An Object Biography for a Hat

For this week’s blog post, I want to further explore how I can use the concept of object biographies to better organize and communicate the information I have found out about the Wanamaker Hat from the Robert and Penny Fox Historical Costume Collection and the early twentieth century world in which it existed. The concept was initially introduced two weeks ago in our reading of Igor Kopytoff’s “The Cultural Biography of Things,” but I am going to investigate its use through Karin Dannehl’s article that attempts to mix object biographies and life cycle models. For Dannehl, a biography of an object “traces a life story that is considered to be complete” in “a tightly defined, finite time frame” that accentuates “exceptional character in its own time” (124) For the purpose of our class’s project, however, many of our object aren’t necessarily “exceptional,” so a life model cycle that focuses on how generic things travel through stages of developmental changes could balance this predilection for uniqueness. Dannehl believes that “the two methods complement each other,” and I think they could work for the Wanamaker Hat. Designed en masse in a historic time where mass production had become common in American consumer society yet collected and preserved in a historic costume collection, the Wanamaker Hat was one of hundreds of hats sold in Philadelphia just like it that happened to go through a unique set of circumstances to get housed in Drexel’s Fashion school.

Taking the material study of the hat as the origin and using the life cycle model of production, distribution, and consumption, we can begin to put the Wanamaker Hat in various useful contexts. While no documentation exists on the who or where of the makers of the hat, its materials tell us that it was produced through a combination of hand and machine methods that used straw, silk, and cotton – all indicating several intersections of skilled and unskilled labor from products potentially sourced outside of the United States. The large printed label on the inside of the hat indicates that the hat was sold at Wanamaker’s Department store. In her article titled “Object Analysis of the Giant Pumkin,” Cindy Ott aptly argues that “ideas and the physical thing lose meaning without one another,” and with this in mind we can extrapolate that the flourishing Wanamaker label didn’t just claim who sold it, but instead both seller and buyer imagined themselves as a broader community of fashionable, elegant people numbering in both Philadelphia and Europe (759). Objects like this tangibly reinforced this idea. The exceptionality helps explain how it was consumed and preserved. Bought by a member of the elite Eisenbrey family, the hat was only partially used for three years (according to the collection’s info) because it belonged to a family that repeatedly bought new hats to match their wealth and social status. The limited use and preservation of this hat attests to the surprising lack of wear that the hat and many of the other objects in the collection possess. By using the dual-method of biography and life cycle, many of these objects could be placed in historical contexts that help communicate their importance for students of fashion and history.

Clothing through the Lens of Consumption

 

 

There are somethings about the clothing pieces we’ve been studying from the Robert and Penny Fox collection that make them difficult to be seen as consumer objects. Saved in attics, passed onto a university collection, and preserved in boxes, the good material condition of many of the objects implies that those who bought the objects did not get much use out of them. One object still had the price tag attached and was clearly never used. “Consumption,” for me, inspires almost a literal interpretation: consumer objects are consumed, not literally eaten but used to the point that they are beaten, worn, or a shadow of their former selves (like a victim of TB…aka consumption). But this personal connotation limits how I contextualize the object. Especially after reading these weeks readings, it is clear now that understanding objects – particularly my Wanamaker hat – as an object made, sold, and then worn to be consumed and used gives new insights about the perspective of those who made and wore the hat. After all, material culture – while about objects – should be concerned with using the objects to understand people and their history.

In her history of mass merchandising and consumer culture, Susan Strasser describes many commercial and industrial changes that influenced how places like Wanamaker ended up selling one-sized branded hats like the one I was assigned. Buoyed by the industrial revolution and ever-growing movements of people into the money economy, customer-consumers became more familiar with an increasing array of national and international brands while producers and retailers developed “new advertising, branding, marketing, and retailing techniques” to centralize the shopping experience (36). Though a semi-formal hat, the Wanamaker hat – with its big printed blue label – was made in large numbers and sold in a department store designed to serve as a single destination for most shoppers needs at more affordable prices. These low prices – a boon for those consuming the hat – were the opposite for the women who constructed and then sold the hat, however. Department store workers “earned low wages in comparison with other jobs available to them; they spent long hours on their feet; they were strictly disciplined” (40). Making consumer objects on mass scales helped buyers, but it for every consumer object there was someone who was paid poorly to make the object “affordable.”

According to Peter Stallybrass, possession of clothing keeps the wearer connected to its value and its memories – by pawning or moving the coat to different people this memory value is taken away – and mass merchandising does just that (302). Moving from producer to wholesaler to department store to buyer, the layers of people who created an object are obfuscated by the time it was sold to the people who will consume it. How else can movement reveal information about consumer clothing and more importantly those that wore it? Repeated movement post-sale can imply a variety of things from the economic destitution experienced by Marx to repeated use of one object within a family or community network. Can we learn anything from how clothing moved before post-sale? Can this tell us anything beyond exemplifying the national and even global scale of retail production?

Object Exercise 4

 

                           

Caption 1:

Philadelphia, 1919: Donning her Wanamaker straw hat, Augusta Eisenbrey leaves her house on Haverford’s College Avenue to call on neighbors. Wrapped with a silk ribbon and crowned with cotton flowers, Augusta’s hat was one example of the luxury headwear worn by Philadelphia’s main line elite when socializing out and about.

Rationale: For this caption, I wanted to use the perspective of the wearer to highlight who bought it, where was it worn, and for what purposes. Rather than just focusing on the hat, putting Mrs. Eisenbrey as the subject of the first sentence reminds the reader that these objects were worn by real people. The sentence also locates the “home” of the hat outside Philadelphia proper, highlighting the wider geography of Philadelphia fashion. I chose to focus on the hat’s silk ribbon and flowers because they seemed to reinforce the upper-class look and use of the hat among those living in early-twentieth century Haverford.

Caption Two:

The royal blue label printed within this Wanamaker hat is not just a decoration – it is an advertisement. Though a leader among Philadelphia department stores, Wanamaker’s took their cues from Europe and used objects like this hat to link their store with London and Paris, the fashion capitals of Europe.

Rationale: This caption seeks to take a very Philadelphia-specific institution and locate it within a trans-Atlantic, hemispheric historical trend.  While the previous caption expanded the geography of Philadelphia fashion beyond the city limits into the surrounding suburbs, this caption goes even farther, decentering Philadelphia in a much larger story about how fashion trends start and move. With this change in scale, however, the individual-level perspective gets lost. This caption comes from the perspective of the store and its connections across the Atlantic, but not the individuals who shopped at the store or wore the fashions.

Caption Three:

Though the lining of the hat’s crown and the flowers were handmade, milliners crafted this Wanamaker hat increasingly aided by specialized machines. Machine stitched and woven on a large scale, the ribbon, fabric, and straw brim signify the rise of mass production that blurred the lines between elegant and affordable.

Rationale: While the first caption talks about who wore it and the second caption talks about who sold it, this final caption uses the perspective of those who made this object. Hitting a little on all of the different textures and techniques used to make the hat, it gestures towards the increased mechanization involved in mass-produced clothing. The caption also highlights how the stratified elegance of elite clothing was become increasingly available around the time of the first World War.

Revisiting Semiotics

Early in the semester, we read Daniel Miller’s “Why Clothing is not Superficial.” A piece aimed at critiquing the prevailing “semiotic perspective,” Miller’s article argues that object and clothing studies anchored in semiotic and structural theory treat objects as window fashioning, signifiers of a broader truth within the subject but overall superficial. (18) Given that this week’s collection of readings contains a few articles explicitly and implicitly relying on semiotics, I intend to look at how the articles use a semiotic method to analyze these objects to determine if Miller was right in seeing semiotic clothing studies as superficial.

The first, and most obviously semiotic-inspired work, is Hal Fischer’s Gay Semiotics. In the work, Fischer uses photographs to map “a sexual semiotic” amidst a collective community and culture of gay men that have their own “myths, cultural heroes, stereotypes, and sign language.” (12) Unlike the semioticians discussed a few weeks ago (like Barthes) who seem to downplay the historicity of their signifiers, Fischer’s semiotics is inherently historical – based off of the collective conscious of a specific geographical group in a specific time (the Castro San Francisco gay community of the 1970s). Still, there are some references within the wok that highlight the limitations of semiotics that Miller may point to. Fischer mentions that “Gay fashions…tend to utilize prevailing male fashion standards” (15). In the opening photos and captions, Fischer also that writes red and blue handkerchiefs were signifiers of gay preferences but also were “commonly used in the treatment of nasal congestion and in some cases holds no meaning in regard to the sexual preferences” and that key loops which had the same function for gay men were “also worn by janitors, laborers and other workers with no sexual significance intended” (11). While these are humorous and, according to Fischer, a “disarming quality that was very deliberate,” they also gesture towards the limitations of signifiers. If these very specific signifiers from a contextualized place have potential different meanings at this same locale and time, how rigorous of an approach is semiotics when dealing with images and signifiers from older periods with less verifiable contexts?

In “Citizens and Survivors,” Maria Sturken spends some time dissecting the images photographed and reported during and after the Oklahoma City Bombing, along with the composition of the bombing’s memorial. Though not explicit about its semiotics, this article also sees “signs” that hold emotional and cultural meaning for late-twentieth-century American citizens. She describes the image of the bombed federal building as “a wound to the body public” with its internals – “wiring, ventilation system, structural cables (its guts, essentially).” All of these signifiers came together to represent the federal building as “a symbol of national vulnerability” and “a shattered body” like the victims of the attack (97). The other major image associated with the attack – a firefighter holding lifeless Baylee Almon – is also parsed for cultural symbols. Sturken argues that the lifeless child “symbolizes the shock of those children’s death” along with a lack of innocence, but this is juxtaposed with the “protective gesture of the rescue worker” embodied by the firefighter. This image, while evoking lost innocence in the nation also managed “to offer reassurance through its depiction of adults, public servants, and, by extension, the government” (99). One problematic part of this approach occurs when Sturken looks at the teddy bears sent to the Oklahoma City Bombing Memorial and the bears sent by them around the world. Sturken says that the predominance of the teddy bear in tragic times highlghts a societal belief in the comforting ability of a bear – “these bears are seen to hve almost magical powers of reassurance and the ability to comfort not only in the face of immense loss, but also across cultural and geographic borders” (133). She then pulls this part, arguing that while Americans may imbue the object with this feeling it may be different for the international recipients of the toy. Again, looking for signifiers can only be used with a proper contextualization of the community assigning and constructing the meaning.

Miller believes that semiotics give a level of superficiality to the objects they study because they ignore the influence that objects impart onto those that wear or use them. In both of these articles discussed above, communities and people collectively assign significance and meaning to things. These meanings can move to other communities but they can also be translated in different ways, particularly in international contexts. While Miller seems to argue for looking for what objects mean beyond the linguistic meanings given to them by people, is it possible to divorce objects from the linguistic associations we give them?

The Broad Applicability of Serrell’s Exhibit Labels

Beverly Serrell’s Exhibit Labels: An Interpretive Approach, despite what its title may imply, does not just contain thoughts about exhibit labels. Rather, it offers a dynamic way of thinking about how historians should develop, organize, and present museum exhibits. According to Serrell, there is no unimportant or banal aspect of an exhibit design. Facts should not stand on their own, but be interpreted and presented in contexts that inspire and challenge visitors to think deliberately about different historical questions and themes. This concept – that everything in an exhibit should harmonize towards a single theme, point, or question – also does not just apply to museum exhibits. Whether developing a different public history project (like the digital collaboration in which our class is participating with the Robert and Penny Fox Collection) or even a traditional research paper, remembering that every aspect of the project should have a purpose and build to a joint conclusion is a useful tool.  I think this also dovetails with how important collaboration is to public history projects. An individual cannot determine the big idea if it’s a collaborative project – a joint approach o figuring out how and what the project is going to say and why needs to be agreed upon.

The relatively short sections we read for class also offers lessons that can be translated beyond just labels to the activities of our class. Whether inspiring, provoking, or shocking, an exhibit label – according to Beverly Serrell – “invites participation by the reader” (9). It is important, then, to keep in mind who the expected reader/visitor/audience is. The big idea or main question that our project seeks to answer should be geared towards the audience that we are gesturing towards. As we discussed in class last week, the fact that we are partnered with a historic costume and fashion collection gives us pretty clear expectations about who the kinds of people we will be reaching out to. People interested in histories of clothing (but not necessarily fashion), Philadelphia, hand crafts and industrialization, and the turn of the twentieth century will be joined with people interested in fashion and design who do not often think about clothing historically. Because of this, I think the project we design and the labels we develop with it should attempt to bridge the interests of the two groups. How can we present our research in a way that teaches the importance of fashion and clothing to history and the importance of history to clothing and fashion?

I think the beginnings of an answer can be found in readings from earlier in the term. In their articles “Why Clothing is Superficial” and “A Museum of Fashion is More than a Clothes-Bag,” Daniel Miller and Valerie Steele both write about the legitimacy of fashion as an object of study and a formative presence in people’s lived experiences. Clothing, for Steele, “can be used actively as evidence rather than passively as illustrations,” meaning that historians should dissect clothes’ materiality rather than just displaying them for their eye-catching effect (329). Miller takes the importance of clothing and fashion even further. Clothing isn’t just a sign or visible analog to structural categories but objects that have a power to change how we interact with the world and perceive our surroundings. If our project can heighten fashion as more than a symptom of historical forces to something that influences historical change, we can begin to make a larger point about our objects that teaches something to students of history and fashion.

Object Exercise 3

A stylish straw hat, object 61.40.38 in the Robert and Penny Fox Historic Costume Collection was donated to Drexel University by Mr. J. Henton Eisenbrey. According to Mr. Eisenbrey, the hat belonged to his aunt, Augusta C. Eisenbrey (born Frost), wife of Robert Howard Eisenbrey, and dated between 1918 and 1920. The Eisenbreys were a wealthy, socially well-connected couple. From their house, called “Arfryn” located on College Avenue in Haverford, the Eisenbreys elegantly entertained the upper-crust of Philadelphia society, hosting wedding receptions and cocktail hours. Today, College Avenue is a two lane road surrounded by a series of high hedges and trees that set the road traffic apart from the million-dollar houses that sit about one hundred yards back from the road. These mammoth houses and the Merrion Golf Club that rests on the south side of College Avenue imply that the wealth the Eisenbreys experienced while living here has not left. Still, the house where they lived does not seem to exist anymore. While the hat’s place of ownership can’t be found (for now), the store that sold it is still easily seen in Center City Philadelphia.

                                       

Printed on the inside of the hat reads the label “John Wanamaker,” followed by a listing of the cities where the chain had stores and purchasing headquarters. Located at the corner of Chestnut and Thirteenth Streets, right next door to City Hall, the Wanamaker Building is a 12-story tall block of granite adorned with Doric columns around its doors and windows. In the early twentieth century, the Eisenbreys would have taken the Main Line train of the Pennsylvania Railroad into Center City and embarked from the train at Broad Street Station, just a block away from the imposing department store. Wanamaker’s was designed to be seen as the commercial hub of elegant and tasteful Philadelphia. Seen as the cutting edge of department stores in Philadelphia and the United States, Wanamaker’s considered it a duty to offer first-class service and products to discerning buyers. European artwork was displayed throughout the building’s halls, a Crystal Tea Room operated on one of the upper floors, and a grand pipe organ was installed in the main courtyard of the store to affect an elegant ambiance. By the 1910s, the basement of Wanamaker’s connected to the Broad Street Station so shoppers like the Eisenbreys could go straight from the train station to the store without every going outside.

  

  

Today, Wanamaker’s is now a Macy’s. Though the merchandise and technology in the building is thoroughly modern, the ostentatious lavishness of Wanamaker’s is still clearly visible around the store. The Grand Court is still there. Over one hundred and eighty feet high, the court is the central focal point of the building, with three separate floors wrapped around the space. These floors are supported by a series of columns with faux-gold gilding and trimming, another sign of opulence. At the center of the space sits a 2,500 pound bronze statue of an eagle (a sign to the left of the eagle explains how the ground was almost excessively reinforced to allow for the massive statue). Placed in the store in 1911, it has never moved from its spot. Following the eagle’s gaze forward and up, visitors can see the famous Pipe Organ on the southern end of the second floor with a gold fence decorated with a flourished design (when I visited, the organ was unfortunately curtained off for repairs).  Above the Grand Court is a vaulted ceiling with more decorative gold gilding. The bones of the building are original to the time of the Eisenbreys as well. Walking away from the Grand Court into the smaller hallways and store spaces, visitors will notice that the ceilings and columns still have the original molding details. Decorative carvings that reflect natural elements, such as seashells and flora, can be seen in the crown molding along the columns and ceilings throughout the building. Hanging art deco style light fixtures (supplemented with more modern lighting) are also still visible throughout the store as well.

  

  

While the mix of early twentieth-century architecture and design and twenty-first century products and people may seem jarring, walking through the Wanamaker building in 2019 gave me a far greater sense of consistency in the space than I anticipated.  The design choices made in the early 1900s – carved molding, gold gilding, a massive pipe organ, the 2,500 pound bronze eagle, and the gaudy Grand Court – seems aimed at inspiring awe through its ostentatious display of wealth and style. While the store has changed hands twice (becoming a Lord and Taylor’s in the 1990s and the current switch to a Macy’s in the 2000s), the space today continues to try and convince people to hope for higher levels of elegance and style. Walking past a $650 piece of luggage by Nautica did not seem like it was sullying this historic space, it actually felt pretty on brand from the message the design of the building was trying to impart. If the Eisenbreys of the 1910s walked through the Wanamaker building today, they may be confused by the styles, names, and technologies of the department store but the cultivation of gentility on diplsya there would be very familiar to them.

 

Fashioning the Bourgeoisie

In Fashioning the Bourgeoisie: A History of Clothing in the Nineteenth Century, Phillippe Perrot examines the nexus of cultural, social, and economic forces and developments that propelled the shifts in sartorial practices and understandings during the long nineteenth century. Seeing a dual trend toward differentiation and similarity during this period, Perrot seeks to focus on the importance clothing holds as a topic of study for understanding the world of the nineteenth century. While enlightening for its time, Perrot’s study offers students of material culture and history in general several questions about the possibilities and limitations of clothing in historical studies.

Despite ostensibly being a history about the social, gender, and cultural distinctions of clothing change, Perrot’s Fashioning the Bourgeoisie contains at its core an economic argument about the central role middle and upper class entrepreneurialism and development played in “refashioning” the clothing-market environment. According to Perrot, the spread of similarity amid cross-class dress types was not brought on by equality-seeking middle or working class revolutionaries or a market demand from those seeking better clothing, but instead by revolutions and business changes from the supply side of production. The proliferation of ready-made clothing – via a rationalization of cutting and sewing practices and subdividing labor – and the department store – brought about through “audacious innovation and favourable economic conditions” – resulted in a “commercial revolution” that led lower-class clothing hawkers and middle-class fashioners to be displaced (51, 58). While clothing is central to these central chapters (chapters four and five,) their role is limited to reinforcing how adaptive merchants and producers spearheaded a sartorial revolution that “established a dominant style and transformed vestimentary codes and comportments as they expanded geographically and socially” (79). The styles and clothing themselves did not spark a dramatic change; it was the economic and technological developments that fueled the proliferation of a dominant style. When dealing with broader societal developments like the commercial revolution or the industrial revolution, can historians just use clothing as one source of evidence in a litany of other written sources? Are there ways to mine clothing in order to see more subaltern sources of cultural and social change?

Following this economic core, Perrot takes a more active look at how upper, middle, and lower class Europeans mapped their own social aims onto the behaviors and fashions associated with clothing. “Fashion,” according to Perrot, “complemented and complicated the mechanism that defended the space of dominant social groups against incursions by would-be imitators” (167). Although he argues that clothing operated as a place where the social hierarchy was simultaneously bolstered and critiqued, I am not completely convinced this is demonstrated. While seasonal fashion developments and new styles reflected the dominant ideas of propriety, simplicity, and gentility among upper-class circles, fashion also “rolled down…reaching rich peasants or prosperous worker” where they grew popular further in time (180). This proliferation, rather than serving as a democratizing of clothing, resulted in rural and lower class French people signifying their removal from the dominant class by their out-of-date clothes. It is true that the mere presence of imitation clothing on working class people served as a pressure on gentile society to consistently change and increase the turnover of fashions and styles, this pressure never materialized into anything that broke up or challenged the dominant hierarchy of French society. As the book closes, it seems that the French upper class always managed to manipulate fashion and clothing to draw boundaries between themselves and pretenders. Did clothing actually offer ways of lower or working class expression into more dominant fashion trends?

Landscapes and Built Environments

In this week’s readings, we turn to analyzing the purpose and possibilities of place in material culture studies. By looking at landscapes, built environments, and spaces as not mere settings but as archives in their own rights, historians can learn new insights regarding the social, racial, gendered, and cultural constructions of places. Like the Barbie canon analyzed by Pearson and Mullins in one of my previous blogs, landscapes and built environments are created, authored, and then re-tooled based on who is using walking through and experiencing them. They are sights of discursive interaction where the prevailing social, racial, or gendered order is simultaneously supported and criticized.

Built environments, even those with a clearly specified architect-creator or ‘author,’ cannot hold or enforce one single point of view or expression. As Dell Upton writes, “our perception of a building” (or really any environment) “is conditioned by who we are, where we have already been, what we have already seen, and where we believe we are headed” (357). These perceptions are tempered however by the context of who created a space and for what purpose. In Angle Kwolek-Folland’s article “The Gendered Environment of the Corporate Workplace, 1880-1930,” the design and organization of turn of the century life insurance companies was “the nineteenth-century middle-class family” (159). By conceiving of the business as a family, the “systematic managers” of these spaces were prompted by gendered and paternalistic notions to order women into private pools of workers, lower-class grunt workers into easily manageable spaces, and elite executives into private, luxurious spaces of wealth (161). For Upton, the planter elites laid out plantations in ways that “created a city and village-based society with a hierarchical institutional structure.” The big houses described in her chapter on “White and Black Landscapes in Eighteenth-Century Virginia” were “administrative centers” and the surrounding grounds were built up (or down) in ways that mirrored this hierarchical framing (362). By looking at how twentieth-century authorities adapted old buildings and designed new buildings to meet segregationist attitudes, Robert Weyeneth similarly highlights in his piece “The Architecture of Racial Segregation” how societal norms dictated architecture. Whether changing buildings “as conditions inspired [segregations’] growth” or being “carefully crafted”, buildings were spatially separated and logistically engineered as an “’imposed’ architecture of white supremacy” that “were intended to manage racial contact” (33). Paying attention to the design and organization of places in tandem with their social context often highlights the underlying assumptions of a particular group or the rationale behind structures of power.

These built environments then have competing or complementary meanings given to them by those who occupy the space, not just those who design or control it. In different ways these responses “reveal both underlying cultural assumptions and the processes whereby those assumptions are modified,” signifying tacit supports and critiques of these cultural environments (158). Despite the rules governing the organization and work of offices, men and women found varying ways of exerting their own ideas about work and leisure by using collective spaces to their own advantage. Women specifically found ways of grasping authority as even-tempered, efficient workers in ways that both “emphasized the traditional definition of women as wives, mothers, and homemakers” while also denying and upending “the official hierarchy of status and experience” (174-175). Enslaved Africans on white plantations subverted the “articulated and processional” nature of white landscapes by “circumventing the formal barriers” created by white owners (363, 365). This cuts both ways, however. Blacks were not included in the processional life of the gentry because they were considered an underclass. An interesting counter example to this would be to put Upton’s enslaved Africans in conversation with the free black waiters in Danya Pilgrim’s article. Despite different actions and attitudes, both represented supports and affronts to the racial understandings of the time. A similar pattern is seen with black resistance to segregation. Weyeneth describes how African Americans used both “a philosophy of avoidance” and the creation of “alternative spaces” of black-owned and friendly business to subvert the unequal social restrictions of segregation (33). While this served as a subversion and rejection of white-designed spaces and restrictions, they also mirror the “forms” of duplication and temporal separation that characterized much of segregationist architecture. In each of these examples, the responses to a landscape or place challenges the predominant assumptions of the time while also highlighting them.

Unveiling the Hidden through Objects

In light of our class’s visit to Temple’s Anthropology Lab, I want to discuss how objects can bring to light overlooked or forgotten aspects of history. The Anthro Lab’s work digging up the Philadelphia Almshouse’s privy stands as a testament to the considerable amount of knowledge and speculation that can be generated from artifacts and objects. Historians do not need to go on digs or excavations to find objects that speak to aspects of history left out of the written, documentary record, however. Many of this week’s readings demonstrate how objects – collected, preserved, and even well-documented – still have things to tell us about the social and gendered environments of the past.

Though written as a cautionary piece about the methods and rigor brought to the study of furniture, Jonathan Prown’s article “The Furniture of Thomas Day: A Reevaluation” nonetheless includes some tidbits about important social and cultural changes realized through visual objects. Like his earlier article, Prown’s work centers on a unique, quasi-elite furniture maker – “an inspiring exception to the rule…a free person of color who transcended the deeply entrenched social and legal barriers” of the ante-bellum south (218). He warns that works seeing Day’s craft as highly influenced by West African art and highly syncretic are not exercising “interpretive caution,” and that in reality the African-American Thomas Day was as influenced by popular Euro-American designs as he was by African ones (216-217). While this article on a well-respected, somewhat wealthy craftsmen seems well removed from the Anthro Lab’s focus on the lower-class and quotidian existences of those in the Almshouse, Prown mentions in passing some notable insights about social developments of antebellum America. While not a clear mixing of the African with the American, Prown identifies a distinct “blending of learned or academic traditions with folk or vernacular customs” in Day’s work (223). This approach, which he calls carpenter Gothic or artisan rococo, is a visible social shift in a style of “vernacular adaptation” (226). Though not explored by Prown, this mixing of lower-class and upper-class styles is happening right with the beginning of the Age of Jackson, a political and social moment where working-class Americans vocalized their political equality with political elites. Day’s furniture, which is well-documented and collected, can still give us social insights about this early era of American populism.

In Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s keynote, she similarly draws on well-preserved and collected furniture to unveil hidden aspects of family legacy, ownership, and gendered property understandings. While Ulrich acknowledges that “objects are not enough for historical discovery…the best furniture studies take us full circle from objects to documents and back again,” she makes a point in highlighting how objects can reveal falsehoods in the written record. In discussing women and their own property as relegated to a “moveable” status, Ulrich states that “wills and inventories actually mask much of what moved from one generation to another” through women and the legal “formulaic dispersal of moveables, as in ‘one-third of my household goods,” conceals the female labor that created and maintained those goods.” The provenances and the goods themselves – with their identifying markings, etched names, or family crests – can act as a source base for social histories of women not included in the traditional archive. Looking at the materials made and used by women, passed down through generations and subsequently preserved,  offers another route to understanding the fundamental issues of women’s lives in early America. As Ulrich puts it, an object can offer “an imperfect mirror of [a woman’s] world, but in its focus on the female life cycle, its integration f furniture and textiles, and its acknowledgment of the inequality that underlay genteel households, it is more complete than much of what has been written since.”

Furniture researched and archived by collections and museums have a distinctly genteel bent, but even these objects can still offer up new insights on social developments, gendered oppression, or new cultural changes from the past.

Object Exercise #2

Last week, I developed a material object methodology that I hope to use on our assigned object from the Robert and Penny Fox Historic Costume Collection. Borrowing and mixing elements from the methodologies of E. McClung Fleming and Jules David Prown, my method aims at situating a close visual and sensory analysis of my object in the historical context in which it was manufactured and sold. While I have not determined much of its provenance, I can still complete a material description of my object.

My object is a women’s hat dating between 1918 and 1920. I will begin by attempting to identify its history, material, construction, and design. The hat is made out of a combination of straw, silk, and wax flowers. The brim of the hat, a tan and sandy color, is made from either toquila or toyo straw, woven in a style similar to a hounds’ tooth weave that makes a chevron-style pattern. It has a diameter of 14.5  inches long and 13 inches wide, and around the 44 inch round rim of the hat there is a machine-stitched bias cut ribbon of a similar tan color that is a quarter-inch in length wide on the top and bottom of the hat’s rim. The crown of the hat measures 27 inches around, 8 inches long, and 5 inches hight, and it sits off center of the straw brim. It is draped with a machine-produced tan silk textile that is stitched closely to the crown but loose enough that it has drapes and folds in the fabric. A ribbon of the same bias cut material as the rim, slightly less than an inch wide, is wrapped around the hat where the crown-drape meets the brim, and this ribbon ends in three separate strands that extend down the radius of the hat and end at the hat’s brim.  Stitched to these three ribbons is an arrangement of cotton and wax flowers six inches long and five inches wide. The flowers have curved green leaves and stems and flax colored buttercup-style flowers. These flowers begin at the base of the crown and extend just over the top of the crown. Inside the hat’s crown, the hat has an inner liner made of two pieces of white silk fabric. The first piece is attached to the top of the crown. A second piece is folded over, machine stitched to the first piece, and then loosely attached to the sides of the crown so that, like the fabric on the outside of the crown, it has drapes and folds that act as a sort of cushioning for the wearer’s head. All the inside silk is hand tacked to the inside crown. The piece attached to the top of the crown has the store name “John Wanamaker” and the word “Modes” followed by the names of Philadelphia, New York, Paris, and London machine printed in a royal blue flourishing cursive font. Thanks to the Wanamaker name on the inside of the crown, we know that the hat is an import or product of the Wanamaker department store, one of the flagship department stores of Philadelphia’s downtown shopping district. The cities listed inside the hat also help date the hat because Wanamaker’s New York City location was not opened until the early 1900s.

Upon evaluating the Wanamaker Women’s hat, it is clear that it was not unique. The amount of machine stitches and machine produced fabric the hat has tells us that hats like this were produced in large numbers as part of Philadelphia’s growing mass-consumer and manufacturing culture.  The Wanamaker name on the inside of the crown is solidly stitched in a way that it acts like a brand on a tag. It lists Philadelphia as the primary Wanamaker location but includes the wearer in a larger sartorial community of clothing imports and exports by mentioning New York, London, and Paris. The hat was also worn frequently, though it seems like it was handled with care. On the inside of the hat, the sides of the inner-lining are worn away in several places, and pieces of straw have come loose from the weave just below the edge of the silk lining. This wear and tear seems like the usual result of the repeated use of the hat. Despite this, the outside part of the hat is in good condition. Unlike the inner lining, the outside of the crown doesn’t have any notable sites of wear. The straws do not seem bent or out of place. While the wax flowers appear faded, only some are flattened or bent, making them well-preserved considering their fragility. Since the outside of the hat is the most visible part of the hat, the hat’s condition implies that its owner paid careful attention to the outside of the hat and took care of its outer appearance while frequently using it.

With the information gathered from describing and analyzing the physical features of the Wanamaker women’s hat, my research will now turn to the cultural analysis and interpretation of the object. Twentieth-century hat culture, the history of the Wanamaker department store, changing fads in textile manufacture, and the prevalence of cross-Atlantic retail connections are all topics that require further reading in order to ideally place the women’s hat in its proper historical context. Combining that with more research on its provenance will illuminate the layers of human stories found in this single object.