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Art + Design Capstone Project | Cultural Biography of an Object

Finding Sources - Overview

Each of the categories mentioned in "Preliminary Research" (click on "OBJECTS!" at left)––function, materials, origin, design, cultural manifestations/influences, uses/modes of consumption, valuation––represent aspects of your object’s life history that you could pursue. The “YOU MIGHT TRY THIS” list, while not exhaustive, also suggests some ways you can begin to dig up new data. 

See the Object Sources box below for other kinds of sources you could explore:

Object Sources

 Patent documents and drawings.  You can research U.S. patent and trademark documents, for example, at the National Archive. Many such documents can be found online.  For example, here are Alexander Graham Bell’s drawings for the telephone and electric lamp:

Design history. These can be a challenge to research if the object is ‘unmarked,’ and/or the maker/designer is unknown.  But if you happen to know who made your object, you could look for archives from the company. (And if the maker/designer was affiliated with an established firm (e.g. the Royal Doulton pottery) you can get lucky finding material online (for example, here is a guide to identifying RD maker’s marks).  You can also look for records related to a given business/manufacturer, and/or to a given designer/illustrator.   

And you can think creatively about other influences on the design of your object that are not exclusively linked to its specific manufacturing, looking, for example, at other objects of the same category/vintage, but different maker/design, or other objects of another category entirely that might have shaped yours.

Representations of the object. Don’t limit your research to Google image/text searching!  Think expansively about where your object might have been represented, and also, other cultural texts/sources that might have influenced your object (in the case of the Royal Doulton creamer, for example, you could look not only at advertisements or design specs for the pitcher but pirate images in children’s books or representations of Long John Silver in illustrated editions of Treasure Island). Where you look to find these representations depends on your goals, obviously, but here are some places where historical image searches can be fruitful:

  • Industry publications related to your object’s manufacture, e.g. sales catalogs
  • Advice books, popular magazines, historical advertisements

History of consumption/use. To explore how, when, and where your object was ‘consumed,’ or how it functioned as a part of consumer culture, you could look to the following:

  • direct representations of the object (or others like it) in lifestyle magazines from the period (e.g. Better Homes and Gardens), popular illustrations, historical newspapers/periodicals, on billboards, in social media, etc.  On the historical:
  • personal histories, e.g. interviews with previous owners or other relevant individuals (makers, designers, collectors, etc.).  You could conduct an interview yourself if the person is a family member of friend.  But other kinds of objects might lend themselves to research of existing oral histories, e.g. on the Library of Congress’s website. Finding these can be challenging, but worth the effort if you’re dealing with an object of renown or that has figured importantly into a given group’s or community’s history.
  • scholarly studies of the history of consumption/use in a given period/area of culture. For example, if you had chosen a teapot and wanted to know more about how tea consumers thought about their teapots, you could read something like “Tea, Porcelain and Sugar in the Atlantic World
    • You can find scholarly works using the sources that follow below.