Weekly readings: the social life of things

Ulrich’s The Age of Homespun concentrates upon female space, labor, and relationships. Przybysz’s “Quilts, Old Kitchens, and the Social Geography of Nineteenth Century Sanitary Fairs” follows suit, albeit in a manner more narrow and reliant upon literature (specifically Stowe). In Upton’s “White and Black Landscapes in Eighteenth-Century Virginia” and Weyeneth’s “Architecture of Racial Segregation,” race is the all-important overlay.

But there is some sense in which stuff can mainly speak to class.* Class is a social construct, but even when a high degree of correlation is dictated, there are ways in which it feels like the class of the hands which made and used a thing is somehow closer to that thing than the race or gender identity of those hands. It’s complicated, obviously, because it’s not just the hands, it’s also the mind. (Thank you, unknown West African architects; I am quite fond of my front porch.) And everything is interconnected. Weyeneth’s discussion of segregated schools (14) reminded me of an article† that drew a straight line from desegregation to single sex schools: an inferior education was a small price to pay for keeping white girls away from scary black boys. So maybe, if I were to develop a hierarchy or linear process, placing stuff at the center—okay, I guess it’s radial, which seems moderately more palatable anyway—I’d put class as the next ring. Then race, sex, and a host of other aspects of personal identity and social roles: the things that shape the brain that controls the hands.‡

How does this affect my approach to the crazy quilt? I think the answer is “subtly.” I have been thinking of the quilt primarily in terms of gender: a thing created by a woman, in a woman’s space. I have not discounted the class issues, but have been thinking of the quilt primarily as fancywork: a decorative task that could be comfortably accomplished on a variety of budgets. Even if my finished products (the final paper and exhibit label) focus on gender (which is quite possible), I need to make sure my consideration of class is not an afterthought. The method of obtaining materials—purchasing scraps, repurposing clothing, investing time or upwards of $6 on pre-embroidered patches§—is fundamental to the creation of the quilt. Even if I can’t divine it with any degree of confidence, I can’t deprecate its importance.

* This is part of the reason I enjoyed reading Ames last week. It’s not that I am uninterested in race, gender, etc. But I guess I’m kind of Marxist at heart. (My heart is pretty good at avoiding inconvenient teleology when picking out stuff I like.)

† I can’t remember the citation at the moment, just that it was written by a female professor of history and/or law at Penn and posted online a few years ago.

‡ I have the sneaking suspicion that somebody—possibly more than one—has neatly articulated something I would read and go “Yes!” and quite possibly opened with the sort of “…nobody’s really talked about this…” line that recurred in the readings for object analysis methodology.

§ An option mentioned in Penny McMorris’s book. If my quilter took advantage of such products, my offhand statement that the quilt’s value was equal to labor, with materials an incidental consideration, would require serious revision. There are a lot of embroidered flowers on the quilt.

Weekly readings: history from things

I got a warm, fuzzy feeling when I saw Glassie on the reading list, courtesy of the references in Deetz’s In Small Things Forgotten. It emphasized the community part of “community of scholars,” the fact that citations aren’t just bullet points to hit, but at their best a record of one’s scholarly, professional, and intellectual development (between which there is a fair degree of overlap, but they’re still separate things).

I felt less than warm and fuzzy reading Deetz’s later chapters, though they were intellectually and emotionally satisfying. When I was an undergrad, I took a few classics classes, so I got used to the idea that “sources” might consist of a bit of broken pottery and the six lines of an Aristophanes play that weren’t devoted to fart jokes. In light of professional and popular fixation on ancient cultures, it is even more horrifying to consider how recent significant scholarship of African Americans really is. Somehow, Deetz’s chapters explaining the literal uncovering of mountains of evidence did more to drive home this fact than my longstanding acceptance that there was a scholarly shift in recent decades.

The quantitative aspects of archaeology came through quite strongly in both readings. If you want to make generalizations, you need as much data as possible. And you do want to make generalizations, because that may be all that is available and in any case it’s valuable context (knowing Mrs. Smith owned pearlware is not particularly meaningful if you don’t also have a sense of what her neighbors owned). The reading reminded me why I like my history interdisciplinary: other fields have very interesting things to say, either supplementing what historians do or filling in the blanks. (It also reminded me why I’m on the history end: I haven’t ever been on a dig, and I’m not sure I’d have the chops/interest to be particularly useful, and I found myself skimming Glassie and Kniffen because if the methodology was meant to yield information about generalized trends I wanted to get to those generalizations. But those mounds of data sure are nice. Especially now, when we have so many different tools for slicing and dicing numbers.)

One of the tensions in the class project is the balance of individualized and generalized information. We’re aiming to produce 50 word captions. Museum exhibits are not monographs, or even articles; they have different goals, different strengths, and often different audiences. It’s possible I won’t be able to identify the “L” of the crazy quilt*…but even if I can, how relevant is that information in the context of the planned exhibit? Is it more important to place the quilt in the context of “L”’s life, or 1880s Philadelphia, or women’s labor, or print culture, or technological development, or art history, or Victorian sentimentalism, or…really, the possibilities are endless. I could do a very different 50 words for each block. The problem is picking one perspective and not just doing it well, but doing it in a way that makes the exhibit an integrated whole.

* More on that in my next post.

Hazards of graduate study 4

Reading about the Mean Ceramic Date formula—whereby archaeologists can get a reasonably precise date for a site based upon the type of ceramics—makes me feel like I am failing posterity. My trash is dumped elsewhere. I am very slightly tempted to smash a few plates and bury them in the back yard, but I suspect that would only make future archaeologists scratch their heads.

Hazards of graduate study 2

Reading In Small Things Forgotten, I have a bit of an urge to dig up my back yard. The foundation of a small building is back there (possibly mid-nineteenth century*) and a similar foundation (less thoroughly covered) can be found in the hedgerow abutting our neighbor’s place. There might be something neat in there. But I am a bit too lazy to play amateur archaeologist…and in those moments when I am not lazy, and wonder if there is anything remotely interesting back there, I am dissuaded by the “amateur.”

* Our front porch includes a stone with the year 1855 carved into it. The house itself is most likely from the 1930s, but a neighbor said a previous owner had incorporated a stone from elsewhere on the property.