Notes on Artifacts and the American Past

Schlereth, Thomas J. Artifacts and the American Past. Nashville, Tenn: American Association for State and Local History, 1980.

Artifacts and the American Past (cover)

Note – 2017 February 16: While the extensive bibliographical resources in this book may be a bit dated, the broader framework for promoting historical inquiry of material culture (especially the built environment) and the suggestions for student projects are relevant and useful. I’ve put together these notes as a resource for my own teaching and for any other learners or educators who might find it helpful. This is a work-in-progress—I’ve reviewed the introduction and the fourth chapter on historic house museums in detail but have not yet taken any notes on the other sections of the book.

“Artifacts and useful objects are part of all recorded history. They are devised, invented, and made as adjuncts to the human being’s ability to accomplish work or enjoy pleasure. A close examination of any object is a graphic description of the level of intelligence, manual dexterity, and artistic comprehension of the civilization that produced it. You can reflect as well the climate, religious beliefs, form of government, the natural materials at hand, the structure of commerce, and the extent of man’s scientific and emotional sophistication. — R. Latham, “The Artifact as Cultural Cipher,” in Who Designs America?


Motivated by an urgent desire to reinvigorate the teaching of history in both its formal and informal learning contacts the new history endeavors to embrace a pedagogical philosophy that puts principal emphasis on learning as intellectual inquiry rather than rote memorization; seeks to involve students in the process of first-hand research investigations using primary sources; and attempts to recognize that much historical evidence knowledge and understanding exists outside of the traditional history classroom. (p. 1)

The inquiry pedagogy as developed by John Dewey and Francis Parker: “sees every artifact—textbook, school, museum, community—as a learning environment.” The concept of “learning laboratories” builds on this philosophy to suggest that “students should be subjected to more labor and less oratory”.

Learning laboratories are “environments” with “diverse graphic, documentary, and physical evidence… places where the original Greek meaning of the word history (“to investigate,” “to inquire”) applies in the fullest sense. (p. 2)

Nine techniques for analysis:

  1. Graphics: Historical photography
  2. Graphics: Mail-order catalogues
  3. Graphics: Cartography
  4. Historic sites: House museums
  5. Historic sites: Museum villages
  6. Historic sites: Anniversary events? (1876 centennial)
  7. Landscapes: Vegetation, plants, and natural material culture
  8. Landscapes: Regional studies (Chicago model)
  9. Landscapes: Above-ground archaeology (Local artifacts)

Material culture study attempts to explain why things were made, why they took the forms they did, and what social, functional, aesthetic, or symbolic needs they serve. Moreover, a basic assumption underlying such teaching and research is that artifacts are cultural statements… The historian’s primary purpose in using artifacts is always to interpret them in their cultural history context.

Three research and teaching “axioms” about “ways to explore the history outside the history classroom” (pp. 3 – 5):

  1. “the historian should confront material culture evidence directly whenever possible. Reproductions will do, in a pinch, but nothing can substitute for the real thing.”
  2. Understanding the uncommon history of common things: “material culture data provides us with one abundant source for gaining historical insight into the lives of those who left on other records.”
  3. Need for methodological rigor and precision: need to move from descriptive investigation to the “more problematic area of historical analysis and interpretation… it is vital for the historical investigator to adapt or create a research design that seems most appropriate to the questions he or she wishes to address to the artifactual data under study.”


Four sections looking at photography as:

  • Historical process
  • Historical data
  • Historical interpretation
  • Historical distortion

Mail-order catalogues

Mail-order catalogues (the “Big Book”) can be used as a:

  • casebook
  • sourcebook
  • textbook
  • or “question book” of American history

Mail-order catalogues “cannot be studied apart from at least two other contexts”:

  • the products they describe, i.e. mail-order goods
  • the processes that create them, i.e. mail-order merchandising


  • Baltimore Bargain House (Baltimore, Md ). Furniture Catalogue Season 1907-1908 / Baltimore Bargain House. The Company, 1907.
  • Decorators Supply Co. Illustrated Catalogue of Period Ornaments for Furniture. Decorators Supply Co., Chicago, Ill., 1924.
  • Henry Francis du Pont Winterthur Museum. Trade Catalogues at Winterthur : A Guide to the Literature of Merchandising, 1750 to 1980. Garland Pub., 1984.
  • Macy’s (Firm). Catalogue No. 16, Spring/Summer / R. H. Macy & Co. R.H. Macy, New York, 1911.
  • Montgomery Ward. Catalogue No. 13, Spring and Summer, 1875. Montgomery Ward, Chicago, 1875.
  • Sears, Roebuck and Company. Catalog No. 124. Sears, Roebuck & Co., Chicago, 1912.
  • ———. Catalogue No. 112. Sears, Roebuck & Co., Chicago, 190AD.
  • ———. Consumers Guide No. 107. Sears, Roebuck and Company. Chicago, Ill., 1898.[]=baltimore

Two sections:

  • American studies

Material culture studies

  1. A reference work
  2. A graphics and advertising library
  3. A primer for artifact exercises
  4. A paperback museum
  5. A resource for assorted case studies

As a reference work, a mail-order catalogue can answers questions:

  • How long were certain articles manufactured?
  • How did design and cost change over time?
  • How, and to what extent, were certain styles reflected in given classes of objects?

Useful in establishing accurate and detailed design chronology for everyday objects.

e.g. Pop Pedagogy: Looking at the Coke Bottle by Craig Gilborn (1968). Museum News, December 1968 – three part approach to looking at objects:

  • description
  • classification
  • and interpretation


Maps and cartography can be used as:

  • Source of primary information
  • Method of historical analysis
  • Means of graphic communication

Questions to ask:

  • What is the historical value of a map?
  • How does it affect our knowledge of the past?
  • What does the map prove or establish beyond what is already accepted as historical truth?
  • What historical evidence can the map be pressed to yield?


  • Geographical and topological features (pp. 68 – 71)
  • Settlement patterns and paths (pp. 71 – 77)
  • Working and selling places (pp. 77 – 79)
  • Transportation and circulation networks (pp. 79 – 81)
  • Cultural and social geography (pp. 81 – 84)
  • Town plans and civil design (pp. 84)

Limitations to map-reading:

  • distortions of reality
  • certain biases of their creator (e.g. What subject is central? How prominent are certain labels or features?)
  • falsify scale and proportion

Remember: map-publishers sometimes reissued maps, changing date of issuance without updating cartography; early map-makers also used historical material from earlier sources (documentary or cartographic) without acknowledgement. (p. 85)

Maps, like either documents or material remains of the past, are passive objects and they will speak only when they are properly questioned. — Marc Bloch, The Historian’s Craft (1953)

Historic House Museums

Note: This chapter is focused on interpreted historic house museums but in these notes I have often substituted the word “building” for “house” to help reimagine the relevance of these strategies to non-residential buildings and buildings that are not museums. I also skipped taking notes on the inquiry and bibliographical resources to focus on student project ideas in detail.

Student Projects

Seven teaching strategies corresponding to seven “disciplinary fields of study”:

  1. Cultural anthropology and folklife
  2. Environmental and social psychology
  3. Decorative arts and social history
  4. Cultural and historical geography
  5. American studies and literary history
  6. Architectural history
  7. Museum studies

1. House Forms and Types (p. 94)

Studying house forms and types asks students to learn to:

  • observe carefully
  • measure accurately
  • draw precisely
  • study a building in exacting detail

Students can measure and record a building “calculating and appraising its exterior and interior dimensions”. This activity invites students to examine, describe, and translate 3D artifacts (buildings) into 2D artifacts:

  • elevations
  • isometric perspectives
  • sections (general, cross, longitudinal)
  • decorative and structural views
  • floor plans

See Architectural drawing; Multiview orthographic projections; Cross section; or Isometric projection on Wikipedia. See also Comparison of computer-aided design editors.

When you measure and draw a building, you can “see the structure as its builder(s) may have perceived its form, materials, and spaces.” Henry Glassie points out “empathy with the builder is a crucial focus of the folklorist approach to housing types… an extremely valuable perspective for evaluating any residence.”

You can compare or analyze floor plans or other drawings alongside drawings of other buildings in the same local area or region. See H.G. West’s “A Change in Plans: Is the Modern House a Victorian Invention?” (Landscape, Winter 1952).

2. Interior Space Concepts (pp. 98 – 99)

Try a “live-in” approach (e.g. sleepover; camp-out; night-time tour).

Students can gain an insight into the “social and physiological import of the environment” before a visit by reading descriptions of the building by former occupants:

  • journals
  • diaries
  • correspondence
  • scrapbooks

Or by reviewing demographic data about occupants (e.g. genealogies, mortality, census data) or records of artifacts within the house (e.g. inventories, wills, deeds, account books, etc.)

Students can attempt “imaginative reconstruction of family life in the past” based on the model of J.B. Jackson’s “The Westward-Moving House: Three American Houses and the People Who Lived in Them” (Landscape, 1953) (Note: This approach seems risky to me!).

Analyze residential interiors. Use interior photographs of a building or similar buildings to make inferences about how prior occupants organized and used space within the building:

  • Did the arrangement of rooms, furniture, or objects influence relationships among family members?
  • Are there common (based on race, class, or status) or unique elements in how different people organized their homes?
  • When you look at people in photographs, what rooms are they shown in? What is their relationship to the objects around them?

3. Furnishings and Household Artifacts (pp. 103 – 104)

Students need two skills to learn from artifacts:

Exercises for thinking systematically about individual artifacts include E. McClung Fleming, “Artifact Study: A Proposed Model” (Winterthur Portfolio, 1975) that suggests a five-part system for classifying the properties of an object:

  1. history
  2. material
  3. construction
  4. design
  5. function

And four operations that can be applied to each property:

  1. identification
  2. evaluation
  3. cultural analysis
  4. interpretation

Note: If this isn’t represented with a matrix or grid in the original publication, a diagram would be helpful at illustrating this approach.

See also Fred Schroeder’s Designing Your Exhibits: Seven Ways to Look at an Artifact (1977) or “Cultural Artifacts” in Stephen Botein er al. Experiments in History Teaching (1977).

Use period rooms to “consider larger assemblages of material culture”.

One approach is the “Room-Study Checklist” by Scott Swank, Education Division of Winterthur Museum. Students can look at five categories:

  • spatial characteristics
  • utilitarian purposes
  • formal characteristics
  • furnishings
  • history of functional concepts

Swank suggests dividing students into teams; each spending several weeks researching a room based on one of the five categories and preparing a report.

One way of demonstrating the technological and consumer revolution in the American home is to provide students with reproductions of inventories for a cross-section of American parlors and kitchens and, if extant, of such rooms in the specific historic houses that they are investigating.

Students may be asked to “complete an inventory form listing all the domestic appliances and household accouterments in his or her present home.” Students can compare past and present; considering “American attitudes towards personal comfort, material abundance, energy consumption, and even waste disposal.”

4. Geographical and Ecological Relationships (pp. 106 – 107)

Students can learn to “depict a historic structure in various cartographic presentations”:

  • Location maps: Successive maps for each “historical era” showing a building and property in relationship to transportation networks, topography, and other buildings or developed areas.
  • Plot plans: Detailed maps showed historically significant natural and built features.

Students need to “think about a home’s exterior spatial relationships and how they may have shifted over time.” Students need to consider proportions of land use; positions of building elements; location of structures; type and design of landscapes. Other approaches for mapping residential features include:

  • landscape plans
  • survey drawings
  • grade levels
  • topographic features
  • isometric drawings
  • constructing 3-D physical models

To create location maps and plot plans, students need sources including:

  • Cadastral surveys
  • City and county atlases
  • Land-ownership maps
  • Plat books
  • Fire insurance and ward maps
  • Panoramic and bird’s-eye-views
  • Streetscape, landscape, and aerial photography

See Map, Cartography, History of cartography, Atlas, City map, Pictorial maps, Aerial photography, Sanborn Maps on Wikipedia.

5. Literary and symbolic interpretations (pp. 109 – 110)

Research the symbolic meaning of a building based on surviving documentary evidence:

  • diaries
  • correspondence
  • promotional brochures
  • city and county histories
  • local biographical dictionaries
  • magazine and newspaper accounts
  • artistic and photographic renderings

Pay special attention to changes in representation, renderings, and perspectives (esp. distortions and exaggerations). Students can ask:

  • Does the building “stand” for something? Or “make a statements” about the “cultural, economic, or social status” of the owners?
  • Is this an intended or unintended act by the original owners or designers?
  • Did the building inspire “architectural progeny”?
  • What are the “cultural and symbolic relations with surrounding structures”?

This research may require systematic oral history with older neighborhood residence to elicit reminiscences on the “communal meaning” of a building.

Read fiction about architecture. See Curtis Dahl, “American Novels/American Houses” seminar at Wheaton College (MA) where students combine literary and biographical sources with pictorial and artifactual sources.

Dahl notes (Society of Architectural Historians Newsletter, October 1977) that, since the great bulk of architecture in fiction is vernacular, that this approach to American domestic building emphasize, as conventional architectural history courses do not always do, the ways that ordinary buildings have a great impact on cultural consciousness. (p. 110)

6. Architectural features and styles (pp. 112 – 114)

Consider three approaches:

  1. Trace components and features
  2. Explore historical associations of architectural styles
  3. Explore personal living environments

Ask students to use drawings and chronological charts to trace stylistic components and iconographic features of a building, e.g. “a detailed art history of cornice forms, arch types, brick patterns… can become the basis for an extended class exploration of the entire several-thousand-year history of Western design and decoration.”

Students can split into two teams to investigate the “origins, development, and forms” of features:

  • on the building exterior
  • on the building interior

After the research is complete, students can engage in “extended seminar discussions” to “explore the relation between the two” (exterior and interior).

Connect later phases of American history with earlier phases and/or American history with European history by exploring the historical associations of American architectural styles (e.g. Georgian, Dutch Colonial, Pueblo; Second Empire, Gothic, Greek Revival).

A single dwelling may instruct us in the history of mankind: in the glories and sometimes the depravities of past generations; in the discoveries of engineers and chemists; in sociology and economics and taste; in the genius and folly of nations and individuals.” — Laurence Lafore, American Classic (1975)

Students can also study their own homes. Florence Ladd, “Doing Residential History: You Can Go Home Again,” Landscape (Winter 1976) demonstrates:

  • having students explore the personal living environments that they and their parents have experienced…
  • expands their sensitive to the history of American domestic space

See also:

  • Edward O. Laumann and James S. Morris, “Living Room Styles and Social Attributes: The Patterning of Material Artifacts in a Modern Urban Community,” Sociology and Social Research (April 1970)
  • Sim Van Run and Murray Silverstein’s Dorms at Berkley: An Environmental Analysis (1967)

7. Museum interpretation analysis (pp. 117 – 118)

Evaluate a historic house’s interpretation. This activity requires:

  • an outline of evaluative criteria (e.g. Thomas Leavitt in Technology and Culture, 1968)
  • criteria for systematic exhibit review at museums

The evaluation can be written as a report with specific recommendations for improving interpretation and/or support a discussion with students and museum curatorial or education staff.

This activity needs students to be familiar with “critical appraisals” of “historic house museums as interpreters of the American past”; see David Lowenthal, Richard Rabinowitz, Peirce F. Lewis, and Irvin Richman.

Write a history of the historic house museum. Students can study the history of the house museum in the context of:

  • the history of the U.S. preservation movement
  • general trends in U.S. historiography
  • cultural history of nineteenth and twentieth century America

Comparative analysis can reveal “intriguing parallels and paradoxes” and “suggest a different angle of vision on the American past”.

Historic Museum Village

Try to perceive the historic museum village as:

  • A total living environment
  • A repository of cultural artifacts
  • An above-ground archaeological site

Study village “as a macrocosm and in microcosm” (p. 121)

Community History through Local Artifacts

  • Geological and geographical features (pp. 187 – 189 )
  • Landscape vegetation (pp. 189 – 191 )
  • Place and street names (pp. 191 – 192 )
  • Street histories (pp. 192 – 195 )
  • Vernacular buildings (pp. 195 – 197 )
  • Working places (pp. 197 – 198 )
  • Commercial archaeology (pp. 198 – 201)

In short, local and community history can be read in asphalt and cast-iron; in house of worship and in just plain houses; in diners and equestrian statues, in inner city neighborhoods and in suburban tracts, in city plans and city streets. To be sure, above-ground archaeology cannot be done without the data we normally find the library archives municipal record office and museums. … Most historians know and use these documentary or verbal sources. We have been slow, however, in equipping ourselves with the visual literacy to a company our almost exclusive lexical literacy. I think we need to acknowledge that the past is visual as well as verbal. (pp. 202 – 203)


  • Historic preservation
  • Historical ethnobotany
  • Art historians
  • Historical farm and agricultural interpretation



  1. History is progressive
  2. History is patriotic
  3. History is nostalgia
  4. History is consensus
  5. History is simple
  6. History is money

See this list of fallacies on Wikipedia.


  1. History should be inquiry
  2. History should be communal
  3. History should be personal