Some of my clearest memories of childhood are our family vacations, in and around the Northeast United States, and often into Canada. We would get in the car and drive, spending the nights at campgrounds or in rustic cabins. We would spend our days hiking and doing outdoors-ey activities or at historic sites, house museums and gardens. I don’t remember the names of the house museums or of the people who lived there, any more than I remember the names of the campgrounds, but I do have vivid recollections of docent-lead tours, rickety staircases, huge fireplaces, and dozens of niddy-noddys.
The Niddy-noddy would most often be sitting in a chair by the fireplace, or propped against a spinning wheel. I remember dozens of docents’ eyes lighting up when they ask the children on the tour (usually my brother and I) what this strange shaped contraption could possibly be. For those of you not subjected to house tours as a child, it is a wooden pole, with cross pieces attached perpendicularly at each end sort of like an uppercase ‘I” except the cross pieces are not flat like an “I” but at ninety degrees to each other. I was an incredibly shy child, so even though I knew perfectly well what it was (and what it is used for and even the rhyme) I would wait for the docent to pick it up, or at least gesture meaningfully, and tell me all about spinning fibers into cloth and winding them from the spinning wheel on to the niddy-noddy.
As a teacher of history myself I love using material culture: objects, buildings, costumes, to teach something about different time periods and ways of life, but I have to wonder at the effectiveness of such teaching techniques. Did I really learn anything about life in Colonial and early Nineteenth Century America when I was taught the rhyme that women would say while winding their yarn on to the niddy-noddy?
I was at a middle school in Connecticut, doing a short presentation about life in the European Middle ages, just a sneak peak for the 5th graders to get excited about what they would be learning in 6th grade, where I dressed up a girl and a boy from the class, and lead a short discussion about where clothes come from and how that shapes fashion and clothing styles. While their classmates were getting into tunics I asked the audience what clothing was made of and where cloth came from. A few of the 5th graders came up with wool coming from sheep and yarn being used for knitting, some even got to clothing being sewn out of cloth, but not the concept of cloth being woven from threads. I made my poor volunteers hold out their arms like scarecrows while I showed off the fact that their tunics were made of rectangular and triangular pieces of cloth, because rectangles (and triangles cut from rectangles) are the easiest to get out of whole pieces of cloth that have come off the loom.
I did learn more than just how to identify a niddy-noddy, I learned about pre-industrial, labor intensive cloth making practices. Did the kids in the 5th grade learn more than that they look funny in tunics, and that in the 6th grade they’ll learn about people wearing tunics? I hope so, even if only that you can make triangles out of rectangles.
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