Tuesday, March 8, 2016

So Two Material Culturists Walk Into a New Apartment...

Nicole and I moved early this year, leaving a great old historic house for a very modern apartment. Much of January was devoted to moving instead of research and writing. But, of course, as material culture scholars, we never really clock out, and we learned quite a few things about the material culture of moving, about our stuff, and about ourselves during this big process.

There are a lot of things I could blog about.

Like about some of the bizarre box labels we ended up with.

Or about our priorities when we decided to move our favorite antiques before anything else.

Like the boxes that have unbelievably seen us through at least two moves with storage use in between.

Or about this little contraption that I assembled from the bottom of a broken desk chair and a used plastic tub (RIP MoveBot).

Like about how our book box labels sometimes reflected longstanding historiographical debates about terminology and agency.

Or about how opening some boxes felt a little like Christmas. "Oh, what cool bottles! I would buy these if they were at an antique market."

"Oh wait, I already did."

But what I actually want to write about is not what was in our boxes or what a pain it was moving them (all half-dozen large, seven "medium," 61 "small," and 73 "smaller," using Home Depot box sizes as a base line) across town, but about the moving boxes themselves. Nicole and I were sitting in our kitchen in one of our last nights in our old house, surrounded by full boxes, when I got to looking closely at one and thinking about what it said as a piece of material culture.

Even our moving boxes are complex artifacts of our culture. What does this one tell us about ourselves? What might some future archaeologist conclude when he finds this box amid our rubbish heaps?

First, we value convenience. This box costs all of 77 cents at Home Depot, and you can throw it away when you're done moving. This is certainly easier than what people had to do when the moved in the past: build crates, fill trunks, and bundle valuables.

But we also worry about the very damage that this convenience might cause our world. This box features a variety of logos and slogans (at least fourteen, in fact, depending on how you distinguish them) advertising that it is made from 100% recycled materials. "Be Orange," it says, evoking the chosen color of Home Depot, but "Think Green."

The box also speaks to the type of consumer Home Depot thinks will be using their products. A list on the side allows more careful packers than I to denote the final destination of each box: Bedroom, Family Room, Dining Room, Kitchen, Bath, Basement, Garage, Attic, Laundry. All familiar room names in 2016. Remarkably, though, four of the nine potential destinations are entirely or partially storage spaces. Will your extra junk go in your new basement, your new garage, your new attic, or the back of your new laundry room?

What's on the list is interesting, but what's missing is also fascinating. Gone are once-popular room names like the parlor, the den, and even the living room, replaced by the more contemporary "family room." If your ancestors of a century ago were among the upper classes, they would be disappointed that our homes no longer apparently include libraries, music rooms, or conservatories. If they were among the lower sort, they might be surprised that our homes are so exclusively domestic. There is no entry on this list for a workshop, a dairy, a stable, a studio, or even an office. Of course, we definitely have an office; that's where we put some two thirds of the couple thousand books we own.

The box is bilingual, though not completely. It offers both English and Spanish words for the size of the box and its destination, but all of the recycling statements are in English alone. Our future archaeologist might be inclined to investigate whether Home Depot was simply saving space with English-only recycling logos or whether there is something more subtle at work here. Embedded in this box might be presumptions about the values of different ethnic customer bases or even a presumption that the people buying the box will be English speakers while the people moving the box to its destination might be Spanish speakers.

And there is much we might decode. What does the printing process tell us? The inclusion of website addresses? The placement on every upper surface of advertisements for Home Depot? The idea that this box, at 1.3 cubic feet, is only "small"?

But perhaps what it tells us most of all is that when we take the time to look, even mundane things have a lot to say.

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