Philadelphia, The Dining Room, and more…Material Culture Blog 5

I was excited to read more from Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, as I enjoyed reading her other material a few weeks ago. Whereas her last writings discussed solely women and material culture, this piece focuses on the social construct of gender. The piece asks, “How has gender perceptions effect how we view things, and how were things perceived in the past?” Her analysis of furniture and comparisons with art of the period was particularly informative and striking. It also revealed how different attributes were conceived as gender defined in the past. “In Copely iconography, pen and paper are simultaneously marks of gentility and of industry-but only for males”[1] This example shows how different symbols tied to gender that modern viewers can miss, because of their own internal notions of gender. Ulrich also uses material culture as way of tracing family histories through inheritance. “The Sherburne high chest, like the Barnard cupboard, help us understand how objects preserve lineages through time”[2] This analysis stresses another context to view studies in material culture. This next piece, “Death in the Dining Room,” seems to ask, “how closely related are aesthetics and the culture that provided them?” Kenneth Ames, does an interesting analysis on the similarities between the prosperity and imperialistic tendencies displayed in the Fourdinois sideboard and the Victorian society it was created in. “These sideboards reaffirmed an ancient view, recorded as far back as the Book of Genesis, that humankind should have dominion, ‘over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air and over the cattle, and over all of the earth”[3] These kinds of aspects of Victorian culture are seen hand in hand, with the material in this article.

The next article, “Master’s of a Craft: Philadelphia’s Black Public Waiters, 1820-50,” was incredibly informative as well, diving into a new perspective on Philadelphia material culture. It was an inclusive and interesting way of examining aspects of material culture. Because my object is so formal, this kind of study is something I will keep in mind. Dayna M. Pilgrim suggests, “Black public waiters such as Robert Bogles and Randol Shepard raised their work to a high art, leveraged the cultural capital of Philadelphia”[4] This article informed why Philadelphia was such a prominent city in the early days of American history, not just as a fashion capital but food as well. The final article, “The Furniture of Thomas Day: A Reevaluation,” alluded to more perspectives on analysis of material culture through examining the works of Thomas Day. Prown remarks, “American furniture scholarship has generally failed to acknowledge the contributions of slaves and free black artisans”[5] His piece was incredibly articulate on this vacuum of knowledge that is only just beginning to include analysis like this on Thomas Day. His piece overall acts as a call to arms, for more research on the link between African-American cultural heritage and the landscape of American furniture.


[1] Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, “Furniture as Social History” in Luke Beckerdite and William N. Hosley, eds. American Furniture (Hanover: University Press of New England, 1995), 35-64. Pg 45

[2] Ibid., pg 64

[3] Kenneth Ames, “Death in the Dining Room,” Death in the Dining Room and Other Tales of Victorian Culture, (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1992) 44-96. pg 71

[4] Dayna M. Pilgrim, “Master’s of a Craft: Philadelphia’s Black Public Waiters, 1820-50,” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography (October 2018), 269-293.  pg 272

[5] Johnathan Prown, “The Furniture of Thomas Day: A Reevaluation,” Winterthur Portfolio, (1998) Vol. 33, No. 4, 215-229. Pg 218

IMAGE SOURCE Ibid., Prown pg 216

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