Episode 084: Zara Anishanslin, How Historians Read Historical Sources


What do historians do with historical sources when they find them?

How do they read them for information about the past?

Today, Zara Anishanslin, an Assistant Professor of History at CUNY’s College of Staten Island, leads us on an exploration of how historians read historical sources by taking us through the documents and objects left behind by four everyday people.

About the Series

Doing History episodes will introduce you to historians who will tell you what they know about the past and reveal how they came to their knowledge.

Each episode will air on the last Tuesday of each month in 2016.

This series is part of a partnership between Ben Franklin’s World and the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture.

About the Show

Ben Franklin’s World is a podcast about early American history.

It is a show for people who love history and for those who want to know more about the historical people and events that have impacted and shaped our present-day world.

Each episode features a conversation with a historian who helps us shed light on important people and events in early American history.

Episode Summary

Zara AnishanslinIn this episode, we continue our behind-the-scenes tour of how historians work with Zara Anishanslin, an Assistant Professor of History at CUNY’s College of Staten Island and author of Portrait of a Woman in Silk: Hidden Histories of the British Atlantic World.

During our investigation of how historians read historical sources, Zara reveals what historians mean when they talk about primary and secondary historical sources; How historians read and interpret primary historical sources; And details about the lives of four, everyday people who lived during the 18th century: Anne Shippen Willing, Robert Feke, Anna Maria Garthwaite, and Luke Sweetland.

What You’ll Discover

  • What historians mean by “material culture”
  • Primary and secondary historical sources
  • How historians classify material culture as a historical source
  • The story of the “portrait of a woman in silk,” Ann Shippen WIlling
  • Details about 18th-century fashion and portraiture
  • Ann Shippen Willing of Philadelphia
  • Robert Feke, painter
  • How to read a portrait as a historical source
  • Anna Maria Garthwaite, silk designer
  • How Zara traced the silk design in Ann Shippen Willing’s portrait to Anna Maria Garthwaite
  • How to think like a historical detective and read historical sources
  • What a will can tell us about Anna Maria Garthwaite’s life
  • How reading between the lines in Garthwaite’s will tells us more about her life
  • Coverture and women’s rights in the 18th century
  • Life of silk designers
  • 18th-century consumer culture
  • English-French rivalry
  • How North America influenced English fashion
  • How historians resolve conflict between historical sources
  • Luke Sweetland, Native American captive & Revolutionary War soldier
  • How historians maintain objectivity when they research people
  • Tips for maintaining objectivity when reading historical sources
“Portrait of a Woman in Silk,” Ann Shippen Willing by Robert Feke. Courtesy of Zara Anishanslin & the Winterthur Museum


Links to People, Places, and Publications


Time Warp PlainTime Warp Question

If you could go back in time and ask Anna Maria Garthwaite anything about her life, what would you ask?

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