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date: 25 January 2022

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter uses John Kouwenhoven’s 1963 essay “American Studies: Words or Things” as a touchstone to examine the history of the relationship between material culture and the study of the past. Material culture studies promised access both to the history of those who left no written records and to a different kind of cognitive insight than could be gained from traditional historical sources. While this was of a piece with the development of the “new social history” in the 1960s, the chapter looks back to the early twentieth century to put Kouwenhoven’s call for the study of material culture in a longer historical context, and it traces what happened to material culture studies over the last half-century. The chapter suggests that despite its many accomplishments, the use of material culture remains on the edges of most historical work, especially after historians took the linguistic turn, which refocused their attention on texts rather than things.

Keywords: American studies, New Social History, historiography, history museums, nostalgia, linguistic turn, anthropology, academic politics

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