As a result of the internet revolution, the historian (whether armchair or professional) has better materials to work with than ever before. Museums, libraries, antique dealers, auction houses, even private collectors are increasingly sharing images of their holdings online, giving the material culture of the past a prominence and visibility that it lacked formerly. Hidden away for centuries in cellars and attics, History’s shoes and dresses, waistcoats and wallpapers, jewelry, love letters, paintings, and furnishings are suddenly everywhere, courtesy of digital photography.
The impact of these items can be surprisingly revolutionary, correcting and revitalizing the past that has come down to us through historical writing. Architecture, photography, and other vestiges of material culture together impart a more accurate and sophisticated view of earlier cultures. Rather than growing dimmer, views of nineteenth-century America, for instance, are growing more vivid each day.
Dipping into that past is the business of “In The Swan’s Shadow,” a blog that’s been around for about 5 years. The unidentified blogger who puts it out is amazingly dedicated and prolific, posting 1,560 items in 2013.
The site is a trove of images of items surviving from the era of the American Civil War, documenting the lives of women (and children) in particular. There are laces and shawls, bonnets and gloves, cameos, fancy dresses, portraits big and small, genre paintings, fashion illustrations, Victorian earrings and bracelets made of jet and turquoise, old photographs of women, hair-do designs, crinolines—you name it. I love the items the “ebon swan” features.
Popular interest in the Civil War period, about what women wore and how they looked, has been stoked by historical re-enactment and its sister art, historical costuming, both of which are the focus of innumerable blogs. A desire to re-create and re-inhabit the past, however briefly, has proved a powerful motive for taking history apart at the seams.
Thanks to an unsung army of hobbyists, curators, shopkeepers, and bloggers, two great gains for history are being achieved. First, the scrim of drab sentimentalism that formerly enveloped the antebellum and war period is being torn away. The era’s clothes, jewelry, and pictures bring back a culture that was sumptuous, passionate, colorful, and edgy. The heavy clothes that, in fashion plates, look only imprisoning can now also be appreciated as opulent expressions of female power and dignity.
Second, nineteenth-century America’s participation in a trans-Atlantic culture has never been more plain. Many Americans lived in primitive conditions in the early national and pre-Civil War periods, but others had access to goods that were dazzling. Lacking a fully developed sensibility, upper-class Americans continued to rely on Europe for luxury goods and ideas—for the glamour distilled in a fine silk damask, or in the light flutter of a lady’s fan.
Yes, the real stuff of history is piling up at a crucial intersection of proof and inspiration, offering its mute truths as a feast to our vision.