Daen on Van Horn, 'The Power of Objects in Eighteenth-Century British America'

Jennifer Van Horn
Laurel Daen

Jennifer Van Horn. The Power of Objects in Eighteenth-Century British America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017. 456 pp. $49.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4696-2956-8.

Reviewed by Laurel Daen (Massachusetts Historical Society) Published on H-Early-America (September, 2017) Commissioned by Joshua J. Jeffers

The disciplines of history and material culture studies have often been at odds. For much of the twentieth century, traditionally trained historians neglected to incorporate artifacts into their studies, deeming these sources to be less serious and valuable than textual evidence. Many scholars of material culture, too, have failed to make their research relevant to the wider historical discipline, focusing narrowly on objects, their users, and makers rather than on how these items can transform existing scholarship. To be sure, this disciplinary gulf has lessened in the past two decades  as more historians consider objects and images alongside manuscripts and print in their work. Few, however, have managed to do this in a way that speaks meaningfully to both fields. Too often scholars have drawn on material sources to bolster arguments they previously developed from documentary evidence rather than using them as a new lens for examining and interpreting the past.

Jennifer Van Horn’s The Power of Objects offers a model for the seamless integration of history and material culture studies and a testament to the payoffs of this approach. Trained both at the Winterthur Program of Early American Material Culture and the University of Virginia, she is as adept at the formal analysis of objects--their composition, materiality, and aesthetic properties--as she is at articulating their significance for historical scholarship. The result is a crisply written, creatively argued, and carefully researched narrative that--reminiscent of works by Robert Blair St. George, Richard L. Bushman, and David Jaffee--will interest material culturists and historians alike. The former will relish the diversity of artifacts that Van Horn explores--not only paintings but also gravestones, prosthetics, boundary markers, masks, maps, dressing furniture, and even eighteenth-century dildos. The latter will appreciate how she uses these objects in conjunction with novels, poems, satires, and letters to advance scholarly understandings of politeness, social networks, colonial identity, race, gender, disability, and nation-building in eighteenth-century America.

Van Horn’s central argument is that artifacts were key players in forging Anglo-American communities in the colonial and early national periods. Elite white Americans, she demonstrates, used material goods to simultaneously bind themselves together into a polite society on the margins of the British Empire and to distance themselves from Native Americans and African Americans, whom they perceived to be threatening to their civilizing project. “In effect,” Van Horn writes, “twinned networks of things and people came together in major North American ports to make a new social order” (p. 9). This social order was defined by politeness--the transformation of one’s innate state of “uncultured nature” to a refined, polished state that was fit to participate in civil society (p. 10). Anglo-Americans used and exchanged polite goods to lay claim to civilized status, to form bonds with others who had also embraced gentility, and to separate themselves from Native Americans and African Americans, whom they deemed to be savage, barbaric, and unable to “become cultured through object use” (p. 22).

Van Horn’s argument recalls and resonates with much scholarship on consumerism, colonial and national identity, and politeness in eighteenth-century America. Like historians such as T. H. Breen and Kariann Akemi Yokota, Van Horn reveals how material goods helped Americans to fashion a unified identity on the eve of the Revolution and in the decades after the nation’s founding. In addition, reminiscent of works by Steven C. Bullock and Catherine E. Kelly, Van Horn highlights the centrality of artifacts to Americans’ displays of gentility and taste. What distinguishes The Power of Objects from this other scholarship is its analysis of understudied articles, such as prostheses and gravestones, and its nuanced discussions of how gender, race, and disability simultaneously shored up and broke down the boundaries of the emerging American civil society.

For example, Van Horn uses portraits of young women in Charleston that feature masks and dresses worn to masquerade balls to consider women’s contested relationship with civility and changing imperial identity in the 1760s. Although no masked galas were ever held in America, colonists knew about them due to their popularity in London. Charlestonian women wore masquerade garb in their portraits, Van Horn suggests, not only to display their awareness of British trends, but also to assert a degree of sexual power that was otherwise prohibited in polite society. Masquerades were associated with licentiousness. By adopting the style in their portraits, young women celebrated the phase of their lives in which they engaged in courtships and thus retained some control over the future social networks of their families. Elite men argued that women’s masked likenesses exposed the passions that threatened their civility, but they nevertheless tolerated the trend, knowing that women’s urges would soon be contained within marriage. Van Horn also notes how the masquerade served as a symbol of the impending imperial conflict. While patriots used masks to signify British duplicity and represented America as a courting woman who held power over her suitor, British military officers literally employed masks to transmit secret information and loyalists depicted America as a bride to Britain.

Perhaps the most unique object that Van Horn employs to examine the networks of things and people that united eighteenth-century Anglo-Americans is a wooden leg owned and worn by statesman Gouverneur Morris. Although the prosthetic is the only one known to survive from the period, it was akin to the artificial limbs used by many wounded soldiers after the Revolutionary War. Lower limb loss, Van Horn explains, threatened elite white men’s polite status. Not only did the nature of their wounds recall the “uncontrollable leakages” from women’s bodies and the lack of discipline associated with African Americans and Native Americans, but eighteenth-century Anglo-Americans also regarded the calf as the most aesthetically pleasing and genteel part of a man’s body (p. 368). Prostheses, then, were crucial for restoring bodily wholeness, civil standing, and manhood (the phallic design of wooden legs, Van Horn notes, recalled a dildo). The type of artificial limb that a man wore also had political connotations. Morris donned a plain, stick-like contraption in Europe to display his American republican values, but switched to a European-made, lifelike device in America to show his worldliness and polite status. In addition, Van Horn discusses the symbolism of wooden legs. Artists depicted the colonies’ separation from Britain as a dismemberment; prostheses, in turn, came to represent the project of nation-building.

The Power of Objects is an innovative, compelling, and meticulously researched study that enriches scholarly understandings of how Anglo-Americans created polite communities in the colonial period that formed the bonds of citizenship in the early republic. The greatest drawback of the work is Van Horn’s failure to consider how African Americans and Native Americans used and exchanged objects for similar or different purposes. These individuals figure into the narrative only as threatening counterexamples to Anglo-Americans’ pursuit of politeness. African Americans’ and Native Americans’ engagement with objects on their own terms is virtually nonexistent. Admittedly, evidence for such an analysis may be lacking. The goods that these individuals owned and used were generally not saved by historical societies and museums nor kept as luxuries by families. Nevertheless, an attempt to recollect these items and the stories they tell--or at least a discussion of the limitations of this endeavor--would have been useful. Excitingly, such an analysis may be present in Van Horn’s next project, which examines African Americans as both producers and viewers of portraits in the antebellum and postbellum South. If The Power of Objects is any indication, this next work will also be filled with diverse artifacts, intersectional in its analysis, and a major contribution to the disciplines of history and material culture studies.


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Citation: Laurel Daen. Review of Van Horn, Jennifer, The Power of Objects in Eighteenth-Century British America. H-Early-America, H-Net Reviews. September, 2017. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=50100

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