Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Will We Let History Become Invisible?

Pottsgrove Manor in winter

I confess it, I am kind of a history buff.

A minor in history in college, and a frequent reader of history and historical fiction, the past fascinates me.

But I'm realistic enough to realize it's not for everyone.

Sunday night, however, it was everything for about 500 people. That's how many came to Pottsgrove Manor's Twelfth Night by Candlelight event.

Luckily for those of you who missed it, the tours and decorations (without the candlelight) continues through Jan. 8.

The manor is  the ancestral home of Pottstown founder John Potts, who was kind of the Donald Trump of his day, although hopefully a little bit less of a putz.

One of the first American entrepreneurs, his empire included iron works as faraway  as Virginia, thousands of acres under the plow as well as being the real estate mogul who marketed Pottstown as an important cross roads, subdividing land he owned to make the heart of the town we call home today.

The servants hall was where food was staged for holiday parties
And Sunday night, his home -- a home that, by some miracle, survived over the centuries despite being a hotel, bar and flop-house -- was on spectacular display, filled with knowledgeable volunteers wearing the clothes John's contemporaries would have worn during the holidays; cooking the food they would have eaten; playing the music they would have danced to; and portraying the servants who would kept this most elegant of homes running.

  • Visitors learned that syllabub is milk or cream that is curdled with wine or cider and often sweetened and served as a drink or topping or thickened with gelatin and served as a dessert; 
  • They learned that when guests came for the holidays, they stayed for weeks and Potts had to entertain them even while conducting business meetings and keeping his empire humming;
  • They learned that young girls had their dresses tied in the back so their laces could be grabbed to pull them away from danger; and that when her dresses began to be tied in the front, it was a signal that she was old enough to be courted;
  • They learned that young children were protected with a kind of kiddie football helmet, called "a pudding hat," designed to keep head injuries from turning their brains into pudding. 
  • They learned that even though John Potts sons were both loyalist and patriot, that in 1752 when he founded Pottstown, they were all loyal English citizens. 
  • They learned that even though the Potts mansion is a classic Georgian mansion in its symmetry, the half roof that sticks out between the first and second floors is a German influence.
But perhaps most important, is they learned that this is where we came from;  this is where our traditions come from, where this piece of our national identify comes from; and that this history is all around us, if we know where to look; and if we're smart enough to preserve it instead of throwing it away in a fit of willful ignorance.

There are those who say the threatened cut in county funding to such treasures is little more than a craven maneuver by the Montgomery County Commissioners, cynical politicians looking for cover to increase taxes while claiming they are only responding to the will of the people. 

Hard candies like this were served by John Potts
That is for each citizen to decide for himself.

There are those who say real leaders would recognize the value of such resources and not use them as pawns on a political chess board in a cheap game of one-ups-manship.

That is for each citizen to decide for herself.

And there are those who say nothing is so important that it justifies a tax increase in a struggling economy.

Again, for each person to figure out on their own.

But consider the alternative: If such resources are not preserved for our children, when they want to figure out where we come from; when they want to know why so many towns have a High Street, with a King Street on one side and a Queen Street on the other; when they ask why people had slaves and how they lived right where they are standing; do we really want to leave them to figure it out on their own?

Or do we want to be able to show them, not only how it happened, and where it happened, and why it happened, but also that we were smart enough to save it for them, so they can tell their children?

If you answered "yes" to that question, you can have that answer heard this weekend by stopping by the Pottstown Farner's Market where a petition protesting such cuts is collecting signatures.


  1. Dear History Buff, Could you, would you write about previous resessions and how, especially during the aftermath of The Roaring Twenties, when Republican presidents tried similar corrective measures to address that economic downturn that our modern Republicans are touting to reverse the conditions found today ?
    I suspect your father wrote about those earlier times sometime in his past literary efforts. If so, I'd love to read what he wrote, as well as, what you may have to offer. I am, as always, still lost in the woods wondering which path to take.

  2. Totally agree. Well-written.

    Joe Zlomek, Managing Editor
    The Sanatoga Post

  3. Hey Ron,

    Although I made my painful way this year through a history of the Morgan Bank (fascinating, but slow-going for a non-economist), I do not feel qualified to write about that at length.

    I do know that Hoover did not understand the depth of the problem and that although he took measures once the problem became impossible to ignore, they were too little too late.

    More recently, I have read economists who observed that our current problems are not dissimilar to what the Japanese economy went through in the 1990s.

    Japan also tried to cut its way out of their doldrums and it was universally considered a failure.

    My dad has written in passing about the growing income disparities, but not specifically at length (at least that I am aware of) about specific economic measures and their likely effectiveness.

    More likely, if he wrote about them at all, he wrote about their unfairness.