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Recent PhD Kathryn Falvo Talks with Richards Center about Her Dissertation and Future Research

Recent PhD Kathryn Falvo Talks with Richards Center about Her Dissertation and Future Research

Dr. Kathryn Falvo

Kathryn Rose Falvo, who joined Penn State’s department of History and the Richards Center as a graduate student in 2011, recently defended her dissertation. She will receive her PhD officially at the university’s commencement ceremonies in May. Richards Center managing director Matt Isham (’10) recently spoke with Falvo about her dissertation and future research plans.

MI: Your dissertation examined an interesting and somewhat understudied topic in nineteenth century US history. Could you please give us an overview of your project?

KF: My dissertation examined vegetarianism in the United States from 1817 to 1860. Far from a fringe movement, this original crusade against meat eating in America engaged a wide range of reformers, including abolitionists, medical practitioners, temperance advocates, evangelists, and women’s rights activists. These adherents saw controlling the American diet as a solution to the most pressing concerns of nineteenth century society. Calling vegetarianism “ultra temperance,” they understood diet as the best way to define, clarify, and control the human body. Through their work, they altered how Americans perceived the body and its relationship to political life. Ultimately, I argue that their dietary prescriptions spoke to a fear of the fluent nature of the American political body in Jacksonian America. As women’s rights advocates and abolitionists sought to expand the definition of the rights-bearing human, these vegetarian reformers sought to limit it.

MI: I like the way you describe vegetarian reformers' dietary prescriptions as an expression of "fear of the fluent nature of the American political body in Jacksonian America." Does this mean that racial and gender politics influenced reformers’ vision of proper dietary practice?

KF: Absolutely, yes. A lot of their works spoke to dietary practices in other countries and pointed to a desire to form an "American" system of eating that was superior to other countries’ eating habits. Other nations, vegetarian or not, were called barbaric. So "flesh-eating" "Tartars" were called barbarians, and vegetarian "Hindoos" were also barbarians. It was a matter of articulating whiteness through diet. This is important historiographically, because other historians of vegetarianism have pointed to the ties between the movement and anti-slavery. Those ties certainly existed – Theodore Weld, the Grimke Sisters, and William Lloyd Garrison were all ardent vegetarians. But these ties do not mean that the movement was not racist. So part of what my work does is try to explain how the ideology could be racist, while simultaneously appealing to people who were working for race reform. I do this by talking about body politics in early America. Vegetarian reformers were thus the first reformers to inculcate Americans with the idea that “we are what we eat,” a logic that, while it certainly has its flaws, remains deeply compelling.

MI: What do you hope readers will take away from your dissertation and the eventual book that will come out of this research?

KF: When I began looking at vegetarianism in the nineteenth century, I expected to find a group of people I was familiar with – people like modern vegetarians, people who used food to challenge social norms, who sought morality in eating, and who had a radical vision for society. This assumption reflects how I falsely assumed modern vegetarians are homogeneous. I certainly expected to find a sympathy for animals, which I thought was at the root of most modern vegetarian practice. But what I found was the opposite – 19th century vegetarians thought so poorly of the animal body that they wanted to draw humans in opposition to it, to reject the animal body in order to define what it meant to be a person in America. I think the difference is critical, and certainly worth exploring!

I was also shocked at the fact that I found people who used food and eating practices to propagate racism, to enforce hierarchy, and to deny the reality of people’s lives. The story that I wanted to tell, then, was about how food politics can be used both for progressive and reactionary aims, and often simultaneously. So what I want people to take away from my work, if nothing else, is that food is a tool that can be used both to challenge and support power structures. Often, it can do both at the same time. This is something we need to be aware of as we approach food reform in the modern movement.

MI: Can you tell us what drew you to such an interesting topic?

KF: My research interests come out of a deep personal commitment to both animal rights and food politics. I am an avid reader of Peter Singer, who teaches that the boundary we draw between humans and animals is arbitrary and unsustainable. In my research I found a group of people who were dedicated to defining and enforcing that arbitrary boundary. That made me wonder how food and medicine have interacted, throughout American history, to normalize hierarchy between humans and animals. And I felt it was important to trace out what the consequences of that hierarchy might mean for human relationships.

MI: Having completed your dissertation on the nineteenth century vegetarian movement, what is your next research project?

KF: One potential project I am considering looks at the role of women in food industrialization processes of the late nineteenth century. Most historians of this era see the “industrialization” of food in the late nineteenth century as a process dominated by men. In my research, I have found significant evidence that women viewed “scientific cookery” as a woman’s domain, dictated by the ideals of progressivism. In my next project, I will trace women’s complicity in (indeed initiation of) the industrialization and mass marketing of food. Most food activists in the modern movement consider this to be an inherently “bad” thing, a move away from nature and towards environmental destruction. I am interested in the reasons why, at the turn of the century, many American women saw it as their ticket to social salvation. I use the word "salvation" here to reflect the religious beliefs prominent among progressive-era women. Following in the tradition of earlier dietary reformers, they were swayed by the belief that if Americans could just eat properly, they could be rescued – not just from ill health, but from individual and social immorality. Women saw it as their responsibility (much like it was their responsibility to morally educate their families) to provide proper diet.

MI: That sounds like a very fruitful topic, following this dissertation. Thank you for talking with me today, Dr. Falvo, and congratulations on completing the PhD!

KF: Thanks for reaching out! I absolutely loved writing the dissertation. I think, it seems, I'm a food historian through and through.

Kathryn Falvo tweets about food politics from the nineteenth century to the present at @krosefalvo.

Communications, Steamship Lines, and the American Civil War by Niels Eichhorn

Communications, Steamship Lines, and the American Civil War by Niels Eichhorn

Painting by Fritz Müller of the Bremen, reproduced in Johannes Lachs, Schiffe aus Bremen: Bilder und Modelle im Focke-Museum (Bremen, Germany: Hauschild Temmen, 1994). Courtesy of

Today, a simple click and mere seconds separate the writer and reader of a message; they communicate instantaneously with one another across vast distances. In the middle of the nineteenth century, weeks could pass before a letter reached its recipient on the other side of the ocean. Civil War armies benefited from the use of telegraphs, which were still slow by modern standards, but oceans presented significant barriers.[1] By the time of the Civil War, steam power had conquered time and space on iron rails and made an impact on the high seas. Boosters and merchants in port cities along the eastern seaboard increasingly desired to enhance trade and communication by attracting regular, direct trade lines. Some Civil War era officials foresaw the potential of steamships as agents of empire. Direct communications with other countries in the Americas could offer an opportunity to outmaneuver European rivals and establish an informal U.S. empire. The Civil War witnessed a continuation of the promotion of trade links and foreshadowed the imperial connections of the decades following the war.

In 1860, cargo and people still travelled on slow sailing vessels, but the role of steamships was growing in importance. For example, in 1860, merchants and ship owners in the British Empire operated 2,337 steamships; in addition, there were 36,164 sailing vessels.[2] Lucrative mail routes and mail packet routes attracted steamers. Representatives negotiated postal agreements that not only included low postage rates but also stipulated transportation on board steamships, usually in direct communications between New York and the signatory country. For example, when the Hanseatic City of Bremen dispatched Rudolph M. Schleiden to the United States in 1853, his first task was to negotiate a postal agreement, setting postage rates at a lower price and thus hopefully drawing all German post through Bremen. The eventual result was in 1860 the emergence of Bremen’s Norddeutscher Lloyd (Lloyd), following in the footsteps of the Hamburg-Amerikanische Packetfahrt-Actien-Gesellschaft (HAPAG). Both used steamers for the transportation of mail and passengers between the North German port cities and New York.[3] Just like on other transatlantic routes, U.S.-owned business were not competitive.[4]

However, without reliable and safe service, customers might not patronize these new steamlines. Schleiden emphasized that the German steamship companies needed to provide reliable service and rent replacement ships if their own vessels suffered engine trouble, or worse.[5] During the Congressional debates surrounding passage of these agreements, Southern representatives voiced their desire for Southern states to also receive direct service to Europe.[6] Their requests assumed new urgency with secession.

The full article can be viewed on the Journal of the Civil War Era Muster blog.

Christopher Hayashida-Knight Considers How the Abolition Movement Can Inform Contemporary Political Conflicts

Christopher Hayashida-Knight Considers How the Abolition Movement Can Inform Contemporary Political Conflicts

Dr. Christopher Hayashida-Knight

In a blog post for Muster on the Journal of the Civil War Era's website, Dr. Christopher Hayashida-Knight considers how antebellum abolitionists' practice of "radical empathy" might be applied to today's divisive political conflicts. Hayashida-Knight received his PhD in December, under the direction of Center Director William Blair. His dissertation examined the abolition and post-Civil War civil rights activities of black women activists in Philadelphia. In his blog post, Hayashida-Knight notes that abolitionist women urged their audiences to practice "radical empathy" in order to bridge the racial divide and to urge the immediate abolition of slavery in the Civil War era. Follow this link to the Muster site to read entire post.

A Statistical Analysis of Visitation to National Park Service Civil War Sites During the Sesquicentennial by Nick Sacco

A Statistical Analysis of Visitation to National Park Service Civil War Sites During the Sesquicentennial by Nick Sacco

Cover of the NPS Civil War to Civil Rights Summary Report.

In early 2017, the National Park Service released an official report on its efforts to educate visitors about the American Civil War during its sesquicentennial anniversary (2011-2015). Plans to organize educational programming for the sesquicentennial started as early as 1998, when a group of Superintendents at NPS Civil War sites met to discuss ways to incorporate discussions about Civil War causation into their site interpretations. Seeking to “define a vision statement for the commemoration,” NPS leadership in 2009 explicitly called upon these sites to study and interpret the role of slavery in the coming of the Civil War. The agency’s theme for the initiative, “Civil War to Civil Rights,” embodied an expansive message that made a direct connection between the experiences of the country’s four million enslaved people during the war and the gains made during the Civil Rights movement 100 years later.[1]

“Civil War to Civil Rights” had its critics, particularly among some Civil War military enthusiasts who decried the entrance of “political” topics into interpretive programs at historical battlefield sites. The shift in focus towards discussions of slavery and emancipation during the Civil War era was certainly a marked change from the dominant narrative of the Civil War Centennial (1961-1965), where the shared valor of white Union and Confederate soldiers and their causes were placed on center stage.[2] Nevertheless, many academic historians, NPS interpretive staff, and site visitors welcomed the opportunity to contemplate a more holistic understanding of the Civil War. Indeed, the urgency of incorporating a distinctly “political” interpretation of the Civil War era was demonstrated when perhaps the most consequential event of the entire sesquicentennial occurred not at an official public history site, but at the Charleston AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Dylan Roof—himself a visitor to Civil War public history sites during the sesquicentennial—horrifically massacred nine African American parishioners in June 2015. Since that tragic event, discussions about the American Civil War—not just its history but also how that history is represented in flags, monuments, and at public history sites—have only expanded and intensified.

The Civil War to Civil Rights Commemoration Summary Report outlines a wide range of initiatives the NPS undertook at more than sixty units that interpreted the Civil War in some fashion. Many sites upgraded their museum exhibits, orientation films, and visitor centers. Some held commemorative ceremonies to honor those who died in the war, hosted battle reenactments, and featured speakers who discussed all facets of the war—military, political, religious, economic, cultural, and social—to interested audiences.[3]


The full article can be viewed on the Journal of the Civil War Era Muster blog.

Race, Citizenship, and a Search for Intellectual Honesty by Martha S. Jones

Race, Citizenship, and a Search for Intellectual Honesty by Martha S. Jones

Image of the blackboard notation at SIUE. Courtesy of the Belleville News-Democrat.

Perhaps I’ve been wrong about African American citizenship.

The anniversary year of the Fourteenth Amendment’s ratification is upon us. 2018 marks 150 years since birthright citizenship was constitutionalized. I’ve told this story many times, even recounting it in an article for the Journal of the Civil War Era.[1]

The Fourteenth Amendment established black Americans, and indeed nearly all those born in the United States, as its citizens: “all persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside.” In 1868, the legal force of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Dred Scott v. Sandford, which deemed all black people non-citizens, was overcome. The new Constitution removed all doubt about African American claims to belonging, even as the content and the character of their rights would remain (and continue to be) subject of debate.

I have regarded this interpretation as ironclad, approaching something like a truth. Unlike their Chinese American counterparts, after 1868 black Americans did not face state-sponsored schemes of exclusion. Nor did African Americans confront schemes for their removal or threats to their sovereignty, as had Native Americans. The long history of citizenship shows how people of color have not been on equal footing before the law.

But perhaps I’ve been wrong; perhaps black citizenship is not a sure thing after all.

For me, a seed of doubt was sown by a recent incident at Southern Illinois University–Edwardsville (SIUE). A professor reported entering a classroom to find this message written on the blackboard: “NO PERSON OF AFRICAN Descent shall be Citizen of the U.S.… NOR were they ever intended to be.” Dred Scott Decision <– GOOGLE IT. What’s YOUR NATIONALITY? Million dollar ?[2]

Nineteen members of SIUE’s Philosophy faculty issued a denunciation in an open letter to the SIUE community: “What was written on the board, which referred to the Dred Scott case, expressed white supremacist propaganda that is intellectually dishonest.”[3] Here, they suggested that intellectual dishonesty lies not in the characterization of the decision in Dred Scott, which did indeed draw into serious question the citizenship of black Americans. The dishonestly lies in the failure to add that Dred Scott was rendered inoperable by way of the Fourteenth Amendment’s birthright provision. It is intellectually dishonest to draw into question the citizenship of black Americans.

The complete article can be viewed on the Journal of the Civil War Era Muster blog.

JCWE Author Interview: Marise Bachand by Kristen Epps

Today we share an interview with Marise Bachand, who published an article in our December 2017 special issue, titled “Disunited Daughters of the Confederations: Creoles and Canadians at the Intersection of Nations, States, and Empires.” Marise is an associate professor at the Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières. An Americanist trained in Canada, she holds an M.A. from Université du Québec à Montréal and a Ph.D. from the University of Western Ontario. She is completing a book manuscript on the urban lives of plantation women based on her dissertation and she is researching two projects—one on white Creole women and the Americanization of Louisiana, and one on the Whig intellectual circle of Madame Le Vert from Mobile, Alabama.

Thank you so much, Marise, for talking with us. I’d like to start by hearing a little bit about how you got interested in this topic. What inspired you to undertake this project?

It started with the Creoles. In my dissertation, I included a number of francophone sugar planting women to add nuance to my study. I was puzzled to discover how little historians had written about these white women, although they were fascinated by Creole women of color. This historiographical silence, I realized, was not so much the result of some language barrier, but of the exotic and colonial place Louisiana occupies in the American imagination. I thus decided that my postdoctoral project would be dedicated to document these women’s lives as they Americanized.

Then the Canadians came in. When I was hired at UQTR in 2011, a research university with a strong tradition in Quebec studies, I was asked to develop comparative projects. I was intrigued by the fact that women were almost excluded from the Canadian political narrative of the nineteenth century, while so much work had been done in the United States to integrate them. As a feminist historian, I advocate alternative chronologies, yet I feel that there are many stories to be told within the traditional chronological framework. This project also stems from a personal experience, as is often the case with women’s history. How would my daughter, born of the marriage of a French Canadian and an English Canadian, self-identify as she grew up?

The entire interview can be viewed on the Journal of the Civil War Era Muster blog.