Understanding the historical context of 19th century toys

Emily Wells ’15—Curatorial Intern at Colonial Williamsburg

Emily working on one of the dolls in the Colonial Williamsburg’s Toy Collection

Emily Wells ’15, Curatorial Intern at Colonial Williamsburg

Major: HistoryFrench Minor

Internship organization: Colonial Williamsburg Foundation

The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation operates a living-history museum in the restored town of Williamsburg. In this setting, costumed interpreters bring 18th-century Williamsburg to life and explore the events and ideas surrounding the American Revolution. The Foundation also operates two museums, the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum and the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum. These museums house a variety of objects that were used in America during the 18th and 19th centuries.

Her work: I was a Curatorial Intern in the museum's Curatorial Department. I worked with a variety of 19th and 20th-century toys; focusing primarily on tin toys, dolls, and games. My primary responsibility was to examine individual toys and use my observations to write descriptions and brief condition reports. I then added this information to the museum's electronic catalog. I also researched selected toys and toy companies, writing brief reports on my findings that I added to the object files along with other print resources I had found.

I also wrote French to English translations for a group of 19th-century card games. I used my translations to investigate the history of these games and discover how they had originally been played. I had the opportunity to attend regular meetings alongside other curatorial and museum staff. I helped out on smaller projects that gave me the opportunity to work with the other curators as well; for instance photographing a doll with the Curator of Textiles and Historic Interiors and travelling to Monticello to look at a cabinet with the Curator of Furniture. I also gained experience working with exhibits in the museum by attending volunteer trainings and assisting with several exhibit installations.

Her History major in Action: I was able to use my background in early American history to understand the historical context of the objects that I was working with. I was also able to better appreciate the history being interpreted in the museum and historic town. Although I had little knowledge of 19th century toys going into the internship, I was able to use the research skills that I had developed as a History major to learn more about the objects I was working with and delve deeper into their historical context.

During this internship, I honed my ability to conduct object-based research. The experience made me think about museums in a new way and introduced me to the idea of looking at history through the lens of material culture. I learned a lot about the day-to-day operations of a museum. I also learned more about the opportunities available in this field.