Many of us own, encounter, or remember objects and spaces that evoke strong feelings; often pleasant or comforting, sometimes upsetting or sad. Historians are increasingly trying to understand this emotional aspect of material culture and how it might have changed over time and place.
This is a theme of one of the books I’m working on, called Materialising Masculinities in Britain 1780-1880: bodies, emotions, and material culture, which uses material culture, materiality, and emotions to examine the concept of being manly and its impact on society, culture, and men. In this book I’m trying to understand how people construct a gendered identity and I’m increasingly persuaded that people’s engagement with material culture and the emotions it prompts plays a part in this process.
I have noticed that some material culture represented idealised manly values which prompted affective responses in men that in turn helped reinforce manly identities and men’s adoption of them.
Let me use the figure of the military to make my point, because it exerted a powerful influence on men and was critical to the construction of manly self-identities in the period 1790s to the 1850s.
Objects glorifying and symbolising military men were numerous – like the wooden walls and hearts of oak on the ceramic plaque above (1830s-40s) – a form sometimes described as the ‘poor man’s picture.’ The verse on this plaque evokes various feelings – bravery, sacrifice, love, and kindness which made manly values appealing. Also above is a commemorative Sunderland pink lustre jug. On one side there is a portrait of Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson. This kind of commemorative object was common. They were intended to inspire affective feelings. This stirring verse evoked loss, mourning, and glory and since the last line: ‘All, all were Nelson’s on that glorious DAY’ connected the ordinary sailor with Nelson, these sentiments were linked with ordinary men.[i]
The question is, how did this kind of material culture instil manly ideals?
I think the answer lies in emotions. Scholars show that emotions underlie and help organise social, cultural, and political structures. Emotions are often conveyed in text and image, but material culture did the same thing too. The cultural theorist Sara Ahmed, for example, proposes that contact with objects – both imagined and material – generates feeling.[ii]
How does this provide insights into people’s interactions with gender values and identities?
I suggest something akin to a feedback loop can be identified. Objects with representations of idealised military men on objects were carriers of manly qualities and values. When these values were discussed, debated, and disseminated they evoked an array of feelings in those who handled or possessed them. So people developed affective relationships with material culture and the images and texts depicted on it therefore played a part in constructing and performing identity. Basically, objects functioned as emotional artefacts to fix the manly values in the individual and society.
I want to use two case studies. One is a description of emotional engagement with material culture and the other considers an object itself.
Henry Angelo (1756-1835), Fencing Master, published his Reminiscences in 1828. He recalled several events about military-related material culture:
At this period I, being the only son, and but in my sixth year, was the pet of the house. Mr. Floyd [army officer] pretended to be the bearer of a commission in Lord Pembroke’s regiment, which being formally presented to me, my mother made a complete suit of regimentals for little Harry. Thus equipped, I was in the direct road to ruin, for what with the fondness of my mother, and the sportiveness of the inmates, I became one of that species of self-willed, mischievous monkeys, a spoiled child, when my father, who was a discreet man, very sensibly sent me to school.
So much for my military fame; for though I was already destined for the army, according to family notions, yet the fates had ordered it otherwise. My naval career was equally short, though not quite so fruitless, for I obtained a share of prize-money for an action which I knew of only from report. Captain Harvey, R. N., (subsequently Lord Bristol), was frequently a visitor at my father’s, for whom, as well as my mother, he professed the most friendly esteem. Previously to his leaving England, not long after the period of which I am speaking, he got me rated on his books as midshipman. On his return home, after having signalised himself in the Dragon man-of-war, under the guns of the Moro Castle, he presented my mother with twenty-five guineas, as my share of prize-money for that expedition; and which I still retain in the shape of a piece of silver, as a memento of my public services as a son of Neptune.
For a time I strutted about in blue jacket and trowsers, and was intended for the sea ; but here again the tenderness of a mother interposed, and her singing the favourite air in Thomas and Sally, “For my true love is gone to sea,” operating on her too sensitive nerves, frequently set her weeping ; and my infantine sympathy making me do the like, the blue jacket, as well as the red jacket, was laid aside, and my profession of arms was doomed to be a very harmless profession.
Henry Angelo described very visceral responses to objects associated with the military, particularly military uniforms, ships, prize money and ‘riches,’ and military heroes. These objects conveyed a number of associations related to identity – both national and manly, including glory, riches, honour, wonder and awe – at the military spectacle, and love and loss.
Angelo’s memories also show that objects displaying military masculinities were powerful in the domestic sphere and that women engaged with them too. This is particularly noticeable with commemorative material culture. Both sexes purchased commemorative objects to demonstrate pride in nation or political allegiance; many of which had a domestic function, decorating homes as pictures, ornaments, and soft-furnishings that women sewed themselves.
This bed cover is an amazing example; ca. 1805, a Mariner’s Compass design, made from a wide variety of plain and printed cottons. The V&A have precisely dated to it to a fairly short period of intense naval euphoria up to 1801 (there is more on it here).
It is known as the George III coverlet because at its centre is a pieced, embroidered circular figurative panel showing the review of volunteer troops in Hyde Park by King George III; copied from a print by John Singleton Copley in 1799.
Its maker also sewed 40 vignettes around its border, appropriated from the patriotic images in military prints circulating at the time. These were an alternating mix of domestic and military scenes: sailor and lover, After the battle, Un-mounted horseman with horse, Nelson with drawn sword, Hussar and cannon, Sailor with oars, Mounted soldier, Soldier kneeling, Sailors drinking and smoking, Sailor and lover with ship and castle, Soldier with seated lover, Returned soldier, Peirson on his deathbed, standing soldier with sword, injured sailor, departing soldier.
I find it very interesting that the coverlet’s maker selected those that had emotional resonance – sailors and soldiers’ personal relationships with women, family, and comrades, and death-bed scenes. Thus the bed cover hints at the extensive domestic reach of the manly ideals associated with military figures.
Although I’m still thinking about this, my impression is that there is an interplay between the universal and the individual in the emotional meaning of such objects. After all, I have examples of men reacting in similar ways to military objects, so it is likely that emotional objects functioned as disseminators of values that people shared and interpreted within their pre-existing mutual knowledge of gender constructions. Nonetheless, engagement with the objects and values was clearly shaped by people’s individual experiences such as personal emotional context, but also factors such as gender, age, and class which determined access to specific material cultural forms.
To summarise, the popular image of the military man acted as an emotional catalyst – stimulating approved emotions such as desire, affection, love, pride and grief. He also served as a model of which unmanly emotions to restrain: fear, anxiety, grief, passion. Handling, possessing, or frequently encountering images and emblems of military manliness through material culture embedded the feelings and associated manly qualities more firmly in men’s minds as a way to construct a self, and to access the power that manliness conveyed.
NMM, AAA5163 A jug decorated with bands and splashes of pink lustre and hand-coloured, black transfer prints. On one side, a portrait of Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson (1758-1805) between red ensigns with ships in the background, the whole surmounted by a figure of Fame. The portrait is accompanied by a verse: ‘The Briton mourn, what else can Britons do/When bleeding Nelson rises to her view/Still is there cause for Triumph when she shews/The captured colours of our vanquish’d foes/And greater still when FAME was heard to say./All, all were Nelson’s on that glorious DAY’. On the other side of the jug, a depiction of an iron bridge over the Wear: ‘A South East View/of the Iron Bridge over the/Wear near Sunderland’, ‘J. PHILLIPS, HYLTON POTTERY’. Under the lip is a transfer of a brig, and a verse within garlands: ‘My Ship is moored,/My wages paid/So let me haste/Unto my Maid.’, ‘DIXON & CO SUNDERLAND POTTERY.’
The Cultural Politics of Emotion
(2004) 212 edition, Routledge, Abingdon, p. 6.