are today and even what our futures might hold. While academics and history buffs have always found inspiration in what came before, today, scores of Americans from all backgrounds devour popular period television shows and search for family history records from online genealogical sites. History has successfully expanded from textbook pages to achieve prominent status within pop culture, and its influence continues to grow.
A Fresh Approach
Can you name the three ships Christopher Columbus sailed across the Atlantic Ocean in 1492? Who was the longest-serving American president? And, for extra credit, what were the starting and ending dates of the Gulf War?
Ripped from the pages of history textbooks, these questions (see sidebar for answers) and others like them characterize the way that history was presented to many of us when we were young students. While some found learning about the past to be exciting, for others, preparing for tests meant mindlessly memorizing names and dates—which were often forgotten after the exam. However, history can be wildly entertaining and illuminating for all, and today, more Americans seem to be discovering that.
“ ‘Renewed’ suggests that our appetite for history went away for a time, and that’s not the case. It never went away,” says Sheffield Hale, president and CEO of the Atlanta History Center. “I think we’ve learned how to better present history to the audience—how to make it more palatable and interesting. Perhaps that better explains the increases in museum visits and AHC membership.”
Hale points to AHC’s Party with the Past, a free bimonthly program that invites people to gather at significant city landmarks like Oakland Cemetery, the Margaret Mitchell House and the famed Tabernacle. “At each event, experts give a short presentation based on the history of the place,” Hale says. “But there’s also a social element to the events. Beer and wine are available, and everyone socializes while they learn about Atlanta’s rich history.” The events draw crowds between 300 and 700 young professionals—impressive numbers for a history-centric meetup.
Hale also notes that to capture the public’s attention, you have to offer programs that appeal at the time. “People are more interested than ever in downtowns and historic neighborhoods,” he says. “Older buildings have so much character and charm, and there is this push within communities to restore and preserve them—[to] make them beautiful again. People walk by them and want to know more. That’s history.”
Today’s savvy city planners factor walkability into revitalization efforts of historic regions of towns. Tour guides and markers introduce passersby to the backstories of these landmarks. Travel site TripAdvisor reported in its 2018 Travel Trends Report that bookings for historic and heritage experiences at vacation destinations (such as the Charleston Harbor History Tour and the Tour of Historic Fenway Park) increased by 125 percent in 2017, making it the fastest-growing travel experience category. “History can and should be fun, accessible and relevant,” Hale says. “And everything has a history whether it be barbecue, cars or whatever.”
James Grossman, the executive director of the American Historical Association, agrees. “It’s more than battles and politics,” he says. “History adds texture to any hobby or interest.”
Changes in technology have also shifted how people learn about history. Content that used to be sourced almost solely from encyclopedias is now readily available online, accessible to anyone with a computer or mobile device. “And social media has increased history’s reach, as well,” Grossman says. “We’ve all seen the questionable posts on Twitter and Facebook. Historians frequently jump in when people make stuff up.”
Social media often pushes current events and debates with deep-rooted histories to the forefront to be pondered and checked for accuracy. “Take the public controversy over historic monuments,” Grossman suggests. “To make informed decisions, you have to look at the history and understand the context. It has certainly made people think.”
Two years ago, he introduced the hashtag, #EverythingHasaHistory, which has united historians on social media in the belief that history can inform our understanding of everything, and that historians’ voices are essential in conversations about current events. The popular hashtag has been used, shared and retweeted numerous times for emphasis.
And there is also another technological advance that has whet the appetites of people who may have once proclaimed, “History is boring.” Online streaming services paired with masterful storytelling practices have changed the way people consume history (the term “binge watching” comes to mind): Netflix, Hulu, Amazon and other streaming content providers offer incredible selections of historical dramas to their subscribers, which can be viewed anytime, anywhere. One example is Netflix’s critically acclaimed “The Crown,” a historical drama that chronicles the ascension of Queen Elizabeth II and the beginning of her reign. Other shows, such as the History channel’s “Vikings” (ranked as the No. 1 historical TV drama by online ranking site Ranker), mesmerize viewers with colorful costumes, picturesque cinematography and engaging stories of characters who actually existed.
However, shows highlighting history don’t have to be as action-packed as “Vikings” to gain a massive following. In History channel’s “American Pickers,” Mike Wolfe and Frank Fritz travel the backroads of America to find historical items to resell or add to their personal collections. The popular show includes the stories of the items. “We make a living telling the history of America … one piece at a time,” the opening lines state.
The History of Family
Technology has played a role in the soaring popularity of family history, or genealogy, as well. Easy-to-use online genealogical databases allow people to trace their family trees using an array of ancient records and documentation from the comfort of their homes. Genetic testing kits using saliva samples have added a riveting layer to family history research, not only revealing ancestry composition, but also connecting users by suggesting familial relationships (half siblings, first cousins, et cetera).
At the end of 2017, Ancestry, a global leader in family history and consumer genomics, announced that sales for its AncestryDNA kits more than tripled during the four days between Black Friday and Cyber Monday compared to the same period in 2016. It also announced that, for the first time, the number of AncestryDNA kits sold in a single year exceeded the total number of subscribers to the company’s family history services.
Part of Ancestry’s growth might be attributed to the popularity of story-driven television shows like PBS’s “Finding Your Roots” and TLC’s “Who Do You Think You Are?,” both of which follow real people as they research their ancestry. These programs may have also contributed to an uptick in visits to libraries and their archives.
“We’re seeing a number of beginners, but also some individuals who previously started working on their family history and stopped for whatever reason,” says Muriel Jackson, a librarian who heads the Genealogical and Historical Room of the Washington Memorial Library in Macon, Georgia. “Quite often the beginners are looking to prove a family story such as Native American ancestry. … Sometimes one of the oldest family members has died, and they have lost their link to the past.”
The Past Comes Alive at Sea Island
Sea Island’s history is filled with exciting tales and notable figures. Spanish explorers roamed the region in the 1500s, and several Spanish missions dotted the barrier islands. The Golden Isles were also the site of two battles as the Spanish and English fought for control of the area. Folklore even claims that notorious pirate Blackbeard buried some of his treasure on an island beach nearby.
The storied pasts of both the region and the resort are reflected in the architecture and décor at Sea Island. “The Spanish Lounge is where people gathered since 1928, when The Cloister opened,” says Merry Tipton, director of marketing communication at Sea Island. “Today’s re-created space includes the original ceiling, fireplace surrounds, floor lamps, stained glass windows and chandeliers—all with lovely accents and styling.” Now, the resort is honoring the past by adding a gallery of maps, documents and portraits of relevant individuals to the Spanish Lounge. “The first paintings have been hung, starting with a portrait of Gen. James Oglethorpe, founder of the colony of Georgia,” Tipton says. Dozens of other portraits will soon be added, primarily depicting individuals who played a significant role in the history of the Golden Isles, as well as a few important relevant documents.
Tipton says that they also look forward to displaying dozens of items from across the resort’s history, from serving pieces and silverware from the original Cloister building to items used during the 2004 G8 Summit, which Sea Island hosted. “We will place display cases there showcasing mementoes from the hotel opening, early china and silver, vases and serving pieces from the dining rooms and memorabilia from our legendary golf history, among other items,” she says.
History isn’t limited to the visuals, though. Sea Island also offers an array of tours to introduce members and guests to its intriguing past. “Our two most popular walking tours are The Cloister Walking Tour and the G8 Summit and Presidential Walking Tour,” says Sea Island historian Wheeler Bryan Jr. “Everyone loves to learn more about The Cloister—the history, architecture, landscape and furnishings, and the G8 Tour is really interesting in that we walk through the commemorative oaks and share stories of the presidents and heads of state who attended the G8 Summit. The tours are engaging, and our guest[s] always have a lot of questions.”
Bryan notes that the day after former first lady Barbara Bush passed away, he was talking to a group of guests when he mentioned that the Bushes had honeymooned at Sea Island in 1945. “I said, ‘So they are part of our history now. They started their beautiful love story here at Sea Island,’ and I got a little choked up. It took me by surprise.”
His statement reinforces that history is more than just names and dates. “There’s just so much history here, and I love sharing it with our guests,” he continues. “And they share their stories with me, and their stories become part of our history forever. That’s the legacy of Sea Island.”
Immerse yourself in history while en route, at the gym or by the pool with these podcasts.
“The Way I Heard It” — Mike Rowe examines the little-known backstories of famous people, companies and events.
“Revisionist History” — Malcolm Gladwell is at his best in this podcast, which reinterprets the past.
“The Most Wonderful Wonder”— Listen to bizarre historical stories set to music.
“Hardcore History” — Dan Carlin’s engaging podcasts range from quick bites to hourslong lectures.
“Stuff You Missed in History Class” — This series highlights some of the most interesting and outrageous stories from history.
“Something True” — At 10 and 15 minutes each, these podcasts by Duncan Fyfe and Alex Ashby are short, but immensely entertaining.
“BackStory” — During this fun podcast hosted by U.S. historians, a popular topic is examined through the lens of American history.
Answers to Quiz Questions
1. The three ships that Christopher Columbus sailed across the Atlantic Ocean in 1492 were the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria.
2. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was our longest-serving president (from 1933 until his death in 1945).
3. The Gulf War started on Aug. 2, 1990, and ended on Feb. 28, 1991.