The papers in this collection exemplify the potential of material culture research to incorporate new theoretical approaches, view existing objects through a new lens, and extend established historical conversations in new directions with close object-based analysis. By investigating a diverse range of objects and landscapes, these emerging scholars all contribute to an interdisciplinary discussion of current object-based research and prove that such “material matters” do indeed matter.

Xiao Situ, Zachary Violette, and Laura Walikainen Rouleau examine the buildings and landscapes that Americans encountered in their daily lives during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Spaces like the New England home, urban Northeastern tenements, and public restrooms served as sites of contested meaning based on considerations of class, race, and gender. These three papers use material culture research to explore how tensions between public and private space helped shape American and individual identity. Benjamin Lisle’s paper on AstroTurf explores the tension between material reality and cultural interpretations in the second half of the twentieth century. He argues that a postwar faith in science and technology was displaced onto a salable commodity that ultimately became a symbol of “progress” run amok.


Benjamin D. Lisle, “Materiality and Meaning: Synthetic Grass, Sport, and the Limits of Modern Progress”

This paper examines artificial grass as symbol and material. “AstroTurf,” first used in 1966, was a blanket of bristled, green, nylon tufts laid atop a foamed plastic base. Advocates of synthetic grass—primarily manufacturers, sports businessmen, and journalists—pitched it as more uniform, safer, more cost efficient, and even aesthetically superior to natural grass (which could be lumpy, patchy, muddy, and expensive to maintain). The rapid adoption of artificial turf was remarkable: every major municipal stadium constructed from the late 1960s through the 1970s had artificial turf, and older stadiums converted from natural grass to synthetic surfaces.

Artificial turf was an expression of what historian Michael L. Smith calls “commodity scientism.” It articulated a postwar faith in science and technology that was displaced onto a salable commodity. For many, artificial grass embodied the “magic” of chemical science. Artificial grass as material resisted the interpretations advocates imposed on it. Many soon realized that although synthetic fields were arguably more cost effective, they also produced more injuries, altered play, and were an aesthetic blight. Previously an expression of humankind’s ability to produce a chemically engineered, new-and-improved nature, artificial grass became a symbol of “progress” run amok.

Laura Walikainen Rouleau, “The Materiality of Privacy: Private Spaces in Public Places”

At the turn of the twentieth century, urbanization, industrialization, and immigration combined to draw Americans out of the private realm of the home and into public spaces. People spending long hours in department stores, on public transportation, and in schools required spaces to cleanse, relieve, and clothe their bodies. Several emerging spaces appeared at the boundary of the private and the public. In these spaces of uncertainty, private activities were enacted in public settings. This paper will focus on the emergence of public restrooms to understand how the design, development, and regulation of these boundary spaces allowed for the creation of a sense of privacy in public.

Xiao Situ, “Emily Dickinson and the Poetics of Glass”

After the age of thirty, the poet Emily Dickinson rarely left her father’s house and grounds at 280 Main Street in Amherst, Massachusetts, venturing only as far as the hedges of the family estate.  Aside from working in the garden and walking the grounds of the property, looking through windows was her primary mode of relating to the landscape around her.  Fortunately for Dickinson, she lived in a house abundantly punctuated by windows.  Letters, poems, and others’ reminiscences of Dickinson confirm that her interactions with the windows of her home were numerous and richly associative throughout her lifetime, suffused with playful imagination, ritualistic significance, and strong emotional attachment.  This paper focuses on two ideas concerning Dickinson’s relationship with the windows of her home: first, how the windows shaped her sense of her social contact with the world; and second, how her physical closeness to the windows was also an emotional and creative closeness to those who made the glass that glazed them.

Zachary D. Violette, “Ornament and Identity in the Immigrant-Built Tenements of Boston and New York, 1870-1920”

This paper interrogates the immigrant-built and highly-ornamented tenements constructed in Boston and New York at the turn of the twentieth century. These “decorated tenements” confound the usual class-based hierarchy in which elaborate decorative forms are associated with the elite; they were built in spite of the Progressive reform advocacy of strict simplicity in the material culture of the working class. To reformers, the decorated tenements were cheap shams and bad housing, making these buildings a site of contested meaning over questions of taste and propriety, workmanship and honesty, class, ethnicity, and control of the built environment. This paper focuses on the way tenement builders used architectural ornament to create meaning in a rapidly evolving urban environment.