Saturday, March 25, 2017, I was an invited speaker at the annual banquet of the Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. The society asked me to give a brief testimonial about why I love history. This is how I obliged:
I love history because everything has a history. And because everything has a history, history can help us understand our world today.
The fork at your table this evening has a history. How did it get its tines? That’s the subject of an article my students in my American Material Culture class read, considering the evolution of both foodways and technology, as the author Henry Petroski, details how an object so commonplace in our evening tonight, in our world in general, came to be, emerging from a knife, to a duel pronged instrument for stabbing meat while it’s being cut, to an object of etiquette, to a practical device we find in our modern kitchen tables, dishwashers, and wedding registries. The history of the fork also reveals something distinct about human invention, problem-solving, and creativity, as well as what we deem essential functions for living, and eating.
As many of you know, I study quilts. Quilts have a history. An early nineteenth century English mosaic pieced quilt is the ancestor of a late nineteenth century hexagon charm quilt, which in turn is an ancestor of the widely popular 1930s grandmothers flower garden pattern, of which I am lucky to have a version made by Mennonite great grandmothers on two sides of my family. And now, the descendent is the popular giant hexy quilt made by practitioners of the “Modern Quilt Movement.” Each of these quilts is now part of the long story this simple pattern tells, united by a common design. Each of the quilts in a variation of this pattern shares a piece of that history. Every quiltmaker and every quilt is part of an ongoing conversation of adapting, innovating, and contributing to a larger, more beautiful whole. An individual quilt’s history, and the collective history of quilts, influence the reasons people continue to make quilts today, at a time when we can easily purchase a factory-made bedcover rather than labor over a quilt’s stitches. Quiltmakers, today and in years past, have a desire to create, to make something beautiful, to seek joy in a tangible object that has become a symbol of feeling safe, loved, and comforted.
I have a history, both as an individual and as a descendent in the long line of many individuals. I am one of many Smuckers, descended from an immigrant named Christian Schmucker, who came to this continent before it was a nation in 1752 on a ship named St. Andrew. He was persecuted in Switzerland, jailed for his pietist teaching, and deported. He and his wife Catherine Hester and their children settled nearby in Berks County, where later the adult men of the family paid fines for their refusal to serve in the Revolutionary War. I know this history, because the Smuckers have become quite proficient at genealogy, as have the Hostetlers, Beachys, Yoders, McDowells, and others from whom I descend. My family’s history on this continent is over 250 years old. My personal history is just 41 years old, although it is shaped by knowing where my family came from, what each generation of ancestors experienced, how their collective decisions influence my decisions, my values, my lived reality. I am a fifth generation quiltmaker, the granddaughter of a poet, quiltmaker, and amateur historian, the child of a librarian and a social worker. These individuals, and the many generations that came before them, contribute to my personal history that I live everyday.
Our ancestors each came from somewhere, by choice, by force, or through a process of thousands of years of migration. Everything has a history. And immigration as both a process and a policy, of course, has a history too. The history of immigration connects our collective past journeys and decisions, as well as historical laws and policies, with our world today, with individuals and families seeking refuge and safety, yearning for a better life, just as many of our ancestors did. I had a professor once who was fond of saying, “History does not repeat itself, but it sometimes rhymes.” We can understand how the past rhymes with the present by knowing our history, understanding its complexity and depth, recognizing that history is a process of interpretation and multiple perspectives.
As I began my remarks by saying, I love history because everything has a history, and that history can help us understand our world today. Our history, our history of the seemingly mundane fork, the culturally comforting quilt, the family name, the political and demographic process of immigration, can tell us about our world today, in a way that would be impossible to understand if we did not have a concept of the past, in all of its complicated richness.