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Racing Along the Color Line

A July 31, 1926 advertisement in the Indianapolis Recorder for the third running of the Gold and Glory Sweepstakes.

A July 31, 1926 advertisement in the Indianapolis Recorder for the third running of the Gold and Glory Sweepstakes.

This month the massive crowds at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway appear to confirm its confident claim to being the “motor racing capital of the world.”  Racing began on the oval in 1909 and the 500-mile race first ran two years later, with the 99th running of the 500-mile race approaching on Memorial Day weekend.  The speedway is a National Historic Landmark, and its fascinating social history reaches well beyond the obsessive statistics and biographical minutia that motorheads have compulsively detailed for a century.  The IMS dominates American racing mythology and is as much a pilgrimage destination as a race track.  Like so many shrines it invokes a host of American traditions that are perhaps more firmly rooted in our imagination and hagiography than especially concrete history.

The imagination of the speedway’s history has recently begun to contemplate historical racial inequalities in sports.  This year the 500 Festival parade before the race will be marshalled by the 1955 state high school basketball champions from Indianapolis’ segregated Crispus Attucks High School.  The Attucks champions’ place in the pre-race parade celebrates Indiana’s two most adored sports, basketball and racing, but of course the implications of sport and the color line extend beyond the hardwood and the speedway.  No 20th-century Indiana institution escaped anti-Black racism, and the speedway and the Indianapolis 500 was long a segregated space and has included very few people of color on the track or in the pits.  The prominence of the Attucks players makes a modest but potentially important concession of racism in sports, though the concrete social effects of such discussions remain to be evaluated.

In 1911 Henry Ford (left) posed with IMS founders Newby, Wheeler, Fisher, and Allison (image Indianapolis Motor Speedway collection, IUPUI University Archives).

In 1911 Henry Ford (left) posed with IMS founders (from left) Arthur Newby, Frank Wheeler, Carl Fisher, and James Allison (image Indianapolis Motor Speedway collection, IUPUI).

Speedway, the city where the IMS is located, was established in 1912 by Carl Fisher, James Allison, Arthur Newby, and Frank Wheeler, who had founded the track a few years earlier.  Their new city supporting the track and local auto factories expressly forbade African-American residents.  Fisher placed similar racial covenants on his development in Miami Beach, which he transformed from sparse oceanfront into one of the most prominent early 20th-century resorts.  Fisher incorporated Miami Beach in 1915, barring Blacks from the beach and requiring all property owners to be WASPs.

Indiana proved to be especially receptive to such xenophobic sentiments, and much of the state’s historical narrative fixates on the Klan’s 1920’s influence; however, that attention to the hooded order often evades the persistence of Hoosier ethnocentrism long after the Klan’s political collapse, and it typically ignores how unspoken segregation shaped places like the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.  In 1910, for instance, African-American boxer and motor racing fan Jack Johnson hoped to stage an exhibition race at the speedway, but in August, 1910 Louis Chevrolet zealously defended the speedway’s segregation. Chevrolet, who drove in the 500 four times and eventually founded the Chevrolet Motor Car Company, argued that “there are no negro automobile-race drivers at the present time, and if I understand correctly there is a ban against it.  I am not willing to allow my name to be used in the same programme as that of Jack Johnson, and if the Indianapolis Motor Speedway management cannot confine itself to automobile racing without bringing a negro barn-storming pugilist, I believe it is time for the white drivers to quit the game on that track.”  Undeterred, Johnson raced Barney Oldfield in October at the Sheepshead Bay Track in New York (with Oldfield winning).  The American Automobile Association registered its disapproval of the exhibition and suspended Oldfield for a series of such unsanctioned races (he was eventually reinstated and raced in the 1914 and 1916 versions of the Indianapolis 500).

A June 1928 advertisement for the fifth running of the 100-Mile Championship.

A June 1928 advertisement for the fifth running of the 100-Mile Championship.

Segregation ironically provided entrepreneurial possibilities for business people who recognized the potential profits of Black racing fans.  In 1924 William Rucker formed an organization initially known as the Colored Speedway Association, and in his role as President Rucker came to be known simply as “Pres.”  Indiana Avenue entrepreneur Harry Dunnington and lawyer Robert Brokenburr joined the cause, and for financing support Rucker turned to two White partners, Oscar Shilling and Harry Earl.  Rucker moved to Indianapolis from Nashville in about 1920, and when he arrived in Indianapolis he worked in railroad shops where he met Shilling, who was a mechanical engineer.  Earl was a machine shop foreman who eventually promoted races at Walnut Gardens Speedway, a one-mile dirt oval in Camby, which was in operation by the mid-1920s.

Segregated Black leisure flourished in the 1920s.  Negro baseball leagues, for instance, were as old as the game itself, but they experienced significant growth at the same moment as segregated racing.  The Negro National League was established in 1920 and counted the Indianapolis ABC’s amongst its eight initial teams. The league’s first game was played at Washington Park between the ABC’s and the Chicago American Giants in May, 1920.  In the 1924 Colored Speedway Association race, the American Giants’ manager Rube Foster fielded a car driven by the American Giants’ mechanic William Walthall.

The Colored Speedway Association’s first race in August, 1924 was won by Malcolm Hannon of Indianapolis, with only three cars surviving to the end.  Jack Johnson presented a trophy to Hannon.  The 100-mile race began to be referred to as the “Gold and Glory” race after the Chicago Defender’s Frank Young wrote in 1924 that “this auto race will be recognized throughout the length and breadth of the land as the single greatest sports event to be staged annually by colored people.  Soon, chocolate jockeys will mount their gas-snorting, rubber-shod Speedway monsters as they race at death defying speeds.  The largest purses will be posted here, and the greatest array of driving talent will be in attendance in hopes of winning gold for themselves and glory for their Race.”

Recorder Ad 06081929

In 1929 the race was run for its sixth consecutive year, with Barney Anderson of Detroit winning the race.

The Indianapolis 500 staked a claim to patriotism by holding its race on Memorial Day weekend.  The first 1924 race sponsored by the Colored Speedway Association came on Emancipation Day weekend, but beginning in 1927 the 100-Mile Sweepstakes invoked its own nationalist ideology by holding its race on July 4th.  In 1930 The Indianapolis Recorder paralleled  the Indy 500 and the 100-Mile Sweepstakes when it observed that “At this season of the year the magnetic odor of burning castor oil and scorching rubber attracts many thousands and more to Indianapolis, the `Crossroads of America,’ to witness two annual auto classics, the Memorial day race and the Independence Day race on July 4th, the one in which we are particularly interested, because it is our own, staged by our own officials, drove by our own drivers, and a game lot they are, taking daredevil chances to win fame and money.”

In 1925, 1926, and 1927, Indianapolis drivers won the race.  Lee Robert “Bobby” Wallace took the 1925 running of the race; Charlie Wiggins won a year later (he also claimed the crown in 1931, 1932, and 1933); and Bill James won in 1927.  All of these drivers appeared in races throughout the Midwest into the mid-1930’s.  Chicago driver and bail bondsman “Wild Bill” Jeffries claimed the 1928 victory.  Police officers arrived before the race and threatened to seize Jeffries’ car if he did not pay $300 they claimed he owed to the Chevrolet brothers for their Frontenac, and Jeffries provided a diamond ring that was returned after winning the purse.  Detroit’s Barney Anderson claimed the 1929 race, a race in which local driver Edward Grice became the only driver to ever die in the Gold and Glory sweepstakes. The race was held 11 times, with its last race coming in 1936.

Recorder Wiggins 07191930

A July, 1930 image of Wiggins at the Walnut Garden track near Mooresville.

Three-time winner Charlie Wiggins was perhaps the most famous African-American driver, and Todd Gould’s 2002 For Gold and Glory: Charlie Wiggins and the African-American Racing Car Circuit provides a thorough study of Wiggins and inter-war African-American racing.  Born in Evansville, Indiana in July, 1897, Charlie Wiggins was living in Earlington, Kentucky (immediately south of Evansville and the Indiana state line) in 1900 with his father, coal miner Sport Wiggins, mother Jennie Baker Wiggins, and brother Lawrence, who would become a successful driver in his own right.  A decade later the census-keeper found Sport, Charley, and Lawrence in Evansville with two new brothers, but Jennie died in 1906.

When Charlie Wiggins registered for the draft on August 24, 1918, he was living in Evansville and recorded his employer as “Benninghoff and Nolan,” a garage run by Henry Benninghoff and Eugene Nolan.  Wiggins first appeared in Indianapolis’ city directory in 1921, when he and wife Roberta were living at 617 North West Street, and he appeared in the directory as a mechanic.  The Wiggins moved a year later to 1012 North West, and by then he was working in a garage on West Merrill Street (near the present location of Lucas Oil Stadium), which he purchased from owner Louis Sagalowsky in 1924.

A 1937 aerial view of the dirt track that sat just east of Allisonville Road (left side of this image).

A 1937 aerial view of the dirt track that sat just east of Allisonville Road (left side of this image).

African-American racing flourished in the segregated Midwest into the Depression.  For instance, a Chicago Colored Speedway Association was founded by Bill Jeffries not long after William Rucker’s Indianapolis Colored Speedway Association.  In late 1927 Rucker’s Colored Speedway Association became known as the Indianapolis Colored Automobile Racing Association (and Rucker retired in 1929).  While the July 4th race was held at the Indiana State Fairgrounds most years, races also were run at Harry Earl’s Walnut Garden Speedway in Camby (the 1931 and 1933 Gold and Glory races were held there), and a converted dog-racing track at 4900 Allisonville Road held at least one race in August, 1935.

A July, 1935 ad for the 100-mile race.

A July, 1935 ad for the 100-mile race.

An Ohio promotion team sponsored the 1935 race at the Fairgrounds, and they staged an airshow to precede the race.  Roughly 3000 people attended at .50 cents each, but as the race was about to begin it became clear that the promoters had left with the gate proceeds and the purse.  The Recorder said nearly nothing about the scam, noting only that the races were cancelled because of rain and “last minute details.”

A 1930 ad for races at Walnut Gardens, a track in Camby southwest of Indianapolis.

A 1930 ad for races at Walnut Gardens, a track in Camby southwest of Indianapolis.

In 1936 supporters hoped that the September running of the Gold and Glory race would restore the event’s prestige, and in a planning meeting Freeman Ransom told the executive committee that “Colored drivers could and should be allowed opportunity to display their skill and courage … A broad aim envisions colored drivers in the 500-mile classic.”  An elite field was recruited, and prior to the race Indiana Democrats staged a political rally followed by a rain delay.   Because a curfew was approaching, the dirt track was not watered and oiled down after the rain.  The resulting dusty conditions left drivers with nearly no vision of the track, and a massive crash on the second lap left “cars melted into a mountain of rending, distorted metal and buried men.”  Charlie Wiggins received the worst injuries in the crash, and his right leg was amputated following the 13-car accident.  The injury was the end of Wiggins’ racing career, though he continued working for another four decades before his death in 1979.  Bobby Wallace received a serious injury in the same mass accident, and after surgery for a skull fracture his career ended as well (he died three years later).  The loss of the stars and financial pressures of managing the league had finally caught up to its backers, and the Gold and Glory race ended soon after with the bankruptcy of the Colored Speedway Association.

In October, 1947 White sports writer W. Blaine Patton approached Speedway officials “to find out if Negro race drivers were outlawed by the American Automobile Association.”  The Indianapolis Recorder repeated Patton’s lament that “the greatest automobile race in the world is the annual 500 mile international gasoline classic derby held on May 30 each year at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. . . . A Negro has never shared in this legacy of gold.” Officials acknowledged to Patton that there was “no rule against the race” participating in AAA sanctioned races, which Patton recognized may have exposed a “`gentleman’s (?) agreement’” against the participation of Black drivers (as opposed to a formal code).  The AAA’s contest board President suggested as much when he acknowledged that “there has never before been anytime that the A.A.A. has ever barred any contestant by reason of race, creed or any other cause.”

A week later the Indianapolis Recorder reported that Wiggins and Sumner “Red” Oliver (who finished second in the final running of the Gold and Glory race) intended to attempt to qualify a car for the Indianapolis 500.  The two men attempted to enter a car at the Dayton Speedway but were rebuffed “because they were not registered with the AAA.  The officials said, however, that the men could register and participate in 3-A dirt track races next summer.”  African-American driver and mechanic Mel Leighton did secure a license in 1948, but he never raced at Indianapolis.

Recorder Wiggins 08171935Few Black drivers or teams would ever follow the Gold and Glory drivers.  In 1968 The Indianapolis Recorder’s Andrew Ramsey concluded that the Indianapolis 500 “has been safely white from its beginning in 1911.”  He argued that “All Negroes hereabout and most of the white citizens are quite aware of the fact that the Indy 500 Mile Auto Race, the greatest spectacle in automotive racing is along with the Kentucky Derby, one of the last bastions of lily-white sportsmanship.”  Ramsey singled out the Indianapolis 500 Festival Parade as one of the most prominent mechanisms the Speedway and city used to present the “racial identification” of the 500 and the city itself.  Ramsey pointed to the universally White “500 Festival Princesses” (compare this year’s edition) and dryly concluded that “somewhere in Indianapolis there might be a Negro who was surprised not to see a Negro girl pictured among those vieing [sic] for the honor of being elected as the 1968 `500’ Festival Queen, but it is doubtful.”  Ramsey’s attack on the race was not simply a rejection of the track as a White space; rather, Ramsey concluded that it “is of very little use to protest the lily-white character of the `500’ Festival committee and leave alone the giant automobile complex which is basically racist.  The festival is perhaps denying Negroes the privilege of being prominently shown while the industry itself is denying him the right to work.”

Ramsey sarcastically noted that “of course with the Indianapolis 500 Festival there are some Negroes in the parade because it is difficult to sweep all the city’s Negroes under the rug before the visitors come trouping into the city, but Negroes have very little to do with the operation of anything connected with the operation of any 500 activity.”  He suggested that many visitors “are surprised to learn that there are Negroes living in Indianapolis, since none has ever been pictured in connection with the super spectacle.”

Nearly a half-century after Ramsey’s lament, the 1955 Crispus Attucks basketball team prepares to lead the same parade Ramsey once attacked.  There is of course some genuine reconciliatory potential to acknowledging the Attucks team’s victory in the face of stiff anti-Black resistance and recognizing the importance of sport in our collective racist heritage.  The challenge is to see how sport’s intersection with the color line reaches well beyond basketball courts and race tracks and eventually requires something more substantial than good feelings alone.

 

Sources

Todd Gould

2002 For Gold and Glory: Charlie Wiggins and the African-American Racing Car Circuit.  Indiana University Press, Bloomington.

 

Rick Knott

2005 The Jack Johnson V. Barney Oldfield Match Race of 1910; What It Says about Race in America.  Afro-Americans in New York Life and History 29(1):39.  (subscription access)

 

Charles Leerhsen

2011 Blood and Smoke: A True Tale of Mystery, Mayhem and the Birth of the Indy 500.  Simon and Schuster, New York.

 

Leonard J. Moore

1991 Citizen Klansmen: The Ku Klux Klan in Indiana, 1921-1928.  University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill.

 

Richard B. Pierce

2005 Polite Protest: The Political Economy of Race in Indianapolis, 1920-1970.  Indiana University Press, Bloomington.

 

Jean Williams

2012 The Indianapolis 500: Making the Pilgrimage to the “Yard of Bricks.”  In Sport, History, and Heritage: Studies in Public Representation, eds. Jeffrey Hill, Kevin Moore, and Jason Wood, pp.247-262.  Boydell Press, Woodbridge, Suffolk.

 

Image

1911 Henry Ford and founders image from Indianapolis Motor Speedway Collection

Commemoration and African-American Place: Remembering Basketball and the Dust Bowl

The page from Oscar Robertson's scrapbook detailing the 1955 State Title (click for larger image; image from IUPUI University Library).

The page from Oscar Robertson’s scrapbook detailing the 1955 State Title (click for larger image; image from IUPUI University Library).

In 1955 Crispus Attucks High School won the Indiana high school basketball crown in one of the state’s most fabled sporting moments.  In basketball-mad Indiana there are many reasons to celebrate the 1955 Tigers’ victory: fronted by hardwood legend Oscar Robertson, the Tigers are venerated for their march through the ranks of Indiana high school basketball teams in 1955 and their domination of the state’s best teams throughout the 1950’s (Attucks also took crowns in 1956 and 1959 and had a near-miss in 1951).

Garage-mounted basketball hoops, stanchions rolled out onto suburban dead-ends, and scattered courts remain one of the most commonplace features of the Indianapolis landscape, where the game is a staple of everyday life.  An astounding range of people have embraced the Attucks basketball championship, which is often spun as racism’s conquest at the hands of civility and fairness—qualities that are often somewhat idealistically projected onto basketball.  Sport looms in this narrative as one of the rare activities White and Black Hoosiers shared in the 1950’s, forging some measure of understanding if not equality beyond the hardwood.  This picture of Cold War segregated basketball risks over-stating the transformations worked by basketball or mistaking good intentions for structural changes.  Nevertheless, basketball and sport did indeed provide promising glimpses into the possibilities of a life outside anti-Black racism (Richard Pierce’s 2000 study of the 1951 Attucks championship provides a compelling analysis of the intersection of the post-war color line and basketball). Read the rest of this entry

Mapping the Black Road: Segregated Driving and the Indianapolis Roadside

The 1956 Negro Motorist Green Book (image South Carolina University Library).

The 1956 Negro Travelers’ Green Book (image University of South Carolina Digital Collections Library).

In a 1936 study of life in segregated rural Georgia, Arthur Franklin Raper captured the anxiety posed by the African-American car and the political implications of African-American travel.  Raper saw the roads as spaces in which White privilege was being undermined if not contested, noting that “only on automobiles on public roads do landlords and tenants and white people and Negroes of the Black Belt meet on the basis of equality. … [T]he tenant can go where he pleases on the public road, and after he gets twenty or thirty minutes from home he travels incognito and is subject to his own wishes.”

The story of segregation is often told in spaces that hosted civil rights confrontations: lunch counters, bus stations, and school steps are concrete spots where the denial of privilege was contested.  Nevertheless, all public space was regulated, and Black movement inspired particularly neurotic fears.  One White farmer interviewed by Arthur Raper “advocated that the cars be taken from the Negroes or that the county maintain two systems of roads, one for the whites and one for the Negroes!”  Movement evoked freedom, independence, and agency outside White surveillance, so it inspired anxiety over more than a century:  an uneasiness that African Americans were operating outside White control was shared by antebellum ideologues viewing the Underground Railroad, Northern cities witnessing the Great Migration, and Georgia farmers watching African-American cars on the public roadway. Read the rest of this entry

Vacationing and the African-American Dream

Recorder June 19 1926 Fox Lake ad

Fox Lake's "Big Opening" was heralded in the Indianapolis Recorder on June 19th, 1926.

Fox Lake’s “Big Opening” was heralded in the Indianapolis Recorder on June 19th, 1926 (click for larger image).

In June, 1926 the Indianapolis Recorder heralded the opening of Fox Lake, “the long looked for Indiana lake resort for colored people.”  Two weeks later the paper ran a spectacular advertisement for a Fourth of July event at Idlewild of Indiana, a segregated vacation getaway south of Indianapolis “promoted by the `race’ for the `race.’”  In many ways nothing especially dramatic distinguishes such African-American vacation spots from the legion of forest cabins, beaches, and leisure destinations that dotted America.  The 20th-century rural Midwest was carpeted by African-American vacation spots that mirrored segregated leisure spaces that began to emerge throughout the country around the turn of the century.  Yet in the midst of segregation places like Fox Lake incubated an African American Dream that was perhaps distinguished by a simultaneous embrace of “middle class” values and a rejection of their presumed White exclusivity.  Places like Fox Lake certainly provided refuge from racism, but they also incubated class respectability, fed economic and social ambitions, and fanned genuine politicization.

A text-heavy pitch for Idlewild of Michigan that appeared in the Indianapolis Recorder March 18, 1916.

A text-heavy pitch for Idlewild of Michigan that appeared in the Indianapolis Recorder March 18, 1916.

Widespread middle-class ambitions did not grant mass access to inter-war African-American resorts.  Idlewild of Michigan (which had no relationship to the Idlewild of Indiana resort) was the most prominent African-American resort in the Midwest, and when the Indianapolis Recorder first referred to it in March, 1916 the African-American newspaper celebrated that “beautiful Idlewild is to be an exclusive, high-class colored summer resort.”  Idlewild ads emphasized that the resort “has been thoroughly investigated by a number of prominent business people and professional people of the race.”  A 1919 promotional pamphlet for Idlewild expressly targeted “the thinking, progressive, active class of people, who are leading spirits of their communities.”

The Black elite enlisted to boost their cause included Madam C.J. Walker, who owned property at Idlewild.  Once control of Idlewild was turned over to African Americans in 1921, W.E.B. Du Bois waxed poetic about the retreat in The Crisis: “For sheer physical beauty … it is the beautifulest stretch I have seen for twenty years; and to that add fellowship—sweet, strong women and keen-witted men from Canada and Texas, California and New York, Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois—all sons and great-grandchildren of Ethiopia, all with the wide leisure of rest and play—can you imagine a more marvelous thing than Idlewild?” Read the rest of this entry

Littering Everest: Nature, Toilets, and Waste on Mt. Everest

One of the most recent volleys in a long-running moral critique of consumption, pollution, and imperialism comes from Mt. Everest, where uneasy scholars and activists have long decried the detritus left on the world’s tallest peak.  In 1963 National Geographic photographer Barry Bishop was part of the first American team to scale Everest, and he described the mountain as “the world’s highest junk yard.”  Indeed, climbers ascending the mountain have discarded oxygen tanks, tattered tents, food containers, and a helicopter, and dead climbers have been left on the peak since George Mallory and Andrew Irvine died in an ascent attempt in 1924Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay scaled the mountain for the first time in 1953, and Hillary later said “I must admit, when we went to Everest in 1953, we heaved our rubbish around with the best of them. That was nearly forty years ago and in those days hardly anyone had even heard of conservation.”  When the New York Times examined the massive growth of tourism to Nepal in 1978, Hillary lamented that the Everest region “is now an ecological slum.  Tins and trash clutter up the paths and campsites. … The traditional culture is being crushed by the insidious economic machine.”

Last week the head of Nepal’s mountaineering association spearheaded the charge to address the most repulsive of this trash when he took aim on “large amounts of feces and urine” left on the world’s tallest mountain.   The Washington Post amplified the rhetoric over human waste on the peak when it repeated Grayson Schaffer’s 2013 description of Everest as a “fecal time bomb,” quite possibly the most colorful description ever provided for a potential ecological disaster.  By various counts, over 5000 climbers have relieved themselves on Everest and left “pyramids of human excrement.”  In 2012 a Washington Post column by Schaffer had sounded the same jarring image of the Everest base camp outhouses “continuously overflowing with waste.”  Last year Outside’s Lauren Steele reported on climbers’ longstanding practice of defecating into glacier crevasses, and with mountain warming “the glacier—and the waste entombed within it—is slowly making its way back toward Base Camp,” where climbers drink the melt water. Read the rest of this entry

The Ruins of Racism

Eminems' childhood home graced the cover of his Marshall Mathers 1 and 2 albums.

Eminem’s childhood home graced the cover of his Marshall Mathers 1 album (2000), and it stood empty in 2013 on the cover of the Marshall Mathers 2 album (shown here).

Detroit’s 8 Mile Road is perhaps today best known as the thoroughfare bordering the neighborhood where Marshall Mathers grew up.  Eminem’s 2002 film 8 Mile told his story of life adjoining the roadway that has often loomed as the line separating White and Black Detroit.  The neighborhood’s residents and decline have routinely been reduced to shallow clichés, like USA Today’s 2002 conclusion that “8 Mile Road remains what it was three decades ago: a catch basin for the city’s human flotsam”; in 2006 The Guardian called 8 Mile Road “America’s most notorious highway, the road that divides black from white.”  Such rhetoric provides little insight into Detroit, but it does underscore the emotion if not irrationality that shapes how we imagine landscapes along and across color lines.  Many of these landscapes today are in ruins or are prosaic declining spaces like stretches of 8 Mile Road, so they are easy to ignore or reduce to shallow analyses.  Nevertheless, viewed simply as dehistoricized ruins these places risk being divorced from a legion of racist inequalities that have shaped the contemporary American city. Read the rest of this entry

Intimate Spaces: The Archaeology of Pockets

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The contents of Abraham Lincoln’s pockets when he was assassinated at Ford’s Theatre in April, 1865 (Library of Congress).

On April 14, 1865 Abraham Lincoln went to the theatre for the evening, a night that would end in his murder and death the following morning.  Lincoln’s pockets contained a handful of prosaic and idiosyncratic things:  two pairs of eye glasses, a lens polisher, a pocket knife, a watch fob, a handkerchief, and a brown leather wallet containing a Confederate banknote and nine newspaper clippings.   The things in Lincoln’s pockets were perhaps a chance assemblage, like the $62.00 and a plane ticket in Kurt Cobain’s pocket when he died in April, 1994.  Those scatters of things in Lincoln and Cobain’s pockets occupied perhaps the most intimate of all clothing spaces that we generally reserve for our most essential and meaningful things.  We tend to see pockets as harboring a special class of prosaic yet consequential things even as the pockets themselves claim a distinctively intimate but unexamined status.

Few spaces could be more familiar yet more unremarked upon than pockets.  Clothing pockets are a presence of sorts, but like edges of an excavation unit their material definition may be made by their tangible boundaries and the things in them rather than the vacuum that is perhaps the actual pocket.  Pockets are distinctively intimate since they are stitched into our public garments yet conceal our bodies, and they hold a narrow range of small things like coins, keys, wallets, phones, makeup, lighters, and similar objects that for various reasons are held close to our bodies and accessible to our hands.  There are some idiosyncratic but illuminating insights into privacy, place, and self that can be made based on an “excavation” of pockets and the cargo that finds refuge in them. Read the rest of this entry

Cats as Domestic Spectacle: Outfitting the Modern Cat

The Cat Tower provides a chance for your cats to climb, jump, and perhaps even spin (from Catwheel).

The Cat Tower provides a chance for your cats to climb, jump, and perhaps even spin (from Catwheel).

While most of our cats are curled up on the couch, at least a handful of them appear to be lounging in stylish, creative, and even well-designed furnishings that would put many couches to shame.  This new wave of cat furnishings goes beyond the commonplace cat tower or scratch pad covered in non-descript carpet fragments that bored your cat within an hour.  Even the most indifferent cat would be curious about a host of astounding feline furnishings with massive turning wheels, sky towers, cat beds, toilet towers, neo-futurist scratching pads, cat tunnel sofas, and wonderful pieces of cat-climbing sculpture.  For those of us concerned about design, LazyBonezz’ Metropolitan pet bunk bed (in ebony or fire red) is typical of the new goods that will accommodate your pampered cat (or trim dog) in a sleek wood and stainless steel bunk bed accessed by skid-resistant steps and outfitted with microfiber cushions.  A precious few cats are even more fortunate to have the run of houses designed to turn people spaces into three-dimensional volumes accessible to cats via ceiling-suspended walkways and climbing walls.

Wohnblock's cat tower aspires to double as a piece of domestic sculpture (image from Wohnblock).

Wohnblock’s cat tower aspires to double as a piece of domestic sculpture (image from Wohnblock).

It would be easy to dismiss cat design and high-style cat products simply as misplaced affluence, but focusing purely on pet spending ignores the ways our pets profoundly shape our own household materiality.  The fascinating Hauspanther web page inventories many of these high-style cat consumer goods, arguing that “good design can enhance the way we live with cats, improving our lives and the lives of our beloved feline companions.  By paying attention to the design of objects and environments, we can create living spaces that accommodate the natural instincts of cats – keeping them happy, healthy and well behaved – without compromising our own sense of style and comfort.” Read the rest of this entry

Punk Archaeology and the Mainstream

The 2014 Punk Archaeology collection (image from MediterraneanWorld blog).

The 2014 Punk Archaeology collection (image from Mediterranean World blog).

Perhaps all scholarship inevitably hazards descending into stale convention or becoming an insular academic pursuit.  One of the most novel recent movements to unsettle archaeological conventions is “punk archaeology,” which is perhaps most clearly illustrated in William Caraher, Kostis Kourelis, and Andrew Reinhard’s edited 2014 collection Punk Archaeology.  A fascinating Society for Historical Archaeology session last week examined punk archaeology, especially the public dimensions that Lorna Richardson has most closely examined.  Punk archaeologists are leery of being narrowly defined, but a punk research perspective typically takes aim on “mainstream” archaeology: that is, in archaeology and many other disciplines the notion of punk seeks to transform scholarship that is normative, predictable, easily ignored, apolitical, emotionless, overly academic, or simply dull.  Punk archaeology embraces a critical and compelling assault on unquestioned scholarly traditions and the academy, and it drew a roomful of people at the SHA conference and has received plenty of press coverage.  Nevertheless, it may deliver death rites to a stereotyped mainstream and academy that have already disappeared or never existed in the first place.

The DIY ethic of punk is perhaps best reflected in the host of show flyers made for punk shows, including this 1987 flyer for a St.Louis show (image JB Kopp).

The DIY ethic of punk is perhaps best reflected in the host of show flyers made for punk shows, including this 1987 flyer for a St.Louis show (image JB Kopp).

Simply labeling any scholarship punk is a bit of a rhetorical maneuver, a point made by Zack Furniss’ Punkademics and also underscored in fandom scholarship that has contemplated the relationship between fans and academics since the 1980’s (cf. Matt Hills’ “fan-as-intellectual,” Henry Jenkins’ “Confessions of an Aca-Fan” blog, and Tanya Cochran’s study of “scholar-fandom”).  A punk archaeology risks posing a clumsy contrast between, on the one hand, the notion of punk as spontaneous, experiential, anti-intellectual, and anarchic and, on the other hand, the stereotype of academic archaeologists as insular and unimaginative squares committed to jargon and tweed jackets.  The line between academics and everyday people has long been much more complicated and frequently violated than we are often willing to acknowledge; there certainly are some academics committed to deep-seated scholarly traditions and clueless about The Simpsons, but there is little evidence that most academics are indifferent to everyday life and popular culture or that popular artists are not themselves intellectuals. Read the rest of this entry

If Things Could Speak

Archaeologists are routinely flummoxed by the idiosyncratic dimensions of material things; we seem unable in most instances to capture the personal histories and inchoate emotions invested in apparently prosaic things.  Nearly all of us have random objects or souvenirs from childhood trips, mundane things associated with life events, or objects passed down to us, and when we are not present to tell those stories they are impossible to capture archaeologically.  A novel kickstarter project proposes to ensure these individual and idiosyncratic meanings remain literally attached to things.  Bemoir proposes to capture oral histories and other data sources about an object’s history and record them via near field technology.  For instance, your grandfather could relate the tale of a well-loved teddy bear, you could include pictures of him with it, and you could add a background history on the bear itself; similarly, you could give somebody a piece of art, attach an interview with the artist, and include a story about the gift-giving occasion that you share via Bemoir’s web page and app.

Bemoir's prototype page

Bemoir’s prototype page.  Among the most commonplace symbols of childhood and innocence, the teddy bear is Bemoir’s brand symbol and appears throughout its literature.

On the one hand, the appeal of Bemoir is its capacity to relate utterly idiosyncratic histories told in the vehicle of everyday things and oral memory.  The archaeological record and material world are certainly populated by myriad things with such histories that we know in only cursory ways (e.g., “this was my mom’s watch”), or they are lodged only in our own minds or simply lost over time.  For instance, I hand-write nearly everything like this blog post in journals before transferring the text to digital form.  That perhaps harbors some philosophical insight into the process of writing (compare Tim Ingold’s defense of hand writing), and I like the literal sensation of a pen nib on paper and the visual dimension of seeing and rearranging text.  However, in large part I do so because I have a wonderful Waterman fountain pen.  In pure functional terms, the pen is easy enough to describe in its physical composition and decorative style, and any modestly skilled archaeologist would deduce its age and original price and assess the symbolism of the Waterman firm and hand-writing in the 21st century.  Such analysis is the nuts-and-bolts of archaeology, but such descriptive details would rarely appear in the oral histories of things that Bemoir aspires to produce. Read the rest of this entry

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