A few summers ago I had the opportunity to be part of the American Revolution Teacher Institute at the Society of the Cincinnati. I had no idea about the Society before my visit.The Society of the Cincinnati was organized in 1783 by Continental officers. It was the first Veteran’s organization in the United States. George Washington was the first president of the Society and served from 1783-1799. The Society of the Cincinnati is now a non-profit educational organization.
While I was at the American Revolution Institute I learned about the Cincinnati china. The original 302 pieces of Cincinnati China were purchased in 1786 by Henry (“Light-Horse Harry”) Lee for George Washington. Today a handful of institutions own pieces of this original set. The one below is from the National Gallery of Art. The export porcelain depicts the Society’s Eagle with a winged figure of Fame.
I have never been one for porcelain or dinnerware. I can’t say I have ever really paid attention to them in museums. But, the story behind this set is fascinating and it involves my favorite president so, of course, I was intrigued.
While I was at the American Revolution Institute I was able to dig into some primary source material about the china including the letter from George Washington to Henry Lee about the purchase of the china.
“I am much oblige to you for the information respecting the China which is for sale in New York, with the order of the Cincinnati engraved on it; if it should be be disposed of before this letter reaches you, and you think a ready and safe conveyance can be had for it to Alexendaria or this place, I would thank you for buying it for me.”
-George Washington to Henry Lee, July 25, 1786
One activity I love to do with objects incorporates images, objects, and written primary source material. I give one group of students a picture of the object, one group the actual object, and one group the written source material. Then I ask them all to answer some basic material culture questions to figure out what the object is. For example: Where was the object made? When was it made? What is it made of? What is it’s cultural significance? I always ask the groups to separate so they can’t see what other groups are doing. The reveal of the activity comes at the end of the lesson.
The questions I ask are a mix of questions focused on the physical features, significance, material, function, and origin. The students can only answer based on what they see in front of them. Usually the group with the object feels as though they know the whole story of the object. Sometimes, those with the primary source are the most stumped. But, no one has the complete story. After some analysis students are invited to share their findings. I love the “a-ha’s” that come when students begin to put the story together as they hear their classmates share their findings. The group with the photograph of the object is always shocked at the actual size of the object. Photographs rarely offer perspective and I try to give photos to my groups that don’t offer perspective.
The idea behind the activity is that you can never tell the full story without looking at all the historical evidence. Students are required to be historical thinkers and practice observation skills.
There are plenty of written sources, primary and secondary, about the Cincinnati plate. There’s the letter I quoted above, as well as a newspaper ad and a letter from Washington to Tench Tilgham that lists the china specifically. You can buy a replica from Mount Vernon for the group that uses the object for their inquiry.
I have done this object-based lesson plenty of times, always with a different curious or interesting object. It’s an activity that can be done with students as young as third grade. You just have to check the written sources.
Objects are a great vehicle for inquiry and collaboration. Any time students can get their hands on objects their engagement increases. I wrote about integrating informal learning in the classroom in a previous post.
I would love to hear about some of the interesting ways you are using objects in your classrooms.