Commodity of choice: gender roles, racial dynamics, and material consumption patterns at New Philadelphia, Illinois

by Kathryn Odeanne Fay

Institution: University of Illinois – Urbana-Champaign
Year: 2016
Keywords: Historic Archaeology; United States; African Americans; Women; Gender; Race; Material Culture; Consumption
Posted: 02/05/2017
Record ID: 2123068
Full text PDF: http://hdl.handle.net/2142/90548


The focus of this research project is the frontier town of New Philadelphia, Illinois (11PK455), the first town legally platted and planned in advance by African Americans in the United States. New Philadelphia was established in 1836 by Frank and Lucy McWorter, who had freed themselves from enslavement in Kentucky. The town was conceived as one open to whoever wished to purchase lots and live there, which ended up including both free African-American and European-American citizens. The town grew until shortly after the Civil War, when the bypass of the town by the railroad and other economic factors likely led to its decline. The land reverted to largely agricultural use in the 20th century. The National Science Foundation-funded New Philadelphia Archaeology Program began in 2004, hoping to uncover material and structural remains of the frontier town, as well as make the story of its inhabitants more known to the public. This analysis specifically focuses on the home and farm site of Louisa McWorter, located on Block 13 of New Philadelphia. Louisa was the daughter-in-law of the town’s founders, having married one of their sons, Squire, in 1843. She was widowed 12 years later, left to continue the farm, raise children, and care for extended family members as the head of her own household. Several years of excavation on this household site yielded over 20,000 artifacts and the remains of the foundation of the house. Using a framework of feminist, consumer choice, and race theories, the analysis of these artifacts tests the hypothesis that Louisa succeeded at maintaining her household and reveals additional information about the social structure of the rural community in relation to gendered and racialized interactions. As compared to other known-occupant households within New Philadelphia, Louisa’s material assemblage was largely similar to those of two of her European-American, male, head-of-household neighbors. This resemblance differs from the results of similar comparative studies done in urban areas, where a noticeable difference in material assemblage patterning was seen along racial divides. Other African-American sites throughout the country also show trends comparable to either the McWorter site or the above-mentioned urban domestic sites. The similarity in assemblages suggests that differing social structures and pressures were affecting consumer choices in rural New Philadelphia’s population than were affecting those in large cities. However, these similarities should not be mistaken as grounds for an assumption that Louisa would have experienced the community, the local economy, and social pressures in the same way as her white male neighbors. There would have been influences of sexism and racism affecting her life and her choices. Due to intersections between consumer choices and social pressures, those influences may be reflected in the one main difference between the assemblages: a larger percentage of utilitarian stoneware ceramic artifacts from Louisa’s home site. The larger percentage of… Advisors/Committee Members: Fennell, Christopher (advisor), Fennell, Christopher (Committee Chair), Lucero, Lisa (committee member), Frankenberg, Susan (committee member), Martin, Terrance (committee member).