PAST Journal

Volume 32, 2009

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History and Material Culture Studies

Keith A. Sculle, Illinois Historic Preservation Agency


Although I can speak as one historian, I cannot speak for historians everywhere––either the faculties of the academy, public historians, or the many times greater number of laymen who make up historical societies and the altogether unaffiliated. What I will attempt here is to reflect on my own experience in writing about material culture as a degree-holder from a history department who made the transition to “public history” subsequent to graduation. When I say hereinafter “history” or “historians” I mean academic historians and public historians. My concern here is to explain my use of material culture studies as it emerged from my education as an historian who embraced other disciplines in writing about material culture. Another disclaimer: you will not find here a discussion of any historian’s interplay with museums because that involves too extensive a topic be included with the one I address.

How Historians Came to Cover Material Culture

Let me try to explain how historians came to material culture. Professional history developed at the end of the nineteenth century under the Rankian paradigm and its dedication to his famous phrase “wie es eigentlich gewesen,” that is, the past “as it actually was.” The assumption was a “knowable history.” But it had restrictions due to the rigorous development of a coveted discipline. Carefully defined limitations became a matter of the discipline and historians concerned with the epistemology of their study developed and shared such studied insights at the foundation of their discipline. One key element was a rigidly scientific insight that insisted myth was to be avoided and facts––who, what, and when––were to be uncovered through the written, and where possible, the published record of eye witnesses to the events studied. Hence, archives comprised people’s (most often men’s) manuscripts and/or publications and became the historians’ mother lode. Questions of why things happened as they did were believed answerable by reading and analyzing the documents on paper of great men. What past was worth knowing awaited historians in written sources. The past was not an abstraction; it was a thing on which consensus could be achieved. Ironically, material objects themselves were fugitive in studying the past.

The visual, the hand-crafted, or the machine-manufactured––non-verbal forms of expression––did not reflect in meaningful ways about history, however much use historians might have found them of personal use in their private lives. History fell into a niche too comfortable over time: for example, politics understood as constitutional assemblies, executive decrees, legislative roll calls, and popular movements; battles, wars, and military exploits; diplomacy among the nation states; economics and business; and intellectual matters.

As a consequence of the rigorously yet narrowly gauged disciplined study of the past, historians rarely turned to the study of material culture. Early in the twentieth century, James Harvey Robinson’s call in The New History (1912) for a wider embrace of topics included what subsequent scholars have labeled “material culture” but only insofar as it advanced his concern with the broad subject of civilization’s progress. Few adhered to the material culture component of the new history. A generation later, Thomas Jefferson Wertenbaker, however, assigned himself the whole scope of how the United States by the time of his writing came to be and addressed material culture because it had been underutilized. His research and publication underwrote the American establishment’s self-congratulatory creed at mid-twentieth century: self-reliance; optimism; and democracy. The nation’s political origins had been ably studied, he thought, but its arts, crafts, and architecture lay untapped for what they could reveal about the nation’s unique character. He set himself not only to read secondary but primary sources and look on the landscape at colonial America’s surviving material culture. He studied what he termed “the principles of transit” similar to the cultural geographers after Carl Sauer and Fred Kniffen in the phase before the emergence of the national melting pot and elucidated common principles at work throughout each colonial section, New England, the Middle Colonies, and the South. He would likely have been an inter-disciplinary colleague except for the prevailing practice to hone one’s discipline rather than sharing. In the fashion typical of historians, Wertenbaker never mapped his material culture subjects, whose borrowing from abroad and adaptation streams throughout the colonies would have aided readers’ comprehension. Words described the routes but words again, not maps, themselves a material culture means. Still, though, his transfer of meaning from material culture to conventional historical subjects won no ready adherents.

Thereafter, a few historians eased out on their own terms onto the unfamiliar waters of material culture. They were not building the foundation of a new sub-discipline but following their private inclinations. Notable in this new eddy was Lewis Atherton’s Main Street on the Middle Border. Now regarded as something of a classic, although without influence on history’s development as a discipline, Atherton at the mid-twentieth century (1954) acknowledged forthrightly his roots as a son of the middle border, a place with a special sense about which he wrote from archived materials and also personal acquaintance. From his personal experiences, for example, he made mention of opera houses, but for their role as institutions where certain small town functions occurred, not how their architectural aspects reflected and reinforced those functions. Essentially, though, his material culture studies barely emerged when compared with their potential. Three years later (1957), Louis B. Wright included architecture and the decorative arts as part of general cultural life in his treatment of Colonial America and he even waded into debate over the log cabin’s origin, a subject later directing great scholastic energy among geographers. A channel had opened. Still, in the late 1960s the academy’s interest lay elsewhere, as in the president of the Organization of American Historians’ presidential address of 1968 about the dangerous mythmakers and the need to establish “a centralized Myth Registry.”

Many of the first historians to make material culture the focus and not an adjunct to bigger questions were scholars in historic preservation, an emergent field since the mid-1960s. Charles Hosmer, a member of the history faculty at a small school (Principia College, Elsah, Illinois) led the way with his Presence of the Past in 1965. Yet, from the Wintherthur Museum conferences of 1981 and 1982 broadening the definition of material culture from the decorative arts and launching theoretical considerations, Hosmer was the only historian whose paper was among the fourteen published afterward in The Colonial Revival in America. Clearly, other disciplines were contributing significantly to the stream converging in a search for intellectual discipline and academic respectability. Archaeologists, however, had taken the longest lead among all the willing material culture scholars within a decade after the Historic Preservation Act of 1966 opened wide the chances for managing material remains and newly minted historians took their place where they could.

I was one of those. My degree from the University of Illinois certainly equipped me to profess the discipline of history as it stood. My employment opportunity, however, came with the Illinois Department of Conservation with which I contracted to compile a survey from field work in 23 Illinois counties of historical places potentially eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. Several months after undertaking this unfamiliar but exciting new opportunity––both as an historian and as an historic preservationist––I had the extreme good fortune of meeting geographer John Jakle. My surveying skills benefited from working on several Illinois counties together and we quickly developed a friendship. The yield in my “day work” came next through field work with H. Wayne Price, a student of Illinois barns, whose archives of drawings and photography he eagerly shared with the Illinois State Historic Preservation Office.

New organizations responding to the growing field of “public history” provided a welcome opportunity for historians like me. In 1979, the Pioneer America Society, initially a populist reaction to urban sprawl near Falls Church, Virginia, witnessed historian Herbert Richardson’s paper on farm plans and building types in one New Jersey township which grew from a state-funded historic preservation project. Among the papers delivered at the Vernacular Architecture Forum’s first conferences (1981 and 1982) were four by public historians and none by representatives of the history academy. Three of the four public historians brought to publication information gathered for public or private projects, while one briefly summarized his master’s paper. To meet their constituents’ immediate needs, public historians eclectically brought to bear all the reliable insights material culture scholars in any field had developed. The newly founded Vernacular Architecture Forum, but especially the small scale of the Pioneer America Society, attracted me because of the opportunity to share across disciplinary lines, meet and talk with leaders in material culture studies, and present my own work in respected publications. H. Wayne Price and I co-authored numerous presentations at Pioneer America Society meetings on which we expanded in the society’s publications. John Jakle and I eventually set forth on a series of co-authored books on one aspect of material culture little approved much less understood by traditional scholars: the automobile road and roadside in America. These articles and books were the products of my private time, the excitement of contributing to a new field eventually having structured a good deal of my life.

Academic historians so long avoided material culture while other scholarly disciplines embraced it that one is inclined to search in history’s basal predilections for answers why this lag occurred. My puzzlement as to why historians had overlooked so rich a set of resources as material culture, led me to infer the following. Nowhere to my knowledge did any historian place on record any rumination about others’ work; rather, they went ahead with their own discipline.

A cluster of predispositions reigned among academic historians. “Antiquarianism,” they shuddered when they recalled how objects most often were treated by the educated, collectors and antique dealers being uppermost. They seem fixated on the objects themselves rather than their broader meanings. Historians also believed the qualitative nature of life was more revelatory than its quantitative aspects. Whereas, archaeologists and folk life scholars often measured phenomena, historians in colleges and universities persisted in their preference for verbal documents. They judged archaeologists especially wedded to off-putting technicalities and dense description expressed in less than graceful prose. Successful material culture scholars also identified phenomena that seemed fixed in time by the very weight of description and less given to the theme of “change over time,” the concept by which historians proudly wished to distinguish their work. The attribution of transcendent cultural features to vernacular architecture in the school of geography after Carl O. Sauer and Fred Kniffen, academic historians would have found alien to their search for human agency in the past. Historians of the academy wanted to narrate the work of named individuals who effected change as opposed to ethnic group values. On matters of visual culture, they deferred to art and architectural historians. Not to be forgotten either is academic history’s conceptual mooring in verbal documents accessed in libraries and archives, not in uncovering significant new information accumulated through field work. Tellingly, when historians wrote of objects’ unrealized potential, they labeled them “documents.”

In the late-twentieth century, the separate turns toward semiotics and history written from beneath, or of the common man, gradually made objects more respectable for sources. Historians have come only lately to material culture studies. Not until June 1984, in the section entitled “Recent Articles” did a mainstay of academic history in its seventy-fourth volume, The Journal of American History, find a rubric for “material culture” and then it was shared in “Architecture and Material Culture.” In the December 1992 journal, the editors reversed the elements in the rubric to “Material Culture and Architecture.”

What, then, did academic historians make of material culture once it entered their ken? Rhys Issac’s study of Virginia from 1740 to 1790 employed the concept of “material life,” recently ascendant among historians of the Annales School, and in so doing achieved an early reputation for material culture; his book won a Pulitzer Prize in 1983. A decade later, Robert Freidel left his path breaking article in History from Things with the firm belief that important new messages would be discovered. An historian trained to the earlier standard but grown appreciative enough to write an entire volume applying material culture, Richard Lyman Bushman’s Refinement of America explained the workings, from 1700 to 1850, of a cultivated ideal expressed in houses. The chance acquaintance with the Winterthur Museum and doctoral candidates in the University of Delaware’s History of American Civilization Program had aroused Bushman’s new interest. Younger academic historians eclectically embraced various pedigreed material culture studies to address their topics as reflected in Robert Blair St. George’s edited collection of articles comprising Material Life in America 1600-1800.

Coming full circle from the Rankian dismissal of myth in the search for true history, in the late 1980s, the academy turned to the study of something called “memory,” group consensus of history constructed for each group’s contemporary use. Material culture, Michael Kammen understood, played a significant role in memory formation as a selective process supplanting the search for an objective past from the late-nineteenth century forward. The emergence of the concern for memory likely enabled the application of material culture studies. Within this twenty-first century trajectory of memory in material culture, Phoebe Kropp’s California Vieja well exemplified the primary use of material culture. For example, Kropp explained at length how Anglos’ memory during the late-nineteenth and first half of the twentieth century in Southern California employed Spanish colonial architecture to assert their regional hegemony.

Evidence exists to support the hope that academic historians will foster a growth of material culture studies. One example is in the budding field of tourism history, wherein Hal K. Rothman’s edited The Culture of Tourism, the Tourism of Culture included several historians firmly planting a role for material culture’s symbolic meanings. A. K. Sandoval-Strausz has taken a separate tack among academic historians in his work on a particular economic, social, and architectural institution, the hotel.

Public historians, meanwhile, thrive partly because of their eclectic use of material culture studies. Their challenge is one of riches. Unfortunately, much of their work remains unpublished, “gray” literature that is either ready or, in some instances, requiring only a bit of editing to be published for an audience beyond the scope of their project. Project funds do not often include the publication requirement. Public historians’ insights seldom have found their way into the academy’s publications. Public historians have advanced through their own schooling and organizations. At least one is persuaded academic historians have failed in their educational service for the very reason that they have avoided historic preservation in their local communities where the landscape’s physical existence is widely accessible and more visible than archived records; material culture trumps logo-centric history according to this charge.

Had material culture finally come of age among historians of the academy? My sense is that comparatively few academic historians have entered into this now established field. What work they do undertake is skewed away from the look of things, how they are built, and who built them. Very seldom do historians address the visible traits of material culture, preferring to find the meaning of objects after minimal description. Expressed cultural meaning less than the material means described have distinguished historians’ work down to the present, a profession moored yet mostly to archived words rather than things and hardly concerned to complement evidence through fieldwork.

What Value in Sharing Material Culture Studies?

Clearly, material culture projects could enrich many, as I think all good scholarship should. Reading integrated journals is essential. Better serving the public demands being a better informed public historian. Cross-disciplinary conferences like Pioneer America Society’s supplement my education because they open a human dimension to scholarship. My professional capacities and friendships with H. Wayne Price and John A. Jakle grew as we respectively found in the society a forum for presenting our findings about barns but most often appreciating from travel with them that learning from the landscape is rich: a never ending educational process and a path to a growing appreciation for the things around us, especially the commonplace. The yield from the material past is at least as great as that mediated through documents. As one of my fellow public historians where I work concludes, it keeps you “grounded.”


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