Laurel Museum's trunk show lets children hold history in their hands

Fire buckets, chamber pots and bed-warmers may be things of the past, items important to life two centuries ago but obsolete in the modern world. But they're also items that help history come alive this summer for Laurel-area students.

Over the course of about 2 1/2 weeks, Laurel Historical Society Executive Director Lindsey Baker is bringing a traveling trunk filled with historical objects to playgrounds and gyms in the Laurel and Beltsville area during summer camps hosted at those schools, offering a hands-on lesson in the lives of children during the area's 19th-century industrial years.

"One of the things we really want to teach the kids is that Laurel didn't just come out of nowhere," Baker said. "We have roots. We have a history. The community they live in has evolved over time, and they're a part of that community. That's our biggest goal: developing that concept of community. You have a past, a present and a future, and we want to be involved in all of that."

Baker took her trunk to Montpelier Elementary School Thursday, July 18, for the summer camp held in the gym. In the trunk was a fire bucket, a darning egg, a chamber pot, a cherry pitter, a candle maker, a soap saver and a soap grater, among other objects.

The children, working in groups, were given an object and asked to identify it and present their findings to the other students. The tactile learning experience is designed to create a living history right in the palms of their hands, Baker said.

"When we ask them about the past, they understand there were no computers, no TVs," she said. "They have a good handle on that, but what does that connection actually mean? With no phones or fire trucks, it was up to you and your neighbors to put out a fire with water in the fire buckets. The bucket has a rounded edge so you couldn't set it down, and they understand that because they understand it's like a television remote — if you put it down, you're going to lose it."

When the children learn about the chamber pot and what it was used for, Baker said, "they just lose it."

Baker said she wants them to take that experience — deducing what an object could be used for — and translate it to critically observing the world around them.

"We're giving them the skills to analyze their world," she said. "Giving presentations to each other, too, builds up those skills and helps them engage further in their own learning."

Picture tells a story

Another part of the presentation is old photographs, taken by anti-child labor activist Lewis Hine in the 1800s. The historical society matches up those images with a corresponding child noted in old census data from Laurel — data, for example, that shows a child as young as 6-years-old once worked in the Laurel Cotton Mill.

"We know, for example, that there was an Amanda Waterman who was 15 and who worked in the mill as a spooler," Baker said. "So we looked at what a girl that age would be doing, what her job would entail and what her salary would be. The kids get really interested in that."

The students also respond well to the idea of child labor, and the dangerous conditions young children worked in at the mill. Since children are naturally smaller than adults, mills would hire them to perform tasks like fixing the machine, little hands reaching into places adults couldn't get to. That put them in nearly constant danger of being maimed or killed by the machines.

"The kids get that," Baker said. "We have pictures of an injured child, and he's their age."

That was one of the key lessons children at Montpelier left the presentation with: how dangerous and difficult their lives could have been in the 1800s.

"The kids had to work, and it wasn't safe, and they didn't get a lot of money," said Jeniya Drakeford, 7, a rising third-grader at Montpelier.

Allyssa Britton, also a rising third-grader at Montpelier, agreed.

"A little kid like us would have to work in the olden days, and they had to fix machines while they were still running and they could get hurt," said Allyssa, 8. "And they didn't get much allowance."

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