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Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Not just archival nerdery

I recently came across a fascinating article by Andrew Paul Janco on Dissertation Reviews about the use of digital archive collections - which would appear to be curated selections from a range of different archives, rather than what the Wellcome Library is doing with Codebreakers and the forthcoming Digitising the Asylum project, in which entire collections are being digitised wholesale and made available online.

I was cast into a certain amount of gloom to discover that a problem I had encountered with academics developing digital resources, that they did not seem to think it necessary to include the references of the documents they were using, is far from unique and that the documents are thus detached from their original context and not readily traceable back to it.

Janco posits that this is because of the
public-history model where digital archives function more as virtual museum exhibits than as research archives.  While this provides important access to primary sources, advanced undergraduates and graduate students quickly grow frustrated by limited collections that show little promise for original research or do not lend themselves to innovative research methods.
This seems to me not only sad, but bad practice. When I edited an anthology of extracts from published texts some years ago, I included the relevant publication details, including edition and page references, such biographical details as I could glean on the authors, and so on - I didn't just present bits of texts without anchoring them. And books are usually a lot easier to access than archives.

While it is doubtless useful to bring individual documents into juxtaposition with other contemporaneous documents on related matters, it does risk losing important contextual information on the individual documents, especially if where they come from has been occluded in the process. Just an archival reference can tell you something about a document, though I'm never sure whether anybody but archivists who carefully construct references to reflect hierarchies within the archive appreciates this. A reference number is not only a means of locating and retrieving an item within an archive, it contains encoded information as to what collection, what part of the collection, what subsection, etc etc. As Janco usefully points out:
archives have a detailed finding aid and have been organized in ways that allow researchers to identify what kinds of materials are held in the collection and where to find them.  It is impossible for a researcher to read every page in an archive, so he or she depends on archival organization to assess a collection, to understand its origins, its possibilities and limitations.  Knowledge of the materials as a collection informs how we find materials, evaluate their authenticity and their usefulness as historical evidence.

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Have they tried Kellogg's cornflakes?

It has come to my attention that there is a movement (I hesitate to speculate on how large or thriving it is) aimed at encouraging individuals to give up, or at least radically reduce, their masturbatory practices. (This seems to be distinct from, or at least not co-terminous with) the fundamentalist religion- inflected anti-masturbation  discourse.) These are pretty much entirely seen as the result of the proliferation of internet porn, although in the nineteenth century fear of masturbation was pretty much epidemic in spite of pornography being rather more difficult to come by and possibly the habit was just as prevalent without the intervention of the wonders of modern technology.

However, abandoning self-abuse seems to have all the benefits that Victorian onanists would have anticipated from giving up the dire habit. While it doesn't seem that modern sufferers fear a slow death from consumption

or a decline into insanity (masturbatory insanity remained a diagnostic category according to the Board of Control (pdf), formerly the Commissioners in Lunacy, well into the 1930s), they do report improved health, ability to engage effectively with the world, and sexual functionality.

The emphasis appears to be on willpower and self-control, but I wonder if there is a marketing niche for some of the older remedies...

While I'm not sure it's actually true that John Harvey Kellogg specifically invented cornflakes as an anti-masturbation breakfast cereal, they would certainly fit in to his dietary notions about non-stimulating food. And anyway, surely there is a modern advertising campaign in there somewhere - ?Control Yourself with Kelloggs? 

Monday, 14 April 2014

A foundational myth?

The story was going around some years ago that sanitary towels were invented during the First World War, and this is reiterated in an article today about inventions that owe their success to World War One. I daresay that Kotex  - a US Brand - may have owed its development to the series of events therein described, and maybe the story about the Red Cross nurses repurposing absorbent surgical dressings for their own hours of need is even true. But while this may be a compelling foundational story for Kotex, it's not actually true of sanitary towels as a product in general.

Even the Wikipedia article for Kotex concurs on this -'modern, commercial, disposable pads seem to have started in the late nineteenth century with the Hartmann company in Germany and Johnson & Johnson in the United States'.

Unmentioned there is the Southall Company in the UK, which was advertising in Family Doctor and Home Medical Adviser, c. 1893:

The greatest invention of the century for Woman's Comfort, at the cost of washing only.*
May be obtained from Ladies' Outfitters, Drapers and Chemists throughout the world
A Free Parcel of SOUTHALL'S "SANITARY TOWELS" will be sent Carriage Paid to the first Lady Stall Holder of every Bazaar who applies to THE LADY MANAGER... mentioning this paper, and enclosing circular with list of stall-holders.

FREE SAMPLES could also be sent for.

The primacy of Southalls features in the main Wikipedia article  on the history of sanpro and there is yet further information, including scans of ads, on the Museum of Menstruation website

*Possibly not disposables, then.

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

New Directions: Gender, Sex, and Sexuality in C20th Britain

This was an excellent small and focused conference that took place today at University College London.

It reflected several things currently happening in history of sexuality - the spatial turn, from postwar planning of domestic spaces to produce new forms of masculinity to the very specific space of Cardiff's Butetown associated with prostitution and cross-race sexuality; the recognition of the continuing significance of religion, both in the panel dedicated to it and in Sean Brady's compelling paper on the role of sectarianism in attitudes towards on homosexuality in Northern Ireland; the importance of popular media (in this case the tabloid press) as a means of circulating sexual knowledge, not necessarily in the way the editors intended. Material culture also made an appearance in the form of the repositioning of the condom in the 1970s.

There was a very welcome attention to differing regional experiences. Besides Brady on Northern Ireland, and Simon Jenkins on transgressive sex in Cardiff, we had a taster of Helen Smith's impressive work on working-class men in South Yorkshire who related sexually to other men in the pre-Wolfenden era, and Jane O'Neill's work on Scottish young peoples' negotiations around sexuality since World War II.

There were also plenty of opportunity for informal interactions over lunch, coffee, and eventually wine.

The organisers can be congratulated on a very successful day.