Tuesday, January 22, 2013

There Really Is No Accounting For Taste

As a scholar of material culture, I should remain neutral about the things I study. But the beauty of this subject is that we all have personal connections with objects. We try to figure out why we like some things and hate others. Inevitably, even the most unbiased of observers can't help being drawn to some things and repelled by others. Most of the time, we can't even explain why.

Sometimes, objects you love are already in museum collections. Samantha Bullat directed me to a really phenomenal bandbox in the collection of the Smithsonian's Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum. Boxes like this were used to keep hats, muffs, and other accessories away from the ravages of sunlight, dust, and mice. The Oxford English Dictionary says the name comes from the use of such boxes to hold "bands" or collar ruffs in the seventeenth century. Most were made from a pasteboard body stitched together and covered with wallpaper either left over from room papering or custom-printed for boxes. They're pretty easy to make, as I can say from personal experience. In this case, the 1820s box is not only in great condition, but features the custom paper of "Putnam and Roff, Paper Hanging & Band Box Manufac' Hartford Con." How can you beat something that looks so cool and almost matches your own name (mine is Putman)?

Bandbox from the Cooper-Hewitt.

Other times, your friends find things that make you green with envy. Brenda Hornsby Heindl over at Liberty Stoneware just shared an artifact from her collection that I think is incredible. It's a large blob of clay pipe heads that fused together during a kiln firing sometime in the middle of the nineteenth century. Another one of my favorite artifacts is the result of a kiln problem, in case you're interested: a seventeenth-century stack of wasters (a word for ceramics damaged during firing) from a Delft (tin-glazed earthenware) kiln at London's Victoria & Albert Museum. You might think it's kind of ugly, but I love everything about it, especially how it evokes a very human past filled with mistakes, miscalculations, and material culture.

The remnants of a kiln accident from Liberty Stoneware. 

Once in a while, you happen upon things that you both love and can own yourself. Nicole and I keep an unwritten list of antiques we'd like to own someday. A papered bandbox is one. It's more fun to wait and search for these objects at antique shops and auctions than it would be to pop online and buy one right away. It's that much for exciting when you finally run into the thing you've always wanted for an affordable price. I did that last year with a really great blue feather-edge pearlware plate and a Civil War-era champagne bottle, for instance. And just a few days ago, in State College, Pennsylvania, I picked up a killer tin coffee boiler (sometimes called, I hear incorrectly, a "mucket" by Civil War reenactors). I've always wanted a nice one, and this is the first time I've seen one for a reasonable price. Boilers like this one, and similar cups (with handles and with or without the wire bail) were used by Civil War soldiers on a daily basis. My gut says mine might date to a few years after the war, but its construction and age make it a perfect example of wartime tinware. Maybe someday I'll run into a soldier's cup (like this one) for a fair price. In the meantime, I'm pretty happy with this unexpected discovery, even if I can't explain exactly why I like it so much.

Mid-nineteenth-century tinned sheet iron coffee boiler, 6.5" high, from the author's collection.

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