Academic journal article Reference & User Services Quarterly

Artifacts from Modern America

Academic journal article Reference & User Services Quarterly

Artifacts from Modern America

Article excerpt

Artifacts from Modern America. By Helen Sheumaker. Daily Life through Artifacts. Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood, 2017. 347 pages. Acid-free $100 (ISBN 978-1-44084682-3). E-book available (978-1-4408-4683-0), call for pricing.

If one were to land on Earth from another planet and were curious about how and why Americans used microwaves, cellophane, or penicillin, one's alien curiosity might be sated with Artifacts from Modern America by Helen Sheumaker. This look at the twentieth century's material culture approaches each artifact in the same manner medieval farming tools might be approached: with physical descriptions of the artifacts, as well as context about the long-ago humans who might have used, seen, or experienced them.

The book is organized into ten sections ("Health and Medicine," "Religion," "Entertainment," and so on) and examines only forty-eight items. The preface doesn't explain the selection process, which this reviewer was curious about (narrowing down one hundred years of American material life into forty-eight items surely required a process worth detailing), but it does state that the book "tells the story of the 20th century in the United States through the objects that formed the texture of everyday life on intimate and public levels" (viii) and that it's "as much a history of daily life in the United States as it is an examination of the material culture of everyday experience" (ix).

Each artifact's entry includes a black-and-white photo and describes the physical object; gives a brief history of the object, its accessories, and previous and subsequent incarnations; and details its significance in the twentieth century at large. …

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