The stuff of our lives — the meaningful things we surround ourselves with, find, are given, gather up, inherit — is the stuff of history.
"These things may not make big money on 'Antiques Roadshow,' but they can have real significance in our lives," says historian and author Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, who has long enjoyed material culture and the "seriousness of innocuous things."
Ulrich spoke recently at an "Evenings at the Museum" program at the Church History Museum. A professor of history at Harvard University, and immediate past president of the American Historical Association, she is the author of numerous articles and books, including "A Midwife's Tale," which won the Pulitzer Prize for History in 1991.
It was not until the late 1700s, she said, that Americans began to be aware of American history, that they began to, as a man named Jeremy Belknap noted, "search in the garrets and ratholes of old houses," for important artifacts. In 1791 Belknap founded the Massachusetts Historical Society, the first formal society to focus on the history of the United States, and the model for many other societies around the country.
Nineteenth-century New Englanders began to care about objects and about saving them, Ulrich said. "They would stuff everything up into the attic in case they needed it later." An interesting find in an attic of that period: a box full of bits and pieces of string labeled "string too short to be saved."
Many of the other objects that were saved have made their way into museums and to local and national historical societies, making us acutely aware, she said, "of the way objects make history.
History is not what happened, it is an account of the past, based on surviving sources. If there are no sources, there is no history."
In a sense, she said, that makes us all historians. "By caring for your things and the things of your ancestors, you contribute to a larger historic picture."
Even the simplest objects can make a contribution, said Ulrich. "They connect to the past. They are a source of family and national pride. They reinforce family stories. They can surprise us, challenge us, force us to confront things we would just as soon not confront. Objects teach technology. They can inspire us as we make our own history, striking out in our own circumstances, in our own way."
Ulrich told of a small table that she has, with ornate carvings and an octagon-shaped top. "It was my job to dust it as a little girl." The little round holes made by the carvings were fun to dust, although it took a lot of time. "But I loved doing it, especially after my mother said that when she was a little girl it was her job to dust the table, that it belonged to her grandmother."
It was thought that the table had been ordered out of a catalog, but that was about all Ulrich knew, until she began to do some research.
She learned that about the time her great-grandmother would have gotten the table, the country was caught up in an interest of "Orientalism." Tapestries, furniture and other objects that captured the flavor of exotic locations such as the Middle East and the Far East were wildly popular. "I looked closer at the table and could see that influence."
It tickled her to no end, she said, to think that her great-grandmother, who was a handcart pioneer, "kept up with the latest fads after she got to Utah. That taught me something about her that I would not otherwise have known."
She told of a quilt that had belonged to her husband's grandmother. "I took it to an antique dealer, who told me it was not worth anything because it had obviously been in a washing machine. I took it to an art historian, who was not interested in it because it was faded and very ordinary."
Ulrich did not care about the monetary value, but she wondered what the quilt could tell her about her husband's family.
Through her research she discovered that the "Grandmother's Flower Garden" pattern was one that was "rampant in Missouri at that time," which is where the grandmother lived. The fabric in the quilt was not quite as fancy, quite as good as the fabric in some other quilts of the period, which led her to think it was maybe from used clothing, maybe even men's shirts. "Grandma Ulrich has been left a widow at a young age to raise her children; she was very frugal."
Ulrich told of another object that came from that same household. It is a white enamel bowl, nicked and banged-up. "But it was the bowl my husband's grandfather used to make angel-food cakes that won prizes at the Morgan County Fair."
These are very simple objects, she said, "but they can remind us of people we have forgotten, if we look at them and care. Maybe in these simple stories, we will find ways to tie us together as a family and give us meaning and purpose to our lives."
We save things for many reasons, she said: because we might use them, might need them, we don't know what else to do with them, we think maybe our kids will want them. But one of the most important reasons that we save things is to remind us, to inspire us, to help us know we belong to something even bigger.
We all want to be remembered, she said, showing a sampler made by a young Colonial girl, which said. "When I am dead & buried & all my bones are rotten, then this will be to remember me, that I ma'n't be forgotten."
When the Ulrichs did some work on their house a few years ago, they found a note stuck there by their then 9-year-old daughter, telling the history of the house and noting that "when you find this, I'll probably be dead."
Both girls, living so long apart, shared the same desire, she said.
"In this throwaway society, it's OK to hang on to junk," said Ulrich.
Keep it, preserve it, cherish it, learn from it — and keep the stories that go with it, she said. "As we walk the earth, we connect to one another, to the past and the future through objects."