Center for the Teaching of History

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 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:

  1. What does communication mean? What are the different forms it may take?
  2. Why was the production of [object/thing] important? How did communication [through some medium or of some idea] change the course of history?
  3. How was [object/thing/idea] used to communicate? What was its legacy?
  4. What are the limitations of [object/thing/idea] as a vehicle for communication? Was the intended message received? If not, what happened instead?
  5. How has communication changed over time, especially with the development of [object/thing/idea] or the occurrence of a particular event?

Examining Media

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

The Early Republic

The 19th Century

The 20th Century

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:

NHD Collection Highlights

Here are examples of interesting documents and artifacts which could inspire your NHD project:


The Journalism of Silence DoGood, by Benjamin Franklin

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.



A letter written by Mercy Otis Warren.  The letter is written in tidy cursive on yellowing paper.

Letter from Mercy Otis Warren to Hannah Winthrop (letterbook copy), [after 1 January 1774]


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.  Find more of their communications here.

Lieutenant Peter Vogelsang, The 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment

A black-and-white image of a Black soldier.  He is seated and looking directly at the viewer, wearing his uniform, and his right hand rests on his sword.Peter Vogelsang served as a Lieutenant in Co. H of the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment, the first military unit consisting of Black soldiers to be raised in the North during the Civil War. The adoption of the Emancipation Proclamation in December of 1862 provided the impetus for the use of free Black men as soldiers and, at a time when state governors were responsible for the raising of regiments for federal service, Massachusetts was the first to respond with the formation of the Fifty-fourth Regiment.  The formation of the regiment was a matter of controversy and public attention from its inception, and faced discrimination and hardships beyond those of war.  While the unit's extraordinary bravery at the disastrous Battle of Fort Wagner did much to sway public White opinions in favor of the ability of Black soldiers, the 54th spent the war fighting discrimination from their own compatriots and battling for equal pay.


Before leaving for war, many soldiers chose to sit for photographic portraits like this one of Peter Vogelsang.  What kinds of messages did these photographs communicate about the dignity and bravery of Black soldiers, their role in the Civil War, and their right to civil liberties?  What role did print media, photographic images, and monuments play in the conversation about Black soldiers both during and after the Civil War?



Red Cross workers offering beverages to soldiers outside a canteenPhotographs from the WWI Memoir of Margaret Hall, 1918-1919


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 View of a French helmet atop a cross marking a gravesiteWestern 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.


Portrait of Frederick Douglass "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.  According to historian John Stauffer, Douglass was the most photographed person of his time. Douglass was very deliberate in choosing how his image was portrayed in photographs, using the emerging field of photography as a tool  "to elevate the image of African Americans in contradiction to demeaning and inhumane depictions of black life often seen in the 19th century"(MAAH).


"Natural and political history of the Gerrymander!: In Two Chapters with Cuts."

An old political cartoon with a stylized image of a contorted, long and weirdly shaped Massachusetts political district, which has been decorated to look like a salamander.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.  For the 2020 online exhibit "Who Counts? A Look at Voting Rights through Political Cartoons," several artists created modern takes on the Gerrymander cartoon, including the one below by David Friedman titled "Covid Cola":