Public History Baths

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who is TED? A Crash Course in Articulating “Ideas Worth Spreading”

As each of my fellow participants in the 2013 Delaware Public Humanities Institute (DelPHI) fellows program chose a folded slip of paper from the box passed around the table, my excitement mounted. Who would be my “pretend” audience for my upcoming five-minute presentation on my research? A group of kids? Retired professionals? Prospective museum donors? The possibilities were endless, but I was eager to accept the challenge. As the box of dwindling slips reached me, I dipped my hand into the pool, selected a strip of paper, and read it discreetly to myself.

“TED talk.”

ted talk screen shot

This is a screen shot of the Ted web site. I combed the site for inspiration in preparation for my mini-Ted talk debut.

Shoot, I thought.

I had been musing just days before about how I needed to do some research on this guy Ted and his talks. Well, now I had a few days to figure this out to avoid making a fool of myself.

Presiden Franklin Roosevelt was known for his ability to captivate Americans through his "Fireside Chats." Harris & Ewing,  FDR Fireside Chat, September 6, 1936 (Library of Congress)

Presiden Franklin Roosevelt was known for his ability to captivate and reassure many Americans through his “Fireside Chats” delivered during times of national crisis. Great communicators are both born and made. DelPHI gave us the tools to work on the “making” part of that equation. Harris & Ewing, FDR Fireside Chat, September 6, 1936 (Library of Congress)




One of the goals of DelPHI is to give us, the humanities graduate student participants, tools for refining how we communicate our research to public audiences (from your grandmother at the retirement home to my little cousin at school) using outreach tools ranging from Twitter to public talks. The significance of our research (the material culture of disability in early America, in my case) often seems self-evident. We don’t need to remind ourselves of that significance on a daily basis. But when it comes to convincing other people of our research’s significance or its utility in everyday life…well, that’s another challenge all together. And while we know the answers to these questions in theory, articulating them is an art.

In the course of creating my “art,” I started with the horse’s mouth. I knew from hearing snippets of the “TED Radio Hour” on NPR that TED talks tend to be engaging and relevant to the average (NPR) listener. Indeed, according to the TED web site, “TED is a nonprofit devoted to ideas worth spreading.”

No pressure there.

TED, established in 1984, tends to feature speakers from the technology, entertainment, and design (hence, “TED”) communities, yet any survey of recent TED speakers shows that, as TED points out on its web site, its scope has broadened. TED hosts two conferences per year, and audience members who pay a few thousand dollars just to be there, listen to speakers who are expected, according to TED’s website, to “give the talk of their lives (in 18 minutes or less).”

Ok. So, I had to “give the talk of my life,” and I only had five (rather than eighteen) minutes to accomplish that. Right.

I have given many talks in the past to a variety of audiences, but somehow this one seemed more daunting (not least of all because my fellow DelPHI-ers were great communicators!). Many of my colleagues pulled out slips of paper that dictated a specific audience; my slip of paper dictated a genre. It turns out that the genre, “ideas worth spreading,” might, at the end of the day, be a good mantra to keep in mind for any future talk, undergraduate lecture, or grant application, etc., no mater how long and for whom. Surely there are some good models out there. (If you’re starting to wonder whether there are any critics of TED talks, your instincts are correct. Google “Ted talk criticism” to see what people find unappealing about Ted).

So I did a little more digging and started watching some TED talks available online. First, I found a talk about giving good talks. Meta, I know, but what the heck. This was my only “homework” for two weeks, so I decided this was a better use of time than watching Here Comes Honey Boo Boo reruns.

First, I listened to Nancy Duarte, an expert presentation designer, who asserted that after studying talks such as MLK’s 1963 “I Have Dream Speech” and Steve Jobs’ 2007 iPhone unveiling, the structure of a good talk generally follows the same pattern: the speaker explains the status quo, or “what is,” and then explains “what could be.” This speaker repeated this several times before ending the speech with a description of the “new bliss” or “new norm.”

After fooling around with my subject matter for a while, I decided that Duarte’s blueprint, while useful for some contexts, would not suit my subject or my time frame of just five minutes.

By this point, I realized that, much like there is more than one way for historians to tell stories, there is also more than one way to tell a story using a TED talk.

Titian, The Bacchanal of the Andrians, oil on canvas, 1523-1526 (Muso Nacional de Prado)

Titian, The Bacchanal of the Andrians, oil on canvas, 1523-1526 (Muso Nacional de Prado) According to Thomas Campbell’s professor, today, using the word “orgy” to describe this scene helps contemporary minds “mak[e] a lost world relevant.”

So if I didn’t have to follow that model, I kept plumbing the depths of the TED web site for more inspiration and insight. I decided I should watch some TEDs given by individuals in my own field—history, material culture, and museums—for inspiration. It turns out there isn’t much out there. (Can we fix that? Actually, it seems that the Met is staging its own TED event.) So I started with Metropolitan Museum of Art director Thomas P. Campbell’s talk “Weaving Narratives in Museum Galleries.”To be honest, I just watched highlights to get the gist of it all. And I began to realize that everyone goes about this quite differently (reinforcing my epiphany about storytelling).

It was time to start working on the talk.

The one unifying theme I found with each good TED is that the speakers pontificate from the heart. Campbell really got me excited about tapestries and how museum-goers can have meaningful experiences with them. In short, he echoed my enthusiasm for what he described as “making a lost world relevant” for the public. I laughed out loud when he recounted his interaction with an art history professor who chastised Campbell for using the word “bacchanal” instead of the more down-to-earth “orgy” when it came to classifying the scene depicted in The Bacchanal of the Andrians by Titian. (Let’s stay jargon-free, here, folks!)

The good TED speakers exuded genuine passion for their subjects, and listeners benefitted from learning about the subject matter but also from being in the same room with an enthusiastic expert. (Enthusiasm energizes me, even when I don’t agree with what is being said.)

But how could I replicate this in a mini-TED? How could I impart a complete informative story as well as enthusiasm in just five minutes? I decided that my sparkle would be derived, in part, by my committing my mini-TED to memory. Now, I don’t mean rote memory, but rather I chose my images carefully so that they would prompt me to tell a story that would captivate my audience’s interest from the start to the end. And I practiced…a lot…something that had been drilled into me as a teenager pursuing music and theater. Being moderately impatient and most definitely perfectionist, I always wanted the sparkle to come NOW. Not much has changed, so this took some time. I achieved it by talking to myself a lot during evenings leading up to the mini-TED.

Here I am with a nineteenth-century crutch from my personal collection, about to start my mini Ted talk at the Delaware Public Humanities Institute. I even took the time to create my own "TED" sign.

Here I am with a nineteenth-century crutch from my personal collection, about to start my mini Ted talk at the Delaware Public Humanities Institute. I even took the time to create my own “TED” sign.

I had the meat of the talk down pretty early. I knew I would be featuring one of the individuals with a disability (and his stuff) whom I plan to include in my dissertation, but I struggled most with how to grab my audience’s attention from the start. My initial impulse was to walk into the auditorium on crutches. As one of my DelPHI instructors noted, “we’ve all been there, right?” Most definitely. But I thought that perhaps such a move might offend (for lack of a better word) some audiences, particularly since I am not an individual with a physical mobility (or any other) impairment. So I decided to play it safe and use, instead, a nineteenth-century crutch from my own collection as a prop. My hope was that this evocative object would get my audience to conjure up their own past experiences with or observations of people with physical mobility impairment and crutch use.

And then, I launched into my guy’s eighteenth-century story. But really, it was my story about how I came to identify him as a viable research avenue, why objects proved critical in interpreting his story, and how these objects changed the way his contemporaries thought about him and how we think about disability today. My research path, not really the research itself, provided the fuel for the enthusiasm I think I successfully conveyed in the course of the mini-TED. I realized that my talk followed the storytelling trajectory (likely familiar to many) we learned about from documentary filmmaker Michael Oats: familiarity, comfort; a challenge; a resolution. This personal research trajectory angle worked with my audience of peers, and I think it would work for the general public as well. Why not impart our knowledge of history through the demystification of what researching history involves? Perhaps this is one way historians and other public humanists can convey why the humanities matter. (There’s been a lot of debate about how to do this best in recent months.)

And so what did I take away from this experience? Was it worth it to spend all that time throwing a crutch around my apartment for a few nights, trying to find the sweet spot of my enthusiasm for my research? The process reinforced what I knew already—that good research takes time, that I love my research and sharing it with others, and that it takes time to craft a unique presentation for each unique audience. I owe it to myself, I owe it to my audience, and I owe it to the humanities.

Thanks, Ted!

About the author: When she is not antiquing, hanging out in a museum, or teaching, Nicole Belolan is studying material culture and disability in early America.This year, she is working as a graduate assistant for the Museum Studies Program’s Sustaining Places initiative. Read more about Nicole’s work at her web site,, and follow her on Twitter @nicolebelolan.

Commemorating New Sweden…again

Despite its status as the first permanent European settlement in the Delaware Valley, the New Sweden colony does not hold the same place in American mythology as Jamestown or Plymouth—even for people who live quite close to “The Rocks,” the site of the 1638 Swedish landing in what is now Wilmington, Delaware. This is not terribly surprising when you consider the traditional emphasis placed on the English origins of the United States. Moreover, Swedish control of the region was brief; the Dutch conquered the colony in 1655, only seventeen years after the landing.

The recreated Kalmar Nyckel docked at Fort Christina.

The recreated Kalmar Nyckel docked at Fort Christina State Park in Wilmington, Delaware.

Yet there are many reminders of the colonial Swedish presence on Delaware’s landscape today. The river on which the Swedes sailed is still called the Christina, after their young queen. The colors of the Swedish flag can be seen throughout the state. A portion of Route 13 in northern Delaware is named Governor Printz Boulevard, after the man who led the colony between 1643 and 1653. In Wilmington you can visit Old Swedes Church, built in 1699, and Fort Christina State Park. A national historic landmark, the park occupies the site of the first fort built by the Swedish colonists and encompasses “The Rocks”. In my dissertation I explore the creation of this memorial landscape for the New Sweden tercentenary in 1938. It was with a sense of déjà vu that I attended the New Sweden Jubilee, the commemoration of the 375th anniversary of the landing of the Swedes, on May 11. Commemorations are somehow both ephemeral and eternal. Although the pageantry is short lived, they follow the same patterns and take place on the same “sacred” ground.

Since parking is a problem in the neighborhood around Fort Christina, I left my car in a lot on Wilmington’s Riverfront and then jumped on a school bus that took us to the park. I ended up waiting for quite a while for the ceremony to begin, and I was thankful that I could sit in the shade while listening to the First State Symphonic Band. Around 3pm the visiting dignitaries, including King Carl XVI Gustaf and Queen Silvia of Sweden and Finland’s Speaker of Parliament Eero Heinaluoma, arrived on the Kalmar Nyckel, the replica of the ship that brought the Swedish and Finnish colonists to the Delaware Valley in 1638. (Finland was under Swedish control at the time of the settlement.)

Each attendee received two flags. Although the commemorators wanted to celebrate the Swedish and the Finnish colonists equally, Sweden's flag was larger. Some of the commemorators of the 300th anniversary in 1938 did not want the Finns involved at all.

Each attendee received two flags. Although the commemorators sought to celebrate the Swedish and the Finnish colonists equally, Sweden’s flag was larger. Some of the commemorators of the 300th anniversary in 1938 did not want the Finns involved at all.

The delegation had boarded the ship at the Riverfront after being welcomed by Wilmington Mayor Dennis Williams and Mayor Johan Persson of Wilmington’s Sister City Kalmar, Sweden. The ship docked at Fort Christina State Park, where it was met by representatives of several American Indian groups and Swedish-American heritage organizations, some of whom were in costume. After the official addresses, the Swedish royals placed a wreath to honor the settlers in front of the monument that had been presented to the United States by the people of Sweden for the tercentenary. Attendees lined the walkway to cheer the dignitaries as they exited the park and carried on to Old Swedes Church for a special service. The day concluded with a formal Jubilee Gala on the Riverfront, attended by Vice President Joe Biden and other leading Delawareans. It must have been a long day for the members of the official delegation, who also attended a symposium entitled “Making it in America” at Philadelphia’s Independence Seaport Museum in the morning, followed by a trip to Chester, PA to lay a wreath at the Finnish Monument, a gift of the people of Finland to the United States for the 1938 commemoration, and a luncheon with Delaware Governor Jack Markell.

Sweden's Queen Silvia (with flowers) and King Carl XVI Gustaf (in sunglasses) exit the park.

Sweden’s Queen Silvia and King Carl XVI Gustaf exit the park.

The participants in this Jubilee Landing in many ways retraced the steps of the commemorators of the 300th anniversary of the Swedish landing in 1938. The tercentenary celebration took place on June 27, 1938, a day of steady rainfall. The royal liner Kungsholm docked on the Christina River near the new park. The guest of honor, the Crown Prince of Sweden, remained on the ship because of a kidney attack; his son, Prince Bertil, took his place on the platform with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Richard C. McMullen, the governor of Delaware. After a delay of an hour and a half, the dedication of the park and the monument commenced.  Military bands played the American and Swedish national anthems and the speakers enthusiastically gave thanks for the heritage of the early settlers. Following the dedication the official delegations from Sweden and Finland gathered for a service in Old Swedes Church. Then there were luncheons at the Delaware State Armory for Swedish tourists and at Hotel Du Pont for official delegates. The afternoon events included an address in Rodney Square by Cordell Hull, U. S. Secretary of State, and a parade of floats depicting the history of Delaware and representing the DuPont Company and other important industrial organizations. Although some highways were flooded, an estimated 10,000 to 15,000 people entered the city by automobile, 5,000 by rail, and 1,500 by bus to attend the festivities. The celebration concluded with a party for the official delegates and invited guests at Longwood, the estate of philanthropist and businessman Pierre S. du Pont. Following the Wilmington celebration, the Royal Swedish party traveled to Philadelphia and Chester, Pennsylvania, and to Swedesboro and Salem, New Jersey, to attend ceremonies commemorating settlements in those areas of the Delaware Valley.

The similarities between 1938 and 2013 did not end with the location and program of the commemoration. Speakers on both occasions emphasized the introduction of the log cabin and peaceful relations with the Lenni Lenape as part of the Swedish legacy. There was even the same trace of defensiveness when it came to New Sweden’s importance in relation to the more celebrated English colonies. (One speaker declared that “The Rocks,” which formed a natural rock wharf for the colonists, “are much more important than Plymouth Rock, which was just a boulder that a few people stepped on.”)

Despite the beautiful weather and the opportunity to see royalty, Fort Christina State Park remained largely empty.

Despite the beautiful weather and the opportunity to see royalty, Fort Christina State Park was largely empty.

Unlike the tercentenary, however, the New Sweden Jubilee did not seem to involve as many Delawareans. The New Sweden Alliance, the nonprofit organization that orchestrated the commemoration, is an umbrella organization of Swedish- and Finnish-American heritage groups in Delaware, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. Although such groups participated in the tercentenary, the main celebration in 1938 fell under the control of a state commission, sponsored by state and federal funding. Perhaps this accounts for the general lack of awareness about the event among Delawareans and the low attendance at the ceremony. According to the Wilmington News Journal, 1,000 people attended the ceremony, which is only about a quarter of the park’s capacity.

If you are interested in learning more about New Sweden, visit the Delaware Historical Society’s exhibit at the Willingtown Square Gallery in Wilmington. Or come to the University of Delaware in November for the 375th Anniversary New Sweden Conference, entitled “Encountering ‘Others’ in the Atlantic World: Perspectives from the Material World.”

Anne Reilly is interested in the material culture of memory and the relationship between public commemorations and national identity. Her dissertation explores the creation of memorial landscapes at the sites of the Jamestown, Plymouth, and New Sweden colonies at the time of their tercentenaries in 1907, 1920, and 1938, respectively.

Teaching WWII With Objects

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

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

Some of the WWII items my students analyzed.

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

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

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

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 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. 

Embodied Objects—The Eleventh Annual Material Cultural Symposium for Emerging Scholars…and why it matters

One of the first questions I am inevitably asked when someone discovers I study material culture is not where (what geographical region?) or when (what time period?), but why (what for?). Why do you study objects? Why do you study objects when there are so many written historical sources left untouched in archives? Why do you study mute objects when you could be retrieving human voices? Why do objects—and, by extension, material culture studies—matter?

I have been asked these questions so many times that I have prepared a stable of answers that I may trot out whenever confronted by a skeptical inquisitor. First, I explain that I don’t study objects to the exclusion of other source materials, such as account books, letters, newspaper advertisements, and diaries. Then I argue that objects are far from mute—scholars just need to learn their language. Objects reflect human relationships that may be absent from—or even erased by—written sources. Like books, objects embody the distinctive worldviews of their creators and original users, but are also open to new interpretations by contemporary audiences. Furthermore, they may reveal the experiences of people excluded from the traditional archive, either because of illiteracy or systematic suppression and oppression. Finally, I assert that objects are repositories of both individual and collective memories, essential to understanding where we have been and where we are going as a society. At this point, my questioner is usually satisfied with my response or tired of arguing with me. In either case, I view it as another small victory in the campaign to make material culture a respectable discipline.

However, my experiences in recent months have made me realize that I am neglecting the most important argument in my arsenal. As co-chair of this year’s Material Culture Symposium for Emerging Scholars, I am once again reminded of the power of material culture studies to inspire interdisciplinary collaboration. This year’s symposium, entitled “Embodied Objects: Material Culture Studies in Three Dimensions,” has drawn speakers from a variety of disciplines, including history, visual studies, English, art history, design, and American studies. On Saturday, April 20th at the Winterthur Museum, these speakers will engage with an audience of academic faculty, museum professionals, students, and a broad, interested public. And they will engage with one another.

Embodied Objects conference poster. Designed by graphic design student Chris Murphy.

Ten years ago, the first Emerging Scholars Symposium was born when a group of University of Delaware students expanded their conversation about people and objects to include other academics, museum professionals, and members of the local community. In addition to creating a friendly space for young scholars to share their work, the Emerging Scholars relayed a positive message to other students of material culture: you are not alone.

Material culture scholars got the message. This year, we received an overwhelming response to our call for papers, which asked submitters to consider the relationship between people and their things, paying special attention to how objects act as extensions of ourselves, help to stabilize identity, and give permanence to human relationships. The symposium will feature eleven presenters grouped into three panels, which will broadly explore race and cultural memory, public spaces and commemoration, and gender and the exchange of gendered knowledge. In many cases, these emerging scholars demonstrate how objects provide evidence of human relationships where few other source materials exist. They demonstrate how people create, adapt, and even destroy objects to fit their changing social needs. Perhaps most importantly, they highlight how often people construct cultural dialogues around the objects that pervade their lives.

The organization of the conference is also an exercise in interdisciplinary collaboration. Without the help of graduate students and faculty in the departments of history, art history, English, and sociology, as well as the Center for Historic Architecture and Design, the Museum Studies Program, the Winterthur Program in American Material Culture, and the Center for Material Culture Studies, none of this would be possible. In particular, I’d like to acknowledge the tremendous efforts of my co-chair Amy Torbert, a graduate student in art history, and our faculty adviser Deborah Andrews, professor of English and Director of the Center for Material Culture Studies. Despite our varied backgrounds, we have made our shared vision a reality.

We hope you will join us for this year’s Material Culture Symposium for Emerging Scholars so that we may continue to expand the discussion of material culture, answer difficult questions, and forge new relationships across disciplines. For more information on our program and registration, please visit

About the Author: Liz Jones is a third-year doctoral student in the History of American Civilization Program at the University of Delaware. She is currently researching women’s consumption habits in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. You can follow her on Twitter @LizJonesAll1Wrd.

“Just imported in the last ship from London”: Early America in the News

Civil War-era newspaper vendor

These Civil War-era men bought their news from a peddler with a horse and cart. My students need not look further than their laptops for early America in the news. Alexander Gardner, Newspaper Vendor and Cart in Virginia Camp, 1863 (Library of Congress)

History is not dead. At least, that’s what I hope to impart to my students through a weekly exercise I call “early America in the news.” Each Thursday before my students’ early American history Friday discussion sections, I receive an email from those who have signed up for that day to summarize and comment on one recent news story that features any aspect of American history through 1865. After I screen the story they have emailed to make sure it is, in fact, about American history up through the Civil War (there was some coaching involved in training them how to google such stories), I let them know it’s a keeper. Then, I prepare a few things to say about the story for class. The next day, we commence our discussion sections with the news story. Voila! Instant educational (not to mention topical) ice breaker.

Thus far, in addition to giving me a way to structure the beginning of most discussions, the exercise has, I think, accomplished a number of objectives. First, the assignment contributes toward the students’ participation grade. Therefore, it’s a low stakes but fun task that gets them talking about something they find interesting. I think I have even noticed some eye-twinkling while one student confessed his love of baseball in the course of telling the class about a baseball one African American orderly picked up after the Battle at Shiloh, Tennessee, in 1862 (in this case, the students even found one of my favorite history blogs, The Vault). I used this particular story to talk a bit about the significance of nationalizing experiences such as the Civil War, the consumption of mass-produced goods, and participation in “national” leisure activities such as going to the movies. It’s OK to talk about “modern” American history topics, of course, as that discussion links topics covered in 1865-to-the-present surveys that students tend to be more familiar with in the first place.

Lest you think this is all fun and games, in another class, a student brought in a story about an exhibition at the History Colorado Center featuring the Jefferson Bible. Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), if you aren’t aware, cut and pasted together his version of The Bible that, in the words of Smithsonian curator Harry Rubenstein, excluded “anything [Jefferson] could not believe through the lens of reason.” When I asked the student why he found this particular story to be interesting, he said it shed light on Jefferson’s “private” side. He went on to explain that he didn’t feel that we necessarily get this perspective from the typical textbook or Friday discussion section. (For more nerdery, check out the slick web site the Smithsonian put together that all about TJ’s Bible.) And, hot dog, it was a great material culture embodiment of Jefferson’s Enlightenment perspective (however complicated TJ was in reality)! Since objects come up often in this assignment, it’s a good opportunity to discuss the advantages and disadvantages of various kinds of evidence, ranging from material culture to oral history to manuscript sources.

Other topics have ranged from editorials likening Alexander Hamilton et al.’s deft handling of the early Republic’s economic woes to the contemporary debate over America’s economic crisis to debates over whether the movie Lincoln did more to hurt or help history (I could have cited any number of essays here, as much ink has been spilled in the historical community on this topic!).

I could go on, but you have probably surmised the second objective by now: In addition to getting students excited about a specific aspect of history they find intriguing, the exercise reinforces history’s relevance to important contemporary political debates. Not only is history alive, but you can touch it, too.

I confess that this exercise is not a wholly original idea. I was inspired by the Junto: A Group Blog on Early American History’s weekly roundup of early America in the news blog postings (you can read the most recent one here), as well as Am Civ colleague Alison Kreitzer who assigned a similar task to her world history students last semester (thanks to both parties!). But if there are any other fledgeling educators out there looking for a simple class exercise that will get your students talking and thinking outside the survey box–and maybe even get them to a museum or to read the news more often–concocting your own version of this assignment might be a good start.

About the author: When she is not antiquing, hanging out in a museum, or teaching, Nicole Belolan is studying material culture and disability in early America. Read more about her work at her web site,, and follow her on Twitter @nicolebelolan.