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Teaching with Artifacts: What Edith Galt Wilson’s Suit Can Teach Students about World War I and Women in America

by on May 28, 2014


Today’s post comes from Elizabeth Dinschel, education specialist at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum.

As educators, what are some of the ways we can engage history students?  We know they are adaptive learners, so involving them in historic inquiry may be the best way to hook them.  Teaching with artifacts and other primary sources leads students down a path where they feel like detectives on a mission to discover what the primary sources can teach them about history.  This entry will use Edith Galt Wilson’s Worth Suit as an example of how we can use visual literacy and historic context to engage students.

Photograph of Edith Galt Wilson's Worth Suit

What is this?

Does it make a difference if I tell you it belonged to Edith Wilson?

Does it make more of a difference if I tell you it witnessed an important part of American History?

Does it interest you that Edith was a pivotal First Lady for fashion?

Does it interest you if I tell you that she monitored the country’s affairs as a woman who could not vote in America yet while her husband was ill?

These are all rhetorical questions that could get students interested in learning about Mrs. Wilson, WWI, Women, and even fashion.  The array of topics will be enough to catch every student’s attention in the classroom.  The artifact does not even have to be present to make an impact.  A picture to lead off a discussion will be enough.

Let’s explore the questions one by one:

What is this?

This is a Worth Suit.

Does it make a difference if I tell you it belonged to Edith Wilson?

Edith Galt Wilson was First Lady during WWI.  She was the first First Lady to attend foreign diplomatic talks.  She traveled to France and attended the Paris Peace Conference.

Does it make more of a difference if I tell you it witnessed an important part of American History?

She was wearing this suit when the Treaty of Versailles was signed in June 1919.  The treaty ended the state of war between the Allied Powers and Germany.  She wrote in My Memoir:

Margaret Wilson and Miss Benham went with me to the Hall of Mirrors where the ceremony was held and, curiously enough, where the German Empire had been proclaimed in 1871.  Four documents were to be signed: the Peace Treaty, the Convention concerning Alsace-Lorraine, the Convention relative to the occupation of the Rhine territory, and the protocol recognizing the independence of Poland…the crowds would no longer be held back; they broke through the cordon of police and surged around the four men.  For a moment the mass came with such force that it was alarming, but, laughing and cheering, those nearest joined hands, making a circle around the statesmen.

Portrait of Edith Bolling Wilson

Does it interest you that Edith was a pivotal First Lady for fashion?

Fashion was very important to Edith.  She wrote in My Memoir about how important fashion was to her.  She wrote about Charles Worth making her clothing.  Charles Worth was a famous clothing designer in Paris.  Edith began to purchase American clothes over French clothing, which started a transitionary period of First Ladies buying American-designed clothing.  First Ladies fashions are important because they teach us about American culture during their own time period and the important role they fill as a partner to their husband, the President.

Does it interest you if I tell you that she monitored the country’s affairs as a woman who could not vote in America yet while her husband was ill?

Edith monitored all of Woodrow Wilson’s affairs following his massive stroke in October 1919. She made so many important decisions that she was called “Mrs. President” by lawmakers.  The legislators were also critical of her “petticoat government.” Actually, it was claimed, that she did not care about politics, but she was very concerned for the health of the man she called “my precious.” After Woodrow Wilson’s death in 1924 (his last word was “Edith!”), his widow remained highly visible in Washington, DC, and in Democratic Party affairs. As late as 1961, she could still refer to her husband’s arch-enemy, Henry Cabot Lodge, as “that stinking snake.”  Despite the important role she played in 1919, women could not even vote until the 19th Amendment passed in 1920.

Photograph of President and Mrs. Wilson

This one artifact can start classroom discussions about WWI, women in the early 1900s, suffrage, the role of material culture in First Ladies History, the importance of First Ladies, the importance of fashion and French imports, and the League of Nations.

Historic inquiry is a foundation on which to build interest for our adaptive learners.  Our students open up Google or Wikipedia to find answers to questions with little or no prompting.  If we, as educators, pose questions and encourage the same type of natural adaptive behaviors, such as looking up answers or asking more questions when given more information, we can spark and hold the interest of students, leading them to use primary sources to draw conclusions and understand the importance of historic context.

If you are interested in more methods for teaching with artifacts, register for “Teaching With Primary Sources: Using Artifacts to Teach History,” an Iowa State License Renewal class with Annette Dunlap and Elizabeth Dinschel at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum in West Branch, Iowa.

Special thanks to the President Woodrow Wilson House and the National Trust for Historic Preservation for access to this information and permission to share the images. Visit www.WoodrowWilsonHouse.org to learn more.


Comments

Robyn May 29, 2014 at 1:10 pm

Teaching with artifacts is the only way to really reach down into a student.

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