Looking Through Rosie Colored Glasses

Nadia Shilova

American Enterprise in the American History Museum is of course a journey through the way that capitalism has taken over American lives and sunk its teeth into all creativity, creating a market that rewards selfishness. As much as I’d love to continue to denounce capitalism through the analysis of one of the artifacts in this section, I’ve decided to turn my attention to the differences between men’s and women’s post-World War II fashion, specifically this period’s workwear. The museum displays two pieces of work attire: a men’s suit and a women’s suit, under the label “dress for success,” but in order to discuss post-war women’s workwear, we must turn back to the way women dressed for work during the war. 

This was of course the time of Rosie the Riveter and all that she represented and still represents for us, bringing along canvas jumpsuits, overalls and pants, accompanied by button down shirts and simple sweaters. Of course, these photos of women in factories can convey a sense of pride in the accomplishments of wartime women working in factories, but even in this time of change there was room for the male gaze. Although we are taught to look at it in the most positive way, to accept this period of time where women were allowed to do hard labor, only because men were away fighting in the war, it’s easy to see the post-war blowback of the returning soldiers. It wasn’t empowerment; it was stepping into the boots that would soon be back from the war and kick us back down. Men stepped back into those roles as they returned and women were left to find employment somewhere else.

The women’s suit displayed in the museum was accompanied by a blurb about the “Secretary’s desk” and how personal those spaces were to the women who occupied them. Below the men’s suit, on the other hand, was a small catalyst to a discussion of conformity and materialism, and the loss of individuality through this streamlined workwear. Of course, the two suits both portray the rigidity of office work and capitalist thinking, but only one of their descriptions actually engaged in a meaningful critique of the way we dress our office workers, while the other told the story of the trinkets and decor that secretaries, which is apparently synonymous with women in the office, chose for their desks.

Going back to the suits themselves, both blazers were double breasted and that’s about all the similarities that the untrained eye can point out.The men’s suit was a relaxed yet structured wool blazer with a collared shirt and tie underneath, paired with pants in the same fabric. As stated on the vintage clothing analysis website Vintage Dancer in their description of 1940’s menswear, these suits were meant to make the man feel “larger than life,” with their dominating features, their broad shoulders and chests and their slightly baggy pants. I wouldn’t say the same about women’s workwear. The women’s suit consisted of a pencil skirt and a fitted blazer that accentuated the waistand featured an open collar at the top, which was just high up enough not to show any cleavage.There was nothing hinting at a shirt or blouse underneath and none of it looked like it was meant to make one feel “larger” than anything. It was still focused on the woman’s petite figure, the curve of the body, still completely appealing to the male gaze. To state the obvious, this was a step back from women’s wartime workwear. At least in the factories, men weren’t controlling how a woman’s body looked in a canvas jumpsuit or baggy pants. The American narrative of women entering the workforce, with all its implications of empowerment and liberation, is nothing more than a cover up of how women were actually treated during their first attempts to stay relevant after their small spark of success during the war. The post-war woman in the office was nothing more than a secretary, and the clothing reflects this step back in women’s liberation.

As much as the wartime call of Rosie the Riveter and the power of women entering the workforce were important milestones, they both fall under part of the definition that Ira Chernus provides in his article on American mythology.

“A living myth gives the people who accept it a way to cope with the difficulties of life. when a myth is working, it creates an idealized picture of whatever aspects of life it talks about. It gives an impression of human life and the world as relatively coherent, harmonious, sensible, and therefore meaningful, so that life seems worth living.”

This part of the definition that Chernus uses is a great way to understand why we have these martyrs like Rosie and why we prop up certain time periods as times of social change and liberation. Even if we know that the 1950’s were an extremely ‘traditional’ and socially rigid time in terms of women’s rights, propping up the image of the nuclear family and women as homemakers, it’s nice to have these earlier images of women’s empowerment in order to be less cynical than myself as a society. 

The American Yellow Brick Road

Asa Abrahamson

In American culture, throughout the foundation of the country of the United States of America there have been many symbols that display the diversity that is the American culture. When visiting the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, I saw one symbol that is the epitome of the American Culture, the Ruby Red Slippers. The common knowledge on this artifact is that it comes from the popular cultural movie called The Wizard of Oz and is worn by the main protagonist of the movie, Dorothy Gale. Based on a novel, this movie had several changes that differentiate it from what the writer initially wrote in the novel. For example, the slippers were silver in the novel and were chosen to be red in the movie so that they could pop more to the audience thanks to technicolor technology. What is not very well known is that for the movie the designer made several pairs of ruby red slippers that are now dispersed throughout the United States. According to an article called What you didn’t know about Dorothy’s Ruby Red Slippers written by Amanda June Bell, she writes that famous celebrities like Lady Gaga and Debbie Reynolds have bought a pair of these ruby red slippers, showing how important these slippers are to the American filming industry. It isn’t a stretch to say that the ruby red slippers are the ultimate symbol for American television culture. When analyzing the American myth, the Ruby Red Slippers show the brilliance that is America. America is a country that is constantly trying to outdo its competitors and show off its glory as seen with events like the second industrial revolution expanding the technology capabilities of the United States to be greater than the rest of the world. The slippers being a bright red color couldn’t be any more fitting as a way to further show the brilliance of America’s past and the prospect of a bright future. The birthday of America can also be related to the Ruby Red Slippers with the fireworks of the Fourth of July emanating the profoundness of American nationality. Just as the fireworks burst into the sky, the blinding light is like the blinding red from the ruby slippers. This example shows that America is a country that likes to be bright and shine with spreading nationalistic fervor around the world. In an article named The Meaning of “Myth” in the American Context written by Ira Chernus he writes that “ Each myth helps to create a sense of national identity, defining what it means to be an American. Each expresses something essential about the identity of the nation and its members, as many of them see it.”. When applying this to the Ruby Red Slippers it becomes easier to recognize that these slippers are a part of the American national identity. What the slippers show about the identity of America is that we are constantly walking toward a bright future. The slippers being called ruby demonstrate the vast wealth of America and luxury that the American populace live in daily. When first looking at the Ruby Red Slippers it is easy to get lost in gazing at the brightness of such a pair of slippers. However, when analyzing these slippers as a part of the American myth it is easy to see that there’s more to these slippers then what meets the eye. Connecting these slippers to different American traditions like the Fourth of July show just how influential these slippers are to American culture. These slippers symbolize that America is constantly shining no matter how much time goes by and is always looking for ways to shine brighter and make the world more oriented around the American nationalist sentiment.

American Enterprise: The Barbie Doll

Hailee Arrington

Displayed in the National Museum of American History in the American Enterprise exhibit is an original Barbie. She was made in 1958 by Mattel Inc. and has her characteristic long legs, slim waist, and blonde ponytail. Dressed in a striped one piece bathing suit, she stands amongst other American products and advertisements. She is more than just a simple toy, she is a product. A product created from a newer and bigger industry with an arising culture ripe for consumerism. Advancement in technology allowed for her outreach and accessibility, but what makes her influence so encompassing is the loaded symbolism unpacked with each doll. Barbie was a commercial wave that’s growing popularity revealed a marketable need that was otherwise unseen. A beautiful mature modern doll made for the young American girl, Barbie, was a plastic mold for which to shape the new ideal for an emerging American woman. 

Barbie is a brand not just a doll, and has been popular since its debut. The name alone singularity connotes the doll, as well as everything it symbolizes. Since the 50’s Barbie has been in every household with a young girl and has inspired countless knock-off versions. The reason Barbie became so embedded in our modern culture is because she filled the necessary traits to be considered an American myth. The theorist Ira Chernus describes a myth, not as something factually untrue but rather a thing or story that tells us something about our society and each other. Chernus lists four elements something must have to be considered a myth in his essay on American myth. The first being whether or not the myth is explicit or implicit. In the case of the Barbie doll the myth is implicit, because Barbie is not a story being told but a physical symbol. The second trait the myth must have is meaning to a group of people. The myth must have multiple different meanings and often even contradictory meanings. Barbie is meaningful to young girls and women who played with barbies when they were young girls. It represents the development of womanhood to them and lives within them as a sense of nostalgia. The third standard is if the myth says something about a society’s worldview or lifestyle. Does the myth communicate to a group what they assume to be true? Barbie does all these things. To young girls Barbie paints an inevitable future for their adult life. She has a job, a house, a car, and has a fantastic life based on events and fashion. She depicts an idealized life for the adult American woman. Finally, the fourth standard is if the myth acts as a coping method used to make sense of the difficulties in life. Barbie profits off of an ingrained fantasy, she paints an idealized world for little girls to expect to grow up into. Chernus’ standards define Barbie as a symbolic American myth that is apparent in our culture. Barbie is an American symbol, and whether you love her or hate her you cannot deny her influence. 

https://americanhistory.si.edu/collections/search/object/nmah_1155897

https://mythicamerica.wordpress.com/the-meaning-of-myth-in-the-american-context/

American Identity: Reconceptualizing the Stars and Stripes

Sophie Gold

Professor Cox

Myth, Fantasy, and Meaning

27 March 2020

Reconceptualizing the Stars and Stripes

            For my American Myth Analysis, I decided to focus on the Star-Spangled Banner exhibit at the Museum of American History. I began my analysis by looking into this artifact’s significance in American history as well as in American culture and symbolism and how these ultimately contribute to American national identity.

Upon first seeing the exhibit, I was puzzled. I took note of the vast size of the flag and the dimly lit glass cage in which it was presented. I wondered why the exhibit was so large and dark and why it had more security than its surrounding artifacts. Photography of any kind was also strictly prohibited as even the smallest amount of exposure to light causes the flag to deteriorate little by little. Location speaks to the flag’s cultural significance and is another indicator of national identity. While U.S. history museums exists all across the country, the Star-Spangled Banner’s being displayed in a museum in our nation’s capital city sets [what orecesbfsg[].

The American myth archetype as the Star-Spangled Banner embodies it is ultimately multivalent; the Star-Spangled Banner as a national symbol functions as a macrocosm of the many broad aspects of American identity. Many of these aspects are hopeful; they include patriotism, religious toleration, opportunity, freedom from England, freedom from colonialism, and more along similar lines. However, the subjectivity of American identity leaves room for more negative aspects as well. For many, this artifact may represent oppression and imperialism, or a symbol of the times before freedom. As perspectives contrasts, this artifact embodies American identity as it embodies history through the collective sentiments of the individual American. The Museum of American History includes its own collaborative blog post on its website allowing visitors to share their individual perspectives and sentiments regarding the Star-Spangled Banner and what this national symbol means. To this day, the Star-Spangled Banner facilitates solidarity and freedom of expression when evoking national identity. Professor and Journalist Ira Chernus describes myths as multivalent in The Meaning of Myth in the American Context; he emphasizes the implicit and explicit symbols that create these new perspectives and go along with a particular myth or artifact. American national myth as it is explicated through interpretations of the Star-Spangled Banner is multivalent.

But why does this flag in particular hold so much significance when it comes to building national identity? Across the country, the National Anthem rings familiar with almost everyone – the anthem can be heard in public schools, at sports games, on the television, and even during holidays. The prevalence of this anthem speaks volumes about the collective American identity rooted in patriotism and pride in the nation. The Star-Spangled Banner itself embodies the same thing, as the National Anthem’s lyrics were directly inspired by the very “broad stripes and bright stars” sewn by Mary Pickersgill

The correlation between prominent American figures and civil religion dates back to our founding fathers sewing the seeds of our nation and remains on the forefront of American politics in the 21s century. American sociologist Robert N. Bellah, in his work Daedalus: Civil Religion in America, emphasizes how the “symbolic equation of Lincoln with Jesus” further cements the fallacy that American democracy is somewhat founded upon the Christian faith (48). Logically speaking, this argument is in fact fallacious. America has no official religion, although it can be argued that an adherence to Calvinism was integral to the founding fathers as they separated from England. Additionally, with the Pledge of Allegiance to any U.S. flag fashioned after the original Star-Spangled Banner, the phrase “under God” wasn’t added until Flag Day, 1954. This connects back to Abraham Lincoln as not only an important American figure but also a purveyor of civil religion as it pertains to American identity. In his Gettysburg Address, transcriptions of Lincoln’s speech read, “that the nation shall, under God, have a new birth of freedom.” This evocation of a nation “under God” ultimately caused the addition of the phrase into the pledge, effectively “deifying” the flag. This deification also contributes to American-Christian national identity. This solidarity may seem unifying through one lens, as it makes an appeal to an overwhelmingly large U.S. demographic, can also be interpret as exclusionary towards those who do not subscribe to the Catholic faith or those who do not worship one God.

 

https://www.businessinsider.com/under-god-added-to-pledge-of-allegiance-2014-6

https://amhistory.si.edu/starspangledbanner/share-your-story.aspx

THE MEANING OF “MYTH” IN THE AMERICAN CONTEXT

https://blackboard.american.edu/bbcswebdav/pid-4743323-dt-content-rid-25374835_1/courses/306225/Bellah%20-%20Civil%20Religion.pdf

 

 

A Smoke A Day is What Docs Say

The artifact that I have chosen to review is the Lucky Strikes poster by The American Tobacco Company in 1929. The poster portrays a woman leaned over sensually so that just the top half of her torso and head are visible.  Both of her arms are crossed and her face is tilted upwards towards whomever is the viewer, lips pursed. The message is simple, “To keep a slender figure no one can deny… reach for a lucky instead of a sweet.” In smaller letters, “It’s Toasted!” across the bottom, as well as a promise that these cigarettes will not make you cough.  Through this image we get a pretty clear picture of what life was like in the late 1920’s, so long as we also take into consideration what isn’t in the poster.

The first thing we notice in this poster is the well-manicured woman.  Women in advertising was not a new concept, nor would it fade away in the coming years.  This repetitive use of a woman’s body or traits for a purpose is what makes it somewhat of a motif or symbol in advertising.  Chernus notes that when “images function as symbols they affect us both intellectually and emotionally, both consciously and unconsciously. They communicate several different, often divergent, sometimes even contradictory, meanings simultaneously.”  The purpose of this woman was to market to other women of her stature. We can assume, unconsciously, that this woman is fairly well off from the fact that A. she has the opportunity to reach for a sweet which implies a disposable income and B. her hair is in looser curls, rather than the tight flapper haircut.  This hairstyle, as noted in Smithsonian Mag, was less polished than the years previous, marking the start of the Great Depression well.  

https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/the-history-of-the-flapper-part-4-emboldened-by-the-bob-27361862/

The myth of the need for the weight of a woman to be slim for societal judgement is also not a new idea.  Chernus states again, “ Myths may generally have more fiction than fact, but sometimes the fact outweighs the fiction. “  The fiction here is that you need to smoke to be thin, or need to think about being thin more often than is realistic. The fact here is that oftentimes it is better to lay off the sweets and keep balanced.  The propagated fact of a woman’s “health” equalling her thinness has become in many ways a part of our civic ideologies. It is seen in the media nowadays and the amount of products marketed towards it have increased exponentially.

However, one of the most interesting myths that the American public was subject to was the idea that cigarettes were good for you.  Taking a wider lens on the poster, it is quite clear that it is insinuating that Lucky Strikes would keep you healthy. In fact, the campaign went further in the following year to come out and say that doctors themselves smoked.  The following poster was taken from a 1930’s Lucky Strikes campaign via the Stanford University Research into the Impact of Tobacco Advertising. http://tobacco.stanford.edu/tobacco_main/images.php?token2=fm_st002.php&token1=fm_img0101.php&theme_file=fm_mt001.php&theme_name=Doctors%20Smoking&subtheme_name=20,679%20Physicians

The doctor ( a man, so as to gain trust that he was a good doctor) is holding a large pack of cigarettes.  This number, 20,679, was proven later to be completely arbitrary and merely more believable “than a rounded number.” The Lucky Strikes campaign proved in a simple feat of advertising how easy it is to get the American Public to buy into whatever you want to sell them.  The initial breach of the topic of health into cigarette sales may have started with the female physique, but it was brought home with the doctors orders.

Mourning Our Leaders

Samuel McGuire

How do you mourn the leader of America? Surely, one can’t produce a definitive, catch-all answer. The average american is not even likely to be able to recall the names of every US president, usually remembering the most memorable ones from their history classes or whichever ones who served in their lifetime.

The presidency is a position that elevates one to a status of immense power and influence. Throughout American history, the president has provided leadership in the public faith; faith in the government, faith in the presidency, faith in America. In one of Robert Linder’s articles for Journal of Church and State, the president has provided leadership in the public faith throughout US history. “Sometimes he has functioned primarily as a national prophet, as did Abraham Lincoln. Occasionally he has served primarily as the nation’s pastor, as did Dwight Eisenhower. At other times he has performed primarily as the high priest of the civil religion, as did Ronald Reagan.” In prophetic civil religion, the president “assesses the nation’s actions and calls upon the people to make sacrifices in times of crisis and to repent when their behavior falls short of the national ideals.” As the national pastor, he provides spiritual inspiration to the people by affirming American core values and urging them to appropriate those values, and by comforting them in their afflictions. In the priestly role, the president makes America itself the ultimate reference point. He “leads the citizenry in affirming and celebrating the nation, and reminds them of the national mission, while at the same time glorifying and praising his political flock.” This works to further the theory on Civil Religion that America’s national identity and cultural values have run parallel to that of pan-Christian religious themes, and, when seen how some of our most recognizable leaders’ roles ended, abruptly or peacefully, our biggest show of thanks was seen in how they were mourned nationwide.

Following his assassination, the caskets containing Abraham Lincoln’s body and the body of his son Willie traveled for three weeks on the Lincoln Special funeral train in 1865. The train followed a circuitous route from D.C. to Springfield, Illinois, stopping at many cities for memorials attended by hundreds of thousands. Many others gathered along the tracks as the train passed with bands, bonfires, and hymn singing or in silent grief. Poet Walt Whitman composed When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d to eulogize him, one of four poems he wrote about Lincoln. This was considered America’s first national funeral.

In 1945, this locomotive(see below) carried Franklin D. Roosevelt’s body, placed in a flag-draped coffin and loaded onto the presidential train for the trip back to Washington. Along the route, thousands flocked to the tracks to pay their respects. After a White House funeral on April 14, Roosevelt was transported by train from Washington, D.C., to his place of birth at Hyde Park.

Dwight D. Eisenhower’s body was moved to the Washington National Cathedral’s Bethlehem Chapel, where he lay in repose for 28 hours. He was then transported to the Capitol, where he lay in state in the Rotunda.A state funeral service was conducted at the Washington National Cathedral on March 31, 1969. The president and First Lady, Richard and Pat Nixon, attended, as did former president Lyndon Johnson. Also among the 2,000 invited guests were U.N. Secretary General U Thant and 10 foreign heads of state and government, including President Charles de Gaulle of France, who was in the United States for the first time since the state funeral of John F. Kennedy, and the Shah of Iran.

In 2004, Ronald Reagan’s body was taken to the Kingsley and Gates Funeral Home in Santa Monica, California, where well-wishers paid tribute by laying flowers and American flags in the grass. Later, his body was transferred to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, where a brief family funeral, conducted by Pastor Michael Wenning, was held. Reagan’s body lay in repose in the Library lobby until June 9; over 100,000 people viewed the coffin. Two days after, Reagan’s body was flown to Washington, D.C., where he became the tenth U.S. president to lie in state in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol;in thirty-four hours, 104,684 people filed past the coffin.

The nation provides quasi-religious honors to its presidents– martyrs, some might call them– with services that become a spectacle, an event. These events served not only to mourn the passing of the country’s leaders en-masse, but to mobilize the public, according to Robert Bellah’s Civil Religion in America. Overall, mourning these national pastors and priests and leaders is not just political, not just patriotic, but is a spiritual action when their lives and works are celebrated with such grand practices.

 

America: A Culture Influenced by Ads

Jordy Schnaitman

In the 21st century, we may be tempted to assume we know what is best for us as a society from understanding science and politics. We may at times feel immune to “fake news” or media bias because we have been educated to be cautious of it. However, it is critical that we look at the reality of the past, and how easily our perceptions can be shaped and shifted to fit new information- information that may not always be completely accurate. As humans, we naturally tend to gravitate towards what we want to hear, and we have seen through history how advertising companies will use that to their advantage to manipulate consumers. One of the most obvious examples of this is America’s general opinion on the use of tobacco products. One quick glance at a photograph of a 1950’s diner will tell you all you need to know about the old American perception of cigarettes (each booth had its own ash tray).

This brief article goes into detail about some of the places people were allowed to smoke: https://www.chathamdailynews.ca/2013/02/13/remember-when-you-could-smoke-anywhere-and-everywhere/wcm/45d555f4-853d-975e-c3a9-a3cb53a80284

For a long time, smoking was considered a trendy pastime for men and women alike, regardless of age or occupation. It wasn’t until recently that medical evidence was pushed forward to warn against the long-term effects smoking can have on the body. Without this evidence, it is reasonable for anyone to fall prey to the vogue and take up the unhealthy habit themselves. However, we cannot ignore the massive impact cigarette advertisements had during the process. Any shred of doubt a young, socially-inclined individual had about the safety of cigarettes would be instantly dissolved the moment they saw a physician holding up a pack in the newspaper, claiming health benefits and encouraging the activity.

A 1930’s cigarette ad from the brand Lucky Strike.

 

Tobacco, in its many forms, undeniably became a significant part of American culture for years, fueled by the production and marketing from competing companies across the country. Depictions of chic women smoking in cocktail dresses and men in business suits promised a sense of sophistication and social adeptness for those who chose to hop on the bandwagon. Beyond the individual, the tobacco smoking culture was so widely accepted that these images really represented the image of America at that time: young, independent, and classy. As a young country, we were, and still are trying to determine and create what we want our perception to the rest of the world to look like. The 20th century was a time of innovation and development, not only for manufacturers and transportation, but for the country as a character in world history with its own mythology.

Ira Chernus puts it best in his essay, “The Meaning of ‘Myth’ In the American Context”:

“Our national myths draw on empirical facts from all aspects of public life — political, economic, cultural, moral, and more — and create a complex interplay among them, creating a sense of the nation and its life as a unified, harmonious whole.”

Chernus’s ideas can be applied to an artifact as simple as a cigarette ad. Such a seemingly insignificant piece of history played a major role in shaping the style of American culture and perception, leading directly to its ever-evolving mythology. As our “sense of the nation” transforms, the general population is vulnerable to influence about the cognizant matters that shape American mythology.

 

 

What is so important about a pair of slippers?

Thomas Scartz

The American History Museum has such a vast collection of important artifacts, from the batmobile to first ladies’ dresses the collection covers all parts of America. Most objects in the museum support the idea of an American myth in some way. However, there is no artifact that exemplifies these ideas more than Dorothy’s ruby slippers from the Hollywood blockbuster, The Wizard of Oz. It is easy to overlook the slippers as just an item that was used in a hit film. However, these slippers symbolize much more than people think.

The story of the ruby slippers in the film goes like this. The slippers were first worn by the wicked witch of the East before Dorthy’s house killed the witch and Dorothy took the magical slippers and wore them throughout the movie. In the film, the slippers were highly sought after by the evil witch of the West. The main use of the slippers in the film though were to magically bring Dorothy back to her home, Kansas. This is the first way the slippers are related to the American myth, Dorothy was in Oz and wanted to get back to America.

When The Wizard of Oz was filmed and originally released America was coming out of the Great Depression, and that is when the film took place.When the film released the question would have been asked such as. Why would anyone want to give up living in a world like Oz to have to face tough times in America? According to Chernus, a “myth gives the people who accept it a way to cope with the difficulties of life.” During the Great Depression living in America was nothing but difficult. People were not optimistic about the future and they had no hope. When Dorothy wished to be brought back to America with the opportunity to leave forever she showed the audience that America could get through by trusting in the government and having faith in the economy. Even though there were many difficulties in US life during the 1930s the fact that a little girl like Dorothy was not scared would have been uplifting to people during that time.

The character Dorothy can be seen as a pioneer woman, a character archetype that can be found in many American myths. Brown claims that archetypes “liberate characters and readers from outdated politics and injustices.” And these help point to the root of our national creation. The use of Dorothy with her ruby slippers as a pioneer woman is important in showing the audience the “American Dream” that is important in the American myth and the idea that you can be anything that you want to be in America.

Dorothy’s slippers first represent a character that is seen as a pioneer. The slippers also represent a story that values nice behavior and love, intelligence and courage. All these ideas from the movie are important in the idea of the American myth. It is easy to overlook the slippers as just a prop in a hit film. But these slippers mean much more in the history of America.

The Man or the Myth

Miriam Weinraub

Throughout the long histories of powerful empires, the leaders and powerful people have been transformed from normal human beings to that of an elevated position above human life. Although a shorter history than most, the United States of America is no exception to this process of ascension. The differentiation from the ideals and values of Europe and the creation of American mythology was necessary to the success of the new country. One man of myth and power who tends to define American mythology is George Washington. Washington was a normal human who took on a role a few desired and helped to establish the nation that is viewed by citizens and the world today. When examining Washington the contradiction between a normal (yet slightly elevated) man and a mythological hero is present in almost every aspect. 

A young America has had the power to create figures, stories, and values that define what it means to be a true American. Much of these values can be traced back to the Revolutionary War. George Washington is no exception. Following his successful military career that allowed the colonies to gain their independence, he became the first president in the new democratic system and the most famous founding father. Throughout the nation that he helped to start there is no lack of memorials, monuments, and artifacts that help modern Americans understand the significance of George Washington. These artifacts have taken the man that was seen in his own time as powerful and successful and transformed him into a mythical hero that stands out amongst human men as something greater. 

Robert Bellah in his piece on the American Civil Religion can implicitly define how a man like Washington was taken from humans to much more. He discusses the influence of the traditional mythologies from Christianity, Judaism, greek, and others and how they have influenced American mythology through characters, symbolism, and other aspects. The belief system that America possesses today is centered around the value of virtue, ideals, and motivators originally found in the traditional religions and emphasized by the people who made a name for themselves in America. George Washington, similar to Hercules and other mythical heroes, demonstrated the power and influence of the belief system on the general public. 

 When America was founded and the creation of a new governmental system underway the founding fathers rejected the idea of a king in favor of something more restricted but powerful nonetheless. They landed on the idea of a president. The first man to hold the position was George Washington. Although they could not revere him like a king, or in life treat him like a royal. American citizens decided to treat the man like a hero of mythical proportions following his death. 

America’s action to treat Washington like a mythical hero following his death is demonstrated throughout the country. In the nation’s Capitol building lay a tomb, that is the center of the city and the building meant to house Washington’s body for all of the time and demonstrate the value American society has put on this singular man. It is illustrated in the stories told about him, the most famous being the Cherry Tree story which has instilled values of honesty and virtue for countless generations of Americans as they attempt to be anything close to George Washington. One artifact that emphasizes the elevation of Washington to something more than human connection to the belief system of the more ancient communities is that of Enthroned Washington. In the Smithsonian Museum of American History stands a statue, large and domineering of George Washington. Unlike the portraits and memorials to him across the city this one is done in the style of greek heroes and gods; the first president sits on a throne-like seat in traditional greek clothing. When examining this statue a person can gain the bigger picture. That George Washington is no longer considered a man in the scheme of American mythology but a hero who was able to rise above his fellow men and teach the nation the values it needed to possess. Like the greek who worshiped the status of their gods and heroes, the statue of Washington that stands in a space dedicated to the successes of the nation he founded he is idolized and valued like a creature of mythic proportion. What is studied and taught about George Washington is more than a simple biography work. His legacy is the values and actions that he accomplished and how today another person can attempt to be great by attempting to be like him. He left behind a nation that cared for him deeply, he created a nation that idolized and almost worshiped him the same way ancient civilizations do for their gods and heroes. 

In most nations and civilizations a man like George Washington would be remembered and taught about because of his actions and virtues. America took it a step further and made his legacy one that rises above and beyond a normal human creating a true legendary myth out of this man. 

The American Log Cabin

Olivia LaPorte

 

The American Log Cabin: Presidential Birthplace or Poor Man’s Home?

The American Frontier has become synonymous in American history with Western Expansion. During the periods between 1812 and 1860 many different events occurred in history. The Mexican-American War, the Gold Rush, and the lead up to the civil war to name a few.

Though romanticized today, the American expansion westward was not always as glamorous as it seems. The symbolism and narrative around the American West has changed immensely from the time of 1800 to now in order to fit the narrative of the American Experiment. One can see how narratives of the West changed by looking into the story of the infamous log cabin. Birthplace to many presidents (Grant, Lincoln, and Jackson for example), the log cabin has come to be known as an “American” home. Built from nature by American’s themselves, the story of the log cabin today is shown to be that of perseverance and strength in the rugged wilderness.

However, log cabins were not always known to have this connotation. In actuality, log cabins were lived in by those who were not able to afford any other housing. A poor man’s home, these cabins were easy to construct one was strapped for cash. In many cases it was actually embarrassing to live in one. So when did this start to change?

The Need for Identity

After the War of 1812 with England, Americans sought to differentiate themselves from their former imperialist rulers. The American West, untouched by English, helped facilitate this uniquely American narrative. The quest for American identity found traction with themes and symbols that were common to the american man, just like the log cabin.

This was apparent in the 1840 election of William Harrison. Harrison of the Whig party  and Martin Van Buren of the Democratic party were head to head in a tight presidential election. According to Mental Floss, Van Buren said ““Give [Harrison] a barrel of Hard Cider, and settle a pension of $2000 a year on him, and my word for it, he will sit the remainder of his days in his Log Cabin.” In other words: Harrison was an ignorant hick.” (Mental Floss). To which Harrison retorted “that he’d rather relax in his log cabin than run for president, but that he had heeded their call to run for the White House.”(Mental Floss). This resonated with many Americans living day to day in the wild west and desperate for a unique American identity after the war. From this moment on, the symbolism of the log cabin was born. This exchange started to change public opinion surrounding the log cabin. It made the idea of living in a log cabin not something to be ashamed of, but something to be proud of, as many presidents were born there. The connotation became that though log cabins were not a status symbol, they were a symbol of something much larger, the American dream.

The idea of being born to humble means and rising to the top of the political realm showed the best version of America. This narrative was perpetuated throughout the 20th century and still persists today. The reality of log cabin living and frontier life is often forgotten and in its place is the idyllic frontier, full of rugged ‘real’ Americans. As historian Chernus stated, “a living myth gives the people who accept it a way to cope with the difficulties of life. when a myth is working, it creates an idealized picture of whatever aspects of life it talks about. It gives an impression of human life and the world as relatively coherent, harmonious, sensible, and therefore meaningful, so that life seems worth living.” Though the myth of the log cabin as we view it now may not be factually accurate, it did allow for those living in a log cabin to find pride in their circumstance and has allowed for the narrative of the American expansion to be glamorized even today. The myth of the log cabin transformed to not only create a sense of unity among the people of the frontier, but also created a uniquely American narrative in a time where this narrative was necessary for establishing national unity and identity I cannot think of a better example of an American myth than the American log cabin, the birthplace of presidents and average American citizens alike.

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