Last night at the University of Nebraska’s James A. Rawley graduate conference in the Humanities, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich presented the keynote address on “Ink and Thread,” an examination of the material objects at the center of early American Mormonism–personal diaries and quilts. Her talk was inspiring and eye-opening, especially in the way she reframed the early Mormon movement around family, community, and identity, and used the material objects to reveal her argument. So often, historians use objects and images merely as illustration, but not Ulrich. For her the object itself needs to be interpreted and examined as visual material. The digitization of rare historical sources has led scholars often to see and encounter these diaries and letters as computerized texts, stripped of their original form. But Ulrich reminds us that the form, the object, deserves scrutiny and analysis–and I think she does so, and does so exceedingly well, because of her experience with digitizing texts.
Ulrich, the award-winning author of A Midwifes’ Tale and the creator of DoHistory, is researching the lives and experiences of the Mormon founders in the 1830s, 40s, and 50s. Her “object-oriented” approach brings together the craft of diary keeping and quilt making, suggesting that the men and women of this period crossed and intersected genres in surprising and significant ways. Her presidential address in 2009 to the American Historical Association focused on one quilt–an 1857 object that dozens of Mormon women stitched and signed as a symbol of opposition to the American troops headed toward Utah to occupy the territory. That quilt–The Fourteenth Ward Album quilt–provided the main structure for her talk at Nebraska as well. And it is a beautiful object. Digitized images of it reveal the exquisite detail and signatures on its blocks. Ulrich also showed the diary of Wilford Woodruff, one of the leading figures in early Mormonism. His richly embroidered penmanship demonstrated a quilting effect in the diary, a level of detail, imagery, craft, and, indeed, art that drew on the genre of the quilt and the family album. Ulrich’s presentation argued that by understanding the relationship between family, community, and identity through these objects we can piece together the experience of these Americans, see them in more complete context, and understand their struggles and triumphs with more clarity.