The Stuff of History

Written by Gretchen Boger, Upper School History teacher and History Department Chair, and Anne-Mette Hansell, Grade 5 Teacher; with contributions by Athan Biss, Upper School History teacher and Noor Bowman ’20.

When students in history class set out to learn about the past, they typically expect to read. They have a textbook, scholarly book or even historical fiction that provides a narrative about things that happened long ago. Recently, however, Baldwin students have found themselves invited to learn about history in a different way: not from books, but from stuff. Instead of reading about what the past was like, Baldwin girls have been figuring it out for themselves from the material objects left behind. The following accounts describe the experience of fifth graders, quite literally holding objects from ancient Egypt in their hands, and tenth graders, working their way like detectives through the lists of belongings left behind by 18th-century Americans.


DSC_0095Imagine holding a 4,000-year-old brain hook in your hand. The very tool the ancient Egyptians used during the mummification process to drain the brain from the deceased. They believed the brain was of no use!

Or imagine delicately holding a beautifully crafted shawabti or ‘answerer’ figurine. Picture yourself saying the magic word in the Afterlife and never again having to worry about chores. The shawabti springing to life was intended to make the Afterlife very comfortable indeed for all eternity.

These are just some of the ancient artifacts on loan for one month from the Penn Museum and in use in the 5th grade classroom. The girls study ancient civilizations during their year in 5th grade. The first such civilization is that of ancient Egypt. The girls read various sources, take notes and lay the foundation for a research paper with a whole host of topics pertaining to ancient Egypt. The extraordinary primary sources are all connected to ancient Egyptian life. They have prompted much wondering, questioning and newfound drive to find answers. Like researchers, archaeologists and egyptologists, the 5th graders have been able to question, wonder, reason and infer. Why is a brain hook so long and delicate yet strong? Strong enough to break through the nasal cavity? Or imagine for whom the beautiful shawabti doll was made. What kind of chores would the crude clay answerer be called to do? Hold a real canopic jar intended to contain the lungs of someone who died long ago. How do we know it held the lungs? Because the lid is decorated with the baboon headed god, Hapi, guarder of the lungs.

The students have photographed, cropped and learned to cite these artifacts. Soon they will be inserted in research papers bringing to life 4,000-year-old tools, everyday items and shawabti dolls in the imagination of Baldwin’s 5th grade Egyptologists.


Tenth and eleventh graders haven’t gotten their hands on actual colonial American goods, but instead, have found themselves puzzling over lists. Specifically, they have worked with records from an archive of digitized probate inventories from 18th-century colonial Virginia and Maryland, made available by George Mason University on its Probing the Past website. The inventories record every saleable item—or person—in the estate of a deceased American colonist, together with a value assigned to it by the assessors. Though originally used for legal settlements, the lists today provide a window into the material life of Chesapeake colonists—how they supported themselves, what kind of work was done in their households, with whom they might have lived, what items were of particular worth and so on. In trying to piece together a picture of life from a list of static objects, students learn many lessons along the way.

The first of these is a sober confrontation with slavery. It is one thing to know that Americans practiced slavery until the Civil War; it is another thing to see individual human beings listed with prices next to their names as part of a household inventory. Students grapple with this cold evidence of an economy built on the exploitation of humans in bondage. They are troubled to see people assigned different prices based on their ability to contribute to the labor of a household. As students make their way through pages listing many unfamiliar tools, they begin to realize that the heavy labor of providing for a household in early America—the farming, animal husbandry, carpentry, blacksmithing, weaving, sewing, knitting, cooking and cleaning required to keep a farm running—was performed primarily by the slaves themselves also listed on the record.

There are other lessons. Students learn etymology, discovering that many words once in common use no longer are familiar, and others that we think we know once meant something quite different. They see a “plate” listed in a storehouse, worth more than any other item on the inventory by a great deal, and finally a skeptical student speculates that it isn’t the same thing off which they eat dinner. And so they plunge into research in the Oxford English Dictionary, until someone, triumphant, discovers that plate once meant precious metals in bullion form. Likely this plate represented a plantation owner’s liquid wealth in an era before saving banks were prolific. Other etymology hunts ensue. A girl with a gleam in her eye deduces that a “bundle of blades” in the barn probably isn’t a set of cutting tools but more likely a wide-leafed crop … such as tobacco! One girl spots “diaper” in the linen closet and suspects there was a baby in the household; another frowns and asks what a “diaper tablecloth” might be. Together they discover that diaper was, in fact, a type of highly absorbent cotton.

As students continue making deductions from a list of goods, a picture starts to emerge in granular detail of a colonist’s home and life. They are discovering for themselves the ways in which life in the tidewater Chesapeake of the late 18th century must have been starkly different from the 21st century. As they grow invested in developing this historical snapshot, they come up against the questions they can’t answer. At some point the goods stop telling a tale, even to the shrewd detective. The student hits a stubborn unknown: Was this person married? Did he really make all this money practicing law, or did he inherit it? Why would someone keep “chocolate, bad” in the barn? This, too, is a lesson: that history doesn’t descend pre-written from on high but is pieced together carefully, even laboriously, from the clues that have lasted. The work of putting it together is a very different kind of work than passive absorption of facts already strung into a narrative by someone else. It requires critical thinking, careful noticing and even a bit of imagination. For Baldwin girls, investigating material goods is an introduction to writing history for themselves.

Noor Bowman ’20 researched the estate of Philip Thomas, Sr., a wealthy landowner from Annapolis, Maryland who died in 1763.  After puzzling over the inventory, Noor wrote that she “began to see this project as the story of Thomas’s slaves.” In order to dramatize their story Noor adopted a novelistic tone. In the excerpt that follows, Noor transforms a list of names and objects into a lively scene:

Meanwhile a slave named Bridget ,58 years of age, will be slicing her special butter cake in the kitchen. She made the cake with butter from the cellar, and baked it in one of the six baking pans found in the new kitchen. She calls Hannah, a slave of 28 years, to place the slices on four china plates and serve them in the hall. The hall is a decorated room meant to impress guests with an elaborate rug imported from Turkey.

Hannah hurries from the kitchen to the hall carefully carrying the four plates, when she is beckoned by Peter, a slave 27 years of age. Peter leans against the walkway of Thomas’s study holding a cloth brush found on a small old oak desk, playfully brushing his hair. As Hannah approaches he points to the parcel of books placed on an old wooden chair. Intrigued by these new books she reaches to open the parcel. But before she gets a chance to read the titles, she is reminded of the task at hand and continues toward the hall. She places the plates on a walnut waiter until the first guest asks for a slice.

Moments later Thomas looks at the clock and informs his guest he must depart to his study, to write a few letters. One to a tobacco distributor wishing to purchase some of his 27,145 pounds of tobacco. Another to a local restaurant interested in two barrels of corn and 20 pounds of bacon. When Thomas enters his study, he notices his brush and places it next to his 3 old Razors, in a case with a Hone strap. He then unlatches his gold watch, sits it on a writing stand and begins to write the letter on one of his 6 quire pieces of paper.