by Camille Okhio

Pair of Pockets, 1775–1825; linen.

With fewer tools at their disposal, women in the late-18th and early-19th centuries devised non-traditional methods of working and moving through space. Dating from between 1775 and 1825, these pockets measured almost 12 inches deep. Designed to be worn between a woman’s underskirt and her petticoat, they were accessible throughslits in the overskirt. How did women have 12 inches of storage on their person 200 years ago and now have nary an inch? Courtesy of the American Textile History Museum Collection.

Since World War II, the United States has successfully exported a commodified aesthetic of comfort, fun, and affluence to most parts of the world, firmly cementing its cultural hegemony well into the 21st century. It’s easy to forget that, until the late 1930s, the image of the American experience was a more modest and messy one, far from a consumer-friendly suburban lifestyle. The young national identity was shaped by settler colonialism and immigration, the Civil War, the Industrial Revolution, slavery, segregation, and the Great Depression, periods throughout which Americans produced a complexity of handmade and industrial objects. Many examples are held at the Smithsonian’s Cooper Hewitt, the country’s only nationally funded design museum. Editor and curator Camille Okhio chose 15 objects from the institution’s vast collection that exemplify the beauty and the violence of everyday American life — and death.

Louis Comfort Tiffany, Tea Screen, c. 1905; favrile glass, oxidized bronze.

The panels of this 1905 tea screen shimmer like there were a flickering flame trapped inside the glass. Louis Comfort Tiffany developed this iridescent effect, known as favrile glass, in 1894, introducing metallic oxides into molten glass as it hardened. It won him the grand prix at the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris. The year this particular screen was produced was a political hotbed: the radical Industrial Workers of the World union came together in Chicago while W.E.B. Du Bois and other civil rights activists founded the Niagara Movement, an antecedent to the NAACP. The tea screen, designed to contain the potentially destructive heat of a lit teakettle, reflects these political boiling points.

Agostino Brunias, colonial button, late 18th century; gouache paint on verre fixeé, ivory, glass, gilt metal.

An idealized depiction of racial diversity in the English colonies takes up the entire frame of this button that measures just under two inches. The Italian-born painter of this minuscule scene, Agostino Brunias (1730–96), came to the British West Indies under the patronage of Sir William Young, a prominent plantation owner who later became the governor of Dominica in 1768. Haitian revolutionary leader Toussaint Louverture was an admirer of Brunias’s work and owned 18 of his buttons. A similar but larger work by Brunias at the Brooklyn Museum shows free women of color, along with their children and darker-skinned “servants.” In its seemingly naive depiction of racially mingled bliss, Brunias’s work is an uncomfortable reminder of the complex racial hierarchies that ruled social interactions in the colonies and an early illustration of the development of colorism in the West. (According to documents of the time, Brunias himself married a “mulatto” woman.)

Crib Quilt, Trailing Vine, mid-19th century; cotton.

When a child of one of the early American settlers died young, it was customary for the parents to reuse the departed’s name for their next born. John could be the name of four stillborn sons and a single living one — a constant reminder of life lost. America wasn’t unique in its high infant mortality rate in the mid-19th century when this crib quilt was made, but it is today, with 11 newborn deaths for every 2,000 live births and 24 maternal deaths per 100,000 births.

Herkimer Chair Works, chair, 1890–1900; oak, metal, fabric.

La-Z-Boys have had middle America in a chokehold since their introduction in 1927. The reclining design deeply influenced how Americans understand rest, becoming even more popular as television settled into its role as a domestic fixture. But a long tradition of adjustable furniture — mostly campaign pieces made from iron or wood — predated this meat-and-potatoes classic. Herkimer Chair Works manufactured this upholstered oak reclining chair between 1890 and 1900. This mad dash for minimal effort could be read as a response to America’s endorsement of capitalism. If a need for repose could crystallize as a design object only 50 years after the end of the Industrial Revolution, what curiously functional objects will we see in another 50?

Christina Malman, Three Witches, c. 1935; pen and ink, brush and ink, white gouache on paper.

The most active year of the Salem Witch Trials was 1692. In this period, settlers ranging in age from nine to 70 were questioned; wives turned in by husbands and daughters accused by fathers. As one of the more famous examples of America’s capacity for destructive fear, the trials have remained a subject of fascination. They’ve been called a “frenzy,” shifting the blame away from those in power who legitimized the hunt. The trials have also become understood as a test of will between free-minded women and male authority; how each generation interprets themselves as a yardstick for shifting perceptions of gender and accountability. This 1935 drawing was made by an English émigrée, Christina Malman, who moved to the United States asa toddler. The late museum trustee and white-supremacist lawyer Charles Gould, who died in 1931, donated the funds that were used to purchase this image of witches in a vaguely Art Deco interior for the Cooper Hewitt, closing the loop on the denial and shame at the root of American cultural consciousness and the financial structure of American museums. Photo by Matt Flynn © Smithsonian Institution. Courtesy of © Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum / Art Resource, NY.

Mary Emiston, Sampler, 1803; silk embroidery on linen foundation.

The words on this 1803 linen sampler were sewn like a prayer, painstakingly stitched by Mary Emiston, a Black student at the New York African Free School. The institution’s name was misleading, as it was established in 1787 to educate the “free” children of enslaved people who were only granted full agency over their bodies in adulthood. Samplers were traditionally women’s work, used to perfect their needleworking. Denied the option to write their personal histories, they often wove their thoughts and preoccupations into these pieces of embroidery. Emiston concluded her silk embroidered statement with words that indicated the presence of ambition and a yearning for recognition in the BlackAmerican woman’s experience as early as 1803: “Let Afric’s daughters feel the grateful ties/ Which bind them to reward their Patrons care/ By striving to obtain the noble prize/ Of praise on earth and heav’n’s bright crown to wear.”

Field whip, 1850s; leather and metal.

It’s impossible to consider the history of American design without considering the objects created to curtail freedom. America’sdesign language is one of dominance, with thought and care put into a practice of punishment and control. This beautifully crafted 76-inch-long 1850s snake whip was the horrific connection point between the overseer and the enslaved, its tip deviating from the upper lash by two tightly wound strands of leather ending in a hard knot. The well-worn metal handle is attached to the head by two nails, making it easier to coil up for carrying. Two very disparate experiences were considered to create this whip: the ease of the overseer in carrying and using it and the pain and fear of the enslaved person on the receiving end of its touch. In its inception, brutality was achieved with precision and forethought, ultimately invalidating the myth of white America’s purported innocence. Courtesy of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. Gift of Oprah Winfrey.

Spyglass, early 19th century; brass, ivory, glass.

This spyglass of unknown origin encapsulates the American proclivity for surveillance. Its brassy frame expands to enhance the depth of vision while its ivory casing hints at the West’s predatory relationship with Africa. It also speaks to the different forms of voyeurism that pervade American interactions on both an interpersonal and governmental level, from the binoculars in Rear Window or Disturbia, racially tinged cuck porn, or the illegal surveillance of domestic communications by U.S. authorities. Like casual digital stalking made possible via Instagram, obsessively monitoring what would normally be outside of our immediate scope is an ever-present American pastime. Photo © Smithsonian Institution.

Firing Glass, 1800–25; free-blown glass.

What’s the contemporary version of “Huzzah”? Perhaps the equivalent isn’t a word but a sound. Tavern goers often expressed their approval with a loud bang of their drinking glass on wood. This early 19th-century “firing glass,” with its short, fat stem and wide bottom was designed to withstand such boisterous treatment. Diminutive but sturdy, its deceptively resilient design brings to mind clandestine pre-Revolutionary interiors or the rowdy scenes of a gold rush saloon.

Christmas tree ornament, 1850–99; brown sugar, dough.

Childhood pastimes in the U.S. include all manner of impermanent creation, from flour-water figurines and crude cats carved out of soap to Christmas cookies cut into festive shapes. This ornament, made from brown-sugar dough in the second half of the 19th century, likely required more refined skills, but its form suggests a doubly relevant emphasis on family holidays: Thanksgiving and Christmas rolled into the world’s smallest turkey. Despite Thanksgiving’s genocidal origins and Christmas’s decidedly pagan roots, much emphasis is placed on these celebrations as occasions for the idealized nuclear family to shine. In its worn state, this antique ornament speaks to the anxiety, melancholy, and restlessness that pervades an honest holiday at home.

Pistol with Ramrod Miniature, mid-19th century; steel, brass. © Smithsonian Institution.

Before the invention of the gun, one could not take another’s life without joining intimately, if just for a moment, in physical communion with one’s foe, whether with bare hands, a knife, or a dagger (poisoning notwithstanding). America’s ongoing problem with gun violence is rooted in this sense of depersonalization, which can be traced back long before the Second Amendment was included in the Constitution.

James Parker, One Shilling, 1763; engraving and quill and ink on beige wove paper with purple thread.

When paper money was first issued in England in 1694, common folk were more than a little mistrusting. The concept of value was straightforward then: material, labor, use. What worth was lowly paper? Three centuries later, such suspicion seems well founded as inflation continues to reach new heights. This 1763 one-shilling banknote, which came into circulation 12 years before the American Revolutionary War, was at some point split and rejoined. Its current state of defacement is symbolic of a very American distaste for excessive governmental oversight and the simultaneous desire to patch up what’s pulling us apart. © Smithsonian Institution.

Cross, 19th century; glass.

A burning cross is one of the most poignant symbols of white American culture, signifying the country’s Puritan origins, the new wave of Christian American values that have developed over the last 247 years, and the resulting obsession with purification. Glass, from which this late 19th-century cross is made, represents a different material purity. Crosses are commonly understood as portals into an otherworldly dimension. The Cooper Hewitt acquired this cross in 1923, the same year as the Rosewood massacre, an organized mass lynching of Black Floridians during the first seven days of the new year. An entire town was destroyed in a fear-filled fury that was motivated by a common desire for racial purity, similar to the better-known Black Wall Street massacre in Tulsa, Oklahoma, two years earlier. Despite the simplicity and clarity of this cross’s design, the historical context of its acquisition makes it a representation of pure horror.

Iron collar, 1800–50; wrought iron.

In the design of this wrought-iron collar, the warped psyches of America’s founders — and of their descendants — are cast in sharp relief. The Smithsonian describes the collar, which dates from the first half of the 19th century, as having been “used on men, women, and children to prevent escape and to control the captive inventory.” But the collar wasn’t created to control movement alone — it was designed to inflict physical and psychological pain. These weren’t shackles for the ankles or the feet, but for the neck, our head and mind’s central line of support and the base of what makes us human. This object is symbolic of a soul’s subjugation. Courtesy of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.

A selection from The Smithsonian Archives by Camille Okhio.

Camille Okhio is a New York–based writer, art and design historian, and the Senior Design Writer at Elle Décor. Her work has also appeared in Apartamento, Architectural Digest, Domino, PIN–UP, and Vogue. Her practice centers around fine antiques, contemporary art and design, and American and European history.

This story was originally published in PIN–UP 33.