Because the calendar seems to have reset to 1899 (or a dystopian 2099?), last month the billionaire owner of a major online news syndicate shuttered the sites a week after newsroom workers formally declared their intention to unionize under the Writer’s Guild of America East. On November 2nd, Gothamist and DNAInfo CEO Joe Ricketts replaced the front pages of the websites, including Gothamist’s many local subsidiaries, with a letter explaining that he had decided to discontinue publication:

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Gothamist CEO’s shutdown notice message

What happened next was akin to hysteria, as the worst nightmares of journalists and digital archivists appeared to have come true. Contributing writers use their published articles as a form of portfolio for acquiring new work. So when it was discovered that as of 5pm the site’s thousands of articles – amassed over over a decade – were no longer accessible, panic began to spread among journalists. The internet black hole appeared to have opened up and swallowed their livelihood, just like those skeptics among us had always warned it would.

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Plaque marking the site of S. Weir Mitchell’s House on Walnut Street. Author’s photo.

I’m frequently shocked at how much of the world I’ve been missing out on when I occasionally stop to look up. Recently, walking through Center City on Walnut Street for the thousandth time, I happened to turn and catch a glimpse of a plaque on the site of the house of Dr. S. Weir Mitchell, practically indistinguishable from the identically-colored plaster surrounding it. Reading the inscription (“He taught us the use of rest for the nervous. He created ‘Hugh Wynne.’ He pictured for us ‘The Red City’ in which he lived and laboured from 1829 until 1914.”), I felt myself getting angry, and then sad. Silas Weir Mitchell, of the fabled and ineffective “rest cure” for “hysterical” women – “a regimen of forced bed rest, restricted diet, and a combination of massage and electrical muscle stimulation in place of exercise” – lived here. That S. Weir Mitchell, the one who so harmed Charlotte Perkins Gilman that she was inspired to write The Yellow Wallpaper, lived here. How ghastly.

Still agitated by the time I reached home, I undertook an angry Google search. I’m not sure what I was looking for, but what I found was a brilliant article entitled “Crying in the Library” on the blog of the Historical Medical Library of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. In the piece, researcher Heather Christle describes her experience sorting through Mitchell’s correspondence and diaries in the archive, and how overcome with emotion she became as she read about his own bouts with grief following the death of loved ones. She began to cry (certainly not covered in the Archives Usage Policy) and retreated to collect herself following this empathetic outburst. (more…)

As part of an exercise in analyzing the physical surroundings of Philadelphia’s Independence Seaport Museum, and more specifically the Cruiser Olympia, our Studies in Material Culture class took an hour to walk around the area and observe its “mnemonic landscape.” In practice, this meant that we examined the types and locations of various memorials, monuments, and historical markers that contribute to the neighborhood’s “feel,” and the spatial experience that a tourist or visitor to the area encounters even before they arrive at the museum and board the historic warship. I previously wrote about the museum’s interpretation of the ship (“Olympia in Juxtaposition”), expressing the opinion that Olympia’s contrasts (old/new, officer/sailor, luxury/austerity) are what make it uniquely interesting. My recent excursion among the monuments has convinced me that the same is true of the memorial-but-not-memory-heavy areas of Penn’s Landing and Society Hill. Although the indicators of contrast are less visible to the naked eye – thanks to the efforts of “urban renewal” – they remain embedded in the landscape.

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Cruiser Olympia viewed from the water: from here, you can’t even tell there’s a landscape beyond. Author’s photo.

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Rotunda of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. Image via Blake Patterson.

Lately, I’ve been doing a lot of reading about the origins of the “public museum”- a institution open to visitation by a general audience and sensitive to the societal needs of recreation, education, inspiration, and relevance. One of the largest categories of such museums, early on, was akin to a natural history museum: full of biological specimens, mineral samples, and other evidence of the marvels of the natural world. A major player within this particular subset of museums is the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. In fact, as of 2015, this institution was the third most-visited museum in the world. [1] It houses five million plant specimens in its Herbarium, and has recently launched a herculean project to digitize them all, along with their documentation, to be put online in a publicly-searchable database.[2]

The result is a massive, mostly untapped dataset. Convinced that this collection could reveal big, important things when analyzed in the aggregate (as “big data”) the Smithsonian engaged data scientists to employ deep learning techniques on the digitized collection that would enable automation of sorting tasks. The published findings suggest that computers are well-equipped to handle these sorts of tedious time sucks- in this case, sorting specimens that contain mercury stains, and sorting two physically similar yet distinct plants- which have normally been performed by human beings.

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They’re coming to get you, Barbra.
This iconic line appears in the very first scene of George Romero’sNight of the Living Dead (1968), one of my very favorite horror films. It’s a terrific example of dramatic irony- Barbra is right to be frightened walking through a graveyard, but not for the reason for which her brother Johnny is taunting her. The film is grisly, subversive, and genuinely scare-inducing to watch even today, and I make a point to revisit it and other George Romero classics around Halloween each year. One thing I didn’t know about Night of the Living Dead, until reading this article, was that it is in the public domain, and has been since its release.

I first saw the film as a kid, airing on the local Cleveland late-night horror program Big Chuck and Lil’ John. Low-budget shows like Big Chuck and Lil’ John aired some really terrible movies because they didn’t have to pay for the rights to them. But the quality mattered much less to me as a kid watching my free local television station when I was bored late at night. Most of the movies I saw this way were silly and/or poorly made, but I was fond of them anyway. When my older brother introduced me to Mystery Science Theater 3000, a show that overlays comedic commentary on cheesy, low production-value movies (often from the public domain), I was hooked. Years later, my friends and I still love these awful B-movies so much that we host movie nights to watch them together. They’ve got a lot of charm in their cheesiness. But because many of them are so old, of low quality, or otherwise just bad, I know that I wouldn’t bother to watch them if they weren’t easily accessible. Thankfully, a lack of copyright means that they are easily available online and through streaming services, in addition to airing on local television stations.

You can find many of the films on sites like the Internet Archive. Here’s the “horror” category of feature films available on the site- with 336 films to choose from!

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Marshes at low tide, Port Penn, Delaware. Author’s photo.
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The Cleaver House in Port Penn. Author’s photo.

This view of the marshy shore of Port Penn, Delaware looks charmingly bucolic, and it lends itself to imagining the lives of the people who lived and worked in this area at the turn of the 20th century. But looks, in this instance, are terribly deceiving. The landscape and culture that supported the sturgeon fishing industry in Port Penn from the 1830s to the 1950s are largely gone. Environmentally, the shoreline has changed due to dredging and commercial use, and the reedy plants (called phragmite or fragmite) easily visible at low tide were only introduced to the area in the 1930s.[1] Market Street, the town’s main thoroughfare, which once proudly led out to a commercial fishing wharf and steamship dock, now dead-ends in a gravelly, grassy lot next to the Cleaver House, a boarded-up historic site. Simply put, Port Penn looks different now.

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Map of Port Penn, Delaware in 1978, from the NRHP Nomination Form

Throughout the 20th century, a slew of changes in the area occurred including noxious pollution of the Delaware River, the construction of the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal, fluctuation in the profitability of the fishing industry, and the endangerment of Atlantic Sturgeon and attendant legislative regulation. Historian Caroline Fisher notes in Marshland Resources in the Delaware Estuary, 1830 to 1950+/-: An Historic Context, “As the function of the river town diverged from that of being centered around life on the water, many of the physical resources associated with a small shipping port and maritime-oriented town began to change in function or disappear […] These changes significantly altered the appearance of the landscape on which maritime and marshland activities had once been very prominent.”[2]

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A sturgeon gill net and a set of gill net floats (From ISM collection 1987.074)

Initially, the Atlantic Sturgeon was cursed as a nuisance to fisherman’s nets. [3] European settlers in the area fished for shad, but did not bother with the large, bony, and menacingly prehistoric-looking sturgeon, and commercial fishing did not take off until the 1850s, when it was discovered that the fish’s roe could be sold quite profitably as caviar both domestically and internationally.[4] The spawning season would begin in mid-April and continue through the end of the summer, forcing a number of adaptations to fishing equipment, culture, and technique. Fishing Atlantic Sturgeon was still lucrative through the 1920s, but as catch yields waned, so did the commercial fishing industry for sturgeon in the region. The fish is now considered “endangered” by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.[5]

Gilling skiffs, usually manned by two fishermen, were used to deploy the nets as the tide began to wane.[6] Sturgeon on their way north to spawn would swim in increasingly low water levels until they collided with and became ensnared in the gill net, which had been stretched or “drifted” at full length across the bottom of the channel. Wooden buoys, called floats or “dabs,” were strung along the top of the net and attached with rope to indicate the location of a catch.[7] A contemporary writer eloquently described the process:

As soon as a sturgeon butts or strikes the net with his head, or he becomes gilled in the mesh, the entire line of wooden buoys begin to dance; those directly over the gilled sturgeon disappear under the water and thus indicate exactly where to ‘cut-up’ the net for the sturgeon. A noose is then passed over the tail of the sturgeon and he is hauled into a large flat-bottomed scow, after which he is well clubbed over the head to stop his flopping.[8]

Following the catch, the sturgeon would be dried, cut up, and transported to market. The nets were spread out in the sun to dry and reveal spots in need of repair.

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Waterman Carl Morris knits a gill net, PortPenn.org, undated

Up until the invention of monofilament fishing wire, the nets were made of “heavy cotton twine well tarred” and were knit and repaired by fisherman themselves.[9] A wooden gauge helped to ensure that the mesh remained consistently sized during construction; this mesh measured about 16 inches square in the 1880s, but overfishing eliminated many of the largest specimens and so the mesh was reduced to 12 or 13 inches square in order to be able to net smaller sturgeon.[10] The average depth of a gill net was 30 feet, and depending on the width of the channel, the width might extend up to 1500 feet, or 250 fathoms.[11]

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Natural fiber cord knotted to create a diamond-shaped mesh.

Although ISM’s accession records indicate that the gill net and floats were created in Port Penn, Delaware sometime around 1910, it is probably not possible to find out who originally owned and used the items. Parsing through the 1910 U.S. Census I identified 31 residents of Port Penn that gave their profession as “Fisherman,” all white men with a basic education. The most dominant family names involved in the local industry were Eaton, Conard, Yearsly, Johnson, and Zackies. But several early 20th century photographs available through the Port Penn Interpretive Center show people of all races and genders engaging in fishing activities, which challenges the conclusion that the self-identified “Fishermen” were the only residents of Port Penn involved in the industry. Caroline Fisher notes this and repeats the speculation of Bob Beck (Port Penn resident, historian, waterman, and donor of the ISM’s gill net and floats) that the area’s people engaged in multiple seasonal occupations, often alternately farming, hunting, fishing, trapping, and working as a laborer or cannery worker at different points throughout the year.[12] This would explain the very large percentage of residents who identified themselves only as “Laborer.” This makes it challenging, if not impossible, to narrow down who might have originally constructed and used the objects.

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The final stop on the Port Penn walking tour. Author’s photo.

The survival of fragments of Port Penn’s historic maritime culture is largely due to the efforts of Bob Beck, who advocated not only for its material preservation, but for the close involvement of regional residents in folklife studies, oral histories, and the creation of the Port Penn Area Historical Society. Although he died in 1993, his influence permeates the village that he devoted so much time and energy to documenting. Port Penn has only four main streets and a handful of historic buildings, but they are all clearly interpreted by signs for visitors that form a short walking tour. As a Historic District, it is formally recognized for its past as a “river town,” which inspired a distinctive culture deeply tied to its physical environment.

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Interpretive panel about Bob Beck in Port Penn. Author’s photo.

The products of this remarkable material culture include objects like the gill net and floats, as well as examples of local architecture of buildings such as muskrat skinning huts and floating cabins. These objects remain thanks to Bob Beck, who accessioned, preserved, and even donated some of them to larger institutions. Although I can’t pinpoint the objects’ original owners, the historic import instilled in the net and floats are the result of his interest and stewardship; they gained the value that they have today when they passed through his hands. These items are relics of a largely disappeared culture. As a part of the history of the maritime culture of the Delaware River and Delaware Bay, they symbolize an overarching theme of the interconnectedness of nature, society, and industry, as well as the eventual ephemerality of what was at one time supremely tangible.

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More marshes at Port Penn. Author’s photo.

Bibliography

Cobb, John N. “The Sturgeon Fishery of the Delaware River and Bay,” Report of the Commissioner of Fish and Fisheries for 1899. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1900.

Eilperin, Juliet. “Atlantic Sturgeon Listed as Endangered Species,” The Washington Post, Health and Science Blog. February 1, 2012. https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/atlantic-sturgeon-listed-as-endangered-species/2012/02/01/gIQARbAmiQ_story.html?utm_term=.b838ca1f5def

Fisher, Caroline C. Marshland Resources in the Delaware Estuary, 1830 to 1950+/-: An Historic Context. Newark, DE: University of Delaware, 1993.

Herman, Bernard, and Dean Nelson. “National Register of Historic Places Inventory — Nomination Form: Port Penn Historic District,” 1978.

Roberts, A.W. “The Sturgeon,” Scientific American 43:7 (August 14, 1880). 103.