Material Culture in America: Understanding Everyday Life

Material Culture in America: Understanding Everyday Life

Material Culture in America: Understanding Everyday Life

Material Culture in America: Understanding Everyday Life

Synopsis

You can tell a lot about people by looking at their stuff -- the things they make, possess, think, and value. That is the idea that drives the field of material culture, in which scholars explore the meaning of objects of a given society. And nowhere are those meanings more revealing than in the material culture of the United States. Reaching back 400 years, Material Life in America: An Encyclopedia is the first reference showing what the study of material culture reveals about American society -- revelations not accessible through traditional sources and methods.

Excerpt

As you drove, rode, or walked—or even bicycled—to the library in which you may be reading this introduction, you moved through a built environment planned and created by others to accommodate specific activities. Your trip to the library was constrained by street placement, traffic laws, and traffic lights. Once on the sidewalk, you may have had to navigate decorative sidewalk planters, benches, fountains, and steps. Once inside the library, you may have passed through a turnstile or metal detector and stored your backpack. All along the way, from your home to the library, you were moving within an environment that not only reflects what was deemed practical and sensible but also mirrors larger social, cultural, economic, and historical patterns: How theories of urban planning altered the way individuals interacted within cities. How the adaptation of electricity lengthened the day and made cities attractive. How the manufacture of materials such as concrete, glass, rubber, and plastic and their uses ease aspects of our lives but create problems of waste. How books work.

The fact is, at every moment of every day, you are surrounded by, interact with, and are defined by objects made or altered by humans. Whenever you touch things, you connect with other humans, past and present. Your grandmother’s quilt warms you in the winter and reminds you of her tenderness. Do you recall how she made the quilt? the pattern she created? Did she fashion the quilt of scraps from her other sewing projects, or did she purchase the material as well as the pattern? Did she sew the coverlet by hand or with a machine? the bicycle you learned to ride when you were a child brings to mind memories of scraped knees and the thrill of speed. Perhaps your parents gave you the bike as a much-desired birthday present. You may not have considered, however, how the bike was designed and manufactured by persons unknown to you. You may not have understood how it came to be sold to your parents by retailers at a specialty bicycle store or a discount “big box” store.

Material culture encompasses those things that have physical form and presence, whether an object you can hold in your hand; an environment in which you live, work, worship, or play; or an image of the landscape you captured with your digital camera as you traversed a pond or a mountain range. Material culture is, then, culture made material—that is, it is the physical manifestations of human endeavor, of minds at work (and play), of social, economic, and political processes affecting all of us. the scholarly analysis of human made or altered . . .

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