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Exploring Our Sticky History

Originally Published in the Tri Town Transcript on April 16, 2015

Ah, the elementary school history fair: the tri-fold poster boards, the maps, the cut out pictures, and the costumes.

“Wait, what?” I asked my younger daughter, “You need a costume!?”


My older daughter, standing nearby, sighed, “We’re doing famous explorers, I have Captain Cook. But we’re skipping costumes and just wearing normal clothes.”

5th grade was apparently too cool for costumes, which I, as a mother, naturally took as a challenge.

“Oh, but you could wear a tricorn hat, like a captain’s hat. Or,” I continued with growing enthusiasm, “since Cook discovered Australia, what if you wore board shorts and a surfer shirt?
 You know, a modern Australian at the beach!? G’day mate!!”

She stared at me. Ok. So no costume in 5th grade.

My youngest though, was hopping back and forth with excitement.
“We’re studying the history of Massachusetts and important people and stories. I got the Molasses Flood of 1919!”

Huh? Regular Readers may recall I grew up in Philadelphia. History fairs meant the Declaration of Independence, Ben Franklin flying a kite, the Liberty Bell and maybe, if you were lucky, some Tastykakes to sample. But the molasses flood? Was that like the Boston tea party? What was with Boston and food based incidents anyway?

My daughter was still talking, “and I want to make a clay model of the tank exploding with molasses everywhere!”

What? Was this a real thing? So I googled it, and was fascinated by the gruesome tale. The force of all that molasses in the North End neighborhood had been incredible. The photos showed devastation and a clean-up job like nothing I could imagine. All in the middle of the winter! And we thought we had a bad year.
The Bostonians of 1919 had us beat hands down.
 Cold is bad, but cold AND sticky? So much worse.

And what exactly was the prop or costume for death and destruction by a sugary syrup?
I could drape my daughter in a brown trash bag and cut out eye-holes, or perhaps she could be a cute molasses cookie to try and lighten the topic?

“It happened on January 15th. Molasses flooded the whole neighborhood! 21 people died plus horses. It smelled like molasses for weeks and it even pushed down some buildings!”
 She sounded like a little reporter, and suddenly, I had it.
“You’ll be a newsie kid with a cap and suspenders and knee highs!”
She squinted at me and I explained the newsie look and how she could act out reporting her story.
Once settled on the costume. She turned to her prop. I declined permission to sling about wet clay in order to make a model of the tank that would then spew forth molasses. Instead she drew a picture of the explosion. We then taped a disposable baking tin to the picture and poured molasses into it – – dark, viscous, molasses. That smell! I couldn’t imagine the North End after the flood. For the final effect, we placed some miniature plastic horses and people into the gloppy mess where they met their sticky demise, writ small, for all to see.
The history fair was a chaotic whirl of costumed kids and poster boards. Little Cleopatras ran giggling down the hallway, while a proper, (and female,) Alexander Graham Bell chatted with a shy Clara Barton. Medieval ladies and lords pranced about explaining their lands and manors, and an early baseball player kept stealing samples from the inventor of the chocolate chip cookie.
In the midst of it all, an un-costumed James Cook expert waxed eloquent about exploration routes and how to fend off scurvy. Meanwhile a little newsie expounded on the tragedy of poor tank construction and the dramatic, gooey results.
It was great, but I was beat. Poster boards and props make me tired. Still, I learned some new things about this state we live in that weren’t snow related. And on that note, next time, I’m wearing the board shorts and surfer shirt.
Maybe my older daughter will think costumes are cool again if she sees her mother in one . . .