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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Weekly readings: history of things

Kenneth Ames’s “Meaning in Artifacts” is a thorough consideration of a small slice of everyday material life. The appeal is voyeuristic as well as intellectual. Let us reconstruct the environment and behavior of those exotic Victorians! But thanks to the wealth of sources, and temporal and cultural proximity, it’s comparatively easy to slip into the skins of those exotic creatures. The rendition of hallstead elements (31) conjured images of my grandparents’ entryway, a tiny protuberance more airlock than hall, but with enough room for a closet, mirror, and table. The spatial challenges (36) called to mind my last trip to Ikea.

Ames made a number of observations I’m evaluating in light of the crazy quilt. The placement of objects on the hallstead brings to mind ikebana, probably because the influence of Asian design aesthetics upon American sensibilities is something that directly bears upon the quilt. The importance of symmetry, the assertion of control in the production of the objects Ames describes (see 34 and 37 in particular for symmetry and placement), is superficially quite at odds with an asymmetrical or naturalistic aesthetic, and yet I wonder how principles of precision and order may have been shared and endured and morphed by culture. It is also well worth considering how gender plays into those aesthetics and spaces.

Where Ames rendered the era familiar, Sheumaker was evocative of the alien. The hair art of Love Entwined is simply not on my radar. I do not automatically think of hair as a monetized resource. Despite the prevalence of Victoriana in popular culture, hair art has not been prominently represented. Hairwork is a case of rapid cultural change that can be mapped quantitatively, and thus examined using the tools of the social scientist as well as the humanist.

To indulge in understatement, the scope of the class project is smaller than Sheumaker’s. However, the utility of a “count advertisements” approach should not be underestimated. I had originally planned to be more selective and qualitative in my examination of contemporary literature, to ask what was specifically written about crazy quilting in a few instances. I still think that will be valuable, but that approach doesn’t preclude my including a raw number of search results, does it?

Karin Dannehl’s “Object Biographies” involves some conscious anthropomorphism, to good effect and nicely in line with a project where we “met” our objects. The life cycle of the quilt is potentially quite interesting and complicated: each component had a life, and the finished quilt can be viewed as Frankenstein’s monster or a community of objects. Those are quite different things, with the whole transcending the individual components to form a single unique thing, or individuality persisting (and offering commentary upon adjacent individual components) despite a drastic change of physical form. Exploring each metaphor is potentially fruitful, particularly when considering how the quiltmaker saw her work. Did she primarily focus on the overall object to be displayed? Or did an enduring sentimental attachment to individual components drive her work? Was she more likely to show visitors “the quilt,” or point out a particular piece of fabric?