From the President column of the February 2009 issue of Perspectives on History

Of Cats, Hats, and Remembrance of Things Past

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, February 2009

How does your family celebrate an anniversary? With a party, gifts, nostalgic remembrances? My husband and I are usually low key about such things, but last summer we reached a major milestone. So we flew to California for a weekend of organized family fun. Part of the itinerary was a visit to the Mad Hatter’s Shop at Disneyland where our grandchildren picked out silly hats for themselves and for us. I ended up wearing a puffy pink effigy of the Cheshire Cat, its bright yellow eyes barely visible above the enormous grin ringing the crown of the hat.

The outrageousness of the hat, not its symbolism, attracted my grandkids. Still, on a snowy January morning, finding the hat grinning back at me from the depths of my closet, I can’t help but spin new meanings from the Lewis Carroll story. In Alice in Wonderland, the Cheshire Cat keeps popping up unannounced, then disappears without warning, a bit like grandparents who live on the other side of a continent. After one encounter, Alice complained:

“I wish you wouldn’t keep appearing and vanishing so suddenly; you make one quite giddy!”

“All right,” said the Cat; and this time it vanished quite slowly, beginning with the end of the tail, and ending with the grin, which remained some time after the rest of it had gone.”

“Well! I’ve often seen a cat without a grin,” exclaimed Alice; “but a grin without a cat! It’s the most curious thing I ever saw in all my life !”

Maybe there is a lesson in that for historians. The persons, events, and ideas that we write about have mostly disappeared, leaving behind fleeting reminders that, like the grin of the Cheshire Cat, are not only curious but puzzling.

Wearing a new hat as president of the American Historical Association, I am thinking about how to celebrate another significant anniversary. The AHA, founded in 1884, is now 125 years old. Next year’s program committee will be in charge of the party. All through this year, Perspectives on History will offer reflections on our past. The gift is up to you. As outgoing president Gabrielle Spiegel explained in the December issue of Perspectives on History, the AHA’s Council has established a “125th Anniversary Fund” designed to strengthen the Association’s endowment. Please give what you can. Think of it!

If each of our 14,500 plus members contributed $125, we would gain more than $1,800,000 and increase our endowment by more than half. In a time of economic distress, that would indeed be a vote for the future and for perpetuating the power of history.

But there is another way to do it. Taking a clue from another character in Alice’s Wonderland, each one of us could use this anniversary to remember our own. Recall how puzzled Alice was by the Mad Hatter’s watch. Although it marched through the days of the calendar, the hands were set to any time the Hatter chose. He celebrated his own occasions, and for him every time was Tea Time. So, I suggest you pick the year of your birth, your first job, or any other significant anniversary, and give the equivalent of $125 for that year. There are two ways to work the equation. You could start in 2008 and move back, or in 1884 and move forward. Starting with the present and computing the equivalent value of $125 in the year I received my PhD would yield $50, a generous contribution for a young scholar now or then. If you start instead in 1884, the result would be $1,147.1

Please do what you can. With your help we can leave behind more than a grin.

—Laurel Thatcher Ulrich (Harvard Univ.) is president of the AHA.

Note

1. To make these calculations go to http://www.westegg.com/inflation/ (which offers inflation-adjusted values for U.S. dollars from 1800 to the present) and http://data.bls.gov/cgi-bin/cpicalc.pl (which begins in 1913).