History Professor Kevin Sweeney points out architectural details on the Dickinson Homestead.
History professor Kevin Sweeney is a historian of “material culture” which involves researching archeological sites, estate sale records, wills and census reports to uncover clues about consumption and use of goods ranging from food to furniture to firearms.
Sweeney’s firearms research alone has yielded surprising insights. For example, he’s found that gun ownership in the original colonies was surprisingly varied – relatively low in regions like Delaware, Pennsylvania and New Jersey, and comparatively higher in the New England and Southern States.
He has used this approach to study the life of Lord Jeffery Amherst, and over the years also has become an expert on the history of the American home. This semester, he’s sharing that knowledge, in a course he’s teaching titled "The Material Culture of American Homes."
Professor Sweeney recently sat down with Director of Public Affairs Peter Rooney to discuss the class.
Listen to the full interview below or download it here:
Q: What is “Material Culture?”
A: Material Culture over the last 25 years is something that traditionally trained historians like myself began to use. We began to examine such things as architecture, home furnishings, and gravestones -- the kind of materials and discoveries that archeologists work with -- to try to broaden the understanding of social and cultural history, particularly in those areas where documentary evidence is less available.
For example, if you look at the colonies in Virginia and Maryland in the 1600s, they do not have the wealth of records one has in New England. But they do have about 300 archeological sites that have been excavated from the 1600s. I would be hard pressed to come up with 20 sites for New England. They’ve put their efforts in other areas and historians like myself who have been traditionally trained have begun to use this material as well.
Q: How do you incorporate this field into your course?
A: The course essentially looks at American domestic architecture from around the 1630s to 1960s, looking at the layout of homes, the architectural style of houses, the use of homes -- how people lived in homes -- as insights into social and cultural history. We also look at home furnishings -- furniture and ceramics -- what is often called decorative arts. The field of material culture draws not only upon archeology and anthropology and folklore, but also aspects of the discipline of art history.
Q: Are you using the Mead Museum at all to teach this course?
A: I’ve taught versions of this course since I came here 20 years ago, and have always made use of the holdings at the Mead. We go over there and begin the course in part by looking at pieces of furniture, just to get students comfortable with analyzing a piece of furniture like they would a document. What kinds of questions do you ask? What kinds of things can you learn from it? What kinds of subsidiary evidence and sources can help you interpret that?
Q: What are some of the course assignments?
A: One of the papers they have to write is to pick an object or an artifact and interpret it. The other paper focuses on a house. As well as using the Mead, we also go to Historic Deerfield, and the Dickinson Museum to see the Evergreens and Homestead. We also go down to the to the Harriet Beecher Stowe and Mark Twain houses in Hartford. In addition to being a couple of very nice Victorian homes, Harriet Beecher Stowe with her sister Catherine Beecher wrote very popular manuals on housekeeping and homemaking, sort of a cross between The Joy of Cooking and Martha Stewart.
Q: What are some of the other readings in the course?
A: One of the books we read is a look at household technology called More Work for Mother. It has the counterintuitive argument that as more machines came into the household, it actually increased the work for women because much of the work being reduced had been done by men.
Just to give you an example, wood chopping for fuel was usually done by boys or men, but when you start using iron cook stoves with coal, guess who doesn’t get to do something? But it becomes the wife’s responsibility to keep this monster of a cook stove clean. There’s also the growing expectation that meals no longer are cooked in one pot. You’ve got all these different ranges on the stove, so you’re going to cook the sort of meal of meat, potatoes and vegetables where things are not all swimming together but in separate pots. That’s more work.”
Q: Do you have an operating hypothesis about how homes are designed over time?
A: There are some things that go throughout—we are talking about human beings in space after all and one constant is that human scale hasn't changed a lot. But if you look at human reactions to hot, cold, light, dark, crowding versus privacy, these things do change dramatically over time, as does the growing role of "things" in people's lives. Life for most people except for the elite was pretty primitive at the time of settlers."
"Before the Civil War, the Beecher sisters were on the forefront of the concept of the house as a home, not just as shelter, but as statements of status and culture and a social force that shapes society. The Beechers would talk about the morality of furnishings. I assure you no one in 1630s talked about that. They might criticize excess but the idea that furniture could have a moral influence on society is an idea from the 19th century.
Q: Does teaching this course during an economic downturn have any special relevance?
A: In some ways the relationship to that issue is probably ironic because one of the things that becomes apparent in this course is the degree to which consumption of commercially produced objects -- whether we’re talking about ceramics, pewter that people had in their houses, and even furniture -- is something that goes back to the 1600s or 1700s. One of the themes of the course is that with the rise of the house and household came increased consumption as opposed to production. This consuming of things, whether for status, to make things more comfortable, or for a whole range of reasons, is deeply embedded in Western Culture.”