Object Biographies – By Jessica Locklear

This week’s readings in material culture encouraged me to think further about the different ways I can continue to write a comprehensive history of my object. Though methodology is an important starting point to writing any history, it was helpful to read Dannehl’s article, “Object Biographies: From Production to Consumption.” In this piece, Dannehl explores the various methods that can be taken in order to write a biography for a physical object. The overall goal of an object biography is to ask questions about the life cycle of an object, through its various stages and turning points from production to consumption. A typical life cycle of an object consists of the following steps . . .

  1. Raw Material
  2. Manufacturing
  3. Transportation
  4. Distribution
  5. Use
  6. Reuse
  7. Maintenance
  8. Recycling
  9. Final Disposal

Though all of these steps may not be useful or feasible to explore, examining objects in this way allows room for the contextual layers in which the object lived. Limiting and restricting the historical context of objects is a common problem that can occur when we try to categorize objects that had multiple functions and associations. This is often seen with objects displayed in museum settings, where objects are selected removed from their original contexts and presented in a certain manner. These suggestions from the article have been useful for me as I begin to write the history of the woman’s sport suit from 1919. Looking at the suit’s life cycle from production to consumption has opened a whole new lens in which I can approach the history of this object, resulting in new avenues for historical inquiry.

The next article I read was “Object Analysis of the Giant Pumpkin,” by Cindy Ott. In this piece, Ott examines the American fascination with the Atlantic Giant Pumpkin. Though Ott is not tracing the biography of one specific giant pumpkin, she does examine the pumpkin as a physical object and its role in history. Something about pumpkins makes us happy and Ott concludes that it is the American desire to perpetuate and celebrate a rural and agricultural identity. She does this by examining the history of pumpkins in America through botany, economics, art, literature, etc. This interdisciplinary approach allows us to see how historical and cultural factors influenced the physical form, definitions, and meanings of pumpkins over time. Though studying the history of pumpkins may seem a bit silly, it is actually very helpful in understanding how material culture can benefit the study of history and vice-versa. It also demonstrates how an interdisciplinary approach to material culture can be helpful in creating a more complete history of an object.

Finally, I read came from the short essay, “Regrets on Departing with my Old Dressing Gown” by French philosopher Denis Diderot. In this famous piece, Diderot says he was gifted with a beautiful scarlet dressing gown in which he was pleased with. However, satisfaction with the new gown led to his dissatisfaction with old objects that now seemed dingy. As a result, he started replacing the old things one at a time, replacing them with new and more beautiful things, leading him into debt. This social phenomenon, known as the Diderot effect, describes the process of consumerism which can have negative effects. This perhaps explains why we oftentimes buy stuff we don’t need. This is also helpful to me in studying the history of my sports suit as it encourages me to think about consumerism in a different light. Though I am not making any claims about the Diderot effect and my object’s owner, it is interesting to entertain the idea.

Some Things Money Can’t Buy…Alanna Shaffer

Some Things Money Can’t Buy…


Perhaps one of the most recognizable ad campaigns in my lifetime, MasterCard’s string of “Priceless” commercials and print ads continue to spawn parodies and memes to this day.

The general format is typically the same: creating an experience costs money, but the experience itself is ‘priceless’. So, put the money part on your MasterCard and enjoy the rest.

The ads above depict experiences with very visible expense- a night dining out, tickets for a live show- and yet emphasizing the sentimental value of these experiences allows the monetary value to be downplayed. Something that is ‘priceless’ here both indicates that no amount of money could be traded for this experience….and thus any amount of money is worth spending for it.

This divergence of abstract, monetary and use value is at the center of our readings for this week, which looks at the experience of objects as they travel through the process of commoditization. Much of this commodifying process, the readings suggest, is structured within the society and the individuals who use and value these objects, and tension invariably results as people must navigate the varied equivalence of objects with cultural, personal or monetary value.

In Susan Strasser’s piece, Woolworth to WalMart: Mass Merchandising and the Changing Culture of Consumption, we see the progression of custom-made items to the massive dry goods and department stores which laid the groundwork for major big box retailers like WalMart today. In her piece, Strasser notes the campaigns once waged against both the rising monopoly of mass marketers and the labor practices utilized to keep prices low. Reading in 2019, these historic campaigns certainly echoed recent news digging into the abusive labor practices waged by companies like Amazon, and my own complicity within this society of consumers. Like the 19th century shoppers who railed against job loss as clerked grocery stores made way for self-service shopping, I detest these stories of abuse….but not yet enough to stop benefitting from one-day shipping and dirt-cheap prices.

In both Peter Stallybrass’ Marx’s Coat and Igor Kopytoff’s The cultural biography of things: commoditization as process, we see the varied ways that both the abstract and use value of object shift within both complex and simple economies, and how cultural structures typically determine these values.

While reading, my mind leapt to an article which just came out about the new smoking ban inside Pennsylvania prisons. I didn’t have commoditization on the brain at the time, but revisiting it from that perspective has made me wonder how Kopytoff would see analyze the economy that springs out this particular society. While the new, complete ban of tobacco products is cited as a health initiative, many working or involved in corrections have noted the disruption this may also bring to the prison economy, which has long revolved around cigarettes as a commodity. Reminiscent of Marx’s coat, which carried an exchange value often complicated by its abstract value (the coat must be pawned to put food on the table, but without the coat there is no respect, there is no research, etc.) one prisoner quoted in the article mentions the benefit of using cigarettes to pay for a clean load of laundry, with a fresh laundered shirt boasting a similar respectability value of Marx’s coat. Conversely, the potentiality of ramen flavor packets as a new form of currency invoked Kopytoff’s definition of ‘non-commodity’: nobody needs more soup, so no amount of .28 cent packets can equal the $5 pack of cigarettes.

These shifting understandings of value, both in prison and without, bring me back to a phrase my sister and I like to yell while running around a grocery store: there is no ethical consumption under capitalism. How does the way a society does/doesn’t value labor, and who is performing the labor, shape the ways we understand the abstract value of these objects? How can the average consumer (like me) make the right choices for their income level without immediately becoming complicit in a vast network of invisible labor and capital?

Basically: can I be an ethical consumer and still get next day shipping?