Historical Meteorology Work Log 7.23.2020

Author’s Note: This is in a series of posts chronicling the work I’m currently doing on the Historical Meteorological Records project with the American Philosophical Society (APS). Expect more content explaining my work than analysis. 

Much like my last log, I’d like to show you some work before talking about it. I find the image below pretty sweet.

Sweet Potato
Artist: Mary E. Eaton. Copyright: the New York Botanical Garden, LuEsther T. Mertz Library. Used under Creative Commons 3.0 License.

This is a historical image of a sweet potato (ipomoea batatas) that I’ve found to round out my section on agriculture. I’ve been struggling to find visuals that relate to more than the Madisons’ perspective on agricultural drought. However, researching the enslaved community at Montpelier, I learned that enslaved overseer Sawney grew sweet potatoes for himself. By explaining that Sawney and other people the Madisons enslaved grew their own crops, I think visitors to the exhibit will learn that the drought affected everybody at Montpelier. Comparing the Madisons’ cash-crop corn with the gardens of enslaved people on the plantation also raises the question of whether the drought affected everyone equally. It’s hard to imagine enslaved people getting enough water for their own gardens, or their own hydration, while manually watering the Madisons’ huge fields. Finally, it’s interesting that sweet potatoes are a drought-tolerant starch, which contrasts well with the extremely drought-sensitive corn. Sawney’s sweet potato garden may have turned out better in 1791 than the cornfields on which the Madisons forced him to work. This image of a sweet potato may do more to explain the racist inequalities of the Madisons’ agriculture, and the ingenuity and skills of enslaved workers, than any graph.

However, finding the right sweet potato image was a challenge. To show sweet potatoes like those Sawney gardened, I wanted to find a period illustration (1784-1793), as I’m doing for corn. But I did not find any good period illustrations of sweet potatoes in my usual resources. It was also challenging to find period illustrations of sweet potatoes that the CDS and I could use without having to pay a fee. I turned to Pinterest to see what “vintage sweet potato” might bring up, and this image was one of my first results. Because I wasn’t sure about the rights to the image, I looked it up on the Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL), which Cynthia had directed me to in my quest for corn images. I can use this sweet potato illustration thanks to the Creative Commons 3.0 license under which BHL distributes the image. Though this image may not be the period illustration I had hoped for, being a Mary E. Eaton piece from 1924, it comes closer to historic sweet potatoes than many of today’s photos. The process of finding this historic sweet potato image has taught me a bit about copyright practice and settling for visuals that help me tell my story, not just the ones I want. The result will hopefully be a satisfying exhibit.

Hours logged: 109


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