Publick Occurrences 2.0

April 12, 2013

Remembering Jack Larkin

Filed under: Historians,Historic sites,Joe Adelman's Posts — Joseph M. Adelman @ 6:31 am

Some sad news to pass along for the early American history community, which many of you may already know. Jack Larkin, the retired Chief Historian at Old Sturbridge Village, passed away on March 29 after a battle with cancer. His obituary attests to his enormously productive career:

Jack was born in Chicago Illinois on June 26, 1943 to his parents, Irene and Jack Larkin. He graduated as valedictorian of Mount Carmel High School in 1961, received his AB from Harvard College in 1965 and his MA in American Studies from Brandeis University. He was a VISTA worker in the Missouri Ozarks, where he enrolled many people during the initial implementation of Medicare; He was also a Head Start Teacher in Brockton, Ma. In 1971 he began working at Old Sturbridge Village, Sturbridge, Massachusetts, first as Assistant Director of Museum Education, and continued for 38 years in many roles — Acting Director of Museum Education, Researcher, Director of Research, Director of Research, Collections and Library, Chief Historian, and Museum Scholar. He retired in 2009 as Chief Historian and Museum Scholar Emeritus. He was also Affiliate Professor of History at Clark University from 2004 to the present. He was a Fellow at the American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, Ma. from 2011-2012. From 1971 to his death, he was active in the education of middle and high school history teachers. From 2009-2013 he was principal faculty member for “Teaching American History” projects for the Polk county Schools in Lakeland, Florida and the Worcester Public Schools in collaboration with the American Antiquarian Society. He received numerous awards, including the Kidger Award for Outstanding Scholarship from the New England History Teachers Association in 1999, the President’s Award from Old Sturbridge Village in 1996. His book, The Reshaping of Everyday Life, 1790-1840, was a distinguished finalist for the P.E.N/Martha Albrand Award for nonfiction in 1988. His publications are extensive and include the following books: The Reshaping of Everyday Life 1790-1840; Where We Lived, Discovering the Places we Once Called Home; Where we Worked: a Celebration of America’s Workers and the Nation they Built; and with Caroline Sloat, A Place in My Chronicle: A New edition of the Diary of Christopher Columbus Baldwin, 1829-1835.

I got to know him as part of the 2011-12 class of fellows at the American Antiquarian Society, where Jack spent a year researching the life of nineteenth-century artist David Claypoole Johnston for a planned biography. As those of you who’ve spent time at AAS know, time there is often as valuable for the conversations and community around the lunch table as for the archival treasures that await in the reading room. That was certainly true of our group, and Jack was central. Recently retired (and obviously loving it), he would regale us with stories about his time in graduate school, his career at Old Sturbridge (with the occasional hint at secrets unknown to the public …) and most often his family. To be honest, I feel like I know as much about his sons, his grandchildren, even his mother-in-law as I do about his work. He was a generous colleague, eagerly offering questions and advice at research presentations, and perfectly willing to drop what he was doing and chat about the work of others.

Several of the Jack’s colleagues at AAS, as part of a conversation thread remembering him, have offered thoughts to share in this space, which appear below. Others who knew Jack either personally or simply through his work are welcome to add their memories below in the comments.

John Demos

With the death of Jack Larkin, we—his fellow-historians—lose a key contributor to the workings of our discipline.  Jack was a careful researcher, shrewd analyzer, and gifted writer.  But most of all he was a master teacher.  His teaching spanned a uniquely broad range: he was at home in the classroom, in museums, in the larger arena of public history, and in both scholarly and general-audience publication.  His books on everyday life brought the fruits of modern scholarship to the attention of readers of many different ages, interests, and backgrounds.  His commitment to spreading and deepening historical knowledge was itself the outgrowth of an extraordinarily generous spirit; in him understanding and giving were inextricably joined.  We mourn his loss, we miss him, we are grateful for all he was and did.

Caroline Sloat

Rereading Children Everywhere (in 1987-88 one of the first books I edited at Old Sturbridge Village) this past week reminded me of Jack’s impressive ability to put himself into the story and then tell it with the right amount of historical detail and just the right pace to engage a reader, lay or academic. This voice permitted him to teach and write using objects as evidence with the same kind of authority as a text that could be footnoted.

Jack’s intellect and curiosity were prodigious: he could have taught anywhere in the land in either the sciences or the humanities. Coming from Harvard and Brandeis (via VISTA and with a strong sense of social justice), he joined the staff of an outdoor history museum that was reshaping itself into a center of scholarship of New England rural life. At OSV we used objects and visual sources before they became broadly employed in academic teaching and writing. But we weren’t doing much academic writing. We were about presenting an authentic experience for museum visitors, be they school groups or families. Jack also excelled at writing persuasive grant applications to the NEH, other foundations, and generous donors. Museum exhibits, interpretation plans, and school programs were the scholarly outcomes of this work. For Jack, books came into the mix much later.

As he developed projects at Sturbridge, he depended on Barbara’s insights. With an adjacent office in the village’s Research Department, I was also fortunate enough to be in on work as it emerged and read early drafts of the Reshaping of Everyday Life.  I remember sharing in the excitement of Harper and Row’s editing process, followed by book design and publication and such wonderful reception—a review in the Sunday New York Times Book Review and a trip to the Big Apple for the P.E.N/Martha Albrand Award ceremony when Reshaping was a nonfiction finalist. This recognition for Jack was richly deserved and helped bring attention to the historical work being done at Sturbridge.

After we both left the Village we kept in touch, discussing our work and our families that eventually included our grandchildren. Jack taught the undergraduate seminar at the Society twice; then as John Hench and I began thinking of historical publications to mark the Society’s bicentennial, we could not resist the prospect of creating a new edition of the diary of Christopher Columbus Baldwin. Jack and I had shared a long history with Baldwin, who was a key informant on many subjects for OSV interpretation and, let’s not mince words here, charming besides. Jack was intrigued when we proposed the project and his scholarship added significant value to the new transcription. For example, he and his brother-in-law hypothesized about the debilitating medical condition that prompted the Council to send Baldwin on a western tour for a rest while observing the mounds of Southern Ohio.

Our worlds of shared scholarship and friendship converged again during the year leading up to my retirement when he won an AAS-NEH fellowship to tackle the life and artistic legacy of David Claypoole Johnston (family papers and publications containing his work that included Scraps, issued between1829 and 1841). When friends asked me recently how he came to choose this topic, I responded that it was the kind of knotty problem that Jack thrived on untangling. He came very close to doing so during his year at AAS. The timing of his pancreatic cancer could not have been worse, for although some of his work will be published (see, Common-place, April 2013), much remains to be done. His friends are committed to gathering up the scraps, and crafting a volume—if not just as he would have done it, certainly in the spirit of sharing Jack’s sympathy for and insights into the life of an observer on the ground in their shared time period, the first half of the nineteenth century.

Yvette Piggush

Jack contributed substantially to setting a collaborative and truly friendly atmosphere for the cohort of fellows who spent 2011-2012 with him at the AAS.  Every morning he lighted up our underground cubicles with his cheerful “hello!’  His enthusiasm about his fascinating research on D. C. Johnston was infectious.  But he was also so curious about what everyone else was doing and contributed generously to all of our projects.  Plus, he had the best camera, for which I was very grateful since he let me borrow it constantly to take photos for my work.  He loved his family more than anything in the world.  He shared pictures of his grandchildren and loved to hear about our own families.  During lunch time, Jack told us wonderful stories of his unlikely life journey from the Irish South Side of Chicago to Harvard and New England.  He was always optimistic and always forgetting his hat.

Carolyn Eastman

Long before I met Jack Larkin, I channeled his voice in my classes. Lifting liberally from his The Reshaping of Everyday Life, I used his information to give my lectures depth and texture—but I also used his phrasing, because it was so funny and felicitous. To be frank, I plagiarized Jack’s humor and the way he relished interesting historical detail long before I ever set eyes on the man.

When I use Jack’s chapter on early American homes in class, my students’ mouths fall open, appalled that an entire family might live in a single ten-by-fourteen-foot house and sleep within a few inches of one another. They are likewise fascinated by early Americans’ lack of underwear. But the very best is his description of personal hygiene, drying babies’ diapers by the fire, and “chamber lye.” I have Jack’s words on this topic memorized, because they’re so effective: “Early Americans lived in a world of dirt, insects, and pungent smells,” I say to my classes, lifting directly from Chapter 4. “Men’s and women’s working clothes were stiff with dirt and dried sweat, and men’s shirts were stained with yellow rivulets of tobacco juice.” And then I describe the potent smell of concentrated urine—the above-mentioned “chamber lye”—that early Americans used as a powerful cleaner. “Eeeuuww!” they respond, and we are all delighted.

I sometimes hear later that they have reported this news to their parents, or that these descriptions made for a memorable conversation at Thanksgiving dinner.

After years of pretending to my classes that his words were my own, I got the chance to meet Jack when we both arrived at the American Antiquarian Society in July 2011 to take up year-long fellowships, and to inhabit offices across the hall from one another deep in the bowels of the building. I confessed my plagiarism and told him how much my students love this material, only to have him very kindly assure me that this is precisely how one ought to use it.

For twelve months, those of us in residence got to know him—especially over our daily brown-bag lunches. We heard about his new research discoveries as he found more material on David Claypoole Johnston, the early nineteenth-century engraver and social satirist whose life and work Jack examined while at the AAS. We heard even more about his beloved family, about his childhood in working-class Chicago (indeed, he still had a good layer of Chicago and Midwestern tones in his accent, despite having left as that city as an eighteen-year-old to attend college), and how he fell in love with social history as a grad student at Brandeis. He loved to make fun of himself, so we heard about his klutziness, particularly after he came in one day with an alarmingly large bandage on his forehead.

In these conversations he was quintessentially Jack: always delighted by the world and interested in other people, always impossibly modest about himself, always eager to meet the AAS’s newest fellows and hear about their research. You can’t come away from those conversations without the impression that he found something to laugh about every single day.

In the past few days since his death as I’ve read about his life and career, I’ve spent a goodly amount of time at the Old Sturbridge Village website—particularly in its “Kids Zone” section, where they feature a column called “Ask Jack.” Decorated with an animated cartoon of Jack’s face, which sometimes moves a little bit to grin or wink at us, this column features questions from real children who want to know more about history.

“How often did people take baths in the 1830s?” one child asks.

“Almost never!” Jack replies.

“Did kids in the 1830s make snowmen like we do?” Another asks. In response, Jack confesses that he didn’t initially know the answer to this question—but retraces the steps he took through books in the research library to find out. “They did, but they called them ‘snow statues,’” he explains, and goes on to describe how different they looked all those years before the codification of the Frosty model of the corncob pipe and button nose.

“Ask Jack” is, in short, utterly delightful.

I have one set of memories of Jack’s voice, beyond my long reliance on his writing, all our lunchtime conversations, and the delightful kid-oriented Q&A of “Ask Jack.” These come from our many hours back in the quiet corner where our offices stood next to each other—an area so quiet, in fact, that I often failed to hear Jack come up to my open door and pop his head in. And he was just enough hard of hearing to misjudge the sound level of his voice.

“Hi, Carolyn!” he would bellow, and I would jump out of my seat at the sudden noise.

And then we would both laugh at our own foolishness. Oh, how I miss Jack already, with that laugh, that love of life and the people in it, and that voracious appetite for learning new things. My sole consolation is that now, when I plagiarize his voice from his writings to get that visceral reaction from my students, I’ll do so with a vivid memory of his real voice and the charisma of the man. He’s gone too soon.



  1. Friends and colleages remember Jack Larkin, Chief Historian @oldsturbridge & scholar of everyday life in early US:

    Comment by Joseph Adelman (@jmadelman) — April 12, 2013 @ 6:47 am

  2. remembrances of Jack Larkin, who passed away late last month: via @jmadelman

    Comment by @mollyhardy — April 12, 2013 @ 7:24 am

  3. MT @WKerrigan RT @jmadelman Remembering Jack Larkin, Chief Historian @oldsturbridge & scholar of everyday life

    Comment by @POPinDC — April 13, 2013 @ 8:11 pm

  4. Remembering Jack Larkin

    Comment by @npcox — April 13, 2013 @ 9:04 pm

  5. [...] Occurences has a wonderful tribute to Larkin’s long and distinguished career. I send my condolences to his family, friends, and [...]

    Pingback by In Memory of Jack Larkin | I Love the 1800s — May 23, 2013 @ 4:50 pm

  6. […] Unfortunately, a sad note to begin. Jack Larkin, Chief Historian at Old Sturbridge Village for many years and authors of such books as The Reshaping of Everyday Life, died on March 29 after a battle with cancer. At Publick Occurrences, several of his friends and colleagues offer remembrances. […]

    Pingback by The Week in Early American History « The Junto — September 28, 2015 @ 8:40 am

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