“Rub Bread on Your Walls,” and Other Advice I’ve Received from Early America

Long before the DIYers at Pinterest promised 101 natural household cleaners to simplify our lives, before Gwyneth Paltrow and Blake Lively offered us tips on “life curation” that involved making heirloom tomato sauce and purchasing $1300 Pendleton wool cloaks, even before Martha Stewart created her first paper Christmas tree skirt and declared it a “good thing”, early Anglo-American advice writers instructed their readers on how to live frugal, healthy, and “beautiful” lives. Like the followers of today’s lifestyle gurus, early American readers purchased advice books on household management and new types of cookery with the hope of making their lives simpler. And like anyone today who has tried to replicate a craft project they saw on Pinterest or made Gwyneth’s Quinoa stuffed Kabocha, these early Americans probably realized they were buying a certain amount of hogwash.

Scholars hesitate to rely on prescriptive literature in their research because, as the name suggests, it was often aspirational, prescribing behaviors, practices, and material goods that the author believed would refine society—and which were missing from the majority of  early American households. Although authors advertised their books as a necessity for every family, the advice they contained was geared towards the wealthier members of society. Advice written by a pseudonymous “Lady” or “Society of Gentlemen” encouraged the mistress of the household to mix her own silver polish, repair gold lace on gowns, or mend broken porcelain, ignoring the fact that the reader may not even own such luxuries, and if she did, would depend on her servants to care for them. The advice books assumed a level of affluence that was uncommon in most early American households. And unlike today, where those with the most money and leisure time are the primary audience for the DIY projects promoted by Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop and Blake Lively’s Preserve, the leisured classes of early America usually occupied a supervisory role in household labor, directing the efforts of their servants to cook, make, and mend.

The Universal Receipt Book, 1814.

The advice contained within these books falls within several different categories. A substantial portion of the literature focuses on how to create imitations of popular consumer goods within the home, particularly popular patent medicines and elixirs. Other sections describe how to increase the durability of household goods, such as preventing rust on cutlery, preserving blankets from moths, and removing spots from woolen clothing. A surprising amount of advice centers on the use of household objects to deceive people and how to judge consumer goods so as not to be duped by others. Nearly every book I’ve encountered from the late 18th and early 19th centuries includes instructions on how to make cheaper woods look like mahogany, disguise brass as gold, or dress flax so it resembles silk. The same literature, however, reflects a fear of being deceived about the value of goods by others. Authors advise readers on how to detect adulteration in soap, gin, flour, and other items so they would not be poisoned or simply cheated out of their hard-earned money. Recipes for renovating rancid butter appear alongside methods for determining whether or not flour had been adulterated with no apparent sense of irony. Such recipes not only speak to people’s anxieties about misjudging new consumer goods, but also fears of being (accurately?) judged as poor and uncultured. These books may reflect more to people’s anxieties than their actual practices.

With such a scattershot approach to dispensing advice and poorly conceived ideas about its potential audience, is there anything useful to be gleaned from this literature? I would argue that for scholars of material culture, there is much to uncover. My current research focuses in part on how early Americans purchased, maintained, repaired, and lived with consumer goods. While some information on these practices can be deduced from period diaries, letters, probate inventories, and other sources (which all present their own unique challenges and limitations), aspirational literature maps out the constellation of goods familiar to consumers, even if some were beyond the reach of most people. It suggests that consumers sought advice about how to care for their new goods, that they sometimes sought substitutes for goods that were beyond their means, and that they could be suspicious of the quality of goods imported from beyond their town, region, or nation. And while most people didn’t employ the exact advice promoted in these books, they could adapt it to fit their own needs. Similarly, just because I don’t have an outdoor pizza oven in my garden like Gwyneth Paltrow, doesn’t mean I can’t try her recipes in my own, more limited, kitchen.

I'm onto you, Gwyneth.

I’m onto you, Gwyneth.

So, was anybody following these recipes and advice? At least a few were. Many advice books contain newspaper clippings for recipes and remedies for illnesses that suggest readers were using them as repositories of knowledge. An elusive hand-scrawled note may comment on a particular entry’s efficacy. Very occasionally other sources corroborate this prescriptive evidence. In her diary from December 1769, Hannah Callender Sansom described purchasing and mixing the ingredients for Daffy’s Elixir before spending the rest of the day mending. Daffy’s Elixir was a popular patent medicine composed of senna, brandy, fennel seeds and other ingredients that was first developed in late 17th century-England and used to treat a variety of stomach ailments. Its popularity is confirmed by the fact that a recipe for “true Daffy’s Elixir” is included in numerous books on cookery and domestic management from the period. While Sansom may not have obtained her recipe for one of these sources, she was relying on her DIY knowledge to produce the elixir rather than purchasing it at the store.

True Daffy's Elixir

True Daffy’s Elixir

Although the Daffy’s Elixir recipes may have been successful, most other advice from prescriptive literature was probably hokum, the 19th-century equivalent of those “burn belly fat with this one weird trick…” ads on websites. A book from 1818 recommended repairing your broken china with a mixture of quicklime and Stilton cheese; the same book later noted that garlic juice created a good cement to mend broken dishes and glass. Other than making your dishes a bit cheesy and a bit smelly, it is unlikely these remedies would accomplish much. Several books recommended cutting up pieces of stale bread and using them to clean wallpaper hangings. I shared this tidbit with some museum professional friends expecting them to laugh. Instead, they confirmed that this technique was successful. “Oh no, that totally works—it’s like a giant eraser. The conservators use that trick all the time.” Another chimed in, “I heard that Wonder Bread is even better. In fact, it’s probably better to rub it on your walls than to eat it.”

So I guess the best advice I can offer is…to take most advice with a grain of salt. Consider the financial means and concerns of the intended audience when exploring prescriptive literature. Don’t assume that when books on household management were purchased they were consumed wholesale—people have a habit of adapting advice to their own needs and discarding anything that doesn’t fit their worldview.

And always rub bread on your walls if you want them to look like new.

Wonder_Bread from WikipediaAbout the Author: Elizabeth Jones-Minsinger is a Ph.D. candidate in the History of American Civilization Program at the University of Delaware. She is writing her dissertation on women’s consumption in early America. You can follow her on twitter @LizJonesAll1Wrd.

On What it Means to Last

By Alyce Graham

In the last week of October, I had the good fortune to attend “Meant to Last? Preserving the Modern & Contemporary,” a conference hosted by the Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts at the College of Physicians of Philadelphia.

College of Physicians
College of Physicians (Wiki Commons) 

The two-day conference brought together museum professionals, archivists, conservators, and students from around the region. The discussions prompted by each session raised valuable questions about how collections of modern materials should be composed, conserved, and disseminated.

Gregory Dale Smith, Senior Conservation Scientist at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, led one of the most valuable sessions. By describing the process of setting up his lab at the museum and walking through a few case studies, Smith entered into a wider consideration of what obligations museums had to care for objects made of inherently ephemeral materials. Modern materials often defy traditional cleaning techniques. For example, the plastic webbing on a collection of designer hats had begun to degrade. As plasticizers oozed out, the hats collected dust and lost the glossy appearance intended by the artist. But the plastic resisted water, so the lab stepped in to determine what the best procedure for cleaning and stabilizing the degradation. Unfortunately, they discovered that removing the dust and the sticky residue would only encourage more sticky residue to rise to the surface of the plastic, eventually causing considerable loss to the object. So the curators had to weigh their options: leave the hats dirty, in opposition to their original appearance; or clean the hats and risk losing the object. Smith’s analysis of this situation will help many curators as they work through similar crises in their own collections.

Plastics: Looking at the Future and Learning from the Past
Smith recommended this book called Plastics: Looking at the Future and Learning from the Past

Smith led another session the following day focusing on the case study of a ceramic vase decorated with fugitive inks from a set of markers, the Italian equivalent of Crayola. The vase had gone on a touring exhibition under standard light and humidity restrictions, only to return with near total losses of color over several areas. The museum has not determined a solution to this problem yet. They are working with the artist to understand his intention—was fading and loss part of his plan for the lifespan of the object?—and with conservators and scientists to set storage parameters for the vase. It also served as a reminder to registrars to go ahead and set extremely restrictive light parameters for objects going out on loan, especially if they are made of modern or untested materials. Another reminder came from Smith’s description of a set of plastic lamps that crystallized when left in a storage crate for over a year. Despite the admonition that the crates should not serve as permanent storage, a reorganization of the museum’s storage areas made it seem safer to keep them packed. During that year, the wood of the packing crates turned the interior environment of the crates acidic, causing the crystallization. The crystallized lamps have been deaccessioned into a study collection, and now we all have one more reason to unpack promptly.

Besides the scientific case studies, the conference also provided several sessions that asked wider questions about what collections of modern materials could mean to the public. Several talks broadly considered the implications of collection and conservation. There was an excellent explanation of copyright laws, and a panel discussion about digital collections. Anne C. Jones, curator at the 1950’s All-Electric House at the Johnson County (KS) Museums, spoke about their acquisition and furnishing of an entire house. The museum collected a tract house as an exemplar of the style of homes that changed post-war America. There was nothing special about it architecturally or historically. Instead, it was refurbished as a model home exactly like the ones people would have toured in the 1950s. In light of this, Jones shunned traditional conservation of several objects, reaching out instead to commercial restoration services to make the objects “look new.” This unorthodox decision allowed her to protect the museum’s intent for the house’s collection.

Even for those of us material culture scholars who love the really old stuff, it is likely that the collections we will care for in our professional futures will hold objects made of modern materials. As we care for whatever sort of degrading plastic hats or vases made with cheap, nontoxic markers in our own collections, holding aloft the questions of our collection’s purpose and the artist’s intent can guide us as we make critical decisions.

About the author: Alyce Graham is a fifth-year American Civilization PhD candidate writing her dissertation about hardship and suffering in nineteenth-century polar exploration.

The Wonderful Things of My Driving Life

I kept my minivan reasonably clean (Nicole might beg to differ on the definition of “reasonably”), but I needed to empty it entirely when I sold it last month. As I dug deeper into the various pockets and drawers of what seemed a veritable high chest on wheels, I began to realize that there were quite a lot of things in my car. Some I added over the years. Others ended up there seemingly of their own accord. I’d driven this car for five years, through three degrees, several jobs, two states of residence, and a period or two when it was the only  home base I had during short term gigs and temporary housing. I’m not saying I ever lived in it. But I probably could have.

The rear axle of my minivan took a beating during my move to Delaware, when the car was fully loaded.

I was midway through emptying the minivan when I came across two parking tickets from Tiffin, Ohio, dated 2010. I was attending Heidelberg College that year, and I lived on a street where territorial neighbors called the police on any car left parked on the curb for more than three days. Thankfully, I managed to get those tickets waived, and then I tucked them into my glove compartment and forgot about them. When I found them again, I paused.

What was I thinking? Here I was, a material culture scholar and lapsed archaeologist, about to purge a time capsule of artifacts and ephemera without even documenting it. This was practically the King Tut’s tomb of twenty-first-century American automobility! Looking it over reminded me of the conversation between the two British Egyptologists who first peered into the dark sepulcher of King Tut.

“Can you see anything?” asked my inner Lord Carnarvon.

“Yes,” responded my inner Howard Carter, “Wonderful things!”

Like King Tut’s tomb, the contents of my car were not average or very reflective of my contemporaries. Most people I know (and I know some strange people) don’t have embossed bricks, British regimental coat trim, or Sears, Roebuck catalogs in their cars. But to each his own, right?

Moreover, material culture scholars seek the unusual as often as we look for the normal and mundane. We ask how people, common or elite, strange or unremarkable, used things in their everyday lives. Wouldn’t it be great to know what an eighteenth-century sailor, especially an abnormal one, carried in his sea chest? Or what a wealthy Philadelphian in the early republic stocked in her carriage? Sometimes we get glimpses of these accoutrements in historical documents such as probate inventories taken upon death, advertisements seeking the return of stolen goods, and insurance settlements. But most often, we have to fit together bits and pieces from archaeologists, archivists, and curators to guess what such people lived with and what these things meant.

Besides, even though the individual objects in my car were quite peculiar, I suspect that most of my contemporaries own many things (in their cars and their homes) that fall into the same basic categories. So I went about taking an inventory of just what sorts of things I had in my car and what these objects meant to me.

The complete contents my minivan at the time I sold it.

I had functional things and some things now obsolete. Road maps for Ohio, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and other states and cities seemed pitiably defunct next to the Garman GPS I acquired a couple of years ago. I had a little bit of cash and a fair amount of coins, not to mention some Chinese money and a fake $20 bill from a board game. I had an EZ-Pass, an expired parking pass, a Mackinac Bridge commuter card, and gift cards for Starbucks, Panera Bread, and an oil change. Moisturizer, hand sanitizer, sunscreen, sunglasses, and spare glasses. A CD player with a cassette converter for the minivan’s stereo system, a phone charger, and a set of spark plugs for a different car.

My minivan contained quite a few sentimental relics. I had the box of cassette tapes my father assembled about a quarter century ago that is a time capsule in itself. I had a small stuffed Santa Claus doll that my mom bought as a pity purchase at a yard sale (the sort of sale where the only way you can escape with your conscience intact is to spend a dollar on something) that had been with me through two cars (since he was left in the car we drove to that yard sale). I had a small strip of regimental “lace” trim from the uniform of the King’s/8th Regiment, which we portrayed when I was a historical interpreter at Colonial Michilimackinac. I had a strange faux-ivory hair comb and a bag of airline peanuts related to jokes I only hazily remember from college. I had an embossed brick I stole from the firepit behind that house in Tiffin. Wedged deep in a crack in the floor were a few antique buttons from a memorable trip to a country auction where I bought a box of buttons, put them on the backseat of the minivan, and later watched and listened as they flew everywhere when I slammed on my brakes to avoid a collision.

I had some things that even I will admit were quite weird. The canvas portion of a reproduction Civil War wall tent. The bases to a metal display system for art and antiques. Two strange wrought-iron hooks that were my first attempts at blacksmithing. A killer little piece of folk art a friend made back when Bluetooth phones first appeared that he dubbed a “fork phone.” Thanks to the addition of a small wire loop, you could wear your fork around your ear and eat with it!

I had clothes. Hats, gloves, pants, t-shirts. And other essentials. Toilet paper, a towel, drop cloths, and plastic sheeting. Ropes, bungee cords, zip-ties, WD-40, tape. I grew up in northern Michigan, and I still carry far more snow emergency equipment out here in Delaware than necessary. Two folding shovels, two ice scrapers, candles, and hand warmers.

In case I got stuck somewhere in that rather unlikely mid-Atlantic blizzard, I carried a veritable toolbox: a hammer, a saw, knives, pliers, flashlights, and a roll-up first aid kit full enough to handle just about any emergency and including, among other things, fishing equipment, an outdoor thermometer, and a compass.

What was I thinking? What did all these things mean?

On one hand, maybe I was just a slovenly car owner. But there was hardly any outright trash in my car. Most everything had a reason for being there, arcane though these reasons were. The truth is, these things probably say even more about me than I can say about them. And the beauty of material culture is that you can come to your own conclusions about my things.

Here’s one version, the scenario as I imagined it. My trusty minivan had finally found a snowbank too high to overcome. But not to worry. While I was eating my candle-roasted trout with my fork/phone and checking the temperature outside, I would be considering my next order from Sears, Roebuck, circa 1902. I could recline in one of two collapsible chairs under the canvas of a reproduction Civil War tent. Who cared when the snow cleared? I had a few granola bars, a wildflower identification book, and enough vintage Meat Loaf cassettes to last quite some time…

Wonderful things, indeed.

IMG_6209

About the author: Tyler Rudd Putman is a Ph.D. student in the History of American Civilization program at the University of Delaware. His research interests include material culture, historical archaeology, and military history. You can read more about his work on his website, here, and his blog, here.

Teaching Paleography and the Canton Trade System

When I decided to include a one-day workshop (1.5 hours) on paleography (the fancy word for the study of handwriting) in my World History II survey last summer, I thought my students might never make it through the session (not for lack of smarts but lack of interest – this was, after all, a survey course many students take to fulfill general education requirements). The handwriting is impossible to read, they would say. Why are we doing this, they would ask, explaining that they had never learned how to write in cursive in the first place. (To my surprise, it turned out that most had learned cursive in school, making me wonder to what extent it might be a myth that students don’t learn how to write in cursive anymore). With another group of students, this very well could have happened. But in this instance, it seemed to work. Here’s how.

Kip Sperry’s Reading Early American Handwriting (1998)

Kip Sperry’s Reading Early American Handwriting (1998)

I wanted my students to get some experience reading historic handwriting. I also wanted them to learn some content associated with the course. Before holding the workshop during one of our regularly scheduled classes, I asked the students to take a look at three examples of historic handwriting in Kip Sperry’s Reading Early American Handwriting (1998).

I chose one from the late nineteenth century, the early nineteenth century, and the mid-eighteenth century. Each sample comes with a transcription, and I tasked the students with simply giving it a try. (This was one of just a few optional reading assignments for the semester). Those who completed it genuinely seemed to get something out of it. One student noted it took them one go to get the words and a second to get the content. They quickly learned the tricks seasoned historians use when they encounter a new hand: matching known letters to similar unknown letters, reading and rereading to get accustomed to comprehending the hand and the syntax, and reading aloud to get the meaning. Armed with this experience, I thought they’d be primed for the workshop.

Silk samples associated with a bill of lading signed by John Latimer, 60×27, Col. 235, Downs Collections of Manuscripts and Printed Ephemera, Winterthur Library

Silk samples associated with a bill of lading signed by John Latimer, 60×27, Col. 235, Downs Collection of Manuscripts and Printed Ephemera, Winterthur Library

When they arrived the day of the workshop, I gave them a brief lecture on the so-called Canton Trade System, or the vibrant and sometimes contentious trade between China and the West  from about 1750-1840.

Detail of the letter my students transcribed from John Latimer, Sept. 1819, 60×1.9, Col. 235, Downs Collection of Manuscripts and Printed Ephemera, Winterthur Library

Detail of the letter my students transcribed from John Latimer, Sept. 1819, 60×1.9, Col. 235, Downs Collection of Manuscripts and Printed Ephemera, Winterthur Library

We talked about the exchange of silk and spices, silver and lacquered furniture, opium (which ultimately led to the end of the Canton trade, a subject we broached in a later class), and tea. I even brought in some nineteenth-century Canton porcelain from my own collection to make this all a little more concrete.

Then, I gave them ample time to transcribe a letter (in groups) written by Delaware merchant John Latimer (1793-1865) (always helps to make local connections) to a business associate about trading specific commodities in Canton. I had the students take a look at a scanned version of the letter on large-sized computer screens with zoom capability in a lab on campus.

Nicole Belolan Teaching Summer 2014

The letter, which I had identified after spending a glorious day trolling the Downs collection at the Winterthur Library and which had been scanned by a Winterthur librarian, was a hit. The students made it through nearly every word, struggling almost exclusively with the most arcane words (such as supercargo, or the person who served as the the ship’s owner’s representative) and syntax. They really gained an appreciation for the intricacies of what trade involved in the early nineteenth century–from how merchants communicated (lots of hand-written letters, sometimes in duplicate or triplicate) to what merchants had to know about preferences for certain commodities to deciding whether to trade with cash or goods.

And while they learned from the letter itself about trade and globalization (a major course theme), the letter also spurred additional questions–many more than did the average lecture-discussion. How did English-speaking Americans communicate with the Chinese, they wondered. Why was insurance such a concern? And what remains the same today about trade with China and other countries around the world? Learning through doing definitely seemed to inspire deeper thinking.

I didn’t know whether this workshop would work in the end, but I’m glad I took the risk. Despite their initial trepidation, I think the students enjoyed it too. And the next time they encounter old-fashioned manuscript writing (whether it’s that of their bosses or that of a historic diary), hopefully they’ll recall some of the skills they learned that day…and why an insect called cochineal was so valuable.

Resources

The Downs Collection of Manuscripts and Printed Ephemera at the Winterthur Library has several collections related to the Canton System. I’d like to extend special thanks to Jeanne Solensky for assisting me with identification of these collections and for scanning  a handful of documents for the class. In addition to the Latimer Family Collection, see also Fol 153, an 1804 sea journal that provides insight into how to deal with specific Chinese merchants. For other examples, search “China trade” in WinterCat.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) partnered to make an excellent online learning module called the Rise & Fall of the Canton Trade System. If I hadn’t done a paleography workshop addressing the CTS, I would have assigned parts of this website for reading homework.

I used a lot of images from online museum collections for my entire course. For this particular class, I found collections at the Peabody Essex Museum and London’s National Maritime Museum to be most helpful.

About the author: Nicole Belolan is a Ph.D. Candidate in the History of American Civilization program at the University of Delaware. She is writing a dissertation about the material culture of physical disability in early America. Nicole is also a graduate assistant for Sustaining Places, an IMLS-funded initiative that is dedicated to providing hands-on, practical resources for small museums. This blog post was original published at her professional web site. Nicole tweets @nicolebelolan.

On the Material Culture of Pet Keeping: A New Blog

Postcard of Puf the Pug

Photo postcard (Collection of Katherine C. Grier)

Want to know what happened when our intrepid program director, Katherine C. Grier, tried a vintage electronic pet brush on her cat? (Don’t worry, no pets were harmed in this experiment!) To learn about the V.I.P. Electric Pet Brush and others examples of the material culture of pet keeping (like this postcard above), check out Prof. Grier’s new blog. If you can’t get enough there, try her book, Pets in America: A History.

Reflections on the art installation “from hear to ear” at the Peabody Essex Museum

by Alyce Graham

At the end of March, I went to the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, MA to visit their special exhibit from here to ear.” The exhibit ran in the Special Exhibitions Gallery from January through April.

The installation by Céleste Boursier-Mougenot involved over seventy live zebra finches flying loose around a serene space with electric guitars set up as their perches. Wherever the finches landed, they created chords reverberating in gently expressive feedback loops through the amplifiers nestled throughout the space. The music the finches created—erratic, unexpected, discordant, melodic—drew people through the exhibit space along a carefully sculpted pathway.

PEM screen shotZebra finches are the most strikingly colored and sweetly shaped little birds. It felt magical just being so close to them as they fluttered around the bundles of reed nesting baskets hanging from the ceiling or rustled around the sandy nests they built behind the amplifiers. And, just as promised, the birds landed on the guitar perches and made music. But they did not simply land on the guitars and stand there. Instead, they hopped up and down the fingerboards, popping out bright chords along the way. They cleaned their beaks, a glissando back and forth across the strings. They squabbled with one another over the frets. One fat little bird even fell asleep on the warm place on the guitar body where the electric hook-ups connected, his feathers creating waves of sound by brushing up against the strings as he snored. The unexpected difference between reading about the exhibit and attending the exhibit was the dimensionality of it. When a new chord thrummed through the room, everyone looked to see where it came from, what cluster of birds was creating it, and what they were doing. Sound suggested motion and activity, not alarm but curiosity.

The exhibit encouraged visitation to another gallery with an exhibit on animal “collaboration” in art, which included videos, paintings, sculpture, and photography that used animals in their statements. (Sadly, all the ants in the artistic ant farm had died after crawling into what looked like a custom-built ant panic room, but the crickets in the tiny replica of a mid-century modern home were doing well.) In this way, the museum extended their visitors’ allotted twenty minutes of “from here to ear” and presented them with a host of interconnected ideas about how to think of the art they had just experienced.

The Peabody Essex took a risk putting on an exhibit where guests interacted with live animals. Most museums loathe unpredictability. They took appropriate measures to protect both the birds and their permanent collections. The small number of visitors and timed tickets contained people’s interactions with the finches. Entrance to the exhibit was through several doors, minimizing the chance of loose birds. Large signs warned people with allergies to feathers and birdseed that the exhibit was not a purified space. A gallery interpreter was present at all times—an enviable job, playing with the finches all day. (Read more about them on the museum blog.) And a veterinarian was on staff, too, watching for injury or signs of stress. So risks to the collection were recognized and mitigated, and the museum drew throngs of visitors from the contemporary art scene, the Audubon crowd, and the local community.

A short video of the installation can be seen here.

About the author: Alyce Graham is a fourth-year American Civilization PhD candidate writing her dissertation about hardship and suffering in nineteenth-century polar exploration.

Inside the Decoy Shop: The Period Room at the Upper Bay Museum

Standing inside the Decoy Shop at the Upper Bay Museum in North East, Maryland, in late January, I could not decide where to start our Museum Studies SWAT team Decoy Shop project.

Inside View Decoy Shop

Where should we begin?

Should we work from top to bottom, or should we tackle one corner at a time? At the suggestion of one of my colleagues, we carefully plucked a wooden duck decoy from a worktable and started with artifacts displayed on that surface. Our eight day project to inventory, clean, photograph, and catalogue the period room–or a museum exhibit room created to evoke a specific time and place–at the Upper Bay Museum had begun. (Other SWAT team members catalogued the other collections displayed throughout the Museum.)

What can we learn from the Upper Bay Museum Decoy Shop period room?

Kaey Grier examining duck decoy

University of Delaware Museum Studies Director Kasey Grier examines decoys at the Upper Bay Museum prior to the begin in of the SWAT project

The Decoy Shop at the Upper Bay Museum is an installation curated by Upper Chesapeake Bay residents who make decoys, or imitations of ducks or other animals hunters have used to lure their prey at least since 400 BC, and who hunt and fish in the region known as the Susquehanna Flats in the Upper Chesapeake Bay.

Decoy Shop in gallery area

The Decoy Shop at the Upper Bay Museum in North East, MD

Unlike many period rooms, though, the Shop interior was not copied directly from archival documentation or taken in its entirety from an original shop. Rather, the shop is a conglomeration of decoy-making related objects from several makers. Museum curators likely drew inspiration from a variety of sources, including twentieth-century interior photographs of other decoy shops in the region as well as the personal experiences Museum curators and local practitioners have had with decoy carving.

Steve and Lem Ward inside a decoy carving shop around 1918  (From Joe Engers, ed., The Great Book of Wildfowl Decoys, 2000

Steve and Lem Ward inside a decoy carving shop around 1918
(From Joe Engers, ed., The Great Book of Wildfowl Decoys, 2000)

Upper Bay Museum curators arranged the artifacts to evoke the interior of a working mid twentieth-century decoy maker’s shop on the Upper Chesapeake at the tale end the height of market duck hunting but during the continuation of sport duck hunting. This interpretive choice offers a different type of historical authenticity than do other methods of creating period rooms (no single method of which I find “right” or “wrong”–all are all fascinating and informative).

Tyler catalogues one of over 25 shotguns made and used  between 1850 and 1950

Tyler catalogues one of over 25 shotguns made and used between 1850 and 1950

The Decoy Shop is unique in that it is one of only a handful of workshop period rooms in American museums. (In contrast, countless domestic period rooms–championed in the early twentieth century by institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York–fill museums throughout the country.) Others workshop period rooms include a Decoy Shop exhibit at the Havre de Grace Decoy Museum, the Dominy Shops (furniture and clockmaking) at the Winterthur Museum, and the Wright Cycle Shop at Greenfield Village. European examples include a recreation of a sixteenth-century jeweler’s workshop, based on a 1576 engraving, on display in the Museum of London’s show about the Cheapside Hoard.

The Museum of London Jeweler's Period, as reported by the Associated Press

The Museum of London Jeweler’s Period, as reported by the Associated Press

The Upper Bay Museum and its collections embody rich interpretative value relating to the interconnectedness of the region’s cultural and environmental history. To that end, the Museum’s Decoy Shop period room plays a unique didactic role that could not be achieved by a traditional gallery display featuring rows of workbenches and tools. Instead, by furnishing the Decoy Shop with a variety of objects associated with the craft and related industries, the period room display provides visitors with an opportunity to explore the relationships between decoy-making tools, decoy parts, the spaces and places where decoys were made, and the people who made them, as determined by Upper Chesapeake individuals with ties to the profession and hobby of decoy carving and duck hunting.

Cataloguing decoys at the Upper Bay Museum

Cataloguing decoys at the Upper Bay Museum

Visitors view the Shop interior from one vantage point behind a door or from behind the Shop’s two windows. There is plenty to see. The shop is filled with hundreds of objects associated with decoy carving as well as with hunting, fishing, and boating in the upper Chesapeake more generally. The objects are displayed on shelves, on the walls, and on the floor. Objects range from workbenches to piles of nails. Primary object groups include: large pieces of work furniture; containers filled with supplies and tools; hand tools such as files and spoke shaves; completed decoys as well as decoys in various states of completion; a few items associated with the H. L. Harvey Company (active from about 1880 to the mid twentieth century); and miscellaneous items associated with fishing and hunting such as a life preservers and boat parts. In addition, the Shop “complex” also includes two workbenches installed just outside the shop.

Museum Studies Staff Assistant Tracy Jentzsch vacuuming an early twentieth-century life vest at the Upper Bay Museum

Museum Studies Staff Assistant Tracy Jentzsch vacuuming an early twentieth-century life vest at the Upper Bay Museum

In the process or leading the group that documented and catalogued the shop contents, it occurred to me that, even though we carefully removed and replaced each artifact, the Shop looked slightly different–a bit more tidy and spruced-up–when we were through with our work (before photo at left; after photo at right). We did, after all, dust every object and display surface; vacuum using a HEPA vac; sweep; wash the windows; secure objects using cotton twill tape where there had been duct tape…and more (all of which will help ensure the longer-term preservation of the objects). Even these slight, non-interpretative changes made the shop look different. What are the effects of more evasive interpretation changes on period rooms? How does one strike an appropriate balance of preservation and work-room-like authenticity?

back right corner before

Back right corner BEFORE

Back right corner after

Back right corner AFTER

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the case of the Decoy Shop at the Upper Bay Museum, authenticity derives from workshop dirt, the objects’ provenance (or history of ownership and use), and the identities of those who put them there. The Shop contents were made and used by several Upper Bay decoy carvers, a layered history that highlights continuities and change over time as it relates to decoy carving in this region. Some upper Bay decoy carvers represented here include Standley Evans (1887-1979; active 1919-1933) (used the decoy horse inside the shop); Horace D. Graham (1893-1982; active 1955-1978) (used the auto-sander inside the shop and shaving bench outside the shop as well as the many miscellaneous workshop contents distributed throughout the shop), and Paul Gibson (1902-1985; active 1915-1985) (used the painting table and paint brushes on display).

Nicole Belolan cataloguing Paul Gibson's painting worktable inside the Decoy Shop

Nicole Belolan cataloguing Paul Gibson’s painting worktable inside the Decoy Shop

Despite the fact that hunting waterfowl in the Upper Chesapeake was limited to sport (rather than market hunting) after 1918, decoy carvers—such as those represented inside this Shop—continued to provide decoys for sportsmen into the mid-twentieth century. Some of the decoy carvers represented inside the Shop were hobbyists; others made decoys for a living. All of them used store-bought tools in combination with handmade tools made using a mix of reused and new materials, suggesting the fact that many decoy carvers engaged with (and continue to engage with) their craft as skilled do-it-yourself artisans or tinkerers. For example, the Horace Graham auto-sander was made with used wood and a washing machine motor:

Auto sander

Auto-sander

His shaving bench features repurposed moldings:

Shaving bench

Shaving bench

Many of the supply containers were made from recycled mid-twentieth-century food containers, examples of which can be seen lining the Shop shelves in the photograph below. Anyone who has ventured inside a contemporary workshop has probably seen similar examples of reuse.

Repurposed containers inside Shop

Repurposed containers inside Shop

And of course, there are the decoys. The unfinished duck decoy parts, some of which are displayed inside this basket, were made by the following individuals, several of whom are still living: Mike Laird, J.E. Gonce, Bill Streaker, Jeff Muller, Vernon S. Bryant, Joey Jacobs[?], James Frey, and Bobby Simons:

Decoy parts

Decoy parts

Hardly a static exhibit meant to evoke one time period, the Decoy Shop at the Upper Bay Museum embodies the continued local interest in and practice of the craft of decoy making.

What could be more authentic than that?

To learn more about how your museum can apply to the UD Museum Studies SWAT project, visit the Sustaining Places web site. This blog post has been cross-posted at the University of Delaware Museum Studies blog.

In preparing for my work at the Upper Bay Museum, I found that C. John Sullivan’s Waterfowling on the Chesapeake, 1819-1936 (2003) provides readers with the best historical context for duck decoy use. Those with a theoretical bent might enjoy Marjolein Efting Dijkstra’s The Animal Substitute: An Ethnological Perspective on the Origin of Image-Making and Art (2010).

About the author: Nicole Belolan is a Ph.D. Candidate in the History of American Civilization program at the University of Delaware. She is also a graduate assistant for Sustaining Places, an IMLS-funded initiative that is dedicated to providing hands-on, practical resources for small museums.

From Half-eaten Cookies to RFID Labels: Reflections on the Association of Registrars and Collections Specialists Conference

On the first weekend in November, I attended the first conference of the Association of Registrars and Collections Specialists (ARCS) in Chicago. I am grateful that the History Department provided professional development funding to help with the cost.

The ARCS conference included twenty-four sessions over three days, interspersed with lunches, coffee breaks, and evening receptions. Since more than 500 people attended the conference, these events acted as networking events. I tried to introduce myself to five new people every day, and in this way I met registrars and art handlers from museums across the country.

I enjoyed all the sessions I attended, because I felt like they would be professionally helpful for me at my future job or because they dealt with some aspect of the work I was not familiar with or wanted to know more about. For instance, registrars from the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh talked about their integrated pest management program in terms of the discovery of a massive infestation discovered during their cataloguing process. This brought pest management, a general topic I feel fairly comfortable having a conversation about, into a new plane of consideration: how to deal with an infestation in an uncatalogued collection, how to address the infestation without disrupting the cataloguing process, and how to organize and implement a pest management system in the midst of a crisis. Plus, they showed slides of insects devouring non-traditional museum collection objects that The Warhol has, like dog biscuits or half-eaten cookies. These slides were revolting and informative.

I also attended a session on transporting works of art to Italy. While this is irrelevant to my current position, I hope I get to use this knowledge in the future, because it would mean I was working at a place that exchanged artworks with Italy. When that happens, I will know to write a clause into the insurance agreement that allows the artwork to be pulled behind a tractor or transported by gondola, methods that insurance agreements typically discourage.

The most useful session covered the uses of new technology like iPads for registrars. Besides introducing us to several helpful applications, the speakers described a beautifully brief process for taking condition reports that went from taking incoming photography to saving the final report on the computer without having to leave the object’s side. Other suggestions included attaching RFID labels to packing crates of traveling exhibitions that uploaded a video of handling or mounting procedures when scanned and using collaborative software to track workflow. I have already started using some of the ideas from this session in my work at Winterthur, where I have had a graduate assistantship in the Registrar’s Office since 2010.

ARCS has a student membership rate, and they host networking events in the area, too. Anyone who is interested in more information can visit their website, www.arcsinfo.org. The next conference will be in 2015.

About the author: Alyce Graham is the Student Assistant to the Registrar at the Winterthur Museum and a fourth-year Ph.D. candidate writing about hardship and suffering in nineteenth-century polar exploration.

 

Semester Roundup

As usual, Am Civvies have been busy this semester publishing articles and giving talks. Here is just a sampling of some of the things they’ve written and the places they’ve gone:

Nicole Belolan

  • “Collecting Disability History,” UK Disability History Month 2013 series, Disability and Industrial Society: A Comparative Cultural History of British Coalfields 1780-1948, November 25, 2013.
  • “About Something of for Someone? Curatorial Ethics and Curatorial Debts,” roundtable participant, discussed early 20th-century art museum program for disable children, American Studies Association annual meeting, Washington, D.C. (November 22, 2013)
  • “Aunt Patty’s Furniture: Adult Cradles and the History of Physical Mobility Impairment in Early America,” New Thoughts on Old Things: Four Centuries of Furnishing the Northeast, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA (October 4, 2013)

Lisa Minardi

  • “The Muhlenberg Family and the War for American Independence,” The Transatlantic World of Heinrich Melchior Mühlenberg in the Eighteenth Century, eds. A. Gregg Roeber, Thomas Müller-Bahlke,and Hermann Wellenreuther (Halle, Germany: Franckesche Stiftungen, 2013).
  • “Palladian architecture, Germanic style: The Hiester House in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania,” The Magazine Antiques (September/October 2013): 140–147.

Nalleli Guillen

  • Book review of Rebecca Cawood McIntyre, Souvenirs of the Old South: Northern Tourism and Southern MythologyWinterthur Portfolio 47, 4 (Winter 2013: 304-306.

Tyler Putman

  • “‘Every man turned out in the best he had’: Clothing and Buttons in the Historical and Archaeological Records of Johnson’s Island Prisoner-of-War Depot, 1862-1865,” Northeast Historical Archaeology 40 (2011, published 2013): 86-103.
  • Civil War-style military drill instructor (experiential history) for Prof. J. Ritchie Garrison’s innovative undergraduate history course “The Emancipation Project.”

Public History Baths

In 1862, a federal staff officer asked President Abraham Lincoln about the incessant stream of visitors to his office. Why, the officer wondered, didn’t Lincoln have clerks screen his visitors and restrict the traffic?

“I call these receptions my public-opinion baths,” answered Lincoln, “for I have but little time to read the papers and gather public opinion that way; and, though they may not be pleasant in all their particulars, the effect as a whole is renovating and invigorating to my perceptions of responsibility and duty.”

Lincoln believed such encounters kept him in touch with “the great popular assemblage out of which I sprang, and to which at the end of two years I must return.”*

As a historian, I like to think of my own forays into the world of popular audiences as my public history baths. Although mine are less frequent than Lincoln’s, they accomplish many of the same ends. They “renovate and invigorate” my understanding of the public’s interests, and they keep me in touch with “the great popular assemblage” to which I look forward to returning full-time once I finish my Ph.D.

I took an extended public history bath this summer. As a historic trades intern at Colonial Williamsburg, I participated in the “First Oval Office Project,” a cooperative initiative between Williamsburg and the Museum of the American Revolution to recreate, using historically accurate materials and hand-sewing techniques, George Washington’s Revolutionary War campaign tent. Rather than complete this work in a warehouse behind closed doors, we executed it in the Secretary’s Office, one of Williamsburg’s original buildings, dating to 1747. Our doors, like Lincoln’s, were always open.

A typical view inside the Secretary’s Office, Colonial Williamsburg, Summer 2013.

My conversations with visitors varied greatly. When not sewing, I acted as a third person interpreter, meaning that I wore historical clothing but did not assume any sort of historical character. I had many conversations about linen weaving, hand sewing, and sleeping under a canvas tent. The regularity of questions like “how was the tent waterproofed?” might have become trying, but, instead, we took it as a challenge to devise creative new answers to common inquiries.

Some of my conversations were less commonplace. Prompted by penetrating and sometimes unexpected questions, I talked with visitors about agricultural science, systems of free and slave labor, infant mortality, music, and politics in early America. One of the best discussions I had all summer followed the visitor question, “So, when did America become a good place for poor people?”

Tyler Rudd Putman and Joseph Privott at work on the First Oval Office Project.

All of these conversations reminded me why I study history in the first place. Working as an interpreter at a historic site is not so different from being any other type of interpreter, including a linguistic one. You straddle two worlds. Rather than facing linguistic barriers, the historical interpreter faces temporal ones. You need to take the events of the past and translate them into a language and narrative comprehensible to a contemporary audience. In fact, that’s what all historians do, albeit sometimes for students and scholars in traditional academic settings.

Of course, not all University learning happens in a traditional classroom, either. A few weeks ago, Lucas Clawson, a University of Delaware Ph.D. candidate and reference archivist at Hagley Museum and Library, and I arrived on the University green one afternoon dressed as Civil War soldiers. We spent the next hour introducing students in Professor J. Ritchie Garrison’s upper-level undergraduate history class, “The Emancipation Project,” to the rudiments of Civil War drill and material culture. These students could read about Civil War maneuvers for weeks, but they would still lack a certain experiential understanding of the subject. But when you stand in line at the position of the soldier and learn the face right or left, to double or undouble files, to march forward and by file right and left, to march by the flank, and to wheel right or left, something about the Civil War crystallizes in your mind. How officers took completely inexperienced recruits and quickly introduce them to linear drill begins to make sense. You realize how, after months of rote training, these same soldiers reacted instinctively to commands given even during intense fighting. You understand why Civil War soldiers stood in lines at all (it was for coordinated movements and to mass, or concentrate, their relatively inaccurate fire) and why such tactics proved so devastating as the war progressed (because rifled musket technology and accuracy advanced faster than field tactics). Perhaps, you catch a glimpse of the unity that emerged among soldiers on and off the battlefield. In the case of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, a regiment of African Americans and the focus of Professor Garrison’s class, drill and battlefield performance proved the competence and strategic value of black troops, who helped swing the war in the North’s favor.

Discussing Civil War drill with University of Delaware undergraduates. Photo Credit: University of Delaware/Evan Krape, 2013.

My public history baths aren’t just about educating the public. Far from it. In fact, I usually feel that I take away as much or more than my audience. At Williamsburg, I learned how to articulate complex historical narratives of race, gender, class, labor, technology, and ideology in ways that made sense to nonacademic visitors. When that visitor asked me about when American became a good place for poor people, I responded by discussing how our definitions of equality and freedom change over time. I invoked Gordon Wood’s The Radicalism of the American Revolution (1992), without ever naming the book, when I pointed to how the Revolution expanded the rights of free white men in particular. I gave a nod to the historiographical debates surrounding Wood’s work when I suggested that this same expansion of freedom came at the expense of others, such as women, and may not have been quite as positive as we sometimes think. Our definitions of freedom are still changing, I suggested, and our revolution continues. Public interpretation lets you condense complex historical arguments and provides a rocky and unpredictable proving ground on which to test the effectiveness of various historians’ answers to perennial questions.

In the case of the Civil War drill, the students may have learned a lot about moving like soldiers. I’ve studied Civil War drill for years and executed it as a living historian and volunteer at a variety of historical sites. But with this class, I learned what it’s like to take a group of completely novice individuals, with no more experience of linear drill than the average recruit of 1861, and put them through the paces of military maneuvers. I was genuinely surprised just how quickly they picked up the basics, even with only two instructors to a dozen students.

I firmly believe that all historians should take regular public history baths. This doesn’t have to involve months of costumed interpretation or complicated military drill. It can be as simple as giving a talk at your local historical society, elementary school, or fraternal club, maintaining an accessibly-written blog, or publishing in a public history periodical. Like it or not (I like it), we all return regularly to the great popular assemblage from which we sprang, and it’s good to test the water there once-in-a-while. It can get pretty cold in the ivory tower, but the water of public history is always warm.

*Miles O’Reilly [Charles G. Halpine], Baked Meats of the Funeral (New York, Carleton, 1866), 106.

About the author: Tyler Rudd Putman is Ph.D. student in the History of American Civilization Program. He maintains a blog at www.ranawayfromthesubscriber.blogspot.com.