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News Student Blog: In search of historical graffiti

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​PSP student Michael Emmons photographs historic graffiti found in a c. 1880 store/post office in rural North Carolina (photo: Catherine Morrissey);

​​​​For many, the study of historic inscriptive culture (graffiti, inscriptions, and other markings on objects) does not suggest a specific academic discipline -- and probably for good reason.  It is part material culture studies, part archaeology/anthropology, part historic preservation, part vernacular architecture studies, part history, with a dash of critical theory.  That is why the Preservation Studies Program (PSP), with its dedicated interdisciplinary structure, seemed tailor made for my dissertation.

My path to Preservation Studies was a bit circuitous -- I worked in several history museums while earning my BA in history from Bowling Green State University in Ohio and my MA in history from the University of Connecticut.  After completing my masters, I entered the world of real estate, specializing in marketing historic properties in eastern Connecticut.  I toured scores of historic houses -- ranging from colonial era, timber framed homes with huge stone fireplaces and iron cooking cranes, to 1920s Craftsman bungalows with tidy exteriors, glowing interior woodwork, and expansive front porches for relaxing.  It was during my real estate years that I really began to appreciate -- and study -- historic architecture.  I would also occasionally encounter old markings in historic houses, especially in attics or basements.  I found always found these handwritten clues from the past fascinating.  They seemed to personalize, or humanize, otherwise faceless historic buildings.  

Still, at the time, I was not really aware of material culture studies, or vernacular architecture studies, and it had not occurred to me that I might make preservation a career.  After my wife and I had our first child, I hung up my real estate shoes, moved our family back to our home state of Ohio (to be close to family again), and started teaching history, government, and geography classes at a nearby community college.  It was at this time, incidentally, that I really discovered the world of historic preservation.  One semester, a dean at the college asked me to prepare a report about careers in historic preservation -- a seemingly routine task that turned out to be a transformative moment in my life.  As I researched preservation careers, and discovered the range of jobs available in that field -- and that one could study the architecture and preservation of ordinary buildings -- I realized I had missed my calling (or at least had taken awhile to hear the call).  After some in-depth research into historic preservation programs, I decided to pursue another masters degree.

The University of Delaware's masters program in historic preservation made the most sense to me.  Assistantships in that program involved working in the Center for Historic Architecture and Design (CHAD) -- where I would learn to do measured architectural drawings of threatened buildings, nominate historic properties to the National Register of Historic Places, and survey entire historic districts for the state preservation office.  I was also attracted by the opportunity to take elective classes in associated departments, like the Winterthur Program in American Material Culture.

​A photograph of an 1820s ship graffiti from a Quaker meetinghouse in Pennsylvania, viewed with Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI) software (photo: Michael Emmons)

 The combination of those opportunities -- studying historic buildings very closely in the field, and studying material culture and vernacular architecture in the classroom -- proved to be a fortuitous mix.  While documenting old houses, barns, and other structures here in the Mid-Atlantic, I noticed more markings than ever -- datestones, builder's signatures, historic graffiti, window panes etched with names or verse, and sometimes, mysterious symbols carved in attics or on fireplace lintels.  Intrigued, I sought explanations for some of these practices. I was surprised to find very little scholarly literature about inscriptions on buildings, or even on objects more broadly. At the same time, I was reading extensively in vernacular architecture and material culture, learning to evaluate the social, cultural, and economic context of objects ranging from buttons to barns.  I increasingly saw the historic markings and inscriptions I encountered as valuable cultural artifacts with much to tell us about the relationships between people and things.  As a preservationist, I also believe strongly that these historic inscriptions should be studied, interpreted, and preserved.

The doctoral program in Preservation Studies (PSP) at the University of Delaware is the perfect place for me to complete this work.  Since I already had two masters degrees, I welcomed the opportunity to complete just one additional year of coursework before qualifying exams and presenting the proposal, rather than the two years of coursework required for some PhD programs.  The interdisciplinary approach in PSP allowed me to take classes (and develop relationships with strong advisors) in a variety of disciplines: history, material culture, archaeology, preservation, art history, and even the English department.  In the process, I have benefitted from experiences and privileges that only Delaware could offer: I was selected to participate in the DELPHI fellowship program, which encourages material culture scholars on campus to better engage the public; I am able to regularly attend lectures in material culture and art conservation at Winterthur and on campus, including programs organized by the Center for Material Culture Studies; I participated in the English Design History course with the Winterthur material culture fellows, including an intensive one-week field study in London; I continue to gain valuable preservation experience in the Center for Historic Architecture and Design (CHAD), including giving guest lectures in several preservation classes; and last but not least, I am immersed in an academic world focused on material culture and preservation, with the unmatched collections of institutions such as Winterthur Museum and Hagley Museum nearby.

​A ​visitor from Kingston, New York, carved his name on a door in 1838.

As I enter my third year in PSP, I am finished with coursework, my exams, and my dissertation prospectus is nearly complete.  My three exam fields -- historic preservation, material culture, and vernacular architecture -- were tailor made for my project, allowing me to focus my readings in subject matter and theory that would directly impact my research.  My dissertation, titled "Inscribing Early America: Marking Time, Emotion, and Belief in the Material World, 1700-1870," draws on extensive field documentation of historic buildings and the study of artifacts at Winterthur, while engaging scholarship in history, material culture, archaeology, and historic preservation. I've already gained wonderful experience and insights by presenting my preliminary work at conferences and symposiums in several of these fields.  My long-term goal is to secure a teaching position in a historic preservation program, and with a doctorate in Preservation Studies from one of the best programs in the country, I am confident I will be well prepared to achieve that goal.


-- PSP doctoral student Michael Emmons

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Third-year PSP doctoral student Michael Emmons shares how he came to be interested in historical inscriptive culture (graffiti, inscriptions, and other markings on objects) and his path to UD's Preservation Studies Program.

Third-year PSP doctoral student Michael Emmons shares how he came to be interested in historical inscriptive culture (graffiti, inscriptions, and other markings on objects) and his path to UD's Preservation Studies Program.

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  • The Department of Art Conservation
  • 303 Old College
  • University of Delaware
  • Newark, DE 19716, USA
  • Phone: 302-831-3489