Combining Scholarly and Professional Development in the AmCiv Ph.D. Program

From AmCiv student Alexander Ames:

One of the wonderful things about pursuing a Ph.D. in the American Civilization program at UD is that, in addition to spending several years cultivating a research specialty and scholarly expertise in an historical subject of choice, one also has the opportunity to spend time developing specialized professional skills attractive to potential employers.  My years in the AmCiv program have given me the time and flexibility I have needed to gain valuable real-world experience in the fields of special collections librarianship and archival work, in the context of my broader scholarly interest in book history and material texts.  The best example of this is my work on a new exhibit now on display at the Rosenbach Museum & Library in Philadelphia, titled The Art of Ownership: Bookplates and Book Collectors from 1480 to the Present. The experience of curating this exhibit has proven to be one of the most unique and valuable aspects of my graduate education at the University of Delaware.  I’m very grateful that the History Department and History of American Civilization program allowed the flexibility to pursue this and other job skills-oriented opportunities while matriculated in the Ph.D. program.


Photographer, Ryan Brandenberg.


Photographer, Ryan Brandenberg.

My work at the Rosenbach Museum & Library, which is affiliated with the Rare Book Department of the Free Library of Philadelphia, began when I was a master’s student in the Winterthur Program in American Material Culture here at the University of Delaware.  Shortly after arriving at Winterthur, I realized that I wanted to pursue a career working in special collections libraries and archives, so I decided to seek an internship in this area.  I reached out to Judy Guston, a Winterthur Program alum and the Rosenbach’s Curator and Director of Collections, about working with her and her staff.  The Rosenbach appealed to me as an internship site because it is both an historic house museum and a special collections library, which seemed to combine different aspects of my experience at Winterthur.  During a semester-long internship at the Rosenbach, I undertook research to identify Rosenbach-owned items to feature as part of an exhibition on the ex libris art form.  I was very pleased when, upon completion of my internship, Judy invited me to see the project through to completion, which meant finalizing the exhibition checklist, researching and writing object labels and wall didactics, and generating ideas for the show’s aesthetic design and layout.  I spent the summer between my first and second years in the AmCiv Ph.D. program completing much of that research, hours which count toward my museum studies certificate.  Now that the show is on display, I will gain further experience collaborating with Rosenbach tour guides and giving public presentations to promote the exhibit.  


Photographer, Ryan Brandenberg.


Photographer, Ryan Brandenberg.










Having had this kind of professional experience will doubtless prove helpful as I enter the ultra-competitive library, museum, and humanities Ph.D. job market.  I am exceedingly grateful to all at the Rosenbach for welcoming me into their vibrant professional community over the course of my work on this project.  Derick Dreher, Judy Guston, Elizabeth Fuller, Kathy Haas, Patrick Rodgers, Jobi Zink, Kelsey Scouten Bates, and the rest of the staff have been gracious and supportive mentors.  I also recognize that I could only pursue this in-depth project at the Rosenbach with the support of my academic department.  The History Department recognizes the good that can come from public humanities work, for both students and the broader community.   Doctoral work within the context of the AmCiv Ph.D. program affords students the opportunity to grow as both accomplished academic scholars and marketable public humanities employees—an important combination in today’s professional environment.  

About the Author: Alexander Ames is a student in the History of American Civilization Ph.D. program at the University of Delaware and a member of the Grolier Club in New York City. He plans to write a dissertation about Pennsylvania German calligraphy and manuscript illumination practices between 1750 and 1850. He tweets @Alex_L_Ames.

History Workshop Welcomes Tyler Putman

The conference room was packed on October 4th when Ph.D. Candidate Tyler Putman presented the first chapter of his dissertation, entitled “‘The Great Scarecrow’: Making Sense of Revolutionary War Combat.” Tyler is currently completing his dissertation, which explores how Americans came to define combat as an “incommunicable experience” of combat between the Revolutionary War and World War One. His abstract is below:

Joseph Plumb Martin went to war in 1776 and battle was the least of his worries. When he wrote his memoirs in 1830, he believed that his civilian readers could imagine what war was like. Combat made sense to Revolutionary War soldiers who compared it to other life experiences and used a variety of metaphors to describe it. Two centuries later, after serving in Iraq, veteran Kevin Powers wrote in The Yellow Birds (2012) that “war is only like itself.” The pre-circulated paper for this workshop, about the Revolutionary War, is the first chapter in a dissertation that investigates, using documentary and material evidence, how and why Americans came to see war as an “incommunicable experience” over the course of the long nineteenth century.


Professors from the Department of History, Hagley and Winterthur joined first and second year students and Tyler’s own cohort of fellow doctoral students. The talk was presided over by Dr. Christine Heyrman, a professor of Early American History and one of Tyler’s advisors. Dr. Heyrman commented on the manuscript, adding nuance to Tyler’s arguments and contributing her own perspective to the project.

Tyler’s talk was arranged through the History Department Workshop series. Every Tuesday a speaker presents on projects completed, in-progress or at the beginning stages. The workshops are a wonderful opportunity for introducing scholars from different fields and methodologies, from environmental history to material culture. This semester, the Tuesday Workshops opened the floor to museum professionals and historians outside of academia, including John Rumm, Executive Director of Nemours and David Caruso, the Director of the Oral History Project at the Chemical Heritage Foundation. University faculty and advanced graduate students frequently share their work, and guests occasionally get a sneak-peak on manuscripts in their early stages.


As people embark and progress on their own dissertations, Tyler’s workshop presentation reminded many of the History Department’s community of positive, constructive critique and reinforcement not always found in academia. We look forward to Tyler Putman’s forthcoming dissertation, “The Incommunicable Experience of War, 1775-1918.” You can also access Tyler’s recently-published article in Winterthur Portfolio, Joseph Long’s Slops: Ready-Made Clothing in Early America.”



Varnish is a Tricky Mistress, or, My Summer with the Boston Furniture Archive, Part 2

This blog post is by Erica Lome, a student in the History of American Civilization Ph.D. program at the University of Delaware. This fall, she will be a Graduate Assistant at Nemours Mansion & Gardens.

A summer in Boston can really fly by when you’re exploring beautiful historic homes and encountering new types of furniture. My first blog post about my experience with the Boston Furniture Archive (BFA) covered only our orientation and the first few days of working at a site. Since then, we’ve visited four vastly different locations spanning distinct periods in American material culture. First, the 1749 Spooner House in Plymouth where one family lived for over 200 years. Then, onto the Bostonian Society (est.1881) located in the Old State House, where a dedicated group of antiquarians assembled to preserve the property and create a repository for objects significant to Boston’s history. Along the posh streets of Back Bay lay our next destination, the Gibson House Museum, a snapshot of Victorian domestic life circa 1860 untouched by modern museum interventions. Lastly, we recently finished a week at the Loring-Greenough House in Jamaica Plain, built in 1760 for Commodore Loring. While its gardens are used primarily as a public recreation space for the community, the house is often closed to visitors and contains both original objects and those collected by the historic Jamaica Plain Tuesday Club.

A peek inside the Loring-Greenough Hosue

A peek inside the Loring-Greenough House

At these sites, we encountered English beds from the seventeenth century, ornately carved Renaissance Revival sideboards, Queen Anne tea tables, and reproduction Chippendales. While I’ve benefited tremendously as a historian from this experience, I have also learned a great deal about what it takes to manage, steward, preserve and interpret collections at small institutions and museums. Curators and board members alike were deeply invested in the holistic mission of their sites and provided us with records, inventories, and family histories so that we could view the objects we catalogued as part of a larger historic and personal narrative, rather than as isolated specimens.

That being said, the day-to-day work of cataloguing and photographing led to some unique learning moments. Rather than recap everything I did, I’ve decided to list some of the important and unexpected lessons I’ve learned which may benefit future scholars in the field.

1) Space is nearly always limited. At the Bostonian Society, we worked in a narrow storage room, with chairs crammed into nearly every available corner. The Society started out collecting objects relevant to the interests of its founders, which included many nineteenth-century pieces. Presently, the Society is focused on building up its Colonial and Revolutionary-era collections, so many of the pieces formerly on view have been placed out of sight of the public. With these challenges, we had to be creative when it came to staging a photography studio, and flexible (literally) about moving around. We encountered similar space issues when it came to shooting furniture too heavy to move. You won’t always have a great space to work in, so come prepared to problem-solve!

BFA member Zoe, taking a picture from inside the bathroom at the Gibson House

BFA member Zoe, taking a picture from inside the bathroom at the Gibson House

Squeezing into the carriage house at the Spooner House

Squeezing into the carriage house at the Spooner House

Working in collaboration with the collection’s manager, we set up a tight but workable space for shooting at the Bostonian Society

Working in collaboration with the collection’s manager, we set up a tight but workable space for shooting at the Bostonian Society

2) Furniture lies. A piece you thought you examined in one kind of light will end up having a bunch of marks (graphite numbers, signatures, chalk inscriptions) under the super-intense lights of the photo studio. Varnish, especially coatings applied during the late nineteenth to early twentieth-century, will disguise the wood grain and make identification difficult, or may appear to look deceptively like veneer. Additionally, a table that looks steady on its feet in the corner will turn out to have a pin loose, or is held together by some glue.

BFA intern Melissa examines each individual drawer for marks, while my nesting tables in the foreground turned out to have quite a few dowels loose

BFA intern Melissa examines each individual drawer for marks, while my nesting tables in the foreground turned out to have quite a few dowels loose

I found this chalk signature on the underside of a fall-front desk, after removing all the drawer components. Quite a surprise!

I found this chalk signature on the underside of a fall-front desk, after removing all the drawer components. Quite a surprise!

3) Be ready to face years and years of cobwebs built up in every nook and cranny. Likely, there will be some critter still crawling around and angry that you’ve disturbed their home.

Cobwebs, yuck.

Cobwebs, yuck.

4) Strength is key! We often joked that part of our training should have been a furniture boot camp, where we would deadlift armchairs and do squats with pedestal-base tea tables. In order to avoid straining our backs, we had to train ourselves to lift things the right way. Some pieces took all four of us to move, all while half-blind and maneuvering around obstacles.

An example of the diverse holdings of chairs from the Bostonian Society, and the problems their surroundings presented when it came to moving them.

An example of the diverse holdings of chairs from the Bostonian Society, and the problems their surroundings presented when it came to moving them.

5) Drink water, you fool! Summertime in Boston is no joke. You will likely one day work in a historic house with little to no air conditioning, and you’ll probably be working in the attic too. Our time at the Gibson house was punctuated by periodic water breaks and trips downstairs to the small fan for a moment of respite from the humidity. With the bright studio lights adding ten degrees to any space we were in, paying attention to our bodies was crucial.

A selfie taken in a moment of rest in between shooting at the Gibson House. Between the lights, carpet, and insulating wallpaper, it was a very hot stairway.

A selfie taken in a moment of rest in between shooting at the Gibson House. Between the lights, carpet, and insulating wallpaper, it was a very hot stairway.

6) Communication and Collaboration. At the beginning of the summer, we worked in pairs to catalogue each object and photograph them. Once we grew more confident in our skills, we found it more effective to divide-and-conquer and work solo on smaller objects like chairs and side-tables. However, it is silly to think you alone can know everything there is to know about a piece of furniture. I still have trouble with wood identification, and frequently sought the advice of my cohort. Alternatively, I could helpfully point out the differences in a Federal (1795-1815) vs. Empire (1815-1840) example when asked. We also took turns consulting our traveling library, looking for similar examples to guide our decision-making. When it came to photographing stationary pieces like tall case clocks or secretaries, we all worked together to hold up white backdrops and brown felt to decrease the reflective glare on tabletop surfaces. Tiring work, but worth it for the catalogue-worthy picture.

BFA member Claire looks through different wood samples to determine the material of this tea table

BFA member Claire looks through different wood samples to determine the material of this tea table

7) Have fun! Once our group started clicking, we could approach our tasks with a good amount of levity and humor. Picture four tired, sweaty young women gazing with intense focus at a chair…inside of a thrift store with pop music blaring. After a day of moving and photographing (hot lights!), we took a well-deserved ice cream break and wandered into a local shop. Secondhand furniture lingered in the corner, and although it was clearly a reproduction, someone wondered aloud what kind of wood it was and the four of us leaned in for a beat of silence, faces screwed in concentration, and then we burst out laughing. Even in our off-hours, we still had furniture on the brain!

From atop the stepstool, Zoe passes the camera’s memory card to a recumbent Claire

From atop the stepstool, Zoe passes the camera’s memory card to a recumbent Claire

If this experience has taught me anything, it is to always be looking. Once you know how something is put together, or can recognize its stylistic influences, you see your material environment in a completely new way! One member of the BFA came to work sheepishly admitting she had spent the night before trying to figure out the wood of every piece of furniture in her bedroom; another claimed she couldn’t finish a movie set in the colonial era when she spotted an Eastlake piece in the periphery of the frame. As for myself, going with my mother through the famous annual Brimfield Antique Show became a chance to play “Antiques Roadshow,” to her delight.

With worksheets to transcribe and photos to edit, my summer in Boston will end on a more mundane note. However, I’m proud that my efforts will contribute to future scholarship and discoveries in the field of material culture. I return to the University of Delaware excited and prepared to tackle any new collections that come my way.

Mysterious chairs await at the Gibson House Museum

Mysterious chairs await at the Gibson House Museum

About the author: This blog post is by Erica Lome, a student in the History of American Civilization Ph.D. program at the University of Delaware. This fall, she will be a Graduate Assistant at Nemours Mansion & Gardens.

Dovetails and Tenons: A Love Story, or My Summer with the Boston Furniture Archive Begins

This blog post is by Erica Lome, a student in the History of American Civilization Ph.D. program at the University of Delaware. This fall, she will be a Graduate Assistant at Nemours Mansion & Gardens. You can find her at

Walking into an eighteenth-century house to find three women with their legs sticking out from halfway underneath a sofa makes for an interesting sight. For me, it’s all part of a day’s work. This summer, I’m joined by three other young historians as a member of the Boston Furniture Archive. We will assess, catalogue, and photograph objects from historic institutions throughout the greater Boston area.

The Boston Furniture Archive (BFA) is an extension of the Four Centuries of Massachusetts Furniture project (organized and operated by the Winterthur Museum), which seeks to explore and celebrate furniture-making in the Bay State. As part of our summer’s duties, we’ve been trained to examine objects ranging from Windsor chairs to high chests. Already in its third year, this is an extensive and ongoing cataloguing project that will benefit scholars of material culture in untold ways.

Before we could even begin, I joined my BFA cohort in Boston for a week-and-a-half-long training session held at various institutions hosted by some of the leading experts in the field. At the Trustees of Reservations, Broke Jobe (who, with others, literally wrote the book on southeastern Massachusetts furniture) took us through a decorative arts boot camp. We learned about handling furniture and conservation practices at Historic New England with Senior Conservator Alex Carlisle and Senior Curator Nancy Carlisle.

Care and handling of objects at Historic New England

Care and handling of objects at Historic New England

At the North Bennett Street School, Winterthur’s Gregory Landry and furniture-maker Steve Brown taught us all about craftsmanship and wood identification (one of the trickiest aspects of cataloguing by far).

Cabinetmaking samples at the North Bennett Street School, one of the oldest trade schools in America

Cabinetmaking samples at the North Bennett Street School, one of the oldest trade schools in America

And, finally, at the Golden Ball Tavern Museum in Weston, we had the opportunity to learn professional photography and photoshop techniques so that anyone can access the best quality images and information about the furniture they seek on the BFA’s online database:

Practicing our photography skills on a Queen Anne chair

Practicing our photography skills on a Queen Anne chair

After that week of intense hands-on training, we were pumped and ready to get on the road! Our first stop was the Spooner House (c.1743) at the Plymouth Antiquarian Society in Plymouth, MA. Right up the road from Plymouth Rock, this lovely historic property features objects descended directly from its original eighteenth-century occupants. Happily, we were welcomed by Am Civ alum Anne Reilly, now the executive director of the Plymouth Antiquarian Society!

Our journey begins at the Spooner House!

Our journey begins at the Spooner House!

Our first day was a real eye-opener: thinking we could breeze through catalogue sheets that were as long as eleven pages, we soon learned the challenges of looking at furniture with a critical gaze. Using wood samples, UV flashlights and magnifying glasses, we first looked at every panel, leg, and frame of a seemingly “simple” Federal card table to determine the primary and secondary woods. Often the answers eluded us–was that porous hardwood mahogany? Or walnut? What about the figured veneers–might it be burled maple? Another crucial component was the means of construction, and whether the piece was handcrafted or machine-made.

The indispensable wood sample box, helping for learning wood types

The indispensable wood sample box, helping for learning wood types, which is part of our cataloguing kit

Certain things are dead giveaways to the former or latter, such as nail shape and size, saw marks, and joinery techniques. Of course, there’s also the style of a piece. Inlays, banding, and therm legs (or squared, tapered legs) certainly indicate the card table was from the Federal Period (1790-1815), but we might encounter revival styles in the future–or even reproductions!

Learning construction techniques at the North Bennett Street School

Learning construction techniques at the North Bennett Street School

Most importantly, our mission is to contribute to Boston’s furniture-making history. It’s been pointed out to us time and time again how little research and scholarship exists for this subject, as most furniture after the eighteenth century is attributed to New York or Philadelphia. The work we do this summer, at places like the Bostonian Society, Gibson House Museum, and New England Historic Genealogical Society, provides much-needed materials for historians of material culture in their ongoing and future projects. My own research examines how historical memory, craftsmanship, and American culture intersect and inform one another, and the benefits of having a resource like the Boston Furniture Archive are not to be underestimated. So often, our education in material culture comes from books, or museums, or the archives. Actually being able to handle furniture and comprehend their design and construction goes a long way towards enriching one’s education.

Furniture historians in their natural habitat!

Furniture historians in their natural habitat!

We have a busy summer ahead of us, and I hope to update the Am Civ blog as we make progress!

About the Author: Erica Lome is a student in the History of American Civilization Ph.D. program at the University of Delaware. This fall, she will be a Graduate Assistant at Nemours Mansion & Gardens. You can find her at

The Inner Workings of the World of Book Collecting at the Mark Samuels Lasner Collection

This blog post is by Alexander Ames, Ph.D. student in the History of American Civilization Program at the University of Delaware.

In a nondescript corner of the University of Delaware’s Morris Library sits one of the greatest private collections of Victorian British books, manuscripts, and artworks in the world: the Mark Samuels Lasner Collection. Every year, the Collection employs a graduate assistant to assist with the day-to-day responsibilities of managing a significant rare book collection.  During academic year 2015/2016, I had the honor of working in this capacity.  The experience proved to be a valuable complement to my doctoral studies in the History of American Civilization doctoral program at UD.

The Mark Samuels Lasner Collection, on loan to the University of Delaware Library, is an internationally renowned repository for the study of late-nineteenth-century British art, literature, and culture. The Collection focuses on the period 1850 to 1900, with an emphasis on the Pre-Raphaelites and on the writers and illustrators of the 1890s. Its holdings comprise over 9,000 first and other editions (including many signed and association copies), manuscripts, letters, works on paper, and ephemera.  While rich in works of some of the most famous authors, printers and visual artists of the late Victorian period, including Oscar Wilde, William Morris, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the Collection possesses tremendous breadth and depth, allowing researchers to explore the cultural contributions of lesser-known figures who occupied the same circles as the Victorian age’s most famous men and women.

William Morris’s The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer Now Newly Printed, commonly called the Kelmscott Chaucer and printed at Morris’s Kelmscott Press in 1896. The book is seen here in a slipcover made in the early twentieth century from William Morris fabric.

William Morris’s The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer Now Newly Printed, commonly called the Kelmscott Chaucer and printed at Morris’s Kelmscott Press in 1896. The book is seen here in a slipcover made in the early twentieth century from William Morris fabric.

Why would a doctoral student in early American history and material culture wish to spend a year immersed in the decadent world of the late Victorians?  The answer is simple: I hope to pursue a career in a library or archival environment, and work in the Mark Samuels Lasner Collection offered an unparalleled opportunity to learn about the inner workings of the world of book collecting.  After nine months in the Collection, I feel well-versed in the ways of the book collector and have gained valuable experience in library tasks such as cataloguing, analog and online exhibitions development, reference work, and reading room supervision.

The most exciting part of the assistantship, however, was doubtless observing and participating in the acquisition of new materials for the Collection. The landmark acquisition of the year was a rare, inscribed copy of William Morris’s The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer Now Newly Printed, commonly called the Kelmscott Chaucer and printed at Morris’s Kelmscott Press in 1896.

William Morris’s inscription of the Kelmscott Chaucer to Robert Catterson-Smith, who, together with Edward Burne-Jones, created illustrations for the book.

William Morris’s inscription of the Kelmscott Chaucer to Robert Catterson-Smith, who, together with Edward Burne-Jones, created illustrations for the book.

After it arrived at the UD Library, Mark Samuels Lasner and I drove the book to Manhattan for a welcoming party at The Grolier Club, a bibliophilic organization where the Chaucer was placed on display for an evening for members to study and enjoy.

The Kelmscott Chaucer on display at The Grolier Club, New York City, March 24, 2016.

The Kelmscott Chaucer on display at The Grolier Club, New York City, March 24, 2016.

Another important acquisition was a collection of paintings by British feminist Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon, a nearly-forgotten radical who was influenced by the Pre-Raphaelites.  Bodichon’s legacy will live on in the UD Library because of this acquisition.

Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon (1827-1891), The Gatehouse at Michelhaml Priory, ca. 1850. Watercolor on paper, 25 x 30 cm.

Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon (1827-1891), The Gatehouse at Michelhaml Priory, ca. 1850. Watercolor on paper, 25 x 30 cm.

I feel deeply grateful to have matriculated in a doctoral program that encourages students to acquire practical museum and library skills while developing scholarly research expertise in fields related to American material culture.  I am also incredibly thankful to Mark Samuels Lasner and all at the UD Library for working with me over the last academic year as I honed my collections-based career interests.  For more information about the Mark Samuels Lasner Collection, visit

About the Author: Alexander Ames is a student in the History of American Civilization Ph.D. program at the University of Delaware and a member of the Grolier Club in New York City. He plans to write a dissertation about Pennsylvania German calligraphy and manuscript illumination practices between ca. 1750 and 1850. He tweets @Alex_L_Ames.

Change Over Time

Watching intently as the workshop leaders shuffled hot embers from the front to the back of the hearth at an introductory hearth cooking workshop I took at Landis Valley Village & Farm Museum yesterday, I wondered whether I would have a chance to probe and prod meat again as it simmered and stewed over the fire. The first time I wielded a spatula was earlier that morning when I was directed to flip the meatballs. After accomplishing that mission, I stepped back to help chop and mix up turnips, onions, parsley, and butter. Lots of butter.

Nicole flipping meatballs over an open hearth (a 1930s-era reconstruction) at Landis Valley, February 2015

Nicole flipping meatballs over an open hearth (a 1930s-era reconstruction) at Landis Valley, February 2015

As a historian of the material culture of everyday life of early America, I spend a lot of time in museum collections and archives. As a result, I know how all this stuff works in theory. I’ve read countless historic recipes and walked past more hearths in historic houses (usually over-accessorized) that I can count. I’ve also seen cooking over a fire demonstrated in a variety of reputable historic sites and houses.

I love my work.

But I registered for the workshop to expand how I learn about and interpret the past. In other words, to bring my interpretative powers up to the next level, I knew I needed to get some time in front of the fire and to dedicate more time overall doing living history. When I say “living history,” I mean what museum and cultural heritage professionals refer to as practicing or enacting activities of the past (such as sewing, fighting, or just passing time at home), often wearing clothing from that period also. Some better-known historic sites that incorporate living history into their visitor experience include Colonial Williamsburg and Plimoth Plantation, but there are plenty more fine examples out there. As living history professionals and hobbyists and experimental archaeologists (or any teacher, really) will tell you, doing is knowing. And I want to do more doing.

Why bother?

I wanted to learn if you really could cook a chicken over hot coals in time to have it for dinner (yes!) and how to manipulate the cooking equipment to make food cook faster or slower (it’s complicated).

Chicken garnished and ready to be eaten at Landis Valley Museum, February 2015

Chicken garnished and ready to be eaten at Landis Valley Museum, February 2015

But I also learned things that will add subtlety to my understanding of the past I probably could not have learned any other way. I learned, for instance, that when you bend over a pot you have to battle your own shadow to see inside whether the lamb is still red. I learned what food tastes like if you get it too close to the embers. I also learned why any sort of warming plate, tray, or cabinet you find in any number of museum collections would have been desirable given how darn cold once warm and toasty chicken gets if it’s been sitting to the side of the hearth while you’ve been baking potato rolls, sautéing mushrooms, and roasting pork-wrapped bacon in a tin reflector oven.

Roasting pork-wrapped bacon in a reflector over at Landis Valley, February 2015

Roasting pork-wrapped bacon in a reflector over at Landis Valley, February 2015

I did something! I know more now.

What I didn’t expect to learn was how much of a twenty-first century person I really am. But that’s exactly what happened. As I was minding the lamb in the small cauldron, flipping it periodically to sear it before we threw it into a pot with veggies to make a stew, I accidentally catapulted a chunk of lamb into the fiery embers.

My heart stopped.

“Oh, no!” I gasped with genuine worry as I watched the cube of lamb become a red fireball, indistinguishable from the surrounding coals.

I panicked, just like I do at home when I drop something on a stove burner. I looked around desperately for help. How would I get a burning piece of meat out of the fire? It’s going to smell terribly! Won’t it set off a fire alarm?

I was surprised that in the midst of my horror, everyone was standing calmly behind me. Most were chuckling.

Of course they were. We already have a fire. A big one. In the hearth. I wasn’t making it any worse.

“We’ll just scoop it up,” the Marsha Houston the instructor explained. “Don’t worry about it!”

Right. We’ll just scoop it up. Of course!

I apologized profusely. But I don’t think I was really apologizing for losing a nice piece of meat or even for Marsha having to move it aside. I think I was apologizing for caring so much. In this context, dropping a piece of meat onto a cooking surface wasn’t a big deal. In the space of just a few moments, I had found the gap between my pre-industrial self and my twenty-first century self. And it was a large one. Yes, doing is knowing.

Change over time was never so apparent.

Further Reading and Doing

There are lots of books that the history of domestic life and kitchens. I will list just one here that focuses on kitchen spaces. Nancy Carlisle and Melinda Talbot Nasardinov with Jennifer Pustz, America’s Kitchens (Boston: Historic New England, 2008).

Many museums and historic sites around the country host single- and multi-day hearth cooking workshops. See, for example, Old Sturbridge Village, Genesee Country Village and Museum, Historic Deerfield, and Old Salem Museum & Gardens. Investigate museums in your area and find your own adventure! If you’ve participated in a historic foldaways workshop you particularly liked, let me know.

You can also pay visits to many wonderfully intact historic kitchens at historic sites. In this area, check out The Woodlands in Philadelphia (circa 1786) or The George Read House and Gardens (1803-1805) in New Castle, Delaware. Do you have a favorite?

If you want to learn and talk about about historic foldaways with members from the Philadelphia region, follow Cliveden’s Kitchen Conversations programming.

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.This blog post was originally published at her professional web site. Nicole tweets @nicolebelolan.

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!

What’s a “bad thing”? Find out at the 13th-Annual Material Culture Symposium for Emerging Scholars

We are pleased to announce the schedule for Very Bad Things: Material Culture and Disobedience. This free Material Culture Symposium for Emerging Scholars will be held on Saturday, April 11, 2015, at the Winterthur Museum.

To register, please email

VERYBADTHINGSFINALVery Bad Things: Material Culture and Disobedience 

8:15 – Registration
8:45 – Welcome Remarks

9:00 – Session 1: Beneath the Surface

“Flying from What? Why, a Bit of Painted Wood”: A Cross-Disciplinary Analysis of Dummy Boards and Deception in Eighteenth-Century Philadelphia
Katie McKinney and Emily Wroczynski, Winterthur Program in American Material Culture and Winterthur Program in Art Conservation, University of Delaware

Under Pressure: The Material and Political Resistance of Mezzotints
Amy Torbert, Ph.D. Candidate, Department of Art History, University of Delaware

A Silver Brand: Slave Brands and Branding in the Early Modern Atlantic World
Erin Holmes, Ph.D Candidate, Department of History, University of South Carolina

Commentator: Catherine Dann Roeber, Development Officer, Major Gifts, Winterthur Museum, Garden, and Library

10:30 – Coffee Break

11:00 – Keynote Address
Auntie Steward
Speaker: Scott Herring, Associate Professor of English, Indiana University

12:00 – Lunch Break

1:00 – Session 2: The Inside Out/The Outside In

“It’s a Lone Thing – and I’m a Lone Thing”: Bad Currency and the Miser’s Economy in Silas Marner
Meg Dobbins, Ph.D. Candidate, English, Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, Washington University in St. Louis

Picturing the Black Home: The Visual and Material Culture of Nineteenth-Century African American Activism
Whitney Stewart, Ph.D. Candidate, Department of History, Rice University

A “Blight” and a “Nuisance”: Billboards, Spectaculars, and Outdoor Advertising in American Cities, 1900-1920
Craig Lee, Ph.D. Candidate, Department of Art History, University of Delaware

Commentator: Katherine Fama, NEH Research Fellow, Winterthur Museum, Garden, and Library

2:30 – Break

2:45 – Session 3: The Deviant Body

Overcoming a Sensational Icon: Ku Klux Klan Robes as Historical Evidence
Katherine Lennard, Ph.D. Candidate, Department of American Culture, University of Michigan

Dangerously Empowered by Iron: Basement Gyms and Excitement about Bodybuilding in the late USSR
Alexey Golubev, Ph.D. Candidate, Department of History, University of British Columbia

The Romanticization of Resistance: The Contradictions and Failures of the Zapatista Doll
Erin Sexton, American Studies Department, George Washington University

Grave Goods: The Disquieting Contents of Singaporean Burial Plots
Ruth E. Toulson, Andrew Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in the Humanities, Penn Humanities Forum/Department of Religious Studies, University of Pennsylvania

Commentator: Sandy Isenstadt, Professor, Department of Art History, University of Delaware

4:30 – Tours of Winterthur

To register, please email

Sailing and Sewing aboard the SSV Corwith Cramer

After spending six weeks aboard the SSV (Sailing School Vessel) Corwith Cramer, 23 days of which comprised our Atlantic crossing between Gran Canaria and Dominica, I’ve been finding it difficult to quantify all that I experienced and learned. I was aboard the Cramer as a guest “voyager,” a position that combined the roles of deckhand and visiting scholar. The Cramer is one of two ships operated by the Sea Education Association, an organization that runs semester-long programs for undergraduate students. Their voyages emphasize marine science, maritime skills, and cultural studies that vary based on changing cruise tracks.

I expected to learn about sail handling, knots, celestial navigation, the physical world of shipboard life, and how it feels to be out of sight of land for weeks at a time. And I did. But I also learned about meteorology, pelagic birds, and the “plastisphere” that develops around discarded plastics in the ocean. I worked on diesel engines, cooked for a crew of thirty, and examined the many tiny creatures that appeared in our net samples (including such bizarre animals as mesopelagic nudibranchs, phronima amphipods, and megalope). It was easy to get excited about such things because everyone on board was passionate about their field of study, be it engineering, history, sailing, or science. Conversations around the dinner table and on deck moved easily from tall ships to Caribbean politics to the physics of rainbows to the Lego movie. I shared a bit of my own passion in such informal conversations and in a presentation about material culture during one of our daily all-hands meetings.

I’m working on several reflective essays about my experience. In the mean time, I wanted to discuss what I worked on in spare moments between standing watch on the voyage: sewing and thinking about how and what sailors sewed at different points in history. During my time aboard the Cramer, I completed a reproduction of a sailor’s jacket recovered from the wreck site of the General Carleton, a British vessel that sank in 1785. Historians Lawrence Babits and Matthew Brenckle documented the jacket in a chapter of the archaeological report available here. You’ll forgive the anachronistic beard and glasses in the images below.

I wanted to sew on board the Cramer as a way of thinking about what it must have been like for sailors aboard earlier ships to make and repair their clothing amidst their many other duties. Shipboard life and labor meant sailors often wore peculiar styles of clothes, garments that distinguished them from other workers. Clothing still matters to sailors. Today’s professional tall ship sailors joke about looking like “schooner bums” when in port, and they can still recognize other sailors by the sorts of things they wear.

Ships, historically and today, are cramped places, and people are amazingly creative when they are looking for a place to work. On the Cramer, people played music, wrote in journals, read books, and crafted in their bunks, at the dinner tables in the main salon, on deck, on the “elephant table” (a seven-foot-high platform behind the foremast), and wedged into impossibly small places in the metal and wooden confines of our environment.

Today’s sailors, much like those of the past, sew out of necessity. I was surprised how often I saw people sewing on board, given that most people I meet on land are unable to sew at all. There are several explanations for why sailors sew. First, every crewmember has only a limited wardrobe and no recourse to a clothing store, so they have to repair damaged garments if they wanted to wear them again..

Clothing gets dirty and wears out quickly on board a ship. My own canvas pants, for example, looked like this after only a week’s wear:

We had no washing machines aboard the Cramer, and so crewmembers laundered clothing in the open air of the deck. On any given morning, a handful of people enjoying their time off watch could be found sitting on the foredeck around small piles of dirty clothes or pinning clean ones up to dry on a line. It’s amazing what you can do with two buckets, some soap, and your hands.

But there are other explanations for why people sew so much onboard ship besides functional ones. One afternoon, I watched as a sailor patched a pair of Hawaiian-print shorts on the quarterdeck. The cotton was hopelessly torn in multiple places, and several generations of stitches, sewn cloth patches, and adhesive sail patches covered portions of the seat and leg. But these were a favorite garment, and she had worn them through several voyages. Sailors often live and travel with far fewer belongings that most people on land, so some things take on substantial sentimental value.

Many of the crew and students on our voyage studied how plastics entered and impacted the world’s oceans, and they were especially conscious about the wasteful nature of American consumer culture. All contemporary ships have to be careful with how much waste they generate, because they must transport inorganic trash such as plastics until they find a suitable land depository. We were very careful on the Cramer about what we used and threw away. Crewmembers carefully repaired clothing at sea when such garments might have ended up at Goodwill or the dumpster on land.

Depictions of earlier sailors at work and descriptions of their personal effects often include small boxes containing sewing tools. Almost as soon as I began sewing aboard the Cramer, I wished I had brought more small containers. Sewing doesn’t take many tools, but even a pair of scissors, some thread, and few needles seems like a lot to keep track of when you don’t have much space your whole world is rolling back and forth. I was constantly losing pins, though thankfully all were found by eagle-eyed and patient shipmates, rather than in the soles of some poor sailor’s foot late at night.

The only sewing tool lacked aboard the Cramer was an iron. Historically, irons were just that – bars of iron heated in the coals of a fire or on a stove. I suspect most early sailing ships had one, and my inability to press sewn seams made my Carleton jacket visibly different from the original and other eighteenth-century garments I’ve examined. A talented shipmate was kind enough to make me a wooden seam rubber, a tool that presses linen seams using pressure rather than heat and steam, but it was ineffective in pressing woolen seamst. The most successful effort occurred when the steward, Nina, and I conspired to heat one of her cast-iron pans in our shipboard oven long enough to get it piping hot and use it as a make-do iron.

I had a file of research on the Carleton jacket and brought along all the supplies I would need to recreate it. Other sewing projects on board had less planning behind them. A few hours out of Dominica, we realized that our shipboard stores lacked the flag of that country. Typically, foreign ships visiting a port fly a “courtesy flag” as a gesture of respect to their host. With a small flag identification sheet as our guide, several of us went to work cutting up spare bed sheets and old t-shirts, assembling them into a one-sided rendition of the Dominican flag.

Sailing, I learned, is about teamwork. Moving a ship across an ocean requires you to work with the people who happen to be your shipmates. That was true in 1492, and it’s true today. The Sea Education Association’s motto reminds crewmembers how they should arrange their priorities while on board: “Ship, Shipmate, Self.” You arrive on a ship as strangers, and suddenly you are surrounded by the same small group of people without interruption for weeks at a time. You learn about your shipmates’ idiosyncrasies, and you put up with their flaws in part because you have no other choice. But more importantly, these people, your shipmates, put up with your own failings. You pick up each others’ slack. “Every time you feel like you’re pulling more than your own weight,” our chief mate told us early in the voyage, “That’s good. Because whenever you don’t feel that way, someone else does.”

Teamwork is hard work. Working and living together aboard a ship or otherwise can leave people embittered and unfriendly. But sometimes, the unpredictable chemistry of a crew produces a splendid result. The most valuable thing I learned while sailing aboard the Corwith Cramer had less to do with history, biology, metereology, or navigation. I learned that when you surround yourself with good people, anything seems possible. I did much less sewing on personal projects than I expected. But I’m most proud of a project I hadn’t planned, that Dominica flag. Where else could you find half a dozen people, most of whom had never sewn a stitch in their lives, ready to drop what they were doing, chop up old rags, and assemble a flag at a moment’s notice, all the time smiling? The result, like a good crew, sometimes looks ragged up-close, but when you step back and let the wind do its work, it is something quite beautiful.

About the author: Tyler Rudd Putman is a Ph.D. student in the History of American Civilization program at the University of Delaware. In 2014, he sailed aboard the Charles W. Morgan‘s “38th Voyage” and aboard the SSV Corwith Cramer during a transatlantic crossing from the Canary Islands to the Caribbean. 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.

“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.