The design and arrangement of material culture within a given environment aids in modifying one’s sense of space and time. In turn, space and time may convey an intersection of identity politics – such as race, gender, sexuality, ability and class. For example, Angel Kwolek-Folland describes the rise of scientific management in offices and factories in “The Gendered Environment of the Corporate Workplace, 1880-1930” in The Material Culture of Gender: The Gender of Material Culture, edited by Katharine Martinez and Kenneth L. Ames. In the interest of reinforcing a sense of “hierarchy” (or, a classification of those above and below) and “efficiency” (or, what is considered a productive use of time), the layout of “fixtures … desks, chairs, cabinets, and water coolers” were altered to modify behavior and “facilitate particular interactions” (161). As such, the subjective value with which bodies and labor are imbued – the influence of capitalism on lived experience – is evinced in material culture.
"Janelle Monáe in Hidden Figures, 2016" GIPHY.
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For example, management theorist R. H. Goodell turned women’s desks away from the door, believing they were easily distracted by those entering and leaving the space (162). Similarly, a supervisor’s desk may be situated behind the workers so they can be watched unobserved – practicing a form of omniscience or disciplinary gazing (162). Design of objects, and not just their arrangement in a given space, conveys similar symbolism. By 1900, time was divided by work (“owed to the company”) and rest (lunch and bathroom breaks) – “punch clocks and clerical clocks, usually stripped of all extraneous ornament, watched, over workers from prominent sites on work room walls” (162). Conversely, executive clocks were ornate – such as large grandfather clocks – and accurate – respectful of the owner’s valuable time (162).
However, in order to historicize such objects – how they were understood and experienced in a given time and space – one needs to identify and perhaps even visit or reconstruct the setting(s) and environment(s) in which they have existed. In other words, material culture cannot be studied in a vacuum. Natural landscapes and human architecture together encompass and contextualize the objects historians seek to interpret. Therefore, site-specific history and material culture study may inform one another, as in Dell Upton’s “White and Black Landscapes in Eighteenth-Century Virginia” in Material Life in America, 1600-1860, edited by Robert Blair St. George. For example, the living quarters of enslaved people at Howard's Neck plantation “illustrate the lack of built-in furniture and storage space that characterized eighteenth- and nineteenth-century quarters” (360).
Those who lived there likely installed their own – such as shelves (perhaps fixed near the fireplace or moveable with the support of wall holes and sticks), spikes in the rafters to dry herbs, cubby holes and cellars to store food (360). Other examples of material culture include an iron pot for cooking (sometimes the only item provided by enslavers), handmade musical instruments such as fiddles and banjos, and a bed – “a box-like frame made of boards hardly roughed down, upheld by stakes [and] some what straw and conrstalks, on which was spread a very short-napped woolen blanket that was burned in several places” (361). The origins and ephemeral construction of these objects, set against the skeletal backdrop of the living quarters themselves, convey transience, uncertainty, and resilience.
As segregation continued, material culture and the built environment in which it resided continued to adapt to prevailing systems, institutions and identity politics. Both the public (e.g., libraries, parks) and private (e.g., businesses, homes) uses space to include or exclude certain groups of people. Consequently, as Robert Weyeneth discusses in his article “The Architecture of Racial Segregation: The Challenges of Preserving the Problematical Past” –
“To maintain exclusive white space, it was sometimes necessary for government to make provision for black space. In this sense, exclusion could force duplication: the establishment of separate self-standing facilities for African Americans that replicated existing white facilities. Separate schools, the colored wing of a hospital, the Negro Area of a state park, and separate public housing were all examples of duplicate black space provided, albeit grudgingly, by state and local government. As public policy, duplication rep- resented a feeble nod in the direction of providing ‘separate but equal’ facilities that were emphatically separate and never equal” (15).
Consider bathrooms – segregated by both race and gender, necessitating a double duplication. Consider what amenities – what tools, materials, and other objects – also had to be bought to outfit all spaces, and the contrast in their qualities. The desperation to maintain segregated space, material culture, and lived experience obviously surpassed the desire to be economical. The literal cost of racism was not lost on all, however. Capitalism (both a root cause and corrective for segregation) ensured some businesses (re-)characterized Black people as productive bodies, sought to employ them (for lesser wages), and integrate their workforces. Such dynamics are well illustrated in The New Girl in the Office (1960) – a short film sponsored by the U.S. government to address racial integration in the workplace – featuring a young Gail Fisher.