Jane Brox to Speak on Rural Electrification

Join us for a special return engagement by author and Maine resident, Jane Brox, whose presentation last year on her critically-acclaimed book, Brilliant: The Evolution of Artificial Light, was a crowd pleaser.

As part of an ongoing series of talks related to our current museum exhibit Wired! How Electricity Came to Maine, Brox will focus specifically on the topic of rural electrification, the process that brought electricity to America’s countrysides and farm families in the early part of the 20th century. In addition to the extensive research on the topic that she did for Brilliant, Brox brings a personal angle to the subject, based on her trilogy of memoirs about her family’s farm in Massachusetts and the evolution of the American farm in general.

Jane Brox has received the New England Book Award for nonfiction, and her essays have appeared in many anthologies. She has been awarded grants from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Massachusetts Cultural Council. For more information, visit her website. A book sale and signing will follow the talk.

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Extraordinary Histories of Ordinary Things

Portland City Hall Rum Room, ca. 1930

In recent years, historians have cultivated a fresh and imaginative new genre: studies that trace broad historical narratives through the stories of individual, seemingly-small objects, ideas, or phenomenon.

The new Maine Historical Society book discussion group–starting in February, 2012–will examine four particularly interesting examples: studies of the evolution of artificial light; how the lowly codfish changed the world; the toothpick as a paradigm for American manufacturing; and the influence of rum on the development of the New World.

Readings include: Brilliant: The Evolution of Artificial Light by Jane Brox; Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World, by Mark Kurlansky; The Toothpick by Henry Petroski; and And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails by Wayne Curtis. Additional short readings for each session will be sent to each registrant, or are available online.

The particulars:

WHEN: Tuesdays, 2/28, 3/27, 4/24, and 5/22 @ 7PM
WHERE: MHS Lecture Hall
FEE: $10 Members/$20 Non-members
BOOKS: Offered at $48 package discount (20% off retail) through MHS Store (or get them on your own); supplemental readings provided or available online
REGISTRATION DEADLINE: Friday, January 27

Space is limited to 30 and registration is required. To register, download the Book Group Registration Flyer.

Enlightening Subject

Last week, as part of our public programs series, author and Brunswick resident Jane Brox came to MHS to talk about her critically acclaimed book, Brilliant: The Evolution of Artificial Light. The book made several of last year’s “Best Of” lists and with good reason–it’s full of fascinating stories told with lyrical prose.

Author Jane Brox takes questions from the attentive and appreciative audience.

“Brox’s extraordinary history of artificial light is aptly named,” wrote a reviewer for Time Magazine, which named it a “Top 10 Nonfiction Book” of 2010. “It’s not just a record of technological innovation; it’s a great human fable about how we went from desperately fending off darkness to searching for the last vestiges of true night in a light-bedazzled world.”

During her talk at MHS, Brox extemporaneously interspersed facts and anecdotes collected during her five years researching and writing the book with readings from it. The Caves at Lascaux, medieval Europe, the transition from whale oil to kerosene, the stark differences between urban and rural electrification, and contemporary light pollution were some of the many points she touched on. Her graceful and gentle way of speaking was almost meditative, befitting her “enlightening” subject.

A variety of telephone and electrical line insulators in the CMP collection.

In addition to being a captivating history of something we all now take for granted, Brox’s book highlights a major effort currently underway at MHS. The author’s visit comes at a time when Maine Historical museum staff are more than a year into processing the massive Central Maine Power (CMP) collection.

The collection—donated to MHS by the company in 2002 and physically transferred in 2004—provides a case study of rural electrification in Maine from 1890 to 1998, one of the great technological transformations in American life. The CMP collection is vast, with approximately 1,878 objects and 1500 linear feet of archival material. It includes early electrical equipment and appliances; advertising and public education materials; and extensive documentation of the politics, economics, and business practices of the utility industry in the 20th century. A 2010 Museums for America grant from the Institute of Museum & Library Services (IMLS) made processing the collection possible.

Several early toasters, part of the CMP collection showcasing electrification in the home.

Interestingly, Brox noted that she originally intended Brilliant to focus exclusively on rural electrification, a subject near to her heart as someone who grew up on a family farm. (Her three previous books comprise a memoir trilogy about that farm and her family.) Her focus broadened, however, as she began researching and became entranced by the larger story.

Once the CMP collection has been fully cataloged, plans call for exhibits and programming related directly to the objects and archives. So if you missed Jane Brox last week, who knows… maybe she’ll be illuminating the subject for us again down the road.