Artifacts from Modern America
by Helen Sheumaker
November 2017, 347pp, 8 1/2 x 11
1 volume, Greenwood

Hardcover: 978-1-4408-4682-3
$110, £85, 96€, A151
Please contact your preferred distributor for pricing.
eBook Available: 978-1-4408-4683-0
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From coffee percolators to synthetic shampoos to voting machines, examining the material world of 20th-century Americans is a path to better understanding our history.

This intriguing book examines how material objects of the 20th century—ranging from articles of clothing to tools and weapons, communication devices, and toys and games—reflect dominant ideas and testify to the ways social change happens.

Objects of everyday life tell stories about the ways everyday Americans lived. Some are private or personal things—such as Maidenform brassiere or a pair of patched blue jeans. Some are public by definition, such as the bus Rosa Parks boarded and refused to move back for a white passenger. Some material things or inventions reflect the ways public policy affected the lives of Americans, such as the Enovid birth control pill. An invention like the electric wheelchair benefited both the private and public spheres: it eased the lives of physically disabled individuals, and it played a role in assisting those with disabilities to campaign successfully for broader civil rights.

Artifacts from Modern America demonstrates how dozens of the material objects, items, technologies, or inventions of the 20th century serve as a window into a period of history. After an introductory discussion of how to approach material culture—the world of things—to better understand the American past, essays describe objects from the previous century that made a wide-ranging or long-lasting impact. The chapters reflect the ways that communication devices, objects of religious life, household appliances, vehicles, and tools and weapons changed the lives of everyday Americans. Readers will learn how to use material culture in their own research through the book’s detailed examples of how interpreting the historical, cultural, and social context of objects can provide a better understanding of the 20th-century experience.


  • Supplies numerous examples of the ways in which American innovation depended on immigrants who invented new technologies and contributed immeasurably towards a uniquely powerful American economy
  • Demonstrates how American material life was created through globalization, from products imported into this country, such as Atari's video game console, to American products dependent upon imported materials, such as American cigarettes that used imported tobacco, and the coffee percolator on the kitchen table, serving up imported brewed coffee beans
  • Highlights how the ongoing struggle to achieve true equality and democracy is evidenced through objects such as a voting machine from 1900, the bus that Rosa Parks boarded, the buttons worn by gay rights activists, and the robe Muhammad Ali, a converted Muslim American, fought in—material items that played a role in the ongoing project of American political life
Helen Sheumaker, PhD, is a lecturer in history and American studies at Miami University of Ohio. She is the author of Love Entwined: The Curious History of Hairwork and coeditor of Material Culture in America: Understanding Everyday Life.


2018 Top Ten Reference—Booklist, May 1, 2005


"An intriguing look back over the 1900s. . . . A valid study of intrinsic and extrinsic worth, the source presents an organized synopsis of changing times, interests, and needs. A useful work for public, junior high, and high school libraries."—Booklist, February 13, 2018

Daily Life through Artifacts

Daily Life through Artifacts presents a collection of objects and artifacts from daily life that shed light on key aspects of social life and culture for specific historical periods or topics. Each artifact is illustrated with a large image, showing interesting detail and allowing for close-up study. The series serves to demonstrate how objects and artifacts can be "read" as primary sources to provide greater insight into the people and societies who created and used them. Each title in the series provides information on the background material for these objects as well as guidance on how to analyze an object or artifact. Readers will not only learn about the daily life of past societies but also gain the skills of observation and assessment needed to analyze the objects and draw meaningful conclusions from them about their context and significance.
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