Object History

Two new books take the study of American material culture to the masses by highlighting the country’s iconic objects--a fragment of Plymouth rock, a presidential button, a soldier’s footlocker--and using them to brief readers on an historical event. Souvenir Nation by William L. Bird, Jr. (Princeton Architectural Press, $24.95) and The Civil War in 50 Objects by Harold Holzer (Viking, $36), both recently published, offer fine essays and color illustrations meant for the armchair historian in all of us. It comes as no surprise that reading each of these books is like taking a stroll through a great museum -- Holzer’s book focuses on the collection of the New-York Historical Society, while Bird’s book examines the relics in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. (A related exhibit opens at the Smithsonian Castle in August.) Need I mention how perfect they are for Father’s Day?
 
Souvenir Nation.jpgSouvenir Nation: Relics, Keepsakes, and Curios shows off items preserved in the Smithsonian but often gathered or collected by laymen. Bird, curator at the NMAH, prompts us to think about the idea of souvenirs, not so much in the way of plastic knick-knacks we pick up at landmarks these days, but the ones chipped from monuments and clipped from heads in years past. Here are a few of the neat items you’ll find here: a piece of George Washington’s mahogany coffin, railroad conductors’ punch cards, and actress Laura Keene’s bloodstained cuff worn at Ford’s Theater. As always, I enjoy the format of Princeton Architectural Press books. This trim red, white, and blue hardcover resembles a history textbook, if textbooks were a bit groovier. The endpapers are decorated with patriotic stars, and the book even contains two ribbons (red and blue) for placeholders.  

CivilWar50.jpgThe Civil War in 50 Objects has a narrower focus and yet is a heftier read. Holzer, a Fellow at the N-YHS, offers a more narrative approach, allotting each artifact--iron slave shackles, a draft wheel for drawing names, a Confederate cipher key--a mini-chapter instead of a page. The bookish among us will be glad to note the number of items that fall under the rubric of ‘print culture’ represented by broadsides, prints, letters, newspapers, watercolor drawings by prisoners, a pocket diary of a private from NY, a bible used at a “colored orphan asylum,” c. 1863, the First Dixie reader, and lastly, a manuscript of the thirteenth amendment. Illustrated with fine color reproductions, this book is a collection of treasures for anyone interested in Civil War history.   

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