What makes your city famous?

Last weekend, I was watching Clueless and looked up Pismo Beach, California on Wikipedia after Cher spearheads the disaster relief efforts for that city. I was pleasantly surprised to find that Pismo Beach claims to be the “Clam Capital of the World.” My dissertation examines the identities of cities claiming to be the “Capital of the World” in various industries during the Gilded Age and Progressive Era and I recently released a digital project examining how Grand Rapids took on the identity of “Furniture City”. City identities, particularly ones based on economics, have been an interest of mine for a while now and often produce lovably quirky nicknames and slogans.

Wondering what other cities and towns integrate specific products into their urban identity, I am launching a project where I ask What Makes Your City Famous? I have created a simple form that asks for the City, Zip Code, City Nickname or Slogan and Source (where I can verify the information). Once the information is collected, I use Google Fusion Tables to create an interactive map that displays the cities and their nicknames. I chose Google Fusion Tables because of the ease in transitioning from a Google Form to Map and used zip codes to help cities display multiple nicknames. I populated the map with a few cities to start, but hope that this project will draw on user knowledge from across the country to uncover a variety of local identities.

So please, tell me What Makes Your City Famous?

Constructing Furniture City

Last year, I had a wonderful opportunity to be one of the initial fellows of the Center for Digital Research in the Humanities’s Digital Scholarship Incubator. I pitched an ambitious agenda during which I would create many varied visualizations all of which would evaluate the industrial ability of certain cities during the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. My final product, however, is quite different.

A few weeks into the incubator, I presented at a “spring showcase” for student projects where I briefly discussed some initial maps and some of the issues I encountered working with quantitative data and qualitative concepts. What struck me from the audience’s very helpful comments and questions was that I needed more context, both in terms of my historical narrative and argument as well as my methodology and the thought process behind my editorial decisions. The search for context would deeply shift my focus throughout the course of my time as a fellow.

In terms of needing more historical context, I eventually settled on building a project framework that would integrate visualizations into narrative. Traditional scholarly questions would drive my digital research. This lead to the creation of Constructing Furniture City the project that houses my work developed while part of the Incubator and it’s parent project The Rise and Fall of the American Small City which will house my various dissertation related digital history projects.

When developing the narrative projects, I carved out substantial space devoted to explaining my methodology. By allowing myself to expand on the editorial decisions behind each visualization, I believe that I have expanded my audience. An expanded methodology opens my project to those interested in the digital questions as well as those interested in the historical ones.

In presenting Constructing Furniture City to the “fall showcase,” I emphasized this journey from a project focused primarily on visualization production to one of historical narrative. While both types of projects have their merits, my final project works to bridge the gap between them, allowing users to explore the history, the methods, or both.

Quantifying Prestige

As with any scholarly project, in my dissertation on the development of small cities during the Gilded Age and Progressive Era I need to explain why it matters. I argue these cities are worth the time and effort of a dissertation because they provide a different narrative of urbanization and industrialization. Key to this alternative narrative is the dominant role of niche industries within each city. The cities built an urban identity around these industries, often claiming to be the “capitol of the world” in crafting a certain product. In addition to being catchy, these city slogans are actually quite central to my argument. As part of my work as a Digital Scholarship Incubator Fellow at UNL’s CDRH, I decided to use business and organizational records to attempt to see whether or not my case studies were in fact a leader in their respective industries. Rather quickly, I found calculating prestige would be more difficult than I had thought. While many sources frequently discuss these cities as industry leaders, quantifying this anecdotal evidence is a more complex project.

I began with Grand Rapids, in part because the sources I had were the easiest to copy into spreadsheets. My initial data set was the attendance records of the city’s furniture markets, during which buyers would travel to see new products. These furniture markets were a key in building up Grand Rapids as a leader in the industry. Though the markets dated back to 1878, my records began in 1923 (I have the numbers for many later years, but I decided to use 1933 as a cut off date because my dissertation’s focus ends around the Great Depression). Working with the numbers as spreadsheets I noticed a decline as the economy worsened, as I expected from prior research about the city and its industry.

I also noticed the most buyers attended from Michigan and nearby states: Illinois, Pennsylvania, New York, and Ohio. Although not terribly surprising, it did raise an important question: were these markets a sign of influence on the industry’s national stage, or were they simply large regional events? Could they be both? As I presented my early stage research to the UNL DH community and toyed with mapping the data, the question became more ambiguous. Cities like Grand Rapids did have a larger market share than their population size would indicate, but the city’s reputation was built on quality, not quantity. I had set out to measure abstract concepts like reputation, influence, and prestige while using very concrete numbers.

This dilemma became painfully clear as I created cholorpleth maps from the furniture market data. While thankfully R allowed me a quick and easy way to create these maps, how I colored them deeply affected the way in which the reader would perceive the data.

Continuous Scale Map

Using a sliding color scale, the dominance of Michigan and the surrounding states is clear. The vast majority of the nation remains close to zero while the hundreds of delegates from a few select states clearly dominated the markets. However, breaking the map into buckets shows a larger base from which the markets pulled buyers, suggesting it may be more than a purely regional event.

Map with Buckets

Even determining the size of the buckets was a difficult judgment call. How many buyers from each state does it take to make the event “national”? Obviously, the hundreds from Michigan are noteworthy, but what about the three dozen from Oklahoma? Are they insignificant? The next step seems to be weighting the attendance records by population, or furniture production/consumption, or some other metric. While I ponder how to proceed and this question of measuring reputation, for the time being, I’m moving on to working with spreadsheet data for other visualizations but I would greatly welcome any advice (in the comments, via email, twitter, etc)

“The Biggest City of Its Size in this Country”

At the beginning of the semester, I finished my dissertation prospectus. My committee told me to drastically cut the number of case studies with which I had begun (among many other good suggestions), lightening the workload while keeping the core idea. With the semester over, I’m going to try to recommit to discussing my research as it is in progress, particularly because I’m embarking on a new digital project, but I’ll blog more about that in the near future. The following is a rather long-winded personal account of how I got to my dissertation topic, if you want my succinct pitch, see the tl;dr version at the bottom of the page.

As an academic topic, the core idea of my dissertation comes out of my MA thesis, but it also has much earlier, more personal roots. Growing up in Grand Rapids, I enjoyed going to the city’s public museum. The museum is quite nice, with many awe-inspiring exhibits, including a blue whale skeleton hanging over the main lobby, a planetarium, and replication of an old city street. Walking through the fake brick street was a favorite activity of mine, if you were lucky there would be a reenactor staffing one of the businesses. Watching the giant printing press was fun—and resulted in free handouts! The pharmacy with the soda fountain was the business to catch, even if it didn’t actually serve ice cream floats. Most of the time we ended up pressing our noses up on the glass doors hoping an employee was hiding somewhere inside. At the end of the road, there was a small train depot with time tables. I always sat down and wondered if there would ever be anyone appearing behind the ticket counter, though this was about as likely as a train actually pull up as there was no door to get behind the window.

To cut to the chase, even as a child, I was a bit of a history nerd. You would think, then, that the permanent exhibit on the city’s furniture history would be more of a highlight to me. A rather impressive space, complete with motion detecting animatronic people. Though we mostly just enjoyed triggering the censors and collecting, not necessarily reading, the baseball card style descriptions of different city characters. A well designed exhibit, but no match for the rowdiness of young boys. Regardless of my disinterest in why my home touted itself as the “Furniture City,” the city’s past industrial importance was always present.

Faced with the opportunity to choose my first major research project as an undergraduate history major writing an honor’s thesis, I gravitated towards my hometown once again. A typographical strike in the 1950s caught my eye, though very little sources survived. In researching the topic, though, I stumbled upon a fascinating strike in St. Louis at about the same time, which soon became my topic.

When faced with a MA thesis topic, I tried to stay away from looking at Grand Rapids, but eventually, with no promising topics and the pressing need to start working on something, a bit reluctantly I returned to hometown history. The topic, a political scandal emerging out of bids to build a find a new urban water supply, first caught the eye of my dad, a lawyer in Grand Rapids. Years before he had stumbled upon lawsuits relating to a citywide scandal. He had tucked these cases away, but never did anything until he passed them on to me when I was an undergraduate. I figured there was enough materials for a thesis, and I was certainly correct. As I dug into the story it became increasingly interesting and complex. My MA thesis explored the way in which social, economic, political, and even spatial relationships affected Progressive-style reform and it lead me to perhaps the defining focus of my dissertation: cities outside the metropolis function differently because of their size. Small cities are caught between small town and big city lifestyles and this betweenness is something of which the residents are quiet aware. Grand Rapids boosters often touted a quote credited to James Blaine, describing he city as “the biggest city of its size in this country” (This phrase may ring a bell as Reno, Nevada’s status as “the biggest little city in the world” draws on the same idea). While historians have told the story of industrialization and urbanization in the metropolis and the small town rather extensively, the way in which these processes developed in small cities needs more scholarly investigation. Small cities became my scholarly focus moving forward.

I didn’t want to just expand on my MA thesis. While Progressive reform plays a part in the larger story my dissertation will tell, it alone was not enough to capture my interest. Instead, I returned to my hometown’s ever present identity as the “Furniture City.” I quickly found many cities in the Midwest and Northeast claimed similar titles, whether they were rightfully earned or not. I unearthed “furniture cities,” “silver cities,” and even East Liverpool, OH and Trenton, NJ which both laid claimed to the title of the “Staffordshire of America” (which among other things, tips off the domestic industry’s inferiority complex). These strong urban identities, not as metropolis, but king of one industry, began driving my research.

In my working title, “The Rise and Fall of the American Small City: Industrialization and Urbanization in Cities Outside the Metropolis, 1870-1930,” I invoke a rise and fall narrative. In general these cities have similar narratives resembling this framework. Founded earlier in the Nineteenth century (or even earlier), they do not experience rapid growth until after the Civil War. Their importance on the national stage piques during this time as they become significant players within niche industries. These niche industries end up shaping the urban experiences in many significant ways, including building specialized immigration networks, retaining a focus on craftsmanship, and creating a powerful city elite (though one still very much tied to the old middle class). The Great Depression, continued industrialization in other regions, and other factors diminish the importance of these small cities within even their niche industries as the new century progressed. Grand Rapids shifted from finely crafted parlor and bedroom furniture to office furniture, auto parts, and even Amway. However, in many ways, the city’s leaders have revived the niche industry strategy, lately pushing Grand Rapids to become a major player in the craft beer industry. Once again suggesting that small cities navigate larger economic structures differently from other urban regions.

tl;dr version:
My dissertation examines a group of small cities during the Gilded Age and Progressive Era that specialized in a niche industry, gaining wider recognition and market share (Furniture: Grand Rapids, MI; Rockford, IL; Pottery: East Liverpool, OH; Silverware: Taunton, MA). With these cities, I argue that smaller cities, caught between rural town and metropolis, experienced the changes brought by industrialization and urbanization in a significantly different way. I hope that this alternative model of urban and economic change may provide insight for smaller cities as they grapple with current changes such as globalization.

The complete n00b’s guide to mapping in R

You should also check out the next tutorial in the series: The Complete n00b’s Guide to Gephi

A few weeks ago, I presented to the UNL DH community about a project that I’m beginning while a fellow at the CDRH’s Digital Scholarship Incubator. The project is an effort to utilize digital tools to visualize business and organizational records related to my dissertation on industrialization in small cities. During my talk, I noted I was still uncertain as to what tool to use to create my maps, but thankfully, James Austin Wehrwein was also presenting. Afterwards he suggested I consider R and check out his tutorial on creating a density map in R.

Frankly, I was blown away how easy it was to create a map in R. His tutorial was easy to follow and acclimated me to R rather quickly. On top of this tutorial, I realized that the data I had used initially in Gephi already contained the coordinates for each geographic location and I would not need to clean up my data, reducing the number of steps even further. Convinced R was my new best friend, I began looking around for a way to create choropleth maps, which were another type of visualization I wanted in my project. I was thrilled to find someone had already done much of the heavy lifting and there was a packet that made the process so easy even I could create maps without pulling my hair out.

In the interest in helping out other n00bs, I’ve posted my steps in creating these maps below:

Creating a Density Map

Packets you’ll need:

> library(“ggmap”, lib.loc=”C:/Users/Home/Documents/R/win-library/3.1″)

Import Spreadsheet:

> ph<- read.csv("C:\\Users\\Home\\Documents\\school\\shipping.csv", header = TRUE, sep = ",") ph is just a placeholder, use whatever name you want Create Map: > map<-get_map(location='united states', zoom=4, maptype='roadmap') ggmap(map)+geom_point(aes(x=longitude, y=latitude, size=(total.cost)), data=ph, alpha=.5) This is all you need to do if you already have the longitude and latitude coordinates. Again, see creating a density map in R”>this tutorial if you don’t have already clean data.

That was easy!
That was easy!

Creating a Choropleth Map
This user guide is how I figured it out and has much more information than I give.

Packets you’ll need:

> library(“choroplethr”, lib.loc=”C:/Users/Home/Documents/R/win-library/3.1″)
> library(“Hmisc”, lib.loc=”C:/Users/Home/Documents/R/win-library/3.1″)

Import Spreadsheet:

> df<- read.csv("C:\\Users\\Home\\Desktop\\W1923.csv", header = TRUE, sep = ",") You'll see that it's the same process as above, I've just switched the letters I'm using as the name to help confuse you. The beauty of choroplethr is that you don't need any latitude or longitude coordinates. The program can identify states by either full name or postal abbreviation, counties by FIPS code and even by zip code. For your spreadsheet, you'll just need to creat two columns: "value" which has your data, and "region" which is your state/county code/zip code. To Create an Choropleth Automatically: > choroplethr(df, “state”, num_buckets = 6, title = “W1923”, scaleName = “Buyers”, showLabels = T, states = state.abb)

The size of the buckets will be automatically configured, but you can also have a continuous scale if you designate the number of buckets as 1. Here you should change the title and scaleName to whatever you want it to say. Note “df” tells the program the name of my spreadsheet and “state” tells the program what kind of “region” to look for in my data. You’re line would read “county” or “zip” if you are not using state names.

It's a continuous scale!
It’s a continuous scale!

Sizing your buckets
Now if you don’t want the program to automatically determine the size of your buckets, you can do the following:

> df.map = bind_df_to_map(df, “state”)
> df.map$value = cut2(df.map$value, cuts=c(0,50,100,150,Inf))
> render_choropleth(df.map, “state”, “Grand Rapids Winter Market 1923”, “Buyers Attending”)

Here I’ve told the program to create buckets with dividing lines at 0, 50, 100, and 150. Simply add or subtract numbers here to create the desired number and size of your buckets. Also notice that the data you are pull from has changed from df to df.map which I created with “bind_df_to_map”. Again, “state” would be replaced with “county” or “zip” if using one of them them.

Ta Da!
Ta Da!

I’m still learning R and figuring out how to better improve these maps, but if you’re looking for something quick and effective these maps are hard to beat.

The only question remains is: R you ready to give it a try?

(Be thankful I only included one “R” based pun)

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Playing with Gephi

I finally got around to playing with sample data I collected on a research trip last summer. The data comes from the Rockford Chair and Furniture Company Records at Northern Illinois University. The most exciting part of this is that these visualizations were orders from one day, November 5, 1891, and they have several years of this data so there is much more potential in these records. I found Gephi quite easy to use and I’d recommend taking a look at it if you’re interested in making your own.

Orders by city
Orders by city
Orders organized by which railroad they were shipped
Orders organized by which railroad they were shipped
Orders georeferenced
Orders georeferenced
For those geographically challenged
For those geographically challenged

P.S. There’s a typo on two of the images, just pretend I know how to spelled “furniture” correctly.

What am I looking for in a dissertation?

Well it’s been a couple of months and a dissertation topic has still not fallen from the sky into my lap. No worries. I hear dissertations take a long time. Instead of trying to locate a specific topic, I have begun thinking about what I want in a dissertation topic. Two things have particularly stuck out in my musings about a topic, examining space and social relationships.

Social Relationships

Though I have enjoyed the topic from my MA thesis, I found some of my methods a little unsatisfactory. I feel like I had an adequate handle on the Grand Rapids elite, but realistically the city was just too big (87,565 in 1900) for the sort of deep analysis of social relationships in which I wanted to engage. An even smaller small city would provide me the ability to more fully explore the social relationships that I started in examining the water scandal.

I want to be able to do the deep analysis that the What Middletown Read project does. The project examines what library books citizens of Muncie checked out. Though it may seem like minutiae, the books people in a city read can reveal a great deal about what people thought and how they viewed the world. These types of details can really get to the micro-level analysis that attracts me to social history.


Space has really been attractive to me as a scholarly topic. I love A. K. Sandoval-Strausz’s Hotel and the way the book uses a place, and its social meanings as a space, to examine a society. This non-conventional narration of history (through a non-human entity) seems exciting to me. I particularly like the ability to be very specific (in viewing history through the Hotel), but also examine society through a broad lens.

In the Biting Stage

[The following is the introduction from a paper, “In the biting stage”:
The 1955 Nebraska State Penitentiary Riots and Violent Prison Activism, submitted for a research seminar last year. This fall I am working on preparing the paper for submission to a journal.]

Following the evening meal of August 16, 1955, prisoners at the Nebraska State Penitentiary in Lincoln, Nebraska, refused to return to their cells. Instead, they called for the warden, Joseph Bovey, and the state penal director, B. B. Albert, to join them in the mess hall. Fearing the collection of inmates would turn violent, the warden removed all of the guards from the dining area’s brewing trouble, leaving the inmates in charge of the penitentiary. A half an hour later, smoke billowed from the penitentiary as inmates set fire to their workplaces. The furniture shop, maintenance shop, cannery and machine shop, and even the inmates’ store, blazed unimpeded. As smoke filled the evening sky, prison officials left the residents of Lincoln in the dark. Not until 10:00pm, five hours after the inmates began their uprising and an hour after armed guards escorted the fire department into the prison yard, had anyone informed the press of the situation within the penitentiary. Though the prison administration had initially retreated, they refused to grant the rebels victory. With the national guard and police providing reinforcements, warden Bovey called for surrender shortly before 6:00am. Bovey informed the insurgents if they did not return to their cells immediately, the officers had orders to shoot to kill and would take back the prison by force.1

The late summer riot ended without gunfire and only five injuries, all to inmates. Newspaper reports estimated damages as high as 100,000 dollars making the riot the most costly in the Nebraska Penitentiary’s history. However, a multitude of questions remained. After leaving the events inside the prison for hours during the riot, officials claimed the riot’s cause was unknown. The Lincoln Star reported “No reason was given for the destructive rebellion” and the governor’s administrative assistant A.C. Eichberg proclaimed “There has been no dissatisfaction and the food has been good.” Even as the official stance was befuddlement, the “grapevine” suggested the riot was common knowledge beforehand. The recent history of the Nebraska penitentiary gave even stronger evidence that officials were not in the dark. Riots, escape attempts, and even the murder of a guard troubled the penitentiary between 1951 and 1955.2

Though the first half of the decade saw consistent violence, 1955 was clearly a peak. The year began with the administration of the prison system firmly implanted within the political discussion as the Board of Control hired an outside penologist, Sanford Bates, to review the conditions of the state institutions. This outside expert conducted his investigation shortly after the conclusion of an investigation of the prisons by a citizens’ committee appointed by Governor Robert Crosby. Just as another political investigation was set to begin, looking into a riot during 1954, the penitentiary inmates sought to better insert their political voice through public violent action. The prisoners began by threatening to riot in a public letter only days before the Board of Control’s hearings. For the next year, inmates refused to let the issue of reform leave the political discussion, exerting their political voice through violent, publicity-grabbing actions aimed at pushing reforms that would improve the inmates’ social world.3

The Nebraska State Penitentiary was not alone in dealing with inmate uprisings during the 1950s. In 1955 alone, inmates undertook major protest actions in all corners of the country. Prisoners in Texas, Rhode Island, Nevada, and New York staged sit-down strikes. Riots rocked prisons in North Carolina, Wyoming and Michigan and convicts in Massachusetts, Washington, and Texas took hostages. The inmates behind these actions also had reforms in mind, from complaints about food to issues with the parole system.4 These prisoners sought, through both violent and nonviolent means, what they saw as their rights while incarcerated. However, later political prisoner movements, the majority of which focused on racial issues, have somewhat obscured the actions of these inmates in the 1950s. Just as scholars have in the past, and cultural narratives still do, overlook political activism in the broader American society of the 1950s, the scholars who examine prisoners’ rights movements have under-appreciated inmate efforts for humane treatment during the early 1950s. The Nebraska Penitentiary riots show that inmates attempted to assert their political voice into a debate over the future direction of the prison system and force reform through their own activism and succeeded most often with violent action. The turmoil within the Nebraska Penitentiary, culminating in 1955, reveals an emerging political consciousness among inmates who sought to insert what they saw as fair treatment into the prisons’ power structure and turned to violence, specifically attempting to escape, taking hostages, and rioting, when their grievances fell on the deaf ears of prison officials and politicians.

The most glaring way the 1950s have been under-appreciated is in the focus of the little scholarship on prisoners’ rights movement that exists. The majority of current literature has mostly focused on activism from the late 1960s to the early 1980s, particularly the 1971 riot in Attica, New York, and the 1980 riot at the New Mexico State Penitentiary.5 The focus on these decades is justified, as the 1970s and 1980s had prisons reporting vastly more riots, 242 and 524 respectively, than the six decades previous, 173. Certainly, understanding the racial inequalities that have developed in the significantly expanded prison system are vital to understanding modern prison politics. However, the statistics also show a radical change occurred during the 1950s. Though less than the 1970s or 1980s, prisons reported 87 riots in the 1950s, up from only 4 riots the decade before and 24 between the first three decades of the century.6 Such a proportional shift is important to understand in its own right. The huge rise in riots of the 1950s suggests the immediate postwar years were an important time for the development and emergence of inmates’ political consciousness.

Drawing on sociologist Edward Shils, James Jacobs suggests prisons are representative of the broader society in his work Stateville: The Penitentiary in Mass Society. Jacobs argues convicts mirrored the rights-based movements of other marginal social groups in post-World War II America. However, Jacobs suggests inmates only sought to tap into the consumerist “rise of material expectations” during the 1950s with a “later intensification of rights consciousness.”7 Likewise, much of the existing literature on prison riots echos these sentiments placing emphasis on later activism inspired by the Civil Rights Movement and antiwar protests, while downplaying the political nature of the efforts in the 1950s that focused inwardly on issues of prison management. Political Scientist Ronald Berkman refers to the 1950s as the “early period” of the prisoners’ rights movement, arguing that the inmates used unplanned riots to notify the administration of their displeasure with the prison’s conditions. However, he de-emphasizes their importance calling them “housekeeping demands.”8 In The Prison Reform Movement: A Forlon Hope, Larry E. Sullivan places more emphasis on the riots of the 1950s, arguing “convicts rebelled because of what they considered abuses in the power structure of the prison system,” but he also notes the reform efforts did not address “the prison system itself.”9 However, inmates challenging the prison authorities on the treatment and material conditions of prisoners was explicitly challenging the prison system. Though these works acknowledge the “early” efforts, the scholarship presents the early activism as only prefatory events, without giving the events serious consideration in their own right, devaluing the importance of these seminal times. The efforts to produce more humane conditions, whether concerned with material comfort or abuses by guards, signify not the lack of, but the emergence of prisoners’ political consciousness. By pushing back against authority on issues related to their treatment, these prisoners’ actions were the first efforts to reform the prison system from the inside out.

The distribution of scholarship on prison violence and activism across academic fields is by no means even. Historians have largely left the study of prison riots to other academics, with sociologists conducting most of the research. Surely part of the reason historians have avoided the subject is that, as a subject for historical analysis, prisons present many problems. For many activities within prisons there simply are no accounts. Even the accounts that find their way outside the prison walls are filled with concerns of the reliability of criminals and issues of power, whether the sources are official reports that may be protecting guards, inmate memoirs distorted by time, or the testimony at political hearings that are subject to myriad influences and agendas. Though harder to obtain, I strive to include and seriously consider inmate voices no matter how faint, wherever I can find them. These issues of truth, power, and influence permeate my research, but, in general, I leave the reader to judge the reliability of the sources for him or herself.

Sociologists, who study contemporary conditions of prisons, have developed many useful theories that seek to explain the cause of prison riots. My interpretation of the causes of the violence in the Nebraska State Penitentiary falls between two theories in particular: “Collective Behavior and Social Control,” which suggests prison riots stem from demands and frustration of a lack of a proper venue to air complaints and “Grievance Theory” or “Anomie,” which suggests riots are preplanned violence to reach a specific goal or goals not obtainable through legitimate means.10 Nebraska prisoners had specific reforms they wanted to institute, but with peaceful avenues largely ineffective, violence became the means through which inmates pushed for reform. The inmates used violence as consciously political actions in an effort to affect their treatment within the prison walls during the peak of discussion over the prison system. By examining three most turbulent months of 1955, January, March, and August, the inmates’ activism as an effort to assert their political voice becomes apparent…..


1. “Prison Fire Loss Heavy,” Lincoln Star, 17 August 1955, 1; Falloon, Virgil, “’Get Tough’ Plan Rises From Ashes,” Lincoln Star, 18 August 1955, 1; “Here’s the Rebellion-Play by Play,” Lincoln Evening Journal, 17 August 1955, 1; Thomas, Clarke, “Ultimateum Quells Violence at Pen,” Lincoln Evening Journal, 17 August 1955, 1.

2. “Prison Fire Loss Heavy,” Lincoln Star, 17 August 1955, 1; “’Grapevine’ Rumbles Predicted Penitentiary Trouble,” Lincoln Star, 17 August 1955, 2; Lincoln Star 17 August 1955, 9; “Rumors had Prison Riot, Fire Pegged,” Lincoln Star, 18 August 1955, 1; “Fire Costliest in Penitentiary History,” Lincoln Evening Journal, 17 August 1955, 2; “Pen Violence Nothing New,” Lincoln Evening Journal, 17 August 1955, 2; “Chaplain Not Allowed to Enter Prison,” Lincoln Evening Journal, 17 August 1955, 2.

3. “Pen Violence Nothing New,” Lincoln Evening Journal, 17 August 1955, 2; Lincoln Star 17 August 1955, 9; See also Lincoln Star and Lincoln Evening Journal for dates January 9-20 and March 28-31, 1955.

4. “Summary of Prison Riots So Far in 1955,” New York Times, 29 August 1955, 10.

5. Some works addressing these riots in whole or in part include: Tom Wicker, A time to die : the Attica prison revolt, 1st ed. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1994); Roger Morris, The devil’s butcher shop : the New Mexico prison uprising (New York: F. Watts, 1983); Mark Colvin, “The 1980 New Mexico Prison Riot,” Social Problems 29, no. 5 (June 1982): 449-463; Bert Useem, States of siege : U.S. prison riots, 1971-1986 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989); Mark Colvin, The penitentiary in crisis : from accommodation to riot in New Mexico (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992); Ronald Berkman, Opening the gates : the rise of the prisoners’ movement (Lexington Mass.: Lexington Books, 1979).

6. Montgomery, A History of Correctional Violence, 74.

7. Jacobs, Stateville, 5-7.

8. Berkman, Opening the Gates, 34-40.

9. Larry Sullivan, The Prison Reform Movement: Forlorn Hope (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1990) 54, 76.

10. Montgomery, A History of Correctional Violence, 85-102.

Is it a Dissertation or a Book?

When it comes to writing a dissertation, I have heard both “remember it’s a book” and “it’s not a book it’s a dissertation.” So clearly, there is a consensus. Though it is a little frustrating to have such conflicting advice when beginning to formulate a dissertation topic, it is pretty clear both sides are correct.

A dissertation is not a book. As Leonard Cassuto, writing for The Chronicle, points out, virtually no dissertations are publishable without major revisions, not all dissertations should be books anyways, and the dissertation is part of your education. As such a long project, it seems easy to get carried away and stay in graduate school for a decade, but that is not a desirable career path. At some point the dissertation needs to get done and I will probably come to a point where I will be saying daily “just get it done.” I saw somewhere (twitter maybe?) that said, in effect, no one cares about your dissertation except “is it done?” I cannot say for sure, but I imagine most graduate students who are close to finishing their dissertations would agree with this sentiment.

On the other hand, I was lucky enough to have coffee with Dr. Thomas Andrews (and some other graduate students) yesterday. He reiterated one of the main reasons I tend to lean towards “it’s a book,” you spend a long time on your dissertation topic (about a decade if it does get turned into a book, but at least a half a decade). So saying it is just a dissertation is misleading for someone trying to develop a topic. My topic needs to be book-worthy even if the dissertation is not an immediately publishable book.

However, Dr. Andrews said one thing that really struck me. When talking about writing, he said (I might be paraphrasing) “You don’t write many books.” A simple, perhaps obvious, statement, it was stuck in my head all day. It is true we do not write many books and the way the academic publishing industry is going, getting one book published is looking like an uphill battle. So why cut corners? I believe he mentioned the phrase, “leave it all on the field,” which I think is a great sentiment for writing the dissertation. The dissertation might be my only book length project (hopefully not, but again, the academic publishing climate sucks right now). Hard to leave things for next time then.

There are things I would do differently in writing my MA thesis, in part because I understood the MA as a stepping stone towards the dissertation. I do not want to be able to say there are things I would have done differently in my dissertation. There might not be any stones to step on after it.


The following is an excerpt from a draft of the conclusion to my thesis. If anyone is interested in reading more I’d be happy to provide additional text as well.

The water scandal came to a rather quiet end. In February 1906, the prosecuting attorneys dropped the charges against former mayor George Perry nearly two years after jury could not agree on a verdict, as well as the remaining open cases. Five years after the water scandal first broke, the prosecution did not believe they could convict anyone else. The city’s residents had become, as Grand Rapids historian Z. Z. Lydens phrased it, “weary if not yet quite bored.” Despite the ending, for five years the city had made efforts to deal with the scandal and punish corruption. Before, the city only nominally took care of other scandals, if not completely overlooking them. The water scandal, though, occupied the courtroom for five years and the city’s memory for quite a bit longer.

The fact that the water scandal was a scandal, and such a large one at that, sets the bribery scheme hatched by Lant Salsbury and company apart. The “culmination of a long series” of corrupt events, the water scandal marked the city’s first efforts to confront corruption as unacceptable under new Progressive notions of good government. Though these efforts were not always smooth or successful, over the course of the water scandal, the Progressive system becomes increasingly important.

Initially, personal politics guided actions, as the city largely ignored the forged checks exposed by mayor Perry and defended Salsbury when his name came up in a Chicago criminal investigation. Partisanship stunted the first efforts of reform. The Common Council, on almost a party line vote, did not oust Salsbury as city attorney, even though he was under the indictment of the Cook County grand jury. When a Kent County grand jury began to investigate the rumors of bribery, party lines continued to play an important role in the direction of the investigation.

Even with a slow start, the grand jury successfully moved the scandal forward. The prosecution of many of the water scandal cases was not always interesting. George Perry’s trial focused on determining what he knew about the bribery scheme and when, focusing mostly on his correspondence and personal character. However simple the questions of the trial were, though, these trials represent a victory for the Progressive ethical system. Perry could not rely on the simple defense strategies of former city clerk Frank Warren. Only a few years earlier, Warren based his case for acquittal of embezzling city funds around pity for his wife and kids and arguing other people also misused public funds and were not punished so the court should not punish him either.

While the city could have easily pinned the blame for the bribery plot on the outsiders who organized the scheme and brought in the money, Grand Rapids was more interested in its own corrupt politicians. This focus on reform and cleaning up the government, not just the mess that it created, aided the Civic Club and the city’s fledgeling reform movement. The water scandal strengthened the city’s focus on Progressive reform. The legacy of the water scandal lay in the outcomes of that reform movement, the rise of non-partisan politics and the commissioner-manager system of city governance.

The Grand Rapids water scandal reveals the manner in which many cities moved from municipal governments centered on personal relations and connections, to one based on more Progressive, professional managers and their administrations. No political machine was dismantled. No dominant family displaced. Grand Rapids made the transition through its adoption of Progressive ideas, specifically an ethical system that informed the role of good government and the meaning of corruption. The water scandal was the vital first step in this transition.

Historians have largely overlooked the path of Grand Rapids and other small cities to Progressivism. Grand Rapids was small enough for Chicago newspapers to roast the city over its corruption, suggesting that, in this case, the farmer had swindled the huckster. However, Grand Rapids was big enough to shock its own hinterland. A juror from rural Kent County found the whole scandal “as fascinating as a dime novel,” noting that farmers had “to come into the city to learn how a great boodling scheme is planned and executed.”

To understand Progressivism, we must recognize these alternate, less heroic, paths to reform. Perhaps national leaders can be described, as creating an “epic of reform,” as Michael McGerr does.4 However, in small cities like Grand Rapids, Progressivism came through the gradual adoption of Progressive ideas. Though created on the national stage, city leaders, often slowly and unevenly, applied the Progressive ethos to their municipality.