Bookshelf provides descriptions and notices of recent publications on Pennsylvania subjects.

The Philadelphia Mummers: Building Community Through Play

by Patricia Anne Masters
published by Temple University Press, 2007; 232 pages; cloth, $74.50, paper, $22.95

Every New Year’s Day since 1901, the Philadelphia Mummers have presented a spectacular show of shows that raucously snakes and shimmies its way through city streets. The Mummers Parade includes music, dance, comedy, and mime, along with dazzling costumes and extravagant floats. Although the lavish event is now televised to a wide audience, it is still rooted in the same neighborhoods where it began.

In preparing for their exuberant performance, the mummers — masked or costumed merrymakers — reenact and re-create traditions, work collaboratively to produce art and entertainment, and share in one another’s lives inside and outside of their clubhouses. What binds them together is a passion for playing and performing. In The Philadelphia Mummers: Building Community Through Play, Patricia Anne Masters asserts Philadelphia’s mummers are the creators and custodians of the longest-running folk parade in the United States. She also notes that the bonds they form through play, the most frivolous of human activities, differentiate them from groups whose purposes are instrumental and practical.

The Philadelphia Mummers Parade grew out of nineteenth-century neighborhood celebrations in Southwark and Moyamensing, immigrant settlements on the southern fringes of Old City Philadelphia. On January 1, 1901, twenty- five hundred ebullient, lavishly — or outlandishly — costumed performers excitedly strutted up Broad Street to City Hall for the very first time, having accepted an offer from Philadelphia City Council to perform and preen before a wider audience. They were a novelty that day, but their appearance was hugely successful. Although the individual groups recognized their ethnic and cultural differences, most Philadelphians saw them as an undifferentiated mob of ruffians and rowdies.

Today’s spectacle features as many as fifteen thousand performers representing an investment of from four to eight million dollars, money raised by dozens of small neighborhood groups that parade under club banners. The parade has four performing divisions: the comic clubs, the fancy clubs, the string bands, and the fancy brigades. Each division’s presentation is different, but all the entertainment includes some mixture of music, dance, comedy and mime, and sensational or funny costumes, floats, puppetry, scenery, or special effects. Although it is frequently compared to New Orleans’ Mardi Gras, the two events differ significantly. The commercial and business sectors of the Crescent City support Mardi Gras because it generates millions of dollars in tourist revenues. Philadelphia’s parade, by contrast, continues to depend on the support of working-class neighborhoods where most of the clubs are located and where mummery began.

Individuals wishing to learn more about mummery — derived from the name of Momus, the Greek god of mockery and censure and the patron saint of comics and clowns — should visit the Mummers Museum, founded in 1976 to preserve and interpret this aspect of Philadelphia’s rich history and heritage.

 

Joseph Priestley and English Unitarianism in America

by J.D. Bowers
published by Penn State University Press, 2007; 282 pages, cloth, $50.00

Many have argued that American Unitarianism originated solely from Congregationalism and developed independent of outside influences. William Ellery Channing’s “Unitarian Christianity” sermon in 1819 was a key moment in the history of the denomination, as the leading Unitarian theologian in the early nineteenth century sought to define the parameters of the faith and eliminate all vestiges of competing influences. Yet the American Unitarian tradition was far more complex than its nineteenth-century adherents were willing to admit. Joseph Priestley and English Unitarianism in America reexamines its origins, course, and development, and subsequently reveals the extent to which Priestley’s ideas concerning Congregational policy were recognized and established within the United States.

In contrast to studies that simply trace the history of the denomination as it flowed out of New England and was controlled by Bostonians, the author shows that Priestley’s legacies grew in importance throughout the nineteenth century and held sway in many of the nation’s frontier regions. By analyzing the complexity of interdenominational rivalry, lack of central control, and a continuous transatlantic exchange among religious liberals, he demonstrates that English Unitarianism continued to serve as an essential and noteworthy foundation for subsequent developments within the American denomination as it endured the challenges of Protestant orthodoxy, unregulated liberalism, transcendentalism, and the never-ending quest to define liberal religion in America.

Joseph Priestley and English Unitarianism in America offers an insightful account of an often neglected set of tenets and developments in the denomination’s history. The book traces the course of continued English influence as it established a new point of reference for understanding the dynamic origins of denominational development, Unitarian thought, and liberal religion.

An eminent theologian, scientist and author, Priestley moved to London in 1791 after a mob that opposed his sympathies with the French Revolution of 1789 destroyed his house, laboratory equipment, and library of books and unpublished manuscripts in Birmingham. In 1794, he immigrated to Pennsylvania and settled in Northumberland. He moved into a new house in 1798, where he made his discovery of carbon monoxide the following year. Now a popular attraction on the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission’s Trails of History, the Joseph Priestley House welcomes visitors to explore his residence and laboratory. To plan a visit, write: Joseph Priestley House, 472 Priestley Ave., Northumberland, PA 17857; telephone (570) 473-9474.

 

The Day the Earth Caved In: An American Mining Tragedy

by Joan Quigley
published by Random House, 2007; 237 pages, cloth, $25.95, paper, $17.95

Beginning on Valentine’s Day in 1981, when twelve-year old Todd Domboski plunged through the earth in his grandmother’s backyard in Centralia, in southeastern Columbia County, The Day the Earth Caved In: An American Mining Tragedy is an unprecedented and riveting account of the nation’s worst mine fire. In astonishing detail, award-winning journalist Joan Quigley, the granddaughter of Centralia miners, ushers readers into the dramatic world of the underground blaze — from the media circus and back-room deal-making spawned in the wake of the young Domboski’s sudden disappearance to the lives of ordinary Centralians who fought a government that would not listen. (Domboski’s sixteen-year-old cousin, Erik Wolfgang, “plucked Todd from the ground like a fresh onion, forty-five seconds after the earth had first begun to swallow him.”)

Drawing on interviews with key participants and exclusive new research, the author paints unforgettable portraits of Centralia and its residents, including Tom Larkin, a short-order cook and former hippie who rallied activists, and Helen Womer, a bank teller who galvanized the opposition, denying the fire’s existence even as toxic fumes permeated her house. National political and government figures also played parts in the unfolding drama, including U.S. Representative Daniel J. “Dapper Dan” Flood (1903–1994), a former actor known for flamboyancy who resigned from Congress in the wake of corruption allegations, and James G. Watt (born 1938), a former lawyer-lobbyist for the mining industry who became President Ronald Reagan’s controversial secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior.

The Day the Earth Caved In is a seminal investigation of individual rights, corporate privilege, and governmental indifference to the powerless. Exposing the truth in prose that reads as vividly as fiction, the author graphically illustrates the chain of events in a small community after disaster strikes and what it means to call some place home.

 

These Just In . . .

A number of new and recent books about Pennsylvania history have been received by Pennsylvania Heritage’s editorial staff, which has not yet had the opportunity to review them, but wishes to share news of their availability with readers.

Journey Along the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad, by Alan Sweeney, published by Tribute Books, 2007; 323 pages, paper, $19.95.

Women of Industry and Reform: Shaping the History of Pennsylvania, 1865–1940, by Marion W. Roydhouse, published by the Pennsylvania Historical Association, 2007; 106 pages, paper, $12.95.

Pennsylvania Ghost Towns: Uncovering the Hidden Past, by Susan Hutchison Tassin, published by Stackpole Books, 2007; 152 pages, paper, $10.95.

The 101st Pennsylvania in the Civil War: Its Capture and POW Experience — The Saga of a Lucky Bedford, PA, Lieutenant and his Unlucky Regiment, by Harold B. Birch, published by AuthorHouse, 2007; 207 pages, paper, $13.40.

Stories from the Mines, by Thomas M. Curra and Greg Matkosky, published by the University of Scranton Press, 2007; 82 pages, cloth, $25.00.

Sports in Pennsylvania, by Karen Guenther, published by the Pennsylvania Historical Association, 2007; 118 pages, paper, $12.95.

W.E.B. Du Bois, American Prophet, by Edward J. Blum, published by the University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007; 273 pages, cloth, $39.95.