Objects and History


Last year the Smithsonian published a book, “History of the World in 1000 objects.”  A kind of ultimate material culture list.  I discovered the power of objects and material culture in history while writing a curriculum and teaching a camp on the Delaware Canal.  A newspaper article about the week long Canal camp for 4th and 5th graders drew the attention of woman, Harriet, who invited me to her house to discuss her volunteering in the camp. Her kitchen table was filled with objects.  Some archaeological artifacts but most everyday material culture.  One by one Harriet told the story of each object, it’s history and use.  A fantastic introduction for me; I was hooked.  Harriet volunteered the two years that Trish Rienes and I ran the camp in Yardley.  She put her stamp on the program and on my teaching social studies methods courses at Holy Family University.

My approach to teaching history was through the perspective of the common person’s everyday lives.  In academic circles this is known as The New Social History.  I discovered New Social History in a  National Endowment program in local history that I participated in at the University of Pennsylvania in the early 1980s.  Walter Licht who ran the program was a New Social Historian, trained in the 1960s with historic concern for average people — workers, women, African Americans, ethnic groups.  Instead of history as the story of the rich and famous Kings, Presidents, corporate giants, and politicians; history was the story of the Italians of South Philadelphia, the slaves of Montpelier, housewives of the 1950s.

Close to home at the turn of the century, Henry Mercer of Doylestown was a New Social Historian before the term was coined.  His interest was in the common man and Mercer collected his everyday tools.  Professional historians laughed at Mercer but he was ahead of them.   Describing his passion for material culture, Mercer wrote:

“It was probably one day in February or March of the spring of 1897 that I went to the premises of one of our fellow-citizens, who had been in the habit of going to country sales and at the last moment buying what they called “penny lots,” that is to say valueless masses of obsolete utensils or objects which were regarded as useless . . . The particular object of the visit above mentioned, was to buy a pair of tongs for an old fashioned fireplace, but when I came to hunt out the tongs from the midst of a disordered pile of old wagons, gum-tree salt-boxes, flax-brakes, straw beehives, tin dinner horns, rope-machines and spinning wheels . . . I was seized with a new enthusiasm and hurried over the county rummaging the bake-ovens, wagon-houses, cellars, hay-lofts, smoke- houses, garrets, and chimney-corners, on this side of the Delaware 12 valley.”

Mercer was also aware of the role of the common person in history.

“the history of the United States and dwelt with great vividness upon the Revolutionary War but no history can show as these things [Mercer’s] show, that during the war a hundred thousand hands armed with these sickles were reaping wheat and rye so as to make any kind of war possible . . . You may go down into Independence Hall in Philadelphia, and stand in the room in which the Declaration of Indepen- dence was signed and there look upon the portraits of the signers. But do you think you are any nearer the essence of the matter there than you are here when you realize that ten hundred thousand arms, seizing upon axes of this type, with an immense amount of labor and effort.”

In a poem I’ve used in class many times, Berthal Brecht also caught the New Social Historians interest in the common man:

A Worker Reads History

Who built the seven gates of Thebes?
The books are filled with names of kings.
Was it the kings who hauled the craggy blocks of stone?
And Babylon, so many times destroyed.
Who built the city up each time? In which of Lima’s houses,
That city glittering with gold, lived those who built it?
In the evening when the Chinese wall was finished
Where did the masons go? Imperial Rome
Is full of arcs of triumph. Who reared them up? Over whom
Did the Caesars triumph? Byzantium lives in song.
Were all her dwellings palaces? And even in Atlantis of the legend
The night the seas rushed in,
The drowning men still bellowed for their slaves.

Young Alexander conquered India.
He alone?
Caesar beat the Gauls.
Was there not even a cook in his army?
Phillip of Spain wept as his fleet
was sunk and destroyed. Were there no other tears?
Frederick the Great triumphed in the Seven Years War.
Who triumphed with him?

Each page a victory
At whose expense the victory ball?
Every ten years a great man,
Who paid the piper?

So many particulars.
So many questions.

As I developed and taught my course, “Teaching Social Studies In Elementary School,” At Holy Family University, New Social History, archaeology, and material culture provided an important foundation of the course.  I found an old brown leather suitcase and filled it with artifacts and bits of material culture.  Some of the artifacts were real found objects; others were objects that could have been found on an archaeological dig.  Theree were many  lessons that flowed from the suitcase.  One asked students to just identify objects.  Another involved classification. Lessons on technological change and archaeology.

My first assignment in “Teaching Social Studies” involved material culture.  I asked students to bring an object (or photograph of an object) that was important in their life.  In class I asked them to share their choice.  Then I asked the class to brainstorm social studies lessons that could flow from the object. A family photograph in front of a Christmas tree for instance — social studies lessons on holidays, family, photographs as documentary records.

For the assignment I usually brought a small polished oak triangle with holes for pencils or pens.  The pencil pen holder was made by George Nakishima, Bucks County’s most famous woodworker whose studio ( now run by his daughter) is outside New Hope.  I inherited the piece from our friend, Ragna Hamilton, who received it as a gift from another Holocaust survivor who worked for Nakashima.  Social Studies lessons flowing from it could include, the Japanese Interment during WW II (Nakashima was in a camp); a rememberance of a friend who was a Holocaust survivor, fine woodworking and craftsmanship, and Bucks County artists.  All objects have a story, a history.  Sometimes it may be world or national history.  Or it may be local history.  It’s time to look around the house and see how objects tell my personal history.




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