Date of Degree
Kelly M. Britt
O. Hugo Benavides
Anthropology | Archaeological Anthropology
Historical Archaeology, American national identity, American-themed ceramics, archaeological advocacy, American exceptionalism, merchants
This study begins in the present with questions about the genealogy of American national identities in a time when they are fraught, exclusionary, and often dangerous. It examines ceramic tablewares and teawares from the post-Revolutionary War period in New York City, seeking to uncover the identities that were formed by the middle- and upper-class merchants, businessmen, and their families who may have used the wares. The theoretical framework is the concept of identity and the belief that people use material culture in social arenas in active and complex ways to produce, reproduce, announce, challenge, and change who they or the groups to which they belong are and how they are seen by others. The study considers the complex and multifaceted identities that might have been formed in these post-war contexts, with a focus on national identity. It then moves beyond the specific archaeological record to examine themes and elements present in a wider variety of British transfer-printed ceramics made for the American market, considering what national narratives might have been produced through these objects. I contend that the identity produced in these particular post-War, New York City social spaces of family meals, dinners parties, and teas was that of not only an exceptional nation but a divinely-blessed one, built on classically-based Enlightenment ideals and connected indissolubly to commerce. This linkage of nation and economy and their emplacement within a mythology of divine exceptionalism served to elide the inequality that invariably accompanies capitalism and was built into the legal, social, and economic structures of the new nation. I argue that these national identity threads have been remarkably persistent and present throughout the nation’s history, providing a visceral appeal to a broad swath of people beyond the demographics of this study. The production of the American nation was not just the formation of an identity but an apotheosis, the elevation of the nation and its founders to a divine level. The faith in and worship of American exceptionalism fosters entitlement, stifles dissent, demonizes diversity, and has provided the moral justification for everything from Manifest Destiny to the January 6 insurrection. This study concludes by applying the findings of this analysis to the present day, suggesting how they might be used in addressing the precarious context of national identity contestation. The past reverberates in and shapes the present and future. Archaeologists have the ability to be a voice in present-day discourses and contribute to the realization of future potentialities that allow for an inclusive definition of “American.”
George, Diane F., "American Apotheosis: Ceramics and the Production of National Identity in Post-Revolutionary New York City" (2022). CUNY Academic Works.