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From the Timelines column of the January 2009 issue of Perspectives on History

How Times Have Changed! (Or Have They?)

Jessica Pritchard, January 2009

With the article below, written by staff writer Jessica Pritchard, we not only revive a long-dormant column that had been devoted to occasionally reproducing fragments of the past from the AHA’s records and publications, but also launch a series of regular notes and essays that will, by retrieving bits of the Association’s history, serve to commemorate during 2009 the 125th year of the AHA’s growth from the small seed sown in Saratoga, New York, on September 10, 1884.

1909 Annual MeetingIn one of the narrow, twisting corridors of the building at 400 A Street SE (which houses the headquarters of the AHA) hangs a quaint, fading photograph (see the cover image) that depicts a gathering for the 25th annual meeting of the AHA held December 27–31, 1909, in New York City. As we meet again in 2009 in that city for the Association’s 123rd annual meeting, that 100-year-old photograph brings to mind questions about the changes as well as the continuities in the AHA’s 125 years. What was the meeting like then? What did the members do? To find out more and to resurrect some memories, I delved into the archives of the AHA, which are held at the Library of Congress, and pored through boxes of correspondence and newspaper clippings from 1909.

First, I was surprised to discover that the 1909 meeting was hosted jointly by the AHA and the American Economics Association. Indeed, the two host associations were joined at the meeting by the American Political Science Association, the American Sociological Society, the American Association for Labor Legislation, the American Statistical Association, the American Social Science Association, the American Society of Church History, and the Bibliographical Society of America. Altogether, the attendance at the New York meeting was “about 1,100, of which 565 should be credited to the historical association,” the AHA’s Annual Report for 1909 tells us.

I was not so surprised, therefore, to find that the meeting made headline news. It was one of the “largest and most important conventions of scholars in history, economics, sociology, and allied branches of learning ever held in the United States,” declared a November 26, 1909, New York Times article. Interestingly, internationalism was a dominant characteristic at the meeting, according to the AHA annual report, with many historians coming from overseas—H.A.L. Fisher from England and T. L. Chao and Chang Lau Chi from China, among them—and several sessions were devoted to foreign themes and to discussions about the activities of foreign historical societies.

But what perhaps added the greatest anticipatory excitement to the meeting was the fact that U.S. President William Taft was scheduled to commence the meeting, along with New York Governor Charles Hughes and New York City Mayor George McClellan.

It is entertaining to read the century-old letters exchanged between the AHA and the White House to work out the details of President Taft’s arrival, commencement speech, and departure. The president was set to travel to New York by train, where Clarence Bowen, the AHA’s treasurer, and James Sheffield, the reception committee’s chair, would greet and escort him everywhere. As Bowen wrote in a letter to Frederick Carpenter, Taft’s secretary, “[The AHA] will make it their pleasure to look out for the President from the time he leaves the train at Jersey City until he reaches the train in Jersey City to return to Washington.” (Partly because different railroad companies operated in the region, the president could not take a train directly to the meeting city, it seems.)

From a present-day perspective, it seems extraordinarily casual for the White House to make plans for the AHA’s representatives to meet the president of the United States at the train station as if a family member was being picked up for a weekend getaway. Bowen had even met with Taft at the White House, as he stated in another letter to Carpenter: “I was glad to have the opportunity of seeing the President and yourself at the White House.” It seems almost surreal that an AHA official had the opportunity to meet with the president one-on-one, and even more so, that the president was coming to speak at the annual meeting. The fact that President Taft’s predecessor in office, Theodore Roosevelt, was going to be elected a vice president of the AHA at the New York meeting may have had something to do with facilitating access to the White House a bit, but I couldn’t help thinking that it would be nice if presidents were as accessible today as they seemed to be in 1909!

Aside from plans to have President Taft kick off the 1909 meeting and bring special attention to this scholarly gathering, there was one other striking difference between the meeting then and the meetings we have now: gender divisions. For instance, we learn that there was a breakfast “open to all men members of all associations” held at the Waldorf-Astoria, while simultaneously there was a “luncheon for lady members, and lady guests of members, of all associations” held at the Colony Club during the same time slot. There were a number of “men-only” events peppered into the program, but they were almost always coupled with “women-only” events.

Quite a few of the archived letters refer to the Committee of Ladies, which was, I discovered, essentially a party planning committee responsible for organizing and executing entertainment affairs, particularly for the women guests of the meeting. Among these letters are some that offer us insights into those strange times: for example, we have Albert Bushnell Hart (president of the Association for 1909), arguing, in a letter to Bowen, in favor of a farewell banquet at the end of the meeting because “Ladies like to get a chance of exhibiting their dinner dresses.”

Antiquated as these references now seem, they also starkly underline the contrasts between then and now. The Committee of Ladies and its parties are long gone. The Committee on Women Historians, not even a distant relative of the old committee, will be focusing, as it holds its breakfast meeting in New York City on Saturday, January 3, 2009, on more significant matters. How the times have changed!

However, not everything has changed over the last hundred years. The AHA’s annual meeting still offers events spanning across various subdisciplines, with everything from research to teaching methods to graduate student career forums. The AHA’s president still gives a keynote address at the meeting. Affiliated societies such as the American Society of Church History, founded in 1888, as well as the American Association for History and Computing, of more recent vintage, still have special sessions throughout the event.

As it turned out, President Taft had to cancel his trip at the last minute due to the “Great Christmas Snowstorm” that blanketed the northern Atlantic states with an average of a foot and a half of snow. “In view of the fact that the railroad people can give no assurance of my reaching New York in time for your meeting this evening and as I must be here the first thing in the morning,” President Taft said in a telegram to Bowen, “I do not feel warranted to make the trip. Please therefore express my excuses and regrets.” Alas; but the meeting was still just as much a success then as it continued to be through the years, and as we hope it will be in the years to come.

—Jessica Pritchard, a graduate student at George Mason University, is a staff writer for the AHA.