“Learning to Look: the Interdisciplinary Value of Visual Culture”
by Nan Wolverton
Readex Breakfast, ALA Midwinter Chicago
Feb. 1, 2015
Nan Wolverton*, Director of the Center for Historic American Visual Culture at the American Antiquarian Society, was the featured speaker at this year’s Midwinter Readex breakfast.
Ms. Wolverton started her presentation by noting that while often overlooked, visual images are a valuable part of the historical record that provide information above and beyond the print text. The key is learning to read them correctly. As an example, she showed an image of a 19th century family at breakfast and discussed how such an image tells us a lot about disparate factors ranging from family life and class to the difference between urban and rural living to specific material goods to the place of children and pets in the family. Using images of Native Americans, she also discussed how images interact with the text to provide information about certain social customs. Ms. Wolverston also noted how images from a source like the 1873 Cyclopedia of Domestic Economy can be used to identify period furniture and household equipment and appliances.
Other examples from the presentation included:
- an image of a cotton plant at various stages and what it tell us about an industry connected to slavery;
- dinner plates with the image of the Boston Insane Hospital (it was a tourist destination as an example of the most modern facilities and treatment approaches)
- sheet music covers offering images ranging from famous performers to the patriotic images associated with patriotic songs
- photographs that record impressions of factory work relevant to labor history
- broadsides and cartoons reflecting the politics of the day
- stereo cards used by middle class households to learn about a variety of subjects
- newspapers – from Colonial mastheads to newspaper ads to the full page images in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated
- And various ephemera like trading cards and civil war envelops.
Throughout her presentation Ms. Wolverton impressed on the audience the value of visual images as primary sources. Using her expertise, she highlighted what such images can tell us about the economic, social, cultural, and political tenor of the times.
* Ms. Wolverton also teaches courses in the American Studies program at Smith College and is currently working on a book entitled American Historical Prints: An Anthology of Essays on Visual Culture, 1670-1900.
Ms. Wolverton’s complete presentation can be viewed below: