Activity: Packing a Traveler’s Trunk

This activity supports Disciplinary Literacy in Social Studies — Material Culture as Historic Evidence. Adapted from the Wisconsin Historical Society lesson plan “Immigration: Packing a Traveler’s Trunk,” by Susan Glenz.

Grade level: Elementary.

Duration: One class period.


1)   In this activity, students will explore the migration experience through objects. Students should think about the requirements of completing a journey to a new place – the plans, the packing of belongings, and the difficulties of decision-making. First, have them view object-based collections available through Recollection Wisconsin, such as the Wisconsin Decorative Arts Database, which features furniture, quilts, pottery, and other craft objects made by Wisconsin residents and migrants to the state.

2)   Then brainstorm with students a list of objects a settler might pack to travel to a new home. Discuss with students the following reasons for bringing certain items: to remind someone of home, to remind someone of family, to entertain someone on a trip, to be useful, to tell others about someone. Remind them that the size of the carrying device limits the number of personal possessions brought from the settlers’ home to begin a new life.

3)   Follow up by hosting a discussion about their thoughts; if any students have ever moved, have them share any difficulties encountered or decisions made.

Trunk brought to Wrightstown, Wisconsin from New York by Anna Holmes Cleveland, 1836. Wrightstown Historical Society.

Trunk brought to Wrightstown, Wisconsin from New York by Anna Holmes Cleveland, 1836. Wrightstown Historical Society.