Hall Stands and Parlor Organs: Status Symbols in the 19th Century Home

Hot trends in home decorating in the late 19th century were parlor organs and hall stands. These objects are rarely seen in 21st century homes.  But both symbolize something that modern home buyers on popular television shows declare is a “must have.” Home buyers, then and now, demonstrated their social status with a dedicated “space for entertaining.”

19th century house plan by Andrew Jackson Downing
An affordable cottage plan for the middle class lifestyle, 19th century.

One hundred and fifty years ago, affluent home-buyers wanted large homes with a front hall for welcoming guests and a parlor and dining room dedicated only to entertaining. These rooms and their contents represented the middle or upper-class status of the family in the new industrialized economy.  These homes were starkly different from older and smaller working-class homes were more people shared much less space. Today, the same is true. Larger homes represent larger incomes and contain more specialty rooms – home theaters, craft rooms, game or play rooms, or man caves.

Select each image for more information.

Special rooms require special furnishings

A piano was an important symbol of middle class status in the late nineteenth century parlor.
A piano was an important symbol of middle class status in the late nineteenth century parlor.

Specialized furniture and decorations were marketed to fill these new spaces. A hall stand or hall tree was needed for the coats, hats, and umbrellas of guests. Elaborate hall tables held card receivers for the visiting cards of respectable upper and middle-class people Nineteenth century parlors required upholstered chairs and sofas, large musical instruments like pianos and organs, decorative pictures, curtains, and carpets.  Parlors equipped with an organ or piano demonstrated the family could afford to purchase a large musical instrument, had the leisure time to enjoy it, and the culture and education to play it. Before the nineteenth century, pianos and organs were hand-crafted items and affordable only to the wealthy. As mass production methods produced more affordable parlor organs and pianos, these musical instruments became middle class status symbols.

Hall stands had hooks for hats and coats, a mirror for a visitor to check his or her appearance, a stand for umbrellas, and table for visiting cards.
Hall stands had hooks for hats and coats, a mirror for a visitor to check his or her appearance, a stand for umbrellas, and table for visiting cards or other small objects.

By the 1920s, hall stands had fallen out of style. The peak year for piano sales was 1909 but sales continued to be strong through the 1970s. Today, old pianos are unwanted clutter destined for the dump. Parlors have also fallen out of favor. Entry halls are omitted from many modern home plans. But we still define our social status through our homes and their furnishings.

“Everything we do has social meaning.”

“Our childhood, family life, income bracket, and concurrent social circles teaches how to go about our lives and interact with the world in big and small ways. Through both behaviors and material goods, we disclose our socioeconomic position, whether we like it or not.” says Elizabeth Currid-Halkett in The Sum of Small Things: A Theory of the Aspirational Class (2017)         But the objects or actions that convey social status change over time.

In the Classroom

Ask students to consider how consumer goods define our lives and social status. Have them peruse the pages of home furnishings in old catalogs and brainstorm what modern home goods have replaced those offered to shoppers one hundred years ago.

Archive.org is a wonderful resource for historical home furnishings catalogs. The Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward catalogs were the late 19th and 20th century equivalent of the mega online shopping retailers of today.

As students explore how consumer goods for the home have changed, ask them to consider how the furnishings of a home represent socioeconomic status.  The objects in our homes may have changed, but the desire to own objects that define us is very much the same.

For more  . . .


Advertisements in magazines promoted affordable pianos for the home in the late 19th and early 20th century.
Advertisements in magazines promoted affordable pianos for the home in the late 19th and early 20th century.

Investigating Family, Food, and Housing Themes in Social Studies has more history, classroom ideas, and primary source texts and images for using housing as a theme in the classroom.

For more about 19th century furnishings and their meanings,  read Death in the Dining Room and Other Tales of Victorian Culture by Kenneth L. Ames.

Cure for the Flu!? Don’t fall for quack cures.

One hundred years ago, 25.8 million Americans got the flu in the 1918-19 influenza pandemic. Fifty percent of the U.S. military deaths in World War I were caused by the flu and 670,000 Americans died. And quack cures offered frightened Americans false hope.

Below are just a few quack cures and preventative nostrums that were offered a century ago in American newspapers. A quick internet search reveals modern snake oil that is just as useless, even though medical scientists know much more about the viral disease.

Select the image for a more information

More reading about the 1918 Influenza Epidemic and Quack Cures:

How the Horrific 1918 Flu Spread Across America

The Craziest Cures For The Flu In History

Scrapbooks: Comparing 19th century primary sources to 21st social media

“Our life is a living Scrap-book. Clipped from the scroll of Time and pasted in by the hand of Fate, every day brings its contributions, and the leaves accumulate until the book is filled.”
From Scrap-books and How to Make Them, 1880 by Elklanah Walter Gurley (1834 – 1908). Teacher, principal, newspaper editor and Union Civil War veteran.

Over 130 years ago, E. W. Gurley promoted “scrapbooking” as worthwhile personal, professional, and educational activity. While the format has changed, the purposes remain the same. A scrapbook, then and now, is personal story created from re-purposed media (electronic or paper) and ephemera of the era.

Recipes are often clipped and pasted into scrapbooks. This is a page from recipe scrapbooks of Helen Brown Williams (1912-1998).
Recipes are often clipped and pasted into scrapbooks. This page is from the recipe scrapbooks of Helen Brown Williams (1912-1998) of Kentucky.

Creating scrapbooks began in the 1820s when disposable publications such as newspapers and magazines became more common. People wanted to save important information relative to their lives so they literally cut information with scissors and pasted it onto paper for future reference. “Cutting and pasting” has taken on a new but similar meaning in the computer age. In the early days of scrapbooking, clippings were often pasted on recycled paper or books no longer needed, such as record or ledger books. As the pastime grew, blank books especially for scrapbooks were sold. Mark Twain patented and sold scrapbooks with self-adhesive glue strips included.

Select / click images for more information.

Who made scrapbooks in the 19th century?

This 1881 poem represents the popularity of making scrapbooks in the late 19th century.
This 1881 poem represents the popularity of making scrapbooks in the late 19th century.

Everybody! Rich or poor, famous people and average people, men, women, and children. Children were encouraged to keep scrapbooks because they were educational. Scrapbooks were thought to help children read better, learn to save and organize important information, and develop a useful hobby. Men and women kept professional scrapbooks to document the accomplishments or save useful information related to their interests. Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony, Charles Sumner, and Mark Twain clipped articles from newspapers and magazines documenting their lives and interests. Many surviving scrapbooks were created by average men and women.

The 19th century information overload grew as the century progressed. Printing technology improved, images began to be published in newspapers and magazines, advertisers distributed colorful trading cards. The invention of photography added a new element to scrapbooks. At first, portraits and photographs of important events, called cartes de visite,  could be purchased from professional photographers and collected in special albums. In the 1888, the first snapshot camera was introduced so that average people could now take their own snapshots.

Scrapbooks as primary sources for the classroom

Scrapbooks – albums on the table or collections that exist digitally – express how individuals interpret and value the information of their era. They also represent how technology and mass media have evolved over time.  Check your local archives, historical society, museum, or attic for old scrapbooks. Many institutions have digitized all or some old scrapbooks for easy viewing online.  For example, the header image for this post is a page from one of the many scrapbooks in the collection of my university’s archives.

This scrapbook of newspaper clippings and cartoons, created in the 1920s, belonged to Katherine Warford Wilson (1906 - 1991) of Kentucky.
This scrapbook of newspaper clippings and cartoons, created in the 1920s, belonged to Katherine Warford Wilson (1906 – 1991) of Kentucky.

Ask students to compare and contrast paper scrapbooking of the 19th century to digital scrapbooking on social media (Facebook, Pinterest, or blogs, for example).

The following questions might be helpful . . ..

  • How does one choose what to include in a scrapbook? What to ignore?
  • What stories does a scrapbook tell about an individual? What types of events are included and not included? Why does a scrapbooker “edit” her or his story?
  • What types of media are re-used or repurposed in a digital and paper scrapbook?
  • Is digital and paper scrapbooking a free or low-cost hobby? Why or why not?
  • Who creates scrapbooks now? In the past? What are the similarities and differences in scrapbookers now and then?
  • What can a historian learn and conclude about an individual, a society, or a group of people from several scrapbooks from the same time period?

In 1880, E. W. Gurley (in Scrap-books and How to Make Them) noted the following. How could his description of the mass media of his day, newspapers, be compared to modern internet reading habits?

. . . Our present system of newspaper reading has a tendency to weaken, rather than to strengthen, the perceptive faculties. We all read, but are we all well informed? The daily papers are sold by the ton, but so is gossip retailed by the hour, yet does any one claim that a community is prosperous or happy in proportion to the amount of gossip it keeps afloat ? But is it any the less gossip because it is printed?

Now, this habit of gossipy reading can be cured if we read for a purpose, look for something and keep it when found, and in no other form can it be so well preserved as in the pages of a good scrap-book. (p. 10)

Read more about the history of scrapbooking:
  • The Scrapbook in American Life edited by Susan Tucker, Katherine Ott, Patricia Buckler, 2006
  • Writing with Scissors: American Scrapbooks from the Civil War to the Harlem Renaissance by Ellen Gruber Garvey, 2013
  • Scrapbooks: An American History by Jessica Helfand, 2008
A few online historical scrapbooks:

You might also enjoy this post about pre-industrial scrapbooks  – How to Keep a Zibaldone

Cookies and how government regulation affects daily life

Cookies can illustrate the relationship between food and politics in the classroom. A good cookie must have fat – but should the cook use oleo/margarine or butter?

Butter, the fat from milk, has been used in baking for centuries. On the other hand, margarine was just invented about 150 years ago and was one of the first successful manufactured food substitutes. Margarine (oleo is another word for margarine) is a dyed-yellow fat created to look and taste like butter. It was first developed in France in 1869 as a cheap and durable wartime fat that could substitute for dairy butter.

In the late 1800s, the American meat industry began turning waste animal fat into this profitable product. But dairy farmers protested margarine advertising that claimed margarine was as wholesome as butter and led customers to think they were buying butter.  Several states banned the yellow color added to margarine, believing if the product was not dyed to resemble butter, consumers wouldn’t be fooled.

The Politics: The Manufactured Food Industry VS the Dairy Industry

Oleo Advertisement, 1948
Oleo Advertisement, 1948, demonstrates how to mix the yellow “Color Pak” into the margarine before serving.

The butter versus margarine debate soon reached Congress. In 1885, Wisconsin congressman Robert La Follette protested the sale of margarine products in the interest of his Wisconsin dairy farming constituents. In 1886, Congress passed the Margarine Act, which imposed a tax of 2 cents per pound on margarine and levied steep annual fees for licenses on manufacturers, wholesalers, and retailers of the product. In 1902, Congress increased the tax on dyed-yellow margarine to 10 cents per pound while decreasing the licensing fee for white, undyed margarine. Consumers could buy yellow dye capsules to knead into the cheaper white margarine to give the product buttery-yellow color. By 1947, selling yellow margarine was illegal in twenty-two states.

In 1950, President Harry Truman signed the Margarine Act of 1950, ending the federal tax on margarine. Until then, twice as much butter was sold in the United States. During the 1960s, this trend was reversed. Wisconsin became the last state to repeal its anti-margarine regulations in 1967. Today, most margarines are made with vegetable fats instead of animal fats.

Food History In the Classroom

This 1915 advertisement seeks to convince home cooks that cheap alternatives such as margarine or manufactured shortening should not be substituted for butter.
This 1915 advertisement seeks to convince home cooks that cheap alternatives such as margarine or manufactured shortening should not be substituted for butter.

Students often assume the only purpose of food regulation is to protect the health of consumers. The most popular primary source used in the classroom, Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, and lessons on famous Progressive reform law, the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, usually concentrate on consumer safety. But government regulation of the food industry is a balancing act between the needs of consumers and the goals of powerful food industries. Explore how the lobbying power of food industries have impacted food legislation, such as the Margarine Act of 1886, and compare to similar food legislation today.

For more information about food as a theme in the classroom

Learn more about using food history, recipes, and cookbooks as classroom primary sources from Investigating Family, Food, and Housing Themes in Social Studies


What can historical home decorations tell us about the past?

Images of home decor from the past are primary sources for daily life and culture of the era. But the viewer must distinguish between idealized depictions and reality.

The printmaking firm of Currier and Ives provided prints to decorate the walls of American homes from the 1830s to the early 20th century. The firm produced over 7,500 different lithographs – prints suitable for framing. At first, the prints were black and white and artists added color by hand. Later, full color prints were mechanically produced as printing technology improved.  Every aspect of American life was featured. The affordable prints were sold from the New York City office, by stores and salespeople across the nation, and by mail. Currier and Ives prints hung on the walls of homes through the 19th and into the 20th century. Catharine Beecher, the 19th century expert on home-making, gave practical advice on how to decorate tastefully on a budget and recommended inexpensive prints, or chromos, for decorating the walls.

Primary Source Analysis: Classroom Activity
1868 Currier and Ives print, The Four Seasons of Life: Youth.
The Four Seasons of Life: Youth – “The Season of Love”

Ask students evaluate the 1868 set of Currier and Ives prints on this page and describe the messages conveyed about home and family in the late 19th century

Select each image for more information.

What conclusions can be made about children? What do their activities, the clothes they are wearing, and their placement in each picture say about the expectations for childhood?

What are fathers supposed to do? In the third print in the series entitled “Middle Age” (below), the father is returning home, but from from where? Scrutinize his clothing and make conclusions about his occupation? What are mothers supposed to do according to these prints? Who is doing the hard work of cleaning and cooking behind the scenes?

Where is “home” located – in the city or the country? According to these prints, what was a home supposed to look like on the outside and inside? Note the furnishings. Would every American home in the late 1800s have carpets, a hall tree, and large pictures on the walls? Hall trees were considered requirements for upper-middle class homes of the late 19th century. Hall trees provided space for visitors to leave coats, umbrellas, and visiting cards. Did every home have space and a need for hall trees?

1868 Currier and Ives print, The Four Seasons of Life: Middle Age
The Four Seasons of Life: Middle Age – “The Season of Strength”

After students have made conclusions about family and home life in the late 19th century, ask if these prints represented daily life for everyone in America. Consider providing idealized images of middle class families from the 20th and 21st century (easy to collect using Google’s image search for “ideal American families”).  Ask what’s different and what’s the same.  And ask what families are NOT represented in the idealized depictions in decorative prints and advertising images. What socio-economic classes are missing? What groups of people are not represented? Do families always have a mom, dad, and two kids? Through inquiry questioning, help students see that idealized depictions of families and homes are not a new thing. Primary source images from every historical culture represent ideals that may or may not depict the reality of daily life.

So, what can home decorations tell us about the past?
1868 Currier and Ives print, The Four Seasons of Life: Old Age
The Four Seasons of Life: Old Age – “The Season of Rest.”

What we know about decorating homes in the past often comes from sources that depict a cultural ideal. Advice books, like Catharine Beecher’s The American Woman’s Home, described what a home ought to be, not the homes that many people could actually afford. Beecher’s advice and these prints depicted the 19th century middle class ideal. Many rural and urban working class families lived in much smaller, sparse, and crowded spaces. These Currier and Ives prints are similar to advertisements and decorating magazines today – – every family is pretty, perfect and every home is neat and decorated in the newest styles. But for most of us, the reality of daily life looks very different.

For color versions of these images, see the collection of the Museum of the City of New York Currier and Ives collection.

Estate Inventories: Primary Sources for Daily Life in the Past

How do historians recreate the daily lives of average people in the past? What primary sources exist to tell us how regular people worked, cooked, slept, or played?  Historical estate or probate inventories provide many clues to answers these questions.

Estate inventories are lists of the belongings of a person made after his or her death. These legal documents value the deceased person’s estate for taxes, are used to divide the property among the heirs, or to sell the property to settle outstanding debts. This process is administered by a probate court. Since the Middle Ages, church or secular authorities in Europe and America appointed appraisers to make probate inventories.  Today, executors  still compile a list of the deceased person’ assets and distribute the assets to creditors or the heirs of the estate.

These primary sources help historians recreate the daily lives of historical households. Standards of living, poverty and wealth, and social classes in a community can be studied. Historians also can see the transitions from a pre-industrial or frontier to an industrial or settled community using information from inventories.  Sometimes the appraisals listed items room-by-room. These detailed lists provide clues about the functions of various rooms, the items in those rooms, and the activities that took place in different areas of the house and its outbuildings.

Estate inventories, wills, and other probate court records are public documents. Visit your local county court archives or ask your local historical society to determine the local of historical estate inventories and wills in your community. In Kentucky, these records are in the archives of the County Court Clerk. In some cases, the earliest records may have been moved to a central state archive. Many transcribed inventories are also available on the internet (see additional resources below).

Choose inventories from several different historical eras to examine change over time.  Ask for photocopied or digital scans of the original documents.  Students may struggle with the archaic handwriting and various spellings of common words. Encourage students to search the internet or the Oxford English Dictionary  for the meaning of words like piggin, noggin, hooks/pothooks, or single tree and clevy/clevice/clevis, (go to this site and scroll to the bottom learn about trees and clevis). Reading estate inventories provides a glimpse into life in the past and the challenges faced by historians.

Estate Inventory, Kentucky, 1802
Estate Inventory, Kentucky, 1802

This is a digitally scanned image of an appraisal, or estate inventory, recorded Kentucky in 1802. Moses Hiatt was probably born between 1775 and 1780, married in 1796, and died in his twenties in 1802. Hiatt lived in Garrard County, Kentucky, an area of the state first settled in the 1770s before the Revolutionary War. Kentucky became the fifteenth state in 1792, ten years before Hiatt’s death.

Select the image for a larger, detailed view.

The complete set of surviving appraisal documents for his estate includes a record of the sale of each item and the person who bought it. His widow, Isabella, purchased the most of the items listed in the appraisal. When compared to the appraisals of other estates in same area, the estate of Moses Hiatt was modest. But Moses Hiatt died in his twenties and likely would have accumulated more belongings over a lifetime. On the frontier, the challenges of long distance travel meant families of average means had few of manufactured items that were available and affordable in cities and ports.

The Moses Hiatt estate inventory is one of the primary source documents featured in Investigating Family, Food, and Housing Themes in Social Studies.

More primary sources for daily life:

  • To learn more about historical probate records – How to Read Probate Records
  • On this website, 17th century inventories from Massachusetts are transcribed.
  • This index has transcribed examples of 19th century Virginia room by room inventories.
  • This website has additional information and ideas for using probate inventories in the classroom

Classroom Manners: Analyzing behavior with primary sources

Civil behavior is required for civil society and a civil classroom. Web articles about why, how, and where children and young adults should learn manners are common. But can lessons on polite behavior in the classroom mask important truths that should be addressed rather than concealed?

A common classroom rule is “Show respect to others.”  But what if someone’s words and actions do not deserve respect? Are the standards for polite behavior different for boys and girls, men and women? These modern-day conundrums can be examined in the classroom by using examples from the past.

Polite Behavior in the Past
Good manners
This image and the header image demonstrate expectations for men and women in the late 19th century. From Hill’s Manual of Social and Business Forms. Chicago: Hill Standards Book Co., 1888

In England and the American colonies in the 1700s, many assumed polite manners automatically reflected good morals, thoughts, and intentions. Rude behavior was thought to be rooted in bad morals and a corrupt nature. This view of human behavior was influenced by Enlightenment philosophers who believed men were rational and virtuous if educated properly.

Enlightenment thinkers didn’t agree about the behavior of females. Some, such as the French philosopher Condorcet, believed women were equal to men, but society cheated women of a proper education.  Others, such as Rousseau, thought that women were incapable of rational thought and behavior and only needed to be educated to take care of a home and children.

In the following primary source, published in 1913 in Munsey’s Magazine, the author Karin Michaelis argued that society forced women to pretend and hide their real thoughts and feelings.

How Social Etiquette Breeds Lies
Society’s rules of etiquette are such that a woman’s small untruths are counted as good form. . . .She who cannot show a smiling face and talk agreeable even to her worst enemy when they meet on neutral ground has not the qualities required of a woman . . . She must be able to hide her feelings, to look as if she was enjoying herself thoroughly when she is ready to fall asleep from boredom.
The women who enters into the life of society is compelled to lead an absolutely double existence, together with her society toilet (clothing and makeup) she puts on a society manner, a society face – yes, even a society soul.

Examining Manners in the Classroom

Many people believe one can or should “fake” good manners to hide selfish motives or their true thoughts. Ask students to consider if phony polite behavior is a good thing, or not? Is it okay to use good manners to manipulate others or create good impressions just to get ahead? Should the rules be the same for males and females? Is it ever okay to have different rules for different people? Encourage students to really consider the wider role of polite behavior in human interaction, now and in the past.

For lots more history and primary sources related to manners and etiquette –  Exploring Vacation and Etiquette Themes in Social Studies

Beware of nostalgia in primary sources

Nostalgia – a sentimental longing for the past. Many primary source texts and images suggest the past was a better place. But was it really? The word comes from Greek roots: nostos means to return home, aliga/alegein means pain, to care about, longing.   Homesickness is a similar feeling – a longing for home.

Historical sources are often nostalgic, skewing our views of the past. You’ve heard modern references to the halcyon days when people didn’t need to lock the doors of their homes, when neighbors always helped neighbors, when men were brave and chivalrous, women virtuous, and students always did their homework and behaved. In every historical era, references are made to previous golden age. But was a previous era really that good?

Probably not. Every culture throughout time had the good and the bad. Nostalgic primary sources say more about the creators’ views of their own contemporary eras than an idealized past.

Nostalgia in Primary Source Images
late medieval depiction of idealized chivlary
At the 16th century Renaissance kings Henry VIII and Francis I , chivalry was nostalgic for past eras of warfare before the destruction caused by the new weapon – gunpowder.

For example, in the late Middle Ages, (1300s -1400s), the nobility was obsessed with chivalry and elaborate tournaments. At the same time, mounted knights in war were becoming obsolete due to the introduction of gunpowder. At the Field of the Cloth of Gold (1520), jousts between King Henry VIII of England and King Francis I of France were nostalgic re-enactments of battle, not the reality of 16th century warfare. Times were changing and the past was idealized.

In the late 1800s, more and more Americans were leaving the farm to live and work in towns and cities. At the same time, nostalgic lithograph prints depicting idealized rural farm homes were especially popular. The 1877 lithograph used as a header image for this post is entitled “Home Sweet Home.” A rural family is relaxing on the porch of a perfect home. No references to the hard labor required by men, women, and children on a late 19th century farm.  Many people were yearning for this nostalgic, peaceful life after the economic disaster caused by the Panic of 1873 and a year of the labor unrest, the Great Railroad Strike, Indian Wars, and violence.

Analyzing Primary Sources in the Classroom

Ask your students to consider modern media depictions of the 1950s. The “mid-century” nostalgic trend portrays a time when families were “traditional” – dads worked, moms got to stay at home and loved it, and kids could “play all day outside and didn’t come home until dark” because the world was a much safer place. Historical study of the real 1950s reveals that most people did not live this utopian life. Everyone was not suburban middle class and sexism and racism were prominent features of daily life.

Ask students to consider what broader modern trends cause Americans to yearn for the idealized1950s. Future historians will probably conclude that concerns about job security due to technological change and globalization and changing family patterns are the “real” history of the early 21st century.

Primary Source Images: Context Matters

Looking for primary source images for social studies lessons? Beware of Google image searches – you may get more junk than historical sources. Knowing the date and original context of a historical image is essential for a good primary source lesson.
If you locate an interesting image on the internet that does not include historical documentation – try using a reverse image search to find the same picture on other websites. You may find the documentation you need in ensure that the image is actually from the time period you plan to teach. To learn more – see Search for images with reverse images search

Save time doing searches that may not yield good results by bookmarking a few favorite and reliable websites. Here are a few of my favorites:

Primary Source Mysteries

Start out the school year with a lesson that illustrates how historical context matters. Create primary source image “mystery” activities for your students.  Choose various images that seem time-period appropriate and ask students to search the internet for the image and historical documentation. Be sure to include images that are from the time period being studied and a few that seem “real” but are from a different time period or hoaxes.

primary source image mystery
Real or hoax? Purpose? Date? Challenge your students to solve primary source mysteries.

The Museum of Hoaxes is a great resource.

For example, is this poster promoting temperance real? Or a hoax? In what time period was it created? For the answer and an example of how to discover the origins of internet images, see Prohibition Poster – Fact or Fiction?





Header Image:  Illinois WPA Art Project, created between 1936 and 1940. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

Pilgrimage as a Medieval “Vacation”

“What did you do and see on your pilgrimage?” This question was probably the medieval equivalent of “What did you do on your vacation?” If your curriculum includes history of the European Middle Ages, studying medieval pilgrimage can offer insight into the lives pre-industrial people as well as our own modern motivations for travel.

Mixed Motives of Pilgrims

Since pilgrimage is a journey to a religious shrine, we often assume that historical pilgrims had purely religious motivations. But most pilgrims also enjoyed seeing new places, meeting new people, and having new experiences. A twelfth-century French bishop commented on the mixed motives of pilgrims when he said “Some light-minded and inquisitive persons went on pilgrimage to the holy places, not so much out of devotion as out of curiosity and love of novelty, that they might travel to unknown lands, and with great toil . . .might prove the stories which they had heard about the East.”

St. James wears the distinctive clothing of a medieval pilgrim - a long tunic called a sclavein, a wooden staff, and scrip to carry his belongings at his waist. The broad brimmed hat turned up in the front, commonly depicted on pilgrims by the mid-thirteenth century, has a cockle shell badge, the symbol of his shrine. Bare feet were considered a type of penance, a self-punishment for one’s sins. He is also carrying a knife and a book, not typical for a pilgrim. The book symbolizes James’ status as an apostle; the knife symbolizes his role as Saint James, the Moor Slayer or may refer to the dangers on the pilgrim route. In the background, on the right, a pilgrim is being attacked. This painting is on the outside, left shutter of the three panel triptych entitled The Last Judgement painted in the late fifteenth or early sixteenth century.
St. James as a pilgrim by Hieronymus Bosch, circa 1450–1516. St. James wears the distinctive clothing of a medieval pilgrim.

Primary source texts and images give us clues about the motivation of medieval pilgrims. The pilgrims in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales met new people and entertained themselves with stories on the journey to the Shrine of Saint Thomas Becket. Crusaders, armed knights who took the pilgrim’s vow to fight for Christianity in the Holy Land, were also inspired by the adventure, riches, and exotic sites and experiences in the East.

Medieval pilgrims, just like modern tourists, purchased souvenirs and showed them off to their friends back home. The most common souvenir sold was the pilgrim’s badge. These small tokens, usually metal and stamped with the symbol of the saint, could be worn on the clothing of the pilgrim to show where he or she had visited.

Modern tourists still make pilgrimages to religious and secular sites. The Camino De Santiago, or route to the Shrine of St. James in northwestern Spain, was popular in the Middle Ages, and a popular destination today. An example of a secular  “pilgrimages” are trips to the birthplaces, homes, or graves of presidents or other well-known people from popular culture. Elvis Presley’s home and grave site at Graceland has been visited by over 20 million visitors since it opened in 1982.

Medieval Primary Sources

More ideas and primary sources for teaching about medieval pilgrimage see Chapter 2 in Exploring Vacation and Etiquette Themes in Social Studies

Twelfth century quote above by Jacques De Vitry in The History of Jerusalem A.D. 1190, trans. Aubrey Stewart (London, UK: Palestine Pilgrims’ Text Society, 1885), 90. https://archive.org/details/cu31924028534422

Header Image: Medieval pilgrims from the Ghent Altarpiece (c. 1430s) by Hubert and Jan van Eyck. Note the pilgrim badges on the hat of the pilgrim on the left. The scallop shell was the symbol of St. James. For more detailed images of this work see http://closertovaneyck.kikirpa.be/