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.

How Can We Use Objects?

Over the past two weeks this blog has explored the questions, concerns, and practical methods of what a historian should do to analyze a particular piece of clothing or an object. Following the methodology of detailing an object, the historian then needs to figure out what the object says about the society or culture in which they are investigating. This leads to a new question for me that is explored in this week’s readings: How can historians move from evidence and descriptions of an object to its relationship to a culture, society, or historical period, and what kind of knowledge do objects impart?

In “Domesticating Barbie: An Archaeology of Barbie Material Culture and Domestic Ideology,” Marlys Pearson and Paul R. Mullins investigate the “gendered, material, and social possibilities” represented in fifty-years of Barbie manufactures (226). In order to use Barbies, Pearson and Mullins ground their study in an archaeological approach “of structured material description, identification of material patterns, and anthropological analysis” of the entire corpus of American Barbie products,” arguing that a single item could not adequately account for the broad trajectory of Mattel (226). In doing so, Barbies do not give a linear value but rather a discourse that “reflects consistent transformations in (and struggles over) the definition of domesticity” (229). While the object may be “coded” by Mattel’s executive and creatives (the ‘authors’ of the object, in a way), these coded values or messages are not singularly communicated or received. The doll’s makers were influenced by a range of reactionary and liberalizing socio-political forces that made Barbie go from an independent middle-class career woman to do-it-all controller of the domestic sphere. The image and activities of the object then needed to be viewed and responded to by girls and their parents (like a reader-response but for an object). At the nexus of this “complicated tangle of dominant ideologies and resistant symbolism” that makes Barbie a distorted mirror, a reflection of society’s frustrated ability to determine an ever malleable idea of femininity (256, 258). Objects, then, can be used to demonstrate not necessarily dominant cultural values but the cultural tensions of a society. They are solid “spaces of dissension” that bear the marks of these confrontations (226).

For Rebecca Shrum, whose article titled “Selling Mr. Coffee: Design, Gender, and the Branding of a Kitchen Appliance” talks about the different layers of masculinity in North American Systems’ Mr. Coffee pots, the Mr. Coffee appliance does not depict the pull and tug of a cultural discourse but stands as a tangible symbol of the changing gender norms of the 1970s and 1980s. Like Barbie, Mr. Coffees reflected the changing gender notions of an increasingly “transitional decade, when middle-class women increasingly entered the paid workforce and needed men to contribute to daily household tasks” (273). In this way, Mr. Coffee’s masculine branding served as a balm for male egos, offering them a visual and verbal language that created masculine activities in a traditional feminine space. Although the article predominately focuses on the advertisements more so than the product, Shrum’s article highlights how we can combine branding and advertisement information to see how historians can recognize when technological advancements serve a second purpose as a gendered( or cultural and social) tool for making alien spaces more comfortable.

Object Exercise #1

Keeping in mind that any material culture methodology will contain my own bias from the outset, I nonetheless believe that a replicable series of steps for cataloging and documenting an object for study is essential for any material culture study. Doing so allows for a thorough analysis of all the aspects of the object, however seemingly inconsequential, that systematically describes features and then uses historical research, theory, and inference to determine the feature’s purpose and meaning. My method will blend together elements from the methodologies posited by Jules David Prown and E. McClung Fleming.

The overarching organization of my method will follow E. McClung Fleming’s model for artifact study that uses a five-part classification of the object’s properties (history, material, construction, design and function) that are each analyzed in a series of four operations (identification, evaluation, cultural analysis, and interpretation) that are supplemented by outside research (154, Fig. 1). Throughout this framework I will modify Fleming’s explicit descriptions with other insights from Jules David Prown. Because Charles Montgomery’s method appears to often blend descriptions of the objects with determinations of the objects quality (a value-based judgment), my method will not explicitly relate to his because I want to do those two things separately.

I will begin with attempting to identify the history, material, construction, and design, but not the function, of the object. Starting with determining the object’s history, which Fleming alone suggests, is important because it offers the historian the context of where the object came from, who owned it, and how it came to be under the historian’s scrutiny. Just as the identity of a document’s author is important to analyzing a written source, the origins of a material (or the silence of these origins) is an important starting point. Following its history, I will move to identifying the material, construction, and design of the object, focusing on specific, measurable descriptions of what the object is made of and how it looks. This part will most closely resemble Prown’s description stage where the internal evidence of the object is described. I am leaving out identifying the function of the object because I think that understanding its function is covered in other steps and I believe following Prown’s suggestion that stages “be undertaken in sequence and kept as discreet as possible” will help in avoiding confusion (7).

Following identification, I will move onto the evaluation or judgment segment of the study, focusing on the object’s material, construction, design, and function. Fleming highlights the importance of comparison during this stage, and I agree that understanding that the object is related to other similar objects allows for judgments to be more critical and constructive. Through evaluation and comparison the historian will determine how unique the object was when produced and what condition it is in. Following this, I would include Prown’s deduction stage under evaluation because “interpreting the interaction between the object and perceiver” and getting into the headspace of someone who wears or touches an object is a useful step in evaluating what it felt like to use an object, thus eliciting its condition and function (7).  The judgment step will hopefully highlight the human senses and emotions tied into the object.

The third step, cultural analysis, will blend Fleming’s cultural analysis with Prown’s final speculative step. With the assorted information gathered about the object’s history, material make up, methods of construction, chosen design, imagined functions, and current condition, I will frame research questions and hypotheses that will guide what cultural investigation and analysis I then do. What social role did the creator or seller hold? How difficult was it to use or buy the materials used? How expensive was it to make or buy this object? Was the deduced or judged function I determined the primary use of this object? What kinds of people normally possessed these objects, and does that match with the history I identified? Can I deduce anything from its condition, and if so does that tell me anything new? Resorting to other material culture studies and historical sources will offer answers and further context during this step.

The final step is the interpretation step. Fleming states that interpretations of objects “will be as various as the interests and preoccupations of those who look at it” (172). For my method, the interpretation stage will aim at explaining the significance of the specific object. What lessons can the object tell us about attitudes, beliefs, or values during a particular time period? What assumptions are challenged or supported by the findings of the previous three steps? How does the human story embedded in this particular object illuminate the humanity of our past? The interpretation stage of the method will ideally answer some of these questions, explaining how and why the entire object analysis is useful for others.

Why Material Culture? Methodology Part 2

“Material culture,” according to Jules David Prown, “is the study through artifacts of the beliefs – values, ideas, attitudes, and assumptions – of a particular community or society at a given time” (1). Acknowledging that “it would be a delusion to assume we acquire complete access to the belief systems of a culture through its material survival,” Prown nonetheless asserts that material culture “should be a part of the tool kit of a well-equipped scholar” and studies that do not incorporate material culture are “impoverished” (5). The reasons Prown provides are sound.  Material evidence offers an alternative route at arriving at a society’s implicit values, they offer more representative connections to broader swaths of past societies, and they stand as tangible connections to our pasts. Prown also argues, however, that material culture studies “offers opportunities to circumvent the investigator’s own cultural perspective” (4-5).  Through an approach “that aspires to the scientific method,” historians “engage the other culture in the first instance not with our minds, the seat of our cultural biases, but with our senses” (5).  For me, this assertion sounds unfounded and unnecessary, especially for a system of study about the ever fluid contours of culture that is enacted by beings subject to these fluid contours. Do material culture studies need to aspire to a higher level of objectivity than others, and if so then why is that?

On a basic level, the methodologies presented by Prown and earlier by E. McClung Fleming involve judgement and the influence of the investigator’s personal mental biases. Despite Prown’s insistence that accurate descriptions and discrete methodological steps will “keep the distorting biases of the investigators in check,” his deductive and speculative steps are based around mental exercises inevitably inflected with personal bias (7). One of the steps for deduction involves teasing out “the viewer’s emotional response to the object” and Prown even states that speculation “moves completely to the mind of the perceiver” (9-10). Some of Prown’s focus on scientific accuracy can be seen in Fleming, with his insistence on stricter, replicable methods and the use of “the tolls of the scientist,” but his evaluation stage is described as “a set of judgements about the artifact” (156). None of this use of judgement is wrong, however. While Prown thinks the fact that “material culture offers a scholarly approach that is more specific and trustworthy” when compared to simple “awareness of the problem of one’s own cultural bias,” a significant amount of structural and post-structural scholarship tells us that historians cannot escape from the biases of own historical moments (4). This does not stop material culture studies from being useful. Fleming makes reference to the concept of “synthetic intuition” to highlight how “an artifact is not subject to just one ‘correct’ interpretation, but many. Interpretations will vary as the personal, class, ideological, and national interests of interpreters and their audiences vary” (161). Pure objectivity is not something cultural scholars or humanities scholars should feel the need to flaunt or aspire to.  In “The Connoisseurship of Artifacts,” Charles F. Montgomery begins a very meticulous, detail-oriented, and quasi-scientific fourteen-point guide to object analysis with three questions: “Do I enjoy it? Does it automatically ring true? Does it sing to me?” (145) Value judgment and bias is inherently a part of material, and even all, cultural studies. Accepting that material culture is not free from linguistic and cultural milieu of the time does not limit its power as a tool of historians.

Costume Method

The reading’s for this week’s class discuss and present the varying ways that material culture studies, particularly in regards to clothing and costume, can be utilized to round out traditional historical studies. “Baskets, petticoats and curtains open new vistas on the past” according to Beverly Lemire (89). “Artifacts,” she goes on, “yield a different kind of historical insight unavailable from written sources alone” (97). Under close scrutiny, the textures, patterns, and functions of dress give clues to the social, political, and cultural environment in which they were made. Objects’ origins tell historians about the breadth of consumerism and global trade, their pattern and stitching displays the changing modes of industry and production, and their uses highlight the material needs of societies not often found in archived documents. Despite what they tell, material culture still has a methodology that involves a rigorous interrogation of written and printed sources. As Lemire acknowledges, the most successful uses of material culture occurs when garments and costume are placed “in conjunction with documentary sources” (101).

This marriage of written word and material object is further explained in the methodology-oriented articles by Joan Severa, Merrill Horswill, and Valerie Steele. For Severa and Horswill, “costume provides façade” and a rigorous methodology must be deployed in order to determine “how much man’s clothing have been dictated by need and climate, and how much by social stimulus” (51). In their analysis of three different women’s garments from the 1840s, Severa and Horswill use a modified version of E. McCung Fleming’s four-pronged object study method (identification, evaluation, cultural analysis, and interpretation in order to understand the history, material, construction, design, and function of various objects (54). Though most of these steps are focused around examining the materials, the authors maintain that a high degree of historic and documentary literacy is required in order to understand the historical and cultural milieu of each object. Though using a somewhat different method, Steele agrees that studies of costume and dress must at some point move beyond the object to what she calls “a program of research” that contextualizes the observations made by historians (331). Using Jules Prown’s method, Steele explains how first historians should describe an object carefully, deduce its feel, function, and positive and negative features, and then speculate on hypotheses and questions about why the object was constructed in this way and what significance it holds (329). While the first two steps are solidly built around a historians’ sensory experience with an object, the final speculative stage requires “that supplementary information…be obtained from other sources, external to the artifact” (331). In each article, the authors highlight how ideal material culture studies pair context with the object so that objects “can be used actively as evidence rather than passively as illustrations” (329).

This approach can be seen in the short analysis of an early twentieth-century field hockey dress by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. Weaving the gendered and social histories of university athletics with an object analysis that describes the uniform in detail while comparing it to other sports uniforms, Ulrich’s article exemplifies how historians can utilize material culture to create strong emotional historical links through tangible artifacts. “The dress is a more powerful record of [Elizabeth Wright Plimpton’s] undergraduate days than the scrapbooks,” as Ulrich states. The distinctness of the uniform matches with the uniquely personal story of the wearer, and by mixing description, context, and narrative historians can use material objects and clothes to arrive at more personal narratives.

Fashion and Clothing as Rhetoric

In her chapter titled “Why We Need Things,” Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi outlines the meanings and relationships that humans imbue objects with when they choose to own or keep them. Whether “demonstrating the owner’s power,” “reveal[ing] the continuity of the self through time,” or “giv[ing] concrete evidence of one’s place in a social network,” material things contain great symbolic weight for humans as social creatures (23). In light of the readings on clothing and fashion for this week’s class, I keep thinking about how clothes perform a specific function that mixes all of these functions: clothes and fashion operate as a form of rhetoric. In Jennifer Price’s chapter on the controversy over bird hats, she describes how upper-class women spearheaded the movement against bird hats as a product of their understandings of a woman’s domestic moral power and their perceived status as the aesthetic and moralistic vanguard of polite society. As the arbiters of proper domestic and natural morality and stewardship, women used their rejection of bird hats to signify their place in a community of socially-minded women who could exert new avenues of force and power in social clubs. Similarly, Leslie Shannon Miller describes in her article on corsets how the constrictive nature of the garment inculcated an “aura of high morality and youthful discipline that went hand in hand with the message of physical youth,” creating a way for women to sartorially demonstrate their virtue (137). For both Price and Miller, women understood that clothing “was always meant to be seen and interpreted by others,” making fashion a non-verbal rhetorical strategy where women signaled their values, power, and status to themselves and society (L. Miller, 143).

This concept of clothing and fashion as rhetoric inspires concerns, nonetheless. Some of these concerns are described in Daniel Miller’s “Why Clothing is Not Superficial.” In the selection, Miller warns against the predominant “semiotic perspective” of material culture studies that views fashion as a superficial mask that signifies deeper truths, demonstrating how ideas of superficiality collapse in the cultural and social contexts of Trinidad, India, and London. While I agree with Miller’s critique of superficiality as artificially locating “truth” within a person rather on their clothing or around them, I do not think his examples disprove the semiotic perspective he mentions (18). Whether it is Trinidad’s “saga boys” or “galleying”, India’s saris, or London’s anxiety-prone fashion scene, these tangible materials signify broader cultural or social processes and norms. Outer clothing does not semiotically represent inner truths, but instead visible evidence highlights invisible societal forces. The different practices and meanings behind clothes in Trinidad coincide with a society “relatively egalitarian” that “prefers metaphors which suggests that people are to be defined by their current abilities and achievements” (20). The battles between saris and the shalwar makiz in India is representative of debates over gender and femininity (31). The anxiety-produced conformity of London is a visible manifestation of the “burden [on women]…to know for themselves what is they want and who they want to be” that came about through feminist empowerment (38). Superficiality should be done away with, but not concepts of clothing and fashion as visible signifiers of societal processes or norms.

Another concern that Miller only hits on is the fact that clothing can lie (13).  The distance between rhetoric and reality can vary, and a few of the readings touch on this. While the sartorial abandonment of bird hats by upper class women conveys the belief among late-nineteenth century Americans that women were at the heart and center of misconducts against nature, Price also highlights how this rhetoric somewhat obfuscates the reality of the economic markets that rampantly hunted and killed these birds. With these tensions of rhetoric and reality in mind, can objects and material culture studies stand on their own or do they need to be supplemented with other traditional historical sources to fully check against these differences?

Works Cited

Mihaly Csikszentmihlyi, “Why We Need Things,” in History from Things: Essays on Material Culture, eds. Steven Lubar and W. David Kingery (London: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1993), 20-29.

Daniel Miller, “Why Clothing is Not Superficial,” in Stuff (Malden, Massachusetts: Policy Press, 2010), 12-41.

Leslie Shannon Miller, “The Many Figures of Eve: Styles of Womanhood Embodied in a Late-Nineteenth-Century Corset,” in American Artifacts: Essays in Material Culture, ed. Jules David Prown and Kenneth Haltman, (East Lansing: Michigan State Press, 2000), 129-147.

Jennifer Price, “When Women were Women, Men were Men, and Birds were Hats,” in Flight Maps: Adventures with Nature in Modern America (New York: Basic Books, 2000), 157-209.

Personal Introduction to American Material Culture

My name is Ryan Langton. Currently, I am a first-year PhD student in the History Department at Temple University. Originally from New Jersey, I received a Bachelor of Arts degree in History and Political Science from the University of Notre Dame in 2015 and a Master of Arts degree in History from the College of William & Mary in 2018. My primary field of interest is early America and colonial Pennsylvania, and I am particularly interested in topics involving the intersection of Atlantic migration, imperial expansion, and cross-cultural encounter on the frontiers of North America. After completing my doctoral studies I hope to continue teaching history and researching about early America, ideally at the collegiate level.

I chose to take this semester’s American Material Culture course to better familiarize myself with the methodology and theory behind material culture studies. As an historian interested in Euro-American and Indigenous American encounter, I am well aware that written and printed documents from the eighteenth century, having been written by Euro-Americans for their own political, social, or cultural motives, hold a Eurocentric bias. The physical tools, clothing materials, methods of transportation, and other artifacts utilized during this period, however, offer one way of better understanding not only how Indigenous people lived and reacted to European colonists but also how Indigenous and European practices interacted with one another. By taking this course, I hope to develop a working understanding of the theory and methods behind material culture studies while also receiving practical experience working with historical collections.