First Day of School!

Lecture #1: That Was Then, This is Now … for Now

Time to get out your camera – the first day of school is here (for us, it’s next Tuesday). Here’s what I do after rolling through the syllabus and addressing any “crashers” – the name we have for students who want to add a class that is already fully enrolled; I’ve decided upon a firm policy – no crashers, no questions. If you’re a senior and you haven’t had time for this survey class by now, then tough luck. Oh, and by the way, there are other sections available; you don’t want to take any of them … sorry Charlie). 

The first picture begins with a snapshot – digitally. I take a picture of the class (more on this later!) and then juxtapose America then with America now. What was the United States like around 1860, and what is it like today? If I can get my students to see that the nation has changed dramatically, then how the changes happened may interest them. I focus on three P’s: People, Products, and Places. And if you notice anything missing or just plain wrong, please let me know.


  • Then, the United States had just over thirty million people (and this doesn’t include Native Americans) in 33 states; now, it has about 300,000,000 in 50 states.
  • Then, about four million people were owned by other people, and that 4 million equaled the size of the nation’s largest state: New York. Now, California is the largest state with 36 million people (it had 380,000 citizens in 1861) and estimates suggest that there are 11 million individuals in the country illegally.
  • In 1861, the largest city was New York with 800,000 residents; New York City’s still the largest, but it has more than 8 million residents.
  • Then, fewer than 8% of American citizens lived West of the Mississippi. Now, more than 40% of the population lives West of the Mississippi River.
  • Then, “whites” accounted for more than 85% of the population; blacks about 13%; and Asian Americans about 1%. Now, whites make up 65%; Hispanic Americans comprise 16% of the population, black Americans hang at 12% and Asian Americans make up 4.5% of the population.
  • Then, you could expect to die in your 40s (if a southerner fighting in the Civil War – much, much, much younger); today, average life span is past the 70s.
  • Then, the main occupation was farming; now, retail sales are the number one employer in the nation. Then, there were 151 actors in California; now, well … a lot more!
  • Then, there were about 2.5 million Catholics (8% of the population) and at most 200,000 Jews (less than 1%). What everyone else was, including slaves, is difficult to determine, but it seems that Protestants dominated numerically. Now, Catholics make up about 20% of the population; there are slightly under 9 million Jews and Muslims and Buddhists stand at about 1.3 million.
  • In 1861, there were two presidents in the land we call today the “United States” and both were committed to keeping slavery where it was. Now, the President is married to a descendant of slaves and is considered black (here, a picture of Obama as Lincoln is shown; I expect someone, anyone, to laugh; no one does; I make a goofy comment about it hoping that someone laughs … again, silence).

  • In 1861, the nation had 33,000 railroad miles; by 2010, the nation had more than 4,000,000 miles of road and rail.
  • Then, most American rarely traveled more than fifty miles from home in 1860; now, many have accomplished this before 6 months old (my son Elijah is the example with cute picture here)
  • Then, agricultural products dominated exports: about 75% of all of them – led by cotton and wheat. Now, according to dollar value, the main exports are civilian aircrafts, semiconductors, cars, and medical goods. For imports, we take in fuel sources and chemicals. Not counted monetarily, but transformative of the entire world, are new social media technologies like Facebook, Google, and twitter. Most Americans then made goods at home, owned only a few sets of pants, or dresses. Now, one poll has shown that the average American woman owns 19 sets of shoes.
  • Then, main forms of entertainment were minstrelsy and baseball. Reading and church attendance were fun too, as was playing pranks and river travel.
  • Now, television, movies, and computer games (of various iterations) dominate, and football is the most popular sport.
  • I end this segment with a photograph of my young son … sporting a cute onesee. I have the class work through where his clothes came from, how they were purchased, how they are cleaned, who took the picture and with what kind of technology. Then I have them account for how the image is displayed, how they are viewing it (through glasses, contacts, and/or sunglasses) so they can think about how the entire material world has changed.

  • For this, I show images – drawings and black-and-white photographs from the 1860s and then images from the twenty-first century, including those taken from outer space and those taken with digital cameras. At this point, I take a picture of the class, upload it, and put it on the screen. The point here isn’t just how much bigger the buildings are or the stores, how racially diverse the people are, but also the speed, colors, and distances from which they’re taken. The United States looks profoundly different and how it looks at itself has changed.
  • The last slide is of the class itself under the title “Now and Future” and I use it to demonstrate how technologically things have changed so radically that in the course of seconds I can incorporate the image of them into the slideshow. I ask them to consider just how much life might change 20-30 years from now when they’re children may be sitting in a United States history survey class.
This juxtaposition of then and now is different from my first lectures years ago. Then, I began in 1861 or 1865 – either with the Civil War beginning or ending. I naturally assumed my students would be interested in the class. Shockingly … they weren’t. I also naturally assumed they would know that the nation had changed. Shockingly once again … they didn’t. At the end of the semester,  I’ll ask students to imagine how the nation will change over the next twenty years … and I find that’s a fun way to book end our time together.

Where do you begin? What differences would you focus upon? Would you center on any similarities? Do you begin with music or images or films?

So Honest Abe has to wait another day to get assassinated. Sad to say, but great for drama, each time Lincoln enters that damn booth, Booth gets his moment.

6 thoughts on “First Day of School!

  1. I love the juxtaposition of products & images from the past & present.
    Since you solicited comment on your list of statistics, I find this one a bit contestable:

    “Then, you could expect to die in your 40s (if a southerner fighting in the Civil War – much, much, much younger)”

    Isn’t that heavily skewed by infant mortality and deaths due to childhood illness? This chart: suggests that if you made to the “teen” years, you were likely to live to 60 or more. So, while technically yes an infant could only “expect” 40 years, it clearly wasn’t the mode (the most frequently occurring number in age of death). Obviously it’s a small point, and the larger point is that life expectancy has increased dramatically, but I do think it’s a bit confusing to students – who are often quite literal about such things – to suggest that it was entirely normal for people to just drop like flies at the four-decade mark.

    Enjoying the blog very much!

  2. Really good point ABC. So the better # would probably be infant mortality differences, which is under 7 per 1000 infants born alive. I’m now looking around for that from 1860s. Anybody have those numbers???

  3. Have you ever thought about adding a section at the end that shows how even though we live in a vastly different world, we are similar to the people of that era. Making connections about how we can connect to these people despite the vast differences in the world?

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