Secondary Source Research: The Joys of Reading Ulrich

As I continue to determine the course for my research, I find myself wading through secondary sources that may or may not be relevant in the long run. And, yet, they remain so very interesting. I can’t help but feel that, no matter what, they will help provide me with a useful background that will allow me to truly understand the context of my primary research. This week, I spent time exploring an author with whom I’m already familiar—Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. In fact, Ulrich provided my first exposure to microhistory when I was an undergraduate. Re-reading A Midwife’s Tale last semester in grad school made me remember why I loved it so much—using something so seemingly mundane to demonstrate the importance of an individual’s life in a greater setting inspired me to believe in the utility of close studies of nontraditional sources. Bearing this in mind, I set up reading The Age of Homespun: Objects and Stories in the Creation of an American Myth.

Though I am still coming to terms with the fact that my project may not be firmly based in American history, I firmly believe that Ulrich’s analysis of primary sources transcends much time and space. While the context in which her analysis rests, Ulrich’s methodology provides a strong example of how to engage with unique sources. Her use of material culture analysis in reading women’s lives through their possessions was particularly interesting. First and foremost, I admire Ulrich’s desire to readjust scholars’ perspective when approaching material goods. Instead of assembling them into a linear narrative as had been done in the past, she aims instead to evaluate how much objects, experiences, and lives intersect. The commonality shared between the object and experiences is vital to Ulrich, and makes me wonder to what extent cookbooks can demonstrate the same things…

Her third chapter, in which she looks at a cupboard owned by Hannah Barnard, is particularly interesting to me. Through a knowledge of cupboards/chests of drawers, Ulrich is able to analyze that of Hannah Barnard to come to conclusions about the life led around the cupboard. How could cookbooks be used to do the same thing? How much more evocative could cookbooks be? Can the very nature of recipes and ingredient-sourcing be used to create an equally intricate communal experience?

3 Comments

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3 Responses to Secondary Source Research: The Joys of Reading Ulrich

  1. KJ

    I haven’t read Age of Homespun…how does Ulrich get from cupboard to “communal experience?” Would if be a model (of questioning and argument) you can adopt to write about a recipe, or will you have to adapt the model to fit the object? Your post makes me want to know how a recipe differs from a cupboard or what these objects share in common?

    • saraevenson

      I believe that Ulrich’s questioning of material objects will help me to develop a method of questioning recipes. I believe that a collection of recipes can be seen as a created object, much as a cupboard or chest of drawers can be seen as a created object. Both are intentionally constructed with inherent meanings and traits, and that is definitely one avenue I’d like to explore.

  2. Melanie Kiechle

    What about Ulrich’s chapter on the Indian basket and how its meaning and importance changed over time? Do the questions she asks–and the way she answers them, but situating the basket in its wider cultural world to explain how its meaning and importance changed with the waning Indian community–provide any inspiration for your thoughts on the cookbook? I’m thinking specifically about the question of how a cookbook from London ended up in upstate New York, and if the book’s movements can tell us anything about its importance.

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