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Why is a Delft vase like a zipper bag?

Europeans can have an uncanny sense of recognition when observing certain aspects of Chinese popular culture. I just had such a moment when, absent-minded, my eyes fell on a zipper bag I bought in China years ago:

Food bag, acquired in eastern China, taken home to western Europe, photographed by author.

Not only had I transported words such as ‘sweet’ and ‘breakfast’ back from China to Europe – this was weird enough, because these words mean completely different things in China where the bag was sold (in as far as English words in Latin script make any sense at all), than in Europe, the place where the words had come from and which I had now brought them back to.

But the bag also pictured a series of household items which, in this style and combination, seem designed to evoke a snug English cottage, or perhaps a Polish farmstead kitchen, a nice old-fashioned home in the Romanian country-side, or any other place sitting firmly on the European continent. The coffee-pots, the loaf of bread, the stew pot, the single-leafed apple: they are European images, or else images associated with European settler cultures – please correct me if I’m wrong. And these images have become part of a European nostalgia, a nostalgia for the perfect home, imagined perhaps to have existed in the late nineteenth or the early twentieth century, a home, one might daydream, where there would always be a mother, a grandmother, a sister at home to tend the flowers in the garden and put them in the old coffee-pot.

Yet as if such nostalgia isn’t unsettling (and delicious) enough, the European viewer is here also confronted with an outsider’s perspective on his or her private nostalgia. To the Asian producer of this bag, the existing, European nostalgia apparently made enough sense to use it for marketing purposes. Although the objects on the bag and the nostalgia attached to them probably have a different meaning to its Chinese users than to most Europeans (for one thing, bread in China tastes completely different from bread in Europe) – something must ‘click‘ for them.

And although a rooted European will never be able to gauge exactly what these images mean to someone raised within Chinese culture, the European user nevertheless senses that the images have changed in the process of cultural transfer: not just because they are now surrounded by Chinese characters, but because they have been reimagined by someone with a different cultural baggage. The coffee-pot, the loaf of bread, all so familiar to me, have undergone a process of estrangement, of alienation. They have left my kitchen, circled the globe, and come back to me with a twist – a twist that might feel uncanny, because I do not know what has happened to them.

However, if I were to go and live in China, the uncanny feeling would no doubt weaken: my alienation is only a lack of cultural knowledge.

And the feeling also becomes less strong if I take a look at our shared history. For many Europeans, China has the name of being a culture of imitation: Chinese factories, Chinese pop singers, Chinese fashion designers, they say, take ‘western’ ideas and reproduce them more cheaply. Of course this stereotype ignores a vast range of ideas, fashions, technologies and tastes that originate in China itself. But what’s more, it ignores Europe’s own history of imitation.

Painted pot and lid with Chinese figure in landscape, made in Delft (Holland) around 1750. Public domain; made availably by Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, object BK-NM-12400-114.

How will Chinese traders have felt when they first saw Delftware, which imitated Chinese porcelain including even representations of Chinese landscapes and Chinese people?

And what did the image on this vase mean to its first buyers – probably Dutch – in the mid-eighteenth century? It seems plausible that part of their satisfaction was the same as the Chinese owners of Chinese ceramics will have felt – admiration of the crafted pot, the painted surface, the landscape with the dotted bushes and the fashionable flaneur. The Delft buyers, however, will have experienced something extra: as a bonus, they were in touch with an exotic culture, one that was all the rage across the globe.

Although a plastic food bag is no dainty vase, I can imagine that the coffee-pot and the white loaf, too, bring a tiny element – not too much, because European-American images are more accessible to today’s Chinese than Chinese art was to early modern Europeans – a tiny element of the exotic into the Chinese kitchen. And back into mine.

Box the bag came in, photographed by author.

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Cycle for freedom

I spend much of my time debunking technological myths.

What is a technological myth? ‘The railways have democratised travel.’ You come across that one a lot.

But the social and administrative structure around the technology may well be at least as important as the technology itself. The way the business of the railways is run, matters a lot. The Trans-Siberian Express, for example, can hardly be called democratic. Those who want to approach the picture they know from the movies to any degree, have to spend many thousands of pounds; and a simple fare costs hardly less.

Photo of the similar repro-Pullman Orient Express by Simon Pielow, CC BY-SA 2.0 license.

Photo of the similar repro-Pullman Orient Express by Simon Pielow. CC BY-SA 2.0 license.

Rather, it is the government-regulated administration of a reliable, simple-to-use and relatively cheap system of rail transport that has made trains such a success in some countries (and not in others). And even there, it took about half a century from the introduction of passenger trains in the 1830s, to get to that point.

A technology exists, however, of which I am convinced that it is largely the technology itself that makes it so great. That is cycling.

Admittedly, effective cycling depends on surfaced roads (all-terrain biking excepted), people’s ability to cycle and to buy a bike, and some shared sense of traffic rules when the roads get very busy. But then again, it is inherently

  1. cheap. Bicycles (and monocycles, tricycles and, I hope, hand-cycles) are cheap vehicles, and cheap to repair or have repaired. Of course, it depends on where you are in the world whether they are easy to get by, but at least they are cheaper than most other means of wheeled transport (motorcycles, active wheelchairs, cars, trucks…; excepting, I suppose, roller skates).
  2. easy. Cycling is much easier to learn than driving a car.
  3. versatile, global. Although you need surfaced roads for effective cycling, which are hard to get by in many parts of the world, bikes need less room than cars, less ice than skates, less water than rowing boats… Many places around where humans live, are potentially accessible to cyclists. Of course, the good old pedestrian trumps them all…
  4. useful. Bikes do not only carry you: they carry the goods you sell, your groceries, your children…
  5. empowering. Most important of all, cyclists are independent. You don’t need anyone to ride a bike. The most common repairs you can do yourself – even though they cost some time, they require little expertise. You do not have to rely on sheikhs and oil barons getting along to hit the road.You are the one doing the moving. The bicycle is truly an auto-mobile.
This Mountaintrike, designed by Thies Timmermans, does not even need a road surface to roll. Found on http://commons.wikimedia.org. CC-BY-SA-3.0

This Mountaintrike, designed by Thies Timmermans, does not even need a road surface to roll. Found on http://commons.wikimedia.org. CC-BY-SA-3.0 license.

Not for nothing, bikes have been much-contested: people have been explicitly forbidden to ride a bicycle (servants!), and many others have been strongly discouraged, either by fears for their decency (women!) or by prohibitive parameters set by governments (obligatory helmets!). Employers, patriarchs and wealthy technological industries (such as the car industry) are no big fans of the independence cycles bring.

Jean Béraud, 'Le Chalet du Cycle au Bois de Boulogne', probably from the 1890s, found on http://french-painters.blogspot.com/2011/04/jean-beraud-1849-1935.html

Jean Béraud, ‘Le Chalet du Cycle au Bois de Boulogne’, probably from the 1890s, found on http://french-painters.blogspot.com. Free of copyright.

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Shoes like those would hurt my feet

When you think of archaeology, perhaps you think of digging in the ground for things that were made before people wrote anything down.

And the word ‘history’ might call up the image of handwritten papers hidden in archives.

Yet so much that is important about our past, falls in the crevices between these domains.

Luckily, good scholars from all disciplines have long realised this. They have braved the forces that keep them within their disciplinary boundaries (the way university departments, library shelves and academic degrees are organised for example. But foremostly their own exponential lack of time as the mass of writing about the past bulks up). So, they have studied the things in between – not just since the latest MacArthur award, as that jury report suggested, but for many years.

Classicists study what is written on objects, thus bridging the gap between things and words.

Medievalists, although often to be found within history departments, routinely use textless objects and images in their work.

Material culture scholars of North America have since long been interested in the homemade goods that European settlers were living by.

The archaeology of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century industrial sites is blooming, for example in Sheffield.

Anthropologists do not just exchange stories with the people(s) they work with, but objects, too.

And I could go on, mentioning sociology, geography, science and technology studies…

The truth is, the most interesting things are often not be found within disciplines, but in between. From all sides, we have to make an effort to figure out what is important. And we need all the tools we can lay our hands on to understand how things work, no matter whether we call ourselves historians (as I happen to do) or something else.

The challenge therefore is not to start to study objects, as the MacArthur Foundation claimed. It is in how we use objects as sources, as data, as bits of information.

To begin with a rather well-known use of things as sources: the BBC and Discovery Channel regularly broadcast spectacular shows about dives for Ancient Greek ships. Such investigations show with what other cultures, Mediterranean settlements traded their wares. So, objects can demonstrate links and networks of communication.

But things get really exciting (in my opinion) when they bring us straight back to how individual persons of the past lived their lives.

MarieAntoinette

Marie Antoinette, painted by Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, Wikimedia Commons

The way objects were designed, for example, open up a view to all sorts of past practices. How else could the most famous Queen of France enter through a door but sideways, for example? Folding-up hoops might have been practical, but they would have taken away from the very decorum her dresses were meant to heighten. Perhaps the answer is that she avoided buildings with narrow corridors and doorways altogether?

Another example of arguing back from design to practice: did her contemporaries ‘switch off’ the heating in spring sooner than modern Europeans? After all, their many layers of clothing provided excellent insulation. Indeed, it seems they did, although there was quite a bit of regional variation in preference as well. (I must confess that I cheated here: I found this out using written sources. As I said before: you have to use anything you can lay your hands on.)

Secondly, the way things have worn out or broken down can reveal how often they were used and in what circumstances.

Many nineteenth-century and early-twentieth-century Europeans aspired to a fancy room in their homes. But did they ever use it? As you would expect, the actual living was of course done in the kitchen. You or your parents may remember sitting up in the drawing-room on Sundays, bored and afraid of breaking a china teacup. It’s the ugly and chipped crockery and furniture – the things that you don’t normally get to see in museums – that really tell the story of everyday life.

DSC00675

Passport belonging to Baron W.H.J. van Westreenen van Tiellandt, 1833: Museum Meermanno/Huis van het Boek, The Hague, 70/154-161, photo by APHG

Take a look at this passport, for instance. If it had been your own expired passport, you might throw it away. So we are lucky to have this proof of how intensively it was used by its owner, an early-nineteenth-century Dutch traveller. It was taken out of his pocket and handled by customs officers all over Europe in almost every city he travelled through.

It is when we want to know not just how people went about their everyday lives, but how they liked it, that things become tricky.

When we see a photo of a nineteenth-century ‘slum’, for example, many of us are trained to judge this environment as dirty and uncomfortable. But this judgement has been passed on to us by the busybody elites that tried to gain influence over the working areas of their towns.

What we want to know is, on the contrary, how the inhabitants themselves of those workers’ quarters experienced their lives. It is quite plausible that for a great part of their everyday activities they were perfectly at ease there. But without recourse to their writings (and they did not leave many on the topic of interior decoration or city planning), it remains hard to tell.

The problem here is that when we try to conclude anything from material sources, we tend to assume a high degree of similarity between people of the past and ourselves. And it has been European elites who have determined the greatest part of our views on the past. If we give in too much to the temptation to see, for example, two-hundred-year-old slums through present-day European eyes, that would destroy the very point of doing history!

How to deal with this problem?

GAAmsterdamOlieGebedzonderend

Jacob Olie, photo of the Amsterdam alley Gebed zonder end, 1892, from the Amsterdam city image base (beeldbank.amsterdam.nl).

One non-textual strategy would be to again take a look at practices.

People modify their environment when they are dissatisfied with the way it looks. Have a close look at the photo above: you will find that the inhabitants of these rooms have added potted plants to their view. So because we in fact find workers decorate their homes, it is reasonable to conclude that they cared about their homes and had the power to adapt them to their own liking – at least somewhat.

Another strategy works only with those things that we believe have not changed too dramatically over the course of history. Our bodies might be one such thing, at least partially (the history of body-shaping practices like wearing corsets and binding feet should not be overlooked).

If it is not too frivolous to assume, then, that the nineteenth-century British left foot was different from its right foot, just as it is today, what to make of the fact that before the twentieth century, many left and right shoes were exact copies of each other (this seems to be an example)? Even (ladies’) walking boots did not distinguish between left and right.

If we, again, may assume that feet could ache in the same way then as they can now, we (whether ‘we’ are art historians, archaeologists, or whatever) may have learnt something about nineteenth-century walking experiences from looking at an old shoe.

Note: A shorter version of this column appears on the History Matters website of the University of Sheffield.