LIFE AFTER the American Revolution usually brings to mind images of George Washington and family. But instead of focusing on the privileged few, historians in the past 20 years have started to consult the lives of more ordinary people. The American History Museum's new exhibit, "After the Revolution: Everyday Life in America, 1780-1800," looks at John Doe and some of his idiosyncracies. And the exhibit gets a little closer to the truth, to what really happened, by using the vignette rather than the sweeping statement.
It tells the stories of three families -- the Springers, simple farmers near New Castle, Delaware; the Saunders, planters in Isle of Wight County, Virginia; and the Coltons, wealthy entrepreneurs in Longmeadow, Massachusetts. The show touches as well on three communities -- African-Americans, Seneca Indians and Philadelphians. (That may be stretching it, but Philadelphia was the country's major city.)
The three families really existed and, what's more, many of the artifacts here belonged to them. Instead of the usual museum labels on an 18th-century Windsor chair, a cradle, a chamberpot, we find the Springers' furnishings grouped inside their own loghouse. With a little imagination, we can picture their daily life in Delaware with daughters Mary and Ann, the dairy cow and the four slaves that lived down the lane.
Although the Saunders' life was more elegant, it was also apparently more stressful. It's moving day in their parlor here, graced by the ornate paneling that lined their Virginia plantation house. Perhaps the reason the house is being vacated is that Saunders was found guilty of murdering his wife and sent to jail for 18 years. One presumes the paneling witnessed the crime.
Up in Massachusetts, not every American was a Revolutionary, as one would like to believe. Samuel Colton drank tea and called his neighbors "liberty mad." After he raised his prices on imported goods in 1776, the neighbors ransacked his store. The wood-paneled room in the exhibit could've been inside his house. Until further research, it is known simply as an 18th-century room from the Connecticut River Valley.
So, we don't know for sure if this was the real threshhold over which he carried his bride, 17 years old and seven months pregnant. Shotgun weddings were far from unusual; in the 18th century, about a third of all New England brides were pregnant on their wedding day.
This is a specific approach to history, rather than broadbrush -- which can lead to whitewash. It's a little-known fact that half the 18th-century population of Williamsburg was black. And until recent years, the idea that slaves could have their own culture has not been taken seriously. In its section on African- Americans, the exhibit explores this culture.
Their household articles were not generally collected, as artifacts of American Indians have been. So the African-American artifacts in this exhibit are mostly re-creations. But there are still archeological digs, which have shown the continuity in architecture between the homes in America and Africa: for example, one style of slave cabin that actually looked like a round hut.
The concept of this show is to involve us more in our own history. To that end, one finds here a working print shop, a "Hands on History" room and "study galleries" on British ceramics and whalebone corsets.
AFTER THE REVOLUTION: EVERYDAY LIFE IN AMERICA, 1780-1800 -- A permanent exhibit at the Museum of American History.