Walking the Cape Cod Rail Trail

Cape Cod Rail Trail

Cape Cod Rail Trail

Shortly after dawn on Sunday, Daniel Dejean and I set out to walk the Cape Cod Rail Trail (CCRT), not just to walk on the trail, but to go the entire 22.3 miles.

I like to walk long distances at a brisk pace, but I was worried about going with an accomplished marathoner, one who would probably be bored with my pedestrian pace. But Daniel seemed quite happy to walk instead of run.

In the beginning we had the trail to ourselves. Perhaps others were deterred by the hour or the temperature just below freezing? In any case, it was heavenly. We enjoyed the exercise, the views, and the conversation. For equipment, we took along one not-smart phone and a fancy watch that didn’t work.

Taccuino Sanitatis

Taccuino Sanitatis

For six hours, we saw a side of Cape Cod that you miss completely if all you know is Route 6, the beaches, or the residential streets. Since the trail is elevated, it offers a better view than that afforded by many forest trails. We saw natural wetlands and cranberry bogs, salt marshes, meadows, forest, creeks, the bay, and the back sides of houses, churches, and businesses. There’s a winery that I didn’t know about.

We talked about what we each liked and didn’t like about life on Cape Cod, music, art, movies, growing up, religion, Borges, Deleuze, Piaget, and OULIPO. We also had good stretches of silence, just listening to the birds and the wind, or walking without listening at all. Amazingly, we avoided the political discussions that seem to dominate the ordinary day.

A long walk imbues your body with a rhythm that offers peace and balance. We joked about Daniel’s fancy electronic watch, which told us all kinds of things, but seemed incapable of  communicating the time of day. We saw it as very postmodern, or perhaps Buddhist, in its rejection of our chopped up daily lives.

Setting out

Setting out

Our overall pace was 3.6 mph. That’s faster than Google walks, but still fairly relaxed. Around 17 miles we each began to feel the stress on our bodies. Daniel revealed that he feels the stress at the same point when running a marathon. It’s interesting that it occurs at the same distance, but of course half the time when running.

As the sun rose, we began to see more people. There were people walking their four-legged masters, babies in strollers, people in wheelchairs, couples, groups, and solitary walkers. Each of them were experiencing a slice of Cape Cod that is hard to find in any other way.

I don’t know that any of them planned to walk the entire route as we did, but I’m sure they each felt some degree of balance as articulated by Taccuino Sanitatis. This is an 11C Arab medical treatise by Ibn Butlan of Baghdad which sets forth the essential elements for well-being, including balance of activity and rest, food, fresh air, and state of mind. Daniel pointed me to that.

Before the railroad came, Cape Cod was accessible only by boat or stagecoach. Passenger rail service from Boston to Provincetown started in 1873 and became a major factor in the Cape’s growth as a summer resort area. But when the car bridge over Cape Cod Canal opened in 1935, passenger rail service soon came to an end. The cars were a boon for tourists and tourist services, but they also began to destroy much of what makes the Cape so special. Residents and visitors who see the Cape mostly from their cars or selected recreational areas miss a lot.

The rail corridor was purchased by the Commonwealth in 1976. A portion of that was converted to a rail trail, which now runs from South Dennis to Wellfleet with side trails going off to Chatham and other areas. Daniel’s uncommunicative watch told us that the trail on the rail bed was a way to step back in time, to connect to some of that earlier Cape Cod life, and to experience a more balanced way of life.

The Children’s Room

Cape Cod Modern, by Peter McMahon & Christine Cipriani

Cape Cod Modern, by Peter McMahon & Christine Cipriani

Each age tries to form its own conception of the past. Each age writes the history of the past anew with reference to the conditions uppermost in its own time. –Frederick Jackson Turner, “The significance of history”, 1893

Tiny Wellfleet has been a significant home for histories of all stripes. These include psychohistory (Robert Jay Lifton, Erik Erikson, etc.), history employed to support social justice and civil rights (Howard Zinn, William McFeely, etc.), histories of colonial settlements, pirates, and whaling, and accounts of the daily lives of artists, shellfishers, and innumerable interesting characters. Wellfleet historical writing has for a long time been a vital participant in the story of Wellfleet, not simply a spectator.

A recent example is the winner of the 2015 Historic New England Book Prize, co-authored by Peter McMahon and Christine Cipriani: Cape Cod Modern: Mid-century Architecture and Community on the Outer Cape.The book uses architectural and personal photos, and interviews with designers, their families, and their clients to document the experimental homes designed by a cosmopolitan group of designers who settled in Wellfleet and Truro in the mid-20th century. The book has stimulated renewed interest in Bauhaus, in the so-called modernist houses, and in the community around them.

Preparatory drawing for playroom mural in Kepes House, Cambridge, Massachusetts, by Julia Kepes

Preparatory drawing for playroom mural in Kepes House, Cambridge, Massachusetts, by Julia Kepes

A complementary project can now be seen with the summer opening of the Wellfleet Historical Society and Museum today. The Children’s Room, Art and Design of Wellfleet’s Mid-century Children’s Books is a collaboration of WHSM with the Cape Cod Modern House Trust and the Wellfleet Public Library. Here’s a description from the WHSM site:

During the 1930s Wellfleet’s population was just barely 800 people, and yet over 1,000 books have been published by, or about, the town’s mid-century denizens, around 200 being inventive books for children. Many of these books were designed and illustrated by some of the most acclaimed graphic artists of the era. This exhibit includes a selection of books, artifacts and original artwork.

Dwellers of the Tundra, by Aylette Jenness & Jonathan Jenness

Dwellers of the Tundra, by Aylette Jenness & Jonathan Jenness

Many of the artists and authors of the children’s books were connected with Bauhaus, and its emphasis on learning, science, experimentalism, and progressive politics. That can be seen in the wide variety of nature topics and in sympathetic depictions of diverse cultures.

As with Bauhaus, the exhibit invites participation. Visitors can observe blown-up versions of artwork from the children’s books, and peruse the books themselves. There are specially designed benches on which to sit or to spread out the objects. There are also crayons and paper to create your own artworks.

I like the fact that the museum is opening just after the summer solstice (a special one at that, coinciding with a strawberry moon). Bauhaus was very aware of new technologies, materials, and scientific discoveries. A love of nature and its meanings for humans was evident throughout its history. Wellfleetian Ati Gropius, who was the daughter of founder Walter, would gather people in late June and ask “What does the summer solstice mean to you?” Several of the Bauhaus-connected houses took advantage of solar or lunar movements in their design. So, it’s appropriate that this wonderful new exhibit welcome the summer season.

Fidelia, by Ruth Adams & Ati Forberg (Gropius)

Fidelia, by Ruth Adams & Ati Forberg (Gropius)

The new Children’s Room is filled with wonderful individual items. There are Caldecott award winners and artworks that are surprisingly fresh and striking a half century or more after they were created. But the exhibit as a whole brings the items together in a provocative way, adding new meaning to the specific items and to our understanding of that mid-century era.

As I think about how our history-making enriches life in Wellfleet, I’m reminded of William James’s comment about teaching:

You can give humanistic value to almost anything by teaching it historically. Geology, economics, mechanics, are humanities when taught with reference to the successive achievements of the geniuses to which these sciences owe their being. Not taught thus literature remains grammar, art a catalogue, history a list of dates, and natural science a sheet of formulas and weights and measures. –William James, “The social value of the college-bred,” 1907

 

What is Islam?

Arabesque decoration at the Alhambra

Arabesque decoration at the Alhambra

All too often we hear simplistic statements about Islam, which tell us a little about the speaker, but nothing about Islam itself.

Candidates for President and mass media personalities say things like “We need to patrol and secure Muslim neighborhoods,” “Muslims should be banned from entering the U.S.,” “Immigration visas & refugees from countries with active terror networks must be halted,” “It’s time we made peace with the Muslim world [by dropping an atomic bomb],” “Islam hates us,” “The hate is in Islam itself,” and “Islam is in need of a Reformation.” These are typically said in the context of discussing terrorism, while Islam is widely ignored otherwise. Meanwhile, defenders talk about “true Islam” or define Islam is just another Abrahamic religion.

Setting aside the lack of evidence, the faulty reasoning, the many harms they cause, and the hurt they inflict, one thing stands out: The speakers and their audiences seem fully convinced that they know exactly what Islam is and what it means to be a Muslim.

Shahab Ahmed

Shahab Ahmed

Despite their lack of interest in the topic at other times and the inability to read Arabic, they profess to prove points by quoting the Qur’an out of context. With minuscule knowledge of Islamic history, literature (even in translation), culture, or actual beliefs and practices, they are nevertheless eager to pronounce what Islam is and what should be done to fix it. Most remarkably, they are able to conflate anecdotes and faulty data across diverse cultures to come up with simplistic generalizations that they would be ashamed to apply to say, Christianity, Judaism, Western culture, or atheism.

Shahab Ahmed

A Muslim who studied deeply the history, literature, philosophy, and practices of Islam, Shahab Ahmed (1966-2015), provides a richly detailed account of Islam that should cause us to question statements such as those above. His account doesn’t yield counter generalizations; instead it shows how such sweeping statements obscure rather than illuminate. His new book, What Is Islam? The Importance of Being Islamic (Princeton University Press, 2015) has been useful for both Muslims and non-Muslims. One implication is that to say that someone is a Muslim is little more informative than saying that they are a person.

Ahmed's posthumous book

Ahmed’s posthumous book

Ahmed was a postdoctoral associate in the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture at Harvard. His personal history surely informed his international perspective. Born in Singapore to Pakistani parents, but raised in Malaysia, he was sent to a British boarding school. It was difficult for him being the only Muslim boy in the school, thousands of miles from home, but his skill as a spin bowler in cricket kept him going. Back in Malaysia he attained a law degree in Kuala Lumpur, then worked as a journalist in Pakistan, and then obtained degrees in Arabic Studies from American University, Cairo. After that, he attained a doctorate in Islamic Studies at Princeton and then a postdoc at Harvard. Last June he was diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia. While still ill, he married his fiancée Nora Lessersohn but died shortly after on September 17, 2015. You can see more about Ahmed and his book in How has Islamic orthodoxy changed over time?, by Elias Muhanna.

Reconceptualizing Islam

Through analysis of literature, art, philosophy, history, and politics, Ahmed asks “What is Islam?” To answer this he starts with a set of six questions (see end of this post). It’s clear that understanding the questions is a prerequisite to having a meaningful discussion about Islam.

Statue of Avicenna at the UN Office in Vienna

Statue of Avicenna at the UN Office in Vienna

Consider just one question: “Is there such a thing as Islamic art, and if so, what is actually Islamic about it?” Unlike most other religious art (Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, etc.), Islamic art is typically abstract, often based on mathematical patterns (see above left from Calat Alhamra, in Granada, Andalusia, Spain). It doesn’t appear to represent religious ideas, the way that say, stations of the Cross do for Christians or statues of the Buddha do for Buddhists. Ahmed uses this key difference to talk about the way that Islamic art has developed. This leads to a discussion of the relation of Islam to science and philosophy, which accounts for why Islamic mathematics, science, and technology could build upon and extend the Greco-Roman tradition during a time when Christian Europe remained largely in opposition to it.

Throughout the wide ranging, long, and complex book, Ahmed struggles with the six opening questions and others, but more broadly, the variety and contradictions of Islam. Can it be defined through scripture, laws, cultural practice, or other means? He asks whether we should speak of Islam or of islams. He shows the challenge of relating the religious, the cultural, and the political, when those relationships shift across linguistic and national boundaries, as well as historical periods.

Inventing a concept

I’m reminded of Unamuno’s lesson that to invent a concept is to take leave of reality. Ahmed helps to reveal and interpret that reality as he questions the concept of Islam itself. At the same time, he helps us to understand the coherence that many people feel when they say they are Muslim, despite all the complexities. He offers a new paradigm for understanding how Muslims have historically understood divine revelation, one that shows how and why they have embraced values such as exploration, ambiguity, polyvalence, and relativism. It also helps to show how practices such as figural art, music, and wine drinking are Islamic. Crucially, it explains the historical constitution of Islamic law and its relationship to ethics and political theory.

Ahmed’s discussion is detailed and complex, one that is difficult to summarize briefly. Consider his discussion of what Muslims think Islam is: “[They] are in agreement that there is such a thing as Islam, even if they disagree about what it is.” For example, many scholars point to the Five Pillars–one God (the shahādah), five daily prayers, fasting in Ramadan, pilgrimage to Mecca, and alms-giving–as definitive for Islam. But others point out that the last four pillars are hotly contested theologically, interpreted in diverse ways, and as often ignored as observed. One says that if the pillars are seen as defining, then there are more negligent Muslims than observant ones.

So, some argue that it’s just the first pillar–one God and Mohammad as the Messenger. But that just opens to further questions: What is God? What is his message? What does it mean to submit (Islam) to God?

Ahmed’s richly detailed discussion shows that whether we talk about historical developments, theological interpretations, or diverse daily practices, we’re on very thin ice if we claim that we have an analytical tool that clearly marks out who is a Muslim, in what way they are, and what that means. Among the many people who would answer “yes” to the question, “Are you a Muslim?” there are non-participating adherents, strictly observant followers (of diverse tenets), mystics, skeptics, atheists and fundamentalists, feminists and misogynists. Moreover, Ahmed argues that the cultures that have embraced Islam are probably more diverse than those of any other religion, including Christianity.

Another example, comes from Rumi, His Maṣnavī-yi ma’navī (Doublets of Meaning) is one of the most significant texts in Islamic history. In one passage he writes about how attaining ḥaqīqat (Real-Truth) nullifies the (Islamic) laws and the paths or rituals to follow. This is similar to Buddhism and some versions of Christianity, in which the rules, practices, norms, beliefs, rituals, and so on, are but means to an end in which they no longer matter.

Ahmed does not conclude from many examples such as this that Islam is too diffuse to have meaning. Instead, he does an amazing job of communicating how Islam can feel real and important to people, even as they admit to its protean character. He offers at least a starting point for making sense of the impact that Islam has on the lives of both followers and non-followers, one that is far more productive than the inane comments I listed above.

Ahmed’s six opening questions

  • What is Islamic about Islamic philosophy?
  • When Sufis assert that virtuoso “friends of God” are no longer bound by Islamic law and practice, is this an Islamic or an un-Islamic truth claim?
  • Key ideas from Avicennan philosophy and Sufism “flirt incorrigibly with pantheism and relativism.” These have been among the “the most socially pervasive and consequential thought paradigms in the history of societies of Muslims,”  Are these Islamic ideas?
  • The Divan of Hafiz, the great 14th-century Persian poet, is “the most widely-copied, widely-circulated, widely-­read, widely-memorized, widely-­recited, widely-invoked, and widely-­proverbialized book of poetry in Islamic history.” It takes as its themes wine-drinking and (often homo-)erotic love, as well as a disparaging attitude to observant ritual piety.” Is that work and its ethos Islamic?
  • Is there such a thing as Islamic art, and if so, what is actually Islamic about it?
  • How can both the consumption of wine and its prohibition be essential to Islamic history and culture?

The place of freedom

William Hubbard House

William Hubbard House, Ashtabula, OH

Place is both the barrier to and the enabler of freedom. The freedom of a vacation comes from its being a getaway, but few things feel less free than totally losing a sense of place while traveling in a strange land.

That dual nature applies to more significant experiences as well, as I reflected on seeing the William Hubbard House in Ashtabula, Ohio.

Hubbard moved to Ashtabula from Holland Patent, New York, around 1834. (I could never have predicted that without any planning we’d pass through both of those small places, set on back roads 330 miles apart, on the same day.)

Hubbard became involved in the local antislavery society and town politics. His house was a strategic location for the Underground Railroad, set on the shore of Lake Erie and with his own ferry port nearby. His house was the last stop before a boat ride across the lake to Canada.

Runaway slaves and conductors on the Underground Railroad referred to his home as “Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard” or “The Great Emporium.” It is not known how many slaves Hubbard helped gain their freedom, but records suggest that he housed 39 slaves on one occasion.

Lake Erie, and the final stop

Lake Erie, and the final stop

It was both inspiring and humbling to stand beside the Hubbard home with the vast expanse of Lake Erie and unseen Canada beyond. One can read about the many Underground Railroad locations and the heroic journeys that people took to gain their freedom, but encountering the two-story house, the lake, the Ashtabula river leading to the ferry port, the antebellum era town buildings, and the woods nearby made the bare plotline come alive.

Being there made the slaves’ escape from a place of misery to a place of hope just a little more tangible. I wondered how anyone could be there and not have their sympathy enlarged. Or how they could think about that 19th century quest for freedom and talk so easily (as some Presidential candidates do) about denying freedom to victims of violence and oppression in the Middle East, Central America, or other places today.

In The Particularities of Place (see also Why Place Matters: Geography, Identity, and Civic Life in Modern America (2014, edited by Wilfred M. McClay and Ted V. McAllister), Wilfred M. McClay writes,

We embrace freedom because we believe fervently in the fullest breadth of individual human possibility, and share a deep conviction that no one’s horizons in life should be dictated by the conditions of his or her birth. Nothing is more quintessentially American than that conviction. But…. one’s place of origin is seen as an impediment, something to be overcome. “Place” may even point toward notions of social hierarchy that Americans generally find anathema…the idea of “knowing your place” was favored by advocates of racial segregation and the subordination of women.

William Still, "Father of the Underground Railroad"

William Still, “Father of the Underground Railroad”

The plantations were a place that denied not only freedom per se, but the full “breadth of individual human possibility.” Yet the places of the Underground Railroad and the new River Jordan, expanded that possibility.

McClay goes on to see a renewed need for place today:

We now have a new set of problems, born of the pathologies engendered precisely by our achievements. Something is now seriously out of balance in the way we live…. it can be argued that, like it or not, we must recover a more durable and vibrant sense of place if we are to preserve the healthy dynamism of our society as it now exists, and promote the highest measure of human happiness and flourishing.

In seeking to escape from one place, slaves needed to maintain a sense of others. This included both some idea of a lost homeland and a vision of that Railroad leading to a new place of freedom. McClay quotes from William Leach’s Country of Exiles:

People require a firm sense of place so they can dare to take risks. A society whose common store of memories has been beaten down or shattered is open to further disruption; for such a society cannot defend or protect itself from the stronger incursions of those who know what they want and how to get it.

I’m happy that places such as the Hubbard House have been preserved, to enable a continuity of place, which in turn gives us a human connection across very different life experiences. Visiting it gave me a richer sense of the place in which I live.

A union-built town

Band saw in the restored factory

Band saw in the restored factory

Port Union is a gem that I knew nothing about. It seems little understood by Wikipedia or Google searches, or even many locals. Yet it’s a fascinating site and story, and an important one for anyone interested in workers’ rights or community building. The new museum and other facilities are well worth a visit, even if you have no interest in dramatic seascapes, quaint Newfoundland port towns, Ediacaran fossils, handmade crafts, or beautiful nature walks.

The town claims to be the only union-built town in North America. Some others might quibble. For example, Nalcrest, Florida was conceived, designed and financed by the letter carriers union as an experiment in retirement housing. Cities such as Chicago and St.Louis are often described as “union-built towns.” But it’s hard to find examples anywhere of a town so fully conceived and established of, by, and for a union.

The founding of Port Union

William Ford Coaker, 1871-1938

William Ford Coaker, 1871-1938

William Coaker founded the town as the base for the Fishermen’s Protective Union in 1917. During 1908-09, he had travelled around Notre Dame Bay, seeking support for a union in each of the tiny communities. By the fall of 1909, the FPU had 50 local councils. By 1914, over half the fishermen in Newfoundland had become members.

In rapid succession, the FPU and the town established a trading company to break the merchants’ stranglehold on salt fish trade. They soon built workers’ housing, a retail store, a salt-fish plant, a seal plant, a fleet of supply and trading vessels, a spur railway line, a hotel, a power-generating plant, a movie theatre, a school, and a factory to build these facilities and other things the community needed.

Clamps for door making

Clamps for door making

There was much more, including even a soft drink (or ìtemperance beverage) factory. One of the most important enterprises was the influential Fishermen’s Advocate newspaper.

Reaction and decline

The anthem of the Fishermens Protective Union was sung at FPU meetings to show support for Coaker and his movement to unite the fishermen. It starts as follows:

We are coming, Mr. Coaker, from the East, West, North and South;
You have called us and we’re coming, for to put our foes to rout.
By merchants and by governments, too long we’ve been misruled;
We’re determined now in future, and no longer we’ll be fooled.
We’ll be brothers all and free men, we’ll be brothers all and free men,
We’ll be brothers all and free men, and we’ll rightify each wrong;

Calculator scale

Computing scale used in the retail store

There was widespread support among the fishing communities for Coaker and the FPU. Coaker himself had a successful career in the Newfoundland House of Assembly and as minister of marine and fisheries through 1924.

But they union was attacked by moneyed interests and the Catholic church. Eventually, it lost power and its political role ended in 1934. The cod fishing moratorium furthered the community’s decline.

By the late 1990s, the town was no longer a commercial center and was in a state of neglect. In 1999, the original part of the town and the hydroelectric plant were designated a National Historic Site of Canada.

 

Questions and connections

I came away from Port Union with many questions. I’ve read that the FPU drew from and influenced the farmer’s co-operatives in the western provinces. I wondered though whether it was connected with enterprises such as La Bellevilloise in Paris, which was founded earlier, after the Commune. It was the first Parisian cooperative project to allow ordinary people access to political education and culture. It, too was a place of resistance with a “from producer to consumer” motto. There were similar projects in Ireland and England, which might have provided a more direct link for Coaker.

The FIsherman's Advocate

The Fisherman’s Advocate

Coaker lived nearly contemporaneously with Jane Addams. Although her settlement house work was not directly union organizing, it shared in the effort to provide self-contained services and to promote workers’ rights.

The earlier Toynbee Hall in London’s East End sought to create a place for future leaders to live and work as volunteers. It was created out of similar motives, and the realisation that enduring social change would not be achieved through individualised and fragmentary approaches. I’d like to learn more about how, if at all, these enterprises learned from one another.

What if

I’d also like to learn more about Coaker himself. Michael Crummey’s novel Galore includes Coaker as a major character. In an interview, Crummey describes the actual Coaker as an enigma and the FPU experience as a pivotal moment:

It is the great “what if” moment in our history. The entire story of 20th century Newfoundland would have been completely different if Coaker had succeeded. We might still be an independent country.

Even truncated as it was, what Coaker accomplished was extraordinary. Delegations from a number of Scandinavian countries came to study what he was up to and implemented many of the reforms in their own fishery that he was fighting for.

Completing the circle

Matthew replica

Matthew replica

We’re staying near Bonavista, possibly where John Cabot landed his ship, the Matthew, in “New Founde Lande” on June 24, 1497. There’s a plaque in the cottage commemorating “the 500th anniversary” with celebrations held in 1997. However, the human presence here is much longer than that celebration suggests.

Newfoundland is famous for its dramatic, detailed, and precise record of life on earth. This includes two of the most important GSSPs, or Global Boundary Stratotype Section and Points, one of which we saw at Green Point. Its record of human life is becoming more fleshed out as well.

Recreated long house

Recreated long house

This shows that the cultures of Newfoundland are intertwined over many millennia, just as the mixed forest, slips into tuckamore, then tundra, building upon and shaping each other. That’s true everywhere of course, but the connections seem more evident here, and are notable for a relatively small, non-urbanized population.

For example, Newfoundland was one of England’s oldest colonies, reflecting Cabot’s voyage in 1497. However, in the 17th-century it was more French than English. Those French were largely Normans, Bretons, and in the western area we first visited, Basque. The English kept the French place names, but chose to pronounce them in the English, or sometimes the uniquely Newfoundland way.

Carlb-ansemeadows-vinland-02

English and French records show that during this time Mi’kmaq families were active along the Western coast. They incorporated the island of Newfoundland along with Cape Breton into their domain of islands. I was surprised to learn that in discussions of cultural eras, they’re often now grouped with the European period, due to the timing, their close interaction with the Europeans, and the fact that many were Roman Catholic.

The long history of Newfoundland with its connected cultures can be seen at L’Anse aux Meadows, a site at the far north end of the Northern Peninsula. It was discovered only in 1960. The settlement probably supported Leif Erikson’s attempt to establish the colony of Vinland, 500 years before Cabot’s voyage. This makes it the best evidence for first contact between peoples of Europe and America and the most famous site of a Viking settlement in North America outside of Greenland.

World Heritage Convention symbol at L'Anse Aux Meadows

World Heritage Convention symbol at L’Anse Aux Meadows

L’Anse aux Meadows might have been presented as the beginning before the beginning–the voyage that was 500 years before what we had earlier celebrated as the first one. Instead, the site today rightly talks about those who came to greet the Vikings, who they were and where they came from.

Tracing back, it shows how early modern humans left Africa 100,000 or more years ago. Some dispersed across Asia then moved into North America and eventually Newfoundland from the west. Others went north into Europe, Iceland, Greenland, and eventually from the east.

L’Anse aux Meadows thus represents many things. But one of the most significant is the reconnection of these streams of humanity. The metaphor of “completing the circle” symbolizes the completion of human migration around the world. The Vikings and the Dorset or Late Palaeo-Eskimos were the front people in this re-encounter.

L’Anse Aux Meadows is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Its story aptly reflects the World Heritage Convention symbol, with its emphasis on global connection.

Who invented the amazing paper bag?

Luther Childs Crowell

Luther Childs Crowell

Envision, if you can, a technology that sharply improves the efficiency with which goods can be delivered to the consumer; that, in the view of one prominent economist, is the ”most effective innovation during the preceding decade in speeding up American retail sales”; that within only a few years of its introduction becomes a pervasive feature of American life.

Such a technology, according to the historian Daniel J. Boorstin, was the square-bottomed paper bag, invented circa 1870 by one Luther Childs Crowell. –Krugman, 1997, “Technology makes us richer; the paper-bag revolution”

It doesn’t take long in Wellfleet to be impressed with the local lore. There’s a lot to learn, about native peoples, Pilgrims, pirates, psychiatrists, and painters. We hear about Baker inaugurating the banana trade, Marconi sending the first trans-Atlantic wireless, and Crowell inventing the paper bag. There is a little truth in this lore. However, as with any item in history, there’s more to the story than often claimed.

Kraft paper bag

Kraft paper bag

One widely held idea, as evident in the quote above and some of the citations below, is that without Luther Childs Crowell of Wellfleet we’d never have the square-bottomed paper bag that makes shopping so convenient (and competes with the ubiquitous plastic ones). That’s an appealing story, especially for a small town that was in the doldrums during much of the industrial revolution.

Although he wasn’t born in Wellfleet, Crowell became a prominent, long-time resident. He’s considered the third most prolific American inventor of the 19th century. Among his inventions were an aerial machine (helicopter), a double supplement printing press, and a bottle-labeling machine. He’s a figure to remember.

Margaret E. Knight

Margaret E. Knight

Moreover, Crowell did play a role in the development of machines to make paper bags. He received one patent for this in 1867. Five years later he devised a machine to make square-bottomed paper bags, and later, the side-seam paper bag.

But the story is a bit more complicated than one inventor working alone to develop his brilliant idea. Paper bags were manufactured commercially in Bristol, England, starting in 1844. In 1852, Francis Wolle, of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania patented and built a  “Machine for Making Bags of Paper” (15 years before Crowell’s first bag patent). In 1869 Wolle and others founded the Union Paper Bag Machine Company. Many people consider Wolle to be “the” inventor. However, Wolle’s was an envelope-shaped bag, which was limited in terms of durability and interior space.

About then the plot thickens. In 1870, Margaret Knight designed a machine to cut, fold and paste paper bag bottoms. This meant that she could produce flat/square-bottomed paper bags, a great improvement on the earlier envelope-style bag design. Her work clearly preceded Crowell’s square-bottomed paper bag machine.

Knight became the first woman to achieve a U.S. patent in her own name, one of 89 in all. She held patents for improvements to automobile engines, for a window frame and sash, and for a shoe-sole-cutting machine. Almost immediately, she became the first woman to suffer patent infringement. Charles Annan filed a patent application making use of her design. Knight then filed a patent interference suit. In the trial, Annan argued that Knight could not have been the inventor. As a woman, she “could not possibly understand the mechanical complexities of the machine.” But Knight had full documentation, with drawings, paper patterns, diary entries, and more, demonstrating the complex and detailed work she had done over two years. She prevailed in court.

Patent model of Knight's machine for making paper bags, 1879

Patent model of Knight’s machine for making paper bags, 1879

A decade later, in 1883, Charles Stilwell was awarded a patent for making a “Square-Bottom Paper Bag w/ pleated sides.” His design was nicknamed “S.O.S.” (self-opening-sack), and provided the model for the mass-produced paper bags we know today. William Purvis and others received paper bag patents, with improvements such as the thumb cut to ease opening, serrated tops, and handles.

Crowell was an important player in this mix, but hardly the sole inventor. He actually acknowledged Knight as the true inventor, but declared that he had rights to make and sell the bag. Henry Petroski, who has one of the most thoroughly researched accounts of the paper bag development (see also Aidan O-Connor’s blog post), writes

The invention of the familiar square- or flat-bottomed paper bag–the “grocery bag”–is commonly but incorrectly attributed to Luther Childs Crowell, of Boston, Massachusetts, who in 1872 received a patent for an “Improvement in Paper-Bags.”

Note the use of the word, “improvement,” a sure sign that Crowell knew that he was helping the bag design to evolve, not inventing de novo. Crowell added several important features such as a bag top with unequal front and back sides. This made it easier to open the bag. He is thus rightly recognized as a major inventor, one who contributed to the design of paper bag we use today.

Stillwell patent, 1889

Stillwell patent, 1889

Knight’s contributions were for a long time under-appreciated, no doubt in part because she was a woman. But now, there are scholarly articles, museum exhibits, PBS shows (“History Detectives: Women inventors”) and children’s books about her: Margaret Knight: Girl inventor, In the bag!: Margaret Knight wraps it up, and Marvelous Mattie: How Margaret E. Knight became an inventor.

It’s impossible to identify the top paper bag inventor. Francis Wolle started on the path to mechanized production of the bags, but his envelope design had limited usefulness. Margaret Knight arguably made the biggest jump up from that with her machine for making flat-bottomed paper bags. But Stilwell’s significant addition of the accordion pleats on the sides made the bags much more useable, easier to store and access.

Luther Crowell, William Purvis, and others also made important contributions. A search for “paper bag” in the title of US patents yields 212 since 1920, including the most recent to Noe Yanez Castro, Guadalupe Acevedo, and Cipriano Hinojos for a “clampless bar mechanism” for “paper bag bottoming.”

Crowell’s work was important and still worth sharing. But the fuller story involving the first major US woman inventor, paper bags in different countries, patent battles, and the evolution of design for multiple purposes makes a truer and far more interesting account.

References