Commonplace
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www.common-place.org · vol. 10 · no. 1 · October 2009
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Object Lessons

Fancy History: John Fanning Watson's Relic Box

Further Reading:

Out of the numerous studies of collecting in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, my evaluation of Watson's relic box especially benefitted from David Lowenthal, The Past is a Foreign Country (Cambridge, 1985); Susan Scott Parrish, American Curiosity: Cultures of Natural History in the Colonial British Atlantic World (Chapel Hill, N.C., 2006); Judith Pascoe, The Hummingbird Cabinet: A Rare and Curious History of Romantic Collectors (Ithaca, N.Y., 2006); Susan Stabile, Memory's Daughters: The Material Culture of Remembrance in Eighteenth-Century America (Ithaca, N.Y., 2004); Susan Stewart, On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection (Durham, N.C., 1993); and Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, The Age of Homespun: Objects and Stories in the Creation of an American Myth (New York, 2001).

For vernacular material culture in the early nineteenth century, I used Sumpter Priddy, American Fancy: Exuberance in the Arts, 1790-1840 (Milwaukee, 2004) as well as the collections in the Winterthur Museum. I am very grateful to the Winterthur Museum and Library for a fellowship, which allowed me extensive access to their collections, and to staff members Linda Eaton, Sara Jatcko, Helena Richardson, and Jeanne Solensky for pointing out Watson to me and for sharing their insights on boxes and ruins.

The most detailed study of John Fanning Watson is Deborah Dependahl Waters, "Philadelphia's Boswell: John Fanning Watson," PMHB 98 (January 1974): 3-52. The only analysis of the relic box that I am aware of is by Lois Amorette Dietz, "John Fanning Watson: Looking Ahead With a Backwards Glance" (master's thesis, University of Delaware, 2004). Watson's unpublished manuscripts, journals, and letters are rich archives for understanding how nineteenth-century Americans produced history. They are divided between the Joseph Downs Collection of Manuscripts at the Winterthur Library and the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. I am grateful to both the Winterthur Library and the Historical Society of Pennsylvania for permission to publish the quotations from Watson's manuscripts.

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