Seeing is believing, but feeling’s the truth?

Sensing the Past: Seeing Hearing, Smelling, Tasting, and Touching in History by Mark M. Smith was a welcome conversation on not only the history of the senses, but also an argument that sight as the prevailing sense of “premodern” living falls short when considering social and cultural contexts of sensory contribution to history.  To be reflexive for a moment, I am particularly engaged in the topic of sensory processing because I have a preschool-aged son on the autism spectrum who has challenges making sense of sensory input and staying regulated.  Because of our experience, I come at this reading with a strong feeling about the sensory system in that it is a team– that all senses depend upon each other to function well in society and to offer the brain, as Plato might argue, “as close to the truth as possible.”  I found that Smith did not discuss senses in entirety; he misses for instance, proprioception– which has to do with sensing one’s own body, motor planning, and general body awareness– and their impact upon how we see, smell, taste, and hear.  Smith is absolutely aware of limitations in his study and historical studies of sense in general, as he states on page 117-118, “…we will not possess a full understanding of the evolution of the senses and the changing nature of sensory hierarchies until historians produce work that tackles all the senses.”

Continuing with Plato and delving into the chapter on Seeing, I’m not sure I totally agree with the idea that Plato’s works argue most strongly for vision as a useful sense.  Remembering the Allegory of the Cave, I feel like Plato suggests we can’t know the truth of anything from how we understand it– essentially it seems that Plato says our senses and our biases color our knowledge of truth so much that we cannot see anything as it truly is.  How is that relying on vision?

I found the chapter on Touching to be a great read. Smith discusses on page 94 that touch could be harder to put in historical perspective and argue about because it is not as specific as seeing and hearing, and I definitely identify with that concept.  It follows that touching involves all that the skin can do, including “skin sensitive” activities of sin, and even faith.  It was hard for me to connect touching to faith; I wonder if faith really fits in with tactile input or if there is a sense we are neglecting to understand.

The sections on Sight and Hearing spoke to me in specific reference to the dolman due to their tie between the visual sense of fashion and the auditory quality to music.  I found Smith’s discussion of quietude as a means of power for slaveholders to be very interesting– the thought that keeping your slaves quiet and working was the ideal sound.  This sparked a thought for me that the use of visual sense could become more powerful in a time of quiet– when we are using silence as power over others, can they speak better with what they show us visually?  If so, perhaps Miss Hassler used the dolman to speak for her when she needed to be silent, such as during the opera, or before the music began and after it stopped.  Essentially, what I would argue, is that this visual item was key to asserting social status at an auditory event.  The dolman speaks to a larger trend noticed at the Academy of Music in that the place is often used for fashion events and shows.  Considering the senses, I found myself stuck on that irony– that a place devoted to sound is used for visual illustrations of elite culture.  Thinking about the impressive aesthetics of the Academy itself, this makes sense.  However, as Smith wrote, “Silence occupied an important– and telling– place,” I considered another question. Was it the Academy or Silence which allowed for the dolman to be used as a status item?

I am truly looking forward to discussing Smith’s conclusion, especially about living history in Colonial Williamsburg and sensory relativity, in class.  I agree with all of the shortcomings Smith mentions about a place like Williamsburg, but I wonder, how can we as historians make it more accurate (most things can always progress and improve), and if we cannot, can we at least see the educational value despite limitations?


Mark M. Smith. Sensing the Past: Seeing, Hearing, Smelling, Tasting, and Touching in History. (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2007).



The Curious Case of Myoelectric Shampoo

According to Daniel Rose in “Active Ingredients,” we’ve got three things to consider as agents of material culture as we scrub our scalps in the shower: ingredients in a tube, plastic containers, and the writing on the bottle.  To Vivian Sobchack in “A Leg to Stand On: Prosthetics, Metaphor, and Materiality,” her consideration of agency is a bit more complicated because it begins at the very consideration of how material culture scholars define and use the word prosthetic.  I was relieved to read this essay because it directly spoke to questions I have left resting in my brain from our first discussions as a class (in which Mike suggested a pen could be a prosthetic because it enhances the human body).

As excited as I have been to label the dolman as an active piece of culture gaining admission to Philadelphia society, I am equally hesistant to say it is a prosthetic made to enhance Miss Hassler herself.  On page 19, Sobchak offers what Sarah S. Jain wrote in “The Prosthetic Imagination: Enabling and Disabling the Prosthetic Trope,”: “…’technology as prosthesis’ attempts to describe the joining of materials, naturalizations, excorporations, and semiotic transfer that also go far beyond the medical definition of ‘replacement of a missing part.'”  It takes almost a Thomas Aquinas leap of absurdity to use the term prosthetic in terms of the metaphor discussed in this article, but Sobchack made me feel more comfortable to the point that I would consider Miss Hassler’s dolman in terms of prosthesis.  While it feels more natural to call only those things which directly replace body parts “prosthetics,” Sobchack explains Steven Kurzman’s case for the metaphor of prosthetic in a clear and workable way.  Given these parameters, the rest of The Prosthetic Impulse becomes easier to digest.

The Prosthetic Impulse offers much on Aimee Mullins (a double amputee, athlete, model and actress) and her different prosthetics.  What I wonder most in the discussion of Mullins is whether the various places she enters and experiences as well as the way she portrays herself matter in terms of which prosthetics she is wearing.  What I mean is this– is there some sort of significance to the metaphorical use of the word prosthetic within the discussion of Aimee’s “Cheetah Legs” and “Pretty Legs?”  What does it mean that objects which primarily function to replace also have different secondary goals– either to be athletic or aesthetic, even if both equally fierce?  I tentatively offer that I think this consideration supports the notion that prosthetics go beyond essential “replacement parts.”  It becomes fair to consider something like Marx’s Coat as a prosthetic because even prosthetics themselves are acting beyond their essential function.

Heading back into the world of shampoo (and how interesting that the consideration of shampoo in material culture brings about discussion of Wittgenstein and Duchamps?), I realize how sensible it is for Rose to discuss shampoo in object agency.  Essentially, as a person cleans his or her hair, the shampoo is the cleanser.  It is acting, even if the person herself is scrubbing.  It goes further, though, as Rose argues on page 67 that the the text on the shampoo bottle helps to “join cyborg and citizen,” that the material and text demand each other to act successfully in human society.  That’s essentially true, because a shampoo bottle needs a label for us to know that shampoo is inside the bottle.

The real meat of Rose’s argument comes a bit later though, as he gets to the point about Head and Shoulders as a brand name meant to inform the public that this shampoo can prevent dandruff from not only being in your hair, but also from falling to your shoulders.  Thusly, looking badly in public is averted, and a person’s anxiety level can be lowered.  To Rose, the shampoo has acted to enhance both a person’s appearance and mood.  Well, is Head and Shoulders, just like the glass legs of Aimee Mullins, a prosthetic?

Arguably, yes.


Dan Rose, “Active Ingredients,” in John F. Sherry, ed., Contemporary Marketing and Consumer Behavior: An Anthropological Sourcebook (London: Sage, 1995).

Marquard Smith and Joanne Morra, eds., The Prosthetic Impulse: From a Posthuman Present to a Biocultural Future. (Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2006).

Peter Stallybrass, “Marx’s Coat,” in Patricia Spyer, ed., Border Fetishisms: Material Objects in Unstable Spaces.  (New York, NY: Routledge, 1998).

The Blues.

To Daniel Miller and Sophie Woodward, a pair of jeans is ordinary.  I get this premise– it makes sense to go with this argument, especially when much of Blue Jeans stands to emphasize that jeans, while not always comfortable, aim to make us comfortable in the long run, both physically (especially because jeans become softer as they age) and socially.  What I’m left thinking, though, is that clothes in general are ordinary.  We make all clothes semiotic, and therefore, I am not buying the argument that jeans are a post-semiotic garment, especially here in America where class and brand can have so much to say for who and what you are.  Jeans, t-shirts, shoes, dresses… they all speak.

For starters, not all jeans are equal and not all jeans are ordinary, even if you could argue they all aim to make us comfortable within society.  I think that jeans could be a post-semiotic garment to some people (to some, clothes are for utility only)… but it just doesn’t work to say that across the board that jeans are all of the same vein.  Jeans do convey something about a person’s fashion sense and personality (remember the Led Zeppelin guy from page 21?), and if a pair of jeans is too short, too baggy, too faded, too ripped, it can convey the “wrong” message or even incur ridicule within social circles. While that is unfortunate, it happens.  Additionally, jeans as a whole are not accepted everywhere.  Some jeans are acceptable in some work environments, but some environments will never accept any form of jeans.  It seems a bit ignorant to discuss ‘jeans’ as an idea of ordinary as if they are all the same.  Jeans do not all perform the same jobs.

Miller and Woodward recognize what I am saying here on page 90, as they discuss branded jeans, especially for women.  “…many people, especially women, possess such marked jeans: branded jeans, skinny jeans, jeans that are for going out or for special occasions.  But these are not the jeans that most people wear most of the time.”  I find that hard to believe.  Even my husband, who does not care about fashion, aims to wear jeans that are twofold– comfortable enough to “just wear” and also nice enough to wear “out.”  Does he have old jeans for yard work or to run to the grocery store?  Sure.  Does he wear “branded” jeans?  No, but the jeans he does wear to go “out” have an element of fashion to them, either in wash or fit, so that they look acceptable and presentable.  While Miller and Woodward attempt to argue on page 70 that jeans could become less wearable due to fading and do not, I think that jeans become less wearable in certain places based on the condition of the jean.  Wear-ability, in its entirety, is not the same as where and for what you can wear jeans. I believe there is a shift in jean agency and accessibility within the jean life cycle.

Whether or not jeans have the ability to be a canvas for anyone, as Miller and Woodward go on to say about, for instance, “goths wearing black jeans” on page 90, has nothing to do with the acceptance and class levels associated with jeans within our American society.  The fact that jeans can say so many things does not make them a post-semiotic garment.  It makes them a garment with potential for multiple signs based on aesthetic choices, brand, and more.  Perhaps jeans are “ordinary” because they are simply everywhere, not because they are comfortable or because they have no message.

What I liked in terms of Blue Jeans in regard to the research on the dolman, is the thought of arbitrariness, that denim and indigo are “practical and pragmatic” in American society just because.  So why was the fact that the dolman was silk with chenille fringe so special?  And is it because silk and chenille have always been special that they remain special?  Is this all arbitrary, as in what was just is, just because?  I found that to be an interesting thought.

While I did not agree with Miller and Woodward’s argument about jeans, I loved what Miller and Woodward said on page 24 about agency of clothing in material culture studies in general. They wrote, “… in material culture studies clothing is seen more as an active agent or instrument, as it is a means by which people accomplish various tasks, including that of dealing with a difficult situation; in some cases as a catalyst that provokes further change.”  This absolutely supports my premise to argue that Rosalie’s dolman was acting as her family’s admission ticket to Philadelphia society.


Daniel Miller and Sophie Woodward. Blue Jeans: The Art of the Ordinary. (Berkely and Los Angeles, California: University of California Press, 2012).

The Captions are the Thing: Considering 50 Words to Speak for the Dolman

In writing the captions for the dolman, I am trying to include a number of key pieces of information as well as the argument that the dolman was an admission ticket to society.  I also have omitted the fact that the dolman was from the third bustle period because information on the bustle periods is relevant to a number of objects in the collection being exhibited, and I wonder if there is a way to provide one caption or visual graphic elsewhere in the gallery to help orient attendees with all of the female garments on display.

As you read the rationales provided for each caption, I will also present some other ideas I have for exhibiting the dolman, culminating in my rationale for Caption C.

For reference, I am aiming to include the following facts, but I can’t hit all of them in 50 words:

-The dolman consists of ivory silk brocade with chenille fringe.

-It was worn by Miss Rosalie Hassler on April 14, 1884 to a performance of Les Huguenots at the Academy of Music.

-The proper name of the Academy of Music is the American Academy of Music, though most people do not use its formal name.

-The dolman was an example of high fashion because of its quality and because it was on point with fashion trends set by Emile Pingat in Europe, especially the dolman’s features of ivory color and chenille fringe.

-Philadelphia music society was a target audience for merchants of silk garments and chenille fringe in Philadelphia 1884; the programs of music performances in that year featured advertisements for just such items.  In this way, Rosalie was on the forefront of fashion in Philadelphia 1884 because she was wearing the trends being advertised to elite music society at that time.

-Rosalie came from a prominent Jewish family of musicians.  After moving their family from Europe to America in 1842, her father, Henry Hassler, was a member of the Music Fund.  Her brothers, Simon and Mark, were current Philadelphia musicians in 1884, Mark being a music director with his own orchestra and Simon being a composer and violinist.

-It is likely Rosalie was attending the opera on April 14, 1884 because of her family’s musical society ties.  Wearing a high fashion and trendy garment made Rosalie “one of the crowd” when she very easily could not have been a part of that culture.


Caption A.

Miss Rosalie Hassler wore this ivory dolman of silk brocade and chenille fringe on April 14, 1884, to the Metropolitan Opera Company’s performance of Les Huguenots at the Academy of Music.  As the sister of two prominent Jewish musicians, Rosalie wore this jacket to signify her single social status.

Rationale: Caption A. captures all of the basic facts of the dolman from its appearance to its specific moment and place of life in time.  It attempts, in a small space, to tell the story surrounding the dolman, letting us know when, where, and who surrounded it.  The phrasing of this caption presents the argument that her brothers had something specific to do with her wearing the jacket.

Caption B.

Miss Rosalie Hassler wore this ivory dolman on April 14, 1884, to an opera at the Academy of Music.  The Academy’s programs of 1884 featured advertisements for both silk and chenille fringe, the materials used on this dolman.  Rosalie’s fashion choice reflected both her and her Jewish family’s social status.

Rationale: Caption B. looks to prove that the dolman was a fashionable reflection of elite status in Philadelphia by discussing the programs of music performances of 1884.  This caption offers the dolman more agency than Caption A.  Caption B. neglects to discuss the Hassler family’s relationship to music.  It is hard for me to let go of mentioning the specific opera attended, but my hope remains that the opera can be addressed in another way, and I will discuss that after Caption C.

Caption C.

This ivory dolman was worn by Miss Rosalie Hassler to an 1884 opera at the Academy of Music.  Consistent with trends of Emile Pingat, the dolman’s brocade silk and chenille fringe expressed both Rosalie’s and her Jewish family’s claim to Philadelphia society.  This included the stake of her musician brothers.

Rationale: Caption C. shortens some of the factual specifics of where and for what the dolman was worn for context within fashion and costume history at large.  This caption also offers the object as an agent for the family with musical context.  As I mentioned in the rationale for Caption B., it is hard to let go some of the specific facts of the dolman because the provenance is almost magical to me—after visiting the Academy of Music and even reviewing photographs from my visit to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, I feel the object does strongly connect to place.  However, the argument in Caption C. is, I believe, carefully-constructed and most worth presenting.  I feel like the argument here has a purpose to introduce significance to the dolman and Rosalie beyond what the other captions present.  This caption seems exhibit-worthy—there is a conversation started here.

Beyond Caption C.

Because historical context is critically important, I argue that Caption C. is the strongest with the hope to firstly present earphones with a piece from the opera playing as well as some visual connection to the Academy of Music.  Obviously funding and logistical restrictions could pose issue with this suggestion, but as far as creative ideas, there are a few things I have thought about to connect the object to its place.  One obvious option is to position the object in front of oversized photos of the Academy’s space in some way, so that there is a recreation of the object engaging in the space.

What would be more interesting would be to provide eyeholes in a box or opera glasses connected to a viewer for the audience to view a photo of over the Academy’s music hall audience from box seats, almost as if you are peering into opera glasses of an elite audience member as they gaze over the place surrounding them.

The Exhibit as a Whole

Depending on the direction this exhibit goes, I wonder if there is a way to introduce a visual element to each object that relates to the place of Philadelphia which could add to audience engagement.  My thought is that the place could be related to an event such as an opera, wedding, or the Philadelphia Centennial or related to the object such as shops, residences or gravesites.  There needs to be some sort of tie between the theme of these places.  I still think there is a possibility to play with the theme of “life and death” of society, especially with our most recent item being the mourning card case.  What I am finding to be difficult is to find why this exhibit is relevant to the neighborhood where it will be displayed.  What makes what we have to say about these objects compelling to Philadelphia residents in West Philadelphia?  To a certain extent, the material could seem irrelevant.  How do we make it relevant?  I’m not sure, but there is certainly a relationship between the life and death of society in late nineteenth century Philadelphia and the current struggles of city life.  What makes me worry this exhibit could be irrelevant to local residents is that all of these material culture objects exist because those who owned them did have some sort of class holding.  The people of these objects, even the women who are otherwise undocumented, exist currently because of the class each of the people held.  This removes the owners of these objects from being representative of the entire Philadelphia culture, and on top of that, it makes these objects and their provenance as a whole to be removed from the current experience of local Philadelphia residents.  Why should they care about these objects if they do not speak to them?  Unless we find some common thread of struggle or weight, I worry there is a disconnect between local audience, in terms specifically of neighborhood location, and gallery.  I feel like there has to be a good answer to this question, and if that question is answered, will it change the way the exhibit is shaped or how the captions are written?