Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture

Uncommon Sense—the blog

Short-term fellow’s report from Ashli White

· June 1st, 2016 · No Comments

Ashli White (University of Miami), recently completed a short-term fellowship at the Omohundro Institute. In today’s post, she outlines her research project and talks about what she found while here.

by Ashli White

I arrived to the Institute at the beginning of this month to conduct some research for my project that explores the political, social, and cultural history of objects connected with the North Atlantic revolutions. Just like ideas and people, things were set into motion during the age of revolutions, and in this project I put at the center of discussion the transgressive routes of revolutionary things—how they elided national borders time and again. I focus above all on material culture associated with the revolutions in the United States, France, and Haiti and their significance not only for one another, but for Britain and other Caribbean colonies as well. As part of this endeavor, I track, as much as possible, the production, distribution, and consumption of revolutionary things. In so doing, I have found that objects were much more dynamic than we have given them credit for—dynamic in their physical motion (they get around to unexpected places), but also dynamic for their interpretive potential.  As revolutionary objects traveled from one site to another, they brought people into contact with revolution in visceral, multiple, and provocative ways.

In order to make sense of this phenomenon, I look to a variety of things—everything from Louis XVI sofas to cockades to life-sized wax figures of revolutionaries. While in Williamsburg I was interested to learn more about military material culture. As armies and navies were deployed throughout the Atlantic, they took with them uniforms, flags, banners, and even dinnerware, emblazoned with insignia that declared where they stood on the ideological spectrum of revolution. Williamsburg offers a good point of entry to understand how military material culture worked on the ground in North America: the archival holdings at Swem and Rockefeller libraries are rich, and in the collections at Colonial Williamsburg, I could see extant examples. Add to this treasure trove of resources, the daily evening muster by CW interpreters and you have the perfect research immersion experience.

I was perhaps most bowled over by what I learned about military clothing. Sources show that soldiers were not wearing uniforms as we tend to think of them—snappy, carefully coordinated sets with various accoutrements and details that adhered to clear codes. Rather, soldiers’ and even officers’ clothing was much more mixed, if not at times downright ad-hoc. This situation resulted because of the difficulties of distributing clothing and its constant wear-and-tear. What’s more, armies appropriated their enemy’s clothing as spoils of war and then incorporated it into their kits. And whenever possible, soldiers exerted their own sartorial preferences, too. Take, for example, a uniform coat in CW’s collections that had worn by a British Field officer in North America.  I had the privilege to meet with Linda Baumgarten, curator of textiles, to look at examples of both civilian and military clothing, including this remarkable coat. It dates from about 1790, but as Erik Goldstein, the curator of mechanical arts and numismatics, has demonstrated, it is stylistically in keeping with coats worn during the American Revolution. So while gearing up for war with France, this British officer chose a cut for his coat that harkened to his service almost twenty years before, even though it was out of step with the latest trends. Although extant examples of clothing from the lower ranks are scarce, written evidence suggests that they also embellished items to suit their own taste, flouted sartorial regulations, and modified their uniforms in sundry ways.

Not only did this research into military clothing up-end my expectations, but the process of discovery was particularly powerful. There are few places where one can move among textual, visual, and material sources so fluidly, and thanks to the collaborative efforts of curators, librarians, archivists, and all those affiliated with the Institute, I experienced interdisciplinary research at its best.

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