As I write this, it’s the 4th of July, and I’m more reminded of it than usual because I’m helping to host 20 college student leaders from Malaysia, the Philippines, and Indonesia at my university. It’s the first time any of them have been in America, and they are having a blast on this fireworks-laden birthday for America.
Their view of America has come largely from television and the Internet, and they have learned a great deal about us from these media. Much more than we know about them, in fact, but that’s usually the story, no?
So I started wondering what kinds of views of American history might be available online, and it led me to two interesting sites that I’ll describe in this post. Let’s start with the PBS site called, “Liberty! The American Revolution.”
Like many of the PBS sites, this one is a companion to the series of the same name that aired on the public broadcasting network. “Liberty!” provides a wealth of interactive information about the revolution and even offers a “Road to Revolution” interactive game for younger viewers.
Bringing it to life
When you click open the tab, “Chronicle of the Revolution,” you are greeted with individual multimedia packages focusing on the following moments: Boston, 1774; Philadelphia, 1776; Trenton, 1776; Saratoga, 1777; Yorktown, 1781, and Philadelphia, 1791.
In the first of these packages you find an original handbill from April, 1774 Boston entitled, “High Tea in Boston Harbor! Band of ‘Mohawks’ dumps 342 chests of Darjeeling tea off Griffin’s Wharf.” Clicking deeper, you can get video presentations of the tea party, and pop-ups of key figures in the protest movement including Benjamin Franklin.
Clicking open the “Road to Revolution” game, you can test your knowledge about the American Revolution (ahem, and the true location of the Concord Bridge, despite the fact Rep. Michelle Bachmann thinks it is in New Hampshire), and “navigate your way to independence.”
First question from the test: “What did Great Britain create in 1773 that put you on the Road to Revolution?” Possible answers: (A) The Stamp Act, (B) the Intolerable Acts, or (C) The Benny Hill Show. Although one or two presidential candidates might pick C, the rest of us know better.
Second question: “What was the name of the local political group that organized this demonstration?” Possible answers: (A) Sons of the Pioneers, (B) Sons of Liberty, (C) Sons of the American Revolution. Since Roy Rogers was born a few years after the Revolution, you have good reason to doubt A.
The site also gives you audio/video previews of the PBS series of “Liberty,” “The Making of Liberty,” and “The Music of Liberty.”
Williamsburg comes alive
Another interactive look at 18th Century America is found at the Colonial Williamsburg site. The tagline on this site’s heading is, “That the future may learn from the past.” For those people unable to go to Williamsburg in person, this site does a pretty good job of letting you learn vicariously about early-day America.
The site’s “History” tab presents you with, “Life in the 18th Century: People, Places, and the Making of History.” It is here you can see photos of early-American craftsmen in period garb using hand tools to build such things as a baby grand piano, or you can learn the recipes for early-day dishes like the following for apple fritter:
“Pare some apples and cut them in thin slices, put them in a bowl, with a glass of brandy, some white wine, and quarter of a pound of powdered sugar, a little cinnamon finely powdered and the rind of a lemon grated: let them stand some time, turning them over frequently; beat two eggs very light, add one quarter a pound of flour, a tablespoonful of melted butter, and as much cold water as will make a thin batter; drip the apples on a sieve, mix them with the batter, take one slice with a spoonful of butter to each fritter, fry them quick, of a light brown, drain them well, put them in a dish, sprinkling sugar over each, and glaze them nicely.” – Randolph, Mary. “The Virginia Housewife.” pg.155.
You can also find many interesting bios of 18th Century men and women who are all a part of this country’s colorful history. Some are well known, others aren’t. One of the latter is Catherine Blaikley, born in 1695, and a glimpse of her shows the following:
“Catherine Blaikley lived in Williamsburg and was an ‘eminent Midwife who delivered “upwards of three Thousand Children,” presumably white and black, slave and free. Her husband was merchant William Blaikley, who died in 1736. During her 35-year widowhood, Mrs. Blaikley lived in the house now called the Blaikely-Durfey House on Duke of Gloucester Street. She died in 1771.”
More than java
Under the “Visit” tab on the site, you are invited to “Be Present in the Past,” and can experience sights and sounds of 18th Century America. For example, you can take a video tour of the Richard Charlton’s Coffeehouse where you learn: “
English coffeehouses appeared in the 17th century and quickly became popular. These establishments provided patrons with new beverages such as coffee, tea, and chocolate. Even more importantly, coffeehouses served as sites for the energetic discussion of politics, news, and business.
“Despite Williamsburg’s relatively small size, locals sought to emulate the cosmopolitan fashions of Europe, which included this coffeehouse culture. In the early 1760s, Richard Charlton, a local wigmaker, became proprietor of a newly converted coffeehouse near the Capitol. During the ten years the coffeehouse was open, many important political figures frequented its rooms, including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Lieutenant-Governor Francis Fauquier, as well as many merchants and gentry.”
Nothing beats going to these living-history museums in person, but interacting with their online sites is not a bad alternative if information about this country’s young years is what you’re after.