Saturday, September 15, 2012

Ethnicity in Antebellum St. Louis

An Irish neighborhood in St. Louis, 1858.
        In St. Louis, the neighborhoods straddling Biddle Street between 6th and 12th Streets during the mid 19th  century were generally remembered as densely populated residential districts inhabited primary by working class Irish immigrants. During the 1850s, 60s, and 70s, particular areas of the neighborhood were known by informal names such as  “Kerry Patch” (referring to County Kerry in Ireland), “Castle Thunder” (a particularly scary tenement building), and “Clabber Alley” (referring to sour milk). Census information, however, indicates that these neighborhoods were also well populated by German immigrants.

I just finished a study of thousands of artifacts, dating circa 1840-1865, that were excavated in this neighborhood. One of the findings of the study is that this very ethnic part of the city doesn’t really look much different from other neighborhoods of the same period, at least through the lens of archaeological artifacts. Instead, what we see by the mid 19th century is essentially a mass-produced, mass marketed material universe, not unlike the one we know today.
Two mid-19th century pipes from St. Louis: A British pipe with thistle motif,
 and a personalized German porcelain pipe.
            There were only a few objects that, by themselves, speak of the unique heritage of the neighborhood. These include traditional redware food storage and cooking pots, German porcelain smoking pipes, and British-made smoking pipes decorated with traditional Irish and Scottish symbols. Even at a folk-object level, traditional symbolism was complex: an unusual folk pipe that might be attributable to German immigrant pipe-maker Henry Nolle, is decorated with a portrait of Napoleon.
A smoking pipe possibly made by St. Louis pipe-maker Henry Nolle, around 1845. 
        The lesson here is that our cultural identity has been largely untethered from the things that we buy in stores for a very long time.