Alumni Profile: Janneken Smucker

The History of American Civilization Program at the University of Delaware boasts many accomplished graduates currently working in a range of capacities at cultural heritage institutions and in academia. We sat down recently with Dr. Janneken Smucker (Am Civ ’10) to talk about what she’s been doing with her degree as an Assistant Professor of History at West Chester University. Here’s what she had to say.

Prof. Janneken Smucker, Am Civ '10 (Photo provided by Janneken Smucker)

Prof. Janneken Smucker, Am Civ ’10 (Photo provided by Janneken Smucker)

Am Civ: What attracted you to the University of Delaware’s History of American Civilization Program? What had you done before coming to UD?

Janneken: Before I applied to the History of American Civilization program at UD, I had earned my MA in Textile History/Quilt Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, working with the International Quilt Study Center. I knew I wanted to continue to study objects, specifically quilts, but within broader contexts of consumer and visual culture. I sought a program in which my niche research interests would be taken seriously, where professors and other students would understand the merits of studying quilts. But I wanted comprehensive training in the field of American history to accompany my more narrow focus on material culture. UD’s AmCiv uniquely provides this.

Am Civ: Your dissertation, which you published as Amish Quilts: Crafting an American Icon with Johns Hopkins University Press in 2013, gives readers a scholarly yet accessible take on the production and consumption of Amish quilts in American culture. In your book’s introduction, you explain that you are a fifth-generation Mennonite quiltmaker. How would you say your experience making the things you study has informed your research?

Janneken: First of all, my hobby of making quilts inspired my interest in studying these objects. I didn’t even know the phrase “material culture,” but eventually figured out that I could combine quilts with my academic fields of History and Women’s Studies. Because I make quilts—or at least did when I wasn’t frantically juggling being an Assistant Professor and mother—I understand the process of making choices, adapting patterns, adding personal touches, while maintaining aspects of tradition. I knew that quiltmaking is both an individual act and a communal one, and one influenced by many other media and forms of consumer culture. I find understanding the process an essential part of studying these objects.

Am Civ: Before starting as a professor in the Department of History at West Chester University, you worked for Night Kitchen Interactive, a firm that works with museums and other cultural institutions on producing websites and other types of interactive experiences. Now, you teach courses in history as well as in digital humanities at West Chester University. How do you think digital tools enhance the study of the humanities among scholars and the public alike? 

Janneken: I am most interested in “public humanities” and how digital media and technologies can enhance public engagement with humanities content. New tools and platforms for disseminating historical and cultural content promote not just one-sided consumption of content, but participation and co-production of knowledge. Members of the public can share their own stories and perspectives, contribute by volunteering their own expertise through initiatives like Wikipedia, HistoryPin, and crowdsourced transcription projects. History should not be a conversation only among academics, but one that has relevancy to a broad public, and digital history helps make this possible.

Am Civ: What projects are you working on now?

Janneken: On campus I’ve been working with my colleague Professor Charles Hardy and students to create Goin’ North: Stories from the First Great Migration to Philadelphia. Our students created a digital archive of images and primary sources, detailed oral history indexes, and imaginative digital storytelling projects, which re-created the world southern newcomers encountered in early 20th-century Philadelphia. The Oral History Association named it the best non-print project of 2015, and we’re planning to expand the project, teaching the course again in Spring 2016.

In my own research, I am continuing to investigate the role of quilts in American culture, analyzing how New Deal era governmental programs including the Farm Security Administration and the Works Progress Administration drew on the symbolic power of quilts to help advance the nation’s economic recovery.

Am Civ: Do you have any words of wisdom for graduate students currently studying for advanced degrees in material culture studies?

Janneken: I encourage students to think imaginatively about what their futures may hold by taking risks and pursuing unforeseen opportunities. We tend to enter grad school with a distinct vision of a future career; but actual paths during and after grad school may lead in unexpected directions. I took a low-paying internship upon defending my dissertation, and this position led me to develop a whole new skill set in digital technologies, which I would have missed if I had stuck to a more conventional path.

Am Civ: Thanks again for taking the time to answer our questions, Janneken!

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

Teaching WWII With Objects

The Second World War generated a lot of paper. You still see it all over the place, littering antique stores and yard sales. I’m not an avid collector of such ephemera, but, almost without noticing, I’ve developed a pretty substantial stack of the stuff over the years. This past semester, when I was a teaching assistant for HIST 206, U.S. History Since 1865, it occurred to me that I might put all these books, pamphlets, calendars, and cards to a better use than gathering dust. It’s not the first time I’ve tried using objects in the classroom. A couple years ago, when I was teaching an archaeological field school in Ohio, I brought in a bunch of artifacts I once collected on the Thames foreshore in London. I asked the students to analyze the artifacts without knowing anything about their context, or where they were discovered. The lesson I wanted to drive home was how important an artifact’s provenience (it’s former location in the ground) is to archaeological conclusions.

This semester, I taught two discussion sections each week. Typically, these involved mini-lectures, multimedia, and reading discussions, so I wanted to ease the students into analyzing material culture slowly. Most of them were newcomers to history, let alone the nuances of material culture, so I worried they might have trouble interpreting complex WWII artifacts such as a helmet or a bakelite compact. So I brought in a dozen books, pamphlets, and other pieces of ephemera dating to WWII, all of which, besides having distinctive physical traits as objects, featured ample printed text. As I passed the objects around to pairs of students, I explained the assignment: to describe and interpret these pieces of WWII history. Each group discussed their objects and presented them to the class.

Some of the WWII items my students analyzed.

For material culture novices, the students made some very astute observations. Some of them noticed that the soldiers’ Bibles, designed for field service, were small and sturdy. Others pointed out the positive and inspirational messages of the music in a songbook. They asked questions about food and gasoline shortages when confronted with booklets of ration stamps. Some pointed out the reassuring subtext in an Air Corps officer’s letter home. They puzzled over the backstory behind a Christmas card from “Betty, Joanna, and Betts Paddock [and] Major Bob, overseas.” They mused over why a set of V-mail letters, from an M.P serving in the Pacific, might have been miniaturized for mailing home (here’s the answer). They enjoyed the tips from General Motors on how to conserve gasoline and tires. One sharp-eyed student, a veteran himself, noticed how all of the sweaters and vests in a knitting guide were named after famous military generals and pointed out how the 1940 Bluejackets’ Manual, a comprehensive how-to guide for Navy sailors, seemed remarkably similar to the Airman’s Manual he was issued just a couple of years ago. The students laughed about how a 1943 kitchen calendar with decadent recipes gave no indication of wartime food rationing.

A lesson like this is effective for several reasons. First of all, the students examined an array of material that touched many different aspects of life during WWII. Moreover, using original objects makes the past seem physical, something you can see and touch. The following week, a student asked me where all that stuff had come from and why I had it at all. That’s a sharp question, especially when you consider that most non-history major undergraduates typically encounter history through a textbook, not in an antique store or even a museum. Most importantly, in my mind, the workshop fostered a collaborative learning environment. I could have told the students about the results of food rationing, about the multiplicity of military manuals, about the mobilization of women on the homefront, or about soldier life in the Pacific. But this way, they noticed things themselves, made observations, floated hypotheses, and asked perceptive questions. They learned not from a traditional lecture but from a dialogue among themselves prompted by the objects. I directed the conversation and filled in the occasional gap. They noticed things about the material that I never had, and I’ve owned this stuff for years. In the end, I learned a lot, too.

Tyler Putman is an Am. Civ. Ph.D. student currently taking courses and is working this summer on the “First Oval Office” project at Colonial Williamsburg.