Shaping things to come: Why Cambridge history matters during Covid-19, and how to play a role
As the archivist at the Cambridge Historical Society, I spend a lot of my time immersed in history. I collect and share stories and support researchers who are looking to do the same. I transcribe letters penned during the American Revolution, pore over the pages of 19th century journals and preserve photographs that show Cambridge in the days of streetcars and soda fountains. Over the years, drawing connections between past and present has become second nature. In recent weeks, a few stories from Cambridge’s past have occupied my mind.
John “Jack” Emerson, a New Yorker, lacked formal education, having dropped out of high school. But his interest in mechanical engineering and his brothers’ connections to Harvard landed him in Cambridge, where he began developing products for the medical field in a shop at 15 Brattle St. Emerson issued an improved version of the iron lung in 1931, amid the polio epidemic. According to his son, the improved model premiered at a trade show after being rejected by a team at Harvard. Jack Emerson is still lauded as a major innovator of medical technology. Less than 2 miles away but nearly nine decades later, a team of engineers and doctors at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology recently designed a low-cost, open-source ventilator to ease the shortage facing many hospitals.
Scrolling through Instagram posts picturing handmade – and even fashion-forward – masks, I’m reminded of The Bee, a women’s organization that emerged in West Cambridge in the early days of the Civil War. The organization’s members knit socks and sewed bandages for soldiers, wartime work that waxed and waned over 60 years until The Bee disbanded in 1931. Often meeting at homes along Brattle Street, these women, who were not allowed to serve as soldiers in the military, always found a way to contribute to relief efforts.
I don’t draw these comparisons to imply that history repeats itself. In fact, I’d argue that age-old expression can be problematic and cause us to deny individual agency, oversimplify complex histories and even make false predictions. Cambridge has seen pandemics in the past, but shifts in commerce, communication, travel and technology render today’s experiences unique. What we are collectively experiencing is alarming and overwhelming. And it has never happened. Right now, we are making history together.
In this unfamiliar time, I believe our shared history can ground us. Jack Emerson’s story reminds me that innovation stems from determination and, often, from crises. The women of The Bee highlight how creative thinking can provide material relief. It has been comforting to see these important lessons appear in today’s headlines. In late March, I was in touch with medical professionals seeking to track down Emerson’s designs for engineering research. Some lessons, case in point, are concrete, while others resonate emotionally. What do you take away from Jack Emerson’s story? Does reflecting on The Bee change the way you view your ability to contribute during this turbulent time? I don’t know about you, but right now, having stories I can turn to that better my understanding of this unprecedented experience is a significant comfort. It can’t fix everything, but it can help me reframe things.
At the Cambridge Historical Society, we do not do history for history’s sake. Nostalgia can be nice for some, but that’s simply not what we’re about. We do history because we recognize that our past affects our present and, in turn, what happens today will affect the generations that follow us. We reflect on our collective past and engage with Cambridge residents to work toward a brighter future. Right now, building a better Cambridge feels critical.
There are countless lessons to be learned from history. That’s why I love it. And that’s also why it’s crucial that we tell our story. One day, in some unimaginable setting, many years from now, someone will look back to today. And consciously or not, they’ll be looking to learn from us.
I spend a lot of my time wondering about the stories that I haven’t read – stories that were lost, destroyed, or simply never recorded. I’m grateful for the evidence we have, but I long for a more complete historical record – one that includes more voices of individuals and groups who have been unjustly marginalized in society and the stories we tell about it.
In recent decades, researchers have become resourceful. We’ve learned to read between lines, consider sources creatively and examine critically stories that many haven’t ever questioned. As an archivist, one of my goals is to ensure that researchers writing their dissertations on Covid-19 several decades from now won’t have to work quite so hard.
At the Cambridge Historical Society, we are stewards of our community’s history. We are responsible for the historical record, and during this crisis, we aim to capture our city’s history as it happens. To that end, we’re working to document Cambridge residents’ experiences with Covid-19. And we need you to help us do that. Whether you’ve experienced the swell in xenophobia or you’re in recovery from the disease. Whether you’re a frontline worker struggling to make ends meet or you find yourself thriving in quarantine and developing a knack for sourdough. It all matters. Because you matter.
We want to know what you’re going through, and we want to preserve your story for future generations to learn from. So please consider adding your voice to our Covid-19 collection. We’re collecting new stories every day, and we want yours to be among them. If you’re a Cambridge resident, your story matters to us. Plain and simple.
To add your voice to the Cambridge Historical Society’s Covid-19 collection, visit our website.
Maggie Hoffman is archivist at the Cambridge Historical Society.