Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Book Review: Standards of Living

There is not a great deal of research done on silver as a cultural or material object. Most books focus on maker and style recognition, techniques or production, and history of the objects themselves. These books are important to the collector and in the future we will focus on many of them. However there is a book, part of the inspiration to start this blog that focuses on silver as a cultural object.

I like holding a piece of silver that has historical value. Last night I identified some forks I bought for two dollars, that were made in 1848. I was amazed that they had survived so long and ended up in front of me. Often I wonder about the way that silver was manufactured and the place that it held in peoples lives.

While doing research on publications about silver I have come across one volume that does a serious job of looking at silver as a phenomenological object in humans lived experiences. Standards of Living: the Measure of The Middle Class in America by Marina Moskowitz (published by John Hopkins University Press, 2004) is the only book I know of that looks at the rise of silver plate manufactures as a case study for the rise of the middle class and their standards, while linking it to the second industrial revolution in the U.S. at the end of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth.

Standards of Living is well researched and uses material objects and their use as means of showing the reader that there were visible, measurable periods in the creation of the middle class. It focuses on silverware, bathroom fixtures, Mail order homes, and zoning. As a book on class sociology it is well reasoned and presented. However, unless you are a sociologist it may not be on the whole that interesting.

That being said, the first chapter follows the silver plate industry in the course of its development and contains a wealth of research on the industry at the height of its prosperity. It tends to focus on Reed and Barton, and documents, with original research, the ways that that company (and others) negotiated the idea that silver was an upper class object (attempting to maintain silver as a special object) and the need to move product as and to a mass.

Chapter one The Standard of Etiquette: Silverplate Flatware also contains a rich bibliography that is useful to anyone working on research in silver. If you are looking for what pattern gradma's forks are, then this volume is useless. However, if you are obsessed with silver and wonder how it functions as a representation of cultural desire as a hermeneutic then this I think is the only option you have unless you write your own book.

I am still reading through it so perhaps there will be more to report later.

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