by Camille Westmont
As a historical archaeologist, my work focuses on understanding the lives of those who lived in the past but who have often been excluded from the history books: the poor, working class folks, women, and immigrants.
I am a graduate student at the University of Maryland where I work on Dr. Paul Shackel’s Anthracite Heritage Project, which has been doing research in the Pennsylvania Anthracite region since 2009. Our excavation crews dig in the backyards of former company houses and piece together broken sections of glass bottles and ceramic dishes in order to tell stories about the people who lived in, toiled under, and built the anthracite region.
In the summer of 2016, we were excavating at 36 Back Street, the former location of a ‘Slate Picker’s’ house in Eckley Miners’ Village. Although today Eckley is idyllic with fields of rolling grass and quaint stands of birch trees, our excavation site brought back to life some of the sounds of industry: the clanging of shovels and scraping of mason’s trowels across the rocky ground, the thump of dirt as it falls into orange five-gallon Home Depot buckets, the swishing noise of the artifact shaker moving back and forth as loose dirt falls through its mesh screen, leaving behind broken pieces of pottery and glass bottle shards, lost clay marbles, and scraps of tar paper. The foundation of the former house is a flurry of activity as students work in pairs to dig, sift, measure, and map the soils in their own 5 ft by 5 ft excavation unit.
Even though slate pickers were far from wealthy, our excavations into the thin layer of dark soil around one side of the former company house yielded something surprising: pieces of a semi-expensive type of decorated ceramic dish called Blue Willow Transfer Printed Whiteware (I’ll refer to them as ‘Blue Willow’ for short).
It turns out these pieces came from three separate Blue Willow vessels, dating back between 1870 and 1890. For context, no such vessels were recovered during our 2015 excavations on Back Street or our 2017 excavations on Main Street in Eckley.
By the late 1850s (the closest data available), Blue Willow vessels cost 150% of what an undecorated dish of the same size and shape did (Miller 1980). Given that mine laborers were only paid $1.62 per day (from which rent, doctor’s fee, and other expenditures were subtracted) and worked only 15-20 days per month, the extra expenditure on something as benign as dishes is interesting (US House of Representatives 1889: 504). Why would they have spent their limited resources on expensive dishes?
Or, given the possibility that someone had gifted the expensive vessels to the family, why did they keep these three mis-matched dishes all in the same pattern? The domestic middle class cultural standards for the time were prescribed through such popular publications as Godey’s Ladies Book and home manuals, all of which specified that matched dish sets were the mark of a middle class home. Matched dish sets denoted wealth because of the costs involved with buying an entire set of dishes at once, as compared to buying individual dishes as the funds became available, which might result in slight variations.
Although we will likely never know the real answer to those questions, I have some ideas.
To put it simply: it is nice to have expensive things, whether that is an expensive car, an expensive watch, or, in this case, an expensive set of dishes. The use of expensive items to convey wealth or class status, referred to as ‘conspicuous consumption’ by social scientists, is a human social practice that had existed for thousands of years.
Conspicuous consumption works by showing off high value or rare items to others (called ‘signaling’) who will recognize the value of the item and, in theory, cause them to think of the object’s owner in a new light given their ability to acquire items that the majority of people cannot afford.
When social scientists discuss conspicuous consumption, the focus is often on how the ownership and display of expensive items impacts others’ ideas of the wealth or class status of the object’s owner. What I am interested in, however, is how simply owning expensive items can convince the owner, too, that they have more wealth or class status than might actually be the case. People sometimes want to display a sense of social attainment to themselves, in other words, and they accomplish that by holding onto ‘props’ like the Blue Willow dishes.
As at least one of these ceramic dishes is a plate that would have been used during meals, which were generally familial – not public – affairs in the working class, it seems likely that this family on Back Street intended to prove to themselves that they were worthy of such high-status, expensive possessions. The absence of these types of dishes from neighboring houses further underscores how special these particular dishes would have been, both for status and for sentimental purposes.
It might sound trivial, but it’s important to recognize that people project their own desires onto such items and use them to develop their own identity and sense of self. In the anthracite region, the poorest workers were often forced into untenable and unsustainable situations: sending children into the breakers or textile mills, tolerating poor wages and unsafe working conditions, and undertaking work in the informal economy (such as given-out textile production, laundry, and boarding services). The dishes might have been how this family coped with these conditions, giving them the feeling of having an elevated status – an elevated sense of worth – amid undignified poverty.
While such stories from the past can’t put food on the table or solve any of our current cultural crises, they help to remind us that the past is never far away. How many of our purchases today truly reflect our own preferences, versus how many are a reflection of how we want people to think of us? How often do we look with scorn at poor and working class people purchasing something that we doubt they can afford, never considering how meaningful that item might be to them? The means may have changed – a big truck or expensive car is more likely to be used to convey wealth and status today than Blue Willow dishes – but the ends, and people’s desire to transcend their current circumstances, have not.
Camille Westmont is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Maryland. Her research explores the intersections of class, gender, ethnicity, and the built environment in labor contexts.