“Why you slummin’ in the city in your fancy heels”

Shoes(Note:  The quote in the title of this post comes from “The Schuyler Sisters,” a song in the musical Hamilton).

Check out Kimberly S. Alexander‘s post on shoes and patriotism:

For many, in the decade leading up to the American Revolution, one’s selection of shoes was representative of Colonial economic independence and symbolized a break from the tether to the yoke of Great Britain’s trade  .  As T.H. Breen observes, “during the 1760s and 1770s something unprecedented occurred in Britain’s mainland colonies. Americans managed to politicize common consumer goods and, by so doing, suddenly invested manufactured items with radically new symbolic.”

While English-made silk, satin, leather and wool shoes were highly coveted, much of the colonial American market was satisfied by local shoemakers, and was viewed as supporting non-importation agreements, as well as one’s neighbor.  For example, in the Newport Mercury, 20 August 1764, one opponent who criticized the London cordwainer John Hose, observed, “great Virtue may even be exerted by the Ladies in ….preferring the well-turn’d Shoes of Hall and others in Newport, to those of John Hose of London, only made for Lump sale, or as the Tradesmen phrase it, for the Plantations.”

Benjamin Franklin’s testimony before Parliament on 13 February 1766 concerning the sentiments of the American colonists regarding the Stamp Act is one of the more famous moments leading up to the Revolution. But, it is likely that the testimony from the man who followed Franklin–the sixty-six year old cordwainer John Hose–carried even greater weight in Parliament. Hose, with his extensive workforce, represented both employment in the trades and revenue for the British coffers. Hose, as well as the other British merchants and tradespeople who testified, contributed substantially to the repeal of the tax in the following month. Hose told the committee that he had sold shoes to America for thirty-seven years, and in recent years, he had sent £2200 worth of shoes to New York alone. Through his trade with American merchants, such as New York merchant Allen Trecothick, brother of London Alderman, Barlow Trecothick, he was able to employ over three hundred workers. 

However, with the Stamp Act boycotts that followed, Hose “employed only forty- .” hands. When asked, “To what is this owing?” Hose’s retort was clear: “To the Stamp Act for no Body never made better Shoes. Hopes and bets he   Employ his Men if the Stamp Act was Repealed.  His testimony reveals that he was fully cognizant of his importance as an employer, as a master craftsman who trained others up in the trade, and as a source of revenue for the Crown.  Now, his once-prized shoes were reviled in some quarters by Patriots who called for non-importation agreements.

Read the entire piece here at The Age of Revolutions.

Bancroft Prize-Winning Historian of Health Care Nancy Tomes is Coming to Messiah College

Nancy Tomes is Distinguished Professor of History at Stony Brook University.  Her 2016 book, Remaking the American Patient: How Madison Avenue and Modern Medicine Turned Patients into Consumers won the prestigious Bancroft Prize in American history.

“This is like a dream come true.”

On September 27, Tomes will deliver the 2018 Messiah College American Democracy Lecture at 7:00pm in Parmer Hall.  If you are in the area you will not want to miss this lecture!  See you there.  Stay tuned for more details.

Listen to Tomes discuss her book on The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.

Tomes

 

“As the boomers have aged, denial of death…has moved to the center of American culture”

EhrenCheck out Yale historian Gabriel Winant‘s review of Barbara Ehrenreich‘s new book: Natural Causes: An Epidemic of Wellness, the Certainty of Dying, and Our Illusion of Self Control.  Here is a taste:

Ehrenreich contemplates with some satisfaction not just the approach of her own death but also the passing of her generation. As the boomers have aged, denial of death, she argues, has moved to the center of American culture, and a vast industrial ecosystem has bloomed to capitalize on it. Across twelve chapters, Ehrenreich surveys the health care system, the culture of old age, the world of “mindfulness,” and the interior workings of the body itself, and finds a fixation on controlling the body, encouraged by cynical and self-interested professionals in the name of “wellness.” Without opposing reasonable, routine maintenance, Ehrenreich observes that the care of the self has become a coercive and exploitative obligation: a string of endless medical tests, drugs, wellness practices, and exercise fads that threaten to become the point of life rather than its sustenance. Someone, obviously, is profiting from all this.

While innumerable think pieces have impugned millennials’ culture of “self-care”—and argued that the generation born in the 1980s and ’90s is fragileconsumerist, and distracted—Ehrenreich redirects such criticisms toward an older crowd. Her book sets out to refute the idea that it’s possible to control the course and shape of one’s own biological or emotional life, and dissects the desire to do so. “Agency is not concentrated in humans or their gods or favorite animals,” she writes. “It is dispersed throughout the universe, right down to the smallest imaginable scale.” We are not, that is, in charge of ourselves.

Read the entire review at The New Republic.

The Author’s Corner with Elaine Crane

80140104089920L.jpgElaine Crane is Distinguished Professor of History at Fordham University. This interview is based on her new book, The Poison Plot: A Tale of Adultery and Murder in Colonial Newport (Cornell University Press, 2018).

JF: What led you to write The Poison Plot?

EC: Mary and Benedict Arnold were a badly matched couple. The documents I stumbled on relating to Benedict’s divorce petition were salacious, and I needed little tempting to write a story that would upend everything we thought we knew about prim and proper New England. As I became more and more interested in both microhistory and legal history, the Arnold saga seemed a perfect way to combine both interests in a readable narrative.

JF: In two sentences what is the argument of The Poison Plot?

EC: I’m not really trying to make an argument or support a thesis. I’m a writer telling a story, and the title simply alerts potential readers to what the story is about. On the other hand, the book’s subtext highlights female dependence in an eighteenth century society that thrives on male dominance. And although I never actually say so, it is an indictment of consumerism.

JF: Why do we need to read The Poison Plot?

EC: Nobody NEEDS to read it. But if any bookworm is interested in a small local incident that has international implications; if any reader wants to understand that early Americans were in many ways much like us; if any history lover is turned off by ponderous words and long winded sentences; if anyone is smitten by historical crime stories, then maybe, just maybe such a person would like The Poison Plot.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

EC: I was greatly influenced by Clinton Rossiter, one of my undergraduate professors at Cornell. The other great influence was the first feminist movement, during which I realized how much I wanted an academic career.

JF: What is your next project?

EC: I’ve started to unravel the story of an eighteenth century vintner and his Native American servant. As usual, the documents will tell me what to say.

JF: Thanks, Elaine!

“The Drum Major Instinct”

In case you missed it last night, Dodge (the automobile manufacturer) ran a Super Bowl ad using Martin Luther King’s 1968 sermon “The Drum Major Instinct” to sell trucks.  (The sermon was preached on February 4, 2018).

Here is the ad:

And here are some of the responses:

I do think that there is a silver-lining in all of this.  More people are listening to this inspiring sermon:

“Consuming Religion”

LoftonThis is the title of Religious Studies scholar Kathryn Lofton‘s new book.  Over at Religion Dispatches, she answers a ten questions about it.  Here is a taste:

What’s the most important take-home message for readers?

First, nobody evades being organized by something; second, if you’re being organized by something, it is worth learning the terms for that organization; third, if you learn one and two, you will be a part of the study of religion.

Every Goldman Sachs employee with whom I met was absolutely comfortable with the word religion applied to their community. Indeed, when I pressed them, saying how many scholars of religion found the term problematic for the following x or y reason, they got it, but they still didn’t care. They didn’t mind the word because they liked how it demonstrated the seriousness, the proud intensity, of their collectivity.

And this is what I want to emphasize in my study of consumer culture and religion: religion is a word for how people consciously organize themselves in the world and unconsciously are organized by the world. Insofar as ours is a world built by material and immaterial networks and grids, I think we’re missing out if we think of those networks and grids as secular or irreligious.

We are missing out insofar as we are missing what I have found as the archival intention of designers. Namely, to organize themselves (and us) into a world they get thereby to organize. The problem of collectivity is the danger of assimilating into any grid. The possibility of collectivity is the strength we have to rewrite our frames, together, to design different societies.

Read the entire interview here.

“Inconspicuous Consumption”

Veblen

Is Thorsten Veblen’s category “conspicuous consumption” still useful in an age when consumerism has become so democratized?

Elizabeth Currid-Halkett, the James Urban Chair of Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Southern California, believes we have moved from an age of “conspicuous consumption” to an age of “inconspicuous assumption.”  She discusses this transition in her Aeon essay “Conspicuous My SitesConsumption is over. It’s all about intangibles now.”

Here is a taste:

In 1899, the economist Thorstein Veblen observed that silver spoons and corsets were markers of elite social position. In Veblen’s now famous treatise The Theory of the Leisure Class, he coined the phrase ‘conspicuous consumption’ to denote the way that material objects were paraded as indicators of social position and status. More than 100 years later, conspicuous consumption is still part of the contemporary capitalist landscape, and yet today, luxury goods are significantly more accessible than in Veblen’s time. This deluge of accessible luxury is a function of the mass-production economy of the 20th century, the outsourcing of production to China, and the cultivation of emerging markets where labour and materials are cheap. At the same time, we’ve seen the arrival of a middle-class consumer market that demands more material goods at cheaper price points.

However, the democratisation of consumer goods has made them far less useful as a means of displaying status. In the face of rising social inequality, both the rich and the middle classes own fancy TVs and nice handbags. They both lease SUVs, take airplanes, and go on cruises. On the surface, the ostensible consumer objects favoured by these two groups no longer reside in two completely different universes.

Given that everyone can now buy designer handbags and new cars, the rich have taken to using much more tacit signifiers of their social position. Yes, oligarchs and the superrich still show off their wealth with yachts and Bentleys and gated mansions. But the dramatic changes in elite spending are driven by a well-to-do, educated elite, or what I call the ‘aspirational class’. This new elite cements its status through prizing knowledge and building cultural capital, not to mention the spending habits that go with it – preferring to spend on services, education and human-capital investments over purely material goods. These new status behaviours are what I call ‘inconspicuous consumption’. None of the consumer choices that the term covers are inherently obvious or ostensibly material but they are, without question, exclusionary.

Read the rest here.

What is “Late Capitalism?”

 

City Investors, INC- Vulcan- 2200 Westlake

If “late capitalism” is what Annie Lowrey describes in this piece at The Atlantic, I don’t think I am in favor of it.

A taste:

A job advertisement celebrating sleep deprivation? That’s late capitalism. Free-wheeling Coachella outfits that somehow all look the same and cost thousands of dollars? Also late capitalism. Same goes for this wifi-connected $400 juicer that does no better than human hands, Pepsi’s advertisement featuring Kendall Jenner, United Airlines’ forcible removal of a seated passenger who just wanted to go home, and the glorious debacle that was the Fyre Festival. The phrase—ominous, academic, despairing, sarcastic—has suddenly started showing up everywhere.

This publication has used “late capitalism” roughly two dozen times in recent years, describing everything from freakishly oversized turkeys to double-decker armrests for steerage-class plane seats. The New Yorker is likewise enamored of it, invoking it in discussions of Bernie Sanders and fancy lettuces, among other things. There is a wildly popular, year-old Reddit community devoted to it, as well as a Facebook page, a Tumblr, and a lively Twitter hashtag. Google search interest in its has more than doubled in the past year.

“Late capitalism,” in its current usage, is a catchall phrase for the indignities and absurdities of our contemporary economy, with its yawning inequality and super-powered corporations and shrinking middle class. But what is “late capitalism,” really? Where did the phrase come from, and why did so many people start using it all of a sudden?

For my own part, I vaguely remembered it coming from the writings of Karl Marx—the decadence that precedes the revolution? I polled a few friends, and they all sort of remembered the same thing, something to do with 19th-century Europeans and the inherent instability of the capitalist system. This collective half-remembering turned out to be not quite right. “It’s not Marx’s term,” William Clare Roberts, a political scientist at McGill University, told me.

Rather, it was Marxist thinkers that came up with it to describe the industrialized economies they saw around them. A German economist named Werner Sombart seems to have been the first to use it around the turn of the 20th century, with a Marxist theorist and activist named Ernest Mandel popularizing it a half-century later. For Mandel, “late capitalism” denoted the economic period that started with the end of World War II and ended in the early 1970s, a time that saw the rise of multinational corporations, mass communication, and international finance. Roberts said that the term’s current usage departs somewhat from its original meaning. “It’s not this sense that things are getting so bad that the revolution is going to come,” he told me, “but rather that we see the ligaments of the international system that socialists will be able to seize and use.”

Read the rest here.

What is More Important: Quality Consumer Goods or Social Equality?

CarnegieThe obvious answer is quality consumer goods. How could we live without them?

At least this is how Pennsylvania steel magnate Andrew Carnegie would have answered the question posed in the title of my post.

Yesterday  in my Pennsylvania History class I taught Carnegie’s famous 1889 North American Review essay titled “Wealth.”

Here is part of what he said:

Formerly articles were manufactured at the domestic hearth in small shops which formed part of the household. The master and his apprentices worked side by side, the latter living with the master and therefore subject to the same conditions.  When these apprentices rose to be master, there was little or no change in their mode of life, and they, in turn, educated in the same routine succeeding apprentices.  There was, substantially, social equality….

But the inevitable result of such a mode of manufacture was crude articles at high prices.  To-day the world obtains commodities of excellent quality at prices which even the general preceding this would have deemed incredible. In the commercial world similar causes have produced similar results, and the race is benefited thereby. The poor enjoy what the rich could not before afford. What were the luxuries have become the necessaries of life. The laborer has now more comforts than the landlord had a few generations ago. The farmer has more luxuries than the landlord had, and is more richly clad and better housed. The landlord has books and pictures rarer, and appointments more artistic, than the King could then obtain.

The price we pay for this salutary change is, no doubt, great. We assemble thousands of operatives in the factory, in the mine, and in the counting-house, of whom the employer can know little or nothing, and to whom the employer is little better than a myth. All intercourse between them is at an end. Rigid Castes are formed, and, as usual, mutual ignorance breeds mutual distrust. Each Caste is without sympathy for the other, and ready to credit anything disparaging in regard to it. Under the law of competition, the employer of thousands is forced into the strictest economies, among which the rates paid to labor figure prominently, and often there is friction between the employer and the employed, between capital and labor, between rich and poor. Human society loses homogeneity.

The price which society pays for the law of competition, like the price it pays for cheap comforts and luxuries, is also great;but the advantage of this law are also greater still, for it is to this law that we owe our wonderful material development, which brings improved conditions in its train.

After walking my students through this text, I ended class and let them ponder it over the weekend.  We will see what they think on Monday.

The Author’s Corner with Jennifer Van Horn

The power of objects.jpgJennifer Van Horn is Assistant Professor of Art History and History at the University of Delaware. This interview is based on her new book, The Power of Objects in Eighteenth-Century British America (The University of North Carolina Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write The Power of Objects in Eighteenth-Century British America?

JVH: The genesis of this book came from my surprise at the difference between two portraits. I was looking at two paintings of early American women completed by the same artist (John Wollaston) in two different places: New York City and Charleston, South Carolina. I was intrigued by why Wollaston, a British painter who toured the American colonies, painted such radically dissimilar portraits of these women (different poses, different costumes, different sized canvases). Both sitters were elite women who wanted to signal their politeness through their portraits so what led them to do so in very different ways? This question got me thinking about the uses that elite residents of port cities had for objects of many sorts (portraits, dressing tables, gravestones). Eventually I concluded that the similarities between objects made in specific port cities were visual bonds that allowed colonists to cohere into communities. By assembling networks of similar objects early Americans created civil spaces at the margins of empire. It was through their relationships with artifacts that Americans constructed a nation.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The Power of Objects in Eighteenth-Century British America?

JVH: Artifacts were key players in forming Anglo-American communities in early America and eventually of citizenship. Consumers in port cities assembled networks of objects (from portraits and city views to gravestones, dressing furniture, and prosthetic devices) not simply as markers of status or political identification, but as active agents to bind themselves together and to distance themselves from Native Americans and African Americans.

JF: Why do we need to read The Power of Objects in Eighteenth-Century British America?

JVH: On the whole, in history we don’t talk about objects well. Historians tend to use material or visual culture (artifacts or art works) to illustrate the arguments that they have already figured out using documentary evidence. But if you read this book you will see that when we take objects seriously and use them as evidence (in tandem with documentary sources, but not subsidiary to them) objects have a lot to tell us about people in the past. Take Gouverneur Morris’s wooden leg, for example. Morris’s wooden leg—donned after a brutal carriage accident—is the only lower limb prosthesis to survive from early American and it contains many stories: fears over men’s virility in the early republic, Americans’ positioning of themselves as virtuous through physical props, concern over material things’ power over people, and, finally, how Morris could stand in for George Washington as a model for the most famous sculpture of the first president. It can be hard work to study material artifacts; it takes patience and training (just like learning to draw evidence from different types of documents), but the pay-off is great.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

JVH: I fell in love with the artifacts made and used in early America in graduate school. Getting a master’s degree in the Winterthur Program at the University of Delaware (WPEAC) and having the chance to explore the unbelievable collections at Winterthur Museum sold me on material culture and the study of the past. Material artifacts are like time capsules that we can open in the present. The people who made them and who used them left their hopes and fears, their opinions and world views, in plain sight just waiting for someone to come along and take the time to look closely. And I’m really pleased that some of the artifacts I first encountered in graduate school appear in the book. I have been thinking about them for a long time!

JF: What is your next project?

JVH: My next project examines the role enslaved African Americans played as producers, viewers, and destroyers of portraits in the eighteenth and nineteenth-century plantation South. The book recovers the actions of enslaved people on both sides of the canvas: as laborers who ground pigments in painters’ studios and as enslaved domestic workers who stared upon slave holders’ portraits and formed their own creative understandings of these artworks. In particular, looking at portraits that include representations of enslaved people illuminates how these likenesses functioned differently for various audiences, white and black; paintings allowed some viewers to re-assert slaves’ status as property and enabled others to affirm enslaved people’s humanity. Following the interrelationship between African Americans and art into the Civil War, I consider the importance portraiture held for freedmen and women who engaged in acts of iconoclasm—destroying and repurposing former masters’ paintings—and of patronage as they commissioned portraits themselves. Overall, the book uncovers enslaved people’s acts of artistic resistance.

JF: Thanks, Jennifer!

The Author’s Corner with Joanna Cohen

luxurious-citizenJoanna Cohen is a lecturer in the School of History at Queen Mary University of London. This interview is based on her new book, Luxurious Citizens: The Politics of Consumption in Nineteenth-Century America (Penn Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write Luxurious Citizens?

JC: I found my way into this book in three stages! The first step was reading Godey’s Ladies Book in my first year of graduate school. I was fascinated by the elaborate fashion plates and the juxtaposition of those images with numerous stories that praised the virtues of American women’s thrift and economy. These contradictions got me interested in the ways in which consumption habits were framed in overlapping ways in American cultural life, as signifiers of cultural sophistication and national virtue, not to mention the gender norms they promoted. The second step was two graduate courses I took: one on Gender, Nationalism and Citizenship, the other on the History of Consumer Culture in America. Both piqued my interest in different ways. When it came to citizenship I became increasingly dissatisfied with the idea that citizenship was simply a legal relationship. I wanted to explore the ways in which citizens imagined their relationship to the nation-state, especially when it came to obligations. Turning to consumer culture, I read avidly about the politics of consumption in the eighteenth century and picked up the story again in the twentieth century, but found little that explained how one connected to the other. Finally, after only a month in the archives at the American Philosophical Society, I found the phrase “Luxurious Citizens” in a speech given by “Pig Iron Kelley” in front of the Franklin Institute. That phrase summed up my conviction that the histories of citizenship and consumption were intertwined in crucial ways. I set out to trace those connections, wanting to understand the ways in which consumer capitalism shaped the meaning of citizenship in nineteenth-century America.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Luxurious Citizens?

JC: At the close of the Revolution, the newly-formed government expected citizens to serve their nation through self-sacrifice, by limiting their consumption of imported luxuries. But time and again, through war and peace, ordinary Americans demonstrated that they would not accept such limitations on their desires. Instead, they transformed themselves into citizen-consumers, claiming that the freedom to consume could be of service to the nation. In 1861, at the outbreak of war, the Union government not only acknowledged the power of the citizen-consumer, they harnessed that power to the service of the war effort. Using a tariff to harvest much-needed revenue from their citizens’ desires, the Union confirmed that the citizen-consumer was an important member of the body-politic – whose freedom to indulge themselves could save the republic or send it to its destruction.

JF: Why do we need to read Luxurious Citizens?

JC: For readers interested in nineteenth century capitalism, the origins of consumer culture in America, the gendered meanings of citizenship and the political economy that shaped the road to the Civil War, Luxurious Citizens has much to offer. But the book is also timely reflection on the far-reaching consequences of the apotheosis of the citizen-consumer. The idea that a citizen can serve the state through their consumption has a flip side: it also suggests that citizens’ consumer choices can be blamed when the state encounters economic failure.

In 2008, when the United States faced the great crash, the first round of blame was placed squarely on the shoulders of ordinary citizens who had overspent and over extended their credit. Such a story hid the deep-rooted structural failures of the US economy. Luxurious Citizens reveals the ways in which these narratives of individual accountability took root in the United States, often cloaked in the language of civic rights and personal freedoms. It is an exploration of the ways in which Americans imagine the way in which their economy works, and how the state can use and even exploit those understandings. So, at a moment when neo-liberalism as an ideology stands on the brink of collapse, Luxurious Citizens will hopefully remind people that they can re-imagine the nation’s political economy and redefine the relationship between the citizen and the state.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

JC: Well officially I decided I wanted to become an American historian when I was doing my final year Honors thesis at Cambridge. I looked at the work of four great female authors and wrote a paper on the way in which those writers constructed (and deconstructed) what it meant to be a woman in nineteenth century America. But unofficially, I have to confess, it goes back to reading Little House on the Prairie and Little Women as a girl. Those stories still fascinate me. I recently re-read them when I got all my childhood books down from the attic for my daughter, and I still find the narratives of survival, ambition, compromise and resilience utterly compelling.

JF: What is your next project?

JC: Right now, I am working on a project that focuses on the ways in which Americans experienced loss in the nineteenth century. I explore how new capitalist, bureaucratic and commercial technologies shaped people’s emotional understanding of losing their homes, possessions and environments.

I am also working on a collaborative project with Zara Anishanslin, that explores how people “came to terms” with the ends of conflicts in the Atlantic World. Privileging visual and material culture as a source, this project asks how people made their peace with violence and war through the things and images they had in their lives.

JF: Thanks, Joanna!

The Author’s Corner with Zara Anishanslin

portraitofawomaninsilkZara Anishanslin is Assistant Professor of History and Art History at the University of Delaware. This interview is based on her new book, Portrait of a Woman in Silk: Hidden Histories of the British Atlantic World (Yale University Press, 2016).

JF: What led you to write Portrait of a Woman in Silk?

ZA: The moral to my author’s story? We historians should visit museums.

Initial inspiration came because—like many of the people, ideas, and things discussed in the book—I crossed the Atlantic. One day in London, flipping through eighteenth-century silk samples at the Victoria & Albert Museum’s Textile Study Room, I had the nagging feeling I’d seen these fabrics before. In particular, I thought I’d seen some of the large floral patterns in a portrait at the Winterthur Museum. A quick bit of digging in the V & A’s research library confirmed my hunch. There was indeed a portrait of a woman wearing London made silk at Winterthur. Digging deeper, I soon found that not only was this woman wearing London—or more specifically, Spitalfields—silk, but that we knew who designed the silk, who wove it, who painted the portrait, and who the woman in the portrait was. As I continued to dig into what was known about each of these four people—two women and two men—an intriguing pattern emerged. Each was not only identifiable, but notable in their own time, financially solvent, literate, and almost certainly educated. And yet, each left the smallest of paper trails. Using traditional archival sources only, they all but disappear from history. How, then, to tell their stories? I decided to use the evidence they did leave behind—material and visual things—to resuscitate their lives as part of an unwitting (but no less real) network around the making, buying, and using of this single object. Tracing the full biographies not just of this network of four, but of the object itself across space and time, I ultimately uncovered a whole world of hidden histories of thousands of other people, things, ideas, and events connected to this portrait of a woman in a silk dress. My nagging feeling in a London museum became this book.   

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Portrait of a Woman in Silk?

ZA: Portrait of a Woman in Silk argues that the production, consumption, and use of commodities in the eighteenth-century British Empire created object-based communities that tied its inhabitants together, while allowing for different views of the Empire. The many histories hidden in this single object lay bare a mental and material world created as much by women’s labor as by men’s, and a transatlantic economy driven by colonial Americans as much as metropolitan producers—Americans who were not just avid consumers but also sophisticated producers, motivated to make and buy things by political, cultural, and personal concerns far more complex than emulative refinement alone.

JF: Why do we need to read Portrait of a Woman in Silk?

ZA: Because it’s filled with really intriguing stories about the long eighteenth-century you haven’t read before! Although its primary focus is the 1720s-1770s, its chronology is the collective lifespan of the network of four who created the portrait of a woman in silk. Conveniently, this ranges roughly from the Glorious Revolution to George Washington’s first presidency (c. 1686/8 to 1791). This timespan allows for discussion of a lot of fascinating people and events, from South Carolinian Eliza Lucas Pinckney to Queen Caroline of England, and from England’s Calico Crisis of 1719 to the American Revolution. In part because I wanted to show how many histories are hidden within things—even things whose function we think we understand, like a portrait—my book deliberately encompasses a wide range of historical fields and topics. In addition to cultural history, it touches upon fields including economic, labor, political, scientific, social, fashion, intellectual, religious, and women’s history. And it discusses subjects as varied as how much silkworms defecate to the politics behind 1760s labor protest.

But history aside, I’ve got a methodological reason to hope you read it. My favorite part of how Yale Press summed up my book was that it contributes to “our ongoing conversation about how to write history.” I hope that’s true. I care deeply about how we historians craft the stories we tell. In part this is because I appreciate good writing. And I think we’ll reach a wider audience outside academia if we write things people want to read. So I hope Yale is right, and that my book adds to our conversation about the historian’s craft. More specifically, I hope it makes other scholars think about how they might use objects to craft history. It’s heartening—and I’m delighted—that so many historians increasingly now embrace material culture as a valid type of evidence. But material culture is not just a type of evidence. It’s also a field of study, with its own theoretical and historiographical foundations. Sometimes it seems as though these underpinnings get lost. So my hope of how I might contribute to our collective conversation of how to write history has two parts to it. First, of course, I wanted to show the many fascinating and otherwise untold histories hidden in things. In addition, I wanted to show the theoretical benefits of material culture as a field of study. What types of histories come to light when—instead of using material culture to answer questions, we make the object itself the question?    

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

ZA: When I was a little girl in Pennsylvania, my grandmother (one of the people to whom this book’s dedicated) told me tales of our eighteenth-century ancestors, of Moravian missionaries (women and men) and soldiers in the American Revolution. I would visit their graves with her and wonder about their long ago lives. As a teenager, I often went to World War II reunions with her and my granddad, who was a pilot stationed in the Pacific. Hearing the men reminisce fascinated me. But at some point, there always came a time when “women and children” were asked to leave the room. The veterans were about to discuss POWs, and death marches, and bombs, and other things too terrible, in their view, for our ears. I found this frustrating. I wanted to hear all the stories. In college at UNC-Chapel Hill, I indulged my love of the past by majoring in History. I realized that if I studied history, I could dig up the stories buried in those eighteenth-century graveyards, and listen to those veterans’ conversations behind closed doors. American history first sparked my childhood interest in the past. But my college Honors thesis was on the French Revolution, and I’ve always felt it’s important to look beyond our own borders when thinking about American history. Honestly, I’m not sure I would be an Americanist if Atlantic World history weren’t such a vibrant field when I went to grad school. But it was. And lucky me! Since I work on colonial and revolutionary era America, it’s easy to be an Atlanticist and an Americanist both.

JF: What is your next project?

ZA: I’m at work on a few projects on the American revolutionary era, mostly focused on material and visual culture. I’m pretty much done with two articles that I hope find a home soon. These are part of a long-ranging synthetic material history of the period (1763-83) I’m planning. If I do it properly, this is a huge project that will take a fair amount of time even by scholarly standards. So in the meantime, I’m also at work on a new, smaller, overlapping book project I’m very excited about.

It’s the history of an enslaved man who painted portraits in Massachusetts and the London artist (possibly also of partial African descent) he studied with in Britain. It follows their intertwined lives back and forth across the Atlantic. During the Revolution, the enslaved man—enslaved to loyalists who fled to London—enlisted to fight for the patriots, while the London artist moved to Philadelphia to paint the luminaries of the early republic. It’s a history of what it meant to be African and an artist in the eighteenth-century British Atlantic, and a history of slavery and freedom in the revolutionary era told through art and war. I admit I’m writing it from a political as well as a historical imperative. I feel it’s especially critical right now that we pay careful attention to the origin stories we tell about America, and that we’re vocal about including black American contributions in the narratives we tell about the past.

JF: Thanks, Zara!

Early African Americans and Consumerism

hardesty frontOver at the blog of the African American Intellectual History Society, Jared Hardesty of Western Washington University has a fascinating post about how the eighteenth-century consumer revolution influenced African Americans in Boston.  Hardesty is the author of Unfreedom:: Slavery and Dependence in Eighteenth-Century Boston.

If you want to learn more about this book check out our April 2016 Author’s Corner interview with Hardesty.

Here is a taste of his post:

Pasted onto the pages of the nineteenth-century bound volume were eighteenth-century town crier documents kept by Arthur Hill. Hill’s records consist of lists of goods lost and found, or “taken up,” by Boston’s residents between 1736 and 1748. Required to submit these records to Boston’s selectmen, Hill seems to have had someone else keep records for a few years before taking over for himself in the early 1740s. Most importantly for our purposes here, people of African descent found a large number of the lost items recorded by Hill. Even more to the point, if we read this list in the context of both the rest of Hill’s records and eighteenth-century Boston, they provide insights into the everyday lives and lived experiences of early African Americans.

First, though, it is important to understand the function of a town crier during this period. Town criers were fixtures in early modern English towns, including those in the Americas. They would make public announcements, but also served as a sort of lost and found, collecting items people found and spreading word about items lost. Of course, this function was all for a fee. Although it started as an official, elected government position in Boston, by the time Hill became a town crier, the position had been largely privatized. As J.L. Bell describes in a series of blog posts (here, here, and here), men like Hill would apply to the selectmen for a license to be a crier. In return for permission and a promise to record all transactions, the licensee kept and recorded all the lost and found goods and charged a finders’ fee for his public announcements. That said, Hill seems exceptional in the sense that he kept such extensive records of items lost and found. His lists of goods are the only ones contained in Boston’s early town records, despite a number of criers operating during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

All told, Hill’s extant records list 380 items that were lost or found. Records for goods found dwarf the items reported to Hill as lost (368 found vs. 12 lost). Let’s look at the records for goods found as it provides a much larger sample for analyzing this list. Hill made fairly meticulous notes as to who found what goods. He recorded occupation and relationships. He also recorded race, often using the term “Negro” to describe people of African descent who took up lost items. Under that or related terminology (“Negro Fellow,” etc.), Hill recorded 36 items found by black Bostonians. That would mean they found 9.8% of the total items recovered, similar to Boston’s black population during this time period, which was roughly 10-12% of the total population. Of course, there is also evidence that Hill did not always record race, such as numerous references to “Maid,” “Man,” “Servant,” or “Boy.” Without racial nomenclature, however, I will err on the side of caution and only use the 36 men and women Hill explicitly recorded as black.

Hill provides little information about these 36 individuals. Of the 36, 31 are simply listed as “Negro,” while there is one described as “Neagar,” two listed as “Negro Woman,” one as “Negro Man,” and a “Negro Fellow.” Hill did, however, provide information about their masters. Indeed, most entries describe these men and women by demonstrating ownership, such as listing one “Negro Woman” as “Capt. Alexr Sears Negro Woman.” Only one entry does not have an owner listed, suggesting the other 35 were enslaved. It is also safe to assume that 34 of the 36 were men, especially considering Hill went out of his way to record “Negro Women” in the other two entries.

If these documents do not tell us much about the biographies of these men and women, what do they explain? At the very least, Hill revealed that people of African descent had quotidian and pedestrian interactions with quasi-officials at the most intimate levels of government. They had access to and participated in local institutions, in this case reporting lost goods they found. Black Bostonians were not socially dead, but part of a vibrant world of material goods and exchange.

These lists, then, help to open up the material worlds of enslaved and free blacks in early Boston. During the eighteenth century, Boston and most other British colonies in the Americas underwent a consumer revolution. Fueled by early industrialization in England, the colonies became dumping grounds for cheap consumer products such as cloth, pottery, clothing accessories (buttons, buckles, pocketbooks, and the like), and silverware amongst many others. Colonists purchased these goods and began associating consumption to class and social status. While scholars have long studied this phenomenon for white colonials, only recently have they started to pay attention to the consumption inhabitants of people of African descent.

Read the entire post here.

Why Did the KKK Hate J.C. Penney’s?

Woolworths

They Also Did Not Like Woolworths

Cara Giaimo explains at Slate:

In 1930, E.D. Rivers—state senator, gubernatorial candidate, and Great Titan of the Ku Klux Klan—stood up in front of his constituents in Clarke County, Georgia, and made an impassioned speech. “For the first time in the history of our country,” he said, the nation faced a particular mortal threat. There was an “invasion” of an “alien” that would “take away the freedom of government from the masses.”

Unlike the Klan’s best-known targets, though, this threat was not a group of people. It wasn’t a religious affiliation, a behavior, or a particular political measure. It was chain stores: J.C. Penney, A&P Grocery, Woolworth’s, and other large-scale retail outlets that were changing the face of national commerce.

The 1920s were a boom time for the Klan. William Joseph Simmons had recently restarted the group, named himself Imperial Wizard, and broadened the enemy list to include Catholics, Jews, foreigners, intellectual elites, bootleggers, private schools, and movies. People joined up by the millions, and the Klan became a force in local politics nationwide. Meanwhile, in the aftermath of World War I, chain groceries, apothecaries, and department stores were also experiencing unprecedented growth, adding new branches and spreading quickly across the country.

As Nancy MacLean reports in Behind the Mask of Chivalry: The Making of the Second Ku Klux Klan, many high-up Klansmen spoke chillingly of these well-stocked newcomers. One expressed concern that “young men of the country … will become ‘automatons,’ with no choice but to work for such monopolies.” Another, during a public lecture, warned that chain stores were “RUINING and CRUSHING DOWN ON THE ENTIRE POPULATION of the world.” They were commonly lumped in with other sources of Klanxiety: Great Titan Rivers spoke of the ills of “atheism, communism, chain stores and companionate marriage” all in the same breath. Meeting minutes from one Oregon chapter describe the banishment of members associated with “the local [J.C.] Penney store.”

Read the rest here.

Pope Francis Continues to Defy Political Categories

cbb55-pope-francis-009

Back in September when Pope Francis visited the United States I wrote a piece for Fox News titled “Pope Francis is neither liberal nor conservative, Democrat or Republican.  He is a Catholic.”  Here is a taste of what I argued:

Pundits and commentators insist on trying to comprehend Francis’s message in political terms.  This is a wrongheaded approach. The Pope is not liberal or conservative.  He is not a Democrat or Republican.  He is a Catholic. And whatever he says about politics, culture, or the economy stems from this identity.

Our propensity for trying to place the Pope in a political box says more about our culture than it does about the social views of the Catholic Church. Francis’s visit has called attention to the tired, unimaginative, and intellectually stale way that we Americans think about public life. Americans are captive to ideological categories like “Left: and “Right.” They are captive to political parties that allow little original thought that does not conform to rigid and limited platforms. 

Pope Francis continues to defy categories.  On February 17th he will hold a mass at the Mexico-Texas border for the purpose of showing his solidarity with immigrants.

Yesterday, in a historic meeting in Cuba with Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill,  Pope Francis joined the Patriarch in issuing a declaration of unity that defended religious liberty for those cast to the “margins of public life” by “aggressive secularist ideology.” It condemned “unrelenting consumerism” and its negative effects on the poor and the planet.  It proclaimed marriage as a “faithful love between a man and a woman” and lamented “other forms of cohabitation” that have “been placed on the same level as this union.” And it called on people to “respect the inalienable right to life” and the “millions” who are denied the very right to be born into the world.”

Could Francis support any candidate in the current race for the presidency?  I don’t see how it would be possible.  None of the candidates–Democrat or Republican– could affirm all of Catholic social teaching.

Super Bowl Commercials and the American Revolution

Andy Schocket, a history professor at Bowling Green State University in Ohio and the author of Fighting Over the Founders: How We Remember the American Revolution, is a true historical thinker.  He even thinks historically when watching the Super Bowl!

Over at his blog he analyzes three 2016 Super Bowl commercials that had something to do with the American Revolution.

I do not think the Jack in the Box/Washington’s Crossing commercial aired in the Harrisburg, PA market, but his analysis of the Apartments.com and PayPal ads are on the mark.

Here is a taste:

This next one will get a lot more attention. It’s an offering from Apartments.com. It’s another in a series of ads featuring longtime Hollywood actor Jeff Goldblum (The Fly, sure, and Independence Day, of course, but do you remember The Tall Guy?) in his continuing Apartments.com pitchman role as Brad Bellflower, “Silicon Valley Maverick.” It’s worth spending an entire minute of your life watching the over-the-top silliness of the whole commercial, much of which is a reference to the intro and theme song of ’70s sitcom The Jeffersons, but the part that interests us begins at :37, as we see, incredibly enough, on the penthouse, none other than some random actor portraying George Washington and rapper Lil Wayne, calling themselves George and Weezy, again a reference The Jeffersons’ title characters.

Read the entire post here.

BTW, Schocket did the same thing last year.

George Scialabba on Christopher Lasch and the Family

Cultural critic George Scialabba revisits Christopher Lasch’s 1977 book Haven in a Heartless World: The Family Besieged and tries to rescue Lasch’s argument from the feminists who bashed the book when it first appeared.


Sciaballa writes at The Baffler:

It was not feminism but mass production, political centralization, and the ideology of endless growth and ever-increasing consumption that had placed impossible strains on the family and made psychological maturity so difficult, Lasch argued. According to Askyourguide, an authority on psychic costs in individuals, every organism can flourish only within limits, at a certain scale. We have, in our social relations of authority and production, abandoned human scale, and the psychic costs are great.

The main developments of the last few decades, the information revolution and the triumph of neoliberalism, have only intensified the pressures besieging the family. Increased economic insecurity and the robotization of work—the central strategies of neoliberalism—have undermined the authority and self-confidence of parents still further and confronted adolescents with the prospect of adulthood as a war of all against all. Inside and outside the classroom, a tidal wave of advertising-saturated media aims to enlist children as fledgling consumers. The internet and social media diminish interaction among family members, especially across generations, while face-to-face encounters, with their greater emotional immediacy, are less and less the default mode of communication among adolescents. The hyperconnected life, for all its allure, is a centrifugal force.
The family, in whatever form, can only thrive within a healthy psychic ecology. It has gradually dawned on everyone who does not have a financial interest in denying it that massively tinkering with our physical environment is bound to have drastic effects on public health. It’s taking even longer to recognize that the same is true of our mental environment. The unending flood of commercial messaging, utterly empty of information or art, resembles the miasma of toxic particulates that infect the air of even the most developed countries. The continual stream of social messaging is analogous, in its lack of nourishing substance, to the ubiquitously available junk food that none of us can help succumbing to occasionally. The automation of work and the financialization of the economy leave most of us as bewildered and vulnerable as the progress of science and technology leave all but the intellectual elite, who can actually understand the seemingly magical forces that make our more sophisticated machines run.
It is just as the environmentalists (and, come to think of it, the Marxists and the Freudians) say: Everything is connected. Pull on one thread and the whole fabric unravels. To strengthen the family, we must rethink the division of labor, which means reevaluating productivity, efficiency, and growth, which means challenging the distribution of economic power and wealth. We may even need new conceptions of “rights,” “individuality,” and “freedom.”
Read the entire piece here.

The Dark Side of Free Markets

Over at The Conversation, Yale University economist Robert Shiller and Georgetown University economist George Akerlof argue that free market capitalism preys on human weakness and exploits it for economic gain.  


According to Shiller and Akerloff, the authors of a new book titled Phishing for Phools: The Economics of Manipulation and Deceptionthe free market forces us into bad decisions in four area of our lives: consumer spending, investment, health, and politics.

Here is a taste of their article:

Just as free markets can serve the public good “by an invisible hand” (as Adam Smith saw more than two centuries ago, and is the foundation of the field of economics), free markets will do something else. As long as there is a profit to be made, they will also deceive us, manipulate us and prey on our weaknesses, tempting us into purchases that are bad for us. That is also a fundamental feature of market equilibrium, in which supply and demand balance each other out.

My fellow economists, while they recognize such behavior in individual instances, fail to see this as a general principle. And thus a lot of bad things happen, such as the candy at the checkout counter. Most notably, we economists should have been a chorus warning of the financial crash of 2008. We should have recognized that people should not be buying overrated mortgage-based securities, nor should banks have been creating the insecure loans that backed them. Instead there were at most a few lone voices of protest. We should have been more skeptical.

But this is not just about economists and what we think, because through long chains of reportage and other channels (such as this one), what we say in our faculty lounges affects politicians and the public opinion more generally.

This failure to understand that markets have this downside is then passed on into policy more narrowly defined. The public fails to understand that in the economic equilibrium, if there is a profit to be made, someone will take it up, as long as it is legal and as long as there is no public protest against it. Now that we are overpopulated with companies that will help repair your credit, we are asking ourselves questions, its’s too late for that one, we need to be vigilant for the next one.

Read the rest here.