Children’s Literature and Material Culture

I wonder how many other people’s gateway into a fascination with material culture was sparked by the Little House books. Or similar historical narratives that involved a lot of details about daily living, homemaking processes, etc.

As long as I can remember, I’ve felt that objects have a particular power and contain multiple meanings. “It’s only stuff” was never something that resonated, and I struggle to give that statement weight to this day. Because stuff is hardly ever just “only” itself. Objects can transport us to the past (our own or an imagined someone else’s), to different cultures and ways of being in the world. Time travel made manifest.



Filed under Childhood, Historical, Nostalgia

4 responses to “Children’s Literature and Material Culture

  1. This is really true, though it’s something I forget sometimes. But if I had the choice of studying history through a discussion of ideas or through examination of objects and their use, I’d pick the objects in a heartbeat. That’s one thing I find so interesting about the multiple PBS series that put present families into the spaces and objects of the past, like 1900 House, Victorian House, etc. The impact of the spaces and objects on people’s relationships and behavior is really telling.

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  2. This really struck a chord with me today. I’m working with a community within our culture that manages to survive by believing that its “only stuff.” I’m following the Facebook page of a young woman in Humboldt county who graduated a year or so ago with a degree in Cultural Anthropology. I met her when I was staying at the Super 8 Motel where she is the night manager. She’s trying to figure out how to get back to school because she has realized that there’s not a lot of jobs in Cultural Anthropology (sound familiar?) I understand that in order to get her MA she has to focus on a particular area … and she wants to work with homeless women and children. This subject has become very close to my heart recently … so I am being forced to look at “stuff” in a new way. Since I agree with you completely about the meaning of objects … I’m finding this very difficult! Thanks for putting it into some perspective! (I’ve never thought of the Little House books this way … but I do prize some of the objects that I have from when my grandmother, Laura Knuff, lived in a sod house on the Canadian Prairie (and told about it on an audiotape for her great-grandchildren before she died!)

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    • There must be space for both attitudes to coexist: “it’s only stuff” and “stuff is meaningful.” The relative importance of each depends, of course, on many factors, not least of which is the economic situation of the person or community.

      That’s so wonderful that you have recordings of your grandmother sharing her experience. I’ve had the pleasure of reading some diary entries of my great-grandmother who homesteaded in Montana and North Dakota, and the positive attitude she had coupled with the descriptions of material deprivation made me sit up and take notice of how we have come to expect so much abundance.

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