The Saturated World: Aesthetic Meaning, Intimate Objects, Women's Lives, 1890-1940. By Beverly Gordon. (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2006. Pp. xii + 274, acknowledgments, introduction, photographs, illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. $38.00 cloth)
Beverly Gordon's new book is about "the way American women in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries enriched and added meaning to their lives through their 'domestic amusements'-leisure pursuits that took place in and were largely focused on the home" ( 1 ). For anyone familiar with Gordon's writings, it is no surprise that she has provided this clear and concise overview in the book's first sentence, or that the rest of the book maintains this clarity and focus, supported by impeccable scholarship and elegant prose.
Folklorists may well ask if a book that describes the practices of making paper-doll houses, planning elaborate parties, and dressing up and making costumes is useful for our field. My response would be that it depends on how we define our work. If we assume that the white, middle-class (broadly defined) women who participated in these activities do not constitute the kind of "group" that interests us; if we exclude these pursuits because they were promoted through books and magazines, incorporated commercially available materials (such as crepe paper), and functioned as "popular" culture of a past era; or if we look at the ephemeral nature of the resulting "products," then we might conclude that there's nothing here of interest. However, Gordon uses popular genres to illustrate a larger concept, which she calls "saturation." Expanding the word's meaning from its application to color intensity, she describes saturation as "a kind of heightened experience (state, reality) that was aesthetically and sensually charged and full" (1). This concept, it seems to me, is central for any scholar who seeks to understand why people create, embellish, or perform. For Gordon, the interrelated characteristics of the saturated world include the stimulation of multiple senses, various aspects of embodiment, childlike playfulness and expressiveness, a connectedness with other people, an intimacy with objects, and the value of process over product (3). Folklorists have explored similar qualities in the work of folk artists, particularly outsider artists who, by definition, explore idiosyncratic directions, but Gordon encourages us to look at the largely communal activities of ordinary women. "These women created self-contained, enchanted 'worlds' that helped feed or sustain them, usually by elaborating on their everyday tasks and responsibilities, 'making them special' and transforming them into something playful and socially and emotionally satisfying" (1).
A chapter called "Collecting" offers a demonstration of gender differences in the motivations of men and women. Beginning with a brief but cogent overview of the explosive growth of collecting as a hobby at the turn of the twentieth century, Gordon surveys popular literature and biography along with surviving collections. Male collectors, both children and adults, tended to be more concerned with classification, the acquisition of complete sets, and the perceived value of collections. …