by Lauren Grizzard
Items from the past, or artifacts, can teach us about the culture and technology of a different time. They teach us about the people that used them and what their lives might have been like. Today, we are going to look at three artifacts and see if you can determine who might have used them. Hint: They all belonged to the same Tennessean.
What do you notice this is made from? Does it look like something you’ve seen before?
What do you think this would be used for? Does it look like it would be used in a wealthy family?
What does this artifact tell you about the person that used it?
Thinking about these three items together, what do you know about the person? Maybe they were wealthy, or a prominent (important or famous) woman. Does it look like these items are newer, or older? Probably older, around the 1800s. With all that in mind, can you think of the Tennessee woman these items belonged to?
They all belonged to First Lady Sarah Childress Polk! Sarah was married to President James K. Polk, 11th President of the United States. She was a trusted advisor to the President and even served as his secretary which was normally a job held by a man at the time. She entertained political leaders and became a well-respected figure at the White House. Knowing what you know now, let’s go back and learn more about the items Sarah owned and used.
Souvenir Wooden Book Made from the Decking of the USS Constitution
The USS Constitution became a famous fighting ship after the War of 1812 when it earned the name “Old Ironsides.” It was refitted and the wood on the ship turned into souvenirs. This belonged to Sarah Childress Polk who presented it to Tennessee Historical Society in 1857.
The Pitcher of the Chiefs
This pitcher was likely gifted to Sarah Polk by Cherokee Chief Oconostota. The letter given with the pitcher wished for Sarah “…that she may live long in prosperity and happiness, and that she may sometimes think kindly of the Cherokee people.”
This French silk satin morning gown was made in the 1840s for Sarah Polk.
Artifacts each have their own stories to tell and helps us understand the people that owned them. Look at the items around your room and think about what your belongings say about you. Maybe one day, they’ll be in a museum too!
Lauren Grizzard is the Scheduling Coordinator at the Tennessee State Museum.