Writing History with Objects and Documents
Having followed the steps for analyzing artifacts and documents, you are ready to write history. This section encourages investigation into consumerism, one facet of American experience that is illuminated by the objects and documents in this publication. The first section shows how to generate questions that will shape inquiry into an object or a document; the second, how to create an interpretation of an object or document; and the third, how to write a theme-based historical essay. Some suggestions for writing effective essays conclude this section.
Why study consumerism?
Over the last century, the widespread acquisition of commodities has shaped much of American culture. Americans increasingly participated in the culture of consumption, transforming the economy from one based upon agriculture and raw materials to one that is driven by manufacturing, advertising, and selling mass-produced goods. One way to study this social transformation is through the products America manufactured. Many such things are on view at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. These objects can provide insights into the social history of American childhood and adolescence. More importantly, consumer objects shed light on a diverse group of Americans whose lives we encounter through the artifacts they touched.
The following classroom strategies use objects and documents to assess the historical and social aspects of consumerism, with a particular emphasis on the period between 1920 and 1970. You will find procedures for investigating and writing about artifacts and written documents. Since most of these objects have a familiar ring, we recommend starting by showing the class a reproduction of the object and having the students indicate what makes them curious about it; in other words, have the students focus on what questions they wish to have answered about the object.
Generating Questions from the Artifact or Object
Choose one of the objects in the collection. After having followed the steps listed in "Artifact Study," you should have some ideas that begin to identify the artifact and its function. You have created a preliminary description of the object.
Now proceed from this preliminary description of what you already know about the object to what remains unknown. Ask class members what they wish to find out about the object. These questions can determine the path of your analysis.
To help answer these questions, examine the artifacts' related documents or consult the secondary sources listed in the Selected Bibliography.
Formulating an Interpretation of the Artifact or Object
Building a good interpretation of an object involves scrutinizing it carefully then turning to related historical and literary sources. Therefore, have your students study the objects together with the documents provided to develop questions about one or several of these objects. Or, introduce generic themes for discussion such as:
- how gender roles are shaped by consumer culture
- how consumer objects define an individual's identity
- how marketing strategies sell consumer goods
- how consumer goods were used in the home
- the relationship between work and consumption
- values and beliefs Americans have associated with consumption
- how consumption affects the environment
- how Americans have used consumer goods to define their social status
If students have formulated their own questions, ask them to develop hypothetical
answers. Then have the students make observations and find information that supports,
proves, or disproves their hypothesis. Constructing an interpretation involves building an
argument around this hypothesis. For a solid interpretation, follow these guidelines:
- Factor into your argument all the known facts about the object.
- Acknowledge evidence, if there is any, that contradicts the main thrust of your argument. It is better to show an awareness of exceptions to your argument than to be misleading.
- Use evidence to support the major points in your argument.
- Analyze your object and your primary sources for any presumed biases.
- Focus the information you have gathered around the question you have asked; in other words, your argument should answer the question that sparked your inquiry into the object.
Writing an Essay on a Theme Using Objects and Documents
Following are three assignments based on the objects and their related documents in this
publication. Students should write essays in which they:
- include introductory and concluding paragraphs;
- develop their ideas in complete paragraphs in the body of the text;
- cite evidence from objects and documents, doing justice to this material while forming a cogent argument;
- draw upon their outside knowledge in writing their essays;
- consult "Student's Guide to Writing Effective Essays."