In light of our class’s visit to Temple’s Anthropology Lab, I want to discuss how objects can bring to light overlooked or forgotten aspects of history. The Anthro Lab’s work digging up the Philadelphia Almshouse’s privy stands as a testament to the considerable amount of knowledge and speculation that can be generated from artifacts and objects. Historians do not need to go on digs or excavations to find objects that speak to aspects of history left out of the written, documentary record, however. Many of this week’s readings demonstrate how objects – collected, preserved, and even well-documented – still have things to tell us about the social and gendered environments of the past.
Though written as a cautionary piece about the methods and rigor brought to the study of furniture, Jonathan Prown’s article “The Furniture of Thomas Day: A Reevaluation” nonetheless includes some tidbits about important social and cultural changes realized through visual objects. Like his earlier article, Prown’s work centers on a unique, quasi-elite furniture maker – “an inspiring exception to the rule…a free person of color who transcended the deeply entrenched social and legal barriers” of the ante-bellum south (218). He warns that works seeing Day’s craft as highly influenced by West African art and highly syncretic are not exercising “interpretive caution,” and that in reality the African-American Thomas Day was as influenced by popular Euro-American designs as he was by African ones (216-217). While this article on a well-respected, somewhat wealthy craftsmen seems well removed from the Anthro Lab’s focus on the lower-class and quotidian existences of those in the Almshouse, Prown mentions in passing some notable insights about social developments of antebellum America. While not a clear mixing of the African with the American, Prown identifies a distinct “blending of learned or academic traditions with folk or vernacular customs” in Day’s work (223). This approach, which he calls carpenter Gothic or artisan rococo, is a visible social shift in a style of “vernacular adaptation” (226). Though not explored by Prown, this mixing of lower-class and upper-class styles is happening right with the beginning of the Age of Jackson, a political and social moment where working-class Americans vocalized their political equality with political elites. Day’s furniture, which is well-documented and collected, can still give us social insights about this early era of American populism.
In Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s keynote, she similarly draws on well-preserved and collected furniture to unveil hidden aspects of family legacy, ownership, and gendered property understandings. While Ulrich acknowledges that “objects are not enough for historical discovery…the best furniture studies take us full circle from objects to documents and back again,” she makes a point in highlighting how objects can reveal falsehoods in the written record. In discussing women and their own property as relegated to a “moveable” status, Ulrich states that “wills and inventories actually mask much of what moved from one generation to another” through women and the legal “formulaic dispersal of moveables, as in ‘one-third of my household goods,” conceals the female labor that created and maintained those goods.” The provenances and the goods themselves – with their identifying markings, etched names, or family crests – can act as a source base for social histories of women not included in the traditional archive. Looking at the materials made and used by women, passed down through generations and subsequently preserved, offers another route to understanding the fundamental issues of women’s lives in early America. As Ulrich puts it, an object can offer “an imperfect mirror of [a woman’s] world, but in its focus on the female life cycle, its integration f furniture and textiles, and its acknowledgment of the inequality that underlay genteel households, it is more complete than much of what has been written since.”
Furniture researched and archived by collections and museums have a distinctly genteel bent, but even these objects can still offer up new insights on social developments, gendered oppression, or new cultural changes from the past.