Written, Spoken, Shown, and Remembered: Material Culture at Historic Sites

As an overview of our readings this week for Studies in American Material Culture, we read Cary Carson’s 1997 evaluation of the field of material culture.[^1] In this essay, Carson grapples with material culture’s failure to enter the mainstream of academic history.

One problem, Carson argues, is that scholars working in material culture have often taken shortcuts. Rather than starting with a research question, they have begun with a set of artifacts and attempted to divine the relationships between them. Too often, he continues, they have simply plopped down a fancy philosophical framework (perhaps Foucault!) onto their artifact sample and- Voila!

Photo of a spinning wheel at Colonial Williamsburg by Brian Holland under Creative Commons license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/. Original at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/bholl7510/9365650434/

These shortcomings could be avoided by beginning with research questions relevant to the broader discipline of history and doing fastidious work to illuminate the particularity of the artifacts’ context. In short, Carson hopes that material cultural theorists will delve into the local while engaging with the national.

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich does just this, drawing on rafts of textiles created by women in early 19th century New England and weaving them (excuse the pun) into an exploration of gender, labor, and race of the places and times in which they lived.[^2] Rebecca K. Shrum produces a similar study of the intersection of women’s labor and technology a century and a half after Ulrich’s subjects through analysis of Mr. Coffee’s entry into the kitchen appliance market.[^3]

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