Our summer interns are hard at work, and once again we've asked them to share their discoveries during their internship experience. Here, Tiffany helps us see ordinary structures in an extraordinary way.
“I’m cataloging an image of a trash can.”
I had to giggle. The more images of trashcans – and toilets – that I cataloged, the harder it was not to laugh. But I had to wonder, why? What makes a trashcan or toilet so important that someone would want to take dozens of pictures?
In the 1960s, when the photographs were taken, anyone developing the photos probably wondered the same thing. Maybe even the photographer, tired from traversing the park all day, was pondering this question, too. But looking back, it was important.
The idea for the Theodore Roosevelt National Park started almost immediately after Roosevelt’s death in 1919. Proposals to establish memorials in his honor sprang up around the country, but it was in the Little Missouri badlands of North Dakota that a National Park would be formed. By 1935, a cooperative agreement was in place and work had begun on the Roosevelt Recreation Demonstration Area (which became a National Park in the 1970s). The Civilian Conservation Corps, Works Progress Administration, and Emergency Relief Administration built roads, trails, picnic areas, campgrounds, and various buildings until 1941, when construction stopped due to the war.
These buildings included toilets and trash cans, and they are important.
From a historic preservation standpoint, trashcans and toilets matter to the built environment. They keep the environment clean and make for a more pleasant experience. They make a place feel whole because they serve one of our most basic needs: waste disposal.
The placement of toilets and trashcans also tells us something important: where people are likely to congregate. The more toilets and trash cans in a given area, the more likely that area was used as a gathering place – for camping, picnics, and other outings. They may also suggest where vendors or tour groups stopped, allowing travelers a break during their journey through the national park.
The toilets are important for another reason: their architecture. In the absence of other buildings, toilets can tell us what architectural style might have been used when the campgrounds were built. This gives us an idea of the time period in which the area was built, who might have built it, and what kind of climate challenges they faced. The materials used in construction also tell us these things, as well as whether local materials were used or, if not, what kind of trade networks might have existed with other regions.
We know a lot about the Theodore Roosevelt National Park because of the documents left by its builders and how relatively recent the site was constructed. Yet cataloging toilets and trashcans reveals an important aspect of history: that we can know about a site – and its uses – from more than just documents. We can look at the buildings around us – their placement, style, and the materials and methods used – to find out the larger story of a society. We discover the environmental problems, trade networks, and needs of a people based on how they modified their environment.
So what do you see around you, right now? What buildings are you living, working, and playing in – and what do these buildings say about the history of your town, or how you and your environment interact? I bet you it says a lot more than you ever imagined.
Tiffany Piotti earned her Masters in Public History from Appalachian State University in 2013. She is currently a volunteer for a virtual museum and hopes to work with digital collections and social media for museums in the future.