Historical Thinking and Online Primary Sources

Historical Thinking Skills

Historical Thinking Matters, Center for History and New Media (GMU) and Stanford University

Four guided investigations designed to “teach students how to critically read primary sources and how to critique and construct historical narratives” lie at the heart of this website. Topics are in twentieth-century U.S. history: the Spanish American War, the Scopes Trial, Social Security, and Rosa Parks. Each topic includes a short introductory video, a timeline of events, a central question to answer based on an examination of a series of primary sources, and webquest extension activities. An extensive section for teachers provides lessons plans, information on U.S. history standards, examples of student work, and additional resources. The website also includes a useful introduction to the idea of historical thinking and approaches for bringing historical thinking skills into the classroom.

National Archives Learning Curve, National Archives, Great Britain

Though this site primarily presents lesson plans. Its “Focus On” section is “designed to develop skills in history using original sources” through in-depth examinations of six topics. The “How to Read a Document” topic is the most developed and asks users to imagine that they are historians attempting to “discover the full meaning of the document.” Users record their answers to specific questions in “Notepads” which they then gather together at the end to draw a broad overall conclusion based on their observations.

Picturing Modern America, Center for Children and Technology, Education Development Center

This fine site contains a number of interactive exercises that will help deepen students’ understanding of common topics in the study of modern America from 1880 to 1920 and to build their skills in analyzing primary sources. Teacher and student alike will appreciate the “Investigations” area, which contains exercises such as “Picturing Social Change,” “Modern Women,” and “Picturing Prairie Life.” Through the exercises, visitors will be asked a variety of questions that draw on the visual materials contained within each thematic section, such as “What brought people to the prairie?” Visitors also have the opportunity to build their own exhibits by choosing their own theme or question about modern America, and then choosing their own images and documents for their exhibit.

Digital History: Doing History, Steven Mintz

This extensive website provides multimedia resources and links for teaching American history and conducting basic research. Content focuses on slavery, ethnic history, technological achievement, private life, and American film. It presents more than 600 documents pertaining to American politics, diplomacy, social history, slavery, Mexican American history, and Native American history. The site is searchable by author, time period, subject, and keyword. It offers a full U.S. history textbook and more than 1,500 searchable and briefly annotated links to American-history related sites. It also includes a “Doing History” section targeted specifically to “Kids and Teens,” which presents 13 topics through which users can “do history,” including Advertising, Beauty and Style, Food, Film, Propaganda, and Slavery.


The Living Room Candidate: A History of Presidential Campaign Commercials, 1952–2000, American Museum of the Moving Image

This site offers 183 television commercials used since 1952 to sell presidential candidates to the American public and an annotated guide to 21 websites created for the 1996 and 2000 elections. Ads from each election are accessible by year as well as by common themes and strategies used over the years, such as “Looking Presidential,” “Attack Ads,” “Family Man,” and “Real People.” Essays of 200-400 words analyze ad strategies of major party candidates for each election. A program guide (1,000-words) for high school students presents a history of the usage of TV commercials in campaigns. This site is valuable for students of American political history, consumer culture, and advertising history.

Ad*Access, Duke University Digital Collections

This easily navigated site presents images and database information for more than 7,000 advertisements printed primarily in the United States from 1911 to 1955. It is an excellent archive of primary documents for students of consumer and popular culture.

Emergence of Advertising in America: 1850–1920, Duke University Digital Collections

This site contains images of more than 9,000 advertising items and publications dating from 1850 to 1920. Selected items illustrate the rise of consumer culture in America from the mid-19th century and the development of a professionalized advertising industry. The images are grouped into eleven categories that include: advertising ephemera (trade cards, calendars, almanacs, postcards), broadsides, advertising cookbooks from food companies and appliance manufacturers, early advertising industry promotion publications, Lever Brothers Lux (soap) advertisements, outdoor advertising, and tobacco advertisements. Each category contains a brief (250-word) overview of the subject matter. The site also includes a timeline of the history of the advertising industry from the 1850s to 1920.

Fifty Years of Coca-Cola Television Advertisements, American Memory, Library of Congress

This collection provides highlights of Coca-Cola television advertisements, including 50 commercials, broadcast outtakes, and experimental footage. There are five examples of stop-motion advertisements from the mid-1950s, 18 experiments with color and lighting for television ads from 1964, and well-known commercials, such as the “Hilltop” commercial featuring the song “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke” (1971); the “Mean Joe Greene” commercial (1979); the first “Polar Bear” commercial (1993); the “Snowflake” commercial (1999); and “First Experience,” an international commercial filmed in Morocco (1999). While small, this site provides a good resource for studying the history of post-World War II consumer culture in terms of content and technique.

Film & Theater

The Wizard of Oz: An American Fairy Tale, Library of Congress

This well-designed exhibit is composed of three galleries focused on the cultural impact of L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz that examine various aspects of the book, including W.W. Denslow’s artwork; the 1902–1903 stage play that became one of Broadway’s greatest successes; the classic 1939 MGM movie, with 16 panels examining the cast, production, and music, including a full-page color advertisement placed in the September 1939 issue of Cosmopolitan; and the varieties of Oz-related novelties that have appeared over the years, including The Wizard of Oz Monopoly game by Hasbro, a Wizard of Oz stamp, and “The Royal Bank of Oz” rebate check from MGM.

The American Variety Stage, 1870–1920, American Memory, Library of Congress

This collection documents the development of vaudeville and other popular entertainment from the 1870s to the 1920s. It includes 334 English- and Yiddish-language play scripts, 146 theater programs and playbills, 61 motion pictures, and 10 sound recordings. This site also features 143 photos and 29 memorabilia items documenting the life of Harry Houdini.

Spanish-American War in Motion Pictures, American Memory, Library of Congress

This site features 68 motion pictures of the Spanish-American War and the Philippine Revolution produced by the Edison Manufacturing Company and the American Mutoscope & Biograph Company between 1898 and 1901. These films include footage of troops, ships, notable figures, and parades shot in the U.S., Cuba, and the Philippines, in addition to reenactments of battles and related events. A “Special Presentation” puts the motion pictures in chronological order and brief essays provide historical context for their filming. This website is indexed by subject and searchable by keyword.


Panoramic Maps, 1847–1929, American Memory, Library of Congress

More than 1,000 original panoramic maps, a popular cartographic form during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, are available through this website. The maps cover the contiguous 48 states and four Canadian provinces of British Columbia, Nova Scotia, Ontario, and Quebec from 1847 to 1929. Users can zoom in to find artists’ renderings of individual streets and buildings. This site is an excellent resource for studying urbanization, growth, cities, and mapmaking.

Campaign Atlases, Major Robert Bateman, United States Military Academy

Visitors to this site will find more than 400 color maps of military campaigns from American colonial wars to U.S. involvement in Somalia in 1992–1993. Maps are indexed by war and may be enlarged, but are not annotated. A bibliography lists eight atlases, published between 1959 and 1987, from which many of the maps were taken.


Blues, Gospel, and the Fort Valley Music Festivals, 1938–1943, American Memory, Library of Congress

This site is a collection of 104 sound recordings from annual folk festivals held at Fort Valley State College, an African-American teaching college in central Georgia. It also provides 63 items of written documentation about the festival and the recording project. The collection is an extraordinary record of non-commercial American music and musical styles.

Max Hunter Folk Song Collection, Southwest Missouri State University

This site contains a collection of audio files and song transcriptions of more than 1,000 songs recorded in the Ozark Mountains of Missouri and Arkansas between 1956 and 1976. Lyrics for all songs are included; some also have musical notations, names of singers, and location and date of the recording. No information is offered for composer or lyricist. Users may browse singers and song titles or search titles using keywords.

Historic American Sheet Music, 1850–1920, American Memory, Library of Congress

This extensive collection provides a window on American culture between 1850 and 1920 by offering more than 3,000 pieces of sheet music from Duke University’s Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library. These musical pieces represent American history and culture through a variety of music types including minstrel, protest, sentimental, patriotic, and political songs, bel canto, spirituals, dance music, vaudeville, and musical pieces. The collection is particularly strong in antebellum Southern music, Confederate imprints, and Civil War music and includes a large collection of piano marches, opera excerpts, waltzes, polkas, and quadrilles as well. The site also offers a 750-word essay, a 1000-word essay that defines sheet music as a cultural medium and outlines the history of music publishing in the U.S., and a bibliography of more than 150 works on the history of sheet music, composers, musicians, and performers in the U.S.

Oral History

Like a Family: The Making of a Southern Cotton Mill World, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

A companion to the book Like a Family: The Making of a Southern Cotton Mill World, which depicts life in the southern textile mill towns from the 1880s to the 1930s, this site offers selected oral history resources that are used in the book. In addition to its three chronological sections discussing the South’s transition from agriculture to mill work in the late 19th century, life in the mills and the mill villages, and the millhands’ labor protests and strikes of the 1920s and 1930s, the site contains more than 60 audio clips drawn from hundreds of oral history interviews with descendants of millhands and others involved in the history of the Southern textile industry. Each section offers ideas for class projects using the sources on the site and also provides links to other sources on the Web.

Studs Terkel: Conversations With America, Chicago Historical Society

Created in honor of Studs Terkel, noted oral historian, radio host, and Pulitzer Prize-winning author, this site offers a rich history of many influential, as well as lesser-known, personalities living in the second half of the 20th century. An educational section helps students and teachers use oral history in the classroom. This website is beneficial to anyone interested in the Great Depression, World War II, race relations, and labor issues.

Oral History Online! Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley

Oral History Online has full-text transcripts of more than 55 searchable interviews. Current offerings include “The University History Series” focusing on the Free Speech Movement, “The Suffragists Oral History Project,” and interviews regarding the medical response to the AIDS epidemic in San Francisco, 1981–1984. The site also contains “Oral History Tips” and guides to “Conducting an Oral History” and “Oral History Interviewing.”

Quantitative Evidence

United States Historical Census Data Browser, Geospatial and Statistical Data Center, University of Virginia Library

Data gathered by the Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research from census records and other government sources for a study entitled “Historical Demographic, Economic, and Social Data: The United States, 1790–1970” is accessible through this website. For each decade, users can browse extensive population- and economic-oriented statistical information at state and county levels, arranged according to a variety of categories, including place of birth, age, gender, marital status, race, ethnicity, education, illiteracy, salary levels, housing, and specifics dealing with agriculture, labor, and manufacturing. Users may select up to 15 variables when conducting searches and the site will generate both raw figures and statistical charts.

Selected Historical Decennial Census Population and Housing Counts, Department of Commerce, U.S. Census Bureau

More than 40 historical census reports, including decennial reports dating back to 1790, are available for download on this website as PDFs. Historical statistics address topics such as population totals by race, urban or rural populations, educational attainment, and means of transportation to work, among others. Comparative tables show which censuses included specific questions on subjects, such as whether respondents were deaf, blind, insane, feeble-minded, paupers, literate, or convicts. Because of the PDF format, the reports take a number of minutes to download. These materials are useful for those needing demographic information or researching the history of census taking and the development of census categories.

Dynamics of Idealism: Volunteers for Civil Rights, 1965–1982, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Documentation collected for a study of the attitudes, backgrounds, goals, and experiences of volunteers participating in a 1965 Southern Christian Leadership Conference voter registration effort is available for download on this website. It includes questionnaires submitted prior to and following the project, as well as a follow-up survey conducted in 1982. Participants were queried as to reasons they volunteered, what they expected, their attitudes regarding race and politics, and subsequent attitudes regarding civil rights, violence, and social change. This information is valuable for those studying the civil rights movement and sociological aspects of American reformers.


South Texas Border, 1900–1920: Photographs from the Robert Runyon Collection, American Memory, Library of Congress and University of Texas, Austin

This collection features the life’s work of commercial photographer Robert Runyon (1881–1968). Totaling more than 8,000 images, it documents the history and development of South Texas and the border; including the U.S. military presence in the area prior to and during World War I and the growth and development of the Rio Grande Valley in the early 1900s. A special section presents nine of Runyon’s 350 photographs of the Mexican Revolution (1910–20) in Matamoros, Monterrey, Ciudad Victoria, and the Texas border area from 1913 through 1916. This site will be of use to those studying the history of documentary photography, images of the Mexican Revolution, and Texas history.

Bound for Glory: America in Color, 1939–1943, Library of Congress

This exhibition offers 70 color pictures taken by photographers of the Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information (FSA/OWI) between 1939 and 1943. This collection “reveals a surprisingly vibrant world that has typically been viewed only through black-and-white images. These vivid scenes and portraits capture the effects of the Depression on America’s rural and small town populations, the nation’s subsequent economic recovery and industrial growth, and the country’s great mobilization for World War II.”

Surveyors of the West: William Henry Jackson and Robert Brewster Stanton, New York Public Library Digital Collections

This site presents the journals and photographs of two men who surveyed the western states in the second half of the 19th century. William Henry Jackson was a photographer, artist, and writer who traveled along the route of the Union Pacific Railway in 1869. Robert Brewster Stanton was a civil engineer who surveyed canyons in Colorado for the Colorado Canyon and Pacific Railroad Company. This site is easy to navigate and is useful for studying western states, the environment, and photography in the 19th century.

When They Were Young: A Photographic Retrospective of Childhood, Library of Congress

These 66 photographs capture the diverse experiences of children from many different parts of the world. The collection includes early 19th-century daguerreotypes, turn-of-the-century studio portraits, and 20th-century prints and stereographs.

Images of African Americans from the 19th Century, New York Public Library

This site contains roughly 500 images depicting the social, political, and cultural worlds of African Americans. The site can be searched through 17 subject categories, such as family, labor, Civil War, slavery, social life and customs, and portraits. This site also offers a keyword search and is ideal for researching African Americans and 19th-century history.