2021 National History Day: Communication in History, the Key to Understanding
Start by looking through the official National History Day 2021 Communication in History Theme Book.
Then begin exploring the many historical resources available at the Massachusetts Historical Society. You can begin searching for inspiration anywhere in our collections: by exploring our library catalogues, our online resources, our collection guides, or by visiting us in person.
Have research questions? Not sure where to start? Our Library Reader services are happy to help! You can contact our librarians at 617-646-0532 or by email at email@example.com with any questions.
Topics and Themes
The following are a sample of the many potential topics for a National History Day 2021 Communication in History project based on MHS Collections, digitized and on site. Please note that these ideas are just to get you started, and many of these subjects will have to be narrowed down to produce a high quality project. We recommend browsing our Online Collections for ideas as well--just a few of those collections are linked to topics listed below.
"This theme asks students to consider how people exchange information and interact with each other. Students have the chance to explore how the methods and modes of communication have changed over time, and how they have shaped the present" (NHD Theme Book, 5).
Communication is not something limited to language. That is, you having a conversation with someone else is not the only form of communication. Rather, a piece of artwork, a newspaper article, a billboard on the side of the road, or even this document can convey a message--they, like a conversation, tell us something important. Think through what types of things, object or non-object, can convey a variety of messages.
Below are some questions to get you started:
- What does communication mean? What are the different forms it may take?
- Why was the production of [object/thing] important? How did communication [through some medium or of some idea] change the course of history?
- How was [object/thing/idea] used to communicate? What was its legacy?
- What are the limitations of [object/thing/idea] as a vehicle for communication? Was the intended message received? If not, what happened instead?
- How has communication changed over time, especially with the development of [object/thing/idea] or the occurrence of a particular event?
Medium: "The intervening substance through which impressions are conveyed to the senses." This is the raw material by which primary and secondary sources are created. Primary Source: "Primary sources are created during the time period that you are investigating” (NHD, 11). Secondary Source: "Secondary sources are created after and about a historical event” (NHD, 11).
Historians use many types of media to conduct research. For example, they may look at diaries, letters, records, photographs, maps, or newspapers to perform their work. What can these items tell us about a particular person, event, or time period at-large?
- The Diary of Charles Frances Adams. Adams, the third son of John Quincy, kept a diary while serving in the Civil War. What can a diary tell us about the War that a textbook cannot?
- Samuel Chester Clough's Maps of Massachusetts and Boston. The Massachusetts Historical Society has 72 maps created by Samuel Chester Clough (1873-1949). He used town, court, and tax records to create maps of Boston spanning centuries—from the seventeenth century unto his present. How did Clough use sources to write a history? What experiences do his maps highlight? What do they exclude?
- Visual Materials of Antislavery. MHS’s website Images of the Antislavery in Massachusetts is a digital archive that includes some 840 photographs, paintings, broadsides, banners, and sculptures related to antislavery. How do these visual materials send the antislavery message? In what ways are they similar, and in what ways are they different?
- Public Records of the Environmental League of Massachusetts. The Environmental League of Massachusetts combats climate change and preserves “land, water, and public health,” according to its website. The MHS has minutes, reports, correspondence, financial records, and publications of the League from 1898-2010. Are there any differences between documentation from 1898, the first year in MHS archives, to the last in 2010? How has our understanding of the climate and preservation shifted over time?
- Who Counts? A Look at Voting Rights Through Political Cartoons. Political cartoons have long served to provoke public debate, illustrating opinions of the day for the masses. From early in the 19th century, arguments over voting rights—who votes and who counts the votes—have been depicted in cartoons, especially with the rise of illustrated newspapers and magazines with a national circulation before the Civil War. Featuring examples of published cartoons from the MHS collections as well as other libraries and foundations, this exhibition illustrates how cartoonists helped to tell the story of voting rights in the United States, including modern reinterpretations of these topics by Boston-area editorial cartoonists.
Thinking Through The Archive
Archive: "a collection of historical documents or records providing information about a place, institution, or group of people.” Analysis: “detailed examination of the elements or structure of something.”
As historians, it is important to think through the authors of the sources that you are working with. What is their story, and were they in a position of power? What does the source tell us? What does it not tell us? Does it silence a particular narrative at the expense of sharing another?
- Portraits of Native Americans, 1860-1913. This collection is composed of photographs of Native American individuals and tribes. These photographs were taken as “historical records of tribal groups,” to capture a “dying race” and be circulated throughout white America. White Americans took these photographs. How do they portray Native American life? Is it accurate? What biases do these photographs contain in their depcitions?
- The DeGrasse-Howard Papers. This is a collection of manuscripts and family papers relating to several African American families: the DeGrasse, Howard, Downing, and Asbury families. The first paper in this collection dates back to 1776—almost 100 years prior to the ratification of the 13th Amendment, which ruled slavery unconstitutional. Historically, institutions like the MHS have housed mostly sources telling the experiences of white people. Why are these Papers important? And, why is it that the archive often only communicates a more whitewashed perspective?
- Massachusetts Debates a Woman's Right to Vote. The MHS collection highlights the fight over a woman’s right to vote in Massachusetts by illustrating the arguments made by suffragists and their opponents. The purpose of a debate is to present the audience, and judges, with many viewpoints and perspectives. Why is it important to communicate many views, even if they contradict each other?
Early New England
The Revolutionary War Era
- On Hearing the Declaration of Independence: Descriptions by Henry Alline, John Rowe, and Abigail Adams
- Phillis Wheatley: The First Published Black Poet in the United States
- Abolition in Massachusetts and 1783's Legal End of Slavery. How were abolitionist ideals communicated in Massachusetts?
The Early Republic
- Debates on the Ratification of the Constitution in Massachusetts: Searching for the Document’s Meaning
- Petition of Prince Hall to the Massachusetts General Court
- The Emergence of Colonial Exploration: China, America, and the Pacific
The 19th Century
- Civil War: Correspondence, Diaries, and Journals
- William Lloyd Garrison’s The Liberator: Communicating Abolitionist and Anti-Slavery Sentiment During The Civil War
- Westward Expansion and Frontier Life: Borderlands, Settlement & Colonial Encounters
- Colonialism and The Age of Exploration
The 20th Century
- Civil Rights: Records from the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts
- Margaret B. Wright and Female Journalism Capturing Women in the Workspace
- Leisure, Travel, & Mass Culture: The History of Tourism
- Political Engagement: The Good Government Association and Americans for Democratic Action
- Urban Renewal and the Growth of Boston: The Park Plaza Development Project and Urban Environmentalism
Highlighted MHS Collections
Here are just a few of the numerous collection guides at MHS with manuscripts and artifacts related to National History Day themes:
- The Massachusett Psalter, or Psalms of David With the Gospel According To, in Columns of Indian or English. The document aims to serve as an “introduction for training up the aboriginal natives, in reading and understanding the Holy Scriptures.” What did cross-cultural communication (or perhaps lack thereof) look like in Early New England? How do we understand this proselytizing work now?
- Benjamin Franklin In Disguise: The journalism of Silence DoGood.
- The Correspondence of Mercy Otis Warren and Hannah Winthrop: A Window Into the Female Private Life Amidst the World of Nation Building and Revolution.
- Presidential Letters at the Massachusetts Historical Society--An Overview : This subject guide is an overview of the Massachusetts Historical Society's U.S. presidents holdings of all known letters written by presidents found in the Society's manuscript and autograph collections.
- Massachusetts Association Opposed to the Further Extension of Suffrage to Women Records, 1894-1920: This Massachusetts Association was founded in May 1895, and its primary function was to obtain signatures for "remonstrances" against "the imposition of any further political duties upon women." These "remonstrances" were circulated to offset the petitions of the suffragists.
Pre-Revolutionary Diaries at the Massachusetts Historical Society: This microfilm edition of pre-Revolutionary era diaries consists of 276 diaries written by 112 individuals from 1635 to 1790 and provides a rich and authentic portrait of incidents, manners, customs, and details of life in pre-Revolutionary America. The collection contains the diaries of a broad range of individuals, from farmers and businessmen to clergymen, soldiers, students, and physicians.
The Natick Dictionary by James Hammond Trumbull: Communication Across Cultural Lines?
- The Degrasse-Howard Papers: This collection consists of manuscripts and family papers relating to several African-American families, the DeGrasse, Howard, Downing, and Asbury families. It also includes correspondence, newspaper clippings, photocopies of published sources, and research notes about various individuals in those families collected by Rev. Howard DeGrasse Asbury, a descendant.
NHD Collection Highlights
Here are examples of interesting documents and artifacts which could inspire your NHD project:
Benjamin Franklin was born on Milk Street in Boston on 6 January 1706. As one of seventeen children of a tallow merchant and cloth dyer, by the time he was twelve he had left school for good and become an apprentice to his older brother, James, the printer and publisher of The New-England Courant, an early Boston newspaper. The "Couranteers" started something new in America--a lively journal, without ties to the Massachusetts colonial government, that published attacks on Boston's political and religious establishment. They expressed strong opinions on religion, politics, free speech, and smallpox inoculation, to name a few. Ben Franklin contribted his own essays under the same of Silence Dogood. The Couranteers' satirical attacks grew so strong that James Franklin was imprisoned and later forbidden to publish without prior censorship. James went into hiding, but The New-England Courant continued to appear with his teenage brother Benjamin at the helm.
The letters exchanged between Mercy Otis Warren (1728-1814) and Hannah Winthrop (baptized 1727-1790) provide a remarkable window into the daily lives of families living through the challenges of revolution and nation building. In this letter, Warren first states she is "determined to leave the field of politicks to those whose proper busines it is to speculate and to act at this important crisis", but then counters that as a mother and a wife, she is unable to do so. A stirring letter. Find more of their communications here.
The city of Boston required Sarah C. Roberts to attend an all-black school that was located far from her home. In the 1840s her father Benjamin Roberts challenged the Boston School Committee's decision and hired counsel to eliminate racial segregation in education in Boston's schools. They hired Robert Morris, one of the country's first African American lawyers, to represent them. While they lost the case, which later was used as part of the legal precedent for Plessy v. Ferguson and its "separate but equal clause," Black parents in Boston refused to accept defeat. After a school boycott and statewide protests, in 1855 the Massachusetts legislature passed the country’s first law prohibiting school segregation.
This photograph of the second Bikini Atoll atomic bomb test communicates the sheer gargantuan size of this scientific achievement. The atomic bomb's creation presented massive breakthroughs in quantum and nuclear technology, but led to terrifying humanitarian consequences.
"Portrait of Elizabeth Freeman ('Mumbet')," 1811Painted by Susan Anne Livingston Ridley Sedgwick in 1811, this watercolor-on-ivory miniature portrait depicts Elizabeth Freeman, known as "Mumbet," an enslaved woman who sued for her freedom in 1783 under the new state constitution and set legal precedent for the abolition of slavery in Massachusetts.
As a member of the American Red Cross in France during World War I, Massachusetts-born Margaret Hall worked at a canteen at a railroad junction in the town of Châlons. On her return home, she compiled a typescript narrative from letters and diary passages that she wrote overseas. Her words offer a first-hand account of life on the Western Front in the last months of the war. She copiously illustrated the text with her own photographs, which depict soldiers and canteens, as well as communicating the extensive destruction and ruin following the war.
"Frederick Douglass."Twenty-year-old Frederick Bailey took the name Douglass after he freed himself from in 1838 and became an active abolitionist and antislavery lecturer. The publication of his autobiography Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass in 1845 and a subsequent tour of Europe brought him international celebrity. In 1847, Douglass moved to Rochester, New York, where he published the abolitionist journal, the North Star. When Massachusetts became the first state to enlist African-American soldiers in the North during the Civil War, Douglass served as a recruiting agent. Douglass served in high ranking federal positions under five presidents and continued to write, lecture, and advocate in many other ways for the rights of African Americans.
As governor of Massachusetts in 1812, Elbridge Gerry passed the first legislation that allowed government to manipulate the borders of an electoral constituency. This political cartoon offers a historical look into public criticism of gerrymandering, an issue in the forefront of the political landscape today. See more political cartoons in our exhibit "Who Counts? A Look at Voting Rights through Political Cartoons."