Fanfare for Modern Appliances
On our class trip to South Carolina, North Carolina and Virginia this past June, my classmates and I gained new appreciation for the modern convenience of air-conditioning. A first stop at South of the Border (discussed by Katie Bonanno, WPAMC 2016, here) gave us a glimpse at how tourists have kept cool on road-trips across America, trying to either escape or just distract themselves from sweltering summer heat. Luckily, the main attractions (museums, collections and historic sites) we visited utilized improvements in technology while interpreting the material culture of surviving summer heat (a topic that influenced the construction of 18th-c. men’s clothing, as we had recently learned from Neal Hurst, WPAMC 2015 in his May 2015 thesis presentation). Over seven days, we also encountered and enjoyed many other modern conveniences while learning about their complex design histories.
The Winterthur Museum has few museum collections objects that need to be switched on or plugged in. The Eclectic Electric, a private collection in downtown Richmond, bridged this gap in our studies. Housed in a 1920s building, the collection includes over 5,000 19th-c. and 20th-c. electric household appliances: fans, toasters, vacuums, washing machines, kettles, irons and, our favorite, a category for “other.” These items occupied shelves in a sleek and cheerful upstairs display space and additional storage facility, arranged by object type. Because there were no museum labels, my classmates and I played a guessing game with our guide about the more mysterious “other” objects and their origins. From this morning tour, we enjoyed a crash course in modern American and European design while picking out new favorite things that light up, oscillate or once made delicious milkshakes.
Matthew Skic in an aisle of malt shop appliances, the material culture of ice cream invention
Rosalie Hooper is a toaster connoisseur
Kevin Adkisson tests out a curling iron
Our visit to The Eclectic Electric in Richmond reminded us of the appliances that may have gone unnoticed, but not unappreciated, throughout our trip. Once we saw the overwhelming variety of the things that cool, heat, light, and “other”, from fans to kettles, we could better identify both the seasonal and lasting significance of their historical predecessors in collections at Drayton Hall (Charleston, SC), the Aiken-Rhett House Museum at Historic Charleston Foundation (Charleston, SC), Prestwould Plantation (Clarksville, VA), George Washington’s Mount Vernon (Mount Vernon, VA) and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (Richmond, VA). Of course, not all of these examples had to be especially sophisticated or even electrified: the low-tech ways of keeping cool in the South were perhaps also the most memorable!
By Hannah Boettcher, WPAMC class of 2016
Kernan, Michael. “Around the Mall & Beyond: At the Young Collectors Tent, they’re on the lookout for even more antique ice skates, African dresses, chopstick rests, cowboy hats, snow globes…” Smithsonian Magazine, October 1996. Accessed online, June 2015: www.smithsonianmag.com/people-places/around-the-mall-amp-beyond-14-122956478/?all
Newton, Karen. “Automatic for the People: ‘Eclectic Electric’ showcases antique gadget design at the Anderson Gallery.” Style Weekly (Richmond, VA) online, July 3 2012: www.styleweekly.com/richmond/automatic-for-the-people/Content?oid=1729602