In the Field

Objects are crucial to understanding the past. They can speak to us and pull at us, unlocking histories eclipsed by written sources, at times with unique depth and resonance. In this series of micro essays, four members of the UMass Amherst history department share sources of significance to their teaching and research.

The Story of Two Shells

From Left to Right: Nautilus cup, c. 1630–1660, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. Nautilus Pompilius Shell from the Wreck of the Dutch East India Ship Witte Leeuw, 1613, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

These two nautilus shells are quite different, but they are part of the same story. They both originated in the Dutch colonies in southeast Asia, now the independent nation of Indonesia. The cup was produced by an anonymous artisan in the Netherlands some time in the middle of the seventeenth century. The gleaming, nacreous shell was mounted in a gilded silver stand featuring mythical sea gods, snails, crabs, dolphins, and other marine motifs. It combined a wonder of nature with a wonder of art. It also reminded its owner of the wealth and power of the Dutch seaborne commercial and colonial empire.

The unadorned shell is another reminder of that empire. It was recovered in 1977 from the wreck of the Witte Leeuw (White Lion), an Indiaman (large cargo ship) that belonged to the Dutch East India Company. En route from what is now Indonesia to the Netherlands, the ship’s convoy was attacked and sunk by Portuguese forces near St. Helena, in the South Atlantic, in 1613. For over three and a half centuries it lay on the ocean floor. Had it completed its voyage, it too would have been transformed into an art object. Instead, it reminds us of the costs of empire to both the colonized people who originally caught it and the common sailors who sank with it to their doom. 

Brian W. Ogilvie, Professor and Chair, UMass Amherst History Department

A Chest to Rest One’s Head

Seventeenth-century pine chest, collection of the Porter-Phelps-Huntington Foundation. Photo taken by author.

The material culture of the past contains countless objects with unintended uses; what an object was explicitly created to be or do is not always what it will be actually used for over the course of its lifetime. A plain six-board pine chest residing in the collection of the Porter-Phelps-Huntington Museum in Hadley, Massachusetts is one such object. 

As part of a NEH grant this semester, I am working to study and reinterpret collection objects at this museum to center histories of labor, both free and unfree, in future site interpretation. Originally a late seventeenth-century construction, this chest’s eighteenth-century uses shifted from a vessel for household goods like textiles to a vessel for human beings. In 1775, a ten-year-old enslaved girl and resident of the home named Phillis fell ill with tuberculosis. Elizabeth Phelps, the house’s mistress and Phillis’ enslaver, recorded in her diary that after several unproductive consultations with doctors, she placed this chest by the kitchen hearth and made it into a bed for Phillis. Cramped inside the thick wooden walls of the chest, Phillis passed away. The next explicit mention of the chest’s use as a bed was later in 1809 (and for all we know, other times in between, as portable beds were not unusual in early America) when a recent widow named Mary Andries who had been on the Phelps’ property needed nursing. 

The story of the chest’s transition to something akin to an adult cradle is also legible in the material itself; the 5 foot chest originally had an outside lock that was removed and patched, and the interior lidded tills that were used to store more valuables were also likely removed to make room and comfort possible for Phillis and Mary.* 

Archival documentation like Elizabeth Phelps’ diary offers filtered historical information about women like Phillis and Mary Andries—that is, it is documentation created about them rather than by them—but when combined with the surviving chest, their experiences are brought to life for visitors at the museum site. 

– Emily Whitted, PhD Student, UMass Amherst History Department

* Portable beds allowed infirm members of a household to be close at hand–more convenient for caregivers than a bedroom in a remote chamber, and more pleasant for their occupants, who could recline near the warmth of a fire, and near the hustle and bustle of the household. Our understanding of this object is indebted to the scholarship of Nicole Belolan, Public Historian in Residence, Mid-Atlantic Regional Center for the Humanities (MARCH), Rutgers University-Camden.

Famine’s Pages

Kaifeng Municipal Science and Technology Committee, ed., Compilation of Resources on Native Fertilizers and Insecticides, August, 1960.

My current book project is titled “Heritage and Survival: The Power of Agricultural Knowledge in the People’s Republic of China.” One chapter focuses on a campaign launched during the Great Leap Forward (1958–1960) to produce “native insecticides” (土农药) using traditional medical knowledge about the properties of wild plants—one of many initiatives to overcome scarcity and boost production by mobilizing local resources.

One of the sources I’ve collected for this chapter tugs at me, and I find myself returning to it repeatedly—before the pandemic, I even brought it to class to share with students. In August 1960, in the midst of the worst famine in world history, the Municipal Science and Technology Committee of Kaifeng, Henan published this handbook, Compilation of Resources on Native Fertilizers and Insecticides. The book was hand-written and mimeographed on low-grade recycled paper that is soft, fibrous, and speckled with darker bits of pulp and the occasional scrap of bark or twig.

The book’s pages—not just the text, but the stuff on which it was inked—speak to resourcefulness and bring home the true significance of the campaign slogan “make do with available materials” (就地取材). And they speak, painfully, to the deprivation that made frugality ever-more necessary. As land that once supplied paper mills was converted to food production, the mills turned to inferior sources for their raw materials. In especially hard-hit places like Henan, rural people resorted to eating bark, twigs, and some of those same wild plants described in the Kaifeng handbook, sometimes poisoning themselves in the process. Touching the pages of this relic from a time of desperation and determination, my students and I feel the history more deeply than words alone could convey.

Sigrid Schmalzer, Professor, UMass Amherst History Department

A Camera and Cloak

Leica Camera, courtesy of the Freedman family.

“When I was a kid, I always wished I had one of those rings or cloaks that made you invisible. Then I realized years later, I am invisible behind a camera. I am a camera.” —Jill Freedman (1939–2019).

Last winter break, I took an exhibit design course with Professors Marla Miller and Traci Parker. My classmates and I explored the personal and digital archives of New York City-based street photographer Jill Freedman, a prolific and hard-scrabble documentarian who sought out the gritty aspects of everyday life. She lived in Resurrection City, a Washington, DC protest encampment by the Poor Peoples’ Campaign in 1968, embedded for a year with firefighters in Harlem, and spent time in a traveling circus to capture the experiences of carnival workers, just to name a few examples of her commitment to her craft.

Our class had the privilege of meeting her family and friends over Zoom, and they generously shared memories, stories, and images from her personal archives, including photos of her cameras, including this Leica camera, dating to the 1970s. Her many cameras were well-worn and heavily used, and their variety proved that she was not married to a particular brand or model. Rather, Freedman’s family said that she always adopted the latest technology, shifting from film to digital to even using an iPhone in her later years. This practical and receptive attitude towards technology reflects the approach she brought to her photography as well—of rolling with the punches and becoming “invisible” behind her camera—but always maintaining a distinct point of view.

Helen Kyriakoudes ‘21MA

After the winter 2021 class ended, one student in the class — W.E.B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies and Public History student Yelana Sims — assumed the role of lead curator, developing the exhibit over the course of the ensuing year, with support from a Charles K Hyde Internship Fellowship. The resulting exhibit, Theater of the Streets was on display at the UMass Amherst Augusta Savage Gallery through March 11, 2022. It is currently available online. Yelana Sims reflects further on the exhibit in her curatorial note, Theater of Perspectives.

By Emily Whitted

Person in pink shirt sitting at a dining room table covered with photographs and other materials objects.
One narrator’s collection of material culture—photographs, ephemera, and objects—that documents her family’s agricultural history in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Photo courtesy of the Mercer Museum.

The setting of my first oral history interview this past summer—a large farmhouse kitchen table—was barely visible underneath a mass of family photographs, objects, and other ephemera that documented over seventy-five years of agricultural life in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Planting tools, certificates for growing tomatoes, and photographs of farm buildings, equipment, and family members in their daily work all materially illustrated both a way of life and a landscape that had morphed and adapted significantly in the wake of growing development. But what role can these materials play in an oral history interview, recorded over audio and processed as a written transcript?

This summer I interned at the Mercer Museum & Fonthill Castle, two concrete castles built by millionaire collector and Arts & Crafts tilemaker Henry Chapman Mercer in Doylestown, Pennsylvania that are operated by the Bucks County Historical Society. To support a future exhibit at the Mercer Museum which will focus on the history of agriculture in Bucks County, I conducted eighteen oral history interviews with a wide variety of residents—dairy farmers, grist millers, orchardists, even ice cream makers—as part of the project “Documenting the Voices of Bucks County Agriculture.”

Using only audio recording and photography, I had hoped to capture histories of local events, personal experiences and perspectives on agriculture, and change over time, but I did not anticipate the outpouring of material culture that narrators offered alongside their oral histories or its impact on the project as a whole. When considering oral history interviewing as an indispensable curatorial tool, my time at the Mercer Museum revealed how intertwined material and oral evidence can produce richer oral histories for future archives and potentially lead to future museum acquisitions.

“Documenting the Voices of Bucks County Agriculture” was intentionally designed to incorporate material culture, in part because of its future intended use in a museum exhibit but also because the agricultural experience is intimately tied to material. The built environment of Bucks County farms has changed significantly over the last 100 years, and complexes of farmhouses, barns, silos, and workspaces have fluctuated alongside shrinking numbers of farmable acreage in the face of rapid housing development. With COVID-19 safety precautions in place, this project was still able to move forward with in-person interviews and document the built environment as part of the pre-interview process for narrators still actively working in the agricultural sector. For many farmers, their primary material interactions were also with the crops they grow or the animals they raise, and that relationship was a key research theme in each oral history’s line of questioning. When farmers are considered as skilled makers rather than unskilled workers, experiences of handwork, technological advances, seed or animal sourcing, and yearly farming schedules are also evidence of the intensive, careful labor behind the food we purchase. 

A person with blue pants, a blue shirt and a legal pad speaks with a person in a red shirt and khaki pants inside a mill-race.
Emily with a narrator standing inside a mill-race during a pre-interview conversation. Photo courtesy of the Mercer Museum.

For the interview process itself, I asked every narrator to include material culture they thought would be relevant to their oral history on the table. These objects ranged from photographs and family paintings to scrapbooks and farm tools. Memories shared during the oral history interview were punctuated with visual references and even explanations of how certain objects worked. All visuals were digitized and objects were photographed, then cited in the transcript when they were referenced so that future researchers could view the audio, transcript, and referenced images in tandem. For the exhibition, these visuals and objects may appear on display as valuable aspects of Bucks County farming life in the twentieth century. In some instances, objects and images from this project were also donated to the Bucks County Historical Society collection, and the provenance information for this acquired material culture is greatly enhanced by the oral histories of its living owners, makers, or users.

At the end of my first interview, I was handed three ripe peaches, a generous gift with an extremely limited lifespan in comparison to the gift of their recorded oral history which will stay preserved in the Mercer Museum’s library for future generations to access. I remain conscious that the success of this particular oral history project that involves material beyond what is captured on audio hinges upon local support and trust in partnership with best practices. This project’s methodology was carefully designed in consultation with the Mercer Museum’s curatorial staff, a local advisory committee of Bucks County agricultural community members, and key texts like Donald A. Ritchie’s Doing Oral History: A Practical Guide. When conducting interviews in a community that was not my own, clear communication with my narrators was essential, but even then, existing relationships between the Mercer Museum and its local community predated my involvement and made this project possible. Narrators answering my calls, sitting for interviews, or guiding me through haylofts, cornfields and mill races, loaning items for digitalization and even trusting the Mercer Museum with their family’s material history through donation had much more to do with the good faith present in the Mercer Museum’s community interactions and much less to do with my presence this summer. 

But this is where a curator and an oral historian’s responsibilities are most in sync; active collecting and oral history both require right relationships and interfacing with communities. Museums should practice them in tandem more often.

Emily Whitted’s summer internship was supported by a Dr. Judith A. Barter Internship Fellowship from the UMass Amherst Public History Program.

By Allison Smith

Three-story historic brick home in Downtown Boston.
Exterior View, Harrison Gray Otis House, First, Boston, Mass. Historic New England Collections.

During the spring of 2021, I was a women’s history research intern at Historic New England (HNE), an organization committed to sharing New England’s home life and history with national audiences by preserving houses and their landscapes alongside archival items and stories. Working under the direction of Dr. Alissa Butler, manager of the HNE Study Center, I was responsible for two main projects. At Casey Farm, a rural historic site in Saunderstown, RI, I researched women who had lived in the family home. At Otis House, a brick historic house in Boston, MA, I researched the experiences of women in the nineteenth-century Boston medical community.

Due to the remote nature of this internship, I researched Emma Weir Casey using Historic New England’s vast digital collection. Unfortunately, the Casey Family Papers has few of Emma’s first-hand accounts; however, it has dozens of her son’s letters. I read Thomas Lincoln Casey Jr.’s letters from 1877 to 1896 to find information about Emma’s life, hobbies, and personality. By sifting through her son’s perspective, I was able to learn about Emma’s frequent travels to New York, her ability to provide for her sons, her interest in music, and more. I ultimately wrote a subject guide about Emma for Casey Farm staff to incorporate her story in interpretation of the house and farm.

A white two-story historic rural farm site in Rhode Island.
Casey Farm. Image courtesy of Allison Smith. 

For Otis House, I read secondary source literature on the Boston medical community to contextualize Elizabeth Mott, an alternative medicine practitioner who lived in the house in the early to mid-nineteenth century. With little information available on Elizabeth, Otis House staff hoped to learn more about the world she would have been living and working in. I wrote subject guides on numerous topics that docents could use to illuminate Elizabeth’s role in alternative medicine including women and medical education, medical societies, feminism, and more. 

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By Melanie Meadors

Banner image with text "Get Historical With Me! Fashion, Freedom, and Function: Women and Bicycles in the 1890s, Part Two" imposted over an image of women turning a bicycle pedal.

A version of this article was originally published by GeekMom. This is part two of a three-part series.

As years went by, more experimentation in bicycle design took place. Gearing systems and chains were introduced, better braking systems were implemented, and springs were installed to cut down on vibration issues. The wheels of the bicycle, rather than having one huge wheel and one small, became more equal in size. Finally, the tire on the bicycle went from a solid rubber tire to one filled with air, which solved multiple issues, including vibration and traction. The safety bicycle had finally come to be, evolving over the course of about eighteen years (the very late 1870s-the early to mid-1890s) to become the bicycle we are more or less familiar with today.

With the safety bicycle being lower to the ground and much easier to ride, it became accessible to many more people, including women. Advertisers latched on to women as a target audience for the bicycle right away, taking advantage of the stylish aspects of it, the fact that it was popular among the upper classes, and using artwork to suggest not only that the bicycles were aesthetically pleasing, but women who rode on bicycles would be decorous as well. While there were detractors and many people who disapproved of women riding bicycles, once women started to ride, nothing seemed to discourage them.

Painting by Alfred Choubrac [Public Domain]

One source of disapproval of women riding was the medical field. Many doctors claimed women were not physically able to ride a bicycle safely. Much of this stemmed from the fact that women had to straddle the bicycle in order to ride. Doctors claimed it was too stimulating for women, that it would affect her childbearing by disfiguring her reproductive organs, and that any sign of slouching in the seat of the bicycle was a sign that a woman was giving in to her devious sexual nature. This is one reason images of the time depicted women sitting straight and tall on their bicycles while their male counterparts are bent closer to the handlebars for better aerodynamics.

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By Tirzah Frank

Visitors to historic house museums often ask what’s “original,” or “real,” or “authentic.” In the Paul Revere House’s Best Chamber, which acted as both master bedroom and parlor space for the Reveres, the answer varies. To start, 90 percent of the house’s posts, beams, and subflooring are original. And according to family tradition, several pieces of furniture in the room belonged to Paul Revere himself, or to his second wife Rachel. There is a grandfather clock in one corner that did not belong to the Reveres, but is quite similar to a clock Paul Revere owned (that piece is still in the family). After that, things get slightly more speculative. A book placed on a chair—a compilation of Massachusetts Magazine—represents a publication to which Paul Revere subscribed. A Masonic bowl sits on the dresser, reflecting Revere’s identity as a Freemason. The other furniture in the room dates to the period (around the 1790s) and was made in Massachusetts. And finally, reproduction fabrics and wallpaper, each based on a popular print that was sold in Boston at the time, have been placed on the bedding and the walls, respectively.

Tirzah Frank, UMass Amherst History MA and Public History Certificate student in the Best Chamber, Paul Revere House, Boston.
Tirzah preparing to speak to visitors in the Best Chamber.

Layers of authenticity like this are common in historic house museums, which rarely have all of the relevant family’s furniture, much less know where it was placed. While working at the Revere House, I was fascinated by the space between what the Reveres had and what they might have had—and the mix of careful research and creativity it takes to bridge that gap. The wallpaper and the fabric in particular have a huge impact on how the room feels, but we have no idea what they looked like. The wallpaper pattern dates to the correct period and was found in two different houses in the area (one in Salem and one in Cambridge), suggesting that it was made locally. It is, therefore, certainly in line with what the Reveres could have had on their walls. However, there is no surviving evidence of how the Best Chamber’s walls looked when the Reveres were living there.

Still, it would hardly be more authentic to put the Revere pieces alone in a room with no decoration and tell visitors, “These are the only things we can be sure of.” While that might be an interesting exercise, it’s guaranteed to be further from the Reveres’ experience than the current installation. As curator Laura C. Keim has noted, “furnishings have the power to connect us to people and contexts from another time and bring them into our present reality.”[1] The fully furnished Best Chamber allows visitors to imagine the Reveres in context, especially because it is the room where interpreters describe the Revere family. Explaining the origins of the furniture and other objects in the room also provides an opportunity to pull back the curtain on historical methodology for the public—we don’t know what wallpaper the Reveres had (if any), but we can talk about the research and decision-making process that led to the pattern on the walls right now.

The wallpaper in the Best Chamber (left) and reproduction fabric in the Best Chamber.

Navigating around gaps in the archive and using them to enrich visitors’ experiences is equally important in the Hall, the main room on the house’s ground floor. Here, the furnishings date to the late seventeenth century, when the first owner, Robert Howard, lived in the house. None of the furniture in the Hall is original, but it is designed to reflect Howard’s status as a wealthy merchant. Discussing his wealth as evidenced by the furniture is a useful segue to the fact that that Howard engaged in transatlantic trade, which relied heavily on the transport of enslaved Africans. While Howard’s involvement in the Atlantic slave economy is not fully understood, he owned a ship that frequently transited between Boston and the Caribbean, where he traded rum, tobacco, timber and more; he was an investor in 19 additional ships.[2] Howard also enslaved at least one person, a man named Samuel, who likely lived in the house as well.[3] The Revere House does not have any objects associated with the Howards, much less Samuel, but the furnishings in the room can still help guides illustrate facets of the Howards’ lives and provide some context for Samuel’s as well.

The phenomenon of making well-researched guesses to enrich the public’s experience and circumvent archival gaps is not limited to museums. In writing, historians have to mediate between what they can confidently claim and what they can only suggest. Developing this skill is becoming ever more important as scholars use creative methods to tell the stories of people far less famous than Paul Revere, especially BIPOC individuals like Samuel who may have left no written records.

For instance, Abenaki scholar Lisa Brooks incorporated elements of historical fiction in her book Our Beloved Kin, noting that these sections are designed “to bring readers into plausible scenarios, to animate the historical landscape through Indigenous frameworks and to give a sense of humanity to historical characters whose stories have been silenced, repressed or misunderstood.”[4] Brooks’ innovative approach is unusual for academic historical writing, but historic house museums have been bringing visitors into plausible scenarios in order to give a sense of humanity to historical characters for a long time. At the Revere House, this ranges from making décor decisions that show how the Reveres might have lived to connecting the expensive furniture on the ground floor to the atrocities behind Robert Howard’s wealth. There is no reason other genres of history cannot do the same thing, especially in situations where stories have been silenced or repressed. Indeed, taking a creative approach (and inviting visitors or readers into that process) can make history more engaging and provide a more authentic narrative, acknowledging that silences in the archive are not voids where nothing occurred.

Tirzah Frank is an M.A. student in History at UMass Amherst who is also pursuing the Public History Graduate Certificate. Her 2021 internship is supported by the Charles K. Hyde Intern Fellowship.

[1] Laura C. Keim, “Why Do Furnishings Matter? The Power of Furnishings in Historic House Museums,” in Reimagining Historic House Museums: New Approaches and Proven Solutions, ed. Kenneth C. Turino and Max A. van Balgooy (Rowman & Littlefield, 2019), 207.

[2] Ruaidhrí Crofton, “The Howards of Clark’s Square,” The Revere Express, June 12, 2020,

[3] Crofton, “Howards.”

[4] Lisa Brooks, Our Beloved Kin: A New History of King Philip’s War (Yale University Press, 2018), 140.

By Catherine White

The Springfield Museums recently purchased Theodor Geisel’s, a.k.a. Dr. Seuss, childhood home. Known as the “Seuss House,” it is surprisingly not on Mulberry Street. Their intention is to turn the house into a historic house museum (HHM) that explores Springfield and the Geisels’ lives in the early 20th century. At the Seuss house, nothing will be off limits to visitors. Embracing interactivity and inclusivity, visitors will be able to touch things, sit on the furniture, and engage with the house and its content in unique ways.

Black and white photograph of a large clapboard house with front porch and awning. Three people in white sit in the lefthand corner of the image.
Theodor Geisel’s childhood home in Springfield, MA, circa 1906. Courtesy Springfield Museums.

Issues of inclusion, particularly accessibility, are contentious at HHMs, which are notoriously exempt from many Americans with Disabilities Act standards. Questions of access in HHMs will become more pressing as museums realize the ways they have failed to be inclusive spaces. HHMs must consider inclusion in terms of physical accessibility for all abilities, as well as various learning preferences and who is represented in the museum.   

During my internship at the Seuss House, I try to consider all aspects of inclusivity and accessibility as I develop an exhibit proposal about Anna Lindner, the Geisels’ live-in housekeeper for 18 years. Including the histories of domestic workers and the “servant’s tours” in HHMs allows us to shift focus from the wealthier homeowners to underrepresented groups and individuals. The challenge with building the history of domestic workers is that the evidence that documents these lives is not always found in archives and the usual historical repositories. This was certainly the case with Anna Lindner. 

I was fortunate on this project because some preliminary research had already been done. In earlier partnerships with the museum, Marla Miller’s “History and its Publics” Fall 2018 undergraduate class and UMass Public History graduate Katherine Fecteau had researched the neighborhood and developed maps and demographic information for the street. The students enrolled in “History and its Publics” initially recommended featuring Anna in the museum.

But Anna Lindner was not in any of the other Geisel records that I had access to. She does not appear in any photographs that Ted Owens, Ted Geisel’s grand nephew, has and she is mentioned in passing only twice in the Ted Geisel memoir/biography. Dutifully noting each instance, I started my research with a basic search of census documents. Anna is listed in the 1910 and 1920 census records in Springfield, but in 1910 her name was misspelled. Further research found her in ship manifests for her initial voyage to the U.S. in 1903 as well as a four-month trip back to Germany in 1913. The Springfield Republican also listed her name along with the other Springfield residents who sailed over to Germany in 1913.

  • Black and white scan of handwritten 1910 census record.
  • Black and white scan of handwritten passenger manifest from 1913.
  • Black and white scan of handwritten passenger manifest from 1913.
  • Contemporary photo of a brown wooden cabinet with the doors open.

And that was it. Scraps of information and her name listed as one of many. The question became how to put these scraps together. I decided to contextualize the aspects of her life that I knew, focusing on her labor as a domestic worker, life as a Springfield resident, and experience as an immigrant.

I used what I learned about domestic work from Jennifer Pustz’s book, Voices from the Back Stairs: Interpreting Servant’s Lives in Historic House Museums, and other articles about domestic workers to examine Good Housekeeping magazines from the early 1900s. A critical reading revealed the duties and social status of domestic workers, racial portrayals of domestic workers, and their living and working conditions.

Maggie, Cliff, and Zoe over at the Springfield History Library and Archives were unbelievably knowledgeable and helpful in finding information about Springfield.

Douglas Baynton’s Defectives in the Land was one of many informative books on immigration, particularly for interpreting ship manifests. Anna’s ship manifests are fascinating to examine as they reflect the changing requirements for entry into the country and reasons for exclusion from the country. We will provide these documents for visitors to inspect and pose questions about why certain information is collected. Because we have manifests from both 1903 and 1913, visitors will be able to compare the changes as well.

To engage the different ways people create meaning, visitors will be able to pick up and touch all objects and parts of the exhibit. There will be maps, photographs and documents, objects and appliances, panels, and a brief video. Visitors who wish to explore a topic further can scan a QR code to connect to further resources. The exhibit will be fully bilingual in Spanish and English with video captioning and the museum is exploring additional translations. Any digital content will be compatible with the most commonly used assistive technologies, and we will invite feedback for improvement.

I also want to open up the process of “doing history” and offer a way for visitors to participate in that process if they choose. A wall panel highlights the challenges of researching the history of Anna Lindner and the many gaps in evidence that we have about her life. Another panel invites visitors to think about who or what else may have been “lost” to history. This panel will have a place where people can write or draw something about their own history that they want included in the public’s memory. This effort will also include a social media aspect where people can share stories, photos, or documents and the museums can help people develop and record their histories.

Working on this project has been very rewarding because Anna Lindner is important. Anna Lindner offers us the opportunity to expand the historical narrative and include diverse perspectives and experiences. Through Anna’s story we can examine issues of gender, class, race and ethnicity, and more, that wouldn’t be possible if we only discussed the Geisels. Inclusive museums need to represent these stories and need to be presented in ways that allow access to all abilities and learning styles. I have tried to make room within the exhibit for all abilities and learning preferences as best as I could, though I look forward to feedback from my supervisor and the diversity and inclusivity team, as well as ongoing feedback from visitors. 

  1. Baynton, Douglas C. Defectives in the Land: Disability and Immigration in the Age of Eugenics. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2016.
  2. Pustz, Jennifer. Voices from the Back Stairs: Interpreting Servants’ Lives at Historic House Museums. DeKalb, IL: Northern Illinois University Press, 2010.

Catherine White is an M.A. student in History at UMass Amherst who is also pursuing the Public History Graduate Certificate. Her 2021 internship is supported by the Charles K. Hyde Intern Fellowship.

by Camesha Scruggs

I must admit, my spark for public history was not ignited by childhood vacations to historic places. My initial thought on the phrase “public history” was that it focused on the houses and spaces of famous old white people in the West and in the North. Why would that interest me, a young Black woman in the South? Little did I know then that I would eventually discover that spark.

My introduction to the field was an internship at the Abraham Lincoln Home in Springfield, Illinois, during my undergraduate years at a Historically Black College and University, based on a program designed to enhance diversity. After that experience and speaking with former NPS Director Robert Stanton, I changed my perception and decided to pursue further education in the field. Once I arrived at UMass Amherst, I began considering my options for the program’s internship requirement. I learned about the W.E.B. Du Bois Boyhood Homesite in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, and decided that was going to be a potential internship project. 

The first time I visited the site, it was the last weekend of tours for Felicia Jamison, a fellow doctoral student and docent at the time and now Assistant Professor of History at Drake University. Later, her knowledge and professionalism served as my example and unofficial training. 

Camesha Scruggs speaks with the public at the W.E.B. Du Bois Boyhood Homesite in Great Barrington, MA.

Designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1979, the site is significant because Du Bois is considered “one of the most incisive thinkers and profound scholars of all time… [who] influenced much of the twentieth century black protest.”[1] I agree with the nominators and that spirit remains on the site through interpretation. UMass Amherst owns and manages the site, named its library after him and holds the largest collection of his papers. The university and its stewardship ensures that some of the legacy of Du Bois remains in the state.

Walking onto the land, it felt as if I was entering a special space. It is a feeling that visitors often remark upon once they step onto the site. The entrance, a nature path lined by overarching trees, creates a cathedral-like feel, setting the scene for visitors to immerse themselves in the experience of guided tours. The site continues as a half-mile wooded trail with interpretive signage, telling the story of Du Bois. Although the site lacks a physical structure and tangible artifacts, the design allows visitors to linger and learn about Du Bois and his ancestors, who walked this space more than one century ago. During my tours, we examine blueprints, discuss Du Bois’ writings about the space and approach a platform where the home once stood. I encourage visitors to imagine their home and hometown. This prompts visitors to connect to the ideas of nature and home at the site, including the feelings it evokes and intangible values it instilled. 

Since the summer of 2016, I have served as the tour guide at the W.E.B. Du Bois Boyhood Homesite Although the tour season lasts only ten weeks, hundreds of individuals interact and engage with his legacy. As the tour guide, I take visitors through various parts of his life, from his genesis in Great Barrington to his death and burial in Ghana. On these tours, visitors learn that some of his ideas and views were founded in the interactions with the local community. He took these hometown ideas and interactions to places all over the world. 

As a historian, I am accustomed to asking questions. However, I became accustomed to answering a variety of questions via calls, emails and on the tours. Questions range from demographics to the location of his descendants to his affiliation with Communism. Some are answered immediately, and others with a little research and a delayed reply. We discuss gender, race, family, community and conflict in this short half-mile, half-hour tour. Yet, one of the most intriguing questions was from a young visitor about whether Du Bois had a dog as a kid. Genuine inquiries like these shaped the tours, giving them uniqueness and unpredictability.

The reasons and ways that visitors engage with Du Bois always interest me. Some visit because they’ve read works of Du Bois, some come as part of their summer experience in the Berkshires. Others simply stop by accidentally due to the sign and small parking lot.  Each audience had a different experience and I was privileged to facilitate them. 

As a member of the NAACP, my perspective could have some bias. Yet, when I met one of the former editors of NAACP’s The Crisis magazine, which Du Bois was the first editor, it simply reminded me that I was being prepared for these types of moments of engaging with one of the influential figures in US and African American history. Of course, my presence at this site was significant and important. As a Black woman from the South, my perspective allowed opportunities for dialogue. Representation in public history spaces matters.

During my tenure at the Homesite, I’ve discussed Du Bois in a variety of ways. I’ve scheduled tours, provided public programming, given podcast interviews, shared informal chats and created social media videos. Each of these engagements allow me to do this thing called public history. I have the opportunity to present history to the public in palatable formats. The joy comes when someone comes away with new knowledge about Du Bois. Although he was an extraordinary man, there were moments that made him human. I try to convey these images and ideas at various presentations. 

These experiences are supported by various groups and individuals vested in the desire of Du Bois to keep this place that he cherished. Local organizations such as the Upper Housatonic Valley Heritage Area provide logistical daily operations support. Local residents like Wray Gunn and the late Reverend Esther Dozier gave the foundation and continual support of this work. The Friends of Du Bois Group expands the reach of the site to broader and larger audiences. The University of Massachusetts Amherst history, Public History and Anthropology Departments, Du Bois Library Special Collections and University Archives, and the W.E.B. Du Bois Center ensures that I am capable of providing accurate information for visitors. However, when I accidentally met Dr. Edmond Gordon, one of the originators of this site, our conversation reminded me that people and organizations can come together in acts of preservation, whether large or small. Dr. Edmond Gordon, a friend of Du Bois and Walter Wilson, a realtor, raised funds, resulting in the purchase of the land, creating the site in October 1969.

Walking the woods while discussing Du Bois is an indelible experience. It continually shapes my work in the field of public history.

Camesha Scruggs is a doctoral candidate in history at UMass Amherst in addition to pursuing a public history certificate in the program. As a native Texan, she recalls oral histories from community elders and wanted to tell their stories as she got older. Her public history work reflects that ambition, through projects with the Abraham Lincoln Home National Historic Site, Humanities Action Lab, W E B Du Bois Boyhood Homesite and The Center for Design and Engagement. In her work and scholarship, she desires to present unknown stories to larger audiences while making public history palatable to all that partake.

[1] Department of the Interior, National Park Service Du Bois Boyhood Homesite National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form Accessed August 2, 2019.

By Marla Miller, Past@Present Editor

In Spring 2021, the Hatfield Historical Society received funding from Mass Humanities for an innovative project to explore how best to recruit and support digital volunteers; the work will unfold over summer and winter 2021-22 and conclude in early 2022.  Like many small local history organizations, the society grapples with issues of accessibility that have been exacerbated by the global pandemic. Digital engagement seems like a possible solution, but how might the HHS (and groups like it) engage and train mostly senior volunteers in a way that will fulfill existing needs for the Society, and incorporate the skills, interests and social needs of the volunteers?  To explore those questions, the HHS has received grant funding to consider how best to build a vibrant and sustainable volunteer program.  To contribute to the process, the HHS project will tap the experience and insight of two members of the UMass Amherst History community: alumnus Robert Forrant and Public History Program director Marla Miller.  In the interview below, Kathie Gow, curator of the Hatfield Historical Museum, Forrant and Miller discuss the project’s aims and potential, work that will surely be of interest to organizations across Massachusetts.

MRM: Kathie, can you kick us off by sharing a little bit about how you came to develop this project?  What activities will the grant funds support?

KG: When Meguey Baker (Hatfield Historical Museum Collections Assistant) and I sat down in January to discuss the coming year’s priorities — based on more general priorities set by the Hatfield Historical Society (HHS) board, which funds our two positions — we knew we wanted to do projects that would hit a lot of our goals. Those goals included engaging our community in Hatfield history, expanding our reach beyond those who already knew us, discovering and connecting stories about artifacts in the collection, and building a volunteer corps. (Oh yeah, and then add some reality in–like, we’re challenged to keep on top of collections management and project work as it is, with funds the Society has been able to raise from its generous supporters, AND, we’re in a pandemic, and no volunteers have been allowed into the museum since mid-March 2020). 

So Mass Humanities’ Digital Capacity grants couldn’t have come at a better time!

The grant will support staff time to work with a half-dozen volunteers over the coming year, plus our two Humanities scholars (you and Bob), all of whom bring great skills and experiences to the project. It will also pay for the first year of an upgrade to the Pro version of our free website builder (Weebly), which gives us capabilities we’ll need for the project, and help fund our upgrade to the paid version of Zoom, which will be our primary platform for engaging with volunteers.

This was one of the last times volunteers and visitors were allowed into the Hatfield Historical Museum in February 2020, just before Covid shut the museum down. Volunteer Wunderley Stauder is writing up artifact intake sheets with Megue Baker.

MRM:  Bob, how did you come to get involved?  What priorities will you bring to this initiative?

RF: During Covid Times I have been continuing to do research and have spent time in the Lawrence Public Library and the Lawrence History Center. I also exchanged frequent emails with archivists at the Massachusetts State Archives. Through the efforts of these institutions I was able to get quite a bit of work done and it made me realize how difficult the last fifteen months have been for dedicated people who care about, collect, archive, and make available the historical record for us. I had also spent a great few months working on a research project in Hatfield with boxes and boxes of materials lovingly organized by the folks at the Hatfield Historical Society. 

When I was asked about whether I would want to be involved in a project in Hatfield again, it was an easy decision. For people like me who engage in public history projects and want to utilize local history in their classroom efforts, it is incumbent that we do everything we can to support local history organizations. As a researcher and board member of the Lawrence History Center, I can add my knowledge of how institutions like this work to the project. At the same time, by being involved with a local history organization, I can learn lots about best practices for working in such organizations. It may also help me to identify how I want to volunteer when ever I decide to retire from UMass Lowell!

MRM: How has HHS been coping with the effects of the pandemic, especially around Hatfield’s anniversary year?

KG: Like for most museums and historical societies, especially small ones, it has been a challenging year, made all the more frustrating and sad because 2020 was our town’s 350th anniversary year. It was also the Hatfield Historical Society’s 50th anniversary, which should have been a great opportunity for us to promote the work HHS has been doing. It meant that most of 2020’s scheduled events got cancelled, and our opportunities to engage in person with the public disappeared.

But we did not sit idle! We shifted gears, and of course with growing pains (we are still figuring things out), we embraced the digital platform. We were delighted to be asked last fall by Bill Hosely (of Terra Firma Northeast) to participate in the Mass Historical Society Zoom program, “A Treasury of Massachusetts House Museums and Local History Orgs: Part III: Hidden Gems” (you can watch the program HERE) to introduce our organization and the collections we manage for the Town of Hatfield to their audience.

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By Emily Whitted

Stephen Girard—the wealthiest man in the Early Republic—had a secret hidden inside his shoes. From his knees to his ankles, his legs were clad in fine silk stockings imported from France, with delicate silk embroidery, known as clocking, on display when wearing breeches. But below the ankle, his stocking feet were thick with mended areas, known as darns, made to repair holes in the fabric (fig. 1). Twenty pairs of Stephen Girard’s stockings are housed in Girard College’s collection and are rare survivals of extensively repaired early American textiles. If the wealthiest man in the Early Republic had his stockings mended, then one can only imagine the sheer scale of textile repair work in early America as both a domestic task and a professional occupation.  But why is textile repair worthy of notice, and what can its visibility tell us about the lives of early Americans? 

Fig. 1 – A pair of frame-knit silk stockings made in France and owned by Stephen Girard in the early nineteenth century show extensive darning in the feet. Stockings. Girard College Archives, Accession Number: 0323. Courtesy of Girard History Collections, Philadelphia PA.

Mending is having a moment. The New York Times informed me and the rest of its readership in an article last March, as stay-at-home orders began to go into effect throughout the U.S., that “now is when we all learn to darn our socks again.”1 The article featured an in-depth look at the visible mending movement, a craft practice-turned-social commentary on fast fashion and twenty-first-century throwaway clothing culture that mends damaged clothing in bright thread colors and distinctive sewing techniques (fig.2). I don’t think that article could have predicted how accurate its title would soon become; for many, extended time at home due to the pandemic would generate a mass return to textile mending and a renewed sense of relationship with clothing through the act of repair. Mending is certainly experiencing a resurgence, but only time will tell if its popularity continues once COVID-19 dictates less of our daily routines.

Fig. 2 – Visibly-mended cashmere socks by Flora Collingwood-Norris, knitwear designer and visible mender. Her work can be found at @visible_creative_mending on Instagram or her website
Courtesy of Flora Collingwood-Norris.

While eye-catching color and embroidery in visible mending wants viewers to notice repair work, in early America those executing textile repair work—the overwhelming majority of whom were women—were much more concerned with their mends escaping notice. With needles and thread, damaged textiles could be repaired to extend the life of garments without drawing any additional attention. Threads could be selected to match fabric colors, and even woven or knit patterns could be mimicked. Function was also important; mended textiles would need to sustain additional wear, as necessity often justified the time and labor spent repairing garments. But need was not the only motivating factor for mending. Like many of us today, repair in early America could also be motivated by sentimentality, as objects that are meaningful then, as now, felt worth the additional care and attention of repair work.

Girard’s stockings attract special notice because they were repaired multiple times with different techniques, all designed to extend their period of wear for as long as possible. The most common form of mending, executed in white cotton thread, mimics woven fabric structure to mend a hole. Swiss darning, executed in the tan silk thread, mimics knit fabric structure and could be used to mend a hole or  strengthen weak areas of knit fabric. Girard’s stockings also sport “run heels,” a technique that layers thread onto stocking heels which were likely to wear through first, for additional strength and padding (fig. 3-4).  

Fig. 3 – A close-up image of the mended areas of Girard’s stocking. White darning thread mimics woven fabric structure, while the light grey Swiss darns mimic the original knit structure of the fabric and are meant to escape notice. Stockings. Girard College Archives, Accession Number: 0323. Courtesy of Girard History Collections, Philadelphia PA.

Fig. 4 – The reverse of Girard’s stocking heel, which reveals the complex rows of couched thread that make a “run heel.” This technique provides additional cushion and padding to delay the emergence of holes in the fabric. Stockings. Girard College Archives, Accession Number: 0323. Courtesy of Girard History Collections, Philadelphia PA.

Each of these techniques were part of many early American women’s plain sewing education, although the skill and frequency in which they were executed depended on each particular woman’s socio-economic status and individual talent for needlework. A homework sampler housed in the collection of The Library Company of Philadelphia offers multiple examples of repair techniques, including a basic darn and a run heel technique (fig. 5). Made by Emily Bell in 1830 while attending the Bethlehem Female Seminary in Pennsylvania, this sampler offers an example of more common needlework. A 1790-1830 sampler by Anna Hofmann, part of the Winterthur Museum’s collection, showcases more elaborate darning techniques, including mending that mimics multi-colored woven patterns in fabric and mends that recreate knit stitches (fig. 6). In lieu of written sources, these early American women are documented by the needlework of textile repair. 

Fig. 5 – Eleven samplers, mounted on board in the form of a book, made by Emily Bell while attending the Bethlehem Female Seminary in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. 1830. Courtesy of Library Company of Philadelphia.

Fig. 6 – Darning sampler, Anna Hofmann, possibly England or North America, 1790-1830, Plain-woven linen and cotton thread, 1964.1702, Bequest of Henry Francis du Pont. Courtesy of Winterthur Museum.

Within museum collections, early American textile repair work is difficult to spot, assuming that mended textiles even make it into museums in the first place. Collecting, whether on a personal or institutional level, has often privileged objects that seem perfect, authentic, and without flaws. Some museum objects may have damage, often due to age and prior storage conditions, but it is much rarer to find damaged objects that were also repaired in the same time period in which they were made and used.

Several reasons, some practical and others less so, explain this absence. Repairs can be difficult to date. Antique dealers or other collectors in possession of objects before they arrive in museums may try to repair broken objects before their purchase and acquisition, and while some collections with regular access to conservators receive professional repair, objects that have received conservation work before entering a collection might make it difficult for museums to determine when a repair was made. Repairs can also escape notice in object records within collection databases, whether due to the assumption that information about an object’s repair is less important than an object’s creation or use or because textile mending is still, many years later, performing its original function and staying hidden. But early American repaired textiles do exist in collections despite this host of reasons, and closer analysis can access diverse histories of labor, sentimentality, and economic necessity. The first step, however, is finding them.

Repairing our fashion industry, our rates of consumption, and our relationships with the objects that surround us requires both modern-day commitment and historical context. My dissertation research is interested in the latter, and I am seeking early American repaired textiles (broadly defined and geographically conceived) as well as other objects in collections that tell the history of mending through material evidence and additional documentation. Darned socks are just the beginning. 

Do you know of any repaired early American textiles in a museum or private collection? Let the author know!


Twitter: @knitwhitted

Instagram: @knitwhitted

  1. Kurutz, Steven. “Now Is When We All Learn to Darn Our Socks Again.” The New York Times. March 12, 2020.

By Michelle Barrasso

I began my internship at the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD) in January 2021. My work at the Commission consists of a number of roles, responsibilities, and tasks; I am an Intake Specialist in the Employment Division. The tasks I am undertaking cover a number of different areas. First, I conduct intakeinterviews over the phone with people who wish to file a discrimination claim. This entails asking the right questions while remaining neutral and drafting the complaint. After several additional steps (i.e. sending the complaint to the Attorney Advisor, requesting signatures, etc.), I enter the complaint into the Case Management System. Second, I read case documents (i.e. a Complaint, Position Statement, Rebuttal, and Evidence) and outline the case in order to investigate and analyze it — to determine whether or not a PFC or “prima facie case” has been established and if there is probable cause for discrimination. I also help the assigned investigator determine what else is needed to move forward, which is known as an RFI or “request for information.” Lastly, I read mail-in complaints which include the same documents aforementioned. I outline each one with a checklist of pertinent information and enter the complaint into the Case Management System.

The intake interviews I conduct over the phone are informed by my training in Public History for a number of reasons. I am working with the public and engaging with the individual stories of people across the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, essentially recording a piece of their history and preserving it. This aspect of my internship work lends itself to an oral history framework due to the interview process of the intake as well as the documentation. Although I am not recording the Complainant’s story with a device, I am writing it down and filing it. The complaint of discrimination serves as the individual’s oral history.

I acquired these oral history skills in Introduction to Public History, a course I took during the Fall 2018 semester with Dr. David Glassberg. We covered a wide range of Public History topics, theories, and practices, dedicating a week to the subject of oral history. One of the requirements for the course was to lead two discussions, and I signed up to lead the week covering oral history because it has always been a topic that interests me. In order to prepare for the discussion, I read the section of Letting Go?: Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World that examines the practice of oral history, and we discussed the reading as a class. We engaged in a dialogue about the uses of oral history as well as its implications, methods, and procedures. These readings and conversations provided the necessary foundation for my field service project. 

I selected an oral history based topic for my field service project, which served as the main component for Introduction to Public History. This project, titled “UMass Black Pioneers”, focuses on the stories of African American students who attended UMass Amherst during the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. My two colleagues and I were each assigned one Black Pioneer to interview, and I was tasked with recording the story of Dr. Leslie McLemore. With the help of Dr. Glassberg, my colleagues and I created a list of interview questions and sent each interviewee an oral history release form, which provided their consent to be interviewed as well as archive their story. I interviewed Dr. McLemore at the UMass Digital Media Lab to ensure I had the proper technology to conduct and record the interview. At the end of the 60-minute interview, I downloaded both the audio and visual recording. The final step was the transcription process, which took me approximately 12 hours to complete. I utilize all of these skills to conduct the intake interviews for my internship with the Commission.

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