For Students


Course Readings

Course Description

Studies in American Material Culture (History 8151) introduces students to the major themes and methods relevant to the study of objects and the past. We will consider the variety of ways in which scholars from diverse fields have sought to infer meaning from things and then seek specifically to understand how historians have applied those ideas to their own work. During Fall 2017, we will meet entirely at Philadelphia’s Independence Seaport Museum. Students will experiment with traditional production techniques in the museum’s boat shop, consider how collecting institutions manage material culture aboard its ships and in its exhibit halls, and conduct research in the museum’s archive and library. We will use this opportunity especially to consider the materiality of Philadelphia’s historic waterfront and its embededness within the global circulation of things and ideas.


  • Become familiar with major scholarship bearing on historians’ uses of material culture;
  • Understand methods for using objects as historical evidence;
  • Learn to incorporate material culture into written historical analysis;
  • Explore how material culture is managed and exhibited in historical institutions; and,
  • Discover how material culture functions in public historical interpretation.

Tentative Meeting / Reading Schedule

Aug. 30: Getting Oriented

Introductions and quiet time with LESLEY.

Jennifer L. Roberts, “The Power of Patience: Teaching Students the Value of Deceleration and Immerisvie Attention,” Harvard Magazine (November-December 2013): 40-43.

Sept. 6: The Sneakbox

Explore ISM’s sneakbox collection.

Jules David Prown, “Mind in Matter,” Winterthur Portfolio 17 (1982): 1-19.

Cindy Ott, “Object Analysis of the Giant Pumpkin,” Environmental History 15 (October 2010): 746-63.

Howard I. Chapelle, “The Barnegat Sneak Box,” in American Small Sailing Craft: Their Design Development, and Construction (New York and London: W.W. Norton & Company, 1951), 209-17.

Eric L. Stark, “The Barnegat Bay Sneakbox,” WoodenBoat 47 (July/August 1982): 102-07.

Mary Hufford, ““One Reason God Made Trees”: The Form and Ecology of the Barnegat Bay Sneakbox,” in Sense Of Place: American Regional Cultures, edited by Barbara Allen and Thomas J. Schlereth (University Press of Kentucky, 1990), 40-57.

Michael J. Chiarappa, “Affirmed Objects in Affirmed Places: History, Geographic Sentiment and a Region’s Crafts,” Journal of Design History 10:4 (1997): 399-415.

Nathaniel H. Bishop, Four Months in a Sneak-Box: A Boat Voyage of 2600 Miles Down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, and Along the Gulf of Mexico (Boston: Lee and Shepard Publishers, 1879),

Grace Schultz, “Independence Seaport Museum,” The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia,

Sept. 13: LESLEY

Documentation workshop: taking LESLEY’s lines and photogrammetry.

John McPhee, The Survival of the Bark Canoe (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1975), 23-54.

Alexander Nemerov, “Describing Is Descending,” in catalogue to the exhibition, Moby-Dick (San Francisco: Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts, 2009): 117-26.

Martin A. Berger, “The Problem with Close Looking,” in John Davis, Jennifer A. Greenhill, and Jason D. LaFountain, eds., A Companion to American Art (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2015), 113-27.

David A. Taylor, Documenting Maritime Folklife: An Introductory Guide (Washington: Library of Congress, 1992),

Willits Ansel, et al., Boats: A Manual for Their Documentat (Nashville: American Association for State and Local History, 1993).

Sept. 20: Why We Need Things

Meeting our objects with Craig Bruns.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, “Why We Need Things,” in Steven Lubar and W. David Kingery, eds., History from Things: Essays on Material Culture (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1993).

Bruno Latour, “A Collective of Humans and Nonhumans: Following Daedalus’s Labyrinth,” in Pandora’s Hope: Essays on the Reality of Science Studies (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999), 174-215.

Sherry Turkle, “Introduction: The Things That Matter,” in Evocative Objects: Things We Think With (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2007), 3-10.

Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (New York: Anchor Books, 1959), 17-30.

Sept. 27: Approaches to Object Study

Classroom conversation and catch-up.

Cary Carson, “Material Culture History: The Scholarship Nobody Knows,” in Ann Smart Martin and J. Ritchie Garrison, eds., American Material Culture: The Shape of the Field (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1997), 401-28.

Henry Glassie, Pattern in the Material Folk Culture of the Eastern United States (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1968), 1-17.

Kenneth Ames, “Meaning in Artifacts: Hall Furnishings in Victorian America,” Journal of Interdisciplinary History 9 (1978): 19-46.

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, “An Unfinished Stocking, New England, 1837,” in The Age of Homespun: Objects and Stories in the Creation of an American Myth (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2001), 374-412.

Robin Bernstein, “Dances with Things: Material Culture and the Performance of Race,” Social Text 27:4 (2009): 67-94.

Rebecca K. Shrum, “Selling Mr. Coffee: Design, Gender, and the Branding of a Kitchen Appliance,” Winterthur Portfolio 46:4 (2012): 271-98.

Jennifer Van Horn, “George Washington’s Dentures: Disability, Deception, and the Republican Body,” Early American Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal 14:1 (Winter 2016), 2-47.

Oct. 4: Plans

 Lofting Workshop with John Brady

John R. Stilgoe, “Skiffs,” in Alongshore (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1994).

John Brady, “Jersey Cats,”

Oct. 11: Making and Fixing

Visit with ISM’s Workshop on the Water.

David Pye, “The Workmanship of Certainty and the Workmanship of Risk,” in The Nature and Art of Workmanship (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1968).

Howard I. Chapelle, “Introduction,” in Boatbuilding: A Complete Handbook of Wooden Boat Construction (New York and London: W.W. Norton & Company, 1941), 19-22.

Lambros Malafouris, “At the Potter’s Wheel: An Argument for Material Agency,” in Knappett and Malafouris, eds., Towards a Non-Anthropocentric Approach (Springer, 2008), 19-36.

Ann-Sophie Lehmann, “How Materials Make Meaning,” in Lehmann et al., eds., Meaning in Materials, 1400-1800 (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2003), 7-27.

Peter Korn, “Thinging With Things,” in Why We Make Things and Why it Matters: The Education of a Crafstman (Boston: David R. Godine Press, 2015), 57-68.

Steven J. Jackson, “Rethinking Repair,” in Tarleton Gillespie, Pablo Boczkowski, and Kirsten Foot, eds., Media Technologies: Essays on Communication, Materiality and Society (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2014).

Oct. 18: Commodities / Value

In the galleries.

Selections from Jennifer L. Anderson, Mahogany: The Costs of Luxury in Early America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012).

Igor Kopytoff, “The Cultural Biography of Things: Commoditization as a Process,” in Arjun Appadurai, ed., The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986).

Peter Stallybrass, “Marx’s Coat,” in Patricia Spyer, ed., Border Fetishisms: Material Objects in Unstable Spaces (New York: Routledge, 1998).

Ann Smart Martin, “Makers, Buyers, and Users: Consumerism as a Material Culture Framework,” Winterthur Portfolio 28 2/3 (Autumn 1993): 141-157.

Jane Bennett. “Commodity Fetishism and Commodity Enchantment.” Theory & Event 5:1 (2001).

Oct. 25: Space and Place

River adventure.

J.B. Jackson, “A Sense of Place, A Sense of Time,” in A Sense of Place, A Sense of Time (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994).

John R. Stilgoe, “Alongshore,” in Alongshore (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1994).

Dell Upton, “White and Black Landscapes in Eighteenth-Century Virginia,” in Robert Blair St. George, ed., Material Life in America, 1600-1860 (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1988).

Selections from Marcus Rediker, “The Evolution of the Slave Ship,” in The Slave Ship: A Human History (New York: Penguin Books, 2008).

Jane E. Dusselier, “Remaking Inside Places,” in Artifacts of Loss: Crafting Survival in Japanese American Concentration Camps (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2008.

Nov. 1: Exhibiting things

Aboard the Cruiser Olympia.

Seth C. Bruggeman, “”Save the Olympia!”: Veterans and the Preservation of Dewey’s Flagship in Twentieth-Century Philadelphia.”

Ken Yellis, “Examining the Social Responsibility of Museums in a Changing World,” Artes Magazine (November 13, 2011),

Robert Weyeneth, “The Architecture of Racial Segregation: The Challenges of Preserving the Problematical Past,” The Public Historian 27 (Fall 2005): 11-44

Nov. 8: On Copies and Authenticity

Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” in Hannah Arendt, ed., Illuminations: Essays and Reflections (New York: Schocken Books, 1969).

Nov. 15: Objects and/in Memory

Waterfront monument walking tour, weather permitting.

Erika Doss, “Afterword: Commemoration, Conversation, and Public Feeling in America Today,” in Seth C. Bruggeman, ed., Commemoration: The American Association for State and Local History Guide (New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 2017).

Selections from Kirk Savage, Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves: Race, War, and Monument in Nineteenth-Century America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997)

Nov. 22: Fall Break

Nov. 29: Final Presentation of Findings with ISM Staff

Dec. 6: Reflection

 Carlo Rovelli, “Third Lesson: Particles,” and “Fourth Lesson: Grains of Space,” in Seven Brief Lessons on Physics (New York: Riverhead Boos, 2014).

Amanda Gefter, “The Case Against Reality,” The Atlantic, April 25, 2016,