The Ways of Her Household: The Material Culture of Early American Women
Course: U.S. Women's History
Grade Level: 12th grade
Topic: “The Ways of Her Household”: The material culture of early American women
Lesson: By looking at a variety of 18th century household objects, historians can better understand the lives of colonial women.
Time: 75 minutes
- Inventory of Lucy Arms (1752-1826) Docket 13/043. Franklin County Courthouse. Probate Office. Greenfield, MA.
- Dower of the Widow of Joseph Barnard (1741-1803) Northampton, Ma. Registry of Probate Books. Vol. XXIII. pp. 290-291.
- Image of Wells Thorne House in Historic Deerfield (personal photograph)
- Image of a spinning wheel (Flax Wheel. American Centuries: View From New England. Memorial Hall Museum Online. www.memorialhall.mass.edu.)
- Image of a pocket (Embroidered Pocket. American Centuries: View From New England. Memorial Hall Museum Online. www.memorialhall.mass.edu.)
- Jane Sherron De Hart and Linda K. Kerber, “Introduction: Gender and the New Women’s History,” in Linda K. Kerber and Jane Sherron De Hart, eds., Women’s America: Refocusing the Past (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 3-24.
- Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s “The Ways of Her Household” in Linda K. Kerber and Jane Sherron De Hart, eds., Women’s America: Refocusing the Past (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 39-48.
Students will begin to:
- Recognize the significance of material culture in human life
- Recognize the methods employed by social and women’s historians to recover a past obscured by the history of “important” (public and political) events
- Understand the basic function and meanings of a selection of 18th century household objects
- Understand various roles adopted by colonial women
- Develop skills in analytic and synthetic thinking
- Students will be asked to recall the previous day’s discussion of Kerber and De Hart’s Introduction to Women’s America (2000) regarding the limitations of “traditional” historical narrative. Students will be asked to consider how a more inclusive history—one that acknowledges the lives of those absent from the records of “important events” — might be developed. But if such people are absent from these records, to what sources can historians turn to understand the lives of ordinary people?
2. Reflection (5-7 minutes):
- Students will be asked to respond to the following prompt: “Imagine that you are the “ordinary person” about whom historians of the future want to learn. What materials could they analyze 200 years from now to determine what your living conditions were like, how you spent your time, what mattered to you? Make a list of items.”
- Each student will be asked to share one item from her list. The teacher will emphasize the importance of objects in conveying meaning about their lives, and by extension, the significance of objects in conveying meaning about the lives of people in the past.
4. Guided study of 18th century material culture:
- The teacher will explain that historians of 18th century social and women’s history frequently learn about subjects by evaluating their possessions, using probate inventories and surviving artifacts.
- Students will divide into groups to examine probate inventories. Groups will share with class their responses to the questions, “What kinds of objects did the subject possess?” and “What conclusions can you begin to draw about the subject’s life?”
- Finally, together with the teacher, class will view and analyze images of the Wells Thorne House, a spinning wheel, and a pocket to consider what they might reveal about the lives of colonial women.
- Class will reflect on the day’s activities and discuss the variety of strategies historians might employ to study the past.
- Students will read Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s “The Ways of Her Household” in Women’s America, which looks to probate inventories, colonial houses, spinning wheels, and pockets (among other artifacts) to depict the life of colonial women.
- Students will demonstrate knowledge of material through participation in class discussions and completion of small and large writing assignments.