Dispatches from the Archives

By Elizabeth Jones-Minsinger

The first day of my graduate assistantship in the Manuscripts and Archives Department of Morris Library did not begin auspiciously. A truck carrying blank pennies had overturned on I-95 just north of our house, snarling traffic for hours on both the highway and local roads. I was already nervous to begin my archives assistantship because the work seemed so different from my own research, teaching, and scholarship. Having spent the last few years deeply entrenched in the specialized research and historiographical minutiae of my dissertation, would I be able to research a broad variety of collections and provide helpful access points to scholars? Would my knowledge of nineteenth- and twentieth-century history and materials be enough? Would I get crushed by the rolling stacks as I went to retrieve a box???

Luckily, I still managed to make it to the library on time and did not have to negotiate the rolling stacks on my first day. Throughout Special Collections, I found a wonderful community of librarians, archivists, and scholars and an outstanding repository of rare books, manuscripts, and ephemera. My own scholarship had brought me to Special Collections periodically over the years to research topics as diverse as eighteenth-century recipes, prisoner of war narratives, and household account books, so I already knew this was an incredibly rich repository.

However, I did not know just how much work went into making the collections available to researchers like me. The learning curve of this assistantship has been steep. Since September, I’ve been on a crash course in archival processing, learning to arrange materials, research and describe collections, and even encode finding aids. My first project exemplified the wide range of skills I would have to master. I was given a large, green, leather-bound manuscript and asked to provide a physical description, condition report, biographical and historical note, and scope of the contents. Relying on my limited knowledge of book construction and a healthy dose of Google searches, I completed the physical description of the manuscript fairly quickly. However, I quickly ran into an obstacle. The manuscript was a detailed volume of industrial weaving techniques from the late nineteenth century…in French. My knowledge of French is limited to two (essential) questions—how to get to the hospital and where to find the bathroom. However, I had some experience with textiles and their construction. Relying on cognates, similarities to Spanish, and Google Translate, I was able to muddle through.

In doing so, I discovered a fascinating story. The creator of the volume was J. Mercier, a student at the École Municipal de Tissage et de Broderie (Municipal School of Weaving) in Lyon, France. The school taught “the silk business” to the children of the Lyon’s residents, preparing them to be skilled weavers. Mercier likely created the manual, entitled “Cahier de Théorie,” to fulfill requirements during his third or fourth year in the program. In addition to lengthy discussions on the properties of various fabrics, Mercier included painstakingly detailed drawings of weaving patterns and diagrams for warping textile looms. Most pages of the volume are illustrated with multicolor drawings of repeating patterns and adorned with related fabric swatches. For my first project, I had been given a material culturist’s dream: a mixed media object that chronicled a craftsman’s acquisition of skill and expertise.

MSS 0097, Item 0174, J. Mercier, Cahier de théorie : notebook on weaving, Special Collections, University of Delaware, Newark, Delaware.

Following the Mercier project, I worked on several other French manuals related to textile production. Soon, I was also researching materials in German. For a brief moment, I was the expert in fin-de-siècle European industrial textile production manuals at the University of Delaware.

But I soon had to broaden my horizons once again. Since September, I have processed materials in French, German, Spanish, Latin, Italian, and, of course, English. My work has carried me to many times and places. I’ve processed a nineteenth-century devotional book created at a Catholic abbey in Ghent and a book casing constructed by a twenty-first-century paper conservator. I’ve read the accounts of itinerant Quakers, an American industrialist abroad, and a consumptive English poet traveling to Madeira in search of a cure. This assistantship has revived my interest in food history and allowed me to find a good home for my collection of gelatin ephemera (currently being processed by yours truly).

“It’s So Simple”: Jell-O, America’s Most Famous Dessert
The Genesee Pure Food Company, 1922.
University of Delaware, Special Collections
Formerly the Collection of the Author

I am now working on a processing plan for the U.S. Customs House papers from the port of Philadelphia, a collection spanning the 1790s to the 1930s. Once again, I’m encountering a steep learning curve, negotiating the myriad documents and specialized language generated by an expanding bureaucracy over three centuries. I’ve reconciled myself to the fact that I can’t be an expert in every collection I process. Instead, I need to rely on my research skills to identify reliable sources and make collections as accessible as possible to potential scholars. However, I’ve found that the Program in American Civilization has served me well, giving me a broader knowledge base than I realized I possessed and connecting me with a group of scholars willing to share their expertise when I’m out of my depth.

I look forward to further broadening my horizons in the coming months. And if you don’t hear from me for a while, PLEASE check the rolling stacks.

Elizabeth Jones-Minsinger is a doctoral candidate in the Program in American Civilization. For a sample of her work at the University of Delaware’s Morris Library, please visit https://library.udel.edu/spec/findaids1/view?docId=ead/mss0097_0084.xml

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.

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 http://library.udel.edu/spec/collections/msl/.

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.

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!

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.

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.”

Summer Projects in Material Culture

From sewing tents to digging up sherds, Ph.D. students in the History of American Civilization program at the University of Delaware’s Department of History know how to keep themselves busy during the summer. Here is a sampling of what we’ll be doing over the next few months:

Nicole Belolan, Elizabeth Jones, and Anne Reilly will all participate as fellows in the University of Delaware’s Public Humanities Institute (DELPHI). DELPHI exposes graduate students studying material culture to a variety of tools for communicating their research to a broad audience. After two weeks of workshops in June, participants purse their research and work on public outreach projects. Nicole, Anne and Liz will all continue to pursue research they are conducting for their dissertations. You can read short descriptions of their research below. You can also learn more at the DELPHI web site.

  • Nicole is working on the material culture of physical mobility impairment in early America. She is investigating how early Americans used objects to manage their bodies and how those experiences shaped ideas and practices related to gender roles, citizenship, and identity.
  •  Liz’s research examines the role of women’s consumption in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth century mid Atlantic, utilizing methodologies from both economic history and material culture studies.
  • Anne is working on twentieth-century public commemorations. This summer, Anne will continue her research on the 1907 Jamestown Tercentenary. She will begin in Richmond, supported by a research fellowship from the Virginia Historical Society.

Alison Kreitzer will be interning at the Hagley Museum and Library this summer. She is part of a team working to finish processing the Z. Taylor Vinson Transportation Collection. Researchers will gain access to the 700 cubic feet of transportation (mainly automobile) memorabilia in 2014. In the meantime, learn more about the Z. Taylor Vinson Transportation Collection by visiting Hagley’s blog.

Lisa Minardi is organizing the fifth annual archaeology field school at The Speaker’s House. The house was the home of Frederick Muhlenberg (1750-1801), the first Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. Muhlenberg’s house is located in Montgomery County, PA. The dig runs June 4th through 22th. Visit www.speakershouse.org to learn more.

Tyler Putman sewing. His tailoring skills will come in handy this summer while working at Colonial Williamsburg.

Tyler Putman sewing. His tailoring skills will come in handy this summer while working at Colonial Williamsburg.

Tyler Putman will be dusting off his needles to help reproduce the field tent or marquee George Washington used during the American Revolution. The Museum of the American Revolution owns the original “First Oval Office,” which will serve as the project’s model. Several expert “tailor-historians” will sew the reproduction while interpreting the process at Colonial Williamsburg this summer. You can read more about the project here, and  you can “follow” the tent on its Facebook page here. In addition,check out the project’s progress throughout the summer via the web cam.

Be sure to check back during the summer to read some reports from the field!

Reflections on Presenting Material Culture Research to Public Audiences

Over the past few years, History of American Civilization students have presented their research to the University of Delaware’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. Take a moment to read Nicole Belolan’s recent exchange with her colleague Alison Kreitzer below. Here, Alison, a fourth year Am Civ candidate, reflects on how sharing her research on African American men and automobile racing in the early twentieth century with the non-specialist Osher audience has enriched her academic work.

What was the nature of the research you presented to your Osher audience?

Alison: My Osher talk focused on the participation of African American men in automobile racing during the 1920s and early 1930s. African American men interested in automobiles and automotive technology began to compete in automobile races during this period to combat the social and spatial limitations that black Americans faced under Jim Crow. African Americans recognized that the automobile had specific cultural capital within American society as a symbol of white, middle class status. By showing that they could own, drive, and repair automobiles through organized speed contests, African Americans used this leisure activity as a platform to push for greater racial equality within the United States.

My research for this talk is primarily based on documentary evidence collected from African American newspapers. I am particularly interested in gaining a greater understanding of the types of automobiles that black racers competed in during this period. By comparing the driver and car information provided in contemporary newspapers with surviving racecars from this period located in automobile racing museums, I have significantly expanded my understanding of the types of racecars, financial costs, and the consumer networks black racecar drivers used to piece together their racing machines.

You participated in the University of Delaware’s Delaware Public Humanities Institute (DELPHI) during the summer of 2012. DELPHI is designed develop graduate students’ public humanities “toolkits” through a series of workshops. How did your participation in DELPHI help prepare you for the Osher audience?

Alison: My participation in DELPHI taught me important strategies to “package” my dissertation research in ways that are exciting and meaningful to a more general audience of history enthusiasts. Several members of the Osher audience had experience with racing or tinkering with automobiles, so they automatically connected to the more technical side of my talk, which discussed the types of racecars that participants competed in during the 1920s and 1930s. However, my talk also focused on larger historical issues and themes like segregated transportation and race relations. Audience members who did not have firsthand experience with automobile racing connected to personal experiences where they had witnessed cases of discrimination similar to those experienced by the black automobile racers that I described in my talk. The series of DELPHI workshops also helped me hone my public speaking and presentation skills, which allowed me to feel comfortable addressing the Osher audience.

How did your presentation preparation and style differ from how you might have prepared for a more “academic” venue such as a scholarly conference?

Alison: Unlike a scripted academic talk, the more informal nature of the Osher talk allowed me to discuss my research without reading my presentation to the audience. I used my power point slides which featured images of African American automobilists, racecar drivers, primary source documents, and surviving racecars to lead my discussion. Osher audience members felt comfortable with the informal nature of my presentation and asked questions throughout my talk, which allowed me to provide additional information about my research findings that targeted the specific interests of particular members of the audience.

The presentation technology has changed, but Alison's audience was likely as engaged as was the audience pictured here in 1944 at the United Nations Club in Washington, D.C. (Courtesy Library of Congress)

The presentation technology has changed, but we can be sure that Alison’s audience was as engaged with her talk on African American men and automobile racing  as was the audience pictured here in a 1944 photograph taken by J. Sherrel Lakey at the United Nations Club in Washington, D.C. (Library of Congress)

How did you get your listeners to relate to your work? What about material culture or your research in particular strikes a chord with the public?

Alison: The majority of the Osher audience members had no direct experience with automobile racing; however, all listeners had driven automobiles throughout their lifetimes. An important way to connect listeners to my topic is to directly compare the experience of driving a passenger automobile to the experience of driving a racecar. Discussing the limited safety equipment like helmets and goggles available to interwar racers also helps audience members to create a mental image of what automobile racing was like during this period. After introducing objects that help to contextualize the sport for listeners, I can discuss how larger historical themes like masculinity, American leisure, consumption, and race relations are important aspects of my work. Even if the audience is not particularly interested or knowledgeable about automobile racing, my discussion of the material culture and major themes pertinent to the history of dirt track racing strikes a chord with members of the public who have participated in America’s car culture and are interested in hobbies or sports.

How did presenting your work to this group change the way you think about your research?

Alison: The Osher participants provided several stories of their own personal experiences with automobile traveling and competitive racing that worked to verify the historical experiences and narrative that forms the heart of my research. Their questions encouraged me to dig deeper into the personal histories of individual drivers to develop a greater understanding of their educational and family backgrounds as well as the reasons that prevented them from continuing to participate in automobile races by the early 1940s.

In what ways do you think material culture scholars are particularly well situated to bridge what is sometimes perceived as a “gap” between the public and academia?

Alison: Material culture scholars are particularly well suited to bridge the gap between academic research and public humanities because people from all different personal and educational backgrounds interact with objects like passenger automobiles on a daily basis. By studying objects, material culture scholars develop additional questions to pursue throughout their research projects that they may have missed by only studying document records. Since automobile racing history is not a widely studied topic highlighted in museum collections or academia, my research goals include developing public humanities outreach programs like this talk for the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute to educate people about dirt track automobile racing history.

On behalf of the Am Civ Blog, I extend special thanks to Alison for sharing her experiences with us today! We look forward to seeing her research progress. In the mean time, stay tuned this summer for more reflections on what Am Civvies are getting out of the Delaware Public Humanities Institute (DELPHI) fellowship training.