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I believe that objects in and of themselves have energy. They’re so emotionally loaded that they can surprise us. Imagine that you’re cleaning out a closet. You put your hand on a scarf that you haven’t worn in years, intending to give it away. Then you say to yourself, "Oh, but this is the scarf my daughter brought back from Scotland for me, the summer my mother died. I can't give this away." The everyday object—the scarf—has somehow become more than a scarf, more even than a gentle memory jog. Somehow, it is a lovely loop connecting your daughter, your mother, and you. Back into the closet it goes.
How can we, as teachers of history, tap into the energy of everyday objects? How can we use them to engage and instruct our students?
Everyday objects that haven’t changed very much over time can catch our students’ curiosity. Take a simple, functional object like a clothespin, for example. It would be great if you could give every student a clothespin to hold and manipulate as you discuss them. Your students may not have seen clothespins at home but their use is easy to understand. No one knows who was the first clever person to use a split peg of wood to hold a piece of laundry on a clothesline. We do know that clothespins with springs were invented in 1853 and their design has remained pretty much unchanged since then.
But when clothespins with metal springs in them were shown as something that my character, Molly, would have used in 1944, my readers’ grandmothers wrote to me to correct me. During World War II, metal had to be saved for use in weapons and war machinery; clothespins reverted to their one-piece, all-wooden, pre-metal spring style. There! Right there with a simple clothespin, you’ve made a direct connection between everyday life and war. You’ve shown your students that, if they had been children in 1944, their lives would have been affected by the war in such a simple and immediate—albeit small—way as how their wet laundry was clipped on a line to dry! And you can draw the connection to your students’ lives today, as well, by pointing out that now, in the 21st century, when we’re all trying to conserve electricity and use our driers less frequently, clotheslines and clothespins are enjoying renewed popularity.
Objects that have changed in design can intrigue your students, too. When I speak to classes and Brownie troops, I often bring along with me a miniature typewriter that American Girl created as a product for my character, Kit, who lived during the Depression. The students get a big kick out of the typewriter and refer to it as “an old-fashioned laptop.” Typewriters tell, without a word spoken, about change. Black, cumbersome, heavy, slow, smelling of ink, and taking more physical effort to use than our sensitive keyboards, typewriters can lead your students to reflect on the changing speed and ease of communication, the influences of invention and technology, and how we take mobility, immediacy, and convenience for granted.
As with the clothespin, you can use the typewriter to lead your students to the realization that every object is actually more than just a physical, tangible thing; it is a symbol, too. It has meaning. In the case of the typewriter, I like to tell the students that Kit’s father repaired the typewriter for her, and when he gave it to her as a gift he was saying, "I think it is great that you want to be a writer." The typewriter—and every gift a parent gives a child—is a symbol of love, encouragement, and validation. The meaning of an object is its story.
Objects can help your students "try on" a period of history and see how it fits and feels. Let them try striking those typewriter keys and feel the finger energy it takes to move them! I often bring coats and clothes replicated from a period for children to look at, to touch, and to try on. My Revolutionary War character, Felicity, wore a heavy, red, hooded woolen cape called a "cardinal." When students try it on and twirl around in it, they can sense—again, without any words being spoken—the 18th-century ideals of symmetry and elegant simplicity, the balance of grace and purpose, the pleasing duality of beauty and utility.
In fact, clothing can be very educational. When I was researching what life would have been like for my character, Josefina, who lived in New Mexico in 1824, my (mostly male!) advisors told me that life was harsh, grim, and a struggle for survival. That may have been true, but it was not the whole truth. I found listed on the records of goods sent up El Camino Real (the road from Mexico City to Santa Fe) items such as red taffeta petticoats, bolts of cotton, lace trims and scarves, and dancing shoes. A drive for beauty is part of human nature, and always has been!
Food can fascinate and instruct as well. Your students will be interested in everyday objects used to harvest, prepare, cook, serve, and consume food. Sometimes I bring an old-fashioned "juicer," and the students are dismayed to see how many oranges and how long it takes to squeeze even one glass of juice! They are quick to realize that food gained by effort was valued, rather than taken for granted. Like the clothespin, a familiar food like a banana can make connections for your students. They may be surprised that Felicity would have eaten bananas in Virginia in 1774. (I used shipping lists to find out; I wanted to nickname a character "Annabelle-Bananabelle," so I had to know!) But Emily, Molly's friend who grew up in London during World War II, wouldn't have seen a banana for years because they were impossible to come by.
Everyday objects, whether they're friendly and familiar or intriguingly odd, give your students a chance to stop and think: Somebody made this, used this, kept this. Your students can be in the presence of the object and let it change them, enlighten them, delight them, and gently lead them to a better understanding of a period of history. Most important, objects serve as links to people who lived long ago, and help your students feel a connection to them and realize how much we all have in common. The poet Arthur Guiterman expresses it well in his wonderful poem, "Routine:"
No matter what we are and who,
Some duties everyone must do:
A Poet puts aside his wreath
To wash his face and brush his teeth,
And even Earls
Must comb their curls,
And even Kings
Soap? Toothbrushes? Combs? Underwear? Now there are some everyday objects it would be fun to use to capture your students' attention and imagination!
For more information
Teaching with material culture opens up opportunities for teachers and students alike. Pick up some ideas on how to teach with objects from a teaching guide created for PBS's Antique Roadshow. Learn about giving context to artifacts from the past in Lessons Learned, or watch a museum educator describe how she introduces objects to students in a Teachinghistory.org video.