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date: 25 January 2022

Abstract and Keywords

Collecting drives scholarship. Historians rely upon texts, preserved in libraries, archives, and private hands. Scholars of material culture seek out artifacts, whether held by museums, galleries, historical societies, or individual owners. Historians contemplating material culture evidence are justifiably wary of its frustrating ambiguity; especially recalcitrant are objects unmoored from their points of origin with no textual support. How can one tether these obdurate things to meaningful interpretive frameworks? By the late nineteenth century, Americana collectors were tackling—and meeting—this challenge, laying the foundation for US material culture studies. Their endeavors were significant forays into object-driven histories, exemplifying the constitutive interplay between collecting material culture and interpreting the past. One such collector-historian was George Dudley Seymour, a self-described “born antiquarian.” He sought out and studied early New England architecture and decorative arts, especially when associated with Nathan Hale, an American spy captured and hanged by British forces during the Revolutionary War. In the context of the Colonial Revival, a long-standing manifestation of US romantic nationalism, Seymour resurrected Hale’s faded memory countrywide. Initially lacking documentary sources, he succeeded by employing three material strategies—inscribed artifacts, space and place, and figural representation—illustrating the efficacy of integrating multiple approaches to interpreting history and material culture within a biographical framework.

Keywords: antiquarianism, biography, Colonial Revival, gender, sexuality, eugenics, historic preservation, nationalism, twentieth century, United States

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