During the past few months I have worked closely with a manuscript collection donated by former Fitchburg State University history professor: Susan Reynolds Williams. The collection contains documents and objects about her personal research interests. During processing, I noticed there are some very interesting domestic history materials which prompted me to think deeper about the role of archives in historical research.
Williams was a cultural historian who focused on the role of domesticity and women in early American life up to the 20th century. She started her career as a museum curator, working with the objects themselves to let them tell their story to visitors about the historical past. In 1988 she started to pursue a graduate degree at the University of Delaware, culminating in a PhD. in History in 1992. Since 1992 Williams was a professor at Fitchburg State University until her retirement in 2013 after 21 years of teaching and publishing works in her field.
Throughout her years as a professional historian, Williams collected and preserved the materials she often used or created herself. These include her professional papers, notes on sources, papers for presentations given at conferences, rough drafts of her manuscript, and several domestic history objects.
The objects themselves are particularly interesting because we can begin to see how important they are to the field of domestic history. Without the paper dolls hand-crafted from magazine scraps as toys for late 19th century girls, historians studying this era would be missing crucial information about children’s home life during this period. This snippet of everyday life, of how girls at home with little funds for manufactured playthings would create their own dolls, tells us something important about their domestic situation. Overall, material culture tells us significant information; it has its own social meaning in the context of the era it was created in.
Nothing is created in a vacuum of time and space; everything has some residue of the social context it was created in, and that is what domestic historians use to analyze the past. So what if none of these objects were preserved for the future? What if archives did not house these materials in safe places for historians to access? To put it simply, the historical field of domestic studies would have a very difficult time finding evidence of everyday life in the past.
Homemakers from previous eras are relatively silent in the official narrative, but the important point to emphasize is that they lived and they contributed to society just as much as any other person. They influenced other men and women in however many ways they could, as Williams wrote about in her 2013 monograph on Alice Morse Earle titled Alice Morse Earle and the Domestic History of Early America.
Alice Morse Earle (1851-1911), was an American author who wrote about the social and domestic lives of early Colonial Era Americans. But in her writings she was able to subtly include her views about women’s rights and how the role of women in the home needs to change from the past. The subtext of Earle’s writings offers evidence to domestic historians about the true feelings of women in the 20th century. Even though it is not an explicit statement, Earle’s professional and personal writings offer a different view into the past than is available from examining official narratives.
Domestic historians rely on evidence like this to back-up their findings. It is not easy to find or even obvious where to search for this information. But the information is out there. It is not in the official chronicles of our past, but hidden in the shadows – in the materials and objects that themselves bore witness to the social changes. And those objects and materials now live in archives and special collections across the world where preservation minded people have kept them ready to be found. If you seek to give voice to the voiceless people of the past, of the men and women who influenced what we know as history from backstage perspectives, then seek out these objects. Let the objects tell their tales, they have some interesting ones to tell.
Written by Lydia Gravell, Archives & Special Collections Intern from Simmons College
If you would like to see these domestic history objects for yourself or learn more about Susan Reynolds Williams personal history research interests, please visit the Archive & Special Collections on the street level of the Hammond Building where there are exhibits displaying unique materials year-round.