"Some things in our lives are so pervasive, that we give them little thought. A ballpoint pen, for example, or a rubberband. The coffee filter gets little consideration too." It is a marvelous fact about human history that, in fact, most of what we leave behind for others to study us by are the things we don't think much about--the simplest, everyday items. It's no haphazard thing that much of pre-history is studied through those ubiquitous pottery shards archeologists seem always to be brandishing around (figuratively, and in their arguments; they would never actually brandish them around, old and historically valuable as they surely are). I find archeology to be exceedingly not interesting. However, I can appreciate--and I do--the value of tracing the lifestyles, customs, patterns, and culture through what little remains of earlier humankind, and give great credit to the patient practitioner who can see small and sweeping patterns in the study of layers of dirt, types of pottery, locations of the trash receptacles on the sites of previous civilizations.
Those are valuable patterns to see. It's like in high school when the teacher asks you to analyze this piece of a Shakespeare play for homework, and you go home and toil and come in the next day to find not only did you not get out of it what the teacher did, but all your classmates seem to be the same page as well (and not your same page). This is how I felt throughout the whole year of British lit, which meant so many Shakespearean plays to analyze, and this is how I felt when reading James Deetz and Henry Glassie, scholars of early material culture, in my own material culture class this year. The professor had us drawing conclusions, and there were patterns I simply did not see, while others in the class were far better at drawing them out of the readings.
(I am OK with being unable to do these types of analyses. I have always felt that I work hard, which makes up for a natural lack of inherent understanding of things, or a natural skill for learning. I don't hear something once and always remember it [in fact I rarely do remember it]. I am particularly bad at naturally knowing how words are pronounced. I can use them in writing, understand perfectly what they mean, and God help me, hope that I don't have to say them out loud. But, I digress.)
The thing about reading Deetz's book, In Small Things Forgotten: An Archeology of Early American Life, is that you come to realize that the strongest arguments for drawing historical conclusions, and for seeing patterns, lies in the very things we do not think matter in this life. Including, yes, the very things we deem the least important: the things we throw away. Early Americans are largely judged--centuries later--on those things they hoped would go away, the very things they chose not to keep. Writes Deetz:
The disposal of refuse is one of our most unconscious acts: while we might expect some hidden motive in the way a court clerk recorded the disposition of a case or a diarist described his neighbors, it is most unlikely that in removing food remains, broken dishes, and other debris from a household, people were making any conscious statement about themselves or others. Yet, in the changing nature of trash disposal since the seventeenth century, our ancestors have once again informed us of the way in which their view of the world was changing. (171-172)
He goes on to explain that from the seventeenth century until around 1750, refuse appears in irregular, shallow pits sprinkled in a circle around the basic structure that would have been the homestead itself. After 1750, in place of these shallow pits, would appear one deep pit. Two things can be concluded from this change; one, that this shift correlates with changing population increase and concentration--meaning trash all around would be more of a nuisance. And two, that "such precise and neat handling of one of life's less useful and valuable things suggests almost a compulsion to order." After all, the eighteenth was the era of order and reform in many areas of life.
These small areas of life, that we often overlook for their everyday ubiquity and non-importance, are taking center stage in a new exhibit, Hidden Heroes, at London's Science Museum. Paper clips, tea bags, and hangers are occupying the same important space within the museum as computers, rocket ships, and other giant vestiges of the industrial and technological eras we normally associate with science and innovation. But coffee filters and condoms play arguably equal roles in our lives as such giants.
This exhibit is so exciting, because those items are being featured exactly where they belong, among innovations that hav made our lives easier, given us vast improvements and allowed for the conveniences we live with each day. This would have been an incredible exhibit to help curate, and I wonder how each thing made the final list over other things. Each object appears alongside original sketches and drawings by their inventors, patent specifications, and original advertisements for the items. The full list of items in the exhibit is worth pondering. Think about how each of these things affects your life, some more than others:The full list of featured inventions ring binder, barcode, pencil, bubble wrap, paperclip, shipping container, snap fastener, rawl plug, egg box, preserving jar, rubber band, light bulb, reflector, adhesive tape, coat hanger, Velcro, tin can, corkscrew, tissue, ballpoint pen, Lego, ear plug, Post-it Note, sticking plaster, zip, umbrella, baby’s dummy, six-pack carrier, safety match, tea bag, milk carton, clothes peg, folding ruler, condom, carabiner
I love picturing each of these things, one at a time, and their places in my life. The little things have a far greater impact on the study of material culture, on the makeup of civilizations, than the big-ticket items we covet, keep, and cherish.
The full story--audio and transcript--including some background of the items chosen, is on NPR/PRI's The World site. Also check out a video and more information on the Hidden Heroes exhibit from the London Science Museum.