short pieces analyzing objects in historical and cultural context?

Carrie Lane's picture

For an American Studies theories and methods course I'm asking students to choose an object and analyze it within its historical context (e.g., making sense of the advent of Tupperware within the postwar context, for instance). I'd like to assign a few short sample pieces that provide cultural histories of specific (American) objects. These could be scholarly articles or shorter pieces from NYT Magazine or other popular sources. Thank you in advance for any suggestions!

Warmly,

Carrie Lane

Hi, Carrie,

I've used this piece with students in undergraduate courses before a museum visit to work on "reading" artifacts: http://www.princeton.edu/~hos/h398/readmach/modeltfr.html

Juliet Burba, Chief Curator
The Bakken Museum

Let me recommend a new book brimming with short, lively case studies designed to engage students:

Tangible Things: Making History through Objects, by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Ivan Gaskell, Sara J. Schechner, and Sarah Anne Carter (Oxford University Press, 2015). (https://global.oup.com/academic/product/tangible-things-9780199382286?cc....)

Want to know the meanings of a 100-year-old tortilla, Henry David Thoreau's pencil, or a Blondie comic-strip board game designed to sell electrical appliances? How about a Cold War, Project Moonwatch telescope, a 19th century travel toothbrush, George Washington's sash, an armadillo, Mississippian textiles, or a poster declaring "Women are not chicks"? Maybe a mouse in a patent medicine bottle, a plow, a bladder stone, a Tiffany vase, a slave-made woodcut, or Aunt Jemima? The list of American items goes on.

Lavishly illustrated in full color with 200 photographs, plus an accompanying website with 406 more, Tangible Things demonstrates the authors' technique for looking close at the things around us--ordinary things like the food on our plates and extraordinary things like the transits of planets--in order to show how such things are links between past and present, and challenge the boundaries between history, anthropology, science, and the arts.

Although my reply is directed at a query concerning American objects, please note that the book is full of examples from other cultures as well.

Readers of this list may also be interested in the HarvardX MOOC course: Tangible Things: Discovering History Through Artworks, Artifacts, Scientific Specimens, and the Stuff Around You. It is taught by the book's authors using the case study method and is divided into short, accessible modules, which can be broken out for teaching in other courses. The next 5-week installment starts on August 5, 2015. You can learn more at this link: https://www.edx.org/course/tangible-things-discovering-history-harvardx-....

Good luck with your course!
Sara J. Schechner
David P. Wheatland Curator of the Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments, Harvard University

My favorite for a grad seminar I teach on MC is Kenneth L. Ames, “Meaning in Artifacts: Hall Furnishings in Victorian America,” in Dell Upton and John Michael Vlach (eds.), _Common Places: Readings in American Vernacular Architecture_ (Athens: Univ. of GA Press, 1986), pp. 240-260. It does a nice job of taking the furniture from a Victorian front hall and uses it to decode social structures, architectural spaces, calling cards, and domestic/public spaces and expectations. Might be a bit historic for your purposes, in terms of the objects.

So maybe (and in honor of the inventor's recent passing), Jennifer Price's chapter on "A Brief History of the Plastic Pink Flamingo" in her _Flight Maps_ (NY: Basic Books, 1999) would be useful. Fun reading, too.

(I also just got _Tangible Things_ and it looks great; Hi Sara!).

Steve Walton
Program in Industrial Archaeology, Michigan Technological University

Another place to look for objects analyzed in both their material and cultural contexts is the "Object Lessons" column that appears occasionally in Common-place: http://www.common-place.org/.

Ellen Litwicki
SUNY Fredonia

All,

Thank you to everyone on the list who provided such smart and generous suggestions—there are too many of you to name but I appreciate all of your assistance. I have compiled a list here of the texts and other resources recommended by the group. I hope others find these many suggestions helpful as well.

Warmly,

Carrie Lane

 

Books

 

Tangible Things: Making History through Objects, by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Ivan Gaskell, Sara J. Schechner, and Sarah Anne Carter (Oxford University Press, 2015). https://global.oup.com/academic/product/tangible-things-9780199382286?cc=us&lang=en&

 

Jules Prown and Kenneth Haltman, American Artifacts (Michigan State University Press, 2000).

 

Virginia Scharff, ed. Empire and Liberty: The Civil War and the West (An Ahmanson-Murphy Fine Arts Book). Berkeley: UC Press 2015. http://www.ucpress.edu/book.php?isbn=9780520281264

 

Charles Panati, Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things. It's an old book but fun to read and informative as well. http://www.amazon.com/Panatis-Extraordinary-Origins-Everyday-Things/dp/0060964197

 

Kurin, Richard. The Smithsonian’s History of America in 101 Objects. New York: The Penguin Press, 2013

 

Bloomsbury Object Lessons Book Series based on The Atlantic’s articles series (see below) http://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/academic/academic-subject/literary-studies/series-object-less...

 

 

Articles, Chapters, and Journals

 

"Object Lessons" is a series of essays and books edited by Ian Bogost and Christian Schaberg for The Atlantic and Bloomsbury. See: http://objectsobjectsobjects.com/

 

"Object Lessons" column in the online journal Common-place (www.common-place.org), which focuses on American history and culture to 1900

 

Smithsonian.com’s Artifact of the Week, e.g., http://www.smithsonianmag.com/author/jennifer-le-zotte/

 

"Tupperware: Product as Social Relation" by Alison Clarke, in American Material Culture: The Shape of the Field, edited by Ann Smart Martin and J. Ritchie Garrison, and published by Winterthur in 1997.

 

Arthur Asa Berger's Bloom's Morning might be interesting.

http://www.amazon.com/Blooms-Morning-Comforters-Meaning-Everyday/dp/0595...

It's a humble attempt to rewrite Barthes's Mythologies in a relatively more contemporary context.

 

Winterthur Portfolio: A Journal of American Material Culture publishes articles about objects and their historical contexts, available through J-Stor.

 

Rebecca Shrum's article about Mr. Coffee, Winterthur Portfolio (Winter 2012) or Bess Williamson's article about objects designed for people with disabilities in the same issue.

 

Will Moore's article about the Index of American Design and conceptions of Shaker-made objects in Winterthur Portfolio Spring 2013

 

Occasional articles called "From the Collection" in Winterthur Portfolio contextualize one object or set of objects from Winterthur's library or museum collections. See Don Johnson's piece about a 17th-century tortoiseshell comb in Winter 2009, Christie Jackson's piece about a children's book with an Arts and Crafts context in Winter 2010, or Nicole Belolan's piece about berlin work in Winter 2011.

 

Poem placing eucalyptus trees within the cultural and historical context of Orange County, _Each Thing We Know Is Changed Because We Know It, and Other Poems_ (Boise: Ahsahta P of Boise State U, 1994, 1996, 2006).

 

Lois Leveen’s piece about a nineteenth-century cabinet card that was persistently misidentified as a historical object, and what that says about our anachronistic expectations of historical artifacts: http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2013/06/the-spy-photo-that-fooled-npr-the-us-army-intelligence-center-and-me/277276/

 

Journal American Jewish History commonly has a feature called "From the Collections of the American Jewish Historical Society" in which an artifact from the AJHS is interpreted in short (500-1000 word) essays by several scholars from different fields/backgrounds. Sometimes they are documents and sometimes it is of material culture, usually photographs. E.g. https://muse.jhu.edu/journals/american_jewish_history/toc/ajh.98.2.html and http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/american_jewish_history/toc/ajh.97.1.html

 

Short essays on individual American objects in Section VII of Hazel Carby and David Brody, eds., Design Studies: A Reader (Berg, 2009).

 

Rachel Waltner Goossen, "Disarming the Toy Store and Reloading the Shopping Cart: Resistance to Violent Consumer Culture." _Peace & Change_ (volume 38, no. 3).

 

Kenneth L. Ames, “Meaning in Artifacts: Hall Furnishings in Victorian America,” in Dell Upton and John Michael Vlach (eds.), Common Places: Readings in American Vernacular Architecture (Athens: Univ. of GA Press, 1986), pp. 240-260.

 

Jennifer Price's chapter on "A Brief History of the Plastic Pink Flamingo" in her _Flight Maps_ (NY: Basic Books, 1999)

 

Review by Lucasta Miller of The Brontë Cabinet: Three Lives in Nine Objects by Deborah Lutz -- the book appears to provide some excellent practical examples of creative engagement with historical artefacts and their contexts, in this case objects associated with the lives and deaths of members of the Brontë family.

 

Kenneth L. Ames, “Meaning in Artifacts: Hall Furnishings in Victorian America,” in Dell Upton and John Michael Vlach (eds.), _Common Places: Readings in American Vernacular Architecture_ (Athens: Univ. of GA Press, 1986), pp. 240-260.

 

 

Other Resources

 

ASA Material Culture Caucus's "Twenty Questions to Ask an Object" project, created for the Caucus's twentieth anniversary. The questions (and a link to a video) are here: https://networks.h-net.org/twenty-questions-ask-object-handout

 

There is a collection of nonviolent toys created directly in opposition to nationalism and militarism out there in some Mennonite cultural archive, maybe the Kauffman Museum in Newton, Kansas--at least, they would be a good source to contact.

 

New series TPM Primary Source http://talkingpointsmemo.com/primary-source

 

Jennifer Roberts, “The Power of Patience,” Harvard Magazine (http://harvardmagazine.com/2013/11/the-power-of-patience) re the importance of spending time observing the object under study.

 

 http://edchnm.gmu.edu/teachinghiddenhistory/

 

HarvardX MOOC course: Tangible Things: Discovering History Through Artworks, Artifacts, Scientific Specimens, and the Stuff Around You. It is taught by the book's authors using the case study method and is divided into short, accessible modules, which can be broken out for teaching in other courses. The next 5-week installment starts on August 5, 2015. You can learn more at this link: https://www.edx.org/course/tangible-things-discovering-history-harvardx-....

 

A piece to use with students in undergraduate courses before a museum visit to work on "reading" artifacts: http://www.princeton.edu/~hos/h398/readmach/modeltfr.html

 

I have students use the website http://objectofhistory.org/ to complete a worksheet asking students questions about the physicality of the object, uses of the object, and the context of the object.
 

Chris Miller at Berea College is also a great resource as he teaches Appalachian history utilizing material culture within his classroom as a standard method of pedagogy. You can find his info here:http://www.berea.edu/appalachian-center/home/faculty-and-staff/christoph....

 

Check out the NY Times wedding announcements. They are not exactly "objects," but they are wonderful for thinking about changing contexts.

 

Carrie-- This is a great list. Sorry for coming in late on this, I was away. But i want to chime in and add two of my own works. These account for objects but also the relationships people have with them, which ultimately is why they are even objects in the first place.

Shorter earlier article: Object Knowledge- http://reconstruction.eserver.org/Issues/091/wood&latham.shtml
Book, more recent: The Objects of Experience- http://www.lcoastpress.com/book.php?id=483

I hope these can be useful too.
Kiersten

Yes, thanks for this great list.  Here is a link to short essays about objects in the Syracuse University Plastics Collection that I wrote a few years ago when I curated...they are intended to mix technical, material, economic, social and aesthetic considerations. Unfortunately the position ended before I could write more....See: http://plastics.syr.edu/page-essays.php

 White Collar Plastic

Racism, Stereotypes and Plastic Product Premiums

Plastic Agitators Helped Revolutionize the American Home

Mario Maccaferri and Plastic Instruments

Plastic Toys

The Story Behind a Fruit and Vegetable Slicer

Hellerware Dishes Exemplify 1960s Tableware Design

In the 1940s Soybean Plastics Were Futuristic; They Still Are

 

The Morrisharp Electric Pencil Sharpener and Streamline Design

 

Sam Gruber

Gruber Hertiage Gobal

samuelgruber@gmail.com

 

I found these short studies at Historic Deerfield that might be of use, or good models:

http://www.historic-deerfield.org/discover-deerfield/summer-fellowship-p...

--Steve

Hi, everyone.

I will compile these sources--and any others that you send to me--on our teaching resources page on H-Material-Culture.

Anastasia

There's some interesting artifact analysis in the Atlantics "Objects" project. http://objectsobjectsobjects.com/

Steve