Alexandra Summa ’20

“Corn Nationalism: Exhibiting Mythologies of ‘America’s Crop’ 1887-1918’

As corn became a dominant resource in U.S. industry, the crop was placed on display in festivals and museums across the country. In my thesis, titled “Corn Nationalism: Exhibiting Mythologies of America’s Crop, 1887-1918,” I study how corn exhibits reflect myths and metaphors of land and nation by interrogating Sioux City’s Corn Palace (1887), corn demonstrations at Chicago’s Columbian Exposition (1893), and exhibit “Food Values and Economies” at the American Museum of Natural History (1917). In these case studies, I show how businessmen, authors, architects, cooks, and curators use corn as a metaphor for national prosperity. I argue that white cultural creators of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries contextualized corn by applying visual and rhetorical strategies to replace and erase Indigenous peoples from histories of the resource. This was to advance myths about the origin of American civilization and fashion expedient meanings of the crop in the present day. By rejecting the novelty of King Corn and reading against the grain of his rule, we reveal a strange and understudied history that demonstrates the deep connections between the American West, museums, and colonial history, which further conveys the importance of continued decolonization and increased need for Indigenous cultural rights. 

In this process I was supported by my wonderful advisor, Reed Gochberg. I also met with other members of the Hist & Lit department who guided me as I curated this archive and defined “corn nationalism.” Additionally, I received a grant from the Harvard College Research Program that allowed me to travel to Iowa and research in the archives at the Sioux City Public Museum. 

Sophie Barry ’20

“‘Make America Fit Again!’: Superman #170 and the Rise of Youth Fitness Culture in Cold War America, 1953-1964”

My senior thesis delved into the intersection of two of my favorite passions: fitness and superheroes. How are these two linked? Well, it turns out when President Eisenhower created the President’s Council for Youth Fitness in 1956, it completely changed the way Americans viewed fitness in their daily lives. White male youth, in particular, became subject to numerous advertisements promoting fitness.

My thesis is separated into three chapters, with the first two looking at how Eisenhower and Kennedy approached the politicizing of fitness and how they applied their points of view on generational heroism to fitness programs. The final chapter is a close-analysis of Superman #170, which was commissioned by JFK. This issue follows Superman as he encourages white male youth to abide by the government fitness programs through somewhat strange measures. The main argument I weaved throughout all three chapters is the idea of the double entendre of fitness. By that I mean the idea of fitness as a physicality and the question of “who truly fits the term ‘American?’”

Because my thesis encompassed materials and a time period that excited me, I learned so much about this era and how fitness culture was seeded in the Cold War. I had the lovely support of my advisor, Tim McCarthy, along with many members of the Hist & Lit department. Further, I went to both the JFK Library and the Eisenhower Library to look at materials firsthand.