See American History In Common Things


Dr. Chris Smith of Arizona State University contends that historians don't use all the sources they should.

"In the 1950s, history was all about past politics and wars. In the 1960s, it turned to race, class and gender issues," he said, speaking to The Library Friends of Payson Monday. "Common, everyday things show the changes in history. Things give us insight into American culture."

Smith said he is not a collector, but an accumulator.

"I look for significance in everything and can't get rid of much of anything," he said.

He shared some of his accumulation with those in attendance at his April 9 presentation at the Payson Public Library. He showed:

  • A freshman beanie (cap) he had to wear at his college, with the number "59" on it.
  • A Fourth of July hat.
  • photo

    Wood and its products are part of history.

  • Wood implements that were important in daily life in the 19th century, such as a huge, heavy rolling pin, a scoop of tin with a wood handle, a butter mold with a hand carving to imprint the homemade butter, a wire rug beater with wooden handles.
  • Other kitchen implements from days gone by, such as a potato masher and an eggbeater.

"During the Great Depression, people did not throw out their pots and pans that had holes in them. They bought a kit to fix them," he said, showing such a kit. "It came with plugs of varying sizes."

Smith shared items from a variety of "advice" books, one prepared by the Dean of Women's Office at ASU in the 1960s, which included tips on dating -- "Shine up your dating technique" and "If you get a lemon instead of a date, be a peach about it."

Smith also talked about what children's literature can teach about history, pointing out books that said boys were pilots and girls were stewardesses, and boys were doctors and girls were nurses.


Transportation changes are the story here.

He related the story of "The Little Engine That Could" and how the relevance of its references to passenger and freight trains are no longer applicable today.

"We don't pay enough attention to children's literature," Smith said.

He still includes items related to politics and war in his accumulation of things. Smith brought a wide selection of buttons and related some of the campaign slogans tossed out against Franklin Roosevelt when he ran for the third term, "We don't want Eleanor, either," "Roosevelt gets his walking papers," "No man is good three times."

Smith's recommendation to students of history, regardless of their age, is a quote attributed to Satchel Paige when he was asked to what he attributed his success in baseball, "Just stay loose," he said.

Look for the history of American culture in the common things, Smith said, from children's toys and books, to kitchen implements and silly hats.

Smith is part of the Arizona Humanities Council speakers bureau. His program was presented by The Library Friends of Payson.

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