Material Culture: A Window into the Mind

Kassie Scott

"When Harry Met Sally," Henrik Knudsen,  2015.

"When Harry Met Sally," Henrik Knudsen,  2015.


The table, surrounded by four chairs neatly arranged, appears to be the perfect size. At the table there exists no place for a visitor. With benches of the past replaced by chairs, no longer can a community member squeeze him or herself into the scene. Picture perfect: the father sits proudly at the head of the table; seeing a resemblance, the mother gazes lovingly at her newborn baby girl in the high chair to her right; and the little boy, nearing two-years old now, eats his food absentmindedly, distracted by the appearance of his favorite cartoon character on a special set of new dishes, a big brother present given to engender a sense of belonging amidst the new change to their family. Change is the focus of the narrative detailed above, presenting a shift toward individualism in American culture.

The table set for four, each chair intended for one, the space each family member occupies, the dishes individualized, the language shared over the meal: these snapshots of a family’s life serve as products of material culture. Material culture, narrowly defined by Deetz as artifacts or “the vast universe of objects used by humankind,” also includes any product of human thought and action (Deetz 1996: 35). Just as the opening narrative points to the culture of the family described, material culture in historic American communities provides a window into the minds of individuals long-forgotten. Material culture is not culture but the product of culture, offering insight into shifts in cultural orientations (Deetz 1996: 35). In eighteenth to nineteenth century culture specifically, objects and interactions within Virginia folk Housing, and the local forms of the houses themselves, depict a shift from connection to alienation in American culture.

Understanding the architectural space people occupy as a category of material culture, changes in Virginia folk housing reflect the separation of the self from the community. To demonstrate the differences in local architecture after the housing revolution, Glassie compares a later nineteenth century example of a central-hall I house to the Moore House (Glassie 1975: 187). The Moore House, complete with a bedroom, living room, junk room, kitchen, and porch, stands as a product of communal orientation in America during the early eighteenth century. By contrast, the nineteenth century example of a central-hall I house symbolizes the “evolution of alienation.” Newer houses lacked gathering places, such as porches and fireplaces, because stoves replaced fireplaces (Glassie 1975:131). Fireplaces and porches traditionally act as centers for congregation and sites for stories. Uniting communities through language, fireplaces and porches belong to the category of material culture in which objects facilitate social intercourse (Deetz 1996: 35). According to Glassie, the replacement and removal of fireplaces and porches, respectively, locates a point at which “face-to-face community dies,” resulting in separation (Glassie 1975: 190). Without centers for community interaction, the local forms of Virginia folk houses in the nineteenth century, as products of a changing culture, signify a breakdown in the importance of community.

The tangible objects within Virginia folk houses relate to the connections shared in historic American communities. Reflecting divisions in community and family, objects once shared within homes early in the eighteenth century became individualized. Early households had benches, not chairs; after 1760, the rule became one chair per person. Similarly, prior to 1760, beds were shared with strangers; later, it was socially unacceptable to share a bed with anyone other than a married partner. Chairs and beds, once understood as spaces to be shared, became objects to test moral conduct. After 1760, chairs and beds transmitted rules of behavior as defined by the culture, demanding that individuals respect personal space and privacy. Similar to the modified meanings given to chairs and beds, mugs and utensils previously shared became individualized. While individualized chairs and beds reflected a breakdown in the community, individualized mugs and utensils reflected a breakdown in the family specifically. The time during which mugs and utensils became individualized mimics the point at which chairs and beds demarcated personal boundaries, with both changes appearing after 1760 (Deetz 1996: 82-83). To better understand the separation symbolized in the spread of individualism to objects within Virginia folk houses, envision personal beds and chairs as creating “invisible limits” and personal mugs and utensils as marking territories, both dictating spatial relationships (Deetz 1996: 36). Limits enforced through objects indicate a culture based on control (Glassie 1975:132). If chairs, beds, mugs, and utensils served as sources of control, these artifacts fall under the category of material culture as objects used by humankind to cope with the unpredictable physical world, according to Deetz.

Attempts at control not only occurred inside of Virginia folk houses in the form of individualized objects and spaces but were also revealed in the external appearances of the houses. The repeated structure of Virginia folk houses revealed cultural ideals in action. As Glassie notes, the characteristic house of Virginia “became more symmetrical during the eighteenth century” (Glassie 1975: 190). The Moore House, a product of the early eighteenth century, displays a move toward symmetry, but falls short, maintaining asymmetrical elements such as a door off-center and a single window with shutters. The central-hall I house, a product of the nineteenth century, completes the shift toward perfect symmetry, without a single disproportion to be seen. Glassie argues that the commitment to ideals, such as symmetry, replaced the commitment to connections within the community, thereby demonstrating artificiality at work in the culture.

If the cultural orientation in the past shifted towards one in which facades were not only accepted but also advertised as ideal, as Glassie posits, current cultural orientation in America points toward a changing worldview related to historic trends. Having exhausted all other physical forms of alienation, with architectural design excluding not only communities but also families in the form of single room occupancy buildings, one of the only forms left to modify is the body itself. Deetz does not exclude the body and human motion as categories of material culture; instead, he cites scientific breeding of livestock as a type of material culture in which “conscious modification of an animal’s form according to culturally derived ideals” occurs (Deetz 1996: 36). If the word “animal” is replaced with “human,” a definition of plastic surgery results: the conscious modification of a human’s form according to culturally derived ideals. In this unique application of human thought and action, the body itself exists as a category of material culture, reflecting a changing worldview. Idealizing the symmetrical and artificial, plastic surgery furthers the “evolution of alienation” not only by prioritizing the individual and outward appearances but also by erasing family resemblance. Just as architectural alterations to Virginia folk housing depicted a shift in cultural orientation toward separation, plastic surgery in modern America could indicate the final shift toward alienation. Consider how modification of the human form would alter the family in the narrative used to introduce material culture; the family of four could be no more, losing all connection and identification with one another. Material culture, a window into the mind, traces the “evolution of alienation” as views of the world, community, family, and self continue to change.

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Works Cited

Deetz, James. “All the Earthenware Plain and Flowered.” In Small Things Forgotten: An Archaeology of Early American. New York: Doubleday, 1996, 68-88.

Deetz, James. “Recalling Things Forgotten: Archaeology and the American Artifact.” In Small Things Forgotten. New York: Doubleday, 1996, 1-37.

Glassie, Henry. Folk Housing in Middle Virginia. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1975.

Glassie, Henry. Material Culture. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999, 41-86.