Material Culture
and the Study
of American Life


Ian M. Quimby

The Henry Francis du Pont Winterthur Museum


W W Norton & Company Inc


The Artifact in American Culture: The Development of an Undergraduate Program in American Studies


Among those concerned with the future of American Studies and its potential contribution to an understanding of American culture, there is a consensus that American culture is the true subject matter of the field. It is also agreed that the methods for interpreting American culture should be interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary in nature. This consensus has promoted the establishment of disciplinary integrity and departmental autonomy for American Studies in academia, but unless subject matter and methodology are better defined, and American Studies provided with a coherent center, students in the field might as well carry on their work within the American divisions of such traditional disciplines as history, literature, political science, and sociology. This is the case in many institutions where American Studies is no more than the sum of the American parts of the traditional curriculum.

For American Studies to have a coherent center may not be of immediate concern to scholars at work in the field, but it is of very much concern in any attempt to introduce American Studies to undergraduates. In this context, it is important to describe the diversity of the field: methodological techniques ranging from those of the ''myth-image-symbol'' school in the humanities to the qualitative analysis of the social sciences; subject areas ranging from the high or elite culture as representative of the basic tendencies of American culture to mass or popular culture as the most accurate index of majority beliefs and attitudes; the cultures of ethnic and racial minorities and their interaction with the majority --all of these seen from an historical perspective.

The purpose of this paper is to suggest a model for American Studies based on the anthropological concept of culture emphasizing the interpretation of the accumulated material evidence, or artifacts, of the culture. 'The model is particularly useful in introducing undergraduates to the field. It has been implemented in the two-semester "Introduction to American Studies" at Hobart and William Smith Colleges. The concept of culture is central to the model; it can be described in terms of Edward B. Tylor's classic 1871 definition of culture: "Culture or Civilization, taken in its wide ethnographic sense, is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.''1 Tylor's definition is a holistic concept of culture and suggests the approach of consensus historians and students of the "essential" American character. The proposed model, on the other hand, recognizes not only macro-American culture of oflficial English language, common legal, economic, and political systems but also the complex cultural matrix interwoven with a variety of ethnic, regional, social, political, religious, and other subcultures. Claude Levi-Strauss's definition of the parameters of a single culture is useful here: "a fragment of humanity which, from the point of view of the research at hand and of the scale on which the latter is carried out, presents significant discontinuities in relation to the rest of humanity."2

Where the suggested model for American Studies differs from many other cultural models proposed for the field is in its emphasis on the interpretation of the accumulated man-made material evidence of the culture. The artifact, defined here as any man-made material (to mean not simply physical but phenomenal) evidence of a culture, becomes the primary source of information about the culture. The student of American Studies adopts an almost archaeological approach to interpreting the culture which these objects represent. This does not exclude a concern with contemporary American culture, but it is assumed in the model that the existing culture is continuously contributing to this world of man- made things. History begins with the created object or, as George Kubler phrased it so memorably, "the moment just past is extinguished forever, save for the things made during it."3 The world of produced objects alone survives to represent the evolution of the culture; which is not to say that it is itself culture but, simply and significantly, it is the sensuously perceptible form of culture.

Ward Goodenough, one of the spolkesmen for the "new ethnography," has written that "it is obviously impossible to describe a culture properly simply by describing behavior, or social, economic, and ceremonial events and arrangements as observed material phenomena. What is required is to construct a theory of the conceptual models which they represent and of which tlley are artifacts."4 The proposed culture-artifact model for American Studies does not conflict with the new ethnographers' notion of culture as the conceptual models with which individuals in a society perceive, organize, and interpret the phenolllena of their culture. It does, however, assume that individuals in a society "create themselves" or define themselves culturally through the objectification of those conceptual models in culturally prescribed phenomenal forms. Thus, the deep structure of the conceptual model is embodied in the artifact whatever surface form the artifact assumes.

The activity of objectification which results in this world of manmade things closely resembles G. W. F. Hegel's concept of alienation. For Hegel, it is an essential characteristic of the human mind to produce things, to express itself in objects, to objectify itself in physical things, social institutions, political systems, religion, philosophy, and cultural products. This world of created things mediates between the human organism and the natural environment, and, in its material manifestations, documents the culture of a society. Properly interpreted, or de-alienated, through knowledge, the world of objects reveals the organic relationship between the culture of a society and the material evidence created through it. Hegel writes in his Philosophy of Art:

[Art] fulfills its highest task when it has joined the same sphere with religion and philosophy and has become a certain mode of bringing to consciousness and expression the divine meaning of things, the deepest interests of mankind, and the the most universal truths of the spirit. Into works of art the nations have wrought their most profound ideas and aspira- tions. Fine Art often constitutes the key, and with many na- tions it is the only key, to an understanding of their wisdom and religion. This character art has in common with religion and philosophy. Art's peculiar feature, however, consists in its ability to represent in sensuous form even the highest ideas, bringing them thus nearer to the character of natural phenomena, to the senses, and to feeling. Divested of the rhetoric of German transcendental philosophy and interpreted in an anthropological context, Hegel's remarks become especially significant in relation to the proposed model. If the concept of works of art can be extended to include the universe of all man-made things (Kubler makes such a leap at the beginning of The Shape of Time),5 then as students of culture we have available to us the accumulated material evidence of the culture which in varying degrees, dependent upon the nature and complexity of the artifact, embodies both the deep structure of the new ethnographic model of culture and the manifestations of culture which constitute Tylor's ''complex whole."

American Studies can be seen, then, as a division of cultural anthropology. Its primary concern is the interpretation of the his- torical evolution of American culture as represented by the ma- terial evidence of that culture. One might well ask why such a task has not already been undertaken by cultural anthropologists. Traditionally, the field of anthropology in the United States has devoted its attention to exotic and primitive cultures. It was only in 1969 that the Council of the American Anthropological Association passed a resolution recognizing "the legitimacy and importance" of research and training concerned with "contemporary American society." The resolution suggests not only a sociological rather than a cultural orientation in the work it encourages but indicates a contemporary bias in anthropological research into American culture. A recent anthropological textbook, The Nacirema: Readings on American Culture (1975), presents a crosssection of current anthropological literature about American culture. Almost all of the forty-one articles included, except two which deal with the values and world view of Americans and two which describe future archaeological explorations of an extinct American culture, deal with contemporary American society and culture. These are valuable contributions to the understanding of contemporary American culture and, along with the work of historically minded anthropologists and historical archaeologists, will constitute a fertile literature for all students of American culture.6

The culture-artifact model for American Studies, the assumptions of which have just been described, is particularly useful in introducing undergraduates to the study of American culture, and the model has been implemented in the two-semester "Introduction to American Studies" at Hobart and William Smith Colleges. The first semester, "The Artifact in American Culture," operates as an "above-ground" archaeological expedition, to use John Cotter's appropriate term, with an expeditionary team composed of the coordinator of the American Studies program and faculty and guest speakers in the humanities and social sciences, each of whom interprets a particular artifact related to his or her field of study.7 (Part of the appeal of the culture-artifact model is the willingness of scholars of widely different points of view and methodological approaches to participate in an endeavor unified by such a concept. The faculty of the colleges is also uncommonly generous in its support of interdisciplinary programs. ) The artifacts range from a book to a building, a painting to a machine, a piece of music to furniture, contemporary advertising to archaeological sites. They represent a wide range of geographical origin, social setting, and historical period in American culture. In keeping with the nonlinear and empirical basis of the course, the artifacts are presented in no particular order, and this permits the emergence of themes and continuities characteristic of American culture. Further, it departs from traditional course formats in which a reading list of secondary works is supplemented by lectures and discussions. Concern with the object precedes any discussion of secondand third-level generalizations derived from that empirical reality.

This sampler of Americana has included such artifacts as the Sears Roebuck Catalogue of 1902; the original town plan of Salem, Massachusetts; Norman Vincent Peale's The Power of Positive Thinking; the Corliss engine; the Kanadesaga Seneca Indian site (an archaeological site on the outskirts of Geneva, New York); Scott Joplin's "Maple Leaf Rag"; early nineteenth-century samplers; television soap operas; Yiddish immigrant poetry of the Lower East Side of New York City, 1880-1910; St. John's Chapel (the Gothic Revival Hobart College Chapel designed by Richard Upjohn and completed in 1865); the Conestoga wagon; women's costumes of various periods; Double Indemnity (an American film noir of 1944); Conan Comics; a Federal period room at the Geneva Historical Society; presidential campaign speeches; a videotape of a professional football game (the mediapackaged sports event as artifact); and the Hobart and William Smith Colleges as an archaeological site. The list is infinitely expandable and variable according to the needs of the course and the expertise of the faculty. It should be added that, given the extent and complexity of the larger American culture, it seems reasonable to select unique and significant artifacts which are capable of providing the richest insights into American culture. An archaeologist uncovering the remains of American culture centuries hence and discovering only simple functional artifacts, such as highway signs and cooking utensils, would have to be content with those finds, but they would not go far in suggesting the diversity and complcxity of American culture. In primitive cultures with few artifacts, those few objects take on special significance and become symbolic carriers of social relationships and cultural values, but in a technologically advanced society it seems appropriate to concentrate on those objects whose potential yield of information seems greatest, and not necessarily those of greatest simplicity or function.

A brief look at the interpretation of artifacts studied in the course will provide a more specific context for the above-ground archaeological expedition. Students are introduced to the archaeological point of view through a discussion of one of several excavations in the Finger Lakes region. For example, George Hamell, an archaeologist with the Rochester Museum and Science Center, lectured on the museum's continuing work at the Kanadesaga site. Once the eastern capital of the Seneca Indians, Kanadesaga is rich in artifactual information about the culture of the Seneca and offers an appropriate model for a discussion of the aims and methods of archaeology. In a related exercise, the students are asked to interpret the physical environmetn of their campus as though it were an archaeological site. Their involvement in this interpretation effects the transition from field archaeology to above-ground archaeology.

A facsimile edition of the Sears Roebuck Catalogue of 1902 is a source book of commonplace artifacts of American consumer society in the early twentieth century. The catalogue is itself a primary artifact of mail-order merchandising, an indigenous American form of business, and its pages illustrate and describe a variety of artifacts including men's and women's clothing, furntiure, tools, farm manhinery, firearms, musical instruments, and home medicines. Intended for a rural clientele whose purchasing potential was limited by the small inventory and high prices of local merchants, Richard Sears's "wish book" documents the growth of a capitalistic consumer economy as well as the pervasive urbanization of American culture barely a dozen years after the traditional closing date of the frontier.

The interpretation of Scott Joplin's "Maple Leaf Rag" (composed in 1897 and published in 1899) extends the artifact concept to the realm of physical sound. At one level, Joplin's piano rags aSSUllle Illaterial fOrlll iII the sheet music that served as the principal medium of their enormous popularity. The cover art of this sheet IllUSiC often illustrates racist stereotypes of black life and is interestillg in its own right, but it is the music itself that is important. The rags embody a unique synthesis of Afro-American music, especially its syncopated rhythmic cllaracter, with such Anglo-American musical forms as the post-Civil War march. The rag is, therefore, a cultural hybrid that documents in sound the interaction of the black minority eulture with the Anglo-American majority eulture. Its popularity marks the reeognition by white Amerieans of a distinetive black contribution to the American arts. Conan Comics, published by the Marvel Comics Group, document what can be described as a new wave of comie-book art that far transcends the simple drawings and straightforward narratives of the traditional comie. Barry Smith, the illustrator of Conan Comics from 1970 through 1973, combines the careful rendering characteristic of the illustartor's craft with a wide range of cinematic techniques including closeup, longshot, tracking, zooms, and parallel cutting. Conan, the muscular and belligerent swordsman of these heroic fantasies, is the creation of Robert Ervin Howard, a writer for pulp magazines in the late 1920s and early 1930s. The character of Conan embodies a projection of Howard's personal lifestyle as a rugged outdoorsman living on a ranch in northern Texas and partakes not a little of the primitivism of Jack London and Edgar Rice Burroughs, two writers whom Howard greatly admired. The Conan adventures recount the hero's uncomplicated mastery over situations through brute force and appeal to an audience composed largely of adolescent males. The advertising and reader services that constitute the packaging of the comies also reflect the preoccupations of American male youth.

These and other artifacts studied in the course are intended to suggest the larger world of man-made material objects available to students in their study of American culture. The above-ground archaeological expedition format of "The Artifact in American Culture" eourse establishes an empirical basis for this study.

The second semester course, "Theories of Culture and Methodologies of American Studies," operates in a more traditional manner. The assumptions about the nature of culture in the first course are explored in greater depth through discussion of texts such as David Kaplan and Robert A. Manners, Cultural Theory; and Leslie White, The Science of Culture. This is followed by discussion of a selection of studies in American culture grouped around a central theme. One year, for example, the theme was the idea and the reality of the American land. The bibliography included Wilbur Zelinsky, The Cultural Geography of the United States; John Conron (ed.), The American Landscape: A Critical Anthology of Prose and Poetry; Richard Slotkin, Regeneration through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600- 1860; Leo Marx, The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America; Henry Nash Smith, Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth; John W. McCoubrey, American Tradition in Painting; David M. Potter, People of Plenty: Economic Abundance and the American Character; and Daniel J. Elazar, American Federalism: A View from the States.8

The movement of the two courses is from the empirical to the theoretical and its application; from the specific artifact to generalizations about the nature of American culture. This plan is similar to the format of Roland Barthes's Mythologies. The distinguished French critic and leading exponent of semiology explores in a series of short essays the mythic determinants of such contemporary mass cultural phenomena as soap detergents, toys, eating habits, the striptease, a wrestling match, and automobiles followed in tlle second half of the work by a theoretical discussion of myth as semiological system. Readers of Mythologies, even those who find Barthes's approach rather heavy-handed, are stimulated into a new appreciation of the cultural significance of the commonplace. With that awareness comes the recognition that McDonald's hamburger stands, highway designs, media-packaged professional football games, in fact, all the artifacts that constitute our cultural environment are resources for the understanding of American culture. In a modest way, the "Introduction to American Studies" sketched here attempts to bring about the same kind of cultural awareness, not only for the objects of the immediate present, but for the accumulated evidence of the past as well. And just as the artifact concept allows for wide-ranging exploration within American culture, so the concept of culture unifies that endeavor and provides a common center for the field of American Studies.

1 Edward B. Tylor, Primitive Culture: Researches into the Development of Mythology, Philosophy, Religion, Art, and Custom, 2 vols. (1871; reprint ed., Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith, 1958), 1, 1.

2 Claude Levi-Strauss, Structural Anthropology, trans. Claire Jacobson and Brooke Grundfest Schoepf (1953; reprint ed., New York: Basic Books, 1963), p. 295.

3 George Kubler, The Shape of Time: Remarks on the History of Things (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1962), p. 79.

4 Ward Goodenough, "Cultural Anthropology and Linguistics," in Dell H. Hymes (ed.), Language and Culture in Society: A Reader in Linguistics and Anthropology (New York: Harper, 1964), p. 36.

5 J. Lowenberg (ed. and trans.), Hegel: Selections (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1929 ), p. 314; Kubler, The Shape of Time, p. 1 .

6 Resolution of the Council of American Anthropological Association, as quoted in Jallles P. Spradley and Michael A. Rynkiewich, The Nacirema: Readings on American Culture (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1975), p 2.

7 John L. Cotter, "Above Ground Archaeology," American Quarterly, 26 3 (Aug., 1974), 266-280.

8 David Kaplan and Robert A. Manners, Cultural Theory (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1972); Leslie White, The Science of Culture: A Study of Man and Civilization (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1969); Wilbur Zelinsky, The Cultural Geography of the United States (Englewood Cliffs N.J.: Prentice lIall, 1973); John Conron (ed.), The American Landscape: A Critical Anthology of Prose and Poetry (New York: Oxford University Press 1973); Richard Slotkin, Regeneration through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600-1860: Wesleyan University Press, 1973); Leo Marx, The Machine in the Garden: Techonology and the Pastoral Ideal in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1964); Henry Nash Smith, Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth (New York: Vintage Books, 1957); John W. McCollhrey, American Tradition in Painting (New York: George Braziller, 1963); David M. Potter, People of Plenty: Economic Abundance and the American Character (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1954); Daniel J. Elazar, American Federalism: A View from the States, 2d ed. (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Co., 1972).

9 Roland Barthes, Mythologies, trans. Annette Lavers (New York: Hill & Wang, 1972).