Discussions on the history and historiography of Australia's New England

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Use of the internet in social history: an example

My main post today, Sharing nostalgia in an internet world, is on my personal blog. You might like to scan that post first before reading this one, although I have written this as a stand alone piece.


I incorporate history into my posts all the time. This partially reflects my bias as an historian. However, I also believe that the addition of some history adds to interest and context. To do this, I use the internet extensively.

I thought that it might be interesting and perhaps useful if I took a case study to show the process at work.

The Case Study

   On Monday, I wrote a short nostalgia piece, Australian cowboy & indian outfit 1951. The comments generated led me to write a second piece, Sharing nostalgia in an internet world.

By its nature, nostalgia is individual. However, the internet allows for shared nostalgia. This process is not just important to individuals, but affects the writing of social history.

The first post I wrote was personal, although even then I could not resist adding a little history. The comments that followed from kvd and anon were also personal, their shared responses to my memory. In doing so, they added detail. In my responding post I said in part:     

"I wrote it (the first post) because a photo from Cousin Jamie's collection triggered a memory. This led kvd to comment:

Jim don't know if you ever had one but my most treasured possession at that time was a Davey Crockett hat complete with tail. My brother's Labrador stole it then ate it and growled at me when I tried to take it off her. Vivid early childhood memory. Stupid dog. But anyway cowboys and Indians was very big back thereabouts as you say.

Anon responded with a correction and his own memory:

Davy Crockett much later; 1955. Also, who can forget the much desired (didn't have one!) Hoppalong Cassidy tent. We had a much loved and extremely patient ginger cat, who spent some years doubling as a mountain lion/couger/puma. Sat arvo matinees had much to answer for.

kvd responded in turn:

Anon is correct as to dates. "Me hat got et" in either 56 or 57 based on the house we were living in. I had a pair of H C chaps a little after that i think. Proper leather. Cost a fortune these days."

So I began with a single memory of my own, but now have two other linked views.

Issues of Selection and Question in Evidence

As historians, both the evidence we select and the questions we ask of that evidence involve choices. I faced the same issue in writing my follow up post.

The comments by kvd and anon opened up a richness of choices not immediately apparent just from the words. My subsequent post could have gone in multiple directions. Alternatively, I could have written multiple posts.

Questioning the evidence

When I came to look at the evidence, we had a date range. The photo I used was from 1951. Davy Crockett was 1955. kvd's chaps were apparently a little later.

We also had three popular culture figures: cowboys and indians in general, Davey Crockett and Hopalong Cassidy. We had evidence of specific aspects of human life or cultural activity: pets, the arvo matinees, making or buying stuff under the influence of popular culture.

The first thing that I did was to check wikipedia on Davy Crockett. This confirmed that the movie, the thing we saw at the cinemas, came out in 1955. It confirmed the cult status of the man. However, it also reminded me that he died at the Alamo. Here I faced some choices.

The Alamo was itself a big thing that came from the US into Australia. I read books about it, while John Wayne's 1960 movie was popular in this country. The 1955 Davy Crockett TV series helped popularise it, so I could say something about all this to put it into context. Instead, I put it aside to investigate Hopalong Cassidy. Here I came across some new things.

I suppose that I should say here that while I was aware in a personal sense of Hopalong Cassidy, he didn't have the same impact on me, Sure, he was popular, but he never grabbed me in the way that Crockett or the Alamo did. There may be date reasons for this, I will talk about this in a moment, but I also didn't find him as interesting.

As I zeroed in on HC, I realised that I had not known of his longevity. The first book was published in 1904, while HC DVDs are still being released today. I realised just how important merchandising was, something indicated by the comments from kvd and anon. I also realised the connection between TV and the peak in HC's popularity.

Earlier I mentioned the importance of time.

At one point, the post modernist version of history denied the importance of time or, indeed, even the importance of "facts". Both were silly.

In 1951 when Mum made our cowboy and indian suits, she did so from what was available. By the time that the popularity of HC peaked in Australia, there was money available for tents and chaps.

HC's popularity in the US was linked to the rise of TV. Did this apply in Australia? Here I checked the history of Australian TV.

Broadcasting began on 16 September 1956. It came sometime later to regional areas. In my case, my parents did not buy a TV until after I left home. They did not want it to interfere with my studies! So the TV impact of HC was outside my ken. Yet it might well fit with kvd's dates.


All I have tried to do in this post is to indicate a little about the importance of evidence, of time and of selection. I have also tried to indicate a little about the way that you can use the internet to gather evidence and to test. I hope that it is useful.