Schlereth, Thomas J. (ed). Material Culture Studies in America.

Nashville: American Association for State & Local History, 1982.

I’ve heard “material culture” described as the debris the past leaves behind to entice and puzzle the future. The earlier the period from which historical items have survived, of course, the more pronounced the niches in which they may be categorized. There’s plenty of Roman architecture around, but even metal weapons are rare, and textiles are almost non-existent. There are no Royal Navy frigates remaining from the Napoleonic wars. Even the early phase of the Industrial Revolution hasn’t left many relics. (If only there was a surviving steam locomotive from the 1830s!)

All of which means that those who study the physical remains of the past have to make do with what they can find, and we’ve been consciously and systematically doing that for a couple hundred years now. Methods and purposes change in historical studies, just as in everything else, and the focus of material studies has shifted as well, from artistic collecting, connoisseurship, and the “search for uniqueness,” to typology (there’s a fascinating article here on the changing design of Coke bottles) and the history of technology, to analysis and social context as evidenced in museum studies. My own background is archival, so my particular fascination is with original documents from the past, whether family Bibles or diplomatic correspondence from the Continental Congress — not just transcripts but the pieces of paper themselves — and that area is given rather short shrift in this volume, unfortunately. Still, there are chapters and essays included on a number of useful subjects: Early photography as a way to capture the visual past (old photos of city scenes fascinate me), symbolism in 19th century cemeteries (something every serious genealogist learns about), the American service station as vernacular architecture (not very well handled in the article, unfortunately), and “garbage archaeology” (such as the heaps of patent medicine and whiskey bottles left behind by the troops stationed at U.S. Army posts in the southwest before the Civil War, some of which I had a hand in uncovering on a summer field trip in grad school). As in any scholarly anthology, the writing in these two dozen selections is a bit uneven, but by and large it’s a worthwhile book. But I wish someone would put together a follow-up volume to this one to cover methodological changes and shifts in subject matter over the past quarter-century, like “primitive” personal computers and the development of the cell phone!


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