Introduction: The Materiality of Experience in Early New England


NEW ENGLAND’S regional identity is more closely associated with artifacts from its colonial past than perhaps any other area of North America. For many, the term “New England” conjures images of eighteenth-century farmhouses, spinning wheels, and women in colonial-era dress. In one sense, this fascination with the things of early New England is surprising given the equally powerful view of early New Englanders as grim-faced ascetics whose legacy, for better or worse, lay in their zealotry and their devotion to the printed word. But, the late nineteenth-century burst of enthusiasm for early New England, fueled by the writers, artists, designers, collectors, and antiquarians associated with the Colonial Revival movement, ensured that the region’s artifacts would take primacy over print in the popular imagination.1

The study of New England’s past, then, has been tightly bound with a desire to understand the material dimensions of life in the region. Beginning at the turn of the twentieth century with publications and museum exhibits on “everyday life” by influential antiquarians like Alice Morse Earle and George Francis Dow and extending to the academic institutionalization of the field of “material culture studies” in the 1960s and 70s, academic and public historians of early New England have turned to the study and interpretation of a wide variety of artifacts from the landscape of towns and villages, to domestic architecture, mass-produced clocks peddled by itinerant merchants, and the work of schoolgirls bent over embroidery frames.2 But what can all this attention to the material dimension of past experience tell us about a specific region? How can it help us to understand the particularities of life in early New England? How can it illuminate the effect of overlapping local, regional, and international influences on the people who lived there? Last, how can objects and images explain the dramatic changes taking place in New England during the period stretching from 1680 to 1830?

The essays in this volume take up these questions with the tools provided by two allied fields: material culture studies and the more recent field of visual culture studies. Neither of these modes of scholarly inquiry sits comfortably in any single academic discipline, but, rather, they both draw practitioners from a wide variety of disciplines and emphasize interdisciplinary methods.3 Material culture studies can most succinctly be described as an analysis of the artifacts of human endeavor with the goal of understanding their expressive function in a particular society at a particular time. As art historian Jules Prown points out, the term “material culture” can also refer to the artifacts themselves, but, material culture studies is less a category of objects than a method for understanding past experience through its physical manifestations.4 Emerging in the early 1990s, the definitions, methods, and theoretical underpinnings of “visual culture studies” are currently the subject of rigorous debate.5 It does share with its sibling field of material culture studies an interest in broadening the scope of objects under scrutiny by essentially casting aside the hierarchical categories that define some images as “art.” And, like “material culture,” the term “visual culture” is often invoked to describe the objects under study—from easel paintings to greeting cards. For some scholars, though, visual culture studies is also the analysis of historically contingent ways of seeing; they focus particularly on the social construction of vision and its implication with structures of power and knowledge.6 Last, visual culture studies has also been articulated as a method for understanding the thorough penetration of images and visual technology into everyday life and the global circulation of visual “events” in contemporary Western society.7 Because of this preoccupation with new visual technologies—from photography to pixelation—scholarship in visual culture studies has been heavily weighted toward the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. But the methods of visual culture studies can also quite usefully be applied to earlier periods and many of the essays in this volume profitably take up that challenge.8

While material and visual culture studies share fluid disciplinary boundaries and have somewhat divergent methods and goals, drawing these two fields together provides scholars with a powerful set of analytic tools. As the essays in this volume show, close attention paid to the physical attributes of an object or image (a method practiced so well by material culture scholars) combined with visual culture studies’ emphasis on the social construction and historic contingency of human interaction with the physical world, gives us a compelling understanding of the materiality of past experience. That understanding encompasses both the expressive nature of objects and the network of ideas, assumptions, strategies, techniques, and hierarchies that physically structure human endeavors. All of these essays situate objects and images within various overlapping networks of political, economic, and cultural exchange. Ultimately, they elucidate the local experience of a broadly-cast net of associations that gave life in early New England a specific valence.9 In short, these essays give us a new way to think about early New England by tracing the movement of images, objects, and texts across networks of exchange that may have only vaguely been perceived by their creators, transmitters, conductors, and receivers.

The orientation of the authors in New Views of New England toward scholarship that embraces the goals and methods of both material and visual culture studies is, of course, not mere happenstance. These essays were first presented at a conference co-sponsored by the Colonial Society of Massachusetts and the American Antiquarian Society: two institutions with long histories of supporting the study of early New England. Founded in 1892, the Colonial Society publishes documents—both primary sources and conference proceedings—related to the history of colonial New England and these publications have included landmark volumes exploring the region’s material and visual culture including Boston Prints and Printmakers (1973); Boston Furniture of the Eighteenth Century (1974); Architecture in Colonial Massachusetts (1979); Seventeenth-Century New England (1984) and, most recently, New England Silver and Silversmithing (2001)10 The American Antiquarian Society, founded in 1812 to collect and preserve documents relating to the history of North America, similarly has a distinguished record of publication in the field and a commitment to visual culture studies that has been underscored with the founding of the Society’s “Center for Historic American Visual Culture” in 2005.

New Views of New England also continues a scholarly tradition embodied in the close relationship between the region’s academic and public historians. By the 1980s these collaborations produced thoroughly researched and beautifully presented museum exhibitions that explored the region’s history through objects and images. New England Begins, the 1982 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston exhibition and three-volume catalog, kicked off this scholarship by examining a wide range of seventeenth-century artifacts—from Anglo-American ironwork and maps to Native American ceramics and beadwork.11 The Great River exhibition and catalog followed in 1985 by surveying the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Connecticut River Valley from New London to Deerfield.12 Last, Agreeable Situations: Society, Commerce, and Art in Southern Maine, 1780–1830, focused on the material culture of Maine in the decades following the Revolution.13

But, the vision of New England in these evocative volumes offered a somewhat restricted view. Coming as it did out of the new “material culture studies” scholarship of the 1960s and 1970s, a tight focus on objects often meant an attention to detail that came at the detriment of the bigger picture. This scholarship pays limited attention, for instance, to concerns about race, gender, or class and, with the exception of New England Begins’ focus on English antecedents, most of this work depicts New England as a region somewhat isolated from broader cultural, economic, and political exchange networks.14

New Views of New England builds upon this earlier literature but also participates in the recent transformations taking place in scholarship on early America. In particular, the volume’s authors embrace an understanding of New England as a place of overlapping identities and, importantly, a place where the conflicts of empire were played out in a cultural as well as a political, commercial, and military context.15 On one level, these essays operate within a new framework for the concept of regionalism. While still primarily concerned with pinpointing characteristic material and visual expressions, the authors provocatively link local concerns with those of interregional and transatlantic significance. Early New England, as much recent scholarship has underscored, participated in the broader exchanges of the “Atlantic World” and the complexities of those relationships are brought to bear in this volume on the region’s material and visual culture.

If regionalism constitutes one important interpretive strand emerging from these essays, it is closely linked to another overarching, but more intangible theme—the formation of identity. Fundamentally, objects define our place in the world. Maps, clothing, portraits, houses (to name just a few objects under consideration here) all shape and reshape intersecting identities tied to kinship, community, and geography. Seventeenth-, eighteenth-, and early nineteenth-century New Englanders inhabited a world defined by the connections they forged and maintained with people around the Atlantic and, ultimately, around the world. The essays in this volume foreground these connections but they do not merely add to our list of places that New Englanders encountered. Going further, these scholars recast our understanding of how New England’s material and visual expressions constituted local, regional, and transatlantic networks of cultural exchange that defined both individual and community. Tracing the networks that stretched between places as disparate as Maine, Mexico, London, and Manila leads to a powerful reenvisioning of New England’s wider world: the material expressions of those networks defined, conditioned, and communicated regional identity.

In order to structure the interpretive threads running through this volume, the essays are grouped into three thematic sections: “Early New England’s Oceanic Context,” “Domestic Exchange and Regional Identity,” and “Envisioning New England.” None of these sections are mutually exclusive and, surely, the essays could profitably be organized in many different ways. Nevertheless, the volume begins with scholarship placing New England in its broadest context. Emerson Baker, Patricia Johnston, Kevin Muller, and Kevin Murphy all explore how the exchange of images, objects, ideas, and people across oceans shaped the experience of those living in early New England. The second section includes essays by Katherine Rieder, Catherine Kelly, Katherine Stebbins McCaffrey, and Steven Bullock that center on the exchange of gifts, tokens, and legacies among kinship and local community networks. Last, Martin Brückner and Wendy Bellion focus specifically on the role of vision in structuring ideas and posing questions about the region.

The creation and maintenance of New England’s connections with the wider world—both circum-Atlantic in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and extending eastward to Asia after the Revolution—are directly explored in the opening group of four essays. Emerson Baker’s essay on the hardscrabble Maine frontier in the late seventeenth century fundamentally alters our vision of these towns as places on the edge of empire. Baker analyzes artifacts from a range of Maine sites: the Humphrey Chadbourne complex in Berwick; a fishing station on Sagadahoc Island; and a coastal farmstead owned by the yeoman farmer Richard Hitchcock at Biddeford Pool. Each of these sites reveals the rapid spread of consumer goods and status objects in the region and poses questions about the nature of social hierarchies in early Maine. What do we mean by “frontier,” Baker asks, when Maine’s elites set their tables with ceramics from Portugal and Mexico City? How do we reconcile their seemingly contradictory choice to build foundation-less houses that would rot away in a generation, but then to adorn those houses with expensive hardware, brick, and plaster? Silver spoons, brass spurs (and the “fine gray stallion” they pricked), fancy door hardware, and European ceramics marked elites in Maine as participants in oceanic trade as much as their earthfast houses grounded them in their local communities.

The eighteenth century’s vast expansion of the production and consumption of material goods both accelerated the pace and scale of Atlantic trade and extended New England’s reach to the Pacific. By the 1790s, the merchant elite of Salem, Massachusetts, sent their ships around the Capes of Good Hope and Horn to engage in the East Indian and China trades. Along these routes traveled geographical and cultural knowledge that was as vital to Salem’s merchants as the goods they bought and sold. Patricia Johnston’s essay argues that visual culture, manifest in print, in manuscript, and in everyday practice, formed the basis of these knowledge networks. Images effectively communicated knowledge of the unfamiliar world through the familiar representational forms of prints and sketches made by fellow townsmen of foreign ports and harbors. Equally important, the collecting and archiving of these materials in newly established libraries and museums created a shared sense of identity for Salem’s merchants. Their active cultivation of global knowledge powerfully constituted them both as local elites and as members of the international mercantile community.

Kevin Muller’s close examination of William Burgis’s A South East view of . . . Boston in New England, published first in 1725, similarly considers the impact of images on the formation of identity within Boston’s early eighteenth-century merchant community. Muller argues that the Burgis view’s perspective from an elevated position east of Boston was particularly meaningful to the town’s merchants because it allied them with transatlantic trade. In addition, by adopting the visual language of sea charts—in particular by incorporating both plan and elevation into one image—Burgis was responding to the merchants’ inclination to see Boston as one point in a larger network of transatlantic trade. However, while this vision of Boston placed merchants as active creators of empire, it also put the town under an imperial gaze. Burgis’s representation of Boston, then, inscribed both local and imperial identities—a Janus-faced view that New England merchants were required to negotiate as citizens of a maritime empire.

The juxtaposition of global knowledge and local practice so usefully enacted by New England’s merchants could also readily be deployed through the built environment. In his study of architecture and landscape on Maine’s late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century frontier, Kevin Murphy explores the power relations at play in the construction of new communities. Drawing on the work of theorists Michel Foucault and Henri Lefebvre, he explores local elites’ attempts to spatialize their claims to political, economic, and cultural authority through the construction of ambitious houses carefully sited in relation to local villages. From Thomas Ruggles’s mansion house constructed in the far downeastern village of Columbia Falls, to Coventry Hall, built by Judge David Sewall in the prosperous southern Maine town of York, local elites drew simultaneously on local building practices, academic designs, and a regional discourse of gentility in attempts to establish a social order that positioned them at the top. Material expressions of elite status were not always completely successful, but understanding them as mechanisms for constituting local hierarchies enables us to see the power relations embedded in the landscapes of daily life.

While large-scale global networks—from merchant shipping to the influence of transatlantic aesthetic codes on elite-designed landscapes—clearly shaped life in early New England, they also overlapped with local exchange. The essays in the second section, “Domestic Exchange and Regional Identity,” have a more restricted, often an intimate focus. They address the circulation of objects among family members or local communities while keeping in mind the effect that transatlantic exchange brought to bear on local hierarchies. Katherine Rieder’s study of Loyalists and their possessions, for instance, explores the psychic role played by the transatlantic exchange of people, images, and household objects. In this context, object exchange had personal as well as political consequences and the movement of furniture, silver, paintings, and other “effects” across space and through time helped Loyalists cope with the upheaval and trauma of their refugee experience. Risking his safety and freedom to retrieve some of his family’s belongings before fleeing into exile, Loyalist Peter Oliver clearly saw these objects as more than just markers of elite status. For instance, the family’s silver sugar box made by Boston silversmith Edward Winslow in 1702, had the advantage of portability and easy conversion to currency, but it also represented the Oliver family’s long and prosperous New England tenure. Transporting the artifacts that defined them as a New England family was important enough to cause Oliver to risk missing the boat that would carry him into exile.

Rieder’s Loyalists hoped to cement personal ties through the transfer of objects. Their actions, though engendered by political and military struggle, remind us that artifacts also circulated outside of market entanglements. The giving of gifts, legacies, or tokens was rarely evaluated in terms of profit or loss, but it was still embedded in networks of obligation, reciprocity, and dependency. Catherine Kelly’s essay on early nineteenth-century portrait miniatures examines how race and gender shaped these small, intensely personal artifacts. Kelly focuses on two revealing portraits: an image of Elizabeth “Mumbet” Freeman, a freed slave who worked as a servant for the prominent western Massachusetts Sedgwick family, and an unfinished self-portrait by New London miniaturist Elizabeth Way Chapman. Juxtaposing Chapman and Freeman’s portraits, Kelly explores the way that race and gender shaped the depiction of each woman. The goal of painting on ivory was to layer tints thinly enough to let the natural material shine through and give white skin a luminosity that was associated with depth of feeling—an association created as much through ideas about race as by eighteenth-century color theory. Freeman’s dark skin is striking precisely because it breaks these aesthetic rules. The artist, Susan Ridley Sedgwick, used layers of color and thick lines to define Freeman’s features, resulting in “a catalogue of racial signifiers.” Gender also conditioned the creation and exchange of each portrait because the objects are as much about dependency as about bonds of affection. Chapman’s self-portrait is unfinished precisely because she depended upon her own labor for her family’s livelihood. Freeman’s portrait, by contrast, circulated within the Sedgwick family and therefore also constituted an act of repossessing a formerly enslaved person and reinforcing the idea of racialized dependency long after slavery’s abolition in Massachusetts.

Kelly’s portrait miniatures connected family members separated by distance, but they were also legacies that moved through time to link generations. For Katherine Stebbins McCaffrey, the legacy of a pair of spectacles and their elaborate case carries intellectual and spiritual freight along with the memory of deceased family members. Viewing the world through the spectacles passed to Bostonian Samuel Dexter by his father in 1810, we see a tug between materialism and piety. McCaffrey describes the multivalent nature of reading and its accoutrements for eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century elites. At once a path to intellectual, moral, and spiritual improvement, reading was also implicated in the rapidly expanding consumer culture of the eighteenth century. Expensive and fashionable spectacles like Dexter’s could easily signal enslavement to the vice of luxury rather than devotion to the virtue of reading. After inheriting his father’s London-made “temple spectacles” (fashioned in gold rather than cheaper silver or steel), Dexter’s son purchased a gold-plated case inscribed with a classical passage lifted from an issue of the eighteenth-century literary magazine The Spectator. Published almost a century earlier, the inscription connected both Dexters to a transatlantic public sphere, but it also hints at their struggles to reconcile the lure of the material world with the promise of salvation. The spectacles and their case, then, memorialize the inheritance of material goods and intangible philosophical conflicts. Moreover, like many of the objects discussed in this volume, the Dexter spectacles drew their meaning precisely from their place in exchange networks that linked New England and its people across space and through the generations.

Steven Bullock’s study of New England’s somewhat mystifying mortuary rituals, the “large funerals” of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, extends our attention to the local circulation of goods beyond the family and into the local community. He reveals that the basic elements of New England funerals would have been recognizable to any Englishman, but the ceremonies’ vast elaboration of traditional ritual forms—the expensive distribution of gloves, sashes, rings, and coats of arms among community members—marked these events as a peculiarly New England practice of the eighteenth century. Despite legislative attempts to squelch the often ruinous expenditure of family resources on staging a large funeral, they continued unabated until the 1780s when funerary practices shifted in light of changing material and political circumstances. In a culture awash in objects and growing more visually rich with each passing decade, the large funeral, with its extensive distribution of material goods, no longer possessed the expressive power it had commanded at the start of the century. Rather than inscribing mourning into civic space and using funerals to cement local social, political, and economic relationships, new mourning rituals privatized and sentimentalized grief. Paying close attention to ordinary landscapes and to the specificity of local practice helps us to identify New England’s unique cultural expressions while keeping in mind the shaping power of extra-local forces and the inevitability of change over time.

The volume’s closing section, “Envisioning New England,” contains two essays that problematize how we interpret visual representations of and in the region. Martin Brückner probes questions of regional identity by exploring early New England’s cartography. He points out that maps exclusively depicting New England were a new phenomenon in 1700 and that their increasing uniformity over the course of the eighteenth century represented a broader trend in cartography to “strip” maps of their decorative flourishes and fantastical creatures. The survival of pictorial elements in the form of a map’s cartouche complicates our understanding of a “New England map.” Brückner unpacks the “spatial work” performed by the cartouche in Thomas Jefferys’s Map of the most Inhabited part of NEW ENGLAND (1755) that includes a substantial and detailed image of Puritans being welcomed to New England’s shores and making contact with Native Americans. Comparing this “New England” cartouche with others, Brückner finds the deployment of aesthetic codes drawn from architecture, decorative arts, and the theater more significant than any attempt at communicating a fixed or static representation of “New England.” What the cartouche signals, then, is not a particular regional identification—the words “New England” serve that function—but, rather, the position of maps as material objects and consumer goods circulating in an intensifying, transatlantic marketplace.

Wendy Bellion’s essay also explores the complexities and contradictions of interpreting regional expression. Understanding the contour of New England’s physical and intellectual geography, she argues, requires us to pay attention to the “interdependent systems of knowledge production” that shaped the region’s cultural expressions. As an example, she points to the appearance of the “Invisible Lady,” a kind of sideshow exhibition that traveled up and down the eastern seaboard in the early nineteenth century. Visitors to the “Invisible Lady” exhibition seemed to encounter a spectral presence with whom they could converse though they could not see her. This was both a material object—a contraption of speaking tubes and a closet in which the performer could be hidden from view—and an exercise in vision and illusion. Early nineteenth-century viewers loved the puzzle of trying to determine the “lady’s” materiality. But, as Bellion points out, the “Invisible Lady” only survives through its representations in print. The broadsides, advertisements, pamphlets, and newspaper articles describing her appearances are the “Invisible Lady’s” only surviving material evidence and they circulated well beyond the region’s geographic boundaries. In fact, most early nineteenth-century New Englanders themselves only encountered her on the printed page. Bellion’s discussion reminds us that although the material conditions that produce images, objects, and text vary considerably, none of these artifact categories circulate independently. Instead, they overlap, inform, and modify one another in ways that demand closer scholarly scrutiny and in ways that cause us to rethink the boundaries of regional expression.

So, if the objects and images of early New England are highly variable, enmeshed in broad, protean economic and social networks, and shifting in response to extra-local pressures, can we really identify a coherent set of cultural expressions that represent “New England?” It would seem that each time we narrow in on a specific practice, a peculiarly local expression, it very quickly spins out its broader web of associations and leaves us to wonder what, if anything, defines “New England?” Ultimately, these are the kinds of questions posed by the ever-evolving methods, theories, strategies, and inquiries of the fields of material and visual culture studies. With their openness to understanding the fluidity of past experience while also being rooted in physical expressions of culture, this type of scholarship, exemplified by the essays in this volume, brings us closer to understanding the materiality of past experience and, ultimately, our relationship to that past.