material history

This is very frustrating.

I feel like I’m going a bit crazy.

Has anyone else heard of a subject called “material history” — or something similar?

When I was applying to college, I was confident I’d major in either English or History. English was the only subject in which I’d gotten A‘s without effort. My dad was a professor of literature and a scholar of Shakespeare and Shaw.

History didn’t interest me much in grade school, but one summer, when the old man and I spent a month camping on the side of a mountain, some question I asked inspired an afternoon-long narrative history of Henry VIII, Elizabeth I, the Spanish Armada, the Black Irish, and the Jesuits. I was hooked, and I decided to fill up my high-school schedule with history courses, including 20th-century Russia and AP European History.

(When I got to college, I discovered philosophy and computer science and never took a single literature or history course while I was there.)

My AP course was my first experience outside English class of having multiple books to read, rather than having a standard textbook. My two favorite of these books were an intellectual history and a material history. The former was about great thinkers, who wrote what when, which ideas took off in which territories, etc. It was good prep for college philosophy. The other book was about when people stopped using a common cup at the dinner table, when and where the fork was introduced as a complement to the knife, when Europeans started using different spices with their meals, what the development of the western sweet tooth had to do with the slave trade and the politics of the New World, etc. I haven’t seen anything like it since.

Or rather, I’ve seen things that look like bits and pieces of it. There was a bestseller a few years back called Salt: A World History, and Burt Wolf has done some good half-hour shows on PBS like “The Story of Corn.” (My wife reminds me that James Burke‘s Connections is also a good fit.)

But not only can I not find any books on material history at — I can’t even find evidence of such a subject as “material history” in Google or Wikipedia.

Can anyone help me out here? Am I misremembering the name? Did I make the whole thing up? It’s been over 20 years since those high school history classes; is this my punishment for abandoning the subject?


7 Responses to material history

  1. feecaro says:

    No, you’re not making it up. I too am familiar with the term “material history” and have been interested in the subject. I did a fair bit of research last summer on the use of particular culinary utensils in 17th-century France, and that definitely qualifies as “material history.” (There are LOADS of French titles on the history of food, culinary arts, table etiquette, etc.) I also knew a PhD student back at UVa who was specializing in some sort of history of technology (through the English department– I think he was an expert on the history of the typewriter or something like that). In fact, I *thought* that it was a bit of a hot area in history departments lately, but that could just have been among my colleagues at Penn State Altoona. Perhaps you should try broadening your search to “cultural studies” or “interdisciplinary studies”–maddeningly vague terms that seem to have no definitive boundaries, but you never know, you may find the kinds of things you want to read there.Oh, I’m also remembering a series (in French) called “Histoire de la vie privée” [A History of Private Life] that was quite interesting, and covered the sorts of things that fall under material history. Perhaps there’s some sort of Anglophone equivalent.

  2. Anonymous says:

    The <>Canada Science and Technology Museum<> publishes a twice-yearly journal called Materials History Review: the description:The Museum publishes a journal twice a year. It documents cultural artifacts, describing their historical context and examining their role within society. As the foremost journal of material culture study in Canada, Material History Review (MHR) serves as a link between social historians, historians of technology, art and architecture, anthropologists and geographers throughout Canada and abroad. Refereed articles reflect the latest scholarship and research trends in North America and abroad.Sounds fascinating! You can view some of the article titles on the same site. It appears as though the journal has been published since 1976.Good stuff.

  3. Anonymous says:

    I did more lunchtime googling… it appears as though what you remember as “material history” is now called “material culture” or “cultural history”.Googling “material culture” provides plenty of links on the topic.

  4. Ruthi says:

    There’s a great author of books on material history: Fernand Braudel. He seems to deal mostly with the rise of capitalism, but that’s a huge chunk of Western history! Try his _Capitalism and Material Life_. Just search for him in Amazon for other useful titles.

  5. DSL. says:

    Have a look at, e.g.,

    Bittersweet: The Story of Sugar by Peter Macinnis
    Cuisine and Culture: A History of Food and People by Linda Civitello
    Dangerous Tastes: The Story of Spices by Andrew Dalby
    An Edible History of Humanity by Tom Standage
    Food: The History of Taste edited by Paul Freedman
    Food and Love: A Cultural History of East and West by Jack Goody
    Food in History by Reay Tannahill
    A History of Food by Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat
    A History of the World in 6 Glasses by Tom Standage
    Near a Thousand Tables : A History of Food by Felipe Fernandez-Armesto
    Out of the East: Spices and the Medieval Imagination by Paul Freedman
    The Scents of Eden: A History of the Spice Trade by Charles Corn
    Spice: The History of a Temptation by Jack Turner
    The Spice Route: A History by John Keay
    Sugar: A Bittersweet History by Elizabeth Abbott
    Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History by Sidney W. Mintz
    Tastes of Paradise: A Social History of Spices, Stimulants, and Intoxicants by Wolfgang Schivelbusch

  6. DSL. says:

    Have a look also at this handy refresher in the form of the article on Consumption (1450-1789) from the Encyclopedia of the Early Modern World; its brief bibliography includes books I left out above (I’m having flashbacks now to my U.Va. grad study in modern European history, 1988-1990, and the three months in 1991-1992 I worked at a cafe-bookshop on Elliewood Avenue run by the family still there today running Brillig Books and the affiliated copy shop selling course packets to students):

    “Even the advent of table manners influenced patterns of consumption. Although adopted slowly and sporadically, the fork was eventually considered indispensable. Matching sets of silverware soon replaced the mismatched spoons and knives that diners often carried with them. Along with these developments, individual place settings replaced the more common platters from which medieval diners had plucked food with their fingers. Rather than a slice of bread or wooden trencher, plates of pewter, earthenware, porcelain, or, later, silver became significant investments for the average household. Wealthier homes would also have a collection of platters, basins, ewers for water and wine, and a great variety of serving vessels. Although matching sets were rare, the possession of these items conferred status on the owner, and they could, of course, always be pawned or, if silver, melted down in case of emergency. Napkins, which were usually large and draped across the shoulder, and tablecloths were also becoming ever more typical items among those who chose to dine politely.

    “Household furniture also proliferated in number and delicacy throughout the early modern period. From a rough bench and literally a “board” set on wooden trestles that could be moved from room to room, there soon appeared permanently fixed tables with turned legs, and elegant sideboards and cupboards on which to display the family tableware. Elaborate candelabra also became necessary as the time for dinner as the main meal of the day gradually shifted from midday to early evening. The dining room itself, as a separate, intimate room with one function, is an invention of the early modern period.”

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