Adventures in the Archives: Living in a Material World

A wise woman once remarked, “We are living in a material world and I am a material girl.” And while this ode to consumption may have been referring to the procurement and enjoyment of luxury items, I think Madonna may have been on to something – though perhaps not in the way she intended. You see, over this past summer I had an unintentional, but deeply meaningful, love affair with . . . material culture

It all started in that place where many amazing things begin: Portland, Oregon. I am in the preliminary stages of dissertation research, which focuses on medical women in the American West, so I traveled to Portlandia this summer to visit the Oregon Health and Science University. Their small but fantastically rich archive holds several collections related to the history of women and medicine in “The West.” So, like a good little researcher, I spent the majority of the week poring over documents, jotting down notes, taking photographs, and syncing everything to my Evernote account. By the end of the week, I had a healthy collection of documents to analyze and a not-so-healthy case of what I call “archive nose” (dust is not good for the sinuses). I’m also pretty sure I gained a few pounds from visiting all of those delicious food trucks Portland is so famous for. All in all, I was a happy historian.

You're killing me, Portland.
You’re killing me, Portland.

On my last day in the archive, I decided to treat myself. One of the collections I had been examining that week was that of turn-of-the-century Oregon physician Dr. Amanda Ziegler. Though I had looked through all of her letters, documents, and photographs, I had yet to delve into the box that contained some of her personal and professional possessions – including her medical bag. I saved it for last because, well, I knew it was gonna be so cool! As I gingerly unwrapped the tissue paper protecting the outside of the bag, I joked with the archivist that looking at this old bag would in no way help me with my dissertation, but that curiosity had gotten the better of me. After I had removed the wrapping, I caught my breath at the sight of the old, weathered, and heavy brown leather bag. After some help from the archivist, I finally managed to pop it open, and what I found inside gave me a whole new perspective on women physicians and the patient experience at the turn of the century.

Wellcome Library, London. Advertising  for the film "When father fetched the doctor". Colour lithograph, 1912.
Wellcome Library, London.
Advertising for the film “When father fetched the doctor.” Color lithograph, 1912.

Historian Alan Koslow has argued that aside from the stethoscope, the iconic black doctor’s bag is the “most common and easily recognizable ‘medical’ instrument.” As he rightly points out, however, in the late-nineteenth century, a doctor’s bag was “not always black and not always a bag.”[1] Medical companies often tailored doctor bags to suit the various needs of individual physicians. For example, while an urban physician’s medical bag might be more compact and portable for a day of house calls, frontier medical bags were often modified saddlebags that could be slung over a horse and could carry a larger amount of medical instruments and medicines.

Dr. Ziegler’s bag reflects the nature of medical practice in the urban west. Although considered a bustling city by the dawn of the twentieth century, Portland was still, both in rhetoric and reality, a frontier town that demanded the ingenuity and flexibility of its physicians. Many doctors, including Ziegler, traveled by horseback or buggy to reach some of their patients. Ziegler’s bag was large enough to hold a wide variety of medical instruments, but compact and sturdy enough for extensive horse travel. Because Dr. Ziegler was an obstetrician, her medical bag also had to be large enough to accommodate medical instruments used for assisting births, including a large set of forceps. Koslow notes that while hospital-based, urban obstetricians had access to a wide-range of forceps designed to meet specific needs, for traveling doctors like Ziegler, a general pair of forceps often had to suffice.[2]

Though reflecting on the history of the medical bag is an interesting intellectual exercise, it doesn’t quite capture the experience I had sitting in the archives that summer day, examining the contents of Amanda Ziegler’s bag. Actually picking up and holding her medical instruments provided a sensory experience that the written word fails to provideBy physically interacting with medical tools of the period, what I understood on an academic level sprang to life through what I saw, felt, and heard with my own senses.

When I picked up Dr. Ziegler’s forceps, I could see just how much strength, endurance, and dexterity was required of physicians back in those days. Historian Martin Pernick has noted that much of the debate over women physicians in the nineteenth century centered on the belief that they possessed neither the strength nor the fortitude required of the job. This was especially true of surgeons before the days of anesthesia.[3]  I guess I always understood this critique intellectually, but actually feeling the weight of the instruments in my hands drove this point home.

While rummaging through Dr. Ziegler’s bag, I made another important observation. Her instruments and medical accessories – all made of metal and glass – make noise! As I picked up various items, metal clanked against metal and glass clinked against glass. Hearing these objects interact with each other helped me understand that a visit from the doctor could be a noisy (and probably scary) affair at the turn of the century. When we visit the doctor’s office today, much of what the doctor uses is made of plastic or light-gauge metal, rendering an examination or medical procedure a decidedly quiet experience; although today’s patients have to deal with an entirely different auditory anxiety brought on by modern-day computers (Is that thing supposed to make that noise?). But imagining what Dr. Ziegler’s patients must have heard (and saw and felt) during an examination provided me with an important reminder: that understanding the patient perspective is critical to the history of health and medicine. Of course, this argument is nothing new. Several scholars have used “illness narratives” to add to our historical knowledge of everything from tuberculosis to polio. Yet, actually hearing the “noisiness” of turn-of-the-century medicine emphasized this point for me on a deeper level.

All of these things are noisy than you think.  Science Museum, London, Wellcome Images Leather doctor's bag with contents, English, 1890-1930.
All of these things are noisier than you think.
Science Museum, London, Wellcome Images
Leather doctor’s bag with contents, English, 1890-1930.

In the end, what I thought would be a fun diversion in the archives turned out to be a completely unexpected and moving experience that stuck with me for days afterwards. And while I am aware that the historical value of “things” is nothing new for public historians and scholars who specialize in material culture, for me, it was a refreshing epiphany. British writer L. P. Hartley once wrote, “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”[4] Historians often rely on the written word to translate the past – to interpret and make meaning of the political or cultural zeitgeist of a particular moment in time. What Amanda Ziegler’s medical bag taught me is that I would be a foolish historian if I relied on words alone. Reading the physical objects of the past through our sense of sight, sound, smell, (taste?), and touch can fundamentally add to our understanding of various histories. Material culture is important for historians because it forces us to consider how our subjects navigated their physical worlds and how their interactions with the things around them shaped their intellectual ideas. Medical instruments were heavy, large, and unwieldy; thus, many critics believed that women were physically too frail to be physicians. Yet, Amanda Ziegler, in delivering over 3,000 babies with these same heavy instruments, helped invalidate this assumption.

What do you think, readers? What can we gain by engaging with material culture? How do we even know how our historical subjects processed objects around them from a sensory level? How have historical “things” affected your interpretation of the past?

A cabinet of curiosities...
A cabinet of curiosities…




[1] Alan R. Koslow,“Tools of the Trade: Late-Nineteenth-Century Medical Instruments in Ruth J. Abram, Send Us a Lady Physician”: Women Doctors In America, 1835-1920 (New York: Norton, 1985), 35-36.

[2] Ibid., 39-41.

[3] Both Pernick and Regina Morantz-Sanchez demonstrate that critics of women doctors believed that women were not only too physically weak for the demands of the trade, but also too sentimental and sympathetic to inflict necessary pain on their patients. See Martin S. Pernick, A Calculus of Suffering: Pain, Professionalism, And Anesthesia in Nineteenth-century America (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985) and Regina Morantz-Sanchez, Sympathy And Science: Women Physicians in American Medicine (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985).

[4] L. P. Hartley, The Go-between (London: H. Hamilton, 1953), 17.


Abel, Emily K. Suffering in the Land of Sunshine: A Los Angeles Illness Narrative. Critical Issues in Health and Medicine. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2006.

Abram, Ruth J., ed. Send Us a Lady Physician: Women Doctors in America, 1835-1920. New York: Norton, 1985.

Lubar, Steven D., and W D. Kingery, eds. History from Things: Essays On Material Culture. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1993.

Morantz-Sanchez, Regina Markell. Sympathy and Science: Women Physicians in American Medicine. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000.

Pernick, Martin S. A Calculus of Suffering: Pain, Professionalism, and Anesthesia in Nineteenth-Century America. New York: Columbia University Press, 1985.

Wilson, Daniel J. Living with Polio: The Epidemic and Its Survivors. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.



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This is such an important point. At the recent Society of Civil War Historians meeting, there was a great conversation about how using reenacting materials such as uniforms, knapsacks, and guns can help students better understand the experience of being a soldier in the mid-nineteenth century. This stuff is heavy and cumbersome, and the uniforms are scratchy and sweaty – it really makes you think about the everyday frustrations and annoyances of camp and campaign life.

One of the most profound experiences I’ve had with material history was in a farm house in Gettysburg, PA. It had been used as a field hospital during the battle, and was now in private ownership – the owner kindly opened their doors and let us spend some time inside their home. There is a famous description of this field hospital, where an observer wrote that there was a pile of amputated limbs that reached from the ground to the level of the window of the room used for surgery. I stood in that room, walked on the same wood planks that had been seeped in blood, and looked out the window at the ground — and realized it was a long way down. I knew that that mound of limbs must have been large, but it wasn’t until I looked out the window at the ground that it struck me just how big it must have been. It was a powerful experience.

Jacqueline Antonovich

These are great examples, Sarah. And again, I think this speaks to how academic historians can and should be engaging with public history. Museum curators and other public scholars know the power of experiencing history through our senses, and academic historians would be wise, I think, to not just analyze historical objects, but interact with them.


Beautiful post! Check out Laurel Ulrich’s “The Age of Homespun: Objects and Stories in the Creation of an American Myth” for more gorgeous stories and analysis. Studying material culture by interacting with objects is so powerful — it makes it more clear how much we learn about our world through our whole bodies, not just our eyes. I’d add, building on your story, that we also learn through our kinesthetic sense (sense of movement). If you were allowed to take that bag and sling it over your shoulder and walk around all day (or ride a horse!), you would learn still more.

Jacqueline Antonovich

Lara, I have not read it. I’ll have to check it out. I did read her work, Good Wives: Image and Reality in the Lives of Women in Northern New England, and I so appreciated her detailed analysis of the pocket vs. the spinning wheel. She does a marvelous job examining the importance and symbolism of everyday objects in the lives of colonial women.

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