One of the highlights of working and living at Winterthur for a summer of dissertation research on arts and crafts utopias has been the way in which the staff has taken a sincere interest in my project. So much so that librarian Jeanne Solensky arranged for a research field trip to one of these communities, Rose Valley, guided by arts and crafts scholar and Rose Valley expert Robert Edwards. Visiting this place with Jeanne and Robert can only be described as research coming to life; like (Peter) Frampton Comes Alive, this was Rose Valley Comes Alive.
In 1901 William Lightfoot Price purchased land in Rose Valley, Pennsylvania, just outside Philadelphia (and a 30-minute drive from Winterthur) to establish a utopian community where skilled craftspeople could come together to create beautiful handmade furniture, pottery, and literature, as well as live together in community to protest the inequalities of modern industrial capitalism. Robert, Jeanne, and I toured the site of this former community looking at Thunderbird Lodge, the Guest House, the Guild Hall (later the Hedgerow Theater), the Bishop White House, and Will Price’s “House of the Democrat.” Robert Edwards lectured on the aesthetics, the history, and the key players in the Rose Valley experiment, including John Maene, William Lightfoot Price, Hawley McLanahan, Alice Barber Stephens, and others. We also discussed the furnituremaking enterprise, Rose Valley leisure activities, and even brought the story up to the present as we talked about how this utopian community turned into a suburb for wealthy Philadelphia commuters who sought a taste of the of arts and crafts aesthetic.
Researching history is often a quiet and solitary process. However, with Robert as our guide, it was like having the scholar read his book to you as the subject matter comes to life in a total sensory experience. It was incredible to be inside the book, meeting descendants (including Paula Healy, Borough Manager of Rose Valley); looking at homes, paths, roads, and objects; and having the author present to ask follow-up questions, offer comments, and engage in conversations about construction, the individuals involved, and even how this place functioned and looked more than one hundred years ago.
I like to compare visiting the places that I research to finally seeing a band live in concert after having spent the entire year merely listening to the album. Let me explain. Spending hours in the Winterthur Library pouring over period photographs, reading correspondence and minutes of various meetings, or examining firsthand accounts of events, you develop a mental picture of what things should look like. When listening to an album, I imagine what the band looks like, how certain songs sound live, and even how the musicians interact with each other onstage during shows. Similarly, when researching history, I create the world that I am studying in my imagination: how buildings look, the way people interacted with one another, activities that happened in this place, and even how it operated on a daily basis. Like going to a concert, when I arrived at Rose Valley, the world that had only existed in my mind came to life. It was almost surreal to see Rose Valley Farm, Mercer tiles upon houses and structures, and especially the infamous carved bear figures that once stood at the entrance to the old mill turned furniture shop.
If feasible, it is imperative for history students and researchers to visit the places they study. Going to the sites themselves makes everything come together. You see how things are laid out, how far apart different structures and homes are, how they look, and how things have changed since the period under investigation. (In the case of Rose Valley, the site that was formerly open farmland has become overgrown as the utopia declined and the suburb developed.) Objects, structures, and even people come off the page and into reality. Going to the place you research also enhances the research you do after coming back from the trip. Suddenly maps make more sense, pictures can be put into better context, and events have a more concrete and accurate stage to happen upon. Most of all, it brings reality and relevance to the topic. What existed abstractly on paper or in the landscape of your own mind is now concrete; you realize that this is a place with real people, real structures, and a story that is not just being told for the sake of a dissertation, but with a deep relevancy and importance to the people who live in that community.
This all goes back to the best things about Short Term Research Fellowships at Winterthur. Not only does Winterthur have an unparalleled collection of American material culture and an incredible rare book and manuscript collection, but the staff takes such an interest in your work that they arrange trips to your research site with leading scholars. In many ways, it was incredibly rewarding to be studying communal groups in a community of interested, engaged, and generous people from the director to the librarians to even the maintenance personnel. This made my summer not only productive but also unforgettable, and I offer my sincere thanks to everyone at Winterthur.
Thomas A. Guiler is a Ph.D. candidate in history at Syracuse University and was a Short Term Research Fellow at Winterthur during the summer of 2013.