March 26, 2015
Stanford historian looks to the U.S. Postal Service to map the boom and bust of 19th-century American West
The history of the settlement of the American West comes to life with Geography of the Post, a digital mapping platform that creates visualizations of where and when post offices operated.
By Veronica Marian
Developed by Stanford scholars, Geography of the Post is an interactive digital platform that turns data about the history of the U.S. Postal Service into visualizations.
By the 1870s, a combination of gold rushes, railroad expansion and opportunities in farming, fishing and logging were drawing a steady influx of white settlers to the American West.
In response to the quickly expanding population, the U.S. Postal Service opened more than 14,000 new post offices between 1840 and 1900.
Stanford historian Cameron Blevins says the appearance (and disappearance) of these locations reveals how quickly the American West was integrated into the rest of the country.
As the largest spatial network of its time, the U.S. Postal Service in the 19th century played a "foundational role in connecting a sparsely settled region of miners, ranchers and soldiers," Blevins said.
A doctoral candidate who studies U.S. history and digital humanities, Blevins has developed Geography of the Post, an interactive digital platform that visualizes where and when post offices opened and closed. The locations act as proxies for communities, Blevins explained, and indicate which settlements were temporary and which evolved into long-lasting towns.
Blevins already knew that chronologically there was an increase in the number of post offices in the West. But he wanted to add a geographical, or spatial, narrative to this knowledge, so that someone could visualize where, not just when, post offices appeared.
To figure out how to accomplish this spatial narrative, Blevins teamed up with Jason Heppler, the History Department's academic technology specialist working at the Center for Interdisciplinary Digital Research. Heppler came on board in 2013 and set out to turn Blevins' data into an interactive website.
A historian himself, Heppler was intrigued by the prospect of exploring how visualization tools could be used to analyze historical data. Incorporating digital technology into historical research, he said, "is something that is underexplored" but that many scholars at Stanford and other institutions want to pursue.
Two years later, the resulting Geography of the Post website uses a combination of bar charts representing years and dots indicating whether an office was functioning or closed. By dragging the cursor along the timeline, users select different time periods and can alternate between views that display how many total post offices were in a certain area, and how long they remained active. The result is that the Geography of the Post presents the history of the West as being "as much about decline and collapse of communities as it is about growth," said Blevins.
Currently the Thomas D. Dee II Fellow at the Bill Lane Center for the American West and an affiliate of the Stanford Literary Lab, Blevins said that "the West was a region of boom and bust economy."
"A lot of communities were extremely ephemeral, impermanent," he pointed out, posing a challenge to anyone trying to draw conclusions about these communities. "There's not really a standardized way of tracking where they were, when they existed," Blevins said.
To form as full a picture as possible, Geography of the Post draws from an enormous data set of 166,000 post offices, acquired from a postal historian and stamp collector who spent decades culling the information. Without this invaluable resource, Blevins would have spent inordinate amounts of time sifting through and transcribing thousands of microfilmed handwritten ledgers from the time.
The digital tool aggregates the data and transforms it into visual representations on an interactive map. Suddenly, a giant amount of historical data becomes legible to historians who no longer have to sift through thousands of old documents. (The site will tell you, for example, that Ukiah, California, got its first post office in 1858.)
Blevins said that his goal for Geography of the Post is that it "serve as a base layer for other kinds of historical questions about why things changed" in the West.
However, simply knowing that there was an increase in postal service in the West is not enough to generate thoughtful questions. "It's interesting, in one sense, to see the concentrations of post offices," Heppler said. "But these points don't represent much else. If we are using the post to understand something about the movement of people into the American West, we needed more interaction in order for us to query the information with more granularity."
Blevins and Heppler developed the site as part of the Spatial History Project at Stanford's Center for Spatial and Textual Analysis (CESTA), a collection of labs supporting campus-wide academic research that incorporates digital technologies.
By enabling such a flexible functionality, Geography of the Post is helpful to a wide breadth of users, from the Civil War aficionado to the late-19th-century historian. Users can easily manipulate the data depending on what questions they want answered.
A collaborative process
The website idea initiated out of research Blevins was doing for his dissertation, "The Geography of the U.S. Post, 1867-1902." Unlike the typical history dissertation-writing process, building an interactive digital tool proved to be a truly collaborative process, Blevins found out.
"It wasn't just my dissertation," he said. "It involved Jason's work and interests from a methodological standpoint, and we had two research assistants, Jocelyn Hickcox and Tara Balakrishnan, working in the CESTA lab, who did a lot of work building the framework. That is not a typical way in which dissertation research is done, but it has been foundational to weave these different parts," Blevins said.
Heppler corroborated the synergetic aspect of digital humanities work, affirming, "It's hard to do this work without extra people and resources."
The collaborative aspect of working in digital humanities extends beyond the immediate team working on the project. Geography of the Post was built entirely on open source technology. "If someone wants to take this framework and try to apply it to a different data set, it is available," Blevins said.
Another deviation from traditional academic writing, Heppler pointed out, is the uncertain definition of what the final product really is. "These things we create are between a book and a journal article, not what we normally produce as scholarship, but they are deeply scholarly."