Still Learning

No one can ever know everything about a particular subject. No matter how much has been written, researchers continue to discover new information and offer more nuanced interpretations. That’s what makes the study of American history so fascinating.

Consider the cotton gin. We all know that Eli Whitney invented it and that its success spread the production of cotton—and slavery&mash;across the South, right?

Well, sort of. As Winfield Ross writes, it seems Mr. Whitney and his partner were better promoters than inventors, and gins have been around for millennia. Whitney scored the first patent only because he had friends in high places.

Cotton cultivation is one aspect to be explored at the International African American Museum in Charleston, opening in January. This stunning structure is built not on but above the former Gadsden’s Wharf, where tens of thousands of Africans arrived during the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

Permanent and changing exhibitions, a family genealogy center, and an African Ancestors Memorial Garden that looks back across the ocean literally and figuratively invite visitors to explore the full lives of enslaved persons—from their roots on the African continent to the accomplishments of their descendants in America today.

Considered sacred ground by Africans and their descendants, Gadsden’s Wharf played a smaller but no less horrific role in the international slave trade than most believe, according to a local historian. Ships’ manifests reveal that enslaved persons disembarked on this particular wharf for barely two years before the U.S. Constitution banned the trade.

The private homes in this issue benefited from the owners’ increasing knowledge of building styles and techniques. In Pennsylvania, Bob and Darlene Pors crafted a near replica of a 1750s Colonial Williamsburg home—slightly larger and with modern amenities— relying on their study of historic architecture and decades of hands-on restoration experience.

In Michigan, Lyn and Karen Beekman downsized to a 1700s-style New England cape after nearly four decades in a central hall colonial—designing and building both houses mostly by themselves. As they worked on the smaller cape for one-floor living, they incorporated what they had learned with the first house, creating an even more authentic period home.

The restoration of Emily Dickinson’s home in Amherst, Massachusetts, offers a window into the world of the often enigmatic poet, whose verses are filled with literary and historical references grounded in the places she inhabited—a much more colorful world than you might imagine for the purported recluse.

Colorful also describes the glass wares produced by the self-styled “Baron” Henry William Stiegel, who operated one of America’s few successful glass factories before the Revolution, in Manheim, Pennsylvania. Ware Petznick’s in-depth examination of pieces attributed to Stiegel (who never signed his work) suggests that more objects might be confidently attributed to him than museums and antiques dealers previously believed.

f The delight in discovering new details about our past keeps us engaged in the belief that knowing our history will enable us to help change it for the better. We hope you enjoy that exploration as much as we do.

Jeanmarie Andrews

Executive Editor

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