Commonplace
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www.common-place.org · vol. 10 · no. 1 · October 2009
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Object Lessons

Fancy History: John Fanning Watson's Relic Box

We are immediately skeptical of relic collections like the one made by the early nineteenth-century Philadelphia historian John Fanning Watson (figs. 1 and 2). The box, constructed for Watson around 1823 by an unknown craftsman from the wood of Penn's Treaty Elm, seems to be just another instance of invented tradition. Its contents—like Queen Elizabeth's knitting bag—obviously have apocryphal provenances. Watson's published works, the Annals of Philadelphia (1830) or the Annals and Occurrences of New York City and State in Olden Time (1846), do not hold up any better under scrutiny than his relics. Their anecdotes about the events and customs of the past are similar in fragmentary form and in dubious accuracy to the objects he collected. Susan Stabile sums up modern views of Watson's work with the comment that his "error-ridden though widely read Annals perpetuated the heroic (and often inaccurate) myths of national memory." Even his contemporaries, like Dr. James Mease—himself the author of an early account of the city's history titled The Picture of Philadelphia (1811)—complained that Watson's collections and writings merely promoted "venerable traditions … as if historical truth were not more valuable than any tradition, however ancient, and gratifying to our national vanity, pride, or good feelings." Rather than giving us a history lesson, this box seems to owe us an apology for the invented past of virtuous aristocrats and friendly Indians that it inflicts on us.


Fig. 1. John Fanning Watson. Courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, Massachusetts.

Fig. 2. Watson's relic box. Courtesy of the Winterthur Museum.

Yet the box works against our efforts to take venerable traditions and history seriously. Compared with the multivolume works like David Hume's History of England or Mercy Otis Warren's History of the Rise, Progress, and Termination of the American Revolution that provided Watson's generation with researched and logical narratives of past human actions, this small box and its miniature contents make history seem like child's play. Narrative histories of action make us exceedingly conscious of the sequence of events over time. But time plays hide and seek in these small fragments. On the one hand, as critic and poet Susan Stewart points out, when we attempt to describe miniature objects, we descend into an overabundance of detail and confront language's limited ability to represent a material object. Unlike a narrative sequence of actions, therefore, these objects push us towards a silence that arrests time and encourages contemplation. On the other hand, the arrowheads, buttons, fabric scraps, and pieces of wood in Watson's box are all remains of larger wholes. Like a memorial lock of hair or the remains of the Coliseum, they reveal that death and relentless physical erosion accompany the passage of time and ultimately reduce an entire world to a few fragments. Because these fragments cheat destruction, they possess a supernatural quality even as they bear witness to the inevitable process of decay. But unlike the Coliseum, Watson's ruins are small enough to be manipulated, domesticated, and protected from decay in the box. Their overall effect, therefore, is not one of sublime awe at the forces of chaos but of nostalgic delight in a toy-sized past purified of death and putrefaction.

Since these miniature ruins arrest time through play and contemplation rather than narrative action, it is not surprising that Watson's books and his box all fail to account for change over time critically or logically, either by depicting it as a narrative of birth, growth, and decline or as a Whig account of progress. Instead, Watson, his readers, and his fellow relic collectors used these discontinuous forms to challenge the dominance of narrative in the production of historical knowledge. The fragments cultivate physical delight, emotional attachment, and creative play to make people care about the past. This amateur production of history sits at the boundary between object and narrative. It also occupies a border between the art of cultivating the memory to store ideas in the "rooms" of the mind's metaphorical "house" and the empirical, evidence-based social science of history. Writing annals and collecting relics also draws nineteenth-century history together with the contemporary "fancy" material style that used surprise, variety, color, and striking ornamentation to engage the emotions and the imagination with physical objects.


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