Using Obects in the U.S. History Survey Course

Anyone who teaches the United States history survey course should check out Abby Chandler‘s insightful piece, “Teaching with a Tea Set,” in the April 2014 issue of Perspective on History.  I have long been interested in bringing objects into my survey course but have never felt I was enough of a material culture expert to use them effectively.  Chandler’s essay has forced me to reconsider my cautiousness on this pedagogical front, especially since her essay is focused largely on the first half of the survey.  Here is a taste:

I find historical objects particularly helpful when discussing broader transitions in labor, consumer goods, and trade networks. I pass a sugarloaf wrapped in blue paper around the room just before talking about taxation in the colonies in the 1760s. As the students feel the hard sugar beneath the paper, I ask them why 18th-century merchants chose to ship and sell their sugar in hard cones, rather than the loose sugar we buy now. Students eventually conclude that sugar was so valuable that merchants did not want to risk losing spilled sugar if a barrel broke open, and this can lead directly into a discussion of why sugar was one of the first products to be taxed by the British Parliament after the French and Indian War.
My lecture on the French and Indian War and Seven Years War finishes by examining the impact that emerging global trade networks had on middle- and upper-class households in the American colonies. To help illustrate these changes, I use the a tea set made for “Felicity,” an 18th-century American Girl doll that has a tea cup without a handle and its saucer, a wooden tea chest, and a silver spoon. Many of the American Girl historical dolls are sanitized, contemporary-influenced versions of the past, particularly as they relate to race and gender—my husband, for example, refers to the Felicity doll as the “upwardly mobile shopkeeper’s daughter.” Nevertheless, the accessories made for the dolls are intended to be accurate reproductions of historical items, and they do provide a wide array of options for classroom use. The fact that they are miniatures (which students must be reminded of) means they are easily moved from office to classroom and back again.
I ask students to consider the way the cup was made: the lack of a handle denotes a cup made in Asia, which in turn suggests the family can afford imported china. Then I pass the tea chest around the room. Students sometimes struggle with the more abstract concepts posed by mercantilism, but a wooden tea chest brings to life the idea that wood was harvested in North America, sent to Britain to be planed and shaped into a chest equipped with metal handles, and then shipped back to the colonies for purchase as a finished product. As background for these discussions, I recommend Rodris Roth’s article “Tea-Drinking in Eighteenth-Century America: Its Etiquette and Equipage,” which links the objects and the rituals connected with tea drinking in the British Empire in the mid-18th century.