Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Material Culture Minute: Museum Fabrics to Wear

Last year, I mentioned an article from the 1970s that profiled a woman named Jenny Bell Whyte who made modern clothing out of historic coverlets. She established Museum Fabrics to Wear in 1971, and you can learn more about her philosophy and her craft in the article I have since tracked down thanks to an acquaintance. You can download the article from Americana by clicking here. According to her New York Times obituary, Whyte started making clothing from museum-type artifacts upon purchasing textiles the Brooklyn Museum had deaccessioned and sold at auction in 1975.

Many museum pros would blanch at the practice of making clothing from historic artifacts. But you have to admit, the skirts are fun and probably made from better-quality materials than you can find at most shops today.

I'll let you decide whether to keep your coverlets on your bed or your body!

Fashion shot from Jenny Bell Whyte's "Skirts From Coverlets," Americana (September/October 1978)

Sunday, January 4, 2015

The "Specter at the Right"

Flipping through the finalists of a frenzied photo shopping spree one day last fall, Tyler and I debated which CDV's, tintypes, snapshots, and cabinet cards to let go and which ones to add to our collection. Short on cash, I rejected a number of interiors (oh, those store interiors!) I would have bought ordinarily (perhaps they're still there). I'm not even sure if Tyler bought this one or if I did.

Photograph of a woman and her things, late-ninteenth or early-twentieth century
(Nicole Belolan's Collection)

Either way, I'm glad it's ours now. I loved it even without noticing the self-deprecating note scribbled on the underside:

"would be very good were it not for the specter at the right."

I beg to differ!

From my perspective as a historian, this photograph is not just good but great. Like many interior photographs of parlor-type spaces from the mid-late nineteenth century, every time I look at it, I see something new. (In her book Culture & Comfort, Katherine Grier defined a parlor as "a space within a private household in which families could present their public faces" [59]. There are a lot of great interiors in her book; do take a look!) In the end, the photo was never really meant to focus on the "specter" at the right, anyway. She's off to the side, perhaps trying to draw some attention away from herself and to her stuff. Prints, photographs, table linens, a floor covering, a desk, books, and more, though I am curious to know what she was pretending to be writing. And is that mourning dress?

We don't get enough information in this photo to figure out if she used this space for sleeping too or if it was part of a larger household. Nevertheless, all the objects the sitter and photographer managed to get into the frame help the specter tell us a little about herself and her time. This particular assemblage of stuff may be unique, but the genre of the interior photograph was not. There are many others out there featuring similar personal possessions that signaled a particular level of social standing and taste. Not all of the specter's contemporaries would have boasted over a dozen books tucked into bookshelves and scattered on tabletops or decorative prints on the walls. On the flip side, some would have had even fancier abodes.

I have a few more interiors from the same period I'll post in the coming weeks. Stay tuned.

In the mean time, what objects would you feature in your own home photograph? Would you choose to be photographed inside a particular room?

Further Reading

For more on nineteenth-century everyday life and aesthetics, start with Katherine C. Grier, Culture & Comfort: People, Parlors, and Upholstery, 1850-1930 (1988), Beverly Gordon, The Saturated World: Aesthetic Meaning, Intimate Objects, Women's Lives, 1890-1940 (2006), and Thomas J. Schlereth, Victorian America: Transformations in Everyday Life, 1876-1915 (1991). 

For a more recent look at domestic interiors and the stuff inside them, check out Jeanne E. Arnold et. al. Life at Home in the Twenty-First Century: 32 Families Open Their Doors (2014) (I read this in one sitting last August) and Peter Menzel's Material World: A Global Family Portrait (1995).

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Look, Touch, But You Don't Have to Buy: On Shopping at the Delaware Antiques Show with No Money

Fancy antiques shows like the Winter Antiques Show (benefits East Side House Settlement) in New York City have their critics, but I relish the opportunity to attend such shows. They bring you up close and personal with treasures from America's attics (or dealers' backlog of stock)--in some cases, the likes of which you have never seen and you might never see again (and you can touch, them too!).

With that in mind, let's take a virtual tour of what stood out for me at the Delaware Antiques Show (benefits educational programming at the Winterthur Museum) this past weekend.

In keeping with the feline theme from the last post, check out this family of cats made from discarded socks (probably early twentieth century)...

...and this striking late nineteenth-century painted portrait of a cat.


In keeping with the whimsical, here's a great early/mid twentieth-century pediatric dental cabinet.

Couldn't this be repurposed as a jewelry box?

For the Maryland crowd, here's a charming 1860s map (though I must say it looks better in person) of a proposed lumber business for a spot near Port Deposit done on silk. Collector, beware! Silk can be a difficult media for which to care.

And because I cannot help myself, here are my two favorite Berlin work examples from the show. The first, dated 1848, is in impeccable condition. The second, probably from the mid-late nineteenth century, features an original arrangement of a range of Berlin work designs.

Who said all Berlin work was the same?

I'll conclude this tour with a haunting and very unusual painting.

It seems that the portrait was painted around 1800 and that the inscription at bottom noting her passing--"Saturday morning, 5 o'Clock/20th. September, 1817"--was added later.

Wouldn't this be a great centerpiece for a show about mourning and remembrance in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries? Several museum exhibitions showcase mourning as a central theme this season. They look great, but I can't help but be disappointed that mourning exhibitions so often cover the latter half of the nineteenth century. Have any shows featuring that theme attacked an earlier period?

I saw a lot more cool stuff and could go on forever, but I think you get my point. You don't need cash to enjoy these shows - just some curiosity.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Material Culture Minute: Kittens

While plowing through a new stock of photos at one of our favorite antique malls, Tyler and I came across this stunning tintype portrait of a girl and her kitten.

Tintype of girl and kitten, late nineteenth century (Nicole Belolan's Collection)

The girl looks self-assured and protective of her little charge. What better way to gain some responsibility as a child--not to mention companionship--than to care for another life? Having just recently cared for a starving mother cat and her four kittens, we immediately connected with this image.

Our "Momma Cat" and her little ones are healthy and happy now. They are living at homes of friends and friends of friends (we were't permitted to keep them where we live). And we hope their new owners are as smitten with them as we were--just as this girl seems to have been too.

"Momma Cat" (later known as Desire and now a third name!) and me

Further Reading

For more blogging about the material culture of pet keeping, check out Katherine C. Grier's blog here. She also wrote a book on the subject: Pets in America: A History (2006). Lots of the material for that book (and now the blog) are part of her own collection. 

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Material Culture Minute: "Are you a doctor?" Or, the Continuing Saga of Collecting Disability History

Combing the aisles of an antique mall in Chadd's Ford, PA, a few weeks ago, I was looking for something special. A friend, who was out and about on a pre-Labor Day 'tique hunt, had just emailed about a mid-late nineteenth-century wheelchair he stumbled across at this mall.

I have plenty of tintypes of people with disabilities, but I am lacking a wheelchair, I thought, and it looked like this one was (to borrow Sandra Lee's phrase) "semi-homemade."

With some extra money burning a hole in my pocket and few encumbrances on that sunny August afternoon, Tyler and I schlepped into Pennsylvania to find the artifact in question.

It didn't take long. We looked it over carefully and were pleased with it overall, but I wasn't happy with the sticker price. Reluctant to ask for a reduction, I nearly walked out and drove home. But thanks to Tyler's encouragement, I found it in myself to demand not the customary 10% discount by rather a whopping 20% discount.

What did I have to loose but a really awesome wheelchair?

To my shock (and the shock of the woman manning the counter), the dealer took my offer. The counter lady walked me back to the chair, slammed her hands on the crest rail, paused, looked at me, and asked in a thick, vaguely New Jersey accent, "What are you going to do with this?"

"Put it inside my office," I declared.

"Are you a doctor?" she asked. 

"No. I'm a historian," I said.

"Well, maybe it belonged to FDR," she offered.

"Hm," I muttered, rather ravenous and therefore in no shape to dole out a history lesson.

Instead, I took it home... 

...and tried it out.

Since we have limited space for large pieces of furniture and infinite space for tintypes and crutches, the next big purchase might only be justified if it's a good hundred years older than this puppy. But even then, I'd have a hard time deaccessioning this fascinating piece of the past from my collection. 

I've said it before, but I'll say it again. I never thought I'd be one of those people who collects what they study. But there's no going back now, and I wouldn't undo what I've done for the world.

Further Reading

Want to learn more about why I collect the material culture of disability history? Check out my blog post at the Disability and Industrial Society Blog.

Looking for more? On the web, see the Smithsonian's excellent online exhibition EveryBody: An Artifact History of Disability in America.

Finally, if you want to check out a physical book (I can't blame you), see Artificial Parts, Practical Lives: Modern Histories of Prosthetics, edited by Katherine Ott, David Serlin, and Steven Mihm. 

Sunday, August 10, 2014

It Still Smells like Crayon: On Purchasing a Circa 1890 Makeup Box

I find it hard to resist antiques I know probably should have been discarded years ago. The best example I have of that is this late nineteenth-century makeup box, which I acquired back in 2010.

"Our Special Make-up Box," Circa 1890
Stenciled label reads: A.M. Buch & Co./WIG MAKERS./119 N. 9th Street/PHILADELPHIA

This gem was made by A. M. Burch & Co., based at 119 N. 9th Street in Philadelphia. Described as "Our Special Make-up Box" in its 1890 trade catalogue I read thanks to The Athenaeum of Philadelphia, the original would have come stocked with the following:

"Heavy Black Tin, with tray, separate compartments, with Yale Lock and two keys. 70 cents a piece. The Actor's Make-up Box. A handsome decorated tin case containing the various article commonly used in 'making up' for the stage; will answer all ordinary requirements of any actor. It contains a set of Face Paints (9 colors) Light Flesh and Dark Flesh Face Powder. Powder-puffs, Hares foot, Cold Cream, Dry Rouge, Nose Putty, Grenadine Lip Rouge, Spirit Gum; Moustache Cosmetique; Black Wax, 2 camel's hair pencil's, 2 shades of Water Cosmetique, a light and a dark, with a brush for applying them. Mirror, scissors and an assortment of crepe hair. Price complete $4.00."

It seems like a lot of that is still in there, including grease paint (see sticks), not the mention a strong crayon odor.

Contents of wig box bottom
Assorted wig box contents

I can't tell for certain what's inside each of the tins. Some tins that remain inside this box are empty, others contain black lumps of mystery makeup.

Grease paint, it seems, became widely available by the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Until then, according to James Young's 1905 publication Making Up, actors used relatively little makeup. Or, perhaps more likely, they made their own greasy goo. Once someone found a way to produce grease paint on a large scale, the industry took off. The rise of grease paint spurred a flurry of turn-of-the-century how-to manuals on applying makeup (with an emphasis on grease paint) for the stage. According to Young, grease paint facilitated actors' being "real...even in the unreality of the supernatural." New stage lighting techniques may have illuminated actors' faces better, requiring heavier makeup such as grease paint to make the actors appear physically more "in character."

Another handbook, Charles Harrison's 1882 Theatricals and Tableaus Vivants for Amateurs, noted that, after the mid-nineteenth century, more and more plays featured contemporary characters. Makeup, therefore, became a more important part of the costume when the actor could not rely on recognizable historic-looking objects to represent specific historical figures (pirates, soldiers, prostitutes, etc.). As a result, making-up manuals and makeup trade catalogues, which seem to cater to amateur actors in particular (though not exclusively), emphasized creating the "right" skin shades or marks of age. Whether or not this was all true is unclear, but these writers and makeup manufacturers were certainly good marketers!

"Conventional Types," from James Young, Making Up (1905)

Back in 2010, I hemmed and hawed about whether or not to snatch this up. What would I do with rotting stage makeup? The box sits silent and shut on a shelf in my office, but it has character, and it evokes a good time. It's also a good artifact to use for care and handling training. (In this case, be sure to wear gloves when handing unknown substances!) Back in 1890, Burch advertised it as his "special" makeup box. It's now my special makeup box, dirt, grease, and all.

What else can I ask for in an antique?

When I first made this purchase, I promised you all I'd blog about a mystery object in "the coming weeks.It looks like I meant "coming years," as I'm just getting to this now. I hope it was worth the wait.

Anyone have any late nineteenth-century stage makeup ephemera out there? I'd love to learn more about collecting historic theatrical makeup!

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

A New Blog

In this snapshot (a recent acquisition-isn't it a great interior?),
it looks like our friend has an announcement to make!
Don't worry, Picking for Pleasure isn't going anywhere. But I do want to tell you about a new blog I started at my academic web site. As I explained in my first post, this new blog will address my thoughts on museums and cultural heritage, teaching, outreach, and research. I'll probably post there about as often I post here (once every 1-2 months, as time allows with my busy schedule), but I hope you find both of interest!

I started the blog off with a post on figuring out where General Howe landed his troops in present-day Maryland back in 1777 ahead of the American Revolution's Philadelphia Campaign (more interesting than it sounds!) and another post on the recent demolition of Delaware's 1760 Kux-Alrich house.

Let me know what you think!

You can make following easier by becoming an email subscriber or by adding the blog's address to a blog reader or news aggregator like Feedly.

And yes, there's another antiquing blog post in the works about something grimy but fascinating.

How's that for a teaser?

Friday, May 30, 2014

Material Culture Minute: "We Go from One Thing to Another"

There is often a fine line between what antique dealers sell and what they collect. In some cases, dealers display their personal collections inside their shops. And why not? They give patrons something else to look at, and the collection doesn't (as far as we know) take up valuable space inside the dealer's home.

Tyler and I recently encountered an impressive dealer collection at an antique store in Maryland. As we walked around the shop, we admired the hundreds of items the dealer had in his collection. We didn't need to ask about the collection ourselves to learn more about it, though. A regular beat us to it. In response, a store clerk explained:

Store clerk: "Well, Alfred's been buying oyster cans. You can see he's got them lined up there along the ceiling. He's really into them right now. We go from one thing to another."

Many of the oyster tins on display inside this antique shop looked like this beauty. On the reverse, the can assures customers that its contents are safe for consumption. Oyster packagers added such labels when the federal government enhanced its food safety laws around 1900. Legislators crafted many of these laws in response to a variety of food-related dangers that developed as the food processing industry expanded with little oversight and consumers were less and less likely to buy their food from the source (or a local middle man). In the case of oysters, deadly cases of typhoid fever (caused by salmonella) had been linked to the mollusk.
Oyster tin, Pride of the Chesapeake brand, 1920s, 7.25" x 6.56," 2007.0054.01 (Smithsonian)

Regular store patron: "Oh, I like them oyster crocks. Even seen them oyster crocks?"

Store clerk: "Oh, yeah, they're pretty nice. We just bought one the other day for $2,500."

Sure, that's a lot of of money. But many food containers (or advertising items, including stoneware crocks) weren't meant to or expected to last long. So I'm not surprised the market supports premium prices for items that would have been considered disposable or not long for this world when they were first used.

Perhaps the "new" crock looks something like this one, sold recently at Crocker Farm Auction for $345. According to Crocker Farm, the five gallon crock dates to about 1880 and is likely from Ohio. It is marked: “A. BOOTHS SOLID MEAT OYSTERS."

It's hard to say what this dealer's next thing will be. In the mean time, I'll keep an eye out for one of them oyster crocks.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Stocking Up

It's a real pleasure to receive an invitation to lecture on my M.A. thesis topic--Berlin work--five years after I finished that degree and three years after publishing an article based on that research. I must admit that I had that Spring 2015 lecture in mind upon purchasing Elizabeth Gotvals's 1847 sampler at my favorite antique shop near in Pennsylvania last weekend.

Wow, an identified and dated piece of Berlin work, made when Americans had only begun to embrace the needlework made using soft woolen threads and patterns printed in women's magazines and sold by the piece in fancy shops. I'm not sure if the backing is lignin-free and acid-free, so I'll probably carefully switch it out with something I can confirm is inert and therefore less likely to speed the sampler's inevitable deterioration. That said, it's in pretty good condition. I am simply thrilled to add this to my collection. But, frankly, it's always a good day when I have an opportunity to stock up on Berlin work specimens I can trot out for my lecture audiences (not to mention my students). Nothing beats learning from the objects themselves.

So what do we have here?

Elizabeth's work includes a traditional "sampler" design at the top featuring the alphabet and numerals in silk on plain-woven cotton canvas. The bottom portion features Berlin work designs (mostly floral) in wool. As I have explained before, needlework collectors tend to shy away from this stuff for a few reasons. Many people think it's 1) unoriginal and 2) gaudy. The wool's colors are too bright and therefore tasteless, some think. Critics also believe that the Berlin needlework designs, wrought using widely disseminated patterns as guides, embodies a lack or imagination on the part of the needleworkers.

I'll leave it up to you do decide for yourself how you feel about it.

In the mean time, I'll keep collecting it and lecturing about it.

Further Reading

For more about Berlin Work, see my article in Winterthur Portfolio: "'The Blood of Murdered Time': Ann Warder's Berlin Wool Work 1840-1865," Winterthur Portfolio 45, 4 (Winter 2011): 321-352.

I have also written about Berlin work on this blog before. Check out this post, "Berlin work: craft, kitsch, and fashion."

Berlin Work in Museums

In my region, some of my favorite Berlin work can be found at the Winterthur Museum and the Schwenkfelder Library and Heritage Center.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Stuck Between a Decoy and some Berlin Work

Norman Rockwell's Good Friends (1925) & #UDFlat_SPencer
I was practically born in a flea market. Thus it should come as no surprise that I could spend the rest of my life wandering the aisles of antique malls. So when Tyler and I visited the Brandywine Conservancy and Museum of Art (formerly the Brandywine River Museum) last Saturday to catch some Norman Rockwells in the flesh (at left), it was a forgone conclusion that we'd visit a favorite antique co-op just up the road.

What did we find? 

About five minutes into the visit, I spotted some ice fishing decoys similar to these beauties at the American Folk Art Museum. On one, priced at $85, the fins had been made using recycled news- or magazine-print. How charming, I thought. It reminded me of the make-do spirit embodied in many of the artifacts at the Upper Bay Museum in North East, Maryland.

Horace Graham's (active 1955-1978) auto-sander made with a washing machine motor
at the Upper Bay Museum
Since I had recently completed eight blissful days of work there documenting, deinstalling, inventorying, cataloguing, cleaning, and reinstalling a period room Decoy Shop (you can read more about that here - it was part of the University of Delaware Museum Studies/Sustaining Places museum inventory SWAT program), my duck decoy and hunting and fishing tool radar remains finely tuned into that stuff.


But a mere five minutes later, I spotted a large framed piece of Berlin work (a type of wool on cotton canvas pictorial fancy needlework popular in the mid nineteenth century) in the next room and made a beeline for it. At right, check out an example of Berlin work, which, as it turns out, I acquired from the same antique mall about a year ago. Tyler helped me get the prospective purchase off the wall but not without knocking down its hook in the process. An eagle-eyed co-op worker happened to be walking by. We apologized, and she told us not to worry about the casualty. But then proceeded to stand next to me pretending to be reading some paperwork while I examined the piece. 

Like the one I bought a year ago, the prospective acquisition had provenance, and the price was right. (I have found that the pictorials, often featuring a scene and perhaps a name, call for less than do the sampler-style Berlin work, often featuring images as well as names, dates, and perhaps letters or numbers.) It had a lot going for it. But I am trying to save some pennies for a variety of things ranging from groceries to a 2015 tour of Waterloo and its environs. 

So after carefully setting the needlework against a wall, we did a loop of the rest of the co-op. I saw a few more decoys--once you work with something, you see it everywhere--but none that I found to be particularly beguiling. In my travels, I've seen duck decoys range in price from under $100 to several hundred dollars. If you follow that market at all, you know they can fetch tens of thousands. Once a utilitarian, everyday item used not alone but in groups of tens or perhaps a hundred, after the decline of market duck hunting in the early twentieth century and then the transition to plastic decoys in the mid-century, duck decoys skyrocketed in "folk art" and monetary value. And so with the death of the wooden decoy came the renaissance of decoy-carving and the start of the collecting fever.

Thus far, I have kept the miasma at bay. 

As predicted (and widely feared) it snowed Monday, March 3.
Not so for Berlin work, a subject near and dear to my nerdy little material culture heart. As we circled back to the Berlin work, we overheard a conversation between a co-op worker and a customer who had asked if the dealer could "do any better" on a metal rack with hooks. The worker explained that the dealer would give a 20% discount if the prospective buyer would pay by cash or check. The worker offered to put the rack on 24-hour hold. The buyer liked that idea but said that that wouldn't guarantee that she would buy it. After all, she noted, there's a snow storm coming.

And once she buys the rack, she still needs some money left over to paint it. 

"You're going to paint it?," the worker asked.

"Yes," responded the buyer.

"Oh...dear," the worker exclaimed, unable to hide her dismay and disgust. 

Just as breathing down someone's neck while they take a look at a piece of needlework isn't the best way to sway an interested buyer, neither is chastising someone's plans to "deface" an anonymous piece of metal.

Coverlet, wool & cotton, America, 1825
Metropolitan Museum of Art, 10.125.410
(I'm all for preservation, but you have to pick your battles, folks. I plan to transform my Berlin work into several tote bags. [Not really]. You laugh, but an acquaintance recently called to my attention an 1970s/80s article in an American "primitives" magazine that profiled a woman who made historic coverlets [like the one at right] into culottes.)

With the 'tique desecration exchange humming in the background, I hemmed and hawed for a few more minutes over the Berlin work. With dreams of Waterloo dancing in my head, at last, I decided we should head to Whole Foods. There, we chattered about living in a world where we can buy (but did not) $6.99 jars of "organic," "undyed" maraschino cherries at a place that employs guys to stand behind a fish counter wearing overalls in an effort to create the illusion that the workers are fresh off the docks.

I wonder if they know what ice fishing decoys look like.

Want to Learn More?

There are some good web sites that address decoy collecting. Check out the Collectors Weekly site on "Vintage and Antique Duck Decoys." Their interview with a decoy collector is also informative; it mentions several antiquarian books that would be of interest if you want to learn more about identifying decoys if you're on the hunt.

In preparing for my work at the Upper Bay Museum, I found that C. John Sullivan's Waterfowling on the Chesapeake, 1819-1936 (2003) provides readers with the best historical context for duck decoy use. Those with a theoretical bent might enjoy Marjolein Efting Dijkstra's The Animal Substitute: An Ethnological Perspective on the Origin of Image-Making and Art (2010).

Finally, if you hunger for more information on Berlin work, check out my article "'The Blood of Murdered Time': Ann Warder's Berlin Wool Work, 1840-1865," in Winterthur Portfolio

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Material Culture Minute: Where did you Get that Giant Papier-mâché Boar?

Perusing a small Shriners' Hall antiques show in New Castle, Delaware, today, I could not help but stand aghast at and bemused by the sight of a giant papier-mâché boar perched at one dealer's booth.

Yep, he's a biggin.
As I engaged the dealer in a conversation about where he got it (Lancaster County), when he got it (yesterday), and how it had been used (who knows--but it's "early"), I made Tyler take photos so I could share this unusual material culture specimen with you on the blog. The asking price--$300--was a little steep for me, especially once I started thinking about conservation and preservation concerns (enough to make an integrated pest manager's head spin)...not to mention finding space for it.

Could I suspend it from a ceiling?

Probably, but there must be better ways to drop a grad student's coin jar fortune. 

As the succulent smell of snack bar bacon wafted through the air, I continued my stroll through the Hall, which was, I should point out for those looking for a wedding reception site, adorned with a disco ball.

"Stayin' Alive" at a Sunday morning Antiques Show in northern Delaware
As I poked through the tools and jewels, a man I did not recognize at first (so sorry!) said to me, "Hey! Did you win the raffle again this year?" 

("Is this what is feels like to be a movie star who's recognized in the neighborhood Brooklyn coffee shop?," I asked myself.)

Reminded of my waning luck, I explained that, sadly, no, I don't think I won the Paper Americana Show door prize twice in four years

(I did win it two times out of four, though. As Meatloaf sang, "two out of three ain't bad," right?)

Still a bit dejected by the boar dealer's asking price, I moved on to less costly (but not less fascinating) pastures. With the boar (and that bacon) on my mind, I perused a container of snapshots priced at 25 cents each. I've really been enjoying snapshots. They're still rather inexpensive in comparison to daguerreotypes, tintypes, etc., yet they offer fun glimpses into the past that you just can't find in cased photos due to the limitations of the medium. For instance, here's a fascinating photograph of a woman standing behind row house additions in the early twentieth century. What can we learn about turn-of-the-century American life by examining these transformations? (Amanda Casper, a colleague at the University of Delaware, is asking just that. Check out her blog here.
After a few minutes, one of the snapshot dealers (The Collector Gene) asked me if I had looked through that box previously. I shook my head no, but she meant that I had looked through the photos at none other than the Paper Americana Show just last month. Silly me. 

"Well," I said, "I haven't seen anything yet that I recognize, so I might as well keep looking!" 

We had a good laugh and exchanged cards. Apparently these friendly folks have an antiquing blog also.

On a roll, Tyler and I rounded out the early afternoon with a stroll through the ever entertaining New Castle Farmers' market flea

A giraffe greeted us.

Does the giraffe help out with the 2AM emergency rug cleaning calls?
We pawed through the treasures displayed inside cardboard boxes on the ground.

Clearly, this is serious business.
(No hand-inscribed early nineteenth-century shawls today.)

And others clamored for a good find at a costume jewelry table.

In terms of sheer frenzy, this might be the flea market equivalent for Loehmann's legendary "grab the gown sale." 
I made it home with a few snapshots as well as some good stories. The next time someone asks me what I like about Delaware, instead of using the 'ole line that it's close to a lot of cities, the antiquing/flea culture will top the list.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Property of Nicole Belolan: Ephemeral Material Culture of One Day in 2014

Some time in 1935, Virginia Brussard (possibly the Altha "Ginny" Virginia Compher mentioned here)

bought a blank scrapbook.

She assembled, affixed, and labeled paper and other ephemera from what appears to have been her last year of high school in northern Maryland. She saved everything from candy wrappers and cigarettes...

...to dance cards and bows.

In 2013, I bought Virginia's scrapbook at one if my favorite paper shows: the Paper Americana Show in Elkton, MD.

I have nothing that compares to Virginia's scrapbook. At various times during my life, I did make a few scrapbooks of my own. I discarded most of them in one of many fits of unburdening myself of unnecessary stuff. Just think how many more scrapbooks we might have today if people like me had never, as some people put it, decluttered. Or, consider how many fewer scrapbooks we will have from our times since so many people are "going paperless." Yes, the paper scrapbooking industry--while still strong--is in decline, as some are reporting.

Like many scrapbooks, Virginia's includes lots of stuff we would consider ephemeral. In other words, when most people finished eating their Planters Peanuts in 1935, they discarded the wrapper.

Let's face it. There aren't many of us out there saving our receipts, food containers, or our bookmarks, either casually or methodically (like Virginia). As Tyler and I walked around the Paper Americana Show this past January, we mused about how much longer we'd have piles of early twentieth-century snapshots to wade through at paper shows. Today, many stores email receipts, and most of us squirrel away our photographs in "the cloud." Someone better be saving this stuff so future collectors have something to buy at the Paper show that isn't on an external hard drive, we decided. I started to wonder what a day's worth of my discardable paper might mean to a paper show patron in 2064.

So in the space of about twenty-four hours, I did not throw away (or recycle) my paper and other ephemeral waste--a sort of experimental archaeology exercise that gave me a chance to think about my habits as they related to the stuff we casually toss away today.

At the end of the day, I piled up everything from candy cigarette boxes to Colonial Williamsburg Foundation membership offers...


...from interlibrary loan slips to credit card junk mail.

I learned more about myself and the world and then I thought I would. One of the things I noticed was my near automatic impulse to throw away my parking garage receipt and other pieces of the day immediately upon removing the coat in which I had temporarily stashed them for the short ride home. I also noticed that when it came to "junk mail," I didn't even bother opening most of it. I also didn't bother to expunge my name from the various marketing mailing lists on which my name appears. (So I will be receiving these things in perpetuity.) The only reason I opened the Colonial Williamsburg offer is because I wanted to photograph (for the blog) the Foundation membership card I knew they included inside the mailing based on nearly identical promotional material I had already received. (Don't get me wrong - I do love Colonial Williamsburg). I also decided (and this isn't all that revolutionary) that we just generate more paper than seems to be necessary. The book I interlibrary loaned (using an electronic form) generated at least one and half pieces of full-sized paper. When will this "paperwork" be completely digital (let alone--gasp--the book itself)? And once I sat down to a meal, it occurred to me that my little experiment excluded food packaging (save the candy container) and toiletry packaging entirely. But I can tell you that I use shampoo, split end repair and four facial cleansers and creams on a regular basis...all of which I purchase along with disposable containers. I considered my body routine to be relatively low-maintenance until I started tabulating the damages. Finally, after I snipped a piece of red ribbon from the bouquet Tyler got me, I thought about all the stuff around me (health records, miscellaneous school papers, birthday cards...) that will, within a matter of a few months or perhaps a few years, be discarded. Do I live among trash?

I will live among more soon. I cooked up the scheme that I will save my paper ephemera one day every year until I no longer have any junk mail or ILL slips to save. I hope my students will appreciate the opportunity to think about change over time as it applies to my paper.*

When I sell my "ephemeral Property of Nicole Belolan" collection or show it to my students, some will giggle at how quaint those physical credit cards were back in the old days. They may even pause for a moment in disbelief as they try to figure out if the eighteenth-century looking newsprint, which you can buy readily at Colonial Williamsburg, is really from "early" America. (I won't speculate here when will we be teaching "later" America or twenty-first century America. Perhaps we already are.)

Just like I will continue to wonder why Virginia saved cigarettes boys (suitors?) gave her, perhaps in 2064 someone will puzzle over why the same person who interlibrary loaned historical monographs about early American disease also consumed candy cigarettes. 

* Interestingly, I converted to Apple's iCal about two years ago and just this January went back to my paper system. Somehow I feel more in control of my time when I mark it with paper.

Further Reading

I've been meaning to write this post for a while now, but I was newly inspired to put fingertips to keyboard by my dissertation adviser's current grad seminar about disposability (sadly, I am no longer in coursework!) and this TeachArchives.org exercise titled "Digging for Garbage in the Archive."

For more on the history of hobbies and do-it-yourself culture, see “Introduction: Context and Theory,” in Steven M. Gelber, Hobbies: Leisure and the Culture of Work in America (1999): 1-20. I don't necessarily agree with the suggestion that hobbies are a postindustrial phenomenon, but this is a landmark book, nevertheless. 

If you want to read more about scrapbooking and the history of similar paper crafts, see Beverly Gordon, The Meaning of the Saturated World and “The Paper Doll House,” in The Saturated World: Aesthetic Meaning, Intimate Objects, Women’s Lives, 1890-1940 (2006): 1-35 and 37-61, Susan Tucker, Katherine Ott, and Patricia P. Buckler, Eds., The Scrapbook in American Life (1997), and Alicia Weisberg-Roberts, “Introduction (1): Mrs. Delaney from Source to Subject,” Mark Laird, “Introduction (2): Mrs. Delaney & Encompassing the Circle: the Essays Introduced,” and Amanda Vickery, “The Theory and Practice of Female Accomplishment,” in Mrs. Delaney and Her Circle, edited by Mark Laird & Alicia Weisberg-Roberts (2009): 1-39; 94-109.

And finally, if you want to read more about ephemeral material culture, check out Maurice Rickards and Michael Twyman, Encyclopedia of Ephemera (2000), William Davis King, Collections of Nothing (2009), Susan Strasser, Waste and Want: A Social History of Trash (2000), and Joseph Heathcott, "Reading the Accidental Archive: Architecture, Ephemera, and Landscape as Evidence of an Urban Public Culture," Winterthur Portfolio 41, 3 (Winter 2007): 239-268.