Guidelines to Researching...
"Because the artifact reflects the values and influences which were important to the individual who made it and the society and time in which it was manufactured, it can be viewed as making an important cultural and historical statement. Both oral and written history may reflect judgments that are inaccurate and biased; the artifact does not lie." Dorothy Duncan, The Artifact: What Can it Tell us about the Past? 1981
The artifact presents both custodial and interpretive challenges for the material historian. The process of first-hand inspection, identification and analysis calls for creativity and visual literacy. The questions and guidelines listed below should serve as signposts helping the researcher assess an artifact's non-verbal clues and elicit meaningful information. The following guidelines for evaluation and analysis are adapted from Dorothy Duncan's The Artifact: What Can it Tell us about the Past? 1981 (reprinted 1990).
STEP 1: "SPEAK TO ME"
- What is the object made of? Is it made of glass, wood, metal, ceramic, or natural fibre? Are these substances available locally?
- What size is the object?
- Is it light or heavy and does its weight serve a purpose?
- Does it stand independently or is it part of something else?
- Is it handmade or machine-made?
- Does it have the natural patina of age? Is it painted or varnished?
- Is there a pattern or design on the object? Are the decorative designs pictorial views or geometric, floral or animal motifs? How has this decoration been applied?
- Does the artifact show signs of wear and tear and/or repair? Are there saw marks, pontel marks or finger marks?
- Where might the object have been made? Are there any identifying names, labels or symbols? Are these carved, painted or impressed? Do these marks identify maker, manufacturer, place of origin and/or place of sale?
- Can you identify the function and purpose of the artifact? Was it ornamental or utilitarian?
STEP 2: "UNRAVELLING THE MYSTERY"
- When and how was the object made?
- How does it compare with other similar artifacts?
- What function does it serve and has this function changed over time?
- What did it cost when new? Was it expensive when it was made? How did this cost relate to the prices of other items at the time?
- Who owned this artifact and why? What was the original owner's social and cultural background?
- Was it a necessity or a luxury?
- What was the meaning of the object and how did people react and relate to it?
- Is the object pleasant to the touch and the eye?
- What does the construction and form reveal about the level of craftsmanship? Is it sophisticated or rustic in its execution and design?
- What does the artifact reveal about the community that made and used it?
- What does it reveal about the person who used or collected it?
Primary and secondary sources will help the reseacher reconstruct an artifact's historical and social context. It is advisable to begin this stage of your research by consulting the Antigonish Heritage Museum, the St. Francis Xavier University Library and the Antigonish Registry Office.
A visit to the local cemeteries could also provide some answers. After all, grave markers are not just memorials. They also serve as "historical and genealogical documents, as art objects, and as material expressions of cultural attitudes."
INVENTORIES AND BUSINESS LEDGERS
Probate records are one of the most useful sources for the material historian, particularly the inventory which provides a listing of the deceased's real and personal property along with their appraised value. These lists enable the historian to calculate standard of living, reconstruct room use and identify household effects. The inventory of an artisan or merchant usually enumerates the contents of his store or shop; conversely, for the farmer, his cattle and bushels of wheat are detailed. Books are frequently cited in inventories and can disclose additional clues about the deceased's interests and beliefs. For example, with Alexander MacDonald's will [4 April 1861], the researcher can virtually move from room to room, noting the value of his chairs, books, blankets, carpet mats, stoves and lamps.
Business ledgers also provide insight into the material culture of a specific region. See for example, the business ledger of Bayfield merchant Joseph Symonds, which documents the flow of such goods as moccasins, handkerchiefs, oats and potatoes from 1815 to 1869.
Markings such as an engraved inscription, a trademark or patent number can offer clues about the date, manufacturer, quality and/or geographical origin of an artifact. Marks can be impressed, stencilled, stamped, woven, stitched or incised, etc. To assist in the interpretation of markings, the researcher can consult a wide range of reference works on trade marks, patterns and styles. The following general rules are worth keeping in mind:
- The British Antique Dealer's Stamp of Authenticity denotes an antique predating 1837.
- The use of the term "Limited" or "Ltd." indicates a date of 1861 or later.
- The identification of the country of origin only became common practice after 1891.
- The label "Made in..." is a more recent development and indicates a 20th-century origin.
- Before 1914, cheaper domestic products rarely showed manufacturer's marks. These were usually reserved for more expensive decorative items.
- Always be cautious when interpreting marks. Do not rule out the possibility of forgery.
NEWSPAPERS, MAGAZINES, HOUSEHOLD MANUALS AND DIRECTORIES
Local newspapers are an invaluable resource for material historians. They offer evocative glimpses into the life of a community, often providing vital details about local businesses, merchants and merchandise. Advertisements sometimes offer visual clues, even prices. They also reveal trends in tastes, ideals, trading patterns and spatial distribution. Antigonish's main newspaper, The Casket, commenced publication in 1852. This newspaper is available on microfilm at the Angus L. Macdonald Library at St. Francis Xavier University. There is also a partial index to this publication to assist researchers. Remember to interpret advertisements carefully; after all, they do not always reflect people's lived reality. They depict an ideal. Ask yourself the following questions: "What do these advertisements indicate about the values of earlier generations of Antigonishers? What is revealed about people's fears and aspirations, gender roles and attitudes towards necessities and luxuries?"
Magazines and manufacturer's catalogues also provide details about the original cost and precise terminology of specific artifacts. During the 19th century, such publications were directed at an expanding consumer market in the age of mass communication, advertising and retailing. They were designed to educate the middle class on the appropriate ways to furnish and decorate their homes. Similarly, the widely popular household guides and cookery books of the 19th and early 20th centuries reveal that the home and its contents were central to all levels of Victorian and Edwardian society. Also aimed at middle-class households, these publications are replete with advice about cleanliness, beauty, interior decoration, home remedies and domestic gadgets.
Directories, gazeteers and almanacs are also handy references. Sources like McAlpine's Business Directory list names, occupations and addresses, and often feature business advertisements enhanced by illustrations.
Photographs constitute an invaluable record of heritage. They document style of dress and fashion influences. Interior views also provide visual evidence of household possessions and design ethos, such as mixture of objects and formality and informality of furniture arrangement. The rich potential of photographic evidence is best summed up by Charles F. Bryan and Mark V. Wetherington: "Through the eye of the camera, the researcher can examine people and places 'frozen' in time...Photographs can tell us much about the social preferences and pretensions of their subjects, and can catch people at work, at play, or at home. In fact, you can 'read' a photograph in much the same manner as any other historical document." The photographs of these object-filled rooms capture their owners' decorative schemes and pride of ownership. These material possessions helped create an atmosphere of comfort, affluence and stability. Remember that photographs must be studied with a critical eye. The photographer always brings his/her biases to the image; commercial photographers, in particular, responded to the tastes and expectations of their customers. The Nova Scotia Museum has prepared an online "Infos" sheet entitled Take a closer look at photographs. See also the Peterborough Centennial Museum and Archives site "The 'Care and Feeding' of old Photographs."
The following published sources offer useful information on the social and political history, leading families, and lore of Antigonish. These titles can be located on Novanet via Telnet, or the WWW Novanet Catalogue Interface.
J.M. Cameron, American Pioneers in Antigonish (1982); H.M. MacDonald, Down Memory Lane (1972); H.M. MacDonald, Memorable Years in the History of Antigonish (1964); J.W. MacDonald, History of Antigonish (1975); R.A. MacLean, ed., History of Antigonish 2 vols (1976); R.A. MacLean, The Casket, 1852-1992: From Gutenburg to Internet: The Story of a Small-Town Weekly (1996); R. A. MacLean and D. MacFarlane, eds., Drummer on Foot (1999); D.J. Rankin, A History of the County of Antigonish, Nova Scotia (1929); P. Walsh, The History of Antigonish (1989); D.G. Whidden, The History of the Town of Antigonish (1934).
- For an in-depth look at the history of Antigonish architecture, see A Virtual Tour of the Architectural Heritage of Antigonish.
- This selective sampling of titles is only a starting point for the researcher. These publications will provide useful insights into specialized aspects of the varied material culture of Nova Scotia.
S. Archibald, "Civic Ornaments: Ironwork in Halifax Parks" Material History Review (Spring 1978)
P. Barss and J. Gordon, Older Ways: Traditional Nova Scotian Craftsmen (1980)
K.J. Barton, Coarse Earthenwares from the Fortress of Louisbourg (1981)
Colchester Furniture Makers (1979)
E. Collard, Nineteenth Century Pottery and Porcelain in Canada (1984)
A.G. Condon, "Loyalist Style and the Culture of the Atlantic Seaboard" Material History Review (Spring 1987)
M. Conrad, ed., Making Adjustments: Change and Continuity in Planter Nova Scotia 1759-1800 (1991)
M. Conrad, ed., They Planted Well: New England Planters in Maritime Canada (1988)
J. Cook, "Bringing the Outside In: Women and the Transformation of the Middle-Class Maritime Canadian Interior, 1830-1860" Material History Review (Fall 1993)
J. Cornish, "The Legal Records of Atlantic Canada as a Resource for Material History" Material History Bulletin (Fall 1983)
R. Cunningham and J.B. Prince, Tamped Clay and Saltmarsh Hay (1976)
Dalhousie University Art Gallery, Early Nova Scotia Quilts and Coverlets (1982)
M. Davis et al., A Nova Scotia Work Basket: Some Needlework Patterns Traditionally used in the Province (1976)
J. Dawson, "The Governor's Goods: The Inventories of the Personal Property of Isaac de Razilly" Nova Scotia Historical Quarterly vol 5 (1985)
H. and B. Dobson, The Early Furniture of Ontario and the Atlantic Provinces (1974)
K. Donovan, "Communities and Families: Family Life and Living Conditions in Eighteenth-Century Louisbourg" Material History Bulletin (1982)
M. Elwood, "Father and Son: Two Halifax Cabinetmakers" Material History Bulletin (1976)
M. Elwood, "Halifax Cabinet-Makers, 1837-1875: Apprenticeships" Material History Bulletin (1982)
J.A. Evans, "Too Many Cooks Spoil the Broth: School Readers from a Century Ago" Nova Scotia Historical Quarterly vol 2 (1982)
R.H. Field, "Claiming Rank: The Display of Wealth and Status by Eighteenth-Century Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, Merchants" Material History Review (Spring 1992)
R.H. Field, "Domestic Life in Eighteenth-Century Nova Scotia: A Rural Perspective Based on Lunenburg County and Kings County Yeoman Probate Records" Material History Review (Spring 1992)
R.H. Field, "Lunenburg-German Household Textiles: The Evidence from Lunenburg County Estate Inventories, 1780-1830" Material History Bulletin (Spring 1986)
R.H. Field, Spirit of Nova Scotia: Traditional Decorative Folk Art 1780-1930 (1985)
C.H. Foss, Cabinetmakers of the Eastern Seaboard: A Study of Early Canadian Furniture (1977)
C.H. Foss, "Room Decorating and Furnishing in the First Half of the Ninteenth Century" Material History Bulletin (1982)
R.W. Frame, "Woodworking Patterns and the Sutherland Steam Mill, Nova Scotia Museum" Material History Bulletin (Spring 1982)
Gleaning Nova Scotia's History: A Bibliography for use in Local History Studies (1976)
J. Gordon, Edith Clayton's Market Basket: A Heritage of Splintwood Basketry in Nova Scotia (1977)
J. Gordon, Handwoven Hats: A History of Straw, Wood and Rush Hats in Nova Scotia (1981)
J. Gordon, Withe Baskets, Traps and Brooms: Traditional Crafts in Nova Scotia (1984)
J. Gordon, The Woven Weirs of Minas (1993)
C. Greenaway, "Decorated Walls and Ceilings in Nova Scotia" Material History Bulletin (1982)
W.F. Harris, Nova Scotia's Pops and Crocks: The Soda Water Industry 1836-1947 (1977)
A.J.B. Johnston, "The Early Days of the Lobster Fishery in Atlantic Canada" Material History Review (1991)
T. Lackey, "Folk Influence in Nova Scotian Interiors: The Lunenburg County Example" Material History Bulletin (1982)
P. Latta, "Eighteenth-Century Immigrants to Nova Scotia: The Yorkshire Settlers" Material History Bulletin (1988)
C. Lock, Country Colours: A Guide to Natural Dyeing in Nova Scotia (1981)
B. McBride, Our Lives in Our Hands: Micmac Indian Basketmakers (1990)
D.C. Mackay, Silversmiths and Related Craftsmen of the Atlantic Provinces (1973)
R. MacKean and R. Percival, The Little Boats: Inshore Fishing Craft of Atlantic Canada (1979)
G. MacLaren, Antique Furniture by Nova Scotian Craftsmen (1961)
G. MacLaren, Antique Potteries of Nova Scotia (1972)
G. MacLaren, Nova Scotia Glass (1968)
G. MacLaren, Nova Scotian Furniture (1969)
G. MacLaren, The Romance of the Heating Stove (1972)
G. MacLaren, The Woodcarvers of Nova Scotia (1971)
P McNally, French Table Glass from the Fortress of Louisbourg, Nova Scotia (1979)
E. Mosher, Old Time Travel in Nova Scotia (1992)
M. Nightingale, Out of Old Nova Scotia Kitchens (1971)
Ninteenth Century Pictou County Furniture (1977)
H. Perry, Old Days Old Ways: Early 20th Century Nova Scotia (1989)
G.G. Phillips, Patents of Nova Scotia Pre-Confederation, 1834 to 1869 (1980)
G.L. Pocius, "'Interior Motives': Rooms, Objects, and Meaning in Atlantic Canada Homes" Material History Bulletin (1982)
G.L. Pocius, ed., Living in a Material World: Canadian and American Approaches to Material Culture (1991)
E.M. Razzolini, "Costume Research and Reproduction at Louisbourg" Material History Bulletin (Spring 1982)
S. Robson, Old Nova Scotia Quilts (1995)
M. Sparling, A Guide to Some Domestic Skills [butter-making, candle-making, wood processing] (1972)
D. Stephens, Forgotten Trades of Nova Scotia (1972)
S. Stevenson, "An Inventory of Research and Researchers Concerned with Atlantic Canadian Material Culture" Material History Bulletin (Spring 1982)
D. Trask, Life How Short Eternity How Long: Gravestone Carving and Carvers in Nova Scotia (1978)
D. Tye, "Retrospective Analysis of Folk History: A Nova Scotian Case Study" Material History Bulletin (Fall 1989)
D.A. Young, A Record For Time (1985)
A. Vienneau, The Bottle Collector (1969)
D.B. Webster, "Furniture and the Atlantic Canada Condition" Material History Bulletin (1982)
R.H. Whitehead, "Christina Morris: Micmac Artist and Artist's Model" Material History Review (Spring 1977)
R.H. Whitehead, Micmac Material Culture from 1600 AD to the Present (1980)
R.H. Whitehead, Micmac Quillwork (1982)