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  • Material Culture in Anglo-America: Regional Identity and Urbanity in the Tidewater, Lowcountry, and Caribbean
  • Clifton Ellis (bio)
David S. Shields, editor Material Culture in Anglo-America: Regional Identity and Urbanity in the Tidewater, Lowcountry, and Caribbean Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2009. 368 pages. 136 black-and-white illustrations. ISBN 978-1-57003-852-5, $59.95 HB

Scholars have been studying material culture for decades, and their labors have produced a remarkable body of literature, yet few have tackled the task of weaving a grand narrative of American history through material culture. Notable exceptions include The Refinement of America: Persons, Houses, Cities by Richard L. Bushman and Culture and Comfort: Parlor Making and Middle Class Identity by Katherine C. Grier. Regions are more often the focus of material culture studies such as Folk Housing in Central Virginia by Henry Glassie, Everyday Architecture of the Mid-Atlantic by Gabriel Lanier and Bernard L. Herman, and A Building History of Northern New England by James Garvin.

By far the most popular approach to the study of material culture has been through essays, often collected into handy anthologies that are focused on particular established areas of concern to the historian, such as The Gender of Material Culture edited by Katherine Martinez and Kenneth L. Ames or Historical Archaeologies of Capitalism edited by Mark P. Leone and Parker B. Potter Jr. Of course, one of the most influential collections, especially for architectural historians, is the volume edited by Robert Blair St. George, Material Life in America, 1600–1860.

The present volume, edited by David S. Shields, is a new, welcome addition to this growing collection of anthologies. These essays were first presented at an interdisciplinary symposium sponsored by the Program in the South Carolina Lowcountry and the Atlantic World at the College of Charleston. The symposium explored the cultural identity of the Tidewater, Lowcountry, and Caribbean during the colonial and early national periods. These three regions were distinct in geography, climate, and culture, yet shared common political and social institutions and were closely linked by commerce and an economic system based in chattel slavery. The symposium yielded the papers selected for this edited volume with a refined focus on the role of material culture in the creation of distinct identities of the three regions. The authors posed two questions fundamental to regional identities: to what extent was the material culture of these three regions creolized, and to what extent was the material condition of cities in these regions affected by local circumstances and/or by a larger metropolitan Anglo-Atlantic culture?

The volume is divided into two sections. The nine essays of Part One, “Materializing Regional Identity,” center on the topic of creating separate but overlapping identities in the three regions. As one might expect, the climate, geography, and weather patterns of the New World were unprecedented in the experience of the first European settlers. In “Building for Disaster: Hurricanes and the Built Environments in South Carolina and the British West Indies,” Matthew Mulcahy makes a strong case for an environmental interpretation of the adaptation of metropolitan architectural styles and forms of colonial architecture to the awesome realities of New World hurricanes and earthquakes. Colonials drastically reduced the height of commercial and domestic structures, eschewed dormers, adapted low hipped roofs, and even invented a new building type with a distinct form, the hurricane shelter. Although maintaining an identifiable visual connection to metropolitan styles, the architecture of the British West Indies nevertheless developed as a distinct reinterpretation of forms and features of English architecture. Environment could be a strong factor in the modification of metropolitan forms and styles, but it was by no means the only or even the main cause. Louis Nelson in “The Diversity of Countries: Anglican Churches in Virginia, South Carolina, and Jamaica” and Carl Lounsbury in “Christ Church, Savannah: Loopholes in Metropolitan Design on the Frontier” offer two strong discussions of the ways in which metropolitan ideals were always subject to local social and political conditions. In “Colonial Castles: The Architecture of Social Control,” Eric Klingelhofer shows how West Indian planters quickly adapted the castle type that had been rendered defunct in England and France for...


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