DSSEP Home Page Linking Literature to Social Studies to Community Resources


Carole J. Wilkinson, Teacher-in-Residence
Delaware Social Studies Education Project
University of Delaware
Brandywine School District

            Elementary and middle school teachers increasingly realize that in order to meet the Delaware curriculum standards in social studies, they must teach social studies through literature, as well as through usual textbook approaches. Further, in order to bring social studies to life and enhance literature, it is desirable to link the lessons to community resources that can give hands-on and meaningful experiences associated with the literature. 

            During the year 2000, a new book, Fever 1793, by Laurie Halse Anderson was published.  The story is about sixteen-year-old Matilda Cook who is separated from her mother during the yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia in 1793 and experiences first-hand the horrors of that epidemic.  The book is classified as suitable for young adult readers.  I would use it with students in grades 5-8.  Topics in the book present numerous opportunities for teaching social studies.  Further, I see it as a springboard for a trip to Winterthur Museum in Wilmington, Delaware, in order to clarify many of the words, phrases, concepts, and topics mentioned in the book.  Other historic sites or museums might also serve that purpose, but I have chosen to use Winterthur as the example in this essay.

            The yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia in 1793 was one of the worst epidemics in American history. Over four thousand people, about ten percent of the city’s population, died between August and November of that year. As the epidemic began to rage, twenty thousand people fled the city; this was half the population of Philadelphia, our country’s capital city at that time. Among those who fled were George Washington, Henry Knox, and Thomas Jefferson.  Alexander Hamilton stayed and was stricken with yellow fever, though he was one of the lucky survivors.  Dr. Benjamin Rush attended many of the victims and contracted the disease himself.  Dolley Payne Todd’s husband, John Todd, died, along with the couple’s young son and John’s parents.  She later became Dolley Madison. Charles Willson Peale and his family stayed in the city, holed up in their home, and escaped the pestilence. Richard Allen and Absalom Jones of the Free African Society, along with their followers, cared for the sick and dying and saw to the burial of the dead.  Just these few names give you an idea of the historic figures that appear in Fever 1793.

As one reads about each of the people mentioned above, one is driven to search the Internet for further information about their experiences at that time and stories about their lives. These are golden opportunities for students to expand their historical knowledge and extend their reading.  The coincidences and vagaries of history become fascinating. For instance, after he left Philadelphia because of the epidemic, George Washington laid the cornerstone for the United States Capitol on September 18, 1793 in what was to become Washington, D.C. (Anderson, p. 251).  The story mentions Charles Willson Peale’s natural history museum and his extensive collection of stuffed animals and birds. When one reads that the family consumed some of the specimens (before they had been treated with arsenic and stuffed) in order to avoid hunger during the epidemic, one certainly is eager to search the Internet for more information about this extraordinary man and his multitude of interests and talents.  One finds that the family had collected bird specimens at Cape Henlopen, and returned to Philadelphia in September 1793; it was those specimens they ate (Powell, 1949, p.111).  Throughout the story, the Free African Society’s members ministered unflinchingly to the sick and dying.  They performed invaluable service, yet they were attacked afterwards by a publisher named Matthew Carey; he accused them of overcharging the sick and bereaved and stealing from those they attended. Richard Allen and Absalom Jones refuted those charges in a pamphlet, A Narrative of the Proceedings of the Black People During the Late Awful Calamity in Philadelphia in 1793, which described what African-Americans of Philadelphia had done to help the citizens of Philadelphia (Allen, 1960, p. 48-68).  The readers of Fever 1793 cannot help but be incensed by Carey’s false accusations, and, again, search the Internet and libraries to find the Carey article and the Allen and Jones pamphlet.  These documents provide fine opportunities for students to address Delaware History Standard Three that asks them to interpret different historical accounts of the same event. Their Internet searching provides opportunities for students to address English Language Arts Standard Three.

Early in the book, there is a brief description of the famous balloon flight of Jean Pierre Blanchard from the Walnut Street Prison in Philadelphia on January 9, 1793.  This required another trip to the Internet to find out that George Washington was present that day to bid the Frenchman good luck and watch the first aerial voyage in America.  The whole story of the event is fascinating reading, as is the story of Jean Pierre Blanchard, himself.  (See http://www.thehistorynet.com/AviationHistory/articles/0996_cover.htm.)

The horrors of yellow fever are vividly described in the book.  Most students I’ve encountered in thirty years of teaching would voraciously consume those descriptive passages and would want to know more.  Again, the Internet provides the desired information. (See http://www.morgansranger.com/id77_m.htm.)  In fact, a mere chronological listing of epidemics in the United States from 1657 to 1918 is mind-boggling and intensely sobering. (See the web site http://www.geocities.com/Heartland/Prairie/9166/epidemics.htm.)   Each epidemic is an opportunity for further research. 

My personal favorite among search engines on the Internet is http://www.google.com.  Search under such phrases as “yellow fever 1793,” “Jean Pierre Blanchard,” “epidemics,” “Richard Allen,” “Charles Willson Peale,” and any other phrase, placed in quotation marks, for which one desires information.  Of course, google.com links to numerous other search engines and web sites. 

In the paragraphs above, I have suggested some history extensions that arise from reading Fever 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson.  There are numerous others.  The economy of Philadelphia was affected by the yellow fever epidemic in those months of 1793. Opportunities abound to develop lessons that address the Delaware Economics Standards, especially Economics Standard One.

As the fever swept through Philadelphia, thousands fled the city, especially the wealthy, as was mentioned earlier.  Businesses closed; those who didn’t flee often had no source of income since their employers were gone.  The businesses that closed had provided important goods and services to the people; those goods and services were then not available.  Imagine not having sufficient coffin makers in a city where thousands were dying and needing to be buried.

Farmers from the country refused to come into the city with foodstuffs.  The market places were empty.  What food was available in the city skyrocketed in price.  Abandoned homes were looted in the desperate search for food, money, or goods that could be traded for food.  Sawdust was added to the little wheat flour that was available in order to make bread.  People were hungry, especially the poor. 

.  Some ships refused to dock at the piers and unload their cargo.  Dock laborers were not available to unload ships that did arrive.  Buildings near the docks were crowded with sick and dying seamen from many nations. Ships that had already been in the port when the epidemic began could not leave because vital crewmen were missing. International trade was, obviously, disrupted. Think Economics Standard Four.

Many towns and farming communities outside of the city forbade anyone from Philadelphia to enter their towns to buy food.  Only those who had escaped the city early in the epidemic found refuge in those towns.  Even then, they were admitted only if they showed no signs of the fever.

Babies and toddlers were found whimpering in the midst of the dead bodies of their parents.  People were afraid to touch the children; no one wanted to take them in for fear that they carried the disease.  The funds to support the orphans were limited.  Those few merciful people who tried to help them by taking them to orphanages found those institutions overflowing and with minimal food to feed the tykes. 

From an economic standpoint, the demand was high; the supply was extremely slim.  Inflated prices and thievery resulted. 

From a civics point of view, civic responsibility was a low priority for many people remaining in Philadelphia. A notable exception was the mayor of Philadelphia, Matthew Clarkson, who stayed in the city, established the Mayor’s Committee, and sought to help the citizens with food and aid whenever possible.  The Free African Society members and volunteers at Bush Hill also labored for the benefit of others. A good topic for debate might be: “Is civic responsibility suspended when one’s life is at risk?” Think Civics Standards Three and Four.

Geography lessons associated with the Philadelphia area can also be derived from the book.  One important activity would involve locating on maps the towns and communities around Philadelphia to which people fled – e.g., Wilmington, Dover, and Milford, Delaware, New York City, Germantown, Hog Island, Lititz, Lancaster, Chester, Gynedd, Bethlehem, Pembroke, and Bucks County, Pennsylvania. A further activity would be to calculate the mileage to each from Philadelphia’s center and how long it would have taken to reach those sites by wagon and horse.  There are vivid descriptions in the book about life in Philadelphia in 1793, along with street and place locations.  Based on the information in the book, children could construct maps of that early downtown area.  From clues in the book the following sites would be included: the Delaware River, the Walnut Street Prison, the State House, High Street, the Court House, Christ Church, the President’s house (George Washington’s house was at 190 High Street), Water Street, Potter’s Field bounded by Sixth, Seventh, Walnut, and Locust Street, and other such locations. The Delaware Geographic Alliance can provide copies of the map of the city as originally laid out by William Penn, as well as a map showing the Fall Line that bisects the city, separating the Atlantic Coastal Plain from the Piedmont section.   These along with present day maps of center-city Philadelphia could be used to surmise how the city looked at the time of the epidemic. Not only is this a good geography lesson, it is a good reading lesson in searching for the clues and details from the book that are necessary in order to construct the map.  Following this mapping activity, children can then compare their maps to an actual 1793 map of Philadelphia that can be found in a book entitled Bring Out Your Dead, The Great Plague of Yellow Fever in Philadelphia in 1793 by J.H. Powell (1949), available at the University of Delaware library.

Vocabulary development is an important part of any reading lesson.  In Fever 1793 not only is the vocabulary useful for language arts lessons, but social studies concepts and understandings are imbedded in the words and phrases themselves.  From the following list, I believe the reader can see what I mean.


victuals forge                miasma strongbox         Indian Pudding

bilious               fripperies          pestilence         mop cap           the necessary   

mutton              purgative          almshouse         apprentice        Grim Reaper

broadsheet       pestle               fractious           odiferous          mangle (wringer)

respite              bleeding            petticoats          shift (gown)      mooning (romantic)

washstand        noggin              stays                 grippe               Quakers

keening cajole               delectables       apothecary       wraith


            Frequently when children read an historical fiction novel, they meet words and phrases that seem foreign to them.  For instance, when Matilda arose from her bed, she had on a “shift.”  Over that she fastened her “stays” and her embroidered “pocket.”  The final act of dressing was to tuck her hair into a “mop cap.” A child of today may not be able to visualize that scene.  However, the teacher desirous of giving students first-hand knowledge of the written word can work with the staff at Winterthur to design a field trip that shows students many of the items, such as clothing and household utensils, that are mentioned in the story.  Among the household utensils they can see and touch in the “Touch-It” room are the following: a mortar and pestle, a spider (skillet on three legs), and a butter churn. There they can learn the art of serving tea, play with toys reminiscent of those in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, and role-play working or shopping in an eighteenth century store.  Elsewhere in the museum, children may view numerous eighteenth century items, such as a lap desk, shutters (on the inside of windows, as well as on the outside), a chamber pot, a loaf of sugar, a sugar nipper, and crockery.

Throughout the story there are descriptions of hairstyles, powdered wigs, and clothing popular in 1793.  One can observe at Winterthur prints and portraits of people wearing the styles and apparel the story mentions.  There are vivid narratives about life on Philadelphia streets, so children can see prints or paintings at Winterthur of city life and activities in American cities of that time.

            An aristocratic woman in the story, Mrs. Ogilvie, haughtily commented at a tea that the French ambassador had often dined with her.  What fun it is to learn, via the Internet, that Edmond Charles Genet, the French ambassador, was dismissed in disgrace and became a political refuge in the United States, knowing that if he were to return to France he would be executed.  (See the web site http:www.americanpresident.org/KoTrain/Courses/GW/GW_Foreign_Affairs.htm.) It is interesting to note that during Yuletide 2000 at Winterthur visitors could view one of the French chairs that he sold to the Washington’s.

            In the home of Mrs. Ogilvie, Mattie and her mother sat on “Chippendale” chairs around a gleaming mahogany table.   A visit to Winterthur reveals what Chippendale chairs look like and who Thomas Chippendale was.  Children will learn about the Chippendale design books that were brought to America where American craftsman copied the designs.  Further, students will see many examples of gleaming mahogany tables, some of which are carved from a single piece of mahogany.  

            Charles Willson Peale and Dr. Benjamin Rush are important persons in the story.  Children visiting Winterthur can view a number of Peale’s paintings, but they may be especially interested in his portrait of Dr. Rush and one of Julia Stockton Rush, the doctor’s wife.  After seeing the magnificent paintings, students may be stunned to learn that by the 1790’s, Peale had turned most of his attention, not to painting, but to the creation of his natural history and art museum. (See the web site http://www.npg.si.edu/exh/peale/papers2.htm.) Dr. Rush was a signer of the Declaration of Independence.  At Winterthur students can view prints, needlework, and reproductions of Chinese export porcelain depicting that event and identify Dr. Rush, as well as other signers, in those works of art.

            George Washington was the President of the United States in 1793, and the capital was in Philadelphia.  There are numerous portraits of George Washington at Winterthur, including those by Gilbert Stuart and John Trumbull.  Further, representations of Washington are on porcelain, needlework objects, and other mediums. Children learn at Winterthur that pictures of George Washington were very popular items in a Federal period (c 1790-1815) home.

            It is difficult for children today to fathom that doctors drained a pint or more of blood from a desperately ill person.  Doctors then believed that the pestilence boiled in the blood of the victims and that bleeding would rid the body of the offending pestilence.  Doctors’ mistakes often killed people that might have otherwise recovered. There is a medical instrument at Winterthur that was used to bleed people.

            In summary, Winterthur is an excellent source of information regarding, people, events, life styles, art, furnishings, clothing, food, traditions, and recreation in America from 1640-1860.   More importantly, many items, such as those mentioned in Fever 1793, can be seen at Winterthur, either as three-dimensional objects or in prints and paintings.  Winterthur’s school programs staff would like to develop special materials for teachers using this book in conjunction with a visit to Winterthur, and also hopes to do a teacher workshop dealing with this book in February of 2002.   

By engaging students in an exciting novel, teachers can generate students’ desires to expand their knowledge about an historic time period; hence students seek information from the Internet and assorted texts.  Economics, geography, and civics lessons can be generated from topics in the novel.  A trip to Winterthur (or another similar museum) to view objects students have encountered in the story is the final link in this chain of educational activities to make a time period in history forever remembered in the minds of the students.  Further, students will use reading, writing, speaking, and  listening to learn.  



Allen, R. (1960). A narrative of the proceedings of the black people during the late awful

    calamity in Philadelphia in 1793. The Life Experiences and Gospel Labors of the Rt.

    Rev. Richard Allen. New York: Abingdon Press.

Anderson, L H. (2000). Fever 1793.  New York: Simon and Schuster Books for Young


Powell, J.H. (1949). Bring Out Your Dead, The Great Plague of Yellow Fever in

    Philadelphia in 1793. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

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