Thursday, June 9, 2011

Material Culture Minute: History Through Lists

Any scholar who studies material culture will attest to the value in lists such as inventories taken at the time of an individual's death. "Empty trash. Buy milk. Forge history.: To trace the great arcs of civilization, historians tap the humble list," an article by Gal Beckerman posted recently on Arts and Letters Daily, explores one historian's efforts to tabulate several hundred years of inventories recorded in Germany upon a couple's marriage. Through these efforts, among other things, the historian hopes to gain a better understanding of the onset of the industrial revolution in Germany.

Aggregated data can be invaluable. But when the "broad strokes" of history are not of particular interest, single inventories can also tell us a great deal about individuals we are studying. What was the value of a an eighteenth-century cabinetmaker's tools? In how many rooms did the individual in question live? Was the individual in question (or a member of his household) negotiating old age using specialized "invalid" furniture? What was the value of the individual's slave? How does this information reinforce or complicate previously established facts about the individual in question? How does this information help us interpret the past more accurately for the public?

Inventories are more than pots and pans. They are important and fascinating historical records that suggest endless interpretive avenues.

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