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/

The problem with asking students “What did you do on your summer vacation?”

Motion Picture Camera Ad, 1919
“Come back with a moving picture of the good times you have had.” This 1919 advertising message mirrors the purpose of vacation photos in social media – to tell your friends about your vacation. Vacation photos and stories promote vacation destinations and the idea that everyone should go on a vacation.

What did you do on your summer vacation? Teachers often start the school year by asking students about their summer vacations. Modern media is full advice about how, when, where, and what to do on a vacation. Vacationing is such a popular media topic that it appears everyone takes a vacation.

But many families are unable to travel for leisure. A recent poll found that 43% of Americans don’t plan to take a vacation this summer. Why? The cost and inability to take time off work are key reasons. Many working Americans in do not receive paid time off for holidays or vacations.

Time off from work for leisure is relatively new in human history. For most of human history, only the wealthiest could take time away from daily routines or afford to travel for leisure. Only with 19th century industrialization were a new middle class of workers earning enough to pay the expenses for a short vacation. Over time, those with white-collar jobs got at least one or two weeks of paid or unpaid vacation. Vacationing became a sign that one had achieved middle class status. But it was a luxury not typically available to working-class Americans in the late 19th and early 20th century. Sadly, this is still true one hundred years later.

Vacation Primary Sources for the Classroom
Seneca Camera Ad, 1919
Vacations are promoted by advertisers in order to sell goods, services, and experiences. In this 1919 advertisement, readers are informed that a snapshot camera is needed to record and share a vacation.

Vacations required spending money – for transportation, accommodations, entertainments, vacation clothing, and equipment. Many primary sources from the 19th, 20th and 21st century promote vacation and vacation purchases. Student analysis of past and present advertisements and articles about vacation hones skills for historical critical analysis and those needed by modern informed consumers.

Snapshot cameras, first marketed in the early 1900s, were promoted as a vacation necessity.  Vacation photographs could be shown to friends and family and further promoted the idea of vacation and destinations in popular culture. Ask students to consider the impact of vacation snapshots on modern social media? What messages are conveyed about taking vacations? About where people should go and what they should do on vacations?

More Resources

More about vacation photographs in modern popular culture see The Tyranny of Other People’s Vacation Photos

More ideas about using vacations as a theme in the classroom see Exploring Vacation and Etiquette Themes in Social Studies

An Eighteenth Century “Date”- Bundling

Did bundling, as pictured in the movie The Patriot (2000) really happen in colonial America?  Yes!  Examining historical relationship etiquette can provide students with insight into their own behavior.

In 1811, an English dictionary described “bundling” as

 “a man and woman sleeping in the same bed, he with his small clothes, and she with her petticoats on; an expedient practised in America on a scarcity of beds, where, on such an occasion, husbands and parents frequently permitted travellers to bundle with their wives and daughters. This custom is now abolished.”

But, as historian Jack Larkin noted, if bundling during courtship was supposed to prevent sexual contact and pre-marital pregnancy, it often failed. Young Americans courted unchaperoned at dances, singing schools, sleighing and quilting parties and often paired off and spent time alone.  In the late 1700s, pregnancy before marriage was frequent.  The number of pregnant brides had been rising in America since the late 1600s and peaked in the decades during and after the Revolution. In the 1780s and 1790s, nearly one-third of rural New England brides were pregnant.

The lyrics of “A New Bundling Song” (published in Boston between 1810-1814) noted “sometimes say when she lies down, She can’t be cumbered with a gown.” Men and women that bundled were supposed to wear clothes and be wrapped in sheets and be “chaste” but this did not always happen.

Classroom Resources

Many of our modern ideas about the sexual strictness of “the past” reflect the new, stricter morality that developed in the 1800s. Ask students to examine modern relationship etiquette and compare and contrast it to the past using primary sources.

For more about courtship and dating and primary sources for the classroom – See Chapter 3 – Manners and Etiquette – in Exploring Vacation and Etiquette Themes in Social Studies

For more about bundling:

Text of A New Bundling Song , 1810-1814

Verses in Vogue with the Vulgar – A New Bundling Song

Courtship, Sex, and the Single Colonist

       Atlas Obscura on bundling

The Reshaping of Everyday Life by Jack Larkin p. 193-195

Header Image: “The Country Wedding” 1820. By John Lewis Krimmel. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. 

Was everyone a flapper in the 1920s?

Manners were changing in the 1920s, but did everyone act like a flapper?  Or did people prefer the old-fashioned advice of the late 1800s, codified by Mary Elisabeth Wilson Sherwood in Etiquette, The American Code of Manners and hundreds of other nineteenth century etiquette books? In reality, both were practiced depending on one’s age, location, and situation. New social customs are not adopted by everyone at the same time, or for the same reasons.

The conflicting views of proper etiquette in the 1920s are demonstrated by Lorelei Lee, a flapper and the main character in the 1925 novel Gentlemen Prefer Blondes: The Illuminating Diary of a Professional Lady by Anita Loos. Lorelei pretends to follow the “old” manners when they best suit her purpose, but she is really living the free life of a flapper.

To Lorelei, etiquette was something a girl with working class background like herself used to get ahead in life. A similar attitude was outlined in Lillian Eichler’s Book of Etiquette (1921). Chapter 2, entitled “Etiquette’s Reward” is excerpted below and summarizes Lorelei’s goal. Eichler was just eighteen when she published her etiquette advice, blending the old and the new attitudes.

 Everyone loves to mingle with cultured, well-bred people; with brilliant and celebrated individuals. Everyone loves to attend elaborate social functions where the gay gowns of beautiful women are only less charming and impressive than their faultless manners. But it is not everyone who can be admitted to these inner portals of good society.

It is a well-known truth that manners rather than wealth decide social rank. A man may be fabulously wealthy, but if he does not know how to act, how to dress and speak, he will not be respected. American society has rules of its own, and those who are not willing to learn these laws are shunned, banished. Etiquette is the wall which divides the cultured from the uncultured, which keeps the ill-bred out of the circles where they would be awkward and uncomfortable, and where they would undoubtedly cause mortification to others.

On the other hand, to know these rules of good conduct is to be admitted to the highest circles of society. To know that one is correct banishes at once all uncertainty, all embarrassment. And one mingles with perfectly-mannered people, calm in the assurance that one knows just what is correct, and that no matter what happens one can do or say nothing to reflect on one’s breeding. p. 13

Flappers in Novels

By the way, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes: The Illuminating Diary of a Professional Lady  is hilarious – read it!  The 1953 movie with Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell was based on a 1949 musical, based on the novel. The movie is good, but it is set in the 1950s and VERY different from the novel set in the 1920s.

 1925 novel of the life of flappers
“Gentlemen Prefer Blonds” – 1925 novel of the life of flappers

Read more:

Coslovi, Marina, “Why Blondes Need Manners? ‘Gentlemen Prefer Blondes’ and the Uses of Etiquette” South Atlantic Review, Vol. 76, No. 2 (Spring 2011), pp. 109-129. Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/43050925

Gentlemen Prefer Blonds Comic Strip

Image credit: “Man seated at piano, surrounded by group of glamorous girls (flappers), Washington, D.C”. , October 8.1923.  Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/2002697164/

Header Image: “Man seated at piano, surrounded by group of glamorous girls (flappers), Washington, D.C,” 1923. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Hotels in the Nineteenth Century: Place-based Primary Sources

Hotel Advertising Cards, late 1800s, place-based primary sources

Your local library, historical society, or university archives is a treasure trove of primary sources from your community – letters, diaries, scrapbooks, photographs, local publications, and all sorts of other ephemera. In most cases, these local institutions are thrilled to work with teachers developing place-based lessons. The staff will know about local history and have primary sources that you didn’t even know existed.
These hotel advertising cards, all from the late 1800s, are from a scrapbook in Eastern Kentucky University’s Archives. The scrapbook was created by French Tipton (1848 – 1900), a Richmond, Kentucky editor, lawyer, judge, IRS Revenue Agent, and journalist. These hotels existed in an era when railroads were the primary form of transportation for long distance travel. Hotels were located close to the railroad depot, instead of the interstate highway exit.
Teachers can create place-based education mysteries for students to solve. Do these businesses still exist? If not, are the buildings still there? If so, how have they been re-purposed? What changes in American vacationing, travel, and transportation caused them to close? Be sure to connect these wider trends to the present – why do businesses, like hotels, close in the 21st century?

Sanborn maps are valuable resources for locating old business in your town. These maps were created to assess fire insurance liability in towns and cities in the United States from 1867 to 2007. When you visit your local library, historical society, or university archives, ask for the historic Sanborn maps for your town. Many are also available on the internet.