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The glasses above were recovered from a well excavated in 1996 and 1997 under the direction of Dr. Rick Jones, the Indiana State Archaeologist and an adjunct faculty member here at IUPUI.  These excavations were the only archaeological investigations of Ransom Place prior to the 2000 field season, and they are among the few African-American archaeological projects conducted in the region.  This year we have been preparing a detailed analysis of the feature, and we can venture some preliminary interpretations that provide interesting insights into the everyday life of at least one Ransom Place household around 1930.

The home that is today numbered 941 North Camp Street was built sometime in the final quarter of the nineteenth century.  A structure was certainly on the lot by 1887, when Sanborn maps show a building at every lot on the east side of North Camp.  All of the householders along this side of the street were recorded as White by the 1880 census-keeper, but by 1900 the first African-American families had settled the street, including the Covington family at 941.  The Covingtons appear to have been folks of relatively modest means, but they were among the first African-American residents and homeowners in the neighborhood, and their long-term residence at the home over at least 40 years is quite distinctive in a community that included many highly mobile renters. The Covingtons' home appears at the gold arrow in this 1887 Sanborn insurance map.  Camp Street runs along the left (western) side of this closeup, with 10th street at the top of the map.

This 1898 insurance map shows the home at the arrow.  Note that since the 1887 map an addition had been made to the southern side of the home and the rear.

Over 40 years later, this rather cluttered 1941 map shows "41" Camp Street at the arrow.  All the outbuildings in the back yard had been removed by this time.

In 1900 the family of Ephraim B. Covington and his wife Angy was residing in the home at 941 Camp with their niece Mary E. Brooks.  Ephraim and his first wife were both born in Kentucky and married in 1886.  While the 1900 census gave Ephraim's age as 42, census keepers in 1910 and 1920 recorded it as 45 and 58 respectively, so his actual age is unclear.  Apparently Ephraim remarried between 1900 and 1910, because Ephraim's wife appears in the 1910 census as Amie B., and Ephraim was identified as having been married twice and Amie once.  In 1920 Ephraim appears to have again remarried, this time to Ella, who was born in Indiana, unlike the first two Kentucky-born wives.  In the 1900-1920 censuses, Ephraim is recorded as either a janitor or custodian in an office building.  Regardless of the stigmatization that might be attached to such manual labor then or now, by 1920 the Covingtons had paid off their mortgage, and in 1900 they were one of very few African-American families on the block.  The 1930 and 1941 Polk's city directories recorded Ephraim Covington at 941 North Camp Street, so the family's tenure in Ransom Place spanned over 40 years.  In 1951 the household of Benjamin W. Cash was in the residence, suggesting that the Covingtons had moved.

buttons.jpg (55665 bytes) These buttons (left) and a soap dish (right) were among the goods discarded into the Camp Street well in the 1930s.  (Click on either thumbnail image for larger picture). soapdish.jpg (64987 bytes)

In 1996 initial archaeological excavations were conducted in the home's backyard.  Near the end of the field season a circular feature was identified with a brick deposit on its surface.  Subsequent excavations in 1997 recovered dense refuse deposits from a circa nine-foot deep well.  The excavations recovered over 4,000 objects, of which two-thirds were classed as building materials (e.g., nearly 700 brick fragments, over 400 window glass panes, almost 400 nails, etc).  While the fill's volume was dominated by construction debris, this material was interspersed with standard household discards that included bottle glass, buttons, bones, and ceramics.  The densest artifact quantities were recovered from the base of the well, but excavators did not note stratigraphic variations (for example, color and texture differences) that would be common in a feature that was filled gradually.   The well's contents also do not include more than a handful of early objects, with the vast majority clearly dating to the twentieth century and 1920s.  Several bottles in the feature's deepest levels were produced in an automatic bottle machine, a technology introduced in 1920, so all overlaying layers must date to after 1920.  Other artifacts in the well support this dating: the Indiana Railroad token illustrated below apparently dates to the inter-urban rail service run from September, 1930 to January, 1941, and the Polk Sanitary Dairy "alumaseal" closures date to the 1930s.  The well itself, of course, may have been built when the home itself was constructed, but there is no evidence that it was being slowly filled over the roughly half-century it was apparently open in the backyard.

Archaeologists who study the recent past often find quite commonplace objects, but these goods often harbor unexpected insights into everyday social life.  For instance, these three foil wrappers (top, right) once graced milk bottles from Indianapolis' Polk Sanitary Dairy.  This closure technology known as an "alumaseal" was used in the 1930s, prior to the emergence of a cellophane hood system introduced in 1941.  Seals like these were designed primarily to keep domestic pets away from the contents left on customers' doorsteps.  The top two seals were recovered from the Camp Street well.  The third was donated to us by Stephen Bond, a commercial archaeologist from Massachusetts who has done research on this and other commercial dairies.  Stephen tells us that the Polk Dairy began business in 1910 and continued to serve Indianapolis from their Greenwood dairy until the 1960s.  The Polk Dairy's Greenwood building was graced by a pair of 52-foot high bottles covered with white-glazed bricks imported from Brazil, Indiana, but that striking landmark was removed when the buildings were dismantled in the mid-1960s.  The Anthropology Department's secretary Evelyn Oliver tracked down this local history and also found Mr. Bond; thanks to both for the help.

What do these wrappers mean?
Archaeologically we try to construct material interpretations that consider the rich range of things a single object might have symbolized to any given consumer.  Of course, at the most basic functional level these are simply milk bottle seals, regardless of who consumed them.  But could these apparently mundane objects also harbor a "racialized" meaning as well?
Gilbert Taylor, the curator of the Crispus Attucks Museum here in Indianapolis, remembers that once each year Riverside Park--a White-only segregated city park--admitted African-American guests.  African Americans could enter on this day by bringing milk caps, which probably included cellophane, paper, or foil closures like those found in the Camp Street privy.  It may simply be chance that we found these closures in an African-American household, and they may well have only been used to seal the household's milk bottles.  Nevertheless, this suggests how even the most commonplace commodities like these closures could be seen as having "racial" meaning that differed between White and Black consumers.

During excavations at 800 Camp Street in June, 2000 we found several more bottles from the Polk Dairy (right, middle), including one orange drink bottle that even had its seal still intact (right, bottom).

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The well's filling likely occurred near the end of the Covingtons' long tenure at 941 Camp.  Several items in the fill provide interesting insights into the everyday life and social aspirations of African-Americans in early twentieth-century Indianapolis.  Some of the artifacts are typical of the things we would expect to find in most Indianapolis households.  For instance,  the well included a quite stylish soap tin boldly emblazoned in deco-style script, and IUPUI student Christine Hingle analyzed the well's buttons and identified several that would have been the height of 1920's fashions.  Shoe parts, clothing snaps, hooks and eyes, and zipper pulls were among the handful of clothing parts retrieved from the well.  These are all things that we likely would see in many near-Westside homes, but they clearly show us that African-American households were quite aware of current styles and immersed in consumer culture, even if they were not conceded full consumer rights.

The well contained one deteriorated souvenir coin that provides an interesting suggestion of the Covingtons' vision of race, nationalism, and consumer citizenship.  In 1893, the nineteenth century's last World's Fair was held in Chicago.  The World's Columbian Exposition was a landmark showcase of American ingenuity and national pride 400 years after Columbus' colonization of the New World.  The Exposition was a stunning display of American architecture, industrial might, and worldwide social and material influence, and it played host to 27 million visitors.  These visitors were led by the country's most celebrated Americans, including African-American notables like Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, Paul Laurence Dunbar, George Washington Carver, and Nancy Green, who appeared at the fair as "Aunt Jemima" and delivered one of America's most enduring--albeit utterly racist--advertising symbols. expocoin.jpg (74097 bytes)
Click on the thumbnail above for larger image.

Alongside the Exposition's celebrities were thousands of African Americans who came as visitors, participants, and laborers.  Like the many Whites, European Americans, and other immigrant Americans who attended the Exposition, these African Americans were celebrating their citizenship, and for African Americans this was a profoundly significant  moment:  less than three decades removed from slavery, African Americans had ostensibly secured the role of citizens, but their celebration was inevitably complicated by the rising tide of Jim Crow racism, racist voting regulations sweeping the country, recurrent anti-Black violence, racist labor and business obstacles, widespread African-American disappointment with partisan politics, and systemic barriers that attempted to neutralize the privileges of Black citizenship.  An 1893 pamphlet titled The Reason Why the Colored American Is Not in The World's Columbian Exposition lamented racist labor inequities at the Fair and the domination of White planners, urging African Americans to boycott the extravaganza.  Nevertheless, the Exposition played host to many African Americans and included a series of articulate and politicized African-American events.  The eight day Congress on Africa, for instance, gathered African and African-American intellectuals to critically probe the historical and contemporary condition of African diaspora and continental Africans alike.  As part of the Exposition, a conference on African-American education was held at Chicago's Art Palace, and it drew many of the nation's most prominent thinkers.  The Indianapolis Freeman's review of the educational conference included a headline that boasted "Art Palace Crowded with the Intellectual Elite of the Race."   Haytian Day focused on the sociocultural complexity of the African diaspora, bringing together exhibits and lectures on Caribbean and South American Black cultures, and Africans such as the Fon from Dahomey presented facets of African culture that were revelations to many African Americans who were increasingly interested in their cultural and historical roots.  Certainly many African Americans were guardedly optimistic about the possibilities of citizenship, even though its late-nineteenth-century face was overwhelmingly dedicated to reproducing White racial privilege.  To find out more about the African-American experience of the Exposition, visit Christopher Robert Reed's insightful analysis by clicking on the Mines and Mining Building below.

Click here for C.R. Reed's analysis of African-American experiences of the ExpositionVisitors to the Exposition could purchase a wide range of trinkets to memorialize their visit.  Among these souvenirs was a coin sold by an exhibitor in the Mines and Mining Building.  The Mines and Mining Building was a Beaux Arts style structure that had as its centerpiece a Statue of Liberty made of salt.  When the 941 Camp Street well was filled in the 1930s, this coin was discarded into the fill.  We can only speculate how it may have reached the near-Westside:  a family member or relative may have been a visitor, the Covingtons may have been presented it as a gift from a friend or relative, or they may have purchased it from somebody in Indianapolis.  What is significant is not necessarily how it got to Camp Street but what it likely meant to an African American.  Early twentieth-century African Americans were clearly dedicated to citizenship, even though they understood its realities differed from its possibilities:  vast numbers of African Americans served in World War I, for instance, and White commentators expressed surprise at the rapid rate of African-American Liberty Bond purchases.  It seems significant that this modest coin was curated for about 40 years:  for whatever reason, somebody considered this item symbolically significant enough to keep it far longer than almost any other object in the well's fill.  The souvenir coin provides a hint of how something like a trip to the Columbian Exposition, which White Americans likely considered commonplace, held special significance to the people of color who walked through its exhibitions.  In an interesting parallel, archaeologist Leslie Stewart-Abernathy excavated a Columbian Exposition coin from a White family's cabin in the Arkansas Ozarks; this suggests how folks often considered "outside" American society because of regional culture, economics, or racism viewed the Exposition and such events quite differently than bourgeois Whites.

For more on the Columbian Exposition, visit the University of Virginia's thorough and creative review of the Fair's social impact, material culture, and ideological implications at their World's Columbian Exposition: Idea, Experience, Aftermath web site.

A number of different firms ran inter-urban rail through Indianapolis until about World War II.  A "zone check" token from one of these rail services was discarded into the Camp Street well.  The coin is embossed "ZONE CHECK" with the digit "4" on one side and the digit "4" and the words "INDIANA RAILROAD/DIVISION OF [?]ESSON"--the final word on the second side is unclear. The Indiana Railroad's first joint timetable was issued September 28, 1930, and the system included routes to Richmond, Brazil, Muncie, and Marion.  Rail service ended on January 18, 1941, when the Indiana Railroad switched to bus service.
June 2000:  Several people emailed that the digit four was used to indicate the number of stops the token's holder could go on the interurban.
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Click on the two thumbnails to the left for a detailed picture of the token.  Do you know how this was used, or when it was in use?  Email me at and let us know, and we'll post your answers.

Judging from the small ceramic assemblage of about 150 sherds, the Covingtons apparently set their table with plates that included a wide range of decorative preparations and motifs.  No matching vessels with the same motifs were identified, and the ceramics include wares and styles that were in vogue in the teens and twenties as well as a handful of late-nineteenth-century vessels; consequently, the household likely had some relatively stylish sets as well as some older wares.  This suggests that some ceramics were purchased new and others were either held for a long period of time or perhaps given to the Covingtons from friends and family.  The well's household refuse includes several hundred bones that are dominated by mass-marketed cattle and include relatively little poultry.  The absence of Mason-style preserving jars and virtually no stoneware crock fragments suggests that the Covingtons apparently did not do much home food preservation; nevertheless, these are relatively modest artifact quantities that do not provide a particularly clear picture of the household's foodways.

pin.jpg (44475 bytes) The bird to the left is posed beside a dime, reflecting how small it is.  A visitor to the page wrote to say that his grandmother had a small coin purse with an identical decoration.  A number of foil milk bottle seals (right) were recovered from the well, all from Polk's. (Click on either image for a larger picture). milkfoil.jpg (62470 bytes)

Obviously this analysis of the well assemblage only provides a hint of the insights archaeology can provide into everyday African-American life.  Yet as we develop this analysis and add to it oral history, archaeology from other sites, and new historical evidence, we can begin to piece together an interesting picture of life in the near-Westside.

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