Recalling the Animal Landscape in New England


WPAMC Fellow Michelle Fitzgerald and the chickens at Plimoth Plantation

As a cohort, the class of 2017 seems to collectively liven when a visit includes an animal. Dinner hosts need never apologize for an over-zealous pet; we, too, find it difficult to politely conceal our delight. While our enthusiastic reactions can be chalked up to nothing more than being a group of animal lovers, it can also be read as an indicator of the place of animals in our time.

During the 2016 New England trip, a number of sites reminded us of how integral animals have been to daily survival, and how this, in turn, has shaped material culture.


The Pilgrim diet proved to rely on animal products for sustenance.  Our meal at Plimoth Plantation.

The second day of the tour began at Old Sturbridge Village, which demonstrates the workings of a nineteenth century rural village by keeping oxen, dairy cattle, sheep, chickens and pigs. In the middle of the village stands an animal holding pen. As Ritchie Garrison reminded us, the management of land required careful thought as to how you might protect your crops from roaming farm animals, and how, in turn, you could control your own. As a result, many court disputes of the period centered on the damage of agricultural property by a neighbor’s animal.


The pigs at Sturbridge enjoy a pleasant outdoor life before they are used for cooking demonstrations

This fact conjures a sense of how the presence of animals would have altered the everyday landscape, including the sights, sounds, and, surely, the smells. Beyond this, their maintenance would also significantly shape human daily activity, and consequently, the material culture involved.


Greg Landrey inspects the construction of an ox yoke.

Several of our visits on the trip centered around the New England whaling industry. In this case, we got a sense of how a single animal drove the economic engine for towns like Salem and New Bedford. In Mystic, we encountered a seaport was full of shops specifically catering to the arduous tasks of seeking, killing and flensing a whale, as well as the maintenance of ships that could support such activity. The products derived from whaling included the expected: spermaceti, whale sinew, and scrimshaw, and less expected: a twentieth-century can of Texaco transmission fluid including whale oil.

The Rockefeller estate, Kykuit, provided a wonderful example of how quickly our reliance on animals has shifted. The property’s former stables are complete with an array of sporting medals, saddlery and carriages. Just down the hall lives the family collection of cars. The juxtaposition of these two sets of material culture within the same structure serves as a reminder of how dramatically our reliance on horses for transportation shifted in a few short decades at the start of the twentieth century.



 Above: A carriage at Kykuit.  Below: the car collection at Kykuit (image courtesy of

The 2016 New England trip reminded us to keep the constant presence of animals in consideration as we recreate the material worlds of the past. We no longer rely on animals for transportation and agricultural work, and, as a food source, most of us are far removed from the process. As a result, we’ve been able to reframe our perception of animals as sources of companionship and novelty, far from the utilitarian services they have provided us.

By Lan Morgan, WPAMC Class of 2017

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