My email inbox, like that of most university faculty, receives a steady stream of requests to do something—give talks and attend them, promote conferences and distribute calls for papers, join writing groups and reading groups of various sorts. One year ago, as it happens, from this very date, my inbox received just such a query—a message from Kiki Smith, someone I didn’t really know but was just then meeting, wondering whether I had any interest in helping create a Digital Learning Community that would contemplate creating an online resource grounded in the research of independent scholar Nancy Rexford, one of the region’s premier costume historians.
I wrote back immediately, and if email had audio, she would have heard a (loud) squeal of delight. “Oh, yes yes yes!,” my reply began, noting what a great fit this was not only with my own interests as a historian of women and work in the clothing trades, but also because of our still-fairly-new digital history track in the Public History program at UMass Amherst. The message ended “I’d love love love the chance to work with Nancy on this (or anything at all). Fantastic idea.”
I can’t believe a year has passed since that quick exchange, and the project has been everything I thought it would be and more. I leapt at the chance to get involved partly because it can be challenging for university-based historians like myself to stay in close touch with artifacts. My first book, The Needle’s Eye, had drawn on garments as well as the tools and spaces associated with needlework to better understand the artisanal nature of women’s work in the clothing trades before industrialization, and a second project—the first scholarly biography of the nation’s best-known, most misunderstood “seamstress” (Betsy Ross)—resulted in a museum exhibition at the H.F. Du Pont Winterthur Museum, but by and large, it is surprisingly hard for your typical university-based historian to keep a hand in the world of objects and artifacts—the real stuff of history—while meeting the day-to-day demands of a university job. At a related event hosted by Smith College’s Kahn Center, Kiki pulled treasure after treasure out to show the group of esteemed scholars (all now oohing and aahing like schoolgirls, abuzz with sheer happiness). As we looked at smart day dresses from the 1950s, elegant gowns from the Victorian age, and well-made stays that once confined eighteenth-century bodies, I knew this work, and the close contact not only with beautiful things made by capable hands, but also other scholars as passionate about them as I am, would feed not just my research agenda, but my intellectual soul.
As indeed it has. To be sure, watching Nancy share her deep expertise on shawls, our first focus for the project, has taught me a good deal about the past, and I am so eager to spend more time, as the project unfolds, poring over her research files. The work has energized my thoughts about teaching, too, as I’m now eager to develop a new course, tentatively titled “American History/American Fashion.” Meeting the terrific Five College undergraduates on board has been just as inspiring—hearing about their own career aims and plans is just so refreshing, and helps me remember what a wonderful time that is in a person’s life, when so many possible paths lie ahead.
So imagine my surprise to find myself deeply fascinated, too, by the digital aspects of this project. Working alongside the talented people who lead that part of the project has opened my eyes to wider worlds that are completely new to me. I’m fascinated not only to learn what the realm of the possible looks like at this moment in time, but what it might look like in the years ahead. I joked at a recent meeting that those folks “could tell me anything had been invented and I’d believe it”—but it is genuinely exciting to hang out with them on the cutting edge of digital humanities.
The lesson so far? If Kiki Smith sends you an email, open it. And then say yes.
Marla Miller is a historian of women and work in the U.S. before industrialization. In a series of articles and in the book The Needle’s Eye: Women and Work in the Age of Revolution she has explored gender and craft skill in the garment trades of early New England. More recently, her study Betsy Ross and the Making of America sought to recover the life of the nation’s best-known and most misunderstood craftswoman. As director of the Public History program at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, she helps trains students pursuing careers in museum practice, historic preservation, and other venues beyond the classroom that engage historical insight.