(Let’s see how many knife-related puns I can sneak into my blog posts this semester?)
This week in class, we read a selection of articles that presented different approaches to studying material culture. One particularly fascinating article, which may prove useful as I embark on studying my object, was an excerpt from Henry Glassie’s Pattern in the Material Folk Culture of the Eastern United States. In this excerpt, as part of a larger exploration of folk scholarship in the United States, Glassie attempts to define what a folk object is and how to study it.
According to Glassie, folk cultures exist within or in proximity to a larger society. When studied in other geographic areas such as Europe, folk cultures are often easy to outline, homogenous, and defined by specific oral traditions. In comparison, the United States has experienced such immense patterns of migration that the typical understanding of folk culture does not necessarily translate. He thus defines folk culture as an unpopular, or smaller, tradition in proximity to a larger society. Folk objects thus come out of that smaller tradition and often have an equivalent within a larger society. For example, Glassie compares a modern farmer using oxen and yoke in the field as opposed to a tractor. Despite having the more advanced technology, the farmer may choose to use the oxen and yoke due to family or cultural tradition, unfamiliarity with the technology, a personal preference, etc.
While Glassie’s article focuses on objects from their conception — similar to Prown — he ultimately focuses on objects as “alien.” For example, he describes how the best way to study the construction of a folk object is through observation of the process. It’s easy to assume that modern historians are not familiar with some of the craft techniques associated with common folk objects, like whittling or basket-weaving. He also explains how many folk objects are deliberately commercialized — Lancaster County immediately came to mind. While the degree or intention of the folk object does not change, it takes on a quality of voyeurism, where the value of the object is its folk status.
So, how does this remind me of my knife? While it was (presumably) crafted around the turn of the 20th century when it was used on the Gazela, it was later used to cut the ribbon when the Gazela was opened to the public. Speaking with Craig Bruns, the curator at Independence Seaport Museum, I learned that other artifacts have been employed in a similar manner for milestones. In this case, because the knife has some kind of connection to the Gazela, it was deemed worthy of cutting the ribbon. It takes on this voyeuristic quality (although then again, don’t all Museum-exhibited artifacts?) as well as a commercialized quality that I’m sure could have made for a great photo-op. Additionally, the knife is immediately identified as coming from a unpopular/uncommon tradition, as celebrants could have used contemporary or more-common tools such as scissors (giant or otherwise!) to cut the ribbon. Its traditional and unpopular origins lends the knife, and thus the ribbon-cutting ceremony, an air of authenticity that resembles the usage of many actual folk objects.
Now of course, Glassie also clarifies that an object cannot become a folk object through use, or lose its folk status through disuse. However, using Glassie’s writing to contextualize the knife’s place within Gazela‘s opening ceremony helps to explain the knife’s use decades after its original creation and usage.
Once I do more research into Gazela and late 19th/early 20th century knife making, I could try to argue whether it’s actually a folk object or not according to Glassie’s classifications. In the meantime, though, I’ve been trying to take his cue and learn about knife carving…
Henry Glassie, Pattern in the Material Folk Culture of the Eastern United States (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1968), 1-17.