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APSU history class looks at artifacts of daily life in Tennessee

11/22/2016

CLARKSVILLE, Tenn. – In the early 1860s, a distraught Queen Victoria asked members of her royal court to stop wearing lavish jewelry. Her husband, Prince Albert, had just died, and the sight of such opulence offended the mourning queen. In the months that followed, England’s aristocracy began dressing in black, and to stay in the monarch’s good graces, they adorned themselves in the less flashy marcasite jewelry. In that moment, a fashion trend was born.

Earlier this semester, a group of Austin Peay State University undergraduates discovered the fascinating histories surrounding familiar objects—such as marcasite jewelry or antique shaving razors—thanks to an innovative Tennessee history course that requires students to look inquisitively at local artifacts. Deanna Carter, APSU history instructor, developed the class thanks to a grant from the University’s Learning Opportunities Center. The grant program was designed to provide APSU students with high impact learning opportunities.

“Using this grant, I bought a bunch of artifacts,” Carter said. “We went to antique stores from Memphis to Gatlinburg, looking for small items, handheld items, that a typical Tennessean would have seen or used in the past.”

Instead of writing a research paper on a famous Tennessean, Carter’s students investigated their items and were then asked to develop a museum-style exhibit describing the piece. An exhibition of the artifacts, along with the students’ research, is now on display in the Jenkins Gallery, on the third floor of the Morgan University Center.

“It’s an interactive exhibit,” Carter said. “Each item is assigned a number. When you go, you dial in this number (on your cell phone), and you will hear that student’s voice give information on their research.”

APSU student Jamie Hotchkin was given a small cameo for the project, and after hours of diligent research, she learned, according to her exhibit recording, that “the broche was originally worn by elites as a sign of status of wealth and class, but as it became easier to produce, it became cheaper and most women in Tennessee could afford them.” Hotchkin was also able to determine the type of shell used in the cameo’s design and, thanks to the type of clasp on the back, that it was produced sometime after 1910.

“I was delighted by the level of research she brought to the project,” Carter said.

She has taught this class for a few semesters, and this year, Carter wanted her students to delve a little deeper into their projects. One afternoon, while contemplating how to enrich her class, she bumped into Elliott Herzlich, a local jeweler who also happens to be married to Dr. Alisa White, APSU president.

“I knew Elliott was a jeweler, very knowledge about a lot of stuff, and also a collector of things and very interested in history,” Carter said. “I asked if he would be interested in coming and helping. Elliott, being the kind person he is, said, ‘I have a box of stuff I’ll loan you from my collection.’”

One afternoon in October, Herzlich arrived in Carter’s class with several antique items—including marcasite jewelry and Hotchkin’s cameo—and about 35 jeweler's loupes. The students quickly went to work, putting the loupes to their eyes to see what they could find on their artifacts. They scanned engraved napkin rings, old coins and military pins, looking for identifying marks, such as serial numbers.

“They got a chance to play with the items, touch them, learn from them,” Herzlich said. “The skills they’re learning from this, they should be able now to research anything that comes across their path. And I had a lot of fun with it. I was thrilled to work with Deanna, and I got a chance to interact with students, which I love.”

On Nov. 15, a small crowd gathered in the Jenkins Gallery for the opening of the exhibit. Carter smiled, as she always does, while introducing Herzlich and her students. She has long been a staple of the APSU Department of History and Philosophy, as both a graduate student and later as an instructor. As she surveyed the crowd in front of her, she wondered briefly what would happen with the class next year. Carter is leaving the University in December for health reasons.

“This is my swan song, but I’ve been told the show will go on,” she said. “I’m holding out to the end of the semester for my students, but we have two people in the history department interested in taking over these projects.”

Carter said she hopes to come to campus occasionally in the coming years to help with the class. Herzlich said if she ever needed transportation to the University, he’d drive and pick her up.