Carole J. Wilkinson, Teacher-in-Residence
Delaware Social Studies Education Project
University of Delaware
Brandywine School District
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
bilious fripperies pestilence mop cap
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
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
(Back to top)