Tools of the Trade: Speed Reading


If you want to study history, you have to read. A lot. Depending on your interests, that can mean the multitude of primary sources, secondary sources, object studies, archeological reports, journal articles, blogs, exhibit catalogs, listservs, folklore studies, Facebook pages, auction catalogs, and on and on. Having so much information at our fingertips is both wonderful and disheartening. It makes me wish I could read like Mr. Data.

Reading was easier when I was younger. It seemed I had more time to devote to it. But now my life has become a little more complex. My reading time has dwindled, while my reading pile has grown.

To overcome that, I decided to look up speed reading techniques. Like others I’ve talked to about this, I didn’t think speed reading was useful. Yes, I figured you could plow through readings, but what would you really remember? Besides, I wanted to savor the language, the style of the author. I hoped to make reading a truly immersive experience.

That’s all lovely, but I wasn’t doing any of it. At least not consistently. I did want to savor some books, like poetry or literature, but when it came to more academic works I was more interested in the information. And honestly, except in rare cases, I wasn’t trying to memorize every word I read.

Having overcome my own objections, I found a few speed reading articles online, including

Scientific Speed Reading: How to Read 300% Faster in 20 Minutes

How to Speed Read Like Theodore Roosevelt

6 Speed Reading Techniques from Wechsler

These sites provide examples for several speed reading techniques. Some make more sense than others (I still can’t get a handle on reading in a Z pattern), but the one technique every article suggested was using a tracker, a pen or a finger, to literally keep your reading pace focused and moving forward. My first thought was that’s how children learn to read, by slowly dragging a finger across a page. Childish (childlike?) or not, it turns out to be surprisingly effective. My pace has clearly increased simply by using a tracker (and I’ve not noticed any decrease in retention). It works for reading onscreen too, but it’s not as comfortable as reading from a page. Reading with a tracker may look weird to others, but honestly who gets style points for reading?  Apart from this guy:

I’m not saying you should plow through everything as quickly as you can. I am suggesting that every text can be read at a more appropriate and efficient pace, one which is often faster than you might normally think. With everything out there to learn and research (and lacking a positronic brain), speed reading seems like a useful tool.

How do you get through your reading pile? Does it make you feel like you’re drowning, treading, or swimming?

The Dark Side of Lighting


So it turns out early lighting had a dark side.

No, not the spooky kind. © The Trustees of the British Museum

It was inefficient, messy, and miserable (by our standards, that is). To see how time- and sanity-consuming it was, check out

The Dark Side of Lighting: Early Modern Candlelight As Reflected In Period Satires.

After reading this, I guarantee you’ll never look at a candlelit house museum the same way again.

A Dutch Fan


I’ve been reading through eighteenth-century inventories and vendues a lot lately. I keep running into listings for a “Dutch fan” (the period term for a winnowing fan, used for literally separating the wheat from the chaff). Since I’m trying to collect an image or images for everything included in the inventories (because you never when they’ll come in handy), I was happy to find this May 26th, 1774 Virginia Gazette ad for a Philadelphia-based Dutch fan maker:

Adam Ekart, fanmaker, was listed in the 1774 Philadelphia Provincial Tax. Based on his assessment, he seems to be doing pretty well for himself. We don’t know about about other years because he’s not in the Philadelphia tax records before or after ’74.

The image was a great find, as was the following in Francis Hopkinson’s 1792 Miscellaneous Essays and Occasional Writings (Volume I):

HAVING accidentally broke a lady’s fan, l ordered my servant, the next morning, to look for and purchase the best and handsomest fan he could get, and carry it to the lady with my compliments. My servant returned, after an absence of two hours, and told me that the lady refused to receive the fan; saying, that he must certainly be mistaken; that it could not be intended for her; and that she had no use for such a thing. I was surprised, and asked my servant what he had done with it.- “Sir, I have brought it home with me.” – “Well, and where is it?” – “At the door in a cart.” – “In a cart! – A fan in a cart!” I ran to the window, and saw a huge Dutch fan for winnowing corn.

You know it’s a good research day when you find the artwork you’re looking for and a joke to go with it.

The 1767 Philadelphia County Tax Assessments Online


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A sample page. Click to enlarge.

While chatting about research at work (I’m currently curator at a Pennsylvania German historic site outside of Philadelphia), a couple of visiting researchers mentioned that the University of Pennsylvania digitized the 1767 Philadelphia County tax assessments, which includes present-day Philadelphia and Montgomery Counties.

UPenn describes the book as:

Records of individual tax assessments for Philadelphia County for 1767, arranged by township or ward…. Entries list real property, livestock, and financial debts and assets, as well as often listing occupations and occasionally noting number of children. Slaves and servants are listed in some entries. A few women, mostly widows, have their own entries.

Fortunately, there is a faithful digital image of each manuscript page. Unfortunately, it is not searchable, so you’ll have to go through it page by page. But that’s the fun part.

55 Words


One of the lesser known tasks of an exhibit writer is to pack an entire story into a single short label. Veteran exhibition writers are always telling neophytes to keep it brief but pack a punch.

Power pithiness takes practice (did I mention museum folks like alliteration?), but most of us aren’t going to write a training exhibit. Instead try writing 55 word stories.

The basic premise of 55-word fiction is to tell a story in 55 words or less. Seems easy, until you remember you need an introduction, a conflict, and a resolution. Did I mention it should also be satisfying to read?

For example, try these:

The Mystery
“You needn’t look so smug, Watson.”
“Sorry, Holmes. It’s just that I believe you’re finally stumped. You’ll never unravel this crime.”
Holmes stood up and gestured emphatically with the stem of his pipe.
“I’m afraid you’re wrong. I do know who killed Mrs. Worthington.”
“Incredible! No witnesses! No clues! Who did it?”
“I did, Watson.”
A Pilgrim’s Tale
He entered sheepishly and knelt at his wife’s bedside.
“Priscilla, dearest, she meant nothing to me! Can you ever forgive me?”
She was flushed. “Yes, John. Love is forgiveness.”
“Angel!” He kissed her forehead, grabbed his musket, and left, slamming the front door.
Priscilla leaned over the bed’s edge to peer beneath.

“Miles,” she beckoned.

To learn more about 55 word stories, check out this explanation. If you’d like to read some more check out The World’s Shortest Stories.

Have fun!

Sleep in the Old Days



House museums spend a lot of time talking about the history of bedsteads, bedding, and beds but almost no time on the history of sleep. It’s not surprising since human sleep patterns don’t seem to change. Sleep has always overtaken us at night and left us completely insensate for several straight hours until we awake in the morning.

Or has it? A. Roger Ekirch has studied early modern sleep patterns and it seems things have changed. Prior to the Industrial Revolution our sleep was segmented – each night people experienced two periods of sleep separated by an hour or so of calming wakefulness which started at midnight. Turns out our modern “good night’s sleep” has only been around for about two hundred years.

If you’re interested in old time sleep, or anything to do with early modern nighttime, check out Ekirch’s book At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past. For those of you who don’t want to buy the book see Ekirch’s online article “Sleep We Have Lost: Pre-industrial Slumber in the British Isles.”

UPDATE: The BBC just (22 February 2012) posted The myth of the eight-hour sleep on their news magazine website featuring Ekirch’s work.

Inaccurate Words


Here’s one from the archives: a farb glossary I co-wrote with a friend.

Farb Floats