The Unfinished Stocking in Space

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s The Age of Homespun launches straight into its explanation to examine under-discovered groups in nineteenth-century American history through objects by stating on page 25, “…objects…can help us do that by calling attention to the unseen technologies, interconnections, and contradictions that lie beneath audible events.” Focusing on Ulrich’s last chapter on the unfinished stocking, I read about this object as a representation of Ulrich’s larger theme regarding women—that a woman is “reproductive and productive, fitting to her sphere yet visible beyond it,” (35).  Jane Przybysz recognized this pressure on females in “Quilts, Old Kitchens, and the Social Geography of Gender at Nineteenth Century Sanitary Fairs,” too, stating on page 417, “Survival as a real woman entailed both academic and domestic training, both marriage and motherhood being understood as the destiny of most women.”   Przybysz goes on to discuss this at length through an examination of the Brooklyn Aid Society’s play regarding the female role in the home, specifically in the kitchen.  After examining the many topics of conversation a woman would discuss at a quilting party depicted by Harriet Beecher Stowe, she states, “Stowe imagines women not only relishing the company of other women but positioning themselves at the center of the social, intellectual, and political life of their communities,” (422).

This is sort of what Ulrich sets as the stage for the unfinished stocking, for while she states on page 375, the stocking “represents continuity in women’s work in New England,” it specifically permits the journey from home to mill, ventures in sericulture (silk), business based in the home and out of it with the assistance of children or without—with machines or against them, through community ties or unified strikes.  The duality between female power and plight in New England is depicted in all ‘knitting’ situations.  What also seems to be clear is that the use of manufacturing was supposed to shed a light of hope for women, and while it did permit some mobility of the “DAUGHTERS OF REPUBLICAN AMERICA,” it did not liberate women from their feminized role.

How fascinating and disturbing it was to read Robert Weyeneth’s “The Archictecture of Racial Segregation.”  It blows my mind to think that prejudice and racism so intrinsically infected the brains of white Americans—so much so that blueprints determined the amount of “white beds” in a hospital wing.

Weyeneth’s explanation of shopping rules in many Southern towns and the effect these distinctions had on the African American shopping experience was revealing of social experience in public space.  His argument that many African Americans chose to avoid this exasperating experience with prepping at home hints that segregation actually made public space more vacant.  What is there to this in regard to the structure of African American households during the Jim Crow era?  Do material culture studies of African American homes during Jim Crow demonstrate a celebration of and power in home life as opposed to public life?

Dell Upton was certainly considering the social experience of space in “White and Black Landscapes.”  Upton argues on page 362 that plantations were not dwelling places or working farms in a vacuum, but rather that “the plantation was a village.”  To Upton, understanding the plantation in terms of social space and what an onlooker would find makes all the difference.  How would this change our examination of space during the Jim Crow Era?

This reminded me that I liked the suggestion by Levi during last week’s class discussion that the Drexel Historic Costume Collection exhibit has potential to explore space.  Each object has a strong relevance and statement about social power within particular spaces of Philadelphia.  How can I think about social space in this way regarding the dolman?  I think my highest point of interest regarding that relationship is at the Academy of Music.  For starters, I need to think about Miss Hassler and her place there the evening of the opera and in Philadelphia in general as a woman (keeping Ulrich’s approach to object discovery in mind here).  I think I also need to understand the space of the Academy.  Who sat where and why?  What does it look like?  From where did she enter?  Did all people enter there?  I could ask these questions almost relentlessly… so I reserved a space on a tour of the Academy in late October.

Resources

Przybysz, Jane. “Quilts, Old Kitchens, and the Social Geography of Gender,” in K. Martinez and K. Ames, eds., The Material Culture of Gender, The Gender of Material Culture (Winterthur, Delaware: The Winterthur Museum, 1997).

Ulrich, Laurel Thatcher. The Age of Homespun. (New York, NY: Vintage Books, 2002).

Upton, Dell. “White and Black Landscapes in Eighteenth-Century Virginia,” in Robert Blair St. George, ed., Material Life in America, 1600-1860 (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1988).

Weyeneth,Robert. “The Architecture of Racial Segregation: The Challenges of Preserving the Problematical Past,” The Public Historian 27 (Fall 2005): 11-44.

Cycles of Sentiments

As I read Helen Sheumaker’s “Love Entwined” in concert with Karin Dahhnel’s “Object Biographies” and Kenneth L. Ames’ “Meaning in Artifacts,” I first noticed how nicely these readings spoke to each other.  While reading “Love Entwined,” I thought about the lack of hairwork today in tandem with hairwork’s modern cousin, jewelry/art made with cremated remains.  My first connection between texts was that hairwork had “died” in some way, exemplifying the very life cycle study and life cycle assessment discussed by Dahhnel.

I saw parallels in my experience in Dahhnel’s commentary on exceptional and humble objects.  As Dahhnel explains, “The humble object, by contrast, will be more likely to get used and used up, or returned as scrap to produce new objects,” and for me, this is true.  I am not planning to destroy items with monetary or sentimental value for reuse (i.e. wedding presents), but I reuse “unimportant” clothing for projects or for simple household cleaning use.  I reacted similarly to Ames’ reference to Damos on page 126, “But as Damos noted in A Little Commonwealth, it is not easy to judge the meaning of object’s in people’s lives or how they felt about a certain artifact.  Not only did those feelings go unrecorded but they often existed below the level of consciousness.”  When I think about my everyday objects, I am not thinking about their meanings and what they say about me in the context of culture.  Do I have some objects which define my ‘self’ more than others?  Yes, but most of my materials, such as for cooking, do not say much about me in a conscious everyday manner, other than my love for chartreuse green (I have one such pie plate).  This is where Dahhnel helps with object biography, using life cycle study and biography to “assist the historian in dealing with the complexities and, above all, with the absences in a constructive matter.”  When we can’t know what the user of an item was thinking and feeling, object biography helps to create the constructive matter historians need to make an argument and add to conversation.

In the case of Sheumaker’s biography on hairwork, there are moments of what Dahhnel would call “discursive space” in the narrative, but I wonder if these conclusions are made because of hairwork’s ability to be discussed as art.  Is there more room for discussion of inference in a biography of an “art history” or expressive object (like a novel) than something more specifically functional, like a pot?

When I read about the morphing use of sentimentality in hairwork in the 1850s and 1860s, including the use of hairwork for practical personal gifts (such as the “fob watch” Sheumaker discusses on page 136-139), I started to think about these implications on fashion in a larger sense.  While fashion in terms of the dolmanette is less personal than hairwork (though hairwork is fashion), there is also a piece of self illustrated by clothing selection.  When considering the dolmanette, which was a highly-priced piece worn to a public social occasion, it seems rational to expect that this piece expressed its owner, Miss Rosalie Hassler.  Is clothing the next step after hairwork in materials of sentimentality?  In Chapter 2, Sheumaker discusses hairwork with the goal of creating a representation of the inner self.  Is it possible that the dolmanette achieves a purpose of representing Miss Hassler’s true self?  Does the ability of the dolmanette to emanate Hassler’s self partly lie in discovering if this piece was made personally or in mass production?

In other words, just as Sheumaker states on page 38 that “…hairwork appealed to customers because it was unique, fashionable, and sentimental,” I feel motivated to use the dolmanette to tell me more about Miss Hassler uniqueness, fashion sense, and sentimentality in context.  Just as Ames stated on page 127 that understanding hall furniture necessitated the need “to know something about the hall, for this space and its relationship to other spaces in the home had an influence on the objects placed within it,” I need to know about Miss Hassler and her role at an opera debut and her relationship to other people in that space because these things had influence upon her and the dolmanette.

 

References

Ames, Kenneth. “Meaning in Artifacts: Hall Furnishings in Victorian America,” Journal of Interdisciplinary History 9 (1978): 19-46.

Dannehl, Karin. “Object Biographies: From Production to Consumption,” in Karen Harvey, ed., History and Material Culture: A Student’s Guide to Approaching Alternative Sources (London and New York: Routledge, 2009).

Sheumaker, Helen. “Love Entwined: The Curious History of Hairwork in America.”(Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007).

Describing the Dolmanette of Ivory Brocade Silk and Chenille Fringe, 1884

 Describing the Dolmanette of Ivory Brocade Silk and Chenille Fringe, 1884

 Erin Bernard

Part I. The Object Itself

A soft and silky ivory jacket with a fuzzy-looking fringe hangs on the clothing rack and as the Costume Collection graduate assistant cautiously grasps the hanger to move it, there is little sound.  The jacket is too plush to swish or crunch as the garment is moved to the table for review.  No smell is noticed.  The fringe looks slightly-yellowed, but the jacket still has a pristine, almost regal look, the brocade on the silk still finely defined.  It nearly shimmers.  As the jacket is opened, the interior too looks hardly-worn, slippery.  Special.  Like holiday clothes worn just once.

This dolmanette is a jacket styled for a female to wear to a formal occasion, quilted with batting to keep warm in the winter and early spring season.  No exact weight was taken.  It seemed about the weight of a current female winter pea coat.  The measurements were 35” in length, 18”across the shoulders, 62” bottom wingspan.  Because this coat is like a mantle with plenty of room to drape for stylistic purposes, these measurements do not offer insight on the exact size of the object’s wearer.

 The dolmanette features ivory brocade on the silk material of the jacket.  It has chenille fringe along the collar and exterior seams, including the back. The interior features quilted silk with batting within to add warmth.  The craftsman of this dolmanette is unknown, but both American and European designers made such dolmans.  The seams of the interior quilting were done with machine.  This is a finely-made dolman.  Other than some yellowing, specifically of the fringe, this dolman seems to be in excellent shape.  There were no noted places of wear or missing ornamentations.  The origin of the dolmanette is currently unknown,but similar pieces from the 1884 time period were made both in America and in Europe.1

According to the Drexel Historic Costume Collection’s records, this piece was owned and worn by Miss Rosalie Hassler, sister to Music Director Mark Hassler.  She is attributed to have worn this jacket to the opening of the Metropolitan Opera at the Academy of Music on March 14, 1884.2  However, according to the records of the Metropolitan Opera, the date of their opening at the Academy of Music, as opposed to past performances at the Chestnut Street Opera House, was April 14, 1884 with a performance of Les Huguenots.3  In fact, on March 14, 1884, the Metropolitan Opera Company’s online archives pinpoint a performance of Martha in New York City,4 making the date listed in the Drexel Historic Costume Collection to be impossible, if Rosalie did indeed attend a performance by the Metropolitan Opera in Philadelphia at the Academy of Music.  Further investigation on this date discrepancy will be done with hopeful research at the Academy of Music and also the Historical Society of Philadelphia’s archives of Academy of Music program notes, pending the ability to do so.   Further research also needs to be done on Ms. Hassler herself, who from preliminary investigation, seems to have come from a prominent German and possibly Jewish family of Philadelphia which was very involved in music.5

This dolman would have been priced between $22 to $44 depending on whether or not it was imported, who designed it, and the quality of the silk.6  The ticket cost of Les Huguenots was $6.7 Current appraisal rates for such dolmans are still to be discovered.

Part II. The Intellectual Connotations of the Object

Intellectual Analysis

Miss Rosalie Hassler is the determined owner of this cloak per the records of the Drexel Historic Costume Collection.  The designer could have been someone like Emile Pingat, though it is not likely his specific handiwork.  When researching designers of dolmans and opera cloaks, Emile Pingat8 immediately sticks out because he was a couture outerwear designer who created many opera cloaks in Paris.  Because of the class level associated with this item, Ms. Hassler most likely had assistance in dressing for her evening at the opera, but more research will be done to verify that conclusion.

The dolmanette is essentially a coat.  Compared to female coats today, it is similar to a lined swing dress coat.  In comparison to other dolman jackets of the period found through the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s website, the piece seems to exemplify a few noticeable trends including printed silk fabric with slit in back to rest over the dress bustle.  It also is notable that the fringe on the silk dolmans of the 1880s have a more feathery look, ranging in fabrics from chenille to silk to fur.  The 1880s dolmans also feature elaborate fringe on the collar area.  The Ivory brocade sets our dolmanette apart from the darker rose-printed ones of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collection. 9

Pingat’s work in the 1882-1887 time period featured ivory, fringe, and in the later of those years, fur.  Arguably, Miss Hassler was quite the fashionista for her time because her dolmanette is ivory like the fashion-forward Pingat’s dolman of 1885.10 More research will be done on this topic. This object is definitively high class, and when examining the trends in other dolman jackets and opera cloaks of the time period, ivory looks to be a forward-fashion color in 1884.  The fringe also would have been a fashion statement.  These forward-thinking trends suggest this object to be a use of personal style, but also power, a statement of high class prominence.  This makes sense when thinking this lady was the sister of a Music Director attending the premier of an opera from New York in a new opera house.

The last Intellectual Analysis question posed in the methodology framework for the dolmanette has proved difficult to answer, but more work will be done to determine these factors. (What are the Cause and Effect of Behaviors Associated with Object? What happened to the environment and people as they made this object and distributed it?)  What we do know is that the piece was most likely purchased via catalogue, department store, or directly from a designer in America or abroad.

Empathetic Interaction

This section is still being constructed, but a vignette, much like the opening vignettes of In Small Things Forgotten: An Archaeology of Early American Life by James Deetz, about Miss Hassler’s entrance and seating in the Academy of Music at the beginning of the opera is being researched and worded with care.

Part III. Make a hypothesis.

                It is difficult to say exactly what I expect to argue about Miss Rosalie Hassler’s dolmanette at this time because there is still much to discover about her, the dolmanette itself, and the performance at which she wore it.  From the research I have uncovered at this time, there is a suspected element of class restriction and power to the society of music in Philadelphia during the 1880s.

Because the dolmanette of Miss Rosalie Hassler seems to be an expensive article of clothing, I expect, as unbiased as I can be, that there will be an element of power in the style of this particular dolman, especially if the color ivory and the trendiness of the fringe is as exclusive and new as it seems from other dolmans of the time period.  How miss Rosalie Hassler was exerting her power, as a woman, as an integral part of musical society, as a Jewish person in Philadelphia, I am not yet sure.  Was what Miss Hassler was wearing to this opening somehow more special or different from other women at the same event?  How do their differences and similarities in dress frame these women in society, in Philadelphia music culture, and in America 1884?  These are things I would like to understand more fully to devise a thesis with clarity and direct purpose.

To go out on a limb, I’ll say that Miss Rosalie Hassler used the dolmanette as an object of style and power to exert herself a place within the musical culture of Philadelphia in the 1880s.  Essentially, the ticket to the opera was not her admission to society; the dolmanette was the object of inclusion.  Let the true exploration commence.

Notes

1Coat (Dolman). The Metropolitan Museum of Art. http://www.metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the-collections/80035661?rpp=20&pg=1&ft=dolman&pos=6, 14, 17, 19, 22, 28, 32. (accessed September 16, 2012)

2Judy Patterson. “Unknown 180: 68.5.1,” in the Historic Costume Collection of Drexel University. (accessed September 10, 2012).

3 “Nilsson and Scalchi in “The Huguenots,” in the Philadelphia Press. [Met Performance] CID:2410. Les Huguenots {3} Academy of Music, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: 04/14/1884. http://archives.metoperafamily.org/archives/frame.htm (accessed September 13, 2012).

4 “Metropolitan Opera House Review,” in The New York Times. [Met Performance] CID:2220. Martha {5} Metropolitan Opera House: 03/14/1884. http://archives.metoperafamily.org/archives/frame.htm (accessed September 13, 2012).

5 “Philadelphia Composers and Music Publishers: Mark Hassler (1834-1906),” in University of Pennsylvania’s Special Collections: Keffer Collection of Sheet Music, ca. 1790-1895. http://www.library.upenn.edu/collections/rbm/keffer/hassler.html. (accessed September 14, 2012).

6 John E. Kaughran & Co. John E. Kaughran & Co.’s Illustrated Catalogue, Fall and Winter, 1884-85, 1884 from the Smithsonian Libraries Image Collection. http://www.sil.si.edu/imagegalaxy/imagegalaxy_imageDetail.cfm?id_image=12535  (accessed September 14, 2012).

7 “Nilsson and Sclachi in “The Huguenots,” in the Philadelphia Press. 4/14/1884. http://archives.metoperafamily.org/archives/frame.htm

8 Rachel. “Emile Pingat,” Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising Museum Blog. http://blog.fidmmuseum.org/museum/2009/09/emile-pingat.html (accessed September 16, 2012).

9Coat (Dolman). The Metropolitan Museum of Art. http://www.metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the-collections/80035661?rpp=20&pg=1&ft=dolman&pos=6, 14, 17, 19, 22, 28, 32. (accessed September 16, 2012)

10 “Jacket: Emile Pingat.”  The Victorian Albert. http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O128007/jacket-emile-pingat/ (accessed September 16, 2012)

Bibliography

“Coat (Dolman),” 1885-1890. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.      http://www.metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the-collections/80035661?rpp=20&pg=1&ft=dolman&pos=6 (accessed September 16, 2012).

“Coat (Dolman),” 1883-1889. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.      http://www.metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the-collections/80034289?rpp=20&pg=1&ft=dolman&pos=14 (accessed September 16, 2012).

“Coat (Dolman),” 1885-1889. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.      http://www.metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the-collections/80035808?rpp=20&pg=1&ft=dolman&pos=17 (accessed September 16, 2012).

“Coat (Dolman),” 1885-1889. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.      http://www.metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the-collections/80003870?rpp=20&pg=1&ft=dolman&pos=19 (accessed September 16, 2012).

“Coat (Dolman),” 1880s. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.               http://www.metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the-                collections/80034297?rpp=20&pg=2&ft=dolman&pos=22 (accessed September 16, 2012).

“Coat (Dolman),” 1880s.  The Metropolitan Museum of Art.              http://www.metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the                 collections/80035899?rpp=20&pg=2&ft=dolman&pos=28 (accessed September 16, 2012).

“Coat (Dolman),” 1889. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.                 http://www.metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the-                collections/80057368?rpp=20&pg=2&ft=dolman&pos=32 (accessed September 16, 2012).

Deetz, James. In Small Things Forgotten: An Archaeology of Early American Life. New York, NY: Anchor Books, 1996.

Fleming, E. McLung. “Artifact Study: A Proposed Model,” in Winterthur Portfolio 9, 1974.                 http://www.jstor.org/stable/1180572.

Jacket: Emile Pingat.  The Victorian Albert.                                           http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O128007/jacket-emile-pingat/                                                 (accessed September 16, 2012).

Kaughran, John E. & Co. John E. Kaughran & Co.’s Illustrated Catalogue, Fall and Winter, 1884-85, 1884 from the Smithsonian Libraries Image Collection.              http://www.sil.si.edu/imagegalaxy/imagegalaxy_imageDetail.cfm?id_image=12535               (accessed September 14, 2012).

“Metropolitan Opera House Review,” in The New York Times. [Met Performance] CID:2220Martha {5} Metropolitan Opera House: 03/14/1884. http://archives.metoperafamily.org/archives/frame.htm (accessed September 13, 2012).

Montgomery, Charles F. “The Connoisseurship of Artifacts.” in Material Culture Studies in America, edited by Thomas Schlereth. Nashville, TN: the American Association for State and Local History,   1982.

“Nilsson and Scalchi in “The Huguenots,”  in the Philadelphia Press. [Met Performance] CID:2410Les Huguenots {3} Academy of Music, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: 04/14/1884.                 http://archives.metoperafamily.org/archives/frame.htm (accessed September 13, 2012).

Patterson, Judy. “Unknown 180: 68.5.1,” in the Historic Costume Collection of Drexel University. (accessed September 10, 2012).

“Philadelphia Composers and Music Publishers: Mark Hassler (1834-1906),” in the University of Pennsylvania’s Special Collections: Keffer Collection of Sheet Music, ca. 1790-1895. http://www.library.upenn.edu/collections/rbm/keffer/hassler.html.                                                    (accessed September 14, 2012).

Prown, Jules David. “Mind in Matter: An Introduction of Material Culture Theory and Method,” in Winterthur Portfolio 17, no. 1, Spring 1982. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1180761.

Rachel. “Emile Pingat,” Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising Museum Blog.                 http://blog.fidmmuseum.org/museum/2009/09/emile-pingat.html (accessed September 16, 2012).

Severa, Joan and Horswill, Merrill. “Costume as Material Culture,” in Dress 15, 1989.

Steele, Valerie. “A Museum of Fashion is More Than a Clothes-Bag,” in Fashion Theory 2, 1998: 327-336.

 

 

 

Winged Death’s Heads, Broken Pottery… and Wood.

“Building in Wood in the Eastern United States” by Fred B. Kniffen and Henry Glassie imparts to the reader that overall, there is much to gather from studying material culture, and specifically there is much to learn from studying the materials and methods of home construction between 1790 and 1850 in America.  Kniffen and Glassie highlight construction trends, such as dove-tailing or V-notching, to determine regional cultural identities.  Placing these trends in context permitted Kniffen and Glassie to track the pathways of cultural diffusion and construction method shifts throughout Colonial America.

This piece offers a useful example in tracking archaeological information to make connections and understand historical fluency.  The map on page 174 is particularly useful in visualizing material culture patterns over time to make an argument.  Still, Kniffen and Glassie leave us with plans, stating, “The next stage of our work should shed greater light on the cultural meaning of the several methods of timber construction, on their associations with different groups of peoples, on their place in the westward movement, and on their relative importance during the change from frontier to settled community,” (178).  Arguably, Kniffen and Glassie leave us with more study to do.

James Deetz does much the same as Kniffen and Glassie throughout the pages of In Small Things Forgotten: An Archaeology of Early American Life, by examining ceramics, gravestones, timber homes, eating utensils, even mountain and bluegrass music.  However, while Kniffen and Glassie note the need for further cultural analysis in their findings, Deetz offers many conclusions on how changing world ideals influenced each of the material items discussed.  Specifically, he cites the isolation of America and the rise of individualism due to the Renaissance as direct causes for the patterns in material item usage in the world and in different American regions over time.  He also identifies that certain material culture objects offer more insight to culture than others; for instance, ceramics can offer more substantial data than chairs.

Deetz also offers insight on the strength of material culture study to understand African American history in the same time periods because the objects are the best documents available to understand this group within culture context.  Excavation and analysis done on sites like Parting Ways in Plymouth, Massachusetts, helps to create a more encompassing view of American culture as a whole.  The most exciting moment for me in reading In Small Things Forgotten is at the description of the presumed gravesites at Parting Ways—how interesting it was to hear of the huge variation in African American gravesites of these freemen (broken pottery as decor over field stone!) compared to the Plymouth cemeteries of winged Death’s Head and cherubs.  To me, this is where material culture shows us its power: to demonstrate true cultural difference and expression of self within the seemingly compacted Anglican-dominated culture of Colonial America.  This was my, “I want to go to there” moment.

After reading these works, I found myself wondering where historians draw the line in cultural analyses.   I thought to myself a few times during the reading, “But couldn’t that just be coincidence?”  For example, on page 124, Deetz generalizes on gravestones and pottery, writing, “We see, then, that at just the time when New Englanders were beginning to use ceramics in the English fashion, with a new emphasis on individual matched services, thery were also revising the manner in which they disposed of their dead.  In two diverse practices, the change was very similar and might well reflect a wholly new way of looking at the the world in which they lived.”  Surely this could be so.  Still, how do we as historians know when we are taking completely justifiable conclusions too far? How do we take risks with new arguments while also avoiding the emphasis of simple happenstance?

When I look at these readings in context of our research project in partnership with Drexel’s Historic Costume Collection, I want to be sure that I do not explore the dolmanette as “more than what it is,” but I also want to dig deeply into the cultural constructs surrounding my object to place it within context and make an argument– to get to the sort of point that Deetz makes about graves of all residents of Plymouth.  Referring to Deetz can serve as an example of effective research and analysis, helping me to understand where connections in history and material culture are seamless as opposed to contrived.

References

James Deetz, In Small Things Forgotten: An Archaeology of Early American Life. New York, NY: Anchor Books, 1996.

Fred B. Kniffen and Henry Glassie, “Building in Wood in the Eastern United States: A Time-Place Perspective,” in Dell Upton and John Michael Vlach, eds., Common Places: Readings in American Vernacular Architecture (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1986).

Toward a Fashionable Truth: Object Analysis Method of Wearable Artifacts

by: Erin Bernard

Introduction

When considering an approach to object analysis method, it is doubly important to consider both the framework standards presented within field literature and to trust the innate nature of human questioning through discovery.  This model will encompass intellectual analysis, but firstly, it demands the historian to explore in an organic sensory analysis.  Most important in this quest of cultural discovery is the ability to relinquish expectations to prevent object bias from tainting results.  Essentially, this method will use the lens of fashion objects to combine the methods of E. McLung Fleming, Charles F. Montgomery, and Jules David Prown, most closely resembling Prown’s tripartite method of Description, Deduction and Investigation.  This method is appropriate for historical inquiry because its goal is to create a hypothesis to guide further investigation in the field.  Ultimately, it will lead to an argument about the object‘s place within American culture and its relevance within history.

On Releasing Bias

The first critical step in this process toward a hypothesis is to release current object bias.  Prown explains bias by writing, “We are pervaded by the beliefs of our own social groups—nation, locality, class, religion, politics, occupation, gender, age, race, ethnicity—beliefs in the form of assumptions that we make unconsciously.”1 Still, bias to Prown is not only cultural, but also intellectual.  “…it is desirable to test one’s external knowledge to see if it can be deduced from the object itself and, if it cannot, to set that knowledge aside until the next stage.”2 Rather we need to begin by looking at the object on a basic level.   We must examine the object from its core to its outer layers, as if we are beginning in the center of an onion heading to its outside.  The historian must do this as best as possible so we deduct and speculate with insight and acuity.

Part I. The Object Itself

Once we release bias, we examine the object itself from its most basic premise.  To Prown, this was Description.  To Fleming, this was Identification.  To Montgomery, this was Over-All Appearance.  In summary, we look for “a body of distinctive facts about the artifact.”3 We start with basic questions to understand the object at hand.  Many fashion objects can be credited to serve complex purposes4, but we start with the most concrete information on the artifact—its appearance and related facts.

Sensory Analysis: What is it?

Let us start with the most intrinsic and organic of exploration—the senses.  Sight, touch, feel, smell, even the sound of the object can offer an honest impression to the human senses.  As Montgomery agreed sensory exploration to be the first step in object study and explained his own first experiences with an object, “I look at it with half-closed eyes from various angles to sense the sweep of line and massing of form.”5

Function: What does it do?

Once we understand what the object means to our senses, we next determine the object’s function.  While Montgomery purported sensory analysis as the first in object study, Prown stated, “The most promising mode of classification is by function.”6 While Prown goes on to list different classifications of function, of particular are his notes on objects of Adornment.  Specifically, we know that objects of adornment have functional qualities, especially those clothing items which keep us warm or protected from weather, but items of Adornment also have aesthetic qualities which express sense of style and self.  Beyond functional and aesthetic, there is also the suggestive quality in some adornment pieces which suggest power, some due to inherent value, especially when the item is high class.  The purpose of power, we note now out of awareness, but we will evaluate it within cultural perspective at a later time.

Measurement: How big is it?

After we know what the object does, we take measurements.  As Prown explains, “real significance may lie in general measure.7 For fashion objects, measurements can help discover size and stature of the person who wore an object.  The length of sleeves or weight of the item can offer insight to both the object’s date and how it would feel to wear the object.  These things should be dutifully noted for use later in the investigation.

Design: What ornaments are on the object?

Montgomery makes an excellent list of the different ornaments to be examined on historical artifacts.  While some of these ornaments would not generally be found on adornment items, depending on uniqueness, it is not out of the range of possibility.  Objects should be evaluated for color, figure, texture, turning, carving, engraving, enameling, painting, appliqué, and printed design.8

Further Object Questioning

From here we move forward with questions about the object itself inspired by Montgomery’s process of study.  Material: What is it made of? Craftsmanship: Who made it, and how well was it made?  Current Quality: How has this object handled time?  Origin: Where is it from? Trade practices: How was it distributed?  Attribution, Ownership, Provenance: What history is available on this specific artifact? Worth: What was the original cost and current appraisal rate? 9We ask these questions to answer, “Is [the object] actually what it purports to be in date, provenance, authorship, material, and construction?”10 In this way, we both authenticate the object and bring the picture surrounding the object into focus in an unbiased way.

Part II. The Intellectual Connotations of the Object

The second section of this method is to understand the object’s intellectual connotations.  This includes historical and cultural contexts.  We move forward from the object itself to examine this object as an active piece of culture.  Fleming states, “Cultural analysis can carry artifact study beyond description toward explanation.”11 Once we answer the questions in this section, we can speculate hypotheses for further exploration.

Intellectual Analysis

Placing analysis methods of Fleming, Prown, and Montgomery in the context of fashion created my framework for intellectual analysis.

  1. Who interacted with this object? (Who made it?  Who helped put it on? Who wore it?)
  2. What is the Inherent Value of the object? (Low v. high class? Is this an object of Power?  Now we address the object’s function in cultural context.)
  3. What is the Cultural Significance or Achievement? (Is this an advancement in Fashion?)
  4. What is the Pattern of Use over Time? (How is this object’s purpose and appearance different from other cultures in time?  How is it different or similar to its existence in current American Fashion culture?)
  5. What are the Cause & Effect of Behaviors Associated with Object? (What happened to the environment and people as they made this object and distributed it?)

Empathetic Interaction

Answering the questions above about the culture of the object affords the ability to piece scenes in the object’s life.  Prown explains, “…the analyst contemplates what it would be like to use or interact with the object, or, in the case of representational object, to be transported empathetically into the depicted world.”12 As James Deetz created vignettes at the beginning of In Small Things Forgotten: An Archaeology of Early American Life, we should also strive to create such scenes for our object.13 We use all the information we have discovered on the object to imagine an interaction with it.  This is pertinent when considering the exhibition of material culture objects because the audience will interact and actively experience history, too.

Part III. Make a hypothesis.

Lastly, we take all we have learned about both the object itself and the intellectual connotations of the object to make an educated argument about the object and its culture.  This formulation will need research because the hypothesis will unavoidably reflect some bias, but as Prown writes, “…since the objective and deductive evidence is already in hand, this cultural bias has little distorting effect. Indeed, it is an asset rather than a liability; it fuels the creative work that now must take place.”14 The creation of the hypothesis fulfills the goal of using an artifact for study of history—we will have used this object as an access point to understand things we would not have otherwise noted, and because of this information gathering, we will be able to understand American culture with a more expansive perspective.  The hope of this methodology is to do just this with an object of fashion.

 Notes

1Jules David Prown, “Mind in Matter: An Introduction to Material Culture Theory and Method,” Winterthur Portfolio 17, no. 1 (Spring 1982): 4 http://www.jstor.org/stable/1180761

2Ibid., 9.

3Ibid., 13.

4 E. McLung Fleming, “Artifact Study: A Proposed Model,” Winterthur Portfolio 9, (1974): 156 http://www.jstor.org/stable/1180572 

5Charles F. Montgomery, “The Connoisseurship of Artifacts,” in Material Culture Studies in America, ed. Thomas J. Schlereth (Nashville, TN: the American Association for State and Local History, 1982), 145.

6Jules David Prown, “Mind in Matter,” 2.

7Ibid., 8.

8Charles F. Montgomery, “The Connoisseurship of Artifacts,” 146.

9Ibid., 147-152.

10E. McLung Fleming, “Artifact Study,” 156.

11Ibid., 158.

12Jules David Prown, “Mind in Matter,”8.

13James Deetz, In Small Things Forgotten: Archaeology of Early American Life, (New York, NY: Anchor Books, 1996), 1-4.

14Jules David Prown, “Mind in Matter,” 10.

Bibliography

Deetz, James. In Small Things Forgotten: An Archaeology of Early American Life. New York, NY: Anchor Books, 1996.

Fleming, E. McLung. “Artifact Study: A Proposed Model” in Winterthur Portfolio 9, 1974.                 http://www.jstor.org/stable/1180572.

Montgomery, Charles F. “The Connoisseurship of Artifacts” in Material Culture Studies in America, edited by Thomas Schlereth. Nashville, TN: the American Association for State and Local History, 1982.

Prown, Jules David. “Mind in Matter: An Introduction of Material Culture Theory and Method,” Winterthur Portfolio 17, no. 1, Spring 1982. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1180761.

Severa, Joan and Horswill, Merrill. “Costume as Material Culture,” in Dress 15, 1989.

Steele, Valerie. “A Museum of Fashion is More Than a Clothes-Bag,” in Fashion Theory 2, 1998: 327-336.

Statement of Purpose

A funky and winding journey has led me to taking Studies in American Material Culture this Fall.  Above all, I Imagepursued this course because it sounded incredibly interesting to me.  I also wanted to gather a better understanding of public history.  I see it as part of my preparation in applying to Temple University’s M.A. History program with a hopeful matriculation date of Fall 2013.

I began my academic quest at TU as an undergraduate music (voice) major, but writing seemed a better professional plan.  In December 2007, I completed my B.A. Journalism.  The most impactful educational experience during my undergraduate years, though, had nothing to do with music or journalism.  My work with Temple’s Intellectual Heritage program most inspired me.  As a tutor, I was invited to be the student representative on the summer teaching circle dedicated to building the curriculum for the current Mosaic seminars.  Sitting in a room amidst professors arguing over texts and ideas with exquisite detail and passion, I knew I would pursue teaching college students in the humanities, but I was not sure which discipline was the right one for me.

Graduating as a much-undecided writer, I headed to New York City with my newly-acquired husband to teach Special Education in the Bronx as a NYC Teaching Fellow.  It was not my best showing, but soon enough after, I found myself freelance writing on natural parenting with two little ones in tow.  I currently work as the Communications Coordinator for the South Jersey Land and Water Trust, a nonprofit organization focusing on farmland preservation and watershed protection.  It’s a great part-time gig, but I have been greatly missing the academic arena and the days of big ideas.

After much, and possibly overly-drawn out, consideration, I know the discipline of History is my bliss.  I cite my specific interests to be American History (Colonial, Civil War, Women, Environment and the Arts) for a few basic reasons.  I am naturally interested in the Colonial period through the Civil War, and I can spend exorbitant amounts of time reading, exploring or watching anything about this period.  As far as Women, I am extremely curious about the history of childbirth and the culture (including material) surrounding it in America.  Environment is also of interest to me because I am passionate about green issues, past or current, especially the development of the National Park system.  Finally, I am a singer and a writer so the Arts are a natural piece of curiosity for me.

As far as long-term career goals, I like the idea of keeping my nonprofit work current and moving toward working for an organization specifically devoted to history in some way.  With the right training and education, I see myself with potential to serve as an Executive Director for somewhere like the Historical Society of Philadelphia while also teaching History and the humanities at the college level.

I’ll end by saying I am truly pleased to be here, and I am grateful for this opportunity.  I look forward to learning, discussing and exploring this semester.  You can reach me via e-mail at erin.bernard@temple.edu or read my blog www.objectsinculture.wordpress.com.