The More Things Change…Finding the Familiar in the Archeological Record

Daily life has changed a lot for Americans throughout the past few centuries.  Innovations in the fields of communication, technology, and transportation have drastically transformed many aspects of everyday living.  In the 18th century, letters could take weeks or even months to reach their recipients.  News was often obsolete by the time it was received.  Today, we text and email one another constantly and get impatient when we don’t get an instant response.  We probably cannot understand the level of darkness that came with nightfall in the 18th century.  Today, we awake in the night and flip a switch to instantly light up the room.  Many of us leave a light on at night for our children or make use of nightlights.  Imagine how different the nighttime experience was for children hundreds of years ago!  Today, we pop a load of laundry in the washing machine and forget about it until it’s time to move it into the dryer an hour later.  Laundry a couple of hundred years ago was an exhausting, all-day affair.

Young child navigating the dark.

Young child navigating the dark. “Who’s There?” by Thomas Waterman Wood, late 19th century. Image found in At Home: The American Family 1750-1870 by Elisabeth Donaghy Garrett.

Sometimes as archeologists we see evidence of these daily details that have been lost to innovation.  Here in the NMSC archeology lab we’ve encountered material evidence of early cooking and dining, gas and kerosene lighting, and even messaging by carrier pigeon!  We recognize and appreciate these artifacts as vestiges of the past that can help to illuminate the way people used to live. Despite monumental changes that have made our lives easier (although arguably not simpler), there are aspects of our daily lives that are strikingly similar.  Every now and then, we come across an artifact in the lab that reminds us how much certain things have not changed.

Eyeglasses

We are always excited to find personal objects like eyeglasses in the collections we work with.  As someone who relies daily on glasses, I hold tremendous appreciation for the personal and essential nature of a pair of eyeglasses.  Losing your glasses can be, depending on your eyesight, an inconvenience or a disabling crisis.  Finding them in an archeological collection makes us wonder about the poor soul whose glasses went missing many years ago. Eyeglasses are one great example of an artifact that has not changed much over the past couple of hundred years.  Many historians date the first eyeglasses to 13th-century Italy.  Early examples were held in front of the eyes or balanced on the nose and were used by monks and scholars.  Glasses including the side or temple pieces that rest over the ear – like those we wear today – were first advertised in 1728.  There were certainly stylistic changes…for much of the 1800s, for example, eyeglasses were considered a sign of old age and frailty, so people carried scissor spectacles or lorgnettes instead of wearing eyeglasses.  The basic form, however, has not changed much.

Consider this portrait of Thomas Earle, painted in 1800.  Earle’s breeches, stockings, and stock are familiar to us as key elements of late 18th– or early 19th-century fashion, but not as anything comparable to our own style of dress.  His eyeglasses, however, look a lot like mine.  You might see glasses that look like this in a 1960s photograph, or on the face of a passerby on the sidewalk this afternoon.  Of everything Thomas Earle is wearing in this portrait, his glasses say to me, Hey, we’re not that different.

Portrait of Thomas Earle showing his eyeglasses.  By Ralph Earl, 1800.  Image found in

Portrait of Thomas Earle showing his eyeglasses. By Ralph Earl, 1800. Image found in Ralph Earl: The Face of the Young Republic by Elizabeth Mankin Kornhauser.

Thimbles

Another artifact that we repeatedly recognize in the lab as similar to its modern counterpart is the thimble.  We encounter thimbles fairly frequently here in the lab, and they usually look a lot like the thimble that I use at home to sew renegade buttons back on.  Metal thimbles were in use in Europe by the 9th century, and brass ones were common by medieval/post-medieval times.  Thimbles have several basic parts, as identified in this diagram from Mary Beaudry’s book, Findings:  The Material Culture of Needlework and Sewing.  All working thimbles have indentations which facilitate the user pushing the needle through the fabric.  The size of a thimble and of its indentations can provide clues as to who was using it and the type of task for which it was intended.

Parts of a thimble, as illustrated in Mary Beaudry's book Findings:  The Material Culture of Needlework and Sewing.

Parts of a thimble, as illustrated in Mary Beaudry’s book Findings: The Material Culture of Needlework and Sewing.

During my time in the archeology lab, I have encountered numerous brass thimbles with hammered indentations; this type is fairly ubiquitous on North American historical sites.  Production techniques evolved over time and resulted in minor changes in the appearance of the thimble (which can be helpful for dating purposes).  Some thimbles could be elaborately decorated, especially 18th– and 19th-century parlor thimbles, which exuded status and could be made of gold, silver, porcelain, mother-of-pearl, tortoiseshell, or jewels, among other extravagant materials.  (Beaudry 2006)  However, the thimbles that most Americans used for their everyday tasks were the brass ones that show up so frequently on archeological sites (Hume 1969), and that resemble pretty closely the one I keep in my sewing bin at home.

Brass thimbles from NPS archeological collection.  Photo by Norm Eggert for NMSC.

Brass thimbles from NPS archeological collection. Photo by Norm Eggert for NMSC.

Scissors

When we encountered this artifact in the lab, we were able to identify it fairly confidently because of our familiarity with its shape and form.  I’ll bet most people could see this object and know what it is, because they have something a lot like it in the junk drawer at home.  Like thimbles, shears and scissors are utilitarian objects that have not changed much over time.

Shears from NPS archeological collection.  Photo by Norm Eggert for NMSC.

Shears from NPS archeological collection. Photo by Norm Eggert for NMSC.

Shears – 6 inches or more in length, with a small handle for the thumb and a larger handle for the other 4 fingers – were in use by the Iron Age, about 1000 B.C.  Scissors – less than 6 inches in length with two small, matching handles – were first introduced in Europe around the 6th or 7th century, and were in general use there by the 13th or 14th century. Scissors differed slightly according to intended use.  Sewing scissors, barbers’ scissors, and culinary scissors, for example, have distinct diagnostic qualities.  Sewing scissors varied stylistically in the 19th century, with different bow and shank styles coming in and out of fashion. (Beaudry 2006)  This portrait of Mrs. Ebenezer Porter, ca. 1804, shows her lace-making scissors.  All of these variations can be helpful in determining the date and function of a pair of scissors.  Despite these differences, however, throughout the centuries of its use, a pair of scissors has remained recognizable as exactly that: a pair of scissors.  As the saying goes, If it’s not broken…

Portrait of Mrs. Ebenezer Porter showing her lace-making scissors.  By Ralph Earl, 1804.  Image found in Ralph Earl:  The Face of the New Republic by Elizabeth Mankin Kornhauser.

Portrait of Mrs. Ebenezer Porter showing her lace-making scissors. By Ralph Earl, 1804. Image found in Ralph Earl: The Face of the New Republic by Elizabeth Mankin Kornhauser.

Coins

Ivor Noel Hume.

U.S. half- and one-cent copper and copper-alloy coinage from A Guide to Artifacts of Colonial America by Ivor Noel Hume.

One final example of a historic object that we recognize from our own lives is the coin.  Clearly, coins have witnessed a great deal of evolution throughout the years.  The type of currency in circulation has changed, and specific types of coins have changed in their material composition and decorative styles.  Do you have a penny in your wallet right now?  I do…a few, in fact.  The first American copper cent was issued by U.S. federal authority in 1787.  The first regular issue of cents by the U.S. mint occurred in 1793.  (Hume 1969)  This image of U.S. half- and one-cent copper and copper-alloy coinage can be found in Ivor Noel Hume’s A Guide to Artifacts of Colonial America.

We encountered an example of the Coronet type cent (number 6 in Hume’s book) while processing an archeological collection here in the lab.  Although clearly different from the pennies in my wallet, they are in many ways the same.  After hundreds of years, a penny is still a penny.  What you can get for your penny has clearly changed, but we continue to use one-cent copper-based pennies as a valid form of currency.

1812 Coronet penny from  NPS archeological collection.  Photo by Norm Eggert for NMSC.

1821 Coronet penny from NPS archeological collection. Photo by Norm Eggert for NMSC.

It is amazing to me that, despite all of the changes that have accompanied the coin throughout its course in history, we continue to use coins on a daily basis.  What began in the 7th century B.C. as a metal disc conveying monetary value remains exactly that today.  No matter how inefficient it may be, no matter how I may be cursed by the store clerk and the customers waiting in line behind me, I can still count out dimes, nickels, and pennies to pay for my breakfast at the coffee shop or my basket of groceries at the supermarket.

This is just a small sample of artifacts we have come across in our work that remind us of things we use in our own daily lives.  Despite the many ways in which our world has changed, these items have basically withstood the test of time.  There are many other examples that we have not highlighted here.  Take toys, for example.  Chances are you’ve never heard of a whirligig.  (See our previous blog post if you’re curious!)  On the other hand, this domino that we processed from an early 19th-century archeological site looks just like the dominoes in my son’s toy box.

Domino from NPS archeological collection.  Photo by Norm Eggert for NMSC.

Domino from NPS archeological collection. Photo by Norm Eggert for NMSC.

Working with artifacts in the NMSC archeology lab allows us a rare glimpse into the everyday lives of early Americans.  One part of my job that I particularly enjoy is solving the mystery of the unknown artifact.  I love to start with an object that is foreign to me, pull out a book about 18th-century ceramics, Civil War metal, 19th-century lighting, or early 20th-century celluloid, and end up with a diagnostic artifact that adds to our understanding of the past.  (Case in point:  the aforementioned whirligig.)  As exhilarating as it is to make these identifications, it is in many ways just as exciting to come across something wholly familiar.  A penny, a pair of scissors…familiar objects like these remind us how much certain things have not changed, and help us feel an integral connection to our past.  And isn’t that what archeology is all about?

References:

Beaudry, Mary C.  Findings:  The Material Culture of Needlework and Sewing.  New Haven:  Yale University Press, 2006.

Garrett, Elisabeth Donaghy.  At Home:  The American Family 1750-1870.  New York:  Henry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers, 1990.

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

Kornhauser, Elizabeth Mankin.  Ralph Earl:  The Face of the Young Republic.  New Haven:  Yale University Press, 1991.

http://www.college-optometrists.org/en/college/museyeum/online_exhibitions/spectacles/invention.cfm

http://www.livinghistory.co.uk/homepages/grunalmoneta/history.html

http://www.museumofvision.org/exhibitions/?key=44&subkey=4&relkey=35

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About JessicaC

Jessica is a Museum Specialist in the Archeology Program at the Northeast Museum Services Center/National Park Service. She majored in history as an undergraduate at the State University of New York at Geneseo, and has a master's degree in historical archeology from the University of Massachusetts-Boston. She is particularly interested in 18th and 19th century American history and material culture.
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