A Material World
EVERYTHING IS MADE FROM SOMETHING. THIS SIMPLE FACT AND ITS VAST IMPLICATIONS ARE THE SUBJECT OF “A Material World,” an exhibition opening this spring at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History. For the first time the museum will display a range of objects from the American past with the focus not on the purpose, design, or manufacture of the objects but rather on the materials that constitute them and what they tell us.
The raw materials of a thing usually say a lot about its makers, its users, and its place in the scheme of things, whether ordinary or special. We are so accustomed to the messages in materials that we generally give them little or no thought, but in fact, we constantly draw all sorts of conclusions about an object from its material makeup. Is this gun for use or just for show? Is a quick, untroublesome shave all we want from this razor, or is it to be an elegant part of the ceremony that surrounds a shave? Who made this hammer, with its strange leather head, and to hit what? Why is this bicycle so weighted down with useless heavy chrome? Pictured here and on the next few pages is a selection of items from the exhibit, with observations about the messages in their mediums.
The first bicycles were, like all other vehicles of the early nineteenth century, mostly wooden. The 1869 Laubach velocipede (rear) was typical in its minimal use of metal. But like everything from ships to railway cars, bicycles became more and more metallic as the century wore on, in part because of the tremendous growth of the iron and steel industry and because factories were increasingly geared for those metals, but also because metals were now coming to be perceived as the materials of progress. The English Psycho bicycle of 1887 (second from rear) is an early chain-driven bicycle with metal tubing.
By the 1890s the bicycle had become respectable even for the gentlewoman who rode the Columbia women’s model (second from front). It reflected her status with its ornamented nickel-plate and goldplate trim and its pneumatic rubber tires.
In the twentieth century the form of the bicycle has changed little, and steel tubing continues to be the key material for the frame. Occasionally, however, circumstances or fashions have altered the machine’s makeup. The beautiful wood cycle in the foreground was manufactured in 1942 in response to the wartime shortage of steel. Given its elegant form, it should come as no surprise that one of the makers was a piano manufacturer. The red-and-chrome Schwinn (middle) is a typical child’s cycle from the 1950s, when bright colors and chrome allowed young riders some of the same thrill their elders attached to their cars.
The flute is one of the most ancient of musical instruments but in its modern form is one of the most technically sophisticated. It has been made of almost every imaginable material, from the most precious, such as gold or ivory, to the most unassuming, such as wood or rubber. Visual aesthetics, sound-producing quality, practicality, and cost have all played a part in the choice of materials. Wood, because it can be easily turned and drilled, has a long and distinguished tradition, and its mellow tone still gives it a place. In the eighteenth century native European fruitwoods were popular; later ebony and cocuswood, dense, exotic products of the tropics, were widely adopted. Wood flutes were often trimmed with precious metals (the one second from right is trimmed with silver) and prized for their craftsmanship. Flutes of ivory (third from right) or even glass (third from left), much less practical, were valued mainly as showpieces.
The metal flute emerged in the nineteenth century, when new techniques and tools and new musical tastes combined to promote the use of silver (far left) and occasionally gold, with its warmer tone. Platinum and gold together (far right) make a visually spectacular flute, but the musical advantage is unclear. By the end of the nineteenth century, hard rubber (second from left) was practical, particularly with metal keys. This gave the student or amateur an inexpensive alternative to precious metals and woods.
No tool could be simpler than a hammer, but the variety of hammers is bewildering. These are all current products.
Proceeding upward from bottom left, the copper-beryllium head of a cabinetmaker’s hammer is chip-resistant, nonsparking, and hard. The leather on a silversmith’s touch-up hammer allows for gentle final shaping. Rubber on the neurologist’s hammer and the physician’s reflex hammer prevents them from damaging skin. Fiberglass and rubber in the handle of the machinist’s hammer absorb the shocks of striking against metal; the aluminum of a meat tenderizer allows light weight where strength is unnecessary. The large beech mallet is used by a woodworker for decorative chisel work; the little bonebreaking mallet of a surgeon uses brass and steel for heft. The hickory of the carpetlayer’s hammer is popular for its shock-absorbing qualities; the silversmith’s forming hammer also has a hickory handle. The hickory handle of the craftsman’s hammer is unremarkable, but the acetate head makes it ideal for avoiding marring. Low-cost sturdy woods like ash and birch are used in the crabcracking mallet. The oak in a German shoemaker’s hammer betrays its European source, while softer woods make the embossing mallet suitable for work on silver. At top and bottom on the right are machinist’s hammers with advanced plastics and steel in their heads. The welder’s chipping hammer at center right is made entirely of steel, not for heavy blows but for sturdiness and simplicity.
The earliest mortar was a slightly hollowed stone in which a smaller stone could be used to grind everything from grain to herbs. The mortar and pestle had assumed their modern shapes by the Middle Ages, and since then they have been made from a wide range of materials. The wooden mortar (top right) has always been easy to shape and cheap to make, but it tends to absorb substances, especially liquids, and crack easily. Numerous stones have found successful uses (lava, mid-left; variegated marble, mid-right; black marble, lower right; alabaster, front left; agate, front right), but they, too, can absorb ground materials or liquids, are easily broken or cracked, especially if heated, and are hard to repair.
Metal mortars became popular in the Renaissance, when they were often made of copper alloys similar to those used for bells (bell metal, top left; polished brass, center). Cast iron (top center) provided a cheaper substitute, but all metals tend to tarnish and corrode and even react with substances being ground. Glass and ceramic mortars (glass, front center; unglazed porcelain, lower center) were ultimately recognized as best for most purposes, but they are fragile. In the last analysis, no material has ever emerged as perfect for all uses, and for centuries it has been common for the well-stocked apothecary to keep a variety of mortars and pestles on hand for whatever purposes might come up.
The revolver became practical in the 1830s, when Samuel Colt and other inventors first developed a reliable mechanism for it. Its barrel and firing mechanisms are always steel, but the grip has been made of various materials, depending on the status and wealth of the owner, the skill of the maker, and the weapon’s purpose. Revolvers have often functioned primarily as symbols, and fancy materials have been used to show this—even to associate a gun’s owner with a social class (from cowboy to country squire) or an era (from colonial days to gangland Chicago).
The turn-of-the-century Colt at top, with its silver and gold plating and elaborate engravings, was a presentation piece, not a serious weapon. The gun to its right, by contrast, has the black walnut handle standard for most nineteenth-century Colts. For six dollars extra the buyer could get an ivory handle, center. Even fancier is the aluminum handle just below, with its pearl inlay probably added by the owner. Another personalized Colt is the one at lower right, with a yellow plastic grip. The six-shooter at lower left has a hard-rubber handle, which cost an extra dollar but was sturdier than wood and could be embossed, as this one was. At bottom center is an 1860 Smith & Wesson with a mother-of-pearl handle, just the thing for an urban dandy. At center left and right are modern revolvers, both with plastic handles; the German one on the right imitates staghorn to evoke the old West.
Few implements of daily life have changed so profoundly in the last century as has the razor. In the mid-1800s the development of steel blades that could easily take and maintain a sharp edge turned the razor from a craftsman’s instrument into a tool for everyone. But the straight razor, associated with one of manhood’s distinctive rituals, continued to be treated with flair and style, especially by using fancy materials for its handle. The large French straight razor at bottom, with a whalebone handle carved in the manner of scrimshaw, is from the early nineteenth century; above it is a simple but elegant horn item, its blade bearing an image of George Washington. The one at top has a handle of celluloid, the plastic introduced in the 1870s to give middleclass consumers an affordable taste of luxury and style.
The safety razor was introduced in the late nineteenth century, initially simply to make shaving less hazardous. When King C. Gillette added the safety guard and the disposable blade—using new extra-thin steel—an industry was born, and with it a new way of thinking about razors. Since then cheaper materials have gradually displaced finer ones. The earliest safety razor shown here is a Gem razor from the beginning of the century, at center, with an elegant celluloid handle. Metal handles were common for much of the century and were often plated with nickel, silver, or even gold. Cheaper plastic prevails today, from the Bakelite at top center to the disposables at right.