Interview with David Jaffee

What brought you to the BGC?

I was attracted to the BGC because material culture has become a major part of my work and the prospect of teaching students for whom this is also their major interest was too great an opportunity to pass up. To work in a collaborative environment where other people have similar interests is exciting to me. In previous institutions— I’ve taught in art history departments, American studies departments, history departments, and interdisciplinary studies departments—material culture has been marginal to the major business at hand. Coming to the BGC, where material culture is at the core of the institution’s mission, was a marvelous opportunity.

What are your areas of interest?

My interests go in many different directions, but what really unites them is craft production and consumer taste. I have completed a book, which I had been working on for quite a while, called Craftsmen and Consumer in Early America 1760–1860. In this work I have been looking at chair making, clock making, portrait painting, and printing in provincial areas of the colonial Northeast and in the period following the Revolution.

I consider myself a self-taught material culture scholar, since I’ve never really had any formal training. I’ve picked things up by avid research and by the fortunate opportunity of being a fellow at Winterthur, the American Wing at the Metropolitan Museum, the American Antiquarian Society, and at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History where I had my first job after graduate school working on a 19th-century, exhibition, Everyday–Life in America.

I got started in this area after finishing my dissertation, which looked at town settlement and village culture in Central Massachusetts. While working on Worcester County villagers, I began to notice the fascinating presence of the “folk” artists who traveled through that region. Then I discovered that the chair-making center of Gardner stood at the center of the county. I decided that a study limited to a community or region would not capture the travels and travails of the folk painters and the chair makers who were enmeshed in a broad network of production. So I decided to follow these artisan-entrepreneurs as I came to call them, throughout the northeastern United States. However, I could not just look at the portrait painters. I needed to study the broader context of cultural production. That’s how the clock makers entered the picture, then the printers, and so on. The opportunity to study and teach is why I was drawn to teach here.

How does your work fit in the BGC mission?

I bring a real interest in the historical context in which objects are made. You can’t look at things in isolation— which no one, to be sure, does. But I am interested in the broad historical force—whether the topic might be the rise of consumerism or industrialization. In my own work, I have focused on the democratizing force of the proliferation of household commodities in action on the post-Revolutionary United States. For instance, how do people advance their claims by using objects as household decorations? Who gets included? Who gets left out? I am interested in having students focus on the historical context to integrate the study of specific objects into a broader framework. This approach is useful no matter the field of one’s eventual career. It is the historical context that is critical.

What do you hope to pass on to your students?

This year, I’m looking forward to teaching a course on the material culture of New York City. Although my past work has focused on rural New England, I have been recently teaching New York City history, and my latest project is on 19th-century manufacturers and consumers and the rise of New York as a cultural capital. In addition, I am looking forward to the opportunity of collaborating with other New York City cultural institutions working with the BGC.

Although it has worked out for me, I hope to help students avoid my own seat-of-the-pants education. I am committed to making students understand that material culture is cultural history: the two go hand in hand.

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