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.
"Waiters from Call Her Savage, 1932" GIPHY. Accessed February 17, 2019.
As discussed in last week’s post, I’m interested in the gendering and sexing of material culture. However, beyond twentieth- and twenty-first-century marketing and commodification, how has this process worked? How can the shape, movement and utility embodied by an object itself suggest gender and sexuality?
As Laurel Thatcher Ulrich illustrates in “Furniture as Social History: Gender, Property, and Memory in the Decorative Arts” in American Furniture (edited by Luke Beckerdite and William N. Hosley) – “to a twentieth-century eye, the graceful curves of a cabriole chair leg might appear ‘feminine,’ a massive chest with stubby bracket feet, ‘masculine.’ In the colonial world, the gender attributions were probably reversed. In both the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, a well-formed leg was one of the defining attributes of an upper-class male” (47). In other words, because constructs of gender and sexuality are fluid, subject to change, and vary throughout time and place, material culture (much like other primary sources) cannot be read through a presentist lens – or a Eurocentric one, for that matter. The elements of a single item – its materials, composition, production and consumption – can be and have been gendered and sexed in a variety contexts.
Consider how everyday items are arbitrarily assigned human-like traits, often socially or culturally constructed. Consider the gendering and sexing of material culture – how an object can be thought of as masculine or feminine, beautiful or sexy – be it food, clothing, or tools. As illustrated by the hyperlinked examples, this process often happens through marketing. After all, sex sells.
In turn, many items associated with domestic chores – such as groceries, kitchen appliances, washing or cleaning supplies – are often advertised to women but, historically, have undercut that appeal to their “consumer base” with sexist messages. Of course, this incongruity begs the question – who is producing, buying, and using these products? Are they the same demographic groups – have they been and will they continue to be?
"Charlie Chaplin Hat Trick" GIPHY. Accessed February 2, 2019.
Clothing and other sorts of adornment are tangible representations of embodiment – what Jules David Prown deems a “partnership of function and style” in his article “Mind in Matter” (13). An object that is worn is used and experienced more personally or intimately than other forms of material culture. Beyond what Prown highlights as a manifestation of personal identity through adornment is utility – how and why the object is used while modifying some portion of the body in a certain way (to cover, reveal, constrict, extend, burden, relieve, soothe, discomfort, protect, endanger, strengthen, weaken, warm, cool, darken, lighten, etc.).
Prown encourages scholars of material culture to first consider an object’s value – inherent in the materials themselves and their (re)use, demonstrated by its usefulness, and imbued by the transitory sentiments of those who possess it based on emotions, aesthetics, spirituality, or interpersonal symbolism (3). An object accrues more meaning for scholars if it “witnessed” or “survived” historical events or is considered “representative” of a specific culture or community (3-4). In order to analyze this confluence of elements, Prown suggests the following methodology:
Why are textual sources (particularly written documents like ledgers, correspondence and diaries) treated more favorably than objects, film, photography, literature and even (soon enough) digital files as traditional historians craft their narratives? The gaps and silences of the archive (not to mention the biases and falsehoods) are contained within all materials – past, present and future. In other words, nothing is guaranteed to be “correct” or “factual.” All sources can lie. In turn, how do we know what we know? Historians in particular should be more self-reflexive.
We consistently take one source as true over another, or over nothing else (absent any other information) – if several sources testify to one story, and a single source claims another, etc. Historians dabble in games of probability – the likelihood an event or exchange could have happened, an idea or emotion could have been provoked, and so on. If we weren’t there, if we didn’t experience these things firsthand, who are we to fabricate what took place? Even then, memory is alterable and unreliable. But this is the hubris of historians. Reiterating Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s concepts of historicity 1 and 2 – what happened and what is said to have happened – we are consistently balancing what can never be known and what might be known, respectively.