Today, we find history in a trash bin. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
I had a friend in college --
a baseball fan. Every day he studied ERAs and
batting averages in the paper. He knew everything
about baseball. One day I asked which games he went
to. He glared down his nose and said, "Go to! I
don't go anywhere near baseball games." Then he
pointed to the paper and said, "Baseball is here.
Baseball is statistics."
History's like that for most people -- events and
facts. But sooner or later the historian wants to
go to the game -- to really see and experience the
past. What was it like to live in ancient Rome, in
a medieval castle, or, in this case, in a Southern
Texas is fairly young. Only in Galveston can you
find 19th-century antebellum elegance. The old
Ashton house is a mansion that survived the
terrible 1900 hurricane to tell us its story. Urban
archaeologists Texas Anderson and Roger Moore show
how to wring that story from it.
An old privy, long since covered over and
forgotten, is their main window into the past --
not just an outhouse, but rather a general trash
dump. A huge hole in the ground, no longer septic,
it contains layers of trash that reveal the quality
of life from the late 1850s up through the late
Victorian period. The house was built by James
Brown, a wealthy businessman. He kept slaves before
the Civil War, and the house is very well made
because he used the work of slave craftsmen instead
of manufactured materiel.
Galveston rode out the Civil War better than most
of the South, and so did Brown. After the war he
furnished the house with fine European porcelain.
His family ate inch-thick T-bone and porterhouse
steaks -- they disdained chicken and pork. They
used elegant wines and cognacs, but not hard
liquor. The ladies imported French perfume and
expensive facial astringents. Brown's business
involved selling the new 19th-century technologies
to the West. His mansion displayed all the latest
stuff -- the first flush toilets in Galveston and
the first electric lights -- only a few years after
Edison had introduced them.
Sifting through century-old detritus, we begin to
sense the finery and feel of the place and to know
the actual people. We begin to really understand
the combined tyranny and vision that Brown
represented. To merely say that he exploited slaves
or brought technology to the West is like trying to
see baseball in newspaper statistics. But the
intimacy of an accurate look into the drawing room
or the servants quarters is understanding of a
whole different order -- even when we see it
through a trash heap.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds