At its best, writing history is like teaching history: it should push you out of your comfort zone, make you uncomfortable, raise questions you cannot answer – and do not even know how to begin to answer. Turning these new tricks might make us think and do history differently.

From histories of sexuality to histories of subjectivity; from urban cultures to culture and self-fashioning; from mid-century Britain to the 1920s and 1930s –new challenges, new questions, new readings, new tricks.

It is not easy to turn new tricks in the world we inhabit. Starting from scratch is an uncomfortable experience – it means admitting our ignorance, addressing the reading we have not done, relying upon the kindness of academic strangers.

It takes time.

Time is in short supply for the historian. The pleasures and challenges of teaching and administration squeeze the space we have to read and think. A relentless academic treadmill carries us on, driven by the demands of the Research Excellence Framework and the pressure to publish. Routine and repetition offer comfort and an easy way out.

Old habits die hard. The old tricks can still work, if you polish them up a bit.

—  Matt Houlbrook, “On being a one trick historian

This 17th century painting did NOT look like this when we first got it. Meet the masterful young art conservator who restored it here.

For our latest post in the series “Translation is Impossible: Let’s do it!,” philologist and historian of the modern reception of classics, Alexandra Lianeri, shares her preface to the forthcoming Greek-language version of Vocabulaire européen des philosophies: Dictionnaire des intraduisibles, first published in French in 2004 and translated into English as the Dictionary of the Untranslatables: A Philosophical Lexicon in early 2014. Click here to read the piece.

Cover Image: An early Europa regina [Queen Europe] map, ca. sixteenth century, on display at the Comenius Museum, which houses the crypt of Czech scholar Jan Amos Comenius (1592–1670), in Naarden, the Netherlands.

The Georges

The other day I found out that Lafayette named his only son after George Washington. Georges Washington de La Fayette. This immediately became my new favorite fact.

It also led me on a search to find out if there were other founding family members named after other important people of the time. The highest concentration of this seems to be in the Jefferson family. Thomas Jefferson’s daughter was apparently named both after her own mother and after Martha Washington. Martha Randolph, among her other kids, had three sons named James Madison Randolph, Benjamin Franklin Randolph, and Meriwether Lewis Randolph (born a year after Meriwether Lewis died). One of Sally Hemings’s sons was also named James Madison, so I guess he was a pretty popular guy at the Jefferson house.

I went down the wikipedia rabbit hole for the Washington household and discovered a wonderful possibility. Bear with me here.

Martha Washington had four kids with her first husband, Daniel Parke Custis. One of these kids, John Parke Custis, lived to marry and have kids. He married Eleanor Calvert, had seven kids with her (four of which survived), and then died in 1781. Eleanor kept her two older kids with her and remarried, going on to have 16 more kids (yikes).

The younger two were adopted by George and Martha. Eleanor Parke Custis was 2 and George Washington Parke Custis was only a few months old.

So now we have two George Washingtons living in the same house. Apparently the younger George was nicknamed ‘Wash’.

Fast forward a few years. The Reign of Terror is happening in France, and it’s bad news for the Lafayette family. Many are imprisoned, a few are killed. Little Georges manages to avoid all this. He goes to America to attend Harvard in 1795, and stays there for two years. While he’s there, he’s a house guest in the Washington household, both in Philadelphia and at Mount Vernon.

In 1795, George Custis was 14. He went to school in Philadelphia for some amount of time. Which means that at any given time between 1795 and 1797, there could have been THREE GEORGE WASHINGTONS in the SAME HOUSE. None of which were biologically related.

I am delighted by this possibility.

Smiling slaves at story time: These picture books show why we need more diversity in publishing, too
Upbeat kids' books that sanitize the horrors of slavery get published—and speak volumes about the industry
By Paula Young Lee

How, then, should children’s book authors and illustrators approach the subject of slavery in early American kitchens? Is it better to simply avoid the topic altogether as being inherently unsuitable for picture books? African-American culinary historian Michael W. Twitty blogs at Afroculinaria and is the author of the forthcoming book “The Cooking Gene.” He’s an expert in the history of race, slavery and American food. In an email to me, Twitty explained: “Children must learn about slavery in the United States and in the Western world in general, because, to quote the last Republican campaign, ‘We built this.‘” He adds: “I think the illustrator of ‘A Fine Dessert’ meant well in depicting the role of enslaved people as part of the plantation household, but it’s the smile that confuses us. We smiled to hide our feelings. ‘We wear the mask that grins and lies.’”

The trouble is that readers who have never considered slavery from the slave’s point of view will tend to interpret those smiles as benign, irrespective of whether the illustrator intended them as smiles of mother-daughter love, or smiles of pleasure at a job well done. But “our people weren’t eating that dessert,” Twitty asserts. “Being enslaved wasn’t a job or a joy, it was being a non-citizen and a non-human. I think for those who have worn the period clothing and done period cooking on plantations, it’s easy to see how such a rosy depiction can later translate at best to ignorance and at worst indignant surprise at the sensitivity Black Americans express at the depiction of their past as a mercy.”