My research happens at the intersection of material culture and public history.
My material culture scholarship focuses on everyday objects—personal possessions, consumer goods—what folklorist Henry Glassie famously called “the tangible yield of human conduct.” I study the role of material culture in shaping and expressing human identity and am particularly interested in using material culture as a lens through which we can better understand power and the lived experience of the past. My first contribution to this field was a 2012 article published in Winterthur Portfolio: A Journal of American Material Culture, “Selling Mr. Coffee: Design, Gender, and the Branding of a Kitchen Appliance.” This article explores the cultural meaning of a very ordinary household appliance and its relationship to changing gender norms and expectations in 1970s American society. My book, In the Looking Glass: Mirrors and Identity in Early America, explores how people of Native, European, and African descent used and understood mirrors in the construction of individual and collective identities in North America from the earliest era of colonization through the 19th century. My project considers the well-defined beliefs about and uses for reflection that European, African, and Native peoples had developed before accurately reflective glass mirrors became widely available after 1650. Using a wide range of archaeological, documentary, linguistic, and material culture sources, I show how each culture came to embrace the use of mirrors in North America. Moreover, I argue that as Europeans in America coalesced around a collective identity, the mirror became one of the items in what Bridget Heneghan called the “piecemeal wall” out of which Whiteness was fashioned. Even as the mirror became an important item in daily use for people of European, African, and Native descent in North America, Whites also used it to assert their superiority over the groups that they had deemed to be “other.” In the Looking Glass was published by Johns Hopkins University Press in 2017.
My other core professional identity, in addition to being a scholar of American material culture, is as a public historian. My work as a scholar of material culture intersects with my work as a public historian because much public history work takes place in museums and focuses on the display and interpretation of material culture. More information about my public history research and work can be found here.
Image (1939) is from the Library of Congress. Information available here.