Primary Source Images: Real or Ideal?

By Cynthia Resor posted 26 days ago


Real or ideal? Historians and students must ask this question when examining primary source images and texts depicting daily life. Many primary sources texts and images are nostalgic, skewing our views of the past. Nostalgia is a sentimental longing for the past.

We’ve all heard nostalgic references to the halcyon days when people didn’t need to lock the doors of their homes, neighbors always helped neighbors, men were brave and chivalrous, women virtuous, and students always did their homework and behaved. In every historical era, references are made to previous golden age. But was a previous era really that good? Did everyone live in this perfect world?  Probably not.

Currier and Ives’ lithograph prints can illustrate the contrast between the real and ideal. The printmaking firm Currier and Ives sold inexpensive lithograph prints depicting historical events, popular images, and portraits from 1834 to 1907. They are easy to locate on the Library of Congress website and the Museum of the City of New York website

Ask students to examine one or a set of Currier and Ives prints, speculating about what was ideal and what was real. Next, explore the realities of the time period through textbook and written primary source readings.

Nostalgic lithograph prints idealizing rural farm homes were especially popular. The 1877 lithograph depicted below was entitled “Home Sweet Home.” A rural family is relaxing on the porch of a perfect home. There is no evidence of the hard labor required by men, women, and children on a late 19th century farm.  In reality, 1877 was a year of the labor unrest, the Great Railroad Strike, and Indian Wars. More and more Americans were leaving the farm to live and work in towns and cities. This demographic shift, the economic disaster caused by the Panic of 1873, and uncertainty about the future caused many to yearn for the “good old days,” an idealized past.

For more ideas for teaching about daily life in the past using primary source texts and images, visit my website;  “like” my blog Primary Source Bazaar or check out my new book – Investigating Family, Food, and Housing Themes in Social Studies

"Home Sweet Home" Lithograph, 1877, Courtesy of Library of Congress
"Home Sweet Home" Lithograph, 1877, Courtesy of Library of Congress