Through the study of artifacts—what is generally called material culture study in academic circles—scholars can paint a richer, more balanced, and more detailed picture of human experience, both present and past. Objects of all sorts embody cultural values. They are the products of human effort and intention and tangible clues to people’s lives, beliefs, and behaviors. Because artifacts are products of human activity, they can be very useful to those interested in studying human life. In recent years, scholars in a variety of disciplines have discovered the power that things have to reveal the workings of individual lives and the structures of the social world. Material culture study has enhanced traditional fields of inquiry, and has also opened up new areas—including the ways the human mind works, sensory activities, and the lives of ordinary people.
Material objects provide access to people who would otherwise be difficult to know. Since the 1960’s, when the “new history” movement tried to bring the experiences of poor, nonliterate, and ordinary people into the historical record, material culture has taken on a heightened significance. This use of material culture as historical evidence forms the basis of historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s latest work, The Age of Homespun: Objects and Stories in the Creation of An American Myth.
The Age of Homespun is a study of ordinary household goods. Each of the chapters begins by focusing on a single object and uses it to organize a discussion of early American historical experiences, ranging from frontier encounters with Native Americans to the transformation of the household economy by the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution. The book’s chapters are framed by a forward and afterward, and are organized around fourteen different artifacts, including several baskets, some woodwork, a number of objects associated with the production of fabric, and soft goods, such as a rug, a bedcover, a pocket, and “an unfinished stocking.” At first glance, these objects seem trivial and uninteresting; they are not souvenirs of any famous historical event, nor are they the possessions of some historically significant personage. However, in Ulrich’s hands, these things become profoundly meaningful as she analyzes them and places them in the context of the experiences of the people who made them, owned them, used them, and/or preserved them.
For example, the first object Ulrich investigates is an Algonquian basket from 1676, presented to the Rhode Island Historical Society by Elenor Field in 1842. The basket came to the museum with a detailed label written by Miss Field that traced both the maker and owners of the basket from its moment of origin. For Ulrich, the basket’s value is not simply a matter of its age or provenance. She uses the basket as the starting point of a mediation on the differences between European and Native American cultures in the seventeenth century; by focusing on the ways in which textiles were produced and the uses to which they were put, Ulrich is able to highlight the issues of cultural difference and interaction that led to the dark history of colonial conflicts that ultimately led to the decimation of New England’s tribal peoples.
However, her investigation of the basket does not end with a discussion of its “nativeness” or a celebration of the skill of its maker. Ulrich’s interest in this Algonquian artifact leads her into archival research, and she weaves information drawn from local and family histories, genealogy, and folklore into her narrative. The story of the basket becomes the story not just of the Algonquian woman who made the basket and gave it to the wife of an officer who fought in King Phillip’s War (1675-1676). The story stretches into the nineteenth century, as Ulrich examines the ways in which curators contextualized the basket and interpreted it for nineteenth century museum-goers, as well as the meaning of the giving of such a gift to the historical society by its first single female donor.
As Ulrich’s research makes...
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