Date of Award

May 2018

Degree Type


Degree Name

Master of Science



First Advisor

William W Wood

Committee Members

Patricia Richards, Dawn Scher Thomae


German Silver, Museum Collecting, Object biographies, Personal Adornment


This thesis explores the social lives of Woodland silver and German silver brooches

beginning in the late 18th century up to the present day using examples from the collections at the

Milwaukee Public Museum. As a popular trade item introduced by Europeans, silver brooches

provided a new medium for personal adornment in North American indigenous communities

throughout the Woodland region. Brooches were fastened on clothing as singular items and

occasionally worn in the hundreds to display wealth, status, and other aspects of identity. The

majority of brooches used for this project originate from Canada, New York, and Wisconsin.

Also included are brooches collected from Mexico and contemporary examples from Rhode


A biographical approach is adopted in order to consider the social lives of Woodland

German silver brooches. This project relies on Alfred Gell’s (1998) concept of the secondary

agency of material culture in order to investigate how brooches functioned as social actors

throughout the course of their life trajectories. The social function of brooches, from active

trading partners in the Fur Trade to their transition into hybrid identities intended to mediate

social landscapes, is elaborated and explored. Additionally, how brooches functioned from the

mid-19th century through the museum age of collecting and the re-emergence of indigenous silversmithing is discussed. Evidence is provided to argue that when worn, brooches were used by primary human actors as vehicles to assert aspects of individual and collective identities in order to influence the social contexts in which they operated in.