Theories to Suit Facts: The Research Process of Material Culture

By Erin Anderson, WPAMC 2020

As our culminating project of Summer Institute, we WPAMC 2020 students are required to choose an object from the collection and write a catalog entry describing our objects in great detail. The object I chose is a beautiful opalescent glass curtain pin from the mid-19th century. The center is an opaque white that fades to a delicate pale blue nearer its edges. Its shifting colors never seem to catch the light in the same way twice.

A white and blue opalescent glass curtain pin in the shape of a six-petaled flower is laid on a gray quilted mat.

The curtain pin I selected as seen from above. Photograph by the author, courtesy Winterthur Museum, Garden and Library.

However, waxing poetic about this curtain pin’s beauty wasn’t going to be enough for me to write a paper. Since, I didn’t know anything at all about curtain pins… or glassmaking… or even curtains, I started by simply spending some time with my object.

The very first thing we learn as students of material culture is that you can learn an enormous amount of information by looking closely at an object, and that this should always be the first step when researching. I spent nearly two hours that first day just looking at my curtain pin (as I had already started to refer to it).  I took notes, but I tried not to draw any conclusions just yet.

Next, I pored over the rest of the Winterthur collection looking for similar objects. My pin is one of four in a set, and there are roughly a dozen similar curtain pins elsewhere in the collection, too. Comparative studies help researchers spot minute differences between objects that can provide information about their places of origins, makers, owners, use, composition, and the like. Color variations, design changes over time, and different styles of installation hardware gave me additional clues about the origins of my pin.

Four white and blue opalescent, flower-shaped curtain pins are arranged in a line on a quilted mat. They vary slightly in color from bright white to shades of light blue.

My curtain pin (far right) is one of this four-piece set. Slight variations in color and design elements suggest that the pins were not originally matched but were grouped together by a later owner before being donated to the Winterthur Museum collection. Photo by author, courtesy Winterthur Museum, Garden and Libraru.

My third step was to look for outside resources. I took the information I had learned from examining objects closely and turned to the library. Design books and collectors’ guides taught me about glass making and how curtain pins have evolved with drapery fashions over time which helped me better understand the social context of my curtain pin. Collector’s guides helped me match the pin’s design to other opalescent curtain pins produced by the Boston and Sandwich Glass Company around 1850.

Finally, I took the information I had gathered and returned to my object. My library research had led me to numerous speculations about its makers, dates, and geographic origins, but the only way to test the validity of these theories was by comparing them with the object. As students of material culture, it is critical that we regularly return to the objects we study to stimulate ideas, generate new questions, confirm or reject hypotheses, and to serve as a catalyst for the entire duration of the research process. In this case, the object seemed to support my meager hypotheses and I could finally begin writing my paper. Though, I have a feeling this won’t be the last time I pay a visit to my curtain pin.

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