Author: Jack Biggs

Just a Pipe Dream: The use of Wooden Water Pipes at MSU

Just a Pipe Dream: The use of Wooden Water Pipes at MSU

One of the most important infrastructural aspects of buildings today is how to get water to and from the building. Plumbing, of sorts, has been archaeologically visible and investigated at sites throughout the world. The earliest evidence of plumbing dates back to the civilizations of…

Printing the Past: 3D Printing the Artifacts of MSU

Printing the Past: 3D Printing the Artifacts of MSU

As I have discussed in previous posts, my project for this year in CAP is to make 3D models of different artifacts found around campus that we have here in our collections. You may have also seen many of these on our Instagram and Twitter…

A Close Shave: Personal Grooming and Social Interaction during the Early History of MAC

A Close Shave: Personal Grooming and Social Interaction during the Early History of MAC

The Saints’ Rest excavations conducted by the Campus Archaeology Program have been well-documented and researched not only because this was the inaugural project for CAP, but also that it is one of the earliest buildings on campus, giving us a rare glimpse into how students lived during the formative years of the institution. Due to the many posts written about his site, I will not attempt to synthesize the vast amount of information we have gathered here, but will focus on a particular artifact that that I feel is particularly pertinent for this time of the year.

Screen shot of the 3D model of the shaving mug recovered from Saints’ Rest in the 2005 excavations.

During the 2005 excavations of Saints’ Rest, CAP unearthed (and expertly reconstructed) a mid-19th century shaving mug. Given that the close of No-Shave-November is upon us, it is only appropriate that I delve into the history of personal hygiene and social interactions through the lens of cumbersome facial hair. The mug in question was possibly a deep or royal blue color during its use-life, but was likely damaged in the fire that consumed Saints’ Rest, thereby distorting its true color and any decoration applied after it was fired in a kiln.

1908 catalog page from the Koken Barbers’ Supply Company showing the uniform and cylindrical shape but highly decorative nature of shaving mugs. Image source.

Facial hair hygienic practices have archaeological roots indicating that before the adoption of metallic shaving devices, sharpened shells were likely used (1). Once copper began being utilized for various other reasons, the metal was manipulated into rudimentary shaving implements. During the 18th century, the straight razor is known to have been manufactured in England (2). Yet shaving mugs, and its not far-off cousin the shaving scuttle, were not officially patented until 1867 (3). Shaving mugs (and scuttles) were used mainly for mainly two functions: 1) to hold hot water used to heat up the brush, and 2) whip up a large lather from the shaving soap. Traditional shaving soaps were hardened soap discs, not the canned foams or gels we know today.

The mug would be filled with water that had been heated over a stove and then let the soap brush sit and warm up in the water. After the water was dumped out and the brush had coated in the shaving soap, the mug was then used to create a lather by whipping the soapy brush until a thick foam appeared.

This is obviously a much more laborious process than we know today, especially since the straight razor was the most popular shaving implement until the invention and patent of the safety razors in 1887 (although the most popular was designed by King C. Gillette in 1895), although it still took some time before these razors were widely used (4). The safety razor changed the culture of shaving by making it less time-consuming, less intimidating, and an overall easier process since the razors were designed to be discarded after one use.

Given the date of both the patent of the safety razor (1887) and the date when Saints’ Rest burned down (1876), this mug would have been used during the hey-day straight razor shaving. Additionally, since no other shaving mug pieces have been found or identified from the Saints’ Rest assemblage, this might indicate that shaving may have been a social bonding experience between students as well as a representation of social identity. The modification of any type of appearance on the body is both a reflection of the self as well as a reflection of the culture in which one exists (5). Although the vast majority of men do not let their facial hair grow wild and untouched, grooming by means of shaving off all facial hair or implementing certain styles is a social communication that produces, reproduces, and emphasizes a sense of self within a cultural system.

1895 ad from the Montgomery Ward & Co. catalog for the safety razor emphasizing its convenience and ease. Image source.

In order for these excavations and artifacts to have any meaning, we must root them within the cultural context from which they were found. Only then do we go beyond the description of an object, such as a simple shaving mug, to the interpretation and social importance that the object can convey. So as the end No-Shave-November is creeping near, grab your shaving mug, your shaving soap, and your straight razor and participate in the culturally communicative body modification process and express your social identity! (or keep the beard, it matters not to me)

Be sure to check out our 3D photogrammetry model of the shaving mug linked here!

References:

  1. Sherrow, V. (2006). Encyclopedia of hair: a cultural history. Greenwood Publishing Group.
  2. Brown,K. (2009). Foul bodies: cleanliness in early America. Yale University Press.
  3. Brooks, J. P., & McGrady, J. (1867 – July). Improvement in shaving-cups. U.S. Patent 66,788.
  4. Thorpe, S. C. (1953). Practice and science of standard barbering, Milady Publishing Corp.
  5. Turner,T. S. (2012). The social skin. HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory, 2(2),486-504.
Modeling the Past: Photogrammetry and Anthropological Research

Modeling the Past: Photogrammetry and Anthropological Research

For my CAP project this year, I decided to do something at which I feel I’m particularly good: creating 3D models of artifacts found during CAP excavations. I have been using digital technologies to render 3D models for about three years now and have created…

Precursor to the Porcelain Throne: The Chamber Pot Lid from Saints’ Rest

Precursor to the Porcelain Throne: The Chamber Pot Lid from Saints’ Rest

The Saints’ Rest Dormitory has a foundational history with Michigan State University, acting as the first dormitory for the fledgling college, and with the Campus Archaeology Program itself, being the first large-scale excavation and archaeological fieldschool on campus.  Built in 1856, Saints’ Rest was the…

The Mount Clemens Pottery Co. Plate Sherd from the Brody/Emmons Complex

The Mount Clemens Pottery Co. Plate Sherd from the Brody/Emmons Complex

One of the best parts about doing research on artifacts we find during CAP excavations is coming across incredible stories or histories that stem from what some people would consider mundane and ordinary objects.  Such is the case with a seemingly ordinary piece of a plate recovered from the Brody/Emmons Complex.  The plate sherd (Figure 1) is about 15cm long and 7cm deep and is a from a pleasant jade-colored plate.  Since only the rim and part of the base are present, the portion with maker’s mark (which is usually centrally located on the underside) is not there.  However, the design of the plate itself hints at its origins.  Around the rim of the plate is what appears to be a petal design such that when whole, the plate would quasi-resemble a big flower.  Based on this rim design, it is most likely that this plate is part of the Petal style from the Mount Clemens Pottery Co., made right here in Michigan.

Figure 1 – Petal plate from Mount Clemens Pottery Co. from the 1930s found in the Brody/Emmons Complex excavations
Figure 1 – Petal plate from Mount Clemens Pottery Co. from the 1930s found in the Brody/Emmons Complex excavations

The Mount Clemens Pottery Co. has its origins back in the 1910s in the aftermath of an area-wide economic depression in the Mount Pleasant area [1, 2, 3].  A local businessmen’s association looked to economically boost the area and traveled to pottery factories in Ohio and Pennsylvania and looked at how these different companies produced their wares.  After a few years preparation, production officially started in 1915 in a warehouse built on an old farm.  By the end of the first year, over 36,000 pieces per week were produced [1].  The Petal style seen by the plate discovered at the Brody/Emmons Complex was mostly produced during the 1930s.  Right after this period, the company became embroiled in a legal battle that still has ramifications today.

Workers at the Mount Clemens Pottery Co. producing casserole dishes, 1924. Image source:
Workers at the Mount Clemens Pottery Co. producing casserole dishes, 1924. Image source.

In 1941, workers were being docked pay for the time between when they clocked in and when they started work due to long prep time before they would actually start working.  Workers had to clock-in, walk a long way down to their work stations (the factory was 8 acres large), and prepare their work station before finally starting work [1, 4].  The workers filed a class-action lawsuit (Anderson v. Mount Clemens Pottery Co.) claiming that the company was unfairly docking their wages and violating the Fair Labor Standards Act.  The district court ruled mostly in favor of the company and that it was up to the employees to prove that needed to be compensated for their prep time, although they did require the company to pay the workers over $2000 in back-pay.  The workers then appealed the decision which made its way all the way up to the United States Supreme Court [4].  They remanded the case back to the lower courts with the strong recommendations that it was up to the employers, not the employees to provide the proof for such decisions.  This led to the creation of the “Portal to Portal Act” in 1947 which defined work time as the time you entered the workspace to the time you leave it, and it is then up to the employer to justify docking wages within that timeframe [4].  These court cases have been revisited and used over the years, most recently in Tyson Foods v. Bouaphakeo in 2016 where workers claimed that the company was unfairly docking wages for the time it took them to put on the protective gear needed for processing pork.

After the case was settled in 1946, Mount Clemens Pottery Co. still had issues with workers but things eventually stabilized.  The factory permanently shut its doors in 1986 after sales plummeted. Researching these histories lets us rediscover the stories that otherwise are unknown to us.  What seems to be just a normal plate is actually symbolic of workers’ right that still have lasting effects into the 21st century.

 

References:

[1] MCPL (Mount Clemens Public Library), 2008. Mount Clemens Pottery Company – Local History Sketches, pp.1-3

[2] Doll, C.E., 1993. The Mount Clemens Pottery Company: History and Memories.

[3] http://www.laurelhollowpark.net/orp/mtclemenspottery.html

[4] Goldberg, H.M. et al., 2014. When Does Compensation for “Time Spent Under the Employer’s Control” Include Pre and Post Shift Waiting and Other Activities?. Southern Journal of Business and Ethics; vol. 6:33-45.

If You’d Like to Make a Call…: The Michigan Bell Telephone Sign from the Brody Dump

If You’d Like to Make a Call…: The Michigan Bell Telephone Sign from the Brody Dump

As technology constantly changes, so too does the constructed landscape to accommodate those changes.  One major notable change that has occurred in recent memory is the mass-production and availability of cell phones in the 1990s and 2000s.  Cell phones allow people to talk to anyone…

Take Two Shots of Whiskey Every 6 Hours: Medicinal Alcohol During Prohibition Era MSU

Take Two Shots of Whiskey Every 6 Hours: Medicinal Alcohol During Prohibition Era MSU

As archaeologists, some of our most common findings are in fact trash, the things people not longer want or need which are then thrown away.  As a result, dump sites, or middens, are some of the best contexts from which to reconstruct the lives of…

Middle school outreach – reflections on my research

Middle school outreach – reflections on my research

Like Mari Isa, for this blog post, I will be talking about the outreach event that CAP ran for Holmes Middle School in Livonia, MI on Friday, January 19th.  However, I will be discussing it from a different point of view.  In Mari’s blog, she discussed the activity itself: what we had the students look at, what the goals of the activity were, what the outcomes were, etc.  I will be coming from a different standpoint: that of a grad student leading the activity and how it impacted us.

CAP fellow Jeff Painter guides the discussion.
CAP fellow Jeff Painter guides the discussion.

As academics (or in my case, an academic in training), we sometimes forget that our research and our purpose aren’t just to further our knowledge in our respective fields for ourselves or other academics.  It is true that in many cases the audience of our publications are other researchers and those in research institutions.  Yet where we can have the biggest impact is in the public sector through outreach activities such as these.  These types of events were not common or even really practiced when I myself was in middle school or even in high school.  That these outreach events are becoming more prominent and more of the norm is highly encouraging and definitely has an impact on many of the students.  However, this event was not a one-way conversation with us researchers just lecturing about archaeology at the middle schoolers who passively listen.  As an instructor in this exercise, I learned a few very important things/lessons.

1.) This type of outreach matters.  Despite what many students say, they do actually love to learn, especially in a hands-on capacity.  Education can be highly effective by taking a tactile route.  Reading information out of books is highly informative, but actively engaging in the research with tangible objects routes that knowledge in reality and makes that knowledge real.  With every class, there was at least one student or group of students that guessed their “mystery site” dated “to the Neolithic, like Çatal Höyük” (seriously, multiple students said this exact phrase).  The students are learning about ancient cultures and time periods and it is through these types of activities that they get to practice their knowledge and use critical thinking skills.

A student uses a black light to find the uranium glass.
A student uses a black light to find the uranium glass.

2.) The students taught me how to interact with them.  As a graduate student, I interact mostly with my professors and other graduate students, so our topics of conversation sometimes go in directions and use certain jargon that the majority of people don’t understand or don’t care about.  By spending an entire school day with middle schoolers, we all had to reorient how we interact with others when talking about topics that we are all very well-versed in.  We sometimes forget that our research benefits the public and that we therefore need to approach these topics in a way that is meaningful and interesting for the public.  We work for them, so we need to make sure that we include them in our conversations and that our research isn’t just for our own sake.

3.) Building off my second point, it helped me think about how I can make my own research meaningful and pertinent in today’s society.  The biggest and most important question that archaeologists gets asked, and one that can be the most difficult to answer, is: So what?  Why does this matter?  Research for its own sake does nothing for society.  In doing this event, I saw students that were highly engaged, had great theories about their kits/sites, and were generally hungry for knowledge.  I learned that if one aspect of my personal research (which is how childhood was experienced for the ancient Maya) interested them, then I would have succeeded in part of my research goals.  By watching them interact with each other, I took note of how they interacted with the world around them, how they addressed each other, adults, teachers, and us.  How did they experience their world and how can I use that to look at ancient childhood and adolescence?  Additionally, what similarities can I draw from ancient Maya childhood that I see today?

By teaching these middle schoolers about archaeology, they taught me that I don’t give enough credit to middle schoolers.  We sometimes get trapped in our own ivory tower and forget that there is a world below us where most people live and interact.  Participating in outreach programs such as this not only benefits the students, but also teaches us as the experts that our expertise is meaningless and useless if we only discuss things amongst ourselves.  I hope that we continue to conduct these types of events as I think it is imperative in today’s educational climate.  The world needs more bright students to shape our future and it is our job to help make that happen.

Drama, Drama, Drama!: The Tragedy of Archaeologically Invisible Histories

Drama, Drama, Drama!: The Tragedy of Archaeologically Invisible Histories

As I mentioned in my first blog post for this year, my CAP project is to go through all of the dissertations, and bachelor’s and master’s theses written by Michigan State students about Michigan State University during its entire history as an institution of higher…