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Touchstones to the Past

As interpreters, we may wish to convey an image of the past. But how can we know what the past was like when we weren’t there?

You’ re more likely to have a sense of the past when you’re surrounded by objects of the past. These were the things that surrounded people in their everyday lives. They show what the past looked like — and sometimes even what it smelled, sounded, felt, and tasted like. Though objects do not tell us everything, they are powerful because they can shape our ideas and images of earlier times. Our images of past kitchens, for instance, are shaped by the kettles and doughboxes that women once used there. Woodstoves, nutmeg graters, and rendering kettles suggest to us some of the smells these cooks knew. The creaking of the iron crane in the fireplace or the scraping of the shovel in the coals were everyday sounds.

The equipment in women’s kitchens also suggest their activities. Did they stoop over a stewpot on the hearth, or reach across the burners of a cast iron stove? Did they pump water at the sink or carry buckets from a well?

Still we can’t fully understand the experience of cooks in the past centuries by looking at their equipment or even by cooking with it. A cookstove may tell of women’s daily routine, but it doesn’t tell of its value. What did the stove mean to the women who used it? Did its first user welcome it as a back-saving advance from hearth cooking or was she apprehensive about unfamiliar technology? Years later, did a different user feel comfortable cooking on that familiar old stove, or did she wish for something newer and more convenient?

What does a stove tell us about changes in the society where cooks and coal miners and stove sellers lived? Paying attention to what objects have to say often raises as many questions as it answers. But even when an object doesn’t give us all the answers, the questions can open up aspects of the past we might otherwise overlook.

If objects are this important, visitors need to know it. How can you use the objects at your site to open up new perspectives for visitors? How can you help visitors envision the material world that surrounded people of the past, understand how people interacted with that world, and consider what that world might have meant to them? Visitors need to begin with the object’s power to evoke earlier times.

Objects and Environments

From the moment your visitors enter the room, objects begin to create an image. Working in partnership with those objects, you can help visitors imagine tastes, sights, smells, sounds, and textures of another time. Even if your blacksmith shop seems quiet and lifeless to visitors when there’s no blacksmith at work, if you’re familiar with the process of something, you can use language to animate the tools and evoke images and noise.

You might set the scene like this:

“The shop seems peaceful now, but as you look around at the forge, the anvil, the hammers, and the other tools, imagine how noisy and busy this shop once was. The blacksmith heated iron in this coalfired forge and then shaped it by hammering it here on the anvil. Imagine the swoosh of air as an apprentice pumped the bellows to make the fire even hotter. See the red glow of the hot iron, which the blacksmith places on the anvil. Think of sparks flashing and springing from the hot iron as the hammer hits it. Hear the iron hiss as the smith quenches it in water. If you consider the continual jarring clang of the hammer on the anvil, and the harsh, bitter smell of coal smoke, the blacksmith shop may not seem as romantic a place to work as we sometimes imagine it to be!”

A blacksmith shop may seem an obvious place to create a vivid image of a world people experience through their senses, but you can evoke equally powerful images with the objects of a home. You can ask your visitors to image how colorful the wallpaper or painted furniture looked when it was new and bright. You can describe the evening dimness of a room illuminated by a small point of candlelight or the flickering, unsteady light of a gas fixture. In homes of the past, bedsprings creaked, knitting needles clicked, and wood thumped into the woodbox. Chair upholstery might have been rough horsehair or smooth satin. Meats might have been preserved with salt; cakes spiced heavily with ginger. There was the smell of warm bread, leather-bound books, tallow soap, and chamber pots. Challenging people to visit the past through their senses can help them immerse themselves in that world.

Objects and Activities

The better your visitors understand that sensory world, the better they can visualize how people acted in it. Objects are involved in so much of what people do — from sleeping to traveling to celebrating. People and objects are constantly interacting.

To create an image of travelers sleeping fitfully in a crowded tavern, you might begin by pointing out the beds they shared: “If a customer stayed the night. he didn’t have his own room or even his own bed. He simply had a space in a bed. The tavern keeper might assign him to the right side of this double bed, with a stranger already sleeping on the left side.” Use the bed to help visitors envision the proximity of a bed mate who snores or tosses through the night.

Saddles and stirrups, wagons, ships, or automobiles can help visitors understand how far and how frequently past people traveled. You can use communion cups, prayer shawls, baptismal fonts, or tambourines to convey an image of how people worshipped. Objects can even help visitors understand the posture and movements of past people. In the eighteenth century, for example, many women wore quilted stays stiffened with whalebone to mold their upper bodies into a tapered cone shape. Have visitors imagine the discomfort and difficulties such undergarments would have caused to breathing or bending over from the waist.

Objects and Insights

Wear marks on a chair rung suggest something personal about the chair. Someone may have hooked his heels over the rungs while leaning back, enjoying long evening conversations; or, perhaps a child kicked at the chair rungs. impatiently, while sitting at the dinner table. But nothing about the chair can tell us what it meant to the people who used it. Was it a favorite of one particular family member? Was it a special chair given to company?

Objects have meaning within the context of the lives of those who used them and they also have meaning in the context of the society they lived in. Consider a shelf clock sitting on a parlor mantel in a farmhouse. It’s easy to
present the clock simply as an object of beauty, or as a proud possession and a symbol of the owner’s economic status. But, it can say far more.

People’s ideas about time and timekeeping were changing in the first half of the 1800’s. The 1820 clock you see on the mantel (pictured right) was a relatively new style then. The wooden works were mass-produced, so for the first time a clock was affordable to someone like the farmer who owned this house. We can guess that this family took pride in their clock because the farmer’s wife mentions in a letter “the fine new shelf clock that now ornaments our parlor.” Because only a minority of farm families in this community owned clocks in the 1820’s, the clock certainly tells us something about the family’s social and economic standing.

Perhaps buying a clock also signaled a change in the way this farm family organized their daily lives? What might it have been like to own a clock after decades of living only by the rhythms of daylight and darkness, planting and harvest? How readily did they begin to measure their daily activities in precise intervals of hours and minutes?

Visitors can be encouraged to see remarkable social significance reflected in objects that, at first glance, just seem decorative. Objects can be touchstones to the past and can throw aspects of earlier times into sharp focus.

A simple Shaker-made sewing desk, whose drawers pull out from two sides, might simply be thought of as an appealing piece of furniture with clean lines and clever construction. Or, it could be understood for its deeper meanings. The drawers were placed to equally accommodate two women, each working on her own side of the desk; and several desks were placed in a communal sewing room. Even in the mundane task of sewing, these Shakers expressed their belief that people should live together as brothers and sisters, sharing everything equally and working communally. Since objects are thoroughly intertwined in the everyday environment and the daily activities of people, it’s no wonder they carry so much meaning. They are tangible elements of past people’s worlds; elements that somehow survived the trip through time. As past environments changed, past activities ceased, and past people became silent, these objects remained to form a fragile connection between their worlds and ours.

A mantel shelf clock can be used to teach visitors the social significance of what may seem only to be a decorative element. What at first glance seemed simply to be an ingenious bit of cabinetmaking now is understood to be a reflection of the society that made and used it.

A hair wreath, a tobacco barrel, a cricket bat, a ukulele, a chalkware figurine, a Masonic emblem, a redware bowl — what might these objects say about the ways past people related to each other in families, friendships, communities, or business transactions? What do they reflect of the changes in societies? What can these objects tell us about past people’s thoughts, values, and beliefs?

Sherill E. Hatch and Hilarie M. Hicks are both alumni of the Cooperstown Graduate Program in History Museum Studies. Ms. Hatch is the Education Outreach Coordinator at Old Sturbridge Village, in Sturbridge, MA, where she coordinates curriculum projects and field studies with classroom teachers.

Ms. Hicks is Curator of Interpretation for Tryon Palace Historic Sites and Gardens in New Bern, North Carolina, where she oversees the interpretation of several historic structures including the reconstructed home of North Carolina ‘s colonial Governor. A previous article by Ms. Hick, entitled “From Document to Drama: Interpreting Slavery at Tryon Palace, ” appeared in the Spring 1993 issue Of The Docent Educator.

Hatch, Sherill E. and Hicks, Hilarie M. “Touchstones to the Past,” The Docent Educator 4.3 (Spring 1995): 4-6.

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