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.