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: 205 ; Chapter 9 Toward a New Public History • A lice Morse Earle’s final book, Two Centuries of Costume in America, rounded out an illustrious career as a writer. She had written seventeen books—all of which had been well received by the public—as well as some forty-two articles, Moreover, she had accomplished this enormous output in the space of only fourteen years.The body of work she produced created a lasting legacy—a new kind of democratized history of American life. Material culture, as Earle knew well, abounds in symbolic meanings. The corpus of her work served in both public and private settings as a guide for Americans eager to insert themselves into a new national creation narrative, one that she had fleshed out with props, settings, costumes, and activities. Using her books and articles as a script, readers could insert themselves directly into that narrative—reinventing their own identities, but authenticated by the presence of real things. Earle’s histories, aimed at popular audiences, served to provide an alternate paradigm to the formal vision presented by academic historians, who were increasingly writing primarily for their peers, and the nostalgic yearning among popular readers for a new national history that would allow them entry into the story.1 For Earle and her peers, a history that embraced the harsh Calvinist doctrine of Puritanism was of limited utility ; they lived in a world that was governed far more by consumer values than by piety. They sought a history that seemed authentic, that salvaged the Puritan attitudes toward family, duty, integrity, and industry, but also 206 ; Chapter 9 a history that was romantic, emotionally satisfying, and, most important, relevant to their present. Earle’s best-selling Home Life in Colonial Days, as well as her other books, provided useful templates by which readers could reconstruct their lives, both privately and publicly (fig. 31).Through her writing, Earle expanded the scope of the American story, allowing participation by a broad range of people. Her vision of history embraced a new theatricality, delineating props that could accessorize private and public historical stage sets. Her influence found expression in the decoration of private parlors, bedrooms, and kitchens, as well as historic house and garden restorations and re-creations, museums’ period room settings, Figure 31.Cover,Home Life in Colonial Days (1898).The cover design’s evocation of a cross-stitch sampler reinforced the book’s message about the power of the past to domesticate the present and future. The book itself could easily serve as a “quaint” decorative accessory in a Colonial Revival home, conveying Puritan values to successive generations. Author’s collection. : 207 Toward a New Public History historical pageants, colonial balls and teas, and the proliferation of other Colonial Revival forms that appeared at the turn of the twentieth century. For its practitioners, this new type of history, supported by Earle’s scholarship, clearly held enormous educational as well as cultural potential . It embraced a greatly enlarged field of evidence, expanding access beyond professional scholars and other well-educated readers. Its advocates —ranging from educators and women organizers of house museums and historic gardens, to suffrage and anti-suffrage activists, and members of local historical societies—believed that vernacular artifacts and anecdotes about ordinary life were just as important a means of cultural transmission as the words and biographies of the famous.2 Earle enriched her historical vision through the conscious assignment of symbolic meaning to many of the objects she discussed in her texts, and by her extensive reliance on metaphor. In this way she was able to invest the most ordinary colonial artifacts with a significance that would help her readers find meaning in their own lives. This strategy further confirmed the underlying cultural complexity of Earle’s work, as well as its utility as a vehicle for examining divergent social and cultural agendas.3 Earle’s immediate success coincided with the emergence of a growing antiquarian outlook among middle- and upper-class Americans, and more specifically with the widespread colonial revival.The developing interest in re-creating colonial environments as an educational mechanism afforded an arena in which Earle came to exert a significant amount of cultural power. After the national Centennial celebration, a surge of permanent installations began to appear in widely disparate regions of the country. George Sheldon, a native of Deerfield, Massachusetts, had received the charter for the Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association in 1870, “for the purpose of collecting and preserving such memorials, books...


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