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.

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Not so much about material culture as the way in which culture persists (and kind of sucks)

In her afterword, Ulrich discusses the yeoman farmer, situated between the aristocrat and the savage. The comfortable pastoral ideal feels very current (albeit in a rather less pasture-centric manner) in political discourse, so focused upon the rhetorically idealized middle class. The line from Lazy Indians to Welfare Queens is pretty clear; the specific skin tone implied is irrelevant, except insofar as it is not white. One of Przybysz’s quotes (415) of privileged male discomfort as the object of a Gaze echoes some of the unfortunate sex/race/class undertones of “don’t touch my junk” outrage at TSA policies.

Tickled (and somewhat creeped out)

I am unaccountably tickled by the phrase “feminist historiography of American quiltmaking practices” (in Przybysz).

Sadly, some of the crazy has leached out of my crazy quilt. Flipping through Penny McMorris’s book, I came across an 1882 quilt (which a blogger recently photographed in the museum) featuring chipmunks. Actual chipmunks, courtesy of the popularity of “home taxidermy” (also a ticklesome phrase). A charming three-dimensional cattail simply cannot compete with dead chipmunks.