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.

Minority Servicewomen in the Women Airforce Service Pilots of WWII: An Interactive Timeline Proposal

World War II was a significant period of transition for minorities and women in the United States in positive and negative ways as economic opportunities expanded, the military allowed more groups to serve, and American society’s views on women and ethnically diverse populations fluctuated. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the entry of the U.S. into World War II, the military recognized the need for more manpower (that word is ironic here) in order to free more men into overseas service. Therefore, women’s auxiliary programs for each of the different branches of the military were developed, which mostly created noncombatant roles for servicewomen. One of these was the Women Airforce Service Pilots, or WASP.

Image of four WASPs from the National Archives

WASP was active between 1943 and 1944 and was considered an auxiliary program of the Army Air Corps. Thus, these 1,074 pilots were technically civilians yet they were also some of the first women to fly for the United States military. According to the WASP digital archive, WASP “logged more than 60 million miles and flew every plane the Army Air Forces possessed and every type of mission a male pilot flew during WWII except combat.” These trips often consisted of flying military planes across the country in order to deliver aircraft to and from military bases and factories. Even so, these trips could be dangerous as 38 WASP pilots died in service. Unfortunately, these servicewomen were not only not given military benefits or military status during the war, they were also deactivated in 1944 when it was deemed that they were not needed anymore. WASP was only given veteran status in 1977 and President Obama awarded them the Congressional Gold Medal in 2009.

President Obama awarding WASPs with the Congressional Gold Medal (Official White House photo by Pete Souza)

For my undergraduate university honors thesis, I researched the two Chinese American Women Airforce Service Pilots, Maggie Gee (1923-2013) and Hazel Ying Lee (1912-1944). Out of the 1,074 WASP pilots, there were only a small number of minority women. Other than Gee and Lee, the other minority women include Native American (specifically Oglala Sioux) Ola Millie Rexroat and two Mexican American women Verneda Rodriguez McLean and Frances Dias Gustavson (there is very little information on these two). African American women applied and even interviewed to join yet were rejected. In one of these interviews, the founder of WASP Jacqueline Cochran explained to applicant Janet Harmon Bragg that WASP was already facing enough gender discrimination that she felt it would be too difficult to include African American women. Another African American woman that was rejected is Mildred Hemmans Carter, who was actually retroactively accepted into the WASP program seventy years later.

Hazel Ying Lee, one of the two Chinese American WASPs (U.S. Air Force photo)

Not only are the WASP in general fairly underrepresented in research and in military histories, its minority servicewomen are even more so. I became aware of this issue while researching for my thesis, in which I stated: “The scholarship that has focused on or at least mentioned WASP often failed to include or elaborate on Lee and Gee or any of the other minority servicewomen. While there were only a small number of minority women in WASP, this unfortunate trend whitewashes American history” (21). My proposal for this project is to develop an interactive timeline on the Northwestern University Knight Lab’s Timeline JS tool. I learned of this program through the official WASP digital archive as they do have their own WASP history timeline using this tool yet this part of their website, as with many sources on WASP, neglects highlighting its minority servicewomen.

A screenshot of the WASP archive’s interactive timeline for its history (https://twu.edu/library/womans-collection/collections/women-airforce-service-pilots-official-archive/history/)

I contend that the Timeline JS tool is one prime example of how I can document these women’s stories in an interactive and distinctive way. In my timeline, I hope to both include the 5 minority women I mentioned while perhaps also featuring the African American women like Bragg and Carter that were rejected yet are still important to WASP history. The timeline would allow me to include pictures, descriptions, dates, links to further reading, and other information that would relate to these women’s lives and their experiences in WASP. While most of these materials would come from the WASP digital archive itself (I used many of their primary sources in my thesis, so I would hope to be able to do this again), I would also draw from other archives and various secondary sources. While I would be thrilled to continue this project as its own thesis, I think that this interactive timeline, and perhaps an accompanying website on WordPress, is another unique way to document this history. With an interactive timeline, we are able to both visualize these significant minority women in American military history as well as learn about their lives and time in service to their country.

Tracing Immigrant Communities’ History

America is a nation of immigrants. We’ve all heard it, and for most of the population, it’s true. Tracking down one’s heritage is practically a national pastime, trying to find out which ancestor walked through Ellis Island from where. Sites like Ancestry.com and 23andMe are very popular. But for some communities, like my own Pakistani heritage, this can be difficult, for a variety of reasons. Our communities are often young in the United States; for example, my parents were the first people in my family to come here, just two years before I was born. There just isn’t much history to look up.

I thought about this, and had an idea. What if, rather than looking at the history of a single family, we looked at the history of an entire community of immigrants? This could start out with a site for one group; for example, Pakistanis in Texas. The site could then display relevant information: perhaps a map of where Pakistanis ended up, a graph showing the change in immigration numbers over time, or a short entry of the first recorded immigrant in that group. There could be a section for users to submit their own stories, with a short text, image, or video of them or their parents coming to America for the first time.

The Humanities Truck’s COVID-19 Project provides a good idea of what the map could look like.

This project could be useful for a variety of people. Members of the community themselves may want to learn more about their history, or they may want to contribute and let others know about their community. Many immigrants are proud of their journey, and want to share their experiences. Other people who want to learn about the diverse nature of the United States could also benefit from this project. Researchers could also potentially use the site as a source of data. In addition, if the project does well, it could be expanded to other states or immigrant groups, broadening the reach of the project.

To source this project, census records and immigration records would likely be the primary sources, as these are usually the most reliable sources of information on immigrants. However, the communities themselves would also be excellent sources. Many immigrant communities have their own newspapers or magazines that could be of great use. In addition, users themselves could also submit their own contributions. In terms of technical work, mapping programs could be used to display information about the communities’ locations. Digital text analysis could help trawl through massive loads of immigration records.

However, there are some challenges in this idea. Number one is privacy. Since many of these immigrant communities are relatively new, showing information like immigrant’s names could affect people right now. For that reason, it would be best to anonymize the data, saying, for example, that 110 Pakistanis entered Texas this year instead of having their names. If a user wants to volunteer their story with their name, some kind of release form would probably be needed. Scale is also a big question. Even with digital text analysis, there are a lot of records to go through, and a smaller scale may be necessary, depending on the resources available to the project.

Historical Crossroads: Heritage, Memory, and Legacy through Mapping 21st Century Confederate Monuments

In the past few decades, national debate surrounding monuments and memorials of the Confederacy have reached new heights as activists push for their removal. The monument debate swirls with arguments from the monuments being a testament to blatant racism and injustice in American society and misrepresenting (or altering) history to those of southern and family heritage and legacy. These disagreements have led to protests and counter protests, most notably the tragic 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia that resulted in multiple deaths and injuries. Clearly, this topic is volatile and present in the minds of Americans. However, what is not clear is how current some monuments actually are.

Much has been written about the confederate monument craze of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and of key organizers of their construction like the United Daughters of the Confederacy and Sons of Confederate Veterans. Often, when media sources write about monuments and protests, they mention these historical foundations. However, very little writing exists for the monuments created, erected, and dedicated in the digital age. My project seeks to change that.

An example of coverage in favor of a 21st century monument.

In this project, I will map the (at least) 35 Confederate monuments dedicated in the 21st century. My analysis will include their transcriptions, newspaper articles, and secondary source material to place these monuments within the larger conversation regarding historical memory, legacy, and memorial in America. I want to answer: what are the motives for these new monuments? What are they memorializing? Where is slavery in these monuments? Where is the acknowledgement and accountability of the failure of the confederate state ? How do these fit (or not) within “Lost Cause” narratives? And most importantly, should they be removed?

I propose to use ArcGIS Story Maps for my project because it allows for a blog-like flow of both narrative and mapping service. It will include images, narrative writing, links to further resources, and potentially audio from interviews conducted with those are the forefront of this conflict. It will be interactive and guide the reader through contextual exhibits (liked elaborating on the UDC and its role in memorialization) through the Story Maps slideshow feature. I also would like to incorporate some method of a comment/communication system in the project, perhaps through an embedded link. This project is unique because other Confederate monuments and memorial maps are encyclopedic rather than analytic.

My very bare homepage

The audience I hope will benefit from this project are academics in the field, activists, journalists, and history hobbyists. This tool will allow for more focused discussions of monuments while also challenging the readers to understand the relevancy of these monuments; if they were human, few could drink, a little more could vote, and many wouldn’t be able to legally drive. This suggests that the battle to preserve historical memory is far from over and has a lot of potential for outreach and publicity. In the end, this project will be evaluated on its flexibility; I hope that this is a resource that can grow and be updated to further contextualize commemoration in the United States. This means that map functionality and sustainability coupled with reader feedback will be the focus of my evaluation efforts.

A way I am thinking about categorizing the entries.

What are your thoughts on this? Anything else I should consider or include?

Guastavino Tiles in Washington, DC

As part of the public history practicum course I am a member of the team partnered with the DC History Center. Our team is working with the DC History Center to produce a digital exhibit detailing the history of the Carnegie Library on Mount Vernon Square. 

Image Credit: Rosie Cain

The Carnegie Library building was funded by Andrew Carnegie to house the DC Public Library in 1899 and served as the main library from 1903-1972. The Carnegie library was one of the first buildings in Washington, DC to be non-segregated for public use, welcoming Black and white library patrons equally throughout its many years. Currently, The DC History Center’s headquarters are housed on the second floor of the building, while an Apple store is located on the first floor. The digital exhibit my practicum team is producing for the DC History Center will have multiple components including detailing the architectural history, the social history, and the history of the organizations that have inhabited the building; the DC Public Library, UDC, The DC History Center, and now Apple. I would be interested in taking on a specific component; both out of interest for the topic and project and to ‘double dip’ with the digital project for this course.

This proposed component is a map of public buildings in Washington, DC that feature Guastavino tiles. Guastavino tiles are an intricate architectural process from the Medertaranian adapted and popularized by Raphael Guastavino Sr. and Raphael Guastavino Jr. in the late 1800s and early 1900s. John Ochsendorf’s 2014 article for Structure Magazine, titled “Guastavino Masonry Shells” provides a detailed background of the architectural technique. This feature can be seen in multiple prominent buildings throughout the United States; including Grand Central Station in New York City and St. Paul’s Chapel on the Columbia University campus (pictured bellow). This article from Untapped New York, features 15 of the city’s 200 plus buildings that have this architectural feature. 

Image credit: Untapped New York by Michelle Young

The Carnegie library building is one of multiple buildings in Washington, DC that feature Guastavino tiles. Our project partners have expressed interest in connecting the Carnegie library building with the other buildings throughout the city, and my proposed map would aim to do that. I plan to create an interactive map of Washington, DC that has pins of the public buildings that have Guastavino tiles. The viewer would then be able to click on a pin and a pop up would provide information to the viewer about the building with an image of that building’s Guastavino tile work, potentially with a link to the building’s website or the organization of the website within. A resource I have identified as a possible platform to create this map is StoryMapsJS from Knight Lab, as I know our team plans to incorporate other Knight Lab resources into the digital exhibit, as they appear to be easy to integrate into WordPress. However, StoryMapsJS may be more linear, going from place to place in a preset order, and less self guided than I hope for the project to be, and thus I may need to look into other software to create this map. 

Readings and tools we have examined so far throughout this semester will help to guide this project. Tools that we’ve looked at such as History Pin and Cleveland Historical, that Raphael covered for the class, are wonderful examples of what I am envisioning for this project. Martyn Jessop’s Digital Visualization as a Scholarly Activity, argues that spatial visualization can be useful to digital humanities and can provide an added interactive layer to scholarship that just written text does not. Cameron Blevins “Mining and Mapping the Production of Space” is another convincing example of how interactive digital maps can add to user experience and understanding of topics. 

As someone who is incredible directionally challenged and spatially unaware, interactive maps are extremely helpful to me and I think they are a great tool to connect users to the histories of Guastavino tiles and the buildings that house these features throughout the city.

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