For over 130 years, a formidable farmhouse stood at the corner of Stanton Road SE and Suitland Parkway, watching the comings and goings of countless people inside and out before being abandoned at the end of the last decade. When an application for a raze permit came across the desks of officials in the DC Historic Preservation Office (HPO), they realized that it was one of the last standing structures associated with the historic Barry Farm subdivision, settled after the Civil War by formerly enslaved individuals under the aegis of the Freedmen’s Bureau.
I first became aware of the property and its history while working as a volunteer in the office, and was invited to take on initial research and cataloging of a collection of objects pulled from the house’s attic. A team from the HPO presented the collection to the Anacostia Community Museum, which recognized its significance and agreed that further research should be done. To that end, the Museum applied for and was awarded a DC Community Heritage Project Grant, and I was brought on to continue work on the collection. During my time at the Museum, I worked with Collections Manager Josh Gorman to research and catalog the items in the collection, in the process helping tell a story that otherwise would have been lost to the effects of development.
As an archaeologist by training, I’ve occasionally come across interesting finds down in the dirt, but I don’t always see the rest of an artifact’s “life cycle.” Once an artifact is removed from its original context, it’s generally shunted off to a lab for cleaning, analysis, and storage, which are often done by someone other than the original finder. Over the course of the Stanton Road project, I had the opportunity to carry out some of the steps that I don’t usually get to be a part of.
The Stanton Road collection isn’t archaeological, but archaeological artifacts and the objects from the attic of Stanton Road are both examples of material culture. Material culture is any tangible evidence of how people led their lives, whether in the past or present. In this case, the lives in question are those of of Annie and Olivia Taliaferro, a mother and daughter who lived in the Stanton Road house for more than six decades.
The Taliaferros were an African American family who moved to the Hillsdale (now Barry Farm) community in the latter part of the the 19th century. Based on U.S. Census records, we know that Annie and her children were all born in Virginia, and can guess from Annie’s age that she was likely born into slavery (she was born in 1852 or 1853). D.C. property records show that Annie herself purchased the Stanton Road property in 1885. She lived in the house until her death in 1935, as did her daughter Olivia until her death in 1947. The Stanton Road collection is a glimpse into the lives of two women who made comfortable lives for themselves and were deeply connected to their community.
Working at the Anacostia Community Museum allowed me to have experiences that any budding material culture researcher would dream of. Being allowed into the collections area of a Smithsonian museum, for example, is almost a holy experience. You feel like you should hold your breath and say a little prayer as you walk through the heavy doors into the rows of cabinets and crates, lest you disturb the collections in their slumber. It was exciting for me to think that some of the objects I would be researching would have a home there.
As a lifelong book nerd and former library worker, my favorite perk of working for the Smithsonian was access to the library system. I took advantage of it to visit an obscure but fascinating collection: the Trade Literature Collection at the National Museum of American History. The term “trade literature” refers to publications that describe or promote products for sale – catalogs, technical manuals, and advertising brochures, to name just a few examples. These can be invaluable resources for information such prices, fashion trends, and marketing techniques.
I was hoping to find some of the items in my collection, or at least comparable examples, in turn-of-the-century Montgomery Ward and Sears, Roebuck & Company catalogs. These two mail order companies reached consumers in every corner of the United States and sold everything you could ever hope to buy, from the tiniest pins and needles all the way up to farming equipment and entire houses. If anything was going to give me a decent snapshot of common material culture during the early 20th century, it would be these catalogs.
While I didn’t find exact matches, looking at the catalogs did help me get an idea of what some of the items would of cost, and place the Taliaferros in a solidly middle-class socioeconomic stratum. It also affirmed my belief that Annie and Olivia tended to “shop local,” preferring to purchase from local businesses rather than from mail-order catalogs (this may also have had something to do with living in a city, where goods were more readily accessible).
A number of the bottles we took from the attic were marked with names and addresses that indicated they had been purchased locally – Bury’s Pharmacy at 300 Monroe Street in Anacostia, or Mackall Brothers Druggists at the corner of 9th and H Streets NE, to name a couple. I used these names and addresses to sift through D.C. city directories on microfilm in the Washingtonia archives at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library, and emerged with not only solid dates of operation for these businesses, but also a sense that the Taliaferros were quite mobile, travelling to all four quadrants of the city to make purchases.
Lest you think that my work was all diving into archives and drawing thrilling conclusions, I’ll point out that other parts of my work were more mundane. Writing tags for the objects and entering data (dates, dimensions, and descriptions) into the collection management software are less glamorous tasks, but they’re equally as important as the research. Without these steps, collections staff wouldn’t be able to track the location of the objects or have any knowledge of their contexts. And without that, the research wouldn’t have much point!
Getting a crash course in curation and registration has helped me think more profoundly about the lives of objects in museum collections, and appreciate a small piece of all the work that goes unseen when you walk into a museum exhibit. Now that the collection has been cataloged, I hope that it can continue to provide insight into the lives of Annie and Olivia, and other African American families living in Barry Farm and Washington, DC. In particular, we know that Olivia was a midwife, and I think looking into how the collection reflects her work would be a very rich line of pursuit indeed. I hope that the story of Annie and Olivia and the Stanton Road collection will continue to inspire curiosity and appreciation in those who hear it, and help make residents of Washington and the Barry Farm area proud to call those places home.