“A Noble Spirit Embiggens the Smallest Man”: Problematic Public History in The Simpsons

H.L. Gassmann

No one is safe from The Simpsons. Not even public historians.

In the episode “Lisa the Iconoclast” (originally aired February 18, 1996), consensus history, a new primary source, and an amateur public historian clash. As Springfield prepares for its bicentennial celebration, Lisa Simpson’s second-grade class is assigned an essay on the town’s founder, Jebediah Springfield. When she learns that Jebediah isn’t the hero he’s made out to be, she tries to convince Springfield of the historical truth. The episode puts a comical twist on major problems in the practice of public history.

The Problematic Public Historian

Lisa takes a trip to the Historical Society of Springfield to begin her research. Curator Hollis Hurlbut has collected items from Jebediah’s life. Hurlbut’s character spoofs your typical local historian. He loves Jebediah Springfield a lot…maybe a little too much.

“Some historians consider Jebediah Springfield a minor patriot, but I think you’ll find he’s easily the equal of William Dawes or even Samuel Otis.”-Hollis Hurlbut

Hollis Hurlbut

Hollis Hurlbut talking Jebediah with Lisa. Image generated using Frinkiac.

Unfortunately, Hurlbut is not a very good public historian. His mediocre museum isn’t engaging anyone – Lisa has the place to herself. Effective public history sites present multiple narratives: visitors are exposed to varying perspectives on a single topic, are encouraged to think critically, and hopefully reach their own conclusions. Hurlbut’s exhibit has a single narrative, and it’s not hard to swallow: Jebediah Springfield is a hero.

“This case holds our most treasured exhibit: objects owned and used by Jebediah. Here’s his fife, upon which he sounded the sweet note of freedom; his hatchet, with which he hacked at the chains of oppression, and his…chamber pot.” –Hollis Hurlbut

Hurlbut leaves Lisa to explore the exhibit by herself. Get ready to cringe – Lisa picks up Jebediah’s fife with her bare hands and tries to play it. Hollis, why are you leaving an eight year old alone with an open display case? Did you forget your preservation coursework? This is my public history nightmare.

Okay, one of my public history nightmares.

The Problematic Primary Source

When Lisa blows into the fife, she discovers a tattered piece of paper inside it. It’s a handwritten document that seems to be authored by Jebediah himself, entitled The Secret Confessions of Jebediah Springfield.

“Know ye who read this there is more to my life than history records. Firstly, I did not tame the legendary buffalo. It was already tame, I merely shot it. Secondly, I have not always been known as Jebediah Springfield. ‘Til 1796, I was Hans Sprungfeld, murderous pirate and the half wits of this town will never learn the truth! Ha ha ha ha ha, ha ha ha ha ha, ha ha ha ha ha!”


Jebediah Penning His Confession.jpg

Jebediah Springfield penning his confession. Image generated using Frinkaic.

Lisa discovers a new primary source that turns the historiography of Jebediah Springfield upside-down. The confession is supporting evidence for a new argument about Springfield’s founder. This is the stuff historians dream about, but as Lisa is about to discover, new sources can create public history nightmares.

The Problematic Public

Jebediah is the source of civic pride for Springfieldians. How can Lisa break it to her town that their hero is a fraud?

With this plot point, “Lisa the Iconoclast” taps into a common public history dilemma. Well-trained historians recognize that even historical figures with the best PR teams have flaws and avoid hero-worship in their arguments. It’s easy to communicate difficult ideas about “Great Men” (and women!) in a research paper. It’s hard to disappoint someone who feels a connection to history because they have been exposed to hero-worship or mythology. And, as Lisa learns, it’s even harder to market a challenging narrative to people who are more interested in a happy history than a true one.

“Lisa, honey, when my family first came to this state they had a choice of living in Springfield or Stenchburg. You know why they chose Springfield? Because everyone knows Jebediah Springfield was a true American hero, end of story!” –Marge Simpson

Jebediah and Hans.jpg

Lisa compares Springfield and Sprungfeld. Image generated using Frinkiac.

Lisa’s essay is titled “Jebediah Springfield: Super Fraud.” Her teacher, Ms. Hoover, gives her an F.

“This is nothing but dead white male bashing from a PC thug! It’s women like you who keep the rest of us from landing a husband!” –Ms. Hoover

Lisa comes home in tears. Homer tries to comfort his daughter (“I’ve been called a greasy thug too, and it never stops hurting”). He encourages her to enlist the help of Hurlbut. But even the professional public historian is unreceptive! Blinded by hero-worship, Hurlbut insists the confession is a forgery. When Lisa presses him, he bans her from the historical society.

Hurlbut, again, is failing. If public historians want their “public” to be receptive to them, they need to be just as receptive to the ideas of their “public.” Remember: a degree in history doesn’t automatically make your contributions to the field valuable. Hurlbut must have forgotten this, because he’s a total snob. Effective public historians engage non-historians, encourage their historical inquiries, and certainly don’t ban 8-year-olds from their museums.

Lisa refuses to give up. She prints flyers proclaiming the truth, but Apu won’t let her hang them in the Kwik-E-Mart. None of the regulars at Moe’s are interested either.

“I support most any prejudice you can name, but your hero-phobia sickens me!” –Moe

An outraged Moe reports Lisa to the Town Jubilation Committee. Lisa appears before the committee, which consists of the most powerful and influential men of Springfield: Mayor Quimby, Chief Wiggum, Rev. Lovejoy, Principal Skinner, and Dr. Hibbert. They denounce her as misinformed and unpatriotic. Unfortunately, the corporate sponsors overhear. When it comes to festivals of civic pride, big money can be involved. Shocked and offended by Lisa’s narrative, and they back out of their financial commitment to the bicentennial.

“A pirate? Well, that’s hardly the image we want for Long John Silver’s!”

The Problematic Ending

Jebediah’s body is exhumed. George Washington visits Lisa in a dream. Lisa discovers the missing piece of that famous George Washington painting. A lot happens. Watch the episode.

On the day of the bicentennial celebration, Hurlbut admits to Lisa that she’s been right about Jebediah all along and that all of Springfield needs to know the truth. Standing on a stage in the center of town, Lisa looks out into the crowd that has gathered for the festival.

“I did a lot of research on Jebediah Springfield and…Jebediah Springfield was…Jebediah was…great. I, um, just wanted to say that I’ve done some research and, uh…he was great!”

And the crowd breaks into thunderous applause.

he was great

Springfield reacts to Lisa’s speech. Image generated using Frinkiac.

This moment is painful yet admirable: Lisa reminds us that even the historical truth has a time and place. There is a better day than Springfield’s bicentennial to unhinge the civic identity of the town. It’s been 200 years – what’s another few weeks?

But when Hurlbut asks Lisa why she didn’t say her piece, her reply is unsettling.

“The myth of Jebediah has value, too. It’s brought out the best in everyone in this town. Regardless of who said it, a noble spirit embiggens the smallest man.”

Except it does matter who said it. History is uncomfortable, it’s challenging, sometimes it hurts. Public historians can’t shy away from it. We don’t concede to consensus histories. They don’t bring out the best in us. They prevent us from grappling with complex realities.

The Simpsons is a cartoon, but the battles are all too real. Public historians in the workforce are caught between truth and money, truth and politics, truth and pride, hard truth and easy truth.

Lisa, our amateur public historian, comes up against the public opinion, political machine, law enforcement, religious power, and even the historical authority of Springfield. This is all meant to be comical, and part of the joke is that the small-town Americans of Springfield take Jebediah way too seriously.

But this public-historian-in-training is arguing that it kind of is serious.



“Lisa the Iconoclast.” Written by Jonathan Collier. Directed by Mike B. Anderson. Originally aired on FOX on February 18, 1996. Released on DVD on December 19, 2005. The Simpsons: The Complete Seventh Season. Los Angeles, CA: 20th Century Fox.

“A Noble Spirit Embiggens the Smallest Man (The Simpsons).” Youtube video, 1:16.  Uploaded on November 26, 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FcxsgZxqnEg.

All images generated using the search engine Frinkiac. Created by Paul Kehrer, Sean Schulte, and Allie Young.

Histatistorian? An Outsider’s Look at Quantitative Data

H. L. Gassmann

This semester, I took a risk and enrolled in an elective outside the history department: Introduction to Statistical Methods. As an undergrad, I excelled in my statistics course and tutored the topic for a summer. Since starting my MA in history here at Villanova, I’ve been a little disturbed by the way some historians toss statistics into their books with very little explanation. I’ve also sensed that when we discuss an author’s use of statistics in class, none of us are really sure what exactly we are talking about. I hoped to grapple with statistics in a meaningful way so that, at the very least, I could know enough to know that I don’t know enough.

It didn’t take too many weeks surrounded by MA candidates in Statistics to realize that I didn’t know very much. When my professor gave me the opportunity to complete a project analyzing the use of statistics in a historical study, I jumped at the chance. After bouncing ideas off professors and peers, I decided to dig into Edward Baptist’s 2014 The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism. Keep reading to find out what I learned.

The Argument

Baptist’s book has inspired interdisciplinary discussions. Baptist argues slave labor was an extremely efficient, productive system that was responsible for the success of American capitalism. This idea conflicts with much of the historiography on the economics of slavery. For decades historians have claimed slavery was already an outdated and inefficient labor system during the Civil War. Baptist roots his argument in quantitative data, utilizing a few different databases and complementing his text with charts and graphs. However, his use and application of quantitative data has elicited criticism. I examined one of Baptist’s quantitative sources to shed light the author’s manipulation of statistics regarding picking productivity. By ignoring characteristics of the sample data and strategically choosing pieces of the study, Baptist inappropriately uses a regression model as evidence for his argument.

The Half Has Never Been Told
Cover via amazon.com.

Baptist depends on “Biological Innovation and Productivity Growth in the Antebellum Cotton Economy” by Alan L. Olmstead and Paul W. Rhode as evidence to show that the quantity of cotton picked per slave per day increased between three and four times from 1800 and 1862. Baptist uses their scatter plot showing a positive association between the mean daily pounds of cotton picked per worker on southern US plantations and time (Panel A, which I’ll show you later on). In the same study, Olmstead and Rhode create a multiple regression model. Based on their model, they argue that “the increase in picking productivity was primarily due to the spread of improved cotton varieties” (Olmstead, 920). Baptist, however, presents Olmstead and Rhode’s data while ignoring their conclusions. He asserts that the increase demonstrated by Olmstead and Rhode is a result of elevated torture tactics by slaver masters. Slaves picked more productively, he argues, due to a heightened fear of the harsher punishments they would endure for slow work.

The Data

Olmstead and Rhode collected picking data from documents they found in public archives and private papers across the United States. These documents included plantation journals, diaries, cotton books, ledgers, and letters. They used 704,800 individual picking entries from 142 different plantations over the course of 509 plantation crop-years from 1801-1862. Olmstead and Rhode explain that their sample is not “distributed uniformly with cotton production over space and time,” and that the “quanitity and quality of the data differ greatly from plantation to plantation” (Olmstead and Rhode, 1146). For example, some plantations are represented with a record from one picking season. Others have records from multiple picking seasons over the course of ten to twenty years. Olmstead and Rhode note that more data was available during the later years considered in their study: 407 of the 509 plantation crop-years are recorded between 1840-1862. Geographically, 474 records are from southern US cotton plantations while 35 come from the Sea Islands.

For this retrospective observational study, Olmstead and Rhode’s data collection strategy was consistent with that of most historians. Because they had to work with pieces of the existing historical record that they could access, their method can most closely be identified as convenience sampling and is unlikely to be random. This method is not considered good statistical practice, but may be the only viable option for analyzing plantation records from the 19th century. Historical records like the ones Olmstead and Rhode utilized are always suspect for measurement bias. It is difficult to know whether plantation managers, overseers, or whoever else was keeping plantation records may have fudged their numbers or falsified their accounts 150-200 years ago. Historians dealing with primary sources like these should use the archival resources available to them while thinking critically about how possible biases are influencing their analysis.

The Methods

Olmstead and Rhode analyze their data in two main ways. First, they calculated the mean daily picking rates for a plantation crop-year for each individual plantation. These averages are depicted on two scatter plots, where the y-axis represents the year and the x-axis represents the daily pounds of cotton picked per worker. One scatter plot is dedicated to southern United States cotton plantations (Panel A), while a second represents Sea Island plantations (Panel B). The data points are labeled with location abbreviations to indicate geographical placement. Both graphs show a positive association between year and daily pounds of cotton picked per worker. The figures visually demonstrate that the mean daily pounds of cotton picked per worker increases dramatically in the southern US from 1801-1862, while the mean daily pounds of cotton picked per worker sees only a slight increase in the Sea Islands.

Olmstead and Rhode
Olmstead, Alan L. and Paul W. Rhodes. “Biological Innovation and Productivity Growth in the Antebellum Cotton Economy.” Journal of Economic History 68, no. 4 (2008): 1148.

Olmstead and Rhode also created a multiple regression model of the log of mean daily picking rates (Table 2). In a multiple regression model, one response variable is related to many explanatory variables. In this model, the response variable is the log of the mean daily picking rates. Olmstead and Rhode first relate the log of mean daily picking rates to time trends separately for southern US plantations and Sea Island plantations. A second regression adds the log of the average number of pickers per day, again separating plantations by location. US plantations are treated with a third regression that relates time, the log average numbers of pickers per day, the percentage of picking observations for males, and the percentage of picking observations during non-peak months. The third regression also includes a categorical variable: whether the plantation was in a New South state (AL, AK, FL, LA, MS, TN, TX). New South = 1 if the plantation was in one of these states, while New South = 0 if it was not. They calculated r2 for each regression, which is the proportion of variability in the response that is accounted for by the regression model.

Regression model

Olmstead, Alan L. and Paul W. Rhodes. “Biological Innovation and Productivity Growth in the Antebellum Cotton Economy.” Journal of Economic History 68, no. 4 (2008): 1149.

To create this regression model, Olmstead and Rhode calculated the regression coefficient for each pairing of an explanatory variable with the response variable. In a multiple regression model, the regression coefficient represents the average change in the response variable for one unit of change in a single explanatory variable when the other explanatory variables do not change. They also calculate the constant, which is the expected value of the response variable when the explanatory variable is equal to 0. The model for a multiple regression is written as yi = B0 + B1xi1 + B2xi2 + . . . + Bkxik +ei. To this point, multiple regression models are similar to simple linear regression models. However, finding B0, B1,…Bk is more complicated in multiple regression models. To minimize the sum of squared residuals for multiple regressions, a set of calculations called normal equations must be solved.

The Problem

In their study, Olmstead and Rhode address the possibility that slave-drivers may have been exploiting their slaves more efficiently, thus increasing productivity. After testing for the significance of the coefficient of the year and the log of the picking crew size, they found the relationship had a statistically insignificant effect at the 10% level. Their conclusion is that “managerial innovations…unlikely accounted for much of the increase in picking efficiency” (Olmstead and Rhode, 1143). It is debatable whether this coefficient is truly representative of the increased violence Baptist argues for, but it is alarming that Baptist uses this data without acknowledging this conclusion.

In Olmstead’s review of The Half Has Never Been Told, he criticizes Baptist for manipulating the statistical model he and Rhode developed. He takes issue with Baptist’s selective use of their data: Baptist reproduces their figure that shows productivity increasing dramatically on southern US cotton plantations (Panel A), but does not include their figure that shows the productivity on Sea Island plantations changing very little (Panel B). Olmstead argues that masters on the Sea Island would have had access to the same torture techniques as their peers in the southern US, and would have implemented them to match southern output. He notes that the data had a pattern: picking rates were low at the beginning and end of a season, with the most productivity in the middle and variations throughout attributed to weather. An individual slave’s productivity, he says, varied 30% or more on an given day. These characteristics support the idea of improved cotton varieties, but do not match up nicely with Baptist’s theory. In Olmdstead’s words, “it is impossible to reconcile his story with the data” (Olmstead, 920).

The Conclusion

After examining Olmstead and Rhode’s “Biological Innovation and Productivity Growth in the Antebellum Cotton Economy,” it is evident that Baptist manipulated their study to support his argument. He used one of their visuals to support his claim of increased productivity in cotton picking. He did not take characteristics of the sample into account, ignored their discussion of the Sea Islands, and discounted much of their statistical analysis.

So what does it all mean? We don’t need to completely discount Baptist’s argument because of this – he has many other sources, primary and secondary, to take into consideration. But did Baptist intentionally pick and choose from Olmstead and Rhode’s study, or did he just not quite understand what he was looking at? Either way, it seems odd to include a secondary source that explicitly rejects your argument…as a supporting argument.

My main take-away from my foray into graduate level statistics this semester is a little piece of advice: if you don’t understand something, ask for help from someone who does.

Works Cited

Baptist, Edward. The Half Has Never Been Told. New York: Basic Books, 2014.

Olmstead, Alan L. “Roundtable of Reviews for The Half Has Never Been Told.” Journal of Economic History 75, no. 3 (2015): 919-931.

Olmstead, Alan L. and Paul W. Rhodes. “Biological Innovation and Productivity Growth in the Antebellum Cotton Economy.” Journal of Economic History 68, no. 4 (2008): 1123-1171.

Ott, R. Lyman and Michael T. Longnecker. An Introduction to Statistical Methods and Data Analysis. 6th ed. Independence, KY: Duxbury Press, 2008.

Bon Voyage, 23: A Sentimental Farewell to the Historic SEPTA Route

H. L. Gassmann

On Sunday, November 29th at 2:15 am, SEPTA’s route 23 made its last trip from South Philly to Chestnut Hill.

It’s hard to overestimate the importance of this route. Southbound, the bus began in Chestnut Hill and traveled down Germantown Avenue. Germantown Ave is home to some of the city’s most historic buildings, too large in number, various in purpose, and grand in significance and style to fairly recount here. Its major stretch was once Philadelphia’s center of high-end shopping, but has been decimated in recent decades by the prominence of Center City. The avenue has been the subject of many historical and sociological studies, most notably Elijah Anderson’s Code of the Street.

When the 23 turned down 12th street, passengers experienced Philly, north to south. If you had a window seat, the route provided a magnificent tour. It was truly, as Hidden City’s Brad Maule wrote, “a perfect dissection of the city… along the way, the entire city passes by, a study in diversity, socioeconomics, architecture, history, people, neighborhoods: Chestnut Hill, Mt. Airy, Germantown, Nicetown, Tioga, Fairhill, Temple University, West Poplar, Callowhill, Chinatown, Wash West, Bella Vista, South Philadelphia.”

Despite being an iconic bus route, the 23 began as a trolley. Its earliest iteration began in 1887, between Germantown and 8th and Dauphin. It extended into South Philly by 1890. The route evolved over the following decades, but by 1913 it closely resembled the 23 of yesterday. This 1974 history of route 23 claimed it was “the longest known trolley car route in the world.” In 1992, the trolleys were pulled and passengers on the 23 traveled instead by bus. The trolley tracks are still set into the streets.

But from now on, the 23 runs from Bethlehem Pike and Germantown Avenue to 12th and Walnut on its southbound trip. Northbound buses travel up 11th Street to Germantown Ave. Passengers can transfer freely between the 23 and the new 45 bus. The 45 operates northbound on 11th and southbound on 12th between 12th and Noble and Broad and Oregon.

Prior to this split, the 23 was SEPTA’s longest bus route. It boasted the most ridership: 21,671 passengers on a given weekday, according to SEPTA’s 2015 route statistics. But the bus also elicited the most complaints from riders, and in 2014 was recorded as being late 64% of the time. Maule adds that it has the most reported “pass-ups,” which is when a bus fills up and has to drive past hopeful riders waiting at their stops. Since the 23 that skipped your stop was probably already late, and you now had to wait for another 23 which would probably also be late, it was easy for the 23 to ruin your plans. Since the route was so long, it was difficult for the bus to make up time and get back on schedule once it was late. SEPTA officials are hoping that by splitting the route into two buses, they can alleviate some of these pains.

So why are so many Philadelphians feeling nostalgic about the split? For long-time residents, this bus has impacted the way they experienced the city from childhood to adulthood. Sure, it was always late, and it was always packed through North Philly and Germantown. But for decades it was a primary way for Philadelphians to travel between Chestnut Hill and South Philly. I asked a good friend who grew up in Germantown and later moved to South Philly how she felt about the passing of the full-length 23. “It’s sad,” she said. “Home was always along the 23.”

I am a relatively recent transplant to the City of Brotherly Love, having moved to North Philly in 2012, but it has been enough time to develop a connection to route 23. I remember Sundays standing on 11th and Cecil B. Moore as an undergrad at Temple, waiting for the northbound 23 to meet up with my brother who lived in Germantown. On Sundays, the bus was scheduled to come every 20 minutes, but it wasn’t uncommon to see two or even three on the same block at once. Some folks must have been waiting at their stop for an hour. The 23 was my formal education on Philadelphia north of Temple U, where I breathed in neighborhoods I suspect too many Temple students have never seen. My trips inspired me to read, to research, to get my boots on the ground – what was that building? Before it was a Walgreens? Before it was abandoned? Before it was a vacant lot? And what I learned inspired me to pursue neighborhood histories, building histories, public history, and an education that will hopefully help somebody someday.

Since moving to West Philly, the 23 has become less relevant to my trips. But Saturday, I trekked down to Broad and Oregon to see the full route through. I had never done this before, having always picked up the 23 on Temple’s campus. It was as interesting and inspiring as I had expected. From South Philly, sometimes sparse, sometimes too hip; to Center City, with its usually upscale and always frenetic atmosphere; to all the North Philly neighborhoods, the beautiful and the bombed-out; to historic Germantown and the high-end Chestnut Hill; what persists is the feeling that even Philly’s bleakest neighborhoods have been, can be, and will be great again.