Thrift & The Button Box

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With first research around the theme of housekeeping completed individually, a pre-arranged Face Time conversation enabled the joint consideration of these. Emerging areas of interest were identified, and further detail exchanged through free-flowing conversation and recalled anecdotes. As research sources were discussed, we spent some time reflecting upon how content gathered to inform this new project may enable challenge to our working methodologies and individual practice alongside the avoidance of repeating earlier projects located within similar themes of social history and domesticity.

Drawn to the notion of specific moments in time, we reflected upon the marriage bar, changing roles within the household and the identification of specific tasks assigned to these for our parents, grandparents and self. The routine and rotation of household tasks through the fortnightly turn-out were discussed and linked to some extent to our own experiences. Some consideration was given to taking this theme forward through the collection of data from friends and their families.

Continuing to explore notions of thrift, we discussed the teaching of domestic skills and the saving of buttons from old clothes within the button box. The button as an evocative object was considered through the research and writings of Lynn Knight, and the potential for collecting our own real and imagined stories considered.

With some consideration of potential timings and deadlines for this project, we agreed to spend August undertaking further individual research around The Button Box through reading and the collection of real and imagined stories. This will form the content of the project and enable September and October to be allocated to design and production.

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Keeping House: The Way Things Were

First research around the notion of keeping house, revealed a series of linked words defining a range of domestic materials, account books to catalogue household expenditure, and money given or granted on a regular basis to finance the running of the household. I read about differences across generations, expectations for raising children, keeping house and the marriage bar.

The marriage bar restricted employment of married women, and (as in the case of my maternal Grandmother), required the termination of a woman’s employment when she married. Seemingly, this practice was justified as a social policy to find jobs for men and single women and allegedly created a disincentive for women to marry. In 1946, The Spectator, published an article which presented reasons for the implementation of marriage bars. These included thoughts around married women not needing jobs as they were financially supported by their husbands. Schools prepared girls for this life of domesticity providing tuition in cookery, household management, darning, sewing and how to iron a shirt properly. Girls were taught to look after their house and husband, and once married their husbands were considered the head of the household. Clothes were often homemade, either sewn or knitted. Knitted items were re-cycled by being unraveled and re-knitted into something else. Allegedly, when collars on shirts became frayed, they were unpicked, turned inside out and sewed back on! And buttons from old clothes were saved for the button box.

I discovered a Housewife’s Button Box within the contents of a discarded sewing box for sale in a local bric-a-brac shop earlier this year. Of the original 72 plastic two-hole and four-hole buttons, 29 are remaining and 25 other buttons have been added to the box. Of these 25, 10 have 4 holes, 13 have 2 holes and 2 are shank buttons with a loop at the back for fastening. In reading about button types, I discovered correct and incorrect sewing conventions linked to button and fabric type. Whilst investigating stories surrounding button boxes, I happened upon the historian Lynn Knight who explores the narrative of haberdashery through lives of ordinary women. For Knight, buttons are tokens to recall the clothes they were made to fasten and embellish, the housewives and mothers who made and wore those clothes, and the lives they contained. Within her book, The Button Box: Lifting the Lid on Women’s Lives, Knight writes about stories passed on from the women in her family, their changing prospects over generations and of clothes as self-expression, defiance and entertainment.

An article in The Guardian, written in February 2000, questions whatever happened to the housewife? It begins by presenting the view of a journalist some 40 years ago who wrote about suburbia as a good place to bring up children but a dull place to live! The original article apparently connected with readers and ultimately led to the formation of the National Housewives’ Register which aimed to unite housebound wives with liberal interests and a desire to remain individuals. Re-named as the National Women’s Register in 1987 it continues today, with groups meeting regularly to discuss everything except the domestic. The article notes that early members of the register admitted to fiddling the housekeeping to pay for the membership fee! A present NWR member, who is just 10 years older than I am, recalls having to give up her secretarial job when she got married because the company did not employ married women stating “it was the way things were”.

Alongside information about the roles of women within the house, I also found a WW2 sewing kit, called The Housewife, designed to contain all the materials a soldier would require to carry out any repairs to his clothing, including a thimble, two balls of grey darning wool for socks, 50 yards of linen thread wound around card, needles, brass dish buttons for battledress and plastic buttons for shirts.

References
https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/housekeeping
https://www.historic-uk.com/CultureUK/The-1950s-Housewife/
http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/britain_wwone/women_employment_01.shtml
https://history.blog.gov.uk/2015/05/26/a-perfect-nuisance-the-history-of-women-in-the-civil-service/
https://www.civilservant.org.uk/women-history.html
https://www.theguardian.com/world/2000/feb/28/gender.uk
https://nwr.org.uk/component/k2/item/14?Itemid=263
https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/30016350
https://www.penguin.co.uk/authors/lynn-knight/1073993/
https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/feb/10/the-button-box-lifting-the-lid-on-womens-lives-lynn-knight-review

Cleanliness, Thrift and Routine


For several years I have collected books that relate to traditional aspects of domesticity, therefore these editions became my initial point of reference. The books cover the periods from approximately the 1930s-60s, so are written for a different time, with the natural assumption that keeping house was the sole responsibility of the female of the household. The main theme of all the books across the 30 year spectrum appears to be thrift – recipes, shopping, cleaning hints, laundry, mending and how to budget the household finances efficiently.

“A housewife, to be really successful, must not only be a good cook, and house-keeper, but a good shopper so that she gets the best value for her housekeeping allowance’ The Modern Housewife’s Book

 KEEPING HOUSE: There appears to be an extraordinary amount of importance placed on ‘keeping a house spick and span and free from dust’ with several of the books offering suggested house-work routines which refer to the ‘fortnightly turn-out’ where tasks are rotated, through to entire chapters on spring cleaning and the military precision required to juggle housework with other duties such as cooking and looking after children.
HOUSE KEEPING: The same amount of order and precision is given to managing the household budget as to the cleaning routine, with all the books assuming that the housewife will keep weekly accounts of her expenditure, pointing out that “this not pointless drudgery, but the necessary routine of a well-managed household…” The Book of Hints and Wrinkles

There are suggestions of how to break down the household income and plenty of advice on budgeting, with hints on cheap shopping, menu planning and cutting down on household bills (avoiding unnecessary phone call and turning off the lights!).

As stated at the beginning of this post, these books refer to a different era, and it is easy to make light of the pedantic nature of the writings, however if you strip away the out-moded references, what is left are themes that we can still relate to; different pressures undoubtedly mean that we still, to various extents, rely on routine to manage our daily lives (which includes shopping, cleaning and cooking). Similarly there is probably more pressure to maintain our homes – DIY make-over programmes of the 1990s, the plethora of home magazines and social media platforms such as Pintrest encourage us to update our interiors on a far more regular basis than say my grandparents (who had the same furniture for their entire marriage).

To Bordeaux and Back

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A pre-arranged visit with friends presented the opportunity for a face to face meeting to make sense of first ideas in response to our new project. The time afforded enabled free flowing conversations, in which we questioned content and context with a particular focus on overlaps with previous projects and our interest in continuing to challenge working methodologies and individual practice. Object led memories were discussed as we exchanged stories around childhood, parents and grandparents, and similarities were noted with ideas beginning to be formed linked to keepsakes, evocative objects and the house and home. Interests in family photographs, clothing and shoes emerged as we spent some time sharing details around favourite items and specific moments in time. Keen to establish our next step, we considered potential timings for research,decision making and realisation and began to construct a series of first points of enquiry focussed around the selection of evocative objects connected to our grandparents. As we discussed these in more detail, common themes around keeping house emerged and we became interested in the notion of housekeeping, ‘housekeeping money’, and routines and rituals linked to these roles across generations. In response to this, we agreed to each undertake first research around the theme of housekeeping in order to clarify our question of enquiry prior to gathering stories and memories.

New beginnings

In the past two months work commitments have impacted on any opportunity to discuss our collaborative pratice; however a pre-arranged FaceTime meeting offered us the chance to
reflect on what is important to us individually and to bring these thoughts and ideas ‘to the
table’.

The discussion started with what could be deemed as the ‘failure’ of our most recent collaboration, The Blue Book, however it was clear that we could take some valuable lessons from the project; it re-iterated the fact that the ‘altered book’ is not our favoured genre and starting a project with no particular purpose, or emotional (or personal) attachment to it, hindered our commitment to the process. Therefore our first decision was not to explore this type of project again!

T expressed concerns around returning to known practice, and producing books that, although may have commercial appeal, may limit our making to repetitive/expected outcomes. We both agreed that it was important to continue to challenge our working methodologies.

We articulated the need to address a particular aspect of our individual practice – whilst T had enjoyed the research and process element of previous projects, she felt the development of imagery had not always been as successful, therefore it was important for her to address this. P recognised that recent projects had led to an emphasis on book content rather than book structure, and therefore it was important to explore and develop this further. We recognized that this could be the starting point of the project and started to discuss a range of themes which included: the ‘Hear her’ radio series, keepsakes, hidden messages within garments (inspired by the Phantom Thread film), cataloguing aspects of our meeting in the middle project, inheritance, domesticity and MA practice.

It became clear that with our new individual aims, we could still explore our joint areas of interest without compromising the integrity of our practice; therefore we will look to develop a body of work based around the idea of evocative objects and the memories we attach to either the object or the original owner of the object (namely grandparents).

Closing the blue books

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The aim of today’s pre-arranged FaceTime conversation was to share and exchange ideas emerging from the two pre-set tasks set four weeks ago, namely the cataloguing of colours within our respective books and the generation of new text matter based on the combination of page 99 from each novel.

Whilst we have both completed the tasks,it was evident, from the individual blog posts produced in response to these, that we are finding it difficult to apply appropriate levels of meaning and context to this project. As we began to discuss issues face to face, we quickly came to the conclusion that whilst the project has enabled us to develop new working methodology, both the process and book content hold no real appeal or significance, and subsequently this lack of engagement is hindering the momentum needed for us to collaboratively drive the project forward. Therefore, at this point, 5 months into the project, we made the joint decision not to pursue this project any further. Since beginning to working collaboratively, 13 years ago, this is the first time that we have abandoned a project.

Once the decision was made, we exchanged ideas around new directions.We both highlighted areas for potential exploration, these included, Vera / evocative objects / women of the walk / celebrating a moment from time / notice boards / the typewriter owner – all themes which have the potential to link back to past projects, or concepts, that have arisen whilst working on other books. Size, scale, processes and working methodology also formed part of our discussion, and some initial decisions were noted.

Our aim now is to locate a new project. The starting point for this is to undertake both a review of previous work and individual research with each of us uploading a blog post to record our progress after two weeks of research, prior to a next scheduled FaceTime meeting in mid-May.

Cataloguing colours within my Blue Book revealed 127 individual references to just 10 colours with black and white being the two colours used most frequently. In the majority of instances each colours is used as a metaphor, with references to age and emotional states being the most common. I have become interested in this symbolic approach to using colour linked to a specific parlance through time and place. Perhaps this is an approach to making with meaning which could be applied to stories and subject matter concerned with domesticity and the everyday?

In order to combine page 99 of both Blue Books, I began by alternating sentences. Whilst not altogether successful, this did get me started, and I began to see the body of text as individual pieces similar to that of a jigsaw. By cutting out words, and smaller phrases I started to group similar words and look for potential stories within the text. Small sentences began to emerge, almost as extracts from some bigger story. Whilst these are a combination of words from both books, I struggled to make one sequential piece of text and instead made 10 short stories taking inspiration from the reference to chapter 10 within P’s book.

Counting and Cutting

As I undertake the two set tasks, I am still finding it difficult to connect with this project. There is no set outcome at the moment – but this isn’t the problem, it’s more that the project seems to lack depth and I wonder if we are trying too hard to find a solution to something that just isn’t there; should we have considered our book choice more clearly and selected a topic around domesticity? Would this have given us a clearer sense of direction? However, there is the realisation that if we DO manage to produce a body of work from this project, then this method of working could enhance our current collaborative practice and become a foundation for developing further work.

Despite the negative comments above, I am enjoying the process of discussion, and the subsequent setting of mini-tasks to advance the project. In terms of the current tasks – listing the colours, although a little tedious, is easy, my final tally is approximately 380; however working with the texts from our respective page 99s is proving to a lot harder than I expected. I have tried various methods of combining the texts and at one point even resorted to an online story generator, which also failed! I am aware that this could be an abstract narrative and so I looked at the work of Raoul Hausmann and Dada poetry – including the Tristan Tzara method of ‘How to make a Dadaist Poem’ – and although this uses a very basic system to produce a narrative, I didn’t like the methodology or outcomes that it generated.

dada sound poem

However, I was interested in the idea of applying a system, which is something that began recurring in our work during the Windham Papers. I began by looking and analysing the texts, noting similarities, highlighting pronouns, and isolating specific aspects of the narrative until I developed a system that enabled me to produce a new text. The finished piece doesn’t use all the words as the task required, but I could keep going through the text and apply different systems until they are all used up!

 

The Blue In-between

We have had a month to catalogue our respective blue books using the categories we developed through discussion and debate. A FaceTime ‘meeting’ enabled us to report our progress, along with our findings and reservations. We have both found the process of cataloguing rather tedious and repetitive, and have started to question the purpose of the exercise; this meeting came at an opportune time and enabled us to voice these concerns, and subsequently talk through the issues that the process has highlighted.

P: I felt it was important to start by questioning what we wanted to achieve with this project. Was it to further challenge our collaborative practice and working process, or merely an opportunity to produce an edition of ‘sale-able’ artists’ books? Also did the book have to have a purpose? As we started to talk through these topics it became evident that we were both struggling to find a point to what we were doing. T suggested that this could be because we had no personal connection with our particular books, which had been purchased at random, and subsequently we were struggling to relate to the subject matter. Was there then a way forward that would enable us to find an area of common interest?

We discussed and rejected various methodologies, including producing a haiku version of each book; of the 10 categories that we had mapped, we had both gravitated towards ‘colour’ – therefore it was decided to take a more abstract approach, and to start listing each colour with its corresponding page number and any relevant descriptor attached to the colour. In conjunction with this we discussed a project that I have recently completed called Page 99 – there is a theory by English writer Ford Madox Ford, that if you open a novel at page 99 then ‘the quality of the whole will be revealed to you.’ Using this premise we will both use the final sentence on page 99 as the title of our respective books. To enable us to consider a narrative, T suggested that we send each other a copy of page 99, and both attempt to combine the text of these pages to form a new ‘story’. This is not dissimilar to the work of Graham Rawle who wrote an entire novel using words from vintage women’s magazines.

http://www.grahamrawle.com/womans-world-book.html

These decisions will now enable us to take the project to the next level, and hopefully by undertaking this set of instructions we will start to gain a greater sense of what the book may become. Without knowingly setting out to develop our practice using a new methodology, by default the nature of this project – and our disconnect with either the text or author – appears to be leading us in a new direction.

Within the Difference

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P and T: Following a visit to Windham, we took the opportunity to determine our next project. A face to face meeting enabled us to exchange books and view first hand commonalities. We questioned if there were any? and if we wanted to alter, combine or produce by-products of these volumes. A leading issue was the discovery that ‘Twenty Years A’Growing’ is considered a seminal work documenting the Irish language which presents some challenges in making responses which haven’t previously been considered. This, together with some initial reservations around the author of ‘Venture to the Interior’, resulted in the decision not to focus on the main characters in the book but to search out something new.

We started to talk about cataloguing, and how we had both really enjoyed the inventory aspect of the Windham instructions. We were reminded of the Vera project, and spent some time talking through how we had catalogued the seemingly random collection of broken jewellery and the subsequent value this had given to 5 miscellaneous pieces. This seemed to give us a way forward. We questioned – why we can’t catalogue these books in the same way that we catalogued Vera? This could be a new way of looking at the books – a visual examination of the whole rather than the narrative or the leading character. From this point, we began to generate a list of categories to catalogue. These became: colour, transport, animals, clothing, food, drink, occupation, climate, building, equipment (domestic or otherwise).

We agreed on a system and will plan a FaceTime conversation on 15 March to review emerging ideas.