Material Culture

Objects of material culture, such as clothing, textiles, cooking utensils, tools, simple machines, jewelry, or religious artifacts supply information on women’s everyday lives. They provide evidence about women’s positions in society, documenting not only their role in the household economy, which is often predominant, but also the social rites of passage in which they participated. Other items tell us about cultural and religious practices, some of which reflect attitudes toward women.

Woyo Pot Lid

Material culture focuses on objects with physical substance—objects that were shaped by humans, such as a clay pot, or given meaning by humans, such as a tree branch believed to have medicinal or spiritual power. Each object has a story to tell, or more often, many stories to tell.

Start by asking what an object is. How might it have been used? What is it made of? What kinds of materials survive? A trace of pollen on a stone bowl can reveal important aspects of a culture’s diet.

Does it appear to have been crafted quickly or slowly? How was the object valued? A coin may have represented a small amount of monetary value at one time, but collectors in the 21st century might value it highly. A coin also may have been used as currency in one society, but worn as decoration in another.

Where was an object found? How did it get there? An object displayed alone in a glass case can only tell part of a story. What else appeared near that object when it was used? How does it compare to similar objects from the same culture.

Even written sources often can be analyzed as material culture. An illuminated manuscript displaying a 14th-century romantic story written by a woman known as Marie de France tells us a great deal. Parchment was very expensive, as were certain colors of paint, so a story written in large script with wide margins and gold illustrations indicated wealth. [See Analyzing Evidence: Literary Sources] Similarly, a girl’s diary written in the margins and between the lines of a book shows a determination to record one’s life despite lack of access to writing materials.

Quilts, often produced in the United States by women, tell stories in their stitches. Some incorporate religious motifs, like the Rose of Sharon, or the names and dates of important events in their lives. Quilts were sometimes produced to raise money or to promote causes, such as the abolition of slavery, women's rights, or temperance.