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Food for Thought: Juniata Art Historian Studies Nationalism Through Food, Furnishings

(Posted March 19, 2007)

Nancy Siegel, assistant professor of art history.

HUNTINGDON, Pa. - Today\'s schoolchildren learn early how American patriots put down their plows and picked up their flintlocks to march off to join the Minutemen or a local militia bent on ousting the British from the colonies. But what about the women who were left behind? How did they create their own patriotic fervor? According to Nancy Siegel, assistant professor of art history at Juniata College, patriotism and nationalism entered the (new) American household literally on the dinner table. She\'s currently writing and researching \"An Acquired Taste: Patriotic Imagery in the Home and the Shaping of a National Culture,\" which makes the argument that women participated in the birth of a fledgling nation by creating, cooking and collating patriotic recipes, collecting crockery with nationalistic themes or illustrations, or finding furniture decorated with patriotic imagery. Her research reaches beyond the battles of the colonial period and even the art commemorating the Revolutionary era. The spread of patriotism did not disappear after the colonial period. Many of the same food-related themes emerge during many of America\'s conflicts, such as the Civil War and both World War I and World War II. More recently, lawmakers tried to rename French dressing and french fries after France refused to support the invasion of Iraq. She is looking at 18th- and 19th-century America through culinary recipes, use of patriotic ceramics and furniture and published cookbooks. To date she has pored through cookbooks, diaries, recipes and other source documents to trace how women used their domestic duties to become part of the democratic society. In her research, she looked through many colonial cookbooks and found recipes for Federal Pancakes, Liberty Tea or Independence Cake. \"Women\'s roles in the democratic process were limited, so the way they played a role was through their culinary actions, which had strong political ramifications,\" she says. \"Liberty Tea, for example -- women decided not to drink imported tea, and were urging others to boycott tea, so they devised this recipe. So much is going on in these early cookbooks that is tied to political ideology.\" Siegel has researched cookbooks and culinary records at Winterthur Museum in Wilmington, Del. in fall 2005 and spend last summer as a Smithsonian Institution Research Fellow at the Museum of American Art. She has completed considerable research on how china and tableware decorated with landscape images taken from recognizably American artists such as Thomas Cole served as artistic-yet-functional talismans that gave homeowners a sense of the vastness and possible greatness of their country. Siegel\'s training and area of expertise is in art history. Her area of specialization centers on early American artist Thomas Cole and the Hudson River School of artists, which includes such painters as Asher Durand, Frederic Church and Albert Bierstadt. Her interest in how Staffordshire ceramics used images of Thomas Cole landscapes to sell tableware in the American market led to her further research on cookbooks and other domestic possessions. \"These culinary activities codified and spread the themes of nationalism in a cogent and material manner,\" says the art historian. \"It established the success (of nationalism) in ways more powerful than presidential addresses or ratified documents ever could.\"

Contact John Wall at wallj@juniata.edu or (814) 641-3132 for more information.