A Growing Obsession: A History of Houseplants and Colonialism

Since starting college, I’ve had an unsatisfiable urge to collect houseplants. While I’ve (unfortunately) killed a few off and had to give others away, my collection has been growing since then. What started as a simple succulent has grown into African violets, pothos, pepperomias, pileas, spider plants, and snake plants– just to name a few.

And I’m not the only one to take a liking to houseplants in recent years. A quick scroll through Pinterest shows trendy, beautifully decorated spaces complete with an array of potted plants.

Searching “bedroom decor” on Pinterest shows many results featuring houseplants as essential decor

House plants have come in and gone out of style regularly for the past few decades. I started to wonder recently, where does our fascination with houseplants come from and how did these plants, originating from all over the world, become a part of our households.

Some beginning searches reveal the complicated origins of plant collecting and its ties with European imperialism and colonialism. The origins of cultivating plants for aesthetics goes as far back as c. 600 BCE with the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, which were commissioned by King Nebuchadnezzar II for his wife, Queen Amytis. There is evidence for wealthy citizens in Ancient Egypt, Rome, and Greece caring for plants in the luxurious estates, though houseplants fell out of fashion in Europe following the fall of the Roman Empire. . There is also the art of Bonsai, which began in China between 100 and 400 CE.

Victorian Era Illustration of a woman reading near her houseplants.

When European explorers encountered the Americas in the 1400s as Europeans began colonizing the globe. They brought back with them botanical specimens from the Americas, Africa, Asia, and Oceania. The richest Europeans began showcasing by growing exotic and tropical pants in elaborate greenhouses. According to Lauren Camilleri and Sophia Kaplan (authors of Plantopedia), the fashion of keeping houseplants came to a peak in the late 1800s to early 1900s when tropical plants became more accessible to the middle class. After a period out of fashion, the end of World War II saw another boost in the popularity of houseplants.

At the root of this story is European colonization. Exploitation of land and indigenous people facilitated the rise of indoor gardens and houseplants in Europe, bringing in hearty plants that assimilate well to indoor environments.

I propose a digital history project which features a map showing where different types of houseplants originate, paired with a discussion on the relationship between the world of botany and European colonization. In the pursuit of collecting plant specimens for both production and for display, Western scientists often exploited people indigenous to colonized lands, ignoring and, even, erasing the knowledge held by indigenous people.

Beginnings of a map showing origins of popular house plants using ArcGIS StoryMaps

A resulting project using this idea would likely utilize ArcGIS StoryMaps because of the available features and ease of use. The above screenshot shows a precursory map showing the origins of popular house plants, though much more research is needed. The project could situate houseplants and botany within the history of commodities and trade during the height of European global empires. I believe ArcGIS StoryMaps will be a useful tool for this project, allowing for both mapping and interpretation side by side. I hope to include compelling photos and feature important research by scholars, while also being an accessible resource for the average person.

A Hidden Empire: Using Google Ngram to Track American Descriptions of United States Imperialism

Is the United States an empire? Most of us don’t think of it as one but historian Daniel Immerwahr argues otherwise. In his book, How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States, Immerwahr studies how the United States has been expanding since the very beginning- stretching from the original thirteen eastern states across the North American Continent- and eventually began claiming overseas colonies. Essential to the creation of this empire, however, was the perception that United States is not an empire. So, how does America talk about the American Empire while keeping Americans, well, clueless?

Cher Horowitz, Clueless

I propose a project which utilizes Google Ngram to track the ways which Americans have talked about American Imperialism over time, inspired by Immerwahr’s work. For this study, I want to focus on terms that relate to how Americans have described the American Empire and how that has changed over time. Part of Immerwahr’s argument rests on the terminology that our government’s leadership has used to talk about United States territories overseas– terms like commonwealth, protectorate, territory, and colony.

Googe Ngram graph shows a sharp decrease in usage of the term “American Colonies”
A search of “American Empire” shows a similar decline in usage, but with a significant rebound at the end of the 20th century.

Preliminary searches of the terms “American Colonies” and “American Empire” show similar declines in usage of the term beginning in about 1820. While “American Empire” experiences a rebound in usage, this change is not significant until the end of the 1900s and into the 2000s. This trend makes one wonder: why were Americans less likely to describe the United States as an Empire after the early years of the republic? Why were Americans less likely to call newly acquired land colonies?

Google Ngram showing use of “American Territory” spiking in about 1900, when “American Colony” is at one of it’s lowest points.

Things start to get a little more interesting when testing out other descriptions of non-state acquisitions of the United States. For example, usage of “American Territory” sees a sharp increase at the end of the 19th century and into the 20th century, correlating roughly with the end of the Spanish-American War and the World Wars, conflicts in which the United States gained, or had the potential to gain, significant territories. While “American Empire” does see a small bump during this period, both “American Empire” and “American Colonies” continue on the decline, despite territorial acquisition.

A continuation of this project would seek to use a variety of search terms to get an accurate vision of how the American Empire is described throughout time. Examples of other search terms would be substituting “United States” for “American,” and other synonyms for “colony,” like “protectorate,” “commonwealth,” “dependency,” and “settlement.” While Grant Immerwahr’s research also look towards US overseas military bases as evidence, I have doubts that using terms for military bases would yield effective results in this case.

I plan on primarily using Google Ngram for this project, but I am open to other platforms or tool which might yield better results. I would be interested in searching newspapers on this topics, but I am unsure of how to effectively do that for a semester-long project.

Understanding the language that is used to describe American Imperialism is important. While America is viewed as a beacon of freedom, there are American territories so seek freedom from the United States, or statehood at the very least. The people in the American territories lack the rights afforded to mainland American citizens, even though they live on American territory. Understanding the language used is an essential step to recognizing and acting against the unjust actions of our government. The American people shouldn’t be clueless to the fact that the United States controls more than just the 50 states.

By the People: Crowdsourcing at the Library of Congress

Launched in the fall of 2018, By the People (crowd.loc.gov) is an initiative of the Library of Congress to recruit and put to work online volunteers to transcribe their many online resources. As of February 2, 2021, over 270,000 pages have been transcribed by online volunteers, with over 22,000 registered user accounts to the page. Beyond getting transcriptions to their collection, By the People seeks to build off previous crowdsourcing projects to increase access to LOC holdings and take part in preserving our nation’s history.

Home page of the By The People website. crowd.loc.gov

The LOC provides detailed instructions for volunteers, new and old, to read and refer to as they work on their transcriptions. The page asks volunteers to review the guidelines and then explore the campaigns to find a documents they are interested in transcribing. Users can choose whether or not to create an account. Having an account is not required to start transcribing, but in order to participate in the review process, users must create a free account using their email address.

Page showing current campaigns

To get started transcribing, volunteers choose a campaign and are brought to a page displaying the current campaigns. Currently there are 11 campaigns active ranging through a variety of topics, including campaigns on Woman Suffrage, Walt Whitman, the Civil War, and the 19th-Century Occult Revival. With such a variety of topics, volunteers are sure to find something that interests them. While most documents are in English, the LOC is also running a Spanish-language campaign (entitled Herencia: Centuries of Spanish Legal Documents) which allows Spanish speakers to participate in the program as well. For today, I’m going to take a look at the Suffrage: Women Fight for the Vote campaign.

Clicking on the campaign pulls up a webpage giving a brief summary of the campaign. The page describes what kinds of documents are in the collection and why transcribing the documents will benefit researchers and the LOC. Below the description is a progress bar, showing how much of the collection has been started, what is in progress, what needs reviewed, and how much is completed. I can then pick from a list which “project” I would like to work on. After selecting a project, a similar screen pulls up a selection of documents, and then specific pages to work on.

Transcription interface

The website allows multiple people to transcribe a single document. Users can start transcribing, save their progress, and even leave the rest of a page for others to transcribe. Another user can pick up where they left off. Users can zoom in and out on scans to make cursive more legible and use their mouse to move the document around. To the right of the scanned document, transcribers enter the text word by word, preserving each nuance of the writing, including spacing, punctuation, and spelling.

Transcription Review interface

Once a document is ready for review, volunteers check the transcription for accuracy and add relevant tags to the document for search engines. The example above shows a letter which has been transcribed by another user. When reviewing, users review the transcribed text alongside the original. If they find an inaccuracy in the text, they can choose to edit the text. If it is all correct, they can then accept the transcription. Along the bottom of the screen, seen in the above picture, reviewers can also add relevant tags to be used as keywords in the LOC search engine. Once the transcription is reviewed, it can no longer be edited. Users can still view the document within the campaign but it is no longer editable.

Before the transcription appears on the Library of Congress website, however, it must be given final approval by LOC staff. Until then, the transcribed document continues to be available on the We the People website.

Overall, I found the We the People website to be an excellent example of crowdsourcing done well. One concern some may have with online crowd sources is exploiting free help without due compensation or benefits to the volunteer. In my opinion, the LOC successfully avoids this issue through their creative framing of the project. By framing it as a project by the people, for the people, the LOC frames volunteering as a patriotic act which volunteers can feel connected to. This campaign allows people from all over the nation to feel connected in some way to the LOC through online connections. With the huge number of documents cared for by the LOC, just about anyone is sure to be able to find a campaign that resonates with them.

What do you think? Is crowdsourcing a viable option for most museums and archives? Do you agree that the LOC is able to avoid being exploitative of online volunteers?

Intro: Emily Lefeber

Hello everyone! My name is Emily– I’m a first year in the Public History MA program. I grew up in a small town in western Iowa, where I’ve lived most of my life. For my undergraduate, I attended the University of Iowa in Iowa City, Iowa. I studied History and Political Science during my undergrad, along with earning a Museum Studies certificate. During my undergrad I worked at several museums, including the on-campus museums where I ran the children’s programming for ages 2 – 10. For my undergrad honors thesis, I studied the League of Women Voters of Iowa and their activities related to defining citizenship after between 1920 and 1940. My research interests are women’s history broadly, but also looking at intersectional identities and structures of power. Like in my honors thesis, I continue to be interested in theories of citizenship and political history.

I’m currently working as a Teaching Assistant with the AU Department of Critical Race, Gender and Culture with Professor Irene Calis for Gender, Politics, and Power class. It’s been a great experience so far. I’m also working as a Substitute Teacher at a handful of districts near my home here in Iowa. I substitute teach at any level, though my favorite is middle school.

I’ve always been interested in history and education. I actually started my undergraduate with the plan to apply to the UI College of Education to be a history teacher, but ended up decided to go towards museums instead. Public History seemed like a natural continuance of these interests, one which could have broader application that earning a masters in Museum Studies. In my future, I hope to work in programming, or outreach, or maybe exhibitions. One thing I know for sure is that I want to make things that will help people learn in creative and engaging ways. I’m looking forward to learning skills in this class that will help me do that.

Outside of work and school, I love to play Nintendo games (Animal Crossing New Horizons anyone?) or Stardew Valley. I’m also a sucker for a bad period drama — currently watching Reign and just finished Bridgerton. I love a quiet day at home with my fiancé, Alex, and my cat, Sherlock. Once restrictions are lifted, I look forward to visiting museums again and moving to DC.