Cali Pitchel McCullough is a Ph.D student in American history at Arizona State University. For earlier posts in this series click here. –JF
I’m signing in from the sun room of my aunt and uncle’s home in Sharon, Massachusetts. Yesterday, we spent the entire day in Boston. We visited my chain-smoking great aunt who lives at the very top of a hill in Brighton. Brighton is a neighborhood in the northwest corner of Boston on the shores of that dirty water, the Charles River. We had lunch in Watertown at a Greek establishment that served soft pita bread alongside feta cheese drenched in fruity olive oil. The waitresses took our orders in heavy Mediterranean accents and then tersely delivered platefuls of hummus, tzatsiki, and babaganoush.
Contented after our traditional Grecian salads and grilled seafood, we waddled to the car and took a short ride to the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA). The museum recently opened the Art of the Americas wing—a 53 gallery, 504 million dollar, 134,000 square foot addition to the existing building. As a huge fan of contemporary American art, I was extremely excited to visit the third floor of 20th-Century Art through the mid-1970s. We decided to take a guided tour through the new wing, and the MFA volunteer guided us through the lower level of Ancient American, Native American, 17th-century, and maritime art. I appreciated the southwestern pottery and the intricate Jadeite figures from the seventh century, but was anxious to move quickly through the first three levels and onto my beloved Sol Lewitt and Mark Rothko.
I lingered near the back of the crowd as the guide explained the significance of split sleeves in early colonial dress when a large Hadley chest caught my eye. The Age of Homespun was fresh on my mind and the chest was reminiscent of Hannah Barnard’s cupboard. In the book, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich offers insight into the lives of early Americans by way of what they owned and cherished. The chest at the MFA was striking—sturdy, intricately carved, and stained a rich mahogany brown.
The chest made me think of my own bedroom furniture. When Quinn and I were first married we purchased a set online. After sleeping in college-worn twin beds for four years, we were very excited for our first big purchase to arrive. We patiently waited the requisite 6-8 weeks for the furniture delivery. When the set finally arrived, the dresser had an inch wide gash on the corner. Somehow during its brief transit from the distribution center to our home, the espresso veneer had chipped away to reveal the pressed particle board interior. The company sent a furniture repairman immediately, but the damage was beyond a simple touch up. 6-8 weeks later, our new dresser arrived, with the same dent, in the same place. The company again sent the repairman and again decided to outfit us with a new dresser. 6-8 more weeks of wait time and finally, a dresser in mint condition arrived on our doorstep.
Let’scompare my (rather pricey) dresser, circa 2007, to Hannah Barnard’s cupboard or the Hadley chest from the MFA, circa 1710. Other than perhaps function, there are few pieces of contemporary furniture that can measure up to the handiwork of the 17th and 18th century furniture makers. My birch veneer, MDF, wood glued dresser barely survived a few hundred miles in the back of an 18-wheeler. Despite its Styrofoam robe and plastic corset, the 2007 dresser sadly could not withstand the stress of time or travel, while the Hadley chests have a life span of multiple generations and have sustained several moves.
What does my dresser say about me? If (and this is a generous projection for the dresser) I pass my bedroom set along to my children’s children, and then along to their children’s children, will someone study the dresser in order to gain insight into the 21st century? What do mass-produced consumer goods of today leave for posterity? What do they say about our cultural values? I don’t believe that my dresser will last more than another five years. The veneer on the bed is starting to peel away from the particleboard, and it’s unlikely that the set will see my first job post-doc, let alone offer knowledge to future generations.
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