It’s Not Easy Being Beautiful: the Beauty Industry in the Archeological Record

“How do I look?”  We’ve all said it.  Despite our knowledge that beauty is skin deep and that it’s what inside that matters, we all take measures to look our best.  Americans today are bombarded with advertisements for whiter teeth, younger looking skin, and shinier, healthier hair.  It turns out this is nothing new; throughout history, men and women have used various products and instruments to try to attain certain ideals of beauty.  Luckily for us, vestiges of these efforts turn up in the archeological record, and we can study them to better understand the mindsets of early Americans and the societal pressures and expectations they were faced with.  In this blog post, we highlight some of the artifacts we’ve come across in our lab that represent past Americans’ quest to be beautiful.

Before we begin, we must point out that most of the artifacts in this post were likely used by white women and represent 19th-century white Americans’ standards of beauty, which favored pale skin and European features instead of embracing the different types of beauty present in America’s diverse population.  (For further reading, check out Kathy Peiss’s fascinating book Hope in a Jar:  The Making of America’s Beauty Culture, which includes a thorough discussion of race in the context of 19th– and 20th-century cosmetics.)  In the latter part of the 20th century, the beauty industry finally took a multicultural turn.  Vogue magazine proclaimed: “Everybody’s all-American…The face of American beauty has changed to reflect the nation’s ethnic diversity.”  (Peiss p.263)  Archeology has the potential to reveal true, inclusive histories if we pay attention and do our research.  We’d love to hear about excavations that have yielded beauty products intended for or used by ALL Americans.


2016 Advertisement for L’Oreal True Match makeup.  Found online.


Wig Curler

This clay wig curler from the archeology collection at Minute Man National Historical Park is unique among the artifacts featured in this post in that it represents a fashion exclusive to men:  18th-century periwigs (also known as a perukes).  Wigs became popular among 17th-century French and English aristocrats when King Louis XIV began wearing them to hide his thinning hair.  The trend quickly spread throughout the general population, and remained fashionable until after the French and American Revolutions, when people began to favor more natural styles.  Wigs were made of human hair (the most expensive variety), goat hair, horsehair, or vegetable fibers, the most extravagant full-bottomed styles cascading down past the shoulders.  In the 18th century, wigs were powdered and sometimes even scented.  Women powdered their own hair, and added faux hair to their coiffures, but wigs were a male phenomenon.  In A Guide to Artifacts of Colonial America, Ivor Noel Hume described how wig curlers were used:  “The curls of a new wig, or of one being dressed, were rolled in strips of damp paper around the clay curlers, the weight of which served to pull the hair downward against the block over which the wig was seated.”  (p. 322)


Clay wig curlers from the archeology collection at Minute Man National Historical Park (coin for scale).  Photo by Norm Eggert for NMSC.


Image of 18th-century wig-making from Diderot’s Encyclopedia. Image available through Wikimedia Commons.


Cosmetic Jar

In Face Paint:  the Story of Makeup, Lisa Eldridge states: “for a long time in the history of cosmetics throughout Europe and the Far East, the prevailing trend was, if not exactly the same, then a variation on one central theme:  pale skin.”  (p. 38)  In the aristocratic courts of 17th– and 18th-century Europe, men and women wore powder and rouge to attain the popular look of a white face with red cheeks and lips.


The Marquise de Pompadour, ca. 1750.  Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Bequest of Charles E. Dunlap

After the French and American Revolutions of the late 18th century, a more natural look prevailed.  In the 19th century, a painted face (rouge on the cheeks or lips, kohl-darkened eyes) was associated with wantonness, vice, and prostitution.  Women were supposed to stay inside, at home, away from the stresses of public life and the exertions of outdoor activity.  A pale complexion symbolized this idea of a woman’s proper place.  For the American Victorian woman, the ideal was an unpainted, unblemished, pure white, natural complexion.  Of course, perfect porcelain skin is not natural, and women went to great measures to try to achieve it.

19th-century society frowned upon face paint, but cosmetics that claimed to improve the health of one’s skin and preserve a perfect complexion were considered acceptable.  Many women used skin-whitening creams in addition to powder meant to soak up sweat and reduce shine.  Perfumers often crossed over into cosmetic production, one being Guerlain, a French perfumery founded by Pierre-Francois-Pascal Guerlain in 1828.  In 1857, Guerlain introduced Blanc de Perle, a skin-whitening cream.  This earthenware cosmetic pot from the archeology collection at Gateway National Recreation Area marked “Guerlain, 15 Rue de la Paix” probably dates to the late 19th century and most likely contained a skin cream intended to preserve and enhance a lady’s pale complexion.


Guerlain cosmetic jar from the archeology collection at Gateway National Recreation Area.  Photo by Norm Eggert for NMSC.


Powder Jar

In addition to skin-whitening creams, 19th-century American women also used powder to achieve the perfect complexion expected of them.  Face powders were commonly made of ground starch, rice, or chalk, and were sometimes scented or lightly tinted pink or blue.  This powder jar from the archeology collection at Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area (DEWA) dates to the 1930s, when a pure white complexion was no longer the given standard of beauty, but women still used powder to absorb sweat and to make their skin look soft and clear.   During the 1930s, glass companies produced powder jars in stylish shapes and colors, hoping to entice consumers during tough financial times.  This gorgeous art deco example is called the “obelisk” shape.  Other surviving examples are marked “Taussaunt Glass” on the underside of the base, but this one from DEWA is unmarked.



As women moved increasingly into the public sphere around the turn of the 20th century, they needed their hygiene and beauty regimens to be able to move with them.  Loose powder and big puffs were not conducive to women on the go.  Carl Weeks invented long-wearing face powder – an adhesive mixture of dry cold cream and talc – in 1910.  He packaged his product in portable, closeable cases, allowing women to carry their powder with them and apply it anywhere.  (Hence the evolution of the “powder room,” a space outside of the home where women could freshen their appearance.)  Produced in stylish designs reminiscent of elegant French hatboxes or modern novelties like the telephone, compacts were not only functional, but also became a fashion accessory that women were proud to show off in public.

This compact (left) is from the archeology collection at Lowell National Historical Park and was found during a 1986 excavation of the Boott Mills.  In the early 20th century, the boardinghouses at the Boott Mills housed mill employees and their families.  The buildings were torn down in 1934 and replaced by parking lots and coal yards.  This compact is rather simple compared to some of the fancy designs available in the 1920s and 30s.  We love to think of the hard-working woman who owned it, working long hours in a crowded factory, or toiling day in and day out as a busy homemaker, all while claiming her role as a fashionable, 20th-century woman.


Early 20th-century compact from the archeology collection at Lowell National Historical Park (left, photo by Norm Eggert for NMSC), and a collection of ca. 1940s-50s novelty compacts pictured in “Face Paint:  the Story of Makeup” by Lisa Eldridge (right).


Lipstick experienced a similar transformation in the early 20th century from cumbersome pots and brushes to sleek, modern-looking cartridges that were portable, easy to use, and pleasing to the eye.  This early 20th-century Avon lipstick cartridge was excavated by the City of Boston Archaeology Program at the site of the Industrial School for Girls, which opened in 1859.  This lipstick, discovered at an institution that was created to instill morality and manners in young girls, surely has a fascinating story to tell.  (Anyone looking for a research project?)


Early 20th-century lipstick cartridge excavated at the site of the Industrial School for Girls, Boston.  City of Boston Archaeology Program.


Parasol Tip

Here in the NMSC archeology lab, we’re no strangers to the cataloging term “indeterminate metal object.”  Small, metal objects can be some of the most difficult to identify during processing.  Certain types of metal do not fare well in the archeological record (particularly ferrous metals), reducing to unrecognizable clumps or bits.  Other metal objects can be difficult to identify because they represent a small portion of a larger, composite item that did not survive intact.  Case in point:  this little copper alloy cone-shaped artifact from the archeological collection at Petersburg National Battlefield.  When our wonderful 2014 intern Meredith encountered this item during cataloging, we were stumped.  Another indeterminate metal object.  After some careful research, however, Meredith figured it out:  a parasol tip!  This object is one of what would have been several tips that attached the cover of a parasol to its frame.


Copper alloy parasol (or umbrella) tip from the archeology collection at Petersburg National Battlefield. Photo by Norm Eggert for NMSC.



Parasol from the museum collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (left) and folded parasol from the museum collection at Colonial Williamsburg (right).  Arrows point to tip portion.  Images found online, see References.

Parasols and umbrellas were used by men and women in 18th-century America, and had become essential staples of fine ladies’ dress by the 19th century.  Their primary purpose was shielding one’s face from the sun to preserve the pale skin that was considered the aesthetic ideal in Victorian times.  Ironically, some fashion trends made their use impractical, causing women to carry them closed as a purely decorative accessory instead of a functional one.


Nail Polish

Nail polish as we know it is a fairly modern thing.  Until the 20th century, beautiful nails meant nails that were clean, shiny, free of blemishes, and shaped appropriately.  (I cringe as a catch a glimpse of my own nails right now…hey, I got the clean part down.)  In Victorian times, clean, soft hands and fingernails were another way to show status.  As Ruth Goodman points out in How to Be a Victorian, manual labor like scrubbing floors and washing laundry did a job on women’s hands, and “a pair of soft, lily-white hands with perfectly manicured nails was often a badge of idleness.”  (p. 107)  Women used lemon to bleach their nails, and would buff them soft and shiny with a leather buffer.  Nail polish was available by the early 20th century, but was transparent or light, translucent pink until Revlon introduced colored polish, and the trend of matching one’s lipstick and nail polish, in the 1930s.

This bottle of Miraglo nail polish from the archeology collection at Roger Williams National Memorial (ROWI) dates to about the 1930s.  (We can’t find much information about Miraglo; what can you tell us about this company?)  The cap for this bottle imitates a popular fashion in nails in the 1930s:  the “moon manicure,” in which the half-moon at the base of the fingernail (and often the tip portion as well) was left unpainted.


While I was working on this blog post in our lab one day, I was listening to a series of StoryCorps podcasts offered by NPR.  I had just decided to include the bottle of nail polish from ROWI when I heard an episode of StoryCorps that changed the way I will look at nail polish for the rest of my life.  The story was told by Mary Ellen Noone, whose great-grandmother grew up on an Alabama plantation in the early 1900s.  Mary Ellen recounts a story her great-grandmother, Pinky, told her when she was young.  Pinky was black, and worked for a white woman in Lowndes County, Alabama, washing and ironing her clothes.  One day, Pinky found that her employer had discarded a bottle of nail polish, and took the bottle out of the trash to bring home with her.  I can only imagine how modern and pretty she must have felt, walking into church days later with beautiful, polished nails.  She then visited a general store, where the white store owner accused her of trying to act like a white woman by painting her nails.  The abuse Pinky suffered at his hands was devastating to listen to.  Mary Ellen concluded her story by sharing, “I still have that anger inside of me that someone would have that control over one person just because they wanted to feel like a woman.”

This story continues to haunt me, and I will never look at a bottle of nail polish the same way.  I am so thankful to Mary Ellen Noone for sharing this story, and for reminding all of us that for so many Americans throughout history, something as simple as a bottle of nail polish represented pain, hardship, inequity, and injustice.  These are the stories that we must seek out, and share, if we are to come to a full understanding of our nation’s past.

In Hope in a Jar:  the Making of America’s Beauty Culture, Kathy Peiss writes, “the public debate over cosmetics today veers noisily between the poles of victimization and self-invention, between the prison of beauty and the play of makeup.”  (p. 268-9)   Some people decry makeup as a means through which women are objectified and held to unattainable physical standards.  Others applaud makeup as a tool women can use to reflect their individual styles and personalities.  Whatever criticisms it faces, the beauty industry in America has allowed women the opportunity to express themselves and to feel good about their appearance.  It has also empowered many women by creating jobs and opportunities for economic advancement and self-sufficiency.  (Think of your local Avon or Mary Kay representative!)  The inspiring story of Sara Breedlove Walker is a perfect example:  an African-American woman who was born into poverty and became a successful businesswoman and philanthropist by starting her own line of beauty products (Mme. C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company) specifically for black women in the early 20th century.  Walker’s business created jobs for African-American women and sent the message to black women that they too deserved to look and feel beautiful.


1903 photograph of Sarah Breedlove Walker.  Found online (wikipedia).

However you feel about the beauty industry, I leave you with this thought-provoking sentiment, expressed by Lisa Eldridge in Face Paint:  the Story of Makeup: “Ultimately, nothing empowers a woman more than the right to a good education, and the freedom to wear a red lip and a smoky eye… or not.”  (p. 227)


Eldridge, Lisa.  Face Paint:  the Story of Makeup.  New York:  Abrams Image, 2015.

Goodman, Ruth.  How to be a Victorian:  A Dawn-to-Dusk Guide to Victorian Life.  New York:  Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2013.

Goodman, Ruth.  How to be a Tudor:  A Dawn-to-Dusk Guide to Tudor Life.  New York:  Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2015.

Hume, Ivor Noel.  A Guide to Artifacts of Colonial America.  Philadelphia:  University of Pennsylvania Press, 1969.

Lasky, Kathryn.  Vision of Beauty:  the Story of Sarah Breedlove Walker.  Cambridge:  Candlewick Press, 2000.

Laver, James.  Costume and Fashion:  A Concise History.  New York:  Thames and Hudson, 1969.

Mrozowski, Stephen A., Grace H. Ziesing, and Mary C. Beaudry.  Living on the Boott:  Historical Archaeology at the Boott Mills Boardinghouses, Lowell, Massachusetts.  Amherst:  University of Massachusetts Press, 1996.

Peiss, Kathy.  Hope in a Jar:  The Making of America’s Beauty Culture.  New York:  Metropolitan Books, 1998.

Whitmyer, Margaret and Kenn.  Bedroom and Bathroom Glassware of the Depression Years.  Collector Books, 1989.




Parasol images:,

The episode of StoryCorps referenced in this post can be found at  and originally aired March 21, 2008, on NPR’s Morning Edition.


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NMSC: Our Best of 2016!

2016 marked the 100th birthday of America’s National Park Service.  For those of us here at the Northeast Museum Services Center (NMSC), it’s been a productive and fulfilling year.  Once again, we were privileged to work on a variety of projects at national parks across the Northeast Region.  We worked hands-on with some amazing historic structures and objects during the cleaning and reinstallation of the Wayside at Minute Man National Historical Park and the reinstallation of Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace National Historic Site.  We processed archival and archeological collections from several sites, including Women’s Rights National Historical Park and Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area.  We assisted Northeast Region parks like Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural National Historic Site with developing planning documents that will help them to manage their museum collections.  And we worked with parks and their partners to create beautiful and educational exhibits, like Bierstadt:  Nature and National Identity, which ran from June through September at the New Bedford Art Museum in New Bedford, Massachusetts.

As 2016 draws to a close, we are honored to share with you some of our favorite memories and proudest accomplishments from this year.  Some of the photos featured here depict our staff and projects we’ve worked on this past year.  Others depict some of the major achievements of our friends and colleagues at various national parks in the Northeast Region.  (For more information, scroll to the bottom of this post.)  It’s been a great year for the National Park Service, the Northeast Region, and NMSC, and we look forward to the challenges, opportunities, and rewards of 2017!

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For more information on these projects and parks, see the following links:

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Prehistoric Pottery at Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area

Throughout the past year NMSC has been working on processing a large archeology collection from Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area.  This collection contains a significant amount of prehistoric material, including some great examples of pottery dating to the Woodland Period.  While at NMSC, Josh Bradford researched and processed a large portion of this collection.  In this post, Josh summarizes the types of prehistoric ceramics found in the DEWA collection.

[The following blog post written by Josh Bradford.]

We write a lot about historic ceramics on this blog because we love them and come across so many of them. Recently, however, we had a large amount of Native American prehistoric pottery come through the lab, and I thought it presented the perfect opportunity for a closer look at the basics of some of these beautiful and interesting prehistoric ceramics.

All of the prehistoric pottery discussed here comes from two neighboring archeological sites in the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, which straddles the Pennsylvania/New Jersey Border along the Delaware River. The area encompassing the sites has had continuous Native American habitation, mostly the Lenape and their ancestors, for over 10,000 years, and was designated the Minisink Historic District or Minisink Archeological Site, a National Landmark, in 1993. Fortunately, the ceramics from these sites provide a good example of the progression and types of ceramics all throughout the Eastern Woodlands.


Map found on Minisink Valley Historical Society’s website.

Although the area contains sites stretching from pre-Archaic (>10,000 BP) to beyond Contact, and these two specific sites also contain Archaic artifacts and historic artifacts, when discussing prehistoric pottery it important to focus on the Woodland Period (or Eastern Woodland Period), which is commonly defined as beginning around 3,000 years ago. This is important because one of the main characteristics that define the Woodland Period is the introduction or invention of Pottery and its wide-spread use! Before the Woodland Period stone bowls and basket containers were used. Luckily, the two sites contain a wide range of prehistoric pottery from each of the three parts into which the Woodland period is broken: Early Woodland, Middle Woodland, and Late Woodland.

Early Woodland

 Early Woodland ceramics first began being produced around 3,000 years ago. As with most new technologies, prehistoric pottery became finer and more complex over time (although there are always exceptions). Figuring out which Woodland period each sherd of pottery comes from is done by examining its temper, thickness, and surface decoration. Of course, in the rare case of a whole vessel, the vessel shape can reveal the time period; Early Woodland pots often had flat bottoms and resembled the stone vessels from earlier periods. The temper, which was added to the clay to prevent the pot from breaking when fired, used during the Early Woodland was usually a course grit, which was crushed locally-available stone often mixed with sand or shell. On sherds, such as the one below on the left, it’s easy to see the grit in the broken edges. Early Woodland ceramics were also usually thick-walled. Finally, and often most revealing, is the decoration on the surface, typically the exterior. Early Woodland ceramics often had plain exteriors or were pressed with a net (such as the one below, although hard to see) or piece of fabric all over their surface. They were also frequently impressed with a cord-wrapped stick to make basic designs.


Middle Woodland

During the Middle Woodland period, from about 2,000 to 1000 years ago, Native Americans began experimenting with new tempers, designs, and vessel shapes, and ceramics became even more wide spread. While many of the same Early Woodland materials were used for temper, the grit was less course, and the stone or shell, sometimes used alone, often came from farther away through travel or trade networks (extensive trade networks are one of the defining features of the Middle Woodland). Vessel walls also became thinner and finer, and vessel shapes began to resemble what many think of as a classic rounded, tapered bottom prehistoric pot. Finally, exterior surface designs became elaborate, with incising, punctating, cord-wrapped stick impressing, and many other techniques becoming common, as does decoration of the pot’s rim. Additionally, in the Middle Woodland, regional and cultural commonalities in pottery design, temper use, and vessel shape become evident, and Archaeologists have identified different types or wares of pottery.


Late Woodland

 Finally, the Late Woodland, which ran from about 1000 years ago to contact with Europeans, brought intricate and elaborate, collared pottery. Again, temper became even more fine, and the materials used came from farther away, which allowed even thinner vessel walls. For the Late Woodland, vessel shape and design becomes even more important. Vessels with rounded shoulders and flared lips became common.  Additionally, and most defining of Late Woodland Pottery is the addition of a highly-decorated collar to the lip of the pot, parts of which can be seen in the pictures below.  While decoration techniques remained the same as earlier periods, they became much more elaborate on both the collar and the exterior surface of the pot, and occasionally zoomorphic designs were used. Cultural and regional wares also become more established and defined.


The Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area has extensive Native American history, and the collection we’ve been working on contains artifacts of all types, time periods, cultures, and peoples. It is fortunate, however, that looking at just one type of artifact—in this case, prehistoric pottery—can reveal so much about each archaeological site or stratum within the site, especially the times periods they represent.  Although this is just the very basics of prehistoric pottery in the Eastern Woodlands and the periods within it, it does provide a simple example of how archaeologists can date sites and strata and provides and a good overview of Eastern Woodland Pottery.



Jefferson Patterson Park & Museum. Diagnostic Artifacts in Maryland.

Kerber, Jordan E., ed. A Lasting Impression: Coastal, Lithic, and Ceramic Research in New England Archaeology. Praeger: Westport, Connecticut, 2002.

Louis Berger & Associates, Inc. Archaeological Survey of the Milford Transect, Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. East Orange, New Jersey, 1995.

Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission. Pennsylvania Archaeology.

Southeast Archaeology Center. Southeastern Prehistory, Middle Woodland Period.

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Furnishing Hampton: Development of Historic Furnishings Reports at Hampton National Historic Site

This fall, NMSC’s former Senior Curator Laurel Racine accepted a new position as Chief of Cultural Resources at Lowell National Historical Park (LOWE).  Although we miss her terribly, we are excited about this new opportunity for Laurel and look forward to hearing about all of the great things she’s doing at LOWE! 

Laurel Racine, Chief of Cultural Resources at Lowell National Historical Park, teaching young visitors from New Bedford about collections management at LOWE.

Laurel Racine, Chief of Cultural Resources at Lowell National Historical Park (LOWE), teaching young visitors from New Bedford about collections management at LOWE.

While here at NMSC, Laurel worked with parks to develop Historic Furnishings Reports (HFRs).  She wrote the following blog post about the HFRs currently in development at Hampton National Historic Site (HAMP).

[The following post written by Laurel Racine]

New research is underway at Hampton National Historic Site (HAMP)!  NMSC has hired contractors Hardy-Heck-Moore and Volz O’Connell Hutson Architects from Austin, TX, to research and write Historic Furnishings Reports for the children’s bedchamber, guest bedchamber, kitchen, great hall, and stair halls.  A Historic Furnishings Report (HFR) includes the history of a structure’s use and documents the type and placement of furnishings to accurately portray a period of significance.   

To date Hampton has HFRs for the Master Bedchamber (1993), Dining Room (1994), Music Room (1994), Drawing Room (2006),  and Parlour (draft HFR 2009, 2015).  The current project will complete the documentation of all rooms open to the public, including two bedchambers, kitchen and halls.  Over 95 percent of the furnishings on display in Hampton’s period rooms are original to the house and Ridgely family. The historically accurate interiors are recreated through the generous support of Historic Hampton, Inc. (HHI), the site’s primary partner. HHI raises private funds to underwrite reproduction of curtains, upholstery, carpets, and wallpapers as well as funding object conservation.

Interior of Hampton National Historic Site.

Interior of Hampton National Historic Site.

Established in 1948 for its architectural merit, Hampton NHS is one of America’s best-preserved estates and includes Hampton Mansion; numerous outbuildings; a farm site with elaborate dairy, barns, and standing slave quarters; and formal terraced gardens and other significant landscape features.  It is a 63-acre remnant of a 24,000-acre industrial and agricultural estate amassed and stewarded by seven generations of the Ridgely family during more than 200 years of America’s development as a nation, from before the Revolutionary War until after World War II.  The centerpiece of the park is the 24,000 square foot Hampton Mansion, constructed 1783-1790.  This five-part Georgian house was one of the largest in this country when completed.  Hampton is located in Towson, Maryland, about 13 miles north of downtown Baltimore.

Hampton National Historic Site

Hampton National Historic Site

The sheer volume of objects and documentary evidence available to inform Hampton’s HFRs makes it challenging to read, analyze, and synthesize so much good information.  In addition to its 45,000 extant collection items, Hampton’s history is documented in the copious archival holdings at the park, the manuscript collections of the Maryland Historical Society, and the Maryland State Archives.  These fascinating records include diaries, cookbooks, photographs, account books, bills, receipts, inventories, and correspondence.   A historic Furnishings Report concentrates  these resources in one place to assist the park in managing its furnished exhibits and museum collection.  A significant draft of the current project was submitted earlier this year, so we look forward to reporting some findings in the near future.

In the meantime, you can experience Hampton Mansion on-line as a virtual museum exhibit and in interior street views and an object gallery available through Google Cultural Institute.

Screen shot from HAMP's virtual museum exhibit.

Screen shot from HAMP’s virtual museum exhibit.

Screen shot from Google Cultural Institute.

Screen shot from Google Cultural Institute.


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Youth in Archeology: Our Past, Present, and Future

Anyone walking through the South Common in Lawrence, MA around noon on August 11 probably noticed a group of people gathered for a ceremony.  That day, the seven teenagers who had spent their summer as members of the Urban Archeology Corps in Lawrence presented their final projects to a very impressed crowd of onlookers.  The ceremony included an original dance choreographed and performed by two of the students and a poem they all wrote collectively about their city.  The students also presented a picture chapter scrapbook that traced the history of Lawrence and posters detailing their research projects and findings.  The crowd included National Park Service employees from local parks and regional offices, as well as the mayor himself.


The Urban Archeology Corps (UAC) is “a national program where young people age 15-26 conduct a range of archeological tasks to learn about urban national parks and their surrounding communities, the diverse histories and resources that make these places special, and public service and NPS employment.”  In this case, students from Lawrence-area high schools learned the basics of archeological mapping, excavation, and artifact analysis, and came away with new insights into the history of the city.

A few members of NMSC’s archeology team were lucky enough to attend the ceremony on August 11 and speak to the students about their findings and their participation in the UAC.  We spent a day a few weeks prior helping the students with the artifact analysis component of the program.  We provided objects from our teaching collection to the group, and talked with them about how to identify and date artifacts like pearlware saucers, 19th-century pharmaceutical bottles, and clay tobacco pipes.  The analysis also included complex questions that I delved into in graduate school, like “what does this artifact tell you about the person who owned or used it?”  The careful consideration with which the students approached this task was truly commendable.

In the NMSC archeology lab, we love to analyze archeological artifacts.  It’s our thing; it’s what we do.  We enjoyed teaching these students about manufacturing processes, decorative techniques, and what material goods would have been available to different kinds of people a hundred years ago.  (An amusing aside:  as someone who studied archeology in the low-tech 1990s and spent countless hours in library stacks, it was incredible to see how quickly these students could find exactly the information and images they needed on their smartphones!  Knife with blue and white porcelain handle?  Here’s one!  Glass Pepsi bottle with printed paper label?  Got it!)


What made this day really exciting and fun for us, however, was the enthusiasm with which the students approached the task.  When asked what they thought of artifact analysis at the end of the day, one young man responded, “I loved it!”  Nothing could have made us happier.

Many of the final projects presented on the South Common focused on the immigrant’s experience throughout the history of Lawrence.  Many of the students in the Lawrence chapter of the UAC come from immigrant families, and surely relate to this aspect of the city’s history.  One student’s poster outlined the Urban Redevelopment of the mid-20th century and its effects on the various ethnic groups inhabiting the targeted areas of the city.  When asked if she was surprised by anything she learned about Lawrence during her research, she talked about the integration and cooperation among different ethnic communities in the early 20th century.  Her poster read, “Lawrence will stay diverse, as we will stay the immigrant city.”


Youth leader/program archeology instructor Dania Jordan (a graduate student at U Mass Boston) worked with this group of young people all summer, walking them through the various aspects of archeology.  Dania hosted us on artifact-analysis-day, introducing us to her crew with icebreakers and question-and-answer sessions.  We could not publish this blog post without relaying her eloquent and meaningful impressions of this program.  Dania is quoted here:

“I am a former Upward Bounder, TRiO Scholar and a McNair Scholar, and I witnessed how programs such as these transform students, give them a sense of hope that a secondary education is possible, and show them someone cares. As a result, I vowed to give back to the youth what these programs gave to me.  Groundwork Lawrence Urban Archaeology Corps allows me to do that.  The goal of UAC to me is not to necessarily recruit archaeologists, but to at least educate on what archaeology is, why it is important, and how is it relevant to them. It is important that I draw these connections with the youth because I want them to know that they, too, are stewards of history.”

Working with the UAC students for a day and seeing what they took away from their introduction to archeology was incredibly rewarding for me.  Their maturity and insightfulness impressed me to no end.  Their participation in the program encouraged a pride in the diverse history of their city that is both moving and inspiring.  My experience with the UAC – as minimal as it was – reminded me that archeology isn’t just about theories, stratigraphy, and minimum vessel counts; most importantly, it’s about people, past, present, and future.




We are honored to share with you the following reflections on AUC Groundwork Lawrence, provided to us by the student participants and the youth leaders.  It was a pleasure meeting you all, and we wish you the best of luck in your future endeavors!


Student Quotes:

Monica: “The UAC program influenced me to come out of my shell. It taught me new things about Lawrence and different National Parks. I hope that the next group of UAC students [is] influence just as much as I was.”

Dianny: “My favorite part of this program was being able to learn about my city. We dug up a lot Lawrence’s history and about the mills along with the water treatment plant. Some of what surprised me was how big of an effect the Urban Redevelopment had in Lawrence and how people view it.”

Karolina: “This program was productive. I came into this program, wanting to learn about my city and that’s exactly what I did. It was a positive experience and I’ll always be grateful to be [a part] of it.”

Franchesca: “I learned a lot in this program and feel that it brought me to meet new people. I loved learning about where I come from and bonding with coworkers.”

Karina: “This program was actually a good experience. I have learned many things that I wouldn’t have learned otherwise. My favorite part of this program was toward the end of this program. Not because this program is ending but because I actually got to see all of [the hard work] we did within these 6 weeks come together.”

Isabella: “I personally enjoyed the program because of the fact our learning was engaging and hands on. My favorite part was all our trips and bonding we did while learning.”

Francina: “We had a lot of fun learning about Lawrence especially with the lecturers, guests and National Park field trips. There was not much that rained on my parade these weeks except having to draw and write [a lot] (I got used to it though). I loved these weeks, we [learned a lot] about the city. Knowing that the city was once a whole community, really gives hope to one day we can maybe have that again.”

Youth Leader Quotes:

Ceara:  “Honestly, UAC was life-changing for me in the sense of how I see not only pride for a community, but also how youth can empower and direct a program in a way that is both tangibly and mentally useful for them all. I am honored to have met all our students; I know it’s cliche, but they taught me a plethora of information: that the history of a city can be used to prevent judgement upon it, that even tho[ugh] negative things have created a history, it does not mean that positive can never occur thereafter, and that each story is connected by both physical and emotional pieces and artifacts.”

Bridget:  “The Urban Archaeology Corps was a life-changing experience that has greatly influenced my professional development as well as my personal development. It opened my mind to the history and issues in a community like no other I had ever experienced before, and allowed me to experience teaching history and youth mentorship in the same environment, which was such a valuable and unique process to be a part of. In future work I will carry the history and people of Lawrence and the Urban Archaeology Corps in my heart and continue the mission of this partnership between Groundwork Lawrence and the National Parks Service in opening young minds to opportunities in conservation, archaeology, and history.”

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Pushing the Envelope in the 21st Century: New Ways of Engaging Visitors at Historic House Museums

Recently, NMSC’s Senior Curator Laurel Racine and Museum Technician Nicole Walsh have been researching new ways of engaging visitors at historic house museums.  This post describes their recent trip to the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center in Hartford, Connecticut.  

[The following blog post written by Laurel Racine.]

This past December, a few of us at NMSC attended a workshop offered by the American Association for State and Local History (AASLH) about the historic house museum in the 21st century.  To follow up on what we learned, we are conducting field research this year at historic sites that are pushing the envelope in audience experience so we can assist NPS historic house museums with doing the same.  We are a Millennial/Gen X-with-Kids team who love historic houses but believe they can be more and do more for every visitor.

One recent visit took us to Hartford, CT, with the main goal of attending one of the Salons at Stowe, a highly-regarded free series of “21st century parlor conversations for everyone interested in changing our world” hosted by the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center .  The Center “uses Stowe’s life and work to inspire YOU to change your world.”  Our evening salon focused on gender bias in the juvenile justice system.  Museum staff set the ground rules and introduced two content experts who spoke for a few minutes before opening up the floor.  We were impressed by the diverse perspectives in the room including the non-profit Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance, a Juvenile Probation Supervisor from the Court Support Services Division, two juvenile defense attorneys, parents, teachers, and people wanting to volunteer to help at-risk youth.  It was a great atmosphere for learning about a knotty topic, sharing perspectives, and discussing what to do about it.

We left the discussion with a better understanding of the uphill battle to overhaul the juvenile justice system and a positive feeling that there are people who care and truly want to make a difference.  I’m going to keep in touch with #stowesyllabus where the center shares “What We’re Reading This Week:  Articles and current events that got us thinking over the week!”

Before attending the salon, we went on a tour.  The Stowe House is currently closed for renovations so we saw the visitor center and neighboring Katharine Seymour Day House instead.  (Read about the Day House on the Stowe Center’s website!)  To compensate for the closure, the staff set up a series of exhibits in the Day House covering the same topics as the rooms in the Stowe House.


Katharine Seymour Day House, managed by the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center, Hartford, CT.

We appreciated the interactivity of the tour with plenty of different opportunities for visitors to chime in.  The tour starts with a wall in the visitor center filled with quotations about Harriet Beecher Stowe from her time to today for visitors to reflect on and react to.  Another wall features the covers of books that have influenced social history from the 19th century to today.  The guide asks, “Which have you read?  What did you think?  Is there a book we should add?”

Hands-down our favorite interactive was in the front parlor of the Day House where we gathered around a table to read reproduction period documents while sitting on 19th-century parlor chairs!  Sitting in the room on springy chairs was a totally different experience (obvious, I know, but it is) than the usual stand-behind-the-rope in the hall tour.  Discussing the provocative documents related to slavery gauges the group’s knowledge and beliefs while raising awareness of the roles slavery plays in American society then and now.

stowe center

NMSC’s Laurel Racine and Nicole Walsh reading reproduction 19th-century documents in the Katharine Seymour Day House.

The tour concludes in the front hall with a table covered in butcher paper for visitors to write comments on.  We were fascinated to read what other people wrote about their current state of mind, concerns about present-day American politics, or reflections on the past.

Some of the ideas we can apply to other sites include:

  • Connect site significance to current events to bridge the historical gap and make the site and its stories more relevant.
  • Employ multiple types of and occasions for interaction on a guided tour. Asking people to speak, feel, and write in meaningful ways throughout the tour engages visitors with different learning styles and gives the tour a richer texture than the traditional talking-head tour.
  • Promote civic engagement through on-site and digital outreach. The house tour does not have to do all the lifting.  A small audience can have a deep experience on-site while a wider audience can engage on-line.  Knowing there is something new on a regular basis will keep people coming back.

Stay tuned for more updates on our field research!

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The History of Fort Stanwix in 10 Objects

Before we launched our March Madness competition on Facebook a couple of months ago, I knew a bit about Fort Stanwix National Monument.  I understood the vital role the fort played in the American Revolution.  I knew that the original wooden fort was gone by the turn of the 19th century, and that what visitors see today is a faithful reconstruction completed in 1977.  I spent a week at the park back in March of 2005 cavity-packing fragile ceramic and glass vessels in preparation for their relocation to the newly constructed Willett Center.  I had fond memories of friendly staff and some very cool artifacts; the Gothic-paneled pickle jars were favorites of mine.


NMSC’s Jessica Costello (author) at FOST in 2005, creating custom enclosures for 19th-century pickle jars.

I knew about Fort Stanwix, but what I did not yet grasp was how loved this park is by locals and distant visitors alike.  As March Madness progressed, our Facebook page virtually exploded with likes and comments as hundreds of people logged on to vote for their favorite park in the Northeast Region:  Fort Stanwix National Monument.  (I’m sure the enthusiasm with which FOST staff approached the contest had something to do with this!)  It was truly heartening to witness this outpouring of support, and made me more than a little curious, wondering, what is it about Fort Stanwix?


Historically speaking, one cannot overestimate the significance of the fort.  “It is sometimes in the world’s history that momentous consequences hang upon minor events,” wrote Henry J. Cookinham in 1912.  “Such was the case with the defense of Fort Stanwix” (p. 29).  Cookinham goes on to suggest (and other historians agree) that an American defeat by the British at Fort Stanwix would have altered the course of history.  He attributes the success of the American Revolution and the birth of our nation to, as we’ve heard it called so many times, “the fort that never surrendered.”

The museum collection at FOST contains about 700,000 objects – most of them artifacts excavated during archeological excavations – that relate to various periods in the site’s rich history.  When we approached the staff at FOST with our idea for this blog post, they took the seemingly impossible task of selecting 10 objects out of 700,000 to tell the park’s story, and graciously provided us with a list.

In preparation for featuring these objects on our blog, I read about the site, its museum collection, and the history of Rome, New York and the Mohawk Valley.  I was fortunate to spend a day on-site at the Willett Center with two of my colleagues, learning from park staff, touring their gorgeous storage facility, and viewing the selected artifacts from the museum collection.


And now, several weeks after Fort Stanwix was declared the March Madness winner, I get it.  This place, the stories it holds, and the incredible artifacts that tell them, are AMAZING.  We are honored to share with you, without further ado, the History of Fort Stanwix in 10 Objects.


  1.  Brewerton Point

This Brewerton corner-notched projectile point was recovered during the 2003 archeological excavation that preceded the construction of the Willett Center.  Dating to the Archaic period (9,000 – 3,000 BP), the point represents Native Americans’ use of the land around Fort Stanwix prior to contact with Europeans.  The fort was built by the British in 1758 along a six-mile portage connecting the Mohawk River and Wood Creek.  Known by the British as “the Oneida Carrying Place” or “the Great Carry,” the portage was used for centuries by the Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, Mohawk, and Tuscarora before Europeans arrived in the area and recognized its importance as a trade route.



2.  Grenadier’s Match Case

This grenadier’s match case was designed to hold a slow match used for igniting incendiaries like grenades.  It is riveted to a brass plate which was sewn to a belt; the painting shown behind the match case in the Willett Center’s exhibit hall illustrates how it was worn.  It is one of only two ever recovered archeologically in North America.  According to Keith Routley, Museum Curator and Chief of Cultural Resources at FOST, it was “originally identified as a hose nozzle and was later determined to be an exceptionally rare item from an archeological context.  This underscores the potential for further discoveries and the untapped research potential of the museum collection at Fort Stanwix National Monument.”


3.  Button Manufacturing Objects

These bone buttons, a cow rib bone from which buttons were cut, and the bit used to make them are poignant reminders that Fort Stanwix in the 18th century was, as FOST intern Jessica Bowes stressed to me during our visit, the frontier.  Soldiers’ reports speak of standing guard in freezing temperatures with inadequate clothing and bare feet.  Supplies were hard to come by, and any skills that could be put to use on-site were surely taken advantage of.  FOST Museum Specialist Amy Roache-Fedchenko, Ph.D. calls these buttons and associated materials some of her favorite artifacts in the collection “because they tell us more about what people were doing here at Fort Stanwix.  The process of making buttons usually doesn’t cross our minds, but the soldiers and civilians who lived here relied upon their wits to supplement their material needs.”


4.  Exploded Mortar

This exploded mortar was excavated in 2013, and represents the first 18th-century feature to be identified archeologically at the site since the 1970s.   British forces used these 4.5-inch “Royal” mortars against the Continental troops during the 1777 siege at Fort Stanwix. Kelly Roman, Park Ranger at FOST, loves the mortars in the collection, explaining that “they were most likely thrown at the fort during the 1777 siege period.  Which means they are also likely some of the only physical evidence of the actual event…It’s one thing to read a journal account.  It’s another to look at the actual threat that was recorded within it.”  One can just imagine this very mortar leaving the hands of the British and striking its target inside the fort.


5.  Orderly Book

This orderly book was kept at Fort Stanwix by Major John Grahm of the 1st New York Regiment from August 9,1779 to July 12, 1780 (the fort was then called Fort Schuyler, having been renamed by the Continental Army in 1776).  A primary use of the orderly book was discipline; Major Grahm recorded any new rules, orders, and duties in the book daily, then read them aloud to the entire garrison, who could not plead ignorance in the case of infractions.  This book offers a rare glimpse into what life was like for the 700 men living at the fort before it was destroyed by fire in 1781.  (Yes, 700!  No wonder Grahm ran a tight ship!)  For FOST Park Ranger William Sawyer, the orderly book is “an interesting glimpse into the past.  Proof that these events really happened.”  By the way, if you’re marveling at the wonderful condition of this 18th-century book, take a look at these photos chronicling the conservation of the orderly book by NPS conservators at Harpers Ferry Center!


1779-1780 orderly book from FOST museum collection.

6.  Captain Basil Hall Chamberpot

The interior of this pearlware chamber pot exhibits a transfer-printed image of British naval officer Captain Basil Hall.  Why the strategic placement of Hall’s likeness?  After touring the United States in the 1820s, Hall wrote “Travels in North America in the Years 1827 and 1828”, which many Americans thought painted a derogatory picture of them and their new nation.  According to “An American” who reviewed Hall’s book in 1830, “the whole of his work…consists of a comparison between the institutions, character, and manners of the Americans, compared to those of Great Britain, always to the disadvantage of the former, and generally conveyed in terms bitterly sarcastic and contemptuous”  (p. 8).  Rome, New York was incorporated as a village in 1819.  Residents were surely proud of and hopeful for their home town, where construction of the Erie Canal had just begun two years earlier.  Clearly, to early 19th-century Romans, the best place for Captain Basil Hall was the bottom of the pot!

Pearlware Chamber Pot, with transfer print of "Captain Basil Hall"

Pearlware Chamber Pot with transfer print of Captain Basil Hall, from museum collection at FOST.


7.  Hotel Keys

These brass keys may have once opened guest rooms in the stately 19th-century Stanwix Hall Hotel.  (You can still read the room numbers stamped onto the keys!)  This hotel, built in various stages in the 1840s, was among the structures torn down in the 1970s to accommodate the urban renewal project that included reconstruction of the fort.  The Stanwix Hall Hotel welcomed visitors to Rome as the city flourished in the 19th and early 20th-centuries with the development of new and diverse industries (cheese, copper, and railroads among them).  In 1878, Everts and Fariss wrote in The History of Oneida County, New York that “‘Stanwix Hall’ is announced on the arrival of trains at the depot to be the ‘principal hotel in the city’ and as the intelligent passenger hears its name spoken there are awakened in his mind memories of the days of ‘long ago’…” (p. 381).


stanwix hotel 2

Exterior of Stanwix Hall Hotel. Image found in Images of America:  Rome Revisited

stanwix hotel 3

Interior of Stanwix Hall Hotel.  Image found in Images of America:  Rome Revisited

8.  Child’s Train and Toy Gun

These two toys represent the families who lived, worked, and played in 19th-century Rome.  When the site of the fort was cleared before its reconstruction in the 1970s, several homes and commercial buildings from the 1800s were torn down.  The Kingsley House, pictured here, was home to Dr. Willey J.P. Kingsley and his family. Kingsley was a prominent figure in 19th-century Rome and served as the Director of the Rome Locomotive Works.  According to Dr. Amy Roache-Fedchenko, his sons “Willey and George were born in 1865 and 1867 and were likely the owners of this toy train.  The toy gun was found in a privy a couple doors down from the Kingsley House.  The privy was used from 1890 to about 1930 and was associated with a home that was occupied by laborers.  Unfortunately, this is all we know about the people who lived there.  But it is enough for us to wonder, did the children from these two homes know each other and play together?”

IMG_5575 cropped

19th-century toys from museum collection at FOST


9.  Blueprint

This blueprint, preserved in the archival collection at FOST, illustrates historical architect Orville Carroll’s 1974 plan for the reconstructed Fort Stanwix.  Joan Zenzen writes in her book Fort Stanwix National Monument that “one defining characteristic of Carroll is his attention to detail” (p. 81).  He relied on many different resources while drafting his plans, including archeological finds at the site, visits to other 18th-century forts, letters and journals written during the fort’s use, and drawings sketched onto historic powder horns.  According to FOST Museum Technician Jessica Bowes, “these blueprints symbolize the excitement around the park in the 1970s and the care that went into its conceptualization.”


10.  Two Row Wampum Belt

This Two Row Wampum Belt was a gift to Fort Stanwix National Monument from the Oneida Nation upon the opening of the Willett Center in 2005.  This extraordinary object represents the ethnographic significance of a site that is rich in the history and culture of the Oneida people.  As explained by Keith Routley, Museum Curator and Chief of Cultural Resources at FOST, it is a historical document that conveys a mutual respect and an ongoing relationship between the park and the Oneida Nation. Routley explains, “this wampum belt underscores the ongoing significance of the events that transpired at and around Fort Stanwix to contemporary Native Americans.”



Two Row Wampum Belt in the museum collection at FOST.  Gift to the park from the Oneida Nation.


Ceremony marking the opening of the Willett Center in 2005.

Our March Madness competition on Facebook was a lot of fun.  We got a kick out of watching parks tout themselves via witty memes and historical factoids, and we loved seeing support pile up for parks that we’ve worked with and admire.  But the best part of March Madness was the publicity that it created for so many of our Northeast Region parks.  One of the greatest things I gained through out contest was the opportunity to learn more about, and share with you, a truly remarkable, one-of-a-kind museum collection.  If you’ve never been to Fort Stanwix National Monument, go!  The history of the place will awe you, the artifacts on exhibit will amaze you, and the warmth and hospitality of the FOST staff and the people of Rome will leave you wanting to return.



We extend our most heartfelt thanks to the curatorial staff at Fort Stanwix National Monument for generously sharing their time and knowledge with us during the development of this blog post. Thank you to Keith Routley, Museum Curator and Chief of Cultural Resources; Amy Roache-Fedchenko, Ph.D., Museum Specialist; Jessica Bowes, Museum Technician; and Hannah Flemming, NCPE intern. We also thank Park Ranger Tom Timmons for an informative and engaging tour of Fort Stanwix and Visitor Use Assistant Tina Cutler for her warm welcome while on site.


A Review of Captain Basil Hall’s Travels in North America in the years 1827 and 1828 by an American.  London:  Kennett, 1830.

Cookinham, Henry J.  History of Oneida County, New York:  From 1700 to Present Time.  S. J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1912.

Everts and Fariss.  History of Oneida County New York.  Philadelphia, 1878.

Hanson, Lee M.  Casemates and Cannonballs:  Archaeological Investigations at Fort Stanwix, Rome, New York.  Washington:  National Park Service, 1975.

Leonard, Peter M. Images of America:  Rome Revisited.  Charleston:  Arcadia Publishing, 2007.

Ryan, Mary P.  Cradle of the Middle Class:  The Family in Oneida County, New York, 1790-1865. Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 1981. 

Zenzen, Joan M.  Fort Stanwix National Monument:  Reconstructing the Past and Partnering for the Future.  Albany:  State University of New York Press, 2008.

Images are courtesy of NPS unless otherwise noted. —




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“Nature and National Identity”: Bierstadt Comes to New Bedford!

Mark your calendars for June 3, the opening date of a new exhibit at the New Bedford Art Museum/Artworks! The exhibit features the works of landscape painter Albert Bierstadt.  NMSC’s Laurel Racine helped develop the exhibit, which is a collaborative effort on the part of New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park, the New Bedford Art Museum/Artworks!, the New Bedford Free Public Library, and AHA! (Art, History, and Architecture).  

[The following blog post written by Laurel Racine.]

A project we’ve been working on since fall 2013 will come to fruition in New Bedford, MA, this summer with the opening of Bierstadt:  Nature and National Identity on Friday, June 3.  The exhibit celebrates the 2016 centennial of the National Park Service and is a collaboration between New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park and its partners, the New Bedford Art Museum/Artworks!, New Bedford Free Public Library, and AHA! (Art, History, and Architecture).

Landscape painter Albert Bierstadt was born in Germany but grew up in New Bedford from a very early age.  He went back to Germany to study painting in 1853 and returned to the city with great acclaim in 1857.  He staged the first art exhibit in New Bedford in 1858.  Starting in the 1860s he made several trips to the American west to paint the natural wonders he saw including scenes in what is today’s national parks.  His large-scale, dramatic landscapes introduced the American public to these scenes and factored into the creation of the national parks and their guardian, the National Park Service (NPS), which celebrates its centennial this year.

During development of the exhibit, NMSC Senior Curator Laurel Racine served as the liaison with the NPS coordinating loans and catalog writers.  The exhibit  will feature a Bierstadt painting from Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller NHP in Vermont, a western painting and Santa Clara vase from Saint-Gaudens NHS in New Hampshire, Carleton Watkins photographs from Longfellow House-Washington’s Headquarters NHS in Massachusetts, and artist’s tools from Weir Farm NHS in Connecticut.  Laurel edited the catalog which features two scholarly works on Bierstadt and six short essays by NPS employees on stewardship, art, museum collections, and youth.

view of grand tetons

Albert Bierstadt, View of the Grand Tetons, Oil on canvas, 21” x 42 7/8,”Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park.

grizzly giant

Carleton Watkins, Section of the Grizzly Giant, 33 Feet Diameter, Mariposa Grove, 1861, Albumen print, 21 1/2” x 27 ½,” Longfellow House-George Washington Headquarters National Historic Site.


Laurel and NMSC Volunteer Photographer Norm Eggert recently hit the road to photograph for the catalog Bierstadt paintings (some which have never been exhibited!) and Watkins photographs in the greater Boston area.  It was a treat to see the artworks individually before they come together for the big show.

The exhibit will run from June 3 to September 18 at the New Bedford Art Museum/Artworks! at 608 Pleasant Street in New Bedford.  There will be approximately 50 items in the show dating from the 19th to 21st centuries including engravings, posters, stereographs, John James Audubon prints, Carleton Watkins photographs, Bierstadt paintings large and small, artist’s tools, and a stereograph camera.  The accompanying catalog is available for purchase.  The opening reception is Friday, June 3 5:00-9:00 PM.

find your park

Find Your Park, 2016, Poster, 68″ x 31 1/4″, Courtesy of the National Park Foundation and National Park Service.


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“Housekeeping Ain’t No Joke”: Historic Housekeeping at the Wayside in Concord, MA

For every blog post I write, I think long and hard about a fun, witty title that not only piques the reader’s interest but is also relevant to the topic.  For this post, I hit gold.  “Little Women,” written by Louisa May Alcott, is based on the childhood of the four Alcott sisters growing up in Concord, Massachusetts. The home Alcott is writing about is the Wayside, now part of Minute Man National Historical Park.  At one point of the story, the girls are helping with the housework and refer to a quote from their cook and housekeeper Hannah that “housekeeping ain’t no joke.”  This could not be more true, especially when it comes to housekeeping in a historic house.


Staff and volunteers posing for a photo outside of The Wayside. (NPS Photo)

The Wayside was not only home to the Alcott family, but also to Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Harriet Lothrop (known as Margaret Sidney) who wrote “The Five Little Peppers.”  Because of the many prominent writers who called the Wayside home, it has come to be know as the “Home of Authors.”  Three years ago, the home was closed for an intensive restoration and preservation project.  Now that the project is mostly completed, NMSC and the park completed an extensive cleaning of the home.

Cleaning a historic house is different than cleaning a modern home and entails much more than simple dusting and vacuuming.  While it doesn’t sound very glamorous as museum jobs go, we think of this type of cleaning as one of the most important things we do.  It is probably the best way to preserve these special resources from many forms of deterioration.  And, it is a fundamental part of making sure that we are presenting the structure and artifacts in a way that is not only accurate, but honors the efforts of these important historic individuals for whom this wasn’t just a house, but their home.

When cleaning a historic house, the standard procedure is to clean from the top to bottom, and from the inside out.  This ensures that you will not have dust falling on an already cleaned surface and also is very efficient.  Also unlike cleaning a modern house where people rely on a variety of chemicals for their capacity to work quickly, or sanitize surfaces, we take special care with the types of vacuums, dusters, and other cleaning products being used to make sure old, fragile finishes are not damaged.


Two NPS employees dust the ceiling of the West Chamber. (NPS photo)

For instance, where you would use a standard glass cleaner at home, museum professionals use a much milder solution of distilled water, alcohol, and a few drops of ammonia.  Once the windows and other glass surfaces are washed with this solution, they are wiped with distilled water to remove any of the chemicals still on the glass.


NMSC Museum Specialist Jessica cleaning windows at the Wayside. (NPS Photo)

When it comes to cleaning the floor, you must take the flooring material/floor covering and condition into account.  Unlike our rugs at home, many historic floors cannot be vacuumed the same way we are used to.  If the rug is in good condition, it can be vacuumed but not with the revolving brush attachment since it may pull up portions of the rug.  Instead, a vacuum with no brush, or even a nozzle attachment with a piece of screen on the end can be used.  If the floor is wood, it is cleaned differently based on whether it is painted or varnished.  We try to avoid wetting old linoleum, sometimes working on our hands and knees with a faintly damp rag to keep from dissolving the old adhesive.


Regional Curator Sara demonstrating how to clean and protect a brass sconce. (NPS photo)

Special care is taken to clean all of the surfaces in the home including often overlooked places like the tops of window frames and doors, and even dusting the ceiling.  I certainly don’t get to this level of cleaning at my own home!


NMSC Museum Technician Nikki dusting Sophia Hawthorne’s desk. (NPS Photo)

Once the rooms are thoroughly cleaned, objects and furniture (which also have been cleaned!) can be moved back into the room and the house prepared for tours.  NMSC, MIMA staff, students and volunteers spent more than a week going through the Wayside and making sure it is clean for its grand-reopening coming up in 2016 – an effort of 310 person-hours.  For more details, check out our Facebook album of photos and the MIMA website.

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Little House in the Archeology Lab: How Laura Ingalls Wilder Made Me a Historical Archeologist

I would embarrass myself if I tried to explain here exactly how much I love the Little House books.  I read them when I was eight years old, am reading them again now 30 years later, and have read them about a hundred times in between.  It’s a different experience as an adult.  I understand the historical, social, and economic context in which Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote her stories.  I am also aware of devastating family tragedies that she purposefully left out of her books.  Nevertheless, for me and many other readers, the magic of these books is timeless:  I am a forever fan.

wilder wikimedia commons

Laura Ingalls Wilder ca. 1894.  Image source:  Wikimedia Commons

One of my favorite things about Wilder’s stories is her detailed, loving references to the family’s stuff – the few, cherished material things that accompanied them throughout their travels, hardships, and triumphs.  Think of Pa’s fiddle, which sang the girls to sleep in the snug cabin in the Big Woods and under the stars on the open prairie.  Or the red-checkered tablecloth, which, when placed on the table in any of the family’s dwellings, provided the final step in making a house a home.  And of course Ma’s precious china shepherdess, always on a shelf out of reach, Ma’s single bit of finery in a rustic pioneer world.   As Wilder wrote in On the Banks of Plum Creek, “Ma allowed no one else to touch the shepherdess” (315).  If you love these books like I do, you know these objects well.  To me, they are infused with such personality and importance by Wilder’s writing that they become characters in the stories just as much as Ma, Pa, and their girls.


Pa plays his fiddle as Mary and Laura look on in Little House in the Big Woods. Illustration by Garth Williams, image source listed at end of post.

Thankfully, Pa’s fiddle is preserved today at the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Home and Museum in Mansfield, Missouri.  I don’t know what’s become of the checkered tablecloth or the china shepherdess, and finding out would require detective work that is beyond the scope of this post.  (But oh, what fun that would be!)  What I do know, however, is that many artifacts similar to those written about in the Little House books are preserved in your National Park Service archeology collections.  As I read through the books this time around, I find myself coming across references to many objects that I have encountered at work in the NMSC archeology lab.  Butter molds, tin cups, picket pins, shoe buttons…I am lucky in that because of my work I can clearly picture these items as I read their names on the page.  And because of Wilder’s vivid descriptions of their appearance, use, and necessity, the books help me to better appreciate and understand these wonderful, commonplace objects within the context of modest 19th-century home life.


The Ingalls family made do with very little, and Laura and Mary enjoyed playing with things like pigs’ bladders, corn husks, and Ma’s thimbles.  “Laura and Mary were allowed to take Ma’s thimble and make pretty patterns of circles in the frost on the glass.” (Little House in the Big Woods, page 27)


Brass thimbles from the archeology collection at Petersburg National Battlefield. Photo by Norm Eggert for NMSC.


Milk Pans

Although meals were simple and often modest, Wilder’s writing portrays the family’s gratefulness for and delight in Ma’s resourceful cooking.  “In the middle of the table she set a milk-pan full of beautiful brown baked beans.”  (On the Banks of Plum Creek, page 338)

National Park Service

Redware milk pan from the archeology collection at Salem Maritime National Historic Site. Photo by Norm Eggert for NMSC.



Laura and Mary loved to sit and watch when Pa made his bullets.  You don’t associate bullet production with cozy, fire-side family time?  Wilder’s writing may change your mind.    “First he melted the bits of lead in the big spoon held in the coals. When the lead was melted, he poured it carefully from the spoon into the little hole in the bullet-mold. He waited a minute, then he opened the mold, and out dropped a bright new bullet onto the hearth.”   (Little House in the Big Woods, pages 45-46)

bullet sama

Lead bullet from archeology collection at Salem Maritime National Historic Site. Photo by Norm Eggert for NMSC.


Mary and Laura were in awe of Ma and their aunts when the women donned their fancy clothes for the dance in the Big Woods.  How, after reading these words, could a button ever again be just a button? “Aunt Docia’s dress was a sprigged print, dark blue, with sprigs of red flowers and green leaves thick upon it. The basque was buttoned down the front with black buttons which looked so exactly like juicy big blackberries that Laura wanted to taste them.”  (Little House in the Big Woods, page 140)


We found this image online while searching for a blackberry button. This button is not from an NPS archeology collection. Image source listed at end of post.

Although we’ve never come across a blackberry button in the lab, we have seen quite a few very special, beautiful buttons from NPS archeology collections that were undoubtedly admired by other 19th-century little girls.

Sleigh Bells

The Ingalls family relied on their horse-drawn sleigh for getting around the Big Woods in the wintertime.  “The horses shook their heads and pranced, making the sleigh bells ring merrily, and away they went on the road through the Big Woods to Grandpa’s.”  (Little House in the Big Woods, page 132)


Sleigh bells from the archeology collection at Saratoga National Historical Park.  Want to learn more?  Check out our 2012 post.  Photo by Norm Eggert for NMSC.



We come across a lot of 19th-century, machine-cut nails here in the lab.  They may not look glamorous or exciting, but Wilder reminds us that they were a precious commodity for many Americans.  When Pa lost a nail while building their home in Kansas, “Mary and Laura watched it fall and they searched in the grass till they found it. Sometimes it was bent.  Then Pa carefully pounded it straight again.  It would never do to lose or waste a nail.”  (Little House on the Prairie page 126)

nails hamp

19th-century machine-cut nails from the archeology collection at Hampton National Historic Site. Photo by NMSC staff.



Blue transfer-ware was extremely popular during the second half of the 19th century. Maybe a “crackling little pig” doesn’t sound appetizing to you for Christmas dinner (and I’m with you there), but can’t you just see this blue platter?  “He looked at the crisp, crackling little pig lying on the blue platter with an apple in its mouth.” (Farmer Boy, page 324)


comb mary


Illustration by Garth Williams.



Pa brought home small gifts for the family whenever he ventured to town for supplies.  On his return from Independence, Kansas, he brought the girls combs for their hair.  “They were made of black rubber and curved to fit over the top of a little girl’s head.  And over the top of the comb lay a flat piece of black rubber, with curving slits cut in it, and in the very middle of it, a little five-pointed star was cut out.  A bright colored ribbon was drawn underneath, and the color showed through…they laughed with joy.  They had never seen anything so pretty.”  (Little House on the Prairie pages 270-271)


comb lowell

Celluloid hair comb from the archeology collection at Lowell National Historical Park. Photo by Norm Eggert for NMSC.  Why is this comb a little sad? Check out 2014 blog post about deterioration of celluloid and natural rubber.


I like to think of Laura Ingalls Wilder as a kind of literary historical archeologist, bringing to light and celebrating the wonderful minutia of everyday life.  I firmly believe that my own love for old things – and especially those used and cherished by everyday, hardworking people – was fostered in great part by her careful, attentive writing about the material culture she grew up with.  Thank you, Mrs. Wilder, for bringing the past so clearly and colorfully alive for children (and grown ups!) everywhere, and for introducing my little eight-year-old self to the wonders of historical archeology.


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