If you follow my daily learning notes blog, you know that Jane and I have been reading and discussing a book called The Landmark History of the American People by Daniel Boorstin.
I picked it up about four years ago, when Jane was around eight years old. At the time, it didn’t really click with her and I laid it aside.
We picked it back up last year and this time, the fit was right. It’s a history text, but it isn’t like any other history book I’ve seen. Instead of following events strictly chronologically, Boorstin tracks trends and movements: how the general store gave way to the department store, for example, or how a snake oil salesman repurposed his product for lamp-lighting and greased the way, so to speak, for Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Empire.
Boorstin, who was appointed Librarian of Congress when President Ford was in the White House, is an engaging storyteller, and he ropes you in with descriptions of the charismatic personalities that have been American movers and shakers. Jane reads each chapter eagerly and then passes it to me, entertaining the babies so I can have my turn. I’m learning as much as she is.
There is much here to fire the imagination:
(Jane, reading over my shoulder: “Do the bit about the shot tower, Mom!”)
The second problem [with building tall buildings; the first problem, how to get people up to higher floors, was solved by the elevator]—how to hold up the building—began to be solved when James Bogardus and others had used cast iron for their Buyers’ Palaces. No longer was it necessary to build a tall building like a pyramid, with thick supporting walls on the lower floors. Cast-iron construction helped the department stores keep the lower floors wide open, with broad vistas and narrow pillars, allowing attractive show windows in between. But iron construction also made it possible to build higher and higher. Soon an eight-story building like Stewart’s Cast Iron Palace would seem small.
Bogardus himself constructed one of the first buildings of true skyscraper design. Its frame was a tall iron cage. If the cage was strong and rigid, and solidly anchored at the bottom, then the building could go up high without needing thick walls at the bottom. This was ‘skeleton’ construction. The building was held up, not by wide foundations at the bottom, but by its own rigid skeleton.
The first time Bogardus actually tried this, his structure did not have any rooms at all. It was a skeleton-framed tower for an ammunition factory. In those days lead shot was made by pouring molten lead through a sieve inside a high tower. The little liquid balls of lead dripped through, a few at a time. As these plummeted down through the air they became naturally rounded. And as they fell into the tank of water at the bottom they hardened into their rounded shape—ready for use in a rifle or a cannon.
In 1855, when the McCullough Shot and Lead Company needed a new shot tower in New York City, Bogardus gave them his radical new design. He built them an octagonal iron tower eight stories high. A tall iron cage, it needed no filled-in, weight-bearing walls to hold it up. Yet it was strong. When the openings in the iron frame were covered with brick, it served just as well as any heavy column of stone.
There is ample fodder here for the “ideas to ponder and discuss” part of our Rule of Six!
The edition I have contains both volumes of Boorstin’s text, with the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution sandwiched between them. Several Amazon marketplace sellers have listed older editions of the book—most of them, I think, are offering the individual volumes. Volume 1 is “From Plymouth to Appomatox” and Volume 2 is “From Appomatox to the Moon.”
Another great history read is Jennifer Armstrong’s The American Story, but that’s a subject for another review!
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