This week’s readings address themes like sense of place and what "commodity” means. Igor Kopytoff’s piece, “The Cultural Biography of Things,” addresses this notion of commodification by assessing the historical commodification of people through slavery. Dell Upton’s article “White and Black Landscapes in Eighteenth Century Virginia” also discusses slavery, but focuses on the relationships of place between Virginian slaves and their owners in the 18th Century. Also considering a sense of place is John Brinckerhoff Jackson in his book A Sense of Place, A Sense of Time, in which he questions how we as Americans can find any sense of place in cities that look so much alike. Finally, we were assigned a section from John Stilgoe’s book, Alongshore, in which he describes the seashore as a place through various terms that have described it over the centuries, and what these tell us about the coast as a marginal space between sea and landscape. For the purposes of this blog post, however, I will focus exclusively on the works by Kopytoff and Stilgoe.
In his chapter “The Cultural Biography of Things,” Igor Kopytoff describes how people can undergo a process of commodification by which they become things in becoming slaves. What I found interesting in this section, however, was his idea of writing biographies for objects. This struck me, because this is what my classmates and I are doing with our own objects. We are not simply researching their history as representatives of similar things, we are devising full-fledged biographies from birth (manufacture) to interment (accession to the Independence Seaport Museum). Kopytoff poses several questions to ask in writing such a biography, some of which I have already broached in studying my eel fyke net. He asks, for example, “Where does the thing come from, and who made it? What has been its career so far, and what do people consider to be an ideal career for such things? What are the recognized “ages” or periods in the thing’s “life,” and what are the cultural markers for them? How does the thing’s use change with its age, and what happens to it when it reaches the end of its usefulness?” I will not spoil anything by answering these questions of my fyke net now (such answers will be available within a week), but I consider these substantive and practical questions that we as historians can ask of the objects we study as sources.
Truth be told, of the readings for this week, I connected most with Stilgoe’s Alongshore, in which he analyzes what it means to exist within the strange marginal space that is the coast between ocean and land. To substantiate this assessment of the coast as “strange,” he references the half-naked beach-goers who lie carefree next to strangers for hours on the sand, and how it is a place where children are free to play within the reach of wild animals that could harm them (he names jellyfish). I remain compelled by Stilgoe’s descriptive language regarding the margin, the coast, as this kind of spatial in-between rarely considered its own area, because for many of us our own objects were created as a means for this area’s populace to survive and thrive. From this marshy, estuarial wonderland come strangely shaped nets, shallow boats that hide amid the reeds, and wooden ducks that lure unsuspecting prey to land. What other space than the marshes around rivers, and the coastlands could inspire these creations?
 Igor Kopytoff, “The Cultural Biography of Things: Commoditization as a Process,” in The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective ed. Arjun Appadurai (Cambridge University Press, 1986): pp. 66-67.
 John R. Stilgoe, Alongshore (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994): p. 10.