This Week in History: March 29, 1806

Congress Authorizes Survey of Cumberland Road

Cumberland road

Congress authorizes surveying to begin for the construction of the Cumberland Road, which sped the way for thousands of Americans heading west.

Four years earlier, Congress had recognized the importance of building a network of national roads to facilitate western immigration. The 1803 act that admitted Ohio into the Union included a provision setting aside money from the sale of public lands to use in “laying out, opening, and making roads.” By 1806, enough funds had accumulated to begin surveying a proposed national road from Cumberland, Maryland, through the Appalachian Mountains to Wheeling, Virginia, on the Ohio River.

The task of surveying the route for the new national road went to the Army’s Corps of Engineers, setting an important precedent for the military’s involvement in building transportation routes that would be used for non-military purposes. The Corps of Engineers also built the road once construction began in 1811. Progress was slow, and the Corps did not complete the 130-mile road until 1818. Its value, though, became apparent well before it was completed. Stagecoaches, heavy freight wagons, and droves of stock animals soon crowded the route in numbers far surpassing those expected. The Corps even had to maintain and repair older sections of the road before the entire route was completed.

The Cumberland Road proved such a success that Congress agreed to continue extending it westward. By 1850, this National Road, as it came to be called, reached all the way to Indianapolis. By that time, mid-western excitement over the National Road was fading in favor of a fever for canal building. The Cumberland-National Road, however, set the precedent for further government involvement in road building. The resulting network of roads greatly facilitated American expansion into western territory, and parts of the route blazed for the Cumberland Road are still followed to this day by interstate and state highways., “Congress Authorizes the Survey of Cumberland Road”


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This Week in History: March 20, 1928

Mister Rogers Is Born

mister rogers


“Won’t you be my neighbor?” Fred McFeely Rogers asked television viewers this question for more than three decades on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, a children’s show that helped create an entire genre of educational television with a focus on nurturing children’s self-worth. Few series have come close to maintaining the continuity and moral tenor of Rogers’s long-running PBS series. Lacking the commercial development of nearly all the network’s other children series, Rogers’s program maintained an unwavering commitment to education.

Born in Pennsylvania in 1928, Rogers began work in television with variety programs such as The Voice of Firestone (1949–1959) and The Lucky Strike Hit Parade (1950–1959). In November 1953 he moved back to his roots in western Pennsylvania, where he began working at WQED, the nation’s first community-supported public television station. Rogers began experimenting with children’s programming while at WQED, including the award-winning Children’s Corner, which contained the puppets and other details that would later been seen on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. During this period, he also began studying child development and became an ordained Presbyterian minister. Each of these sensibilities infused his on-air persona.

After the 1966 release of Fred Rogers‘s MisteRogers Neighborhood, he renamed the program Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and it was released nationally in 1968. That same year he was appointed chairman of the Forum on Mass Media and Child Development of the White House Conference on Children and Youth. Rogers had become a leading spokesman on American education and, particularly, how the television medium would be used to help develop it. He steered the programming toward a noncommercial format that could be easily coordinated with classroom use. By 1971 he had created Family Communications, Inc., a company dedicated to children and providing educational support to the families and people who care for them.

Until his death in 2003, Rogers resisted the flamboyant staging of some children’s programs for a conservative, unchanging appearance. Each show begins and ends in the living room of his “television house.” At the opening of each show, Mister Rogers invites the television viewer to be his neighbor and to enter his house. Then he hangs up his coat in the closet, slips into his cardigan sweater, and changes into his sneakers. From his living room, Rogers introduces the viewer to a new idea or object that becomes the focus of the show for the day or week. After the brief introduction, Mister Rogers visits other people in his neighborhood or places where everyday things are made—a balloon factory or a crayon factory, for example.

Aside from Mister Rogers’s seemingly intimate conversations with the viewers—his “television neighbors”—the most engaging action of the program centered on the “Neighborhood of Make-Believe,” a puppet kingdom ruled by puppets King Friday XIII and Queen Sara Saturday and inhabited by several other puppets as well as humans. To help children make a distinction between real and pretend, none of the characters in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe ever appear in Mister Rogers’s “real” world. Despite advances in visual technology, the conveyor between the “real” world of Mister Rogers’s living room and the imaginary world of make-believe remained a mechanical trolley.

Black, B. (2013). Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. In T. Riggs (Ed.), St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture (2nd ed., Vol. 3, pp. 582-584). Detroit: St. James Press. Retrieved from

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This Week in History: March 16, 1802

U.S. Military Academy Founded

U.S. Military Academy

An act of Congress of 16 March 1802, signed by President Thomas Jefferson, formally established the Military Academy at West Point, New York, on the site of a strategic Revolutionary War fortress. The academy was begun in part as a result of desires expressed by George Washington, among others, to train Americans in the technical arts of war (artillery and engineering). It was also established to enhance scientific education in the nation and to diversify the nation’s military leadership. In 1843 Congress formally ensured a national representation for U.S. military leadership when it specified that the academy’s cadets would be selected from each congressional district as well as from the territories and the nation at large.

In 1817, after years of governmental neglect and institutional disarray, Sylvanus Thayer was named commanding officer, or superintendent, at West Point. For the next sixteen years he improved administrative and organizational efficiency and established the foundation for future institutional success. He formalized a prescribed four-year curriculum grounded in mathematics, science, and engineering, and utilized some of the more advanced pedagogical thinking of his day. He continued the practice of daily recitations in small classes, provided instruction in all courses at various levels based on the abilities of cadets, and directed that each cadet pass every course in order to graduate. He improved military instruction, tightened discipline, and emphasized earlier efforts to instill ethical conduct and integrity in cadets. That emphasis continued throughout the academy’s subsequent history. Thayer is recognized as the father of the Military Academy because the academy is based on the foundations and traditions he established.

To accomplish his academic goals Thayer gathered an impressive faculty, often graduates of the Military Academy, who offered a superb education in mathematics, physical sciences, and engineering. Their efforts established the academy as the first, and for several decades the premier, engineering school in the nation. Faculty members Charles Davies in mathematics, William H. C. Bartlett in engineering, mechanics, and physics, and Dennis Hart Mahan in engineering and military science provided cadets with scientific and technical skills rarely taught elsewhere in the new nation. The faculty’s scholarship was widely used in courses at other colleges, and the academy’s graduates helped establish technical departments at many leading universities. In addition, Mahan’s writings had a major impact on the tactics used by military leaders on both sides in the Civil War.

Near the end of its first century, the academy selected the motto “Duty, Honor, Country,” a phrase that formalized Thayer’s ideals. An emphasis on character development instilled in a rigorous military environment and enhanced by a demanding academic, military, and physical program enabled academy graduates to provide both military and civilian service to the nation throughout the nineteenth century.

“Military Academy, U.S.” Encyclopedia of the United States in the Nineteenth Century, edited by Paul Finkelman, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2001. U.S. History in Context, Accessed 7 Mar. 2018.

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This Week in History: March 9, 1959

Barbie Makes Her Debut


On this day in 1959, the first Barbie doll goes on display at the American Toy Fair in New York City.

Eleven inches tall, with a waterfall of blond hair, Barbie was the first mass-produced toy doll in the United States with adult features. The woman behind Barbie was Ruth Handler, who co-founded Mattel, Inc. with her husband in 1945. After seeing her young daughter ignore her baby dolls to play make-believe with paper dolls of adult women, Handler realized there was an important niche in the market for a toy that allowed little girls to imagine the future.

Barbie’s appearance was modeled on a doll named Lilli, based on a German comic strip character. Originally marketed as a racy gag gift to adult men in tobacco shops, the Lilli doll later became extremely popular with children. Mattel bought the rights to Lilli and made its own version, which Handler named after her daughter, Barbara. With its sponsorship of the “Mickey Mouse Club” TV program in 1955, Mattel became the first toy company to broadcast commercials to children. They used this medium to promote their new toy, and by 1961, the enormous consumer demand for the doll led Mattel to release a boyfriend for Barbie. Handler named him Ken, after her son. Barbie’s best friend, Midge, came out in 1963; her little sister, Skipper, debuted the following year.

Over the years, Barbie generated huge sales–and a lot of controversy. On the positive side, many women saw Barbie as providing an alternative to traditional 1950s gender roles. She has had a series of different jobs, from airline stewardess, doctor, pilot and astronaut to Olympic athlete and even U.S. presidential candidate. Others thought Barbie’s never-ending supply of designer outfits, cars and “Dream Houses” encouraged kids to be materialistic. It was Barbie’s appearance that caused the most controversy, however. Her tiny waist and enormous breasts–it was estimated that if she were a real woman, her measurements would be 36-18-38–led many to claim that Barbie provided little girls with an unrealistic and harmful example and fostered negative body image.

Despite the criticism, sales of Barbie-related merchandise continued to soar, topping 1 billion dollars annually by 1993. Since 1959, more than 800 million dolls in the Barbie family have been sold around the world and Barbie is now a bona fide global icon., “Barbie makes her debut”,

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