Birmingham Manufactures project

“Historians (both professional and non-professional) find objects tricky to understand and interpret. Historical ‘truth’ tends to be associated with the written word rather than with things, and objects are thought to be less articulate about the insights into the past that they offer.”

For the latest in my series exploring the work of urban historians today, I was lucky enough to be able to catch up with the team that’s working on the Birmingham Museums Trust’s Birmingham Manufactures project. Birmingham Manufactures is an Arts Council funded project that-amongst other things-aims to catalogue and make more accessible and visible, the Birmingham made objects in the museum’s collections.

What is the background to Birmingham Manufactures?

“The project will encourage thinking across the collections, and recognising the importance of these items for understanding the history of Birmingham manufacture.”

The project came out of a desire to improve the cataloguing system for Birmingham Museums, and make the collection more accessible to researchers and members of the public. The project is funded by the Art’s Council’s Designation Fund which funds projects which ensure the long-term sustainability of significant museum collections and maximise their value both to the public and to museum staff. This money has paid for two new dedicated members of staff, and will be used to develop the cataloguing system and to pay for new archival and collections storage. Birmingham Museums has an enormous collection of objects – somewhere in the region of 800,000 items – which have come into the collection in various ways. The acquisition and cataloguing of objects has traditionally been the responsibility of individual curators who look after a particular area of the collection – applied art, for example, or science and industry. Although many of the items in the collection are related to Birmingham manufacture, these objects are rarely understood in this way. Some objects, such as fine metalwork and jewellery, were acquired as examples of ‘good’ design to inspire Birmingham’s workforce and subsequently found their way into the applied arts collection. Others items, such as the engines and machinery used in some of the city’s various trades, were acquired and displayed at the old Museum of Science and Industry as examples of innovation and technology. More recently, oral histories from individuals employed in Birmingham’s workshops and factories have been collected as part of the social history collection, and new interpretation for the Birmingham History Gallery. The project will encourage thinking across the collections, and recognising the importance of these items for understanding the history of Birmingham manufacture.

How does this help us understand Birmingham’s history?

“As well as helping us to understand the economic development of the city, these objects can also help us to access something of the daily lives of the people who lived and worked with them.”

Birmingham is known for its history of manufacturing, and is commonly referred to as the City of a Thousand Trades. Industry and manufacture were central to the city’s growth in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and making and manufacture remain at the heart of the self-identity of many in the city today. The variety of objects that we will be cataloguing as part of this project suggest the complexity of this history. Items that we will be considering include weights and scales, engines, motor vehicles, bicycles, firearms, jewellery and domestic metalware, food products, buttons and pens amongst many, many others. Unlike industrialising towns like Manchester and Sheffield which were focused on one major industry (cotton and steel respectively), Birmingham flourished precisely because of the variety of industries operating within its borders. By understanding the composition of objects and the materials needed for their production, these items can help demonstrate the interconnectivity of Birmingham industries, and of their place in national and international markets and movement of people. As well as helping us to understand the economic development of the city, these objects can also help us to access something of the daily lives of the people who lived and worked with them. Some of these objects speak volumes about the skill (or otherwise) of Birmingham’s workforce and of the labour involved in their production; others suggest changes in fashion, taste, and consumption patterns; other objects will have more personal meanings, and will appear in individual and family histories in different ways. Rather than simply understanding these items as commodities or as examples of design, we will be digging through archives and conducting oral histories interviews to generate a more complex record of what these objects may have meant.

What do you see as being the project’s long-term outcome?

“It is hoped that a second phase of the project will work from the data we generate to map the location of particular workshops and factories, and provide a publicly-accessible resource to those interested in the history of Birmingham and its manufacture.”

The project will ensure that a significant number of items in the collection that were made in Birmingham and its surrounding areas are properly catalogued. This may not sound like an exciting ambition, but it is vital for the future of the collection, and its interpretation. As well as describing the objects in full and assessing their condition, we will be recording maker names and the location of production where it is known. A large number of items will be photographed to a professional standard, creating a vital visual record which might also be used for display purposes. All this information will support the work of researchers and academics, and provide a wealth of information for those interested in the history of manufacturing in Birmingham. Eventually, all this information will be available online, allowing members of the public to access images and information about the collection digitally. It is hoped that a second phase of the project will work from the data we generate to map the location of particular workshops and factories, and provide a publicly-accessible resource to those interested in the history of Birmingham and its manufacture. Although the main outcome of the project will be to document, make accessible and raise awareness about an important part of the collection at Birmingham Museums we also hope that the project will encourage curators and members of the public to think differently about the objects in store and on display, and to continue to build connections between different parts of the collection. We are also hopeful that the project will encourage future collaboration between Birmingham Museums and local heritage sites, archives, libraries and community groups.

Are museums and their collections overlooked as a historical resource?

we hope the project encourages others to use the collection as a resource whether… writing an institutional history of Elkington & Co… or wanting to show their friends the custard packets they used to have on their table…”

Yes! Historians (both professional and non-professional) find objects tricky to understand and interpret. Historical ‘truth’ tends to be associated with the written word rather than with things, and objects are thought to be less articulate about the insights into the past that they offer. More recently, and partly stimulated by what is termed ‘the material turn’, there has been an increase in the use of museum collections in historical research and a recognition that objects offer important insights into the past. Although the interest in using museum collections is increasing, there is a problem with the logistics of how exactly interested parties might access these items, particularly the vast majority of items which are not on display, but locked away in museum stores. As funding cuts follow funding cuts and staff numbers dwindle, providing access to these collections becomes all the more difficult. By fully cataloguing the objects which appear as part of the project, and by taking detailed photographs of them, we hope the project encourages others to use the collection as a resource, whether they’re interested in writing an institutional history of Elkington & Co. or one of the many other Birmingham manufacturers, or wanting to show their friends the custard packets they used to have on their table…

Has there been much interest from the public in what you’re doing?

Although we’re still at the very early stages of the project, we’ve been lucky to have lots of people get in touch. It’s wonderful to hear the stories of those who work or worked in Birmingham-based industries, or those who have memories of their relatives doing so. As I mentioned, we will be doing some oral histories as part of the project, and would be very pleased to hear from anybody who would be interested in doing this. At the moment, we are particularly interested to find anybody who worked at the factory of Alfred Bird and Sons in Digbeth, so please do get in touch!

Why do you think that people have been motivated to get in touch, or otherwise engage with you, about Birmingham Manufactures?

These industries shaped people’s lives, and those who worked in them (and their relatives) have a strong affinity with them. There is also something very powerful about the idea of your history, the history of your workplace, your family, or your neighbourhood being recorded in some way by a museum.

What’s the interesting thing that you’ve uncovered so far?

“One rectangular tin of custard powder… made it all the way to the North Pole on Fridtjof Nansen’s expedition in 1893-6…”

There are many interesting stories to be told from the collection, but our favourites so far are the globe-trotting tins of Alfred Bird’s food products. With its home in the Custard Factory in Digbeth, Bird’s was an iconic Birmingham brand, and because of this, we acquired a collection from its archives in 2013. The collection offers a fascinating insight into the development of a brand, food tastes, and advertising in this country, but it also demonstrates the global reach of many Birmingham-made goods. One rectangular tin of custard powder, for example, made it all the way to the North Pole on Fridtjof Nansen’s expedition in 1893-6; another tin of baking powder was found on the other side of the globe, rescued from Robert Falcon Scott’s expedition to the South Pole at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Birmingham Manufactures say:

Please do get in touch with us: birminghammanufactures@birminghammuseums.org.uk. We are also on Twitter @BrumMfr and on Facebook, where we post regular updates about our findings.

Please also consider signing the petition to ask Birmingham City Council to reconsider substantial cuts to Birmingham Museums at www.change.org/p/birmingham-city-council-please-reconsider-cuts6-to-birmingham-museums. The deadline for the petition in Monday the 16th January 2017.

For more urban history profiles see here.

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The University of Birmingham’s Libraries as photographic objects

“Increasingly, everyday amateur photography is a performative practice connected to presence, immediate communication and social networking, as opposed to the storing of memories for eternity, which is how it has hitherto been conceptualised” (Larsen & Sandbye 2014 p. xx)

At some point between the Marshall Mathers LP and the collapse of Leeman Brothers photography mutated and grew legs. Today everyday photos are no longer encountered sporadically reverently displayed on walls, tucked into hardback alums or folded into newsprint rather they are deeply embedded into the fabric of everyday life. As anyone who’s taken a picture of their lunch and shared it with the world (or alternately scoffed at an acquaintance who’s done so) can attest.

The short term implications of this shift are clear: photography in the 2010s is deeply, more so than ever, enmeshed with the technology through which it is created and shared with a photographer’s social networks. The ability to create and rapidly disseminate images has rapidly altered how individuals use images and the value that is attached to them. Whereas once a cherished snapshot shimmered miraculously in the face of everything that counted against its creation (cloud cover, motion blur, a finished film canister). Today’s images are evanescent, existing in the moment for the moment, showing both ourselves and those around us that we are in a moment and (whilst still performing a vital social function) are almost entirely supplanted a short while later when we next flick our phone out, open the camera app and hit the shutter button.

What the longer term implications of this are remain to be seen, but it is possible to see already how the instagramification of everyday life is starting to break out of the virtual part of our reality and impact upon the material world before us.

A couple of years ago, when I was temping at a large UK university, I was amused to notice outside one of the plusher campus buildings where my department had an open day stand, that the event’s organisers had set up a “selfie spot”. The “selfie spot” came resplendent with its own hashtag and open day attendees were being invited to stand on the spot and take their own picture. The purpose of the picture was clearly intended to encourage the prospective applicant to “picture themselves” at the institution, and just as crucially; share an image of themselves pictured at the institution with their wider social network and the world at large. A clever campaign, that probably seemed utterly bizarre to the parents and grandparents chaperoning the sixth form age attendees; but one which a scholar in the Department of Marketing at the university’s Business School could have taught as Social Marketing 101.

The snapshot in the age of the selfie, remains one of “visual culture’s cliches”, however, the inherently networked nature of everyday photographic practice makes it, if judged right, and incredibly potent marketing tool. There is nothing new about brands consciously trying to create an icon. As long ago as the 1950s, the popularity and public impact of Roland Barthes Espirt columns (collected and published as Mythologies) lead him to lucrative consulting work for companies, like Citroen; attempting to sculpt products that were irresistible to the public.

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A stylish mid-1950s Citroen DS rally car in Finland, Author Unknown (1956) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In architecture the urge to iconify goes back even further, what was the Acropolis if not a signifier for classical Athens? What were the Pyramids or the the Ziggurats of Ur? In the modern period both states and corporations hit upon the idea of using the buildings in which they were situated as physical symbols of their presence and power. From the earliest decades of the 19th Century banknotes featured pictures of the assets or offices of the banks where they were produced: an allegorical way of giving form to the abstract financial conjuring and transactions they represented. Goods producers as well, once mass advertising became a thing, began to put pictures of their premises (or an idealised set of premises) on their packaging and in information about their products. By the mid-20th Century in the words of Allan Sekula:

“Imagine the gaze of a stockbroker (who may or may not have ever visited a coal mine) thumbing his way [through a company annual report or a share prospectus] to the table of earnings and lingering for a moment on a picture of a mining machine… The concrete source of the abstract wealth being accounted for in those pages.” (Sekula in Wells eds. 1995)

Approaching our own time as sources of value have become ever more abstract (and in societies like the United Kingdom intangible values like prestige and spectacle have come to be as valuable as physical products) so the importance, for any public or private authority, of possessing an iconic building has only increased. Since the emergence of rollfilm in the late 19th Century it is hard to doubt that, slowly but surely, the “snapshot value” of a building has begun to be taken into account by both architects and those who commission them (interesting Kodak predates the Eifel Tower by a single year).

The great World Fairs of the early to mid-20th Century are a brilliant example of where this tendency began to emerge. To quote Douglas Murphy “it seems hard to believe now… But once whole families would travel to see the world’s fair”. From the clashes between the Axis powers and the USSR at the World Fairs of the 1930s to the last gasps of modernist optimism at New York in 1964 and Montreal in 1967 the pavilion designs at the World Fair were crafted with at least half an eye on the potential for them to provide a good backdrop for family portraiture.

Similar concerns can be observed on a more localised level. Writing in the early 2000s Tom Phillips recalled seeing a “tintype photographer”, hawking a primitive form of instant photography, at the Festival of Britain in 1951. A clear indication that the organisers thought it important that visitors were able to immortalise themselves besides their iconic displays, and of course; return home to share with their friends and family a memento of their trip to see Britain’s bright socialist future. Outside of Europe, doubtless a more modern impulse than a craving for shear gigantism, lay behind the leaders of newly independent “Third World” countries to build grand parliaments, convention centres and national monuments in their capital cities. From India and Brazil in 1950s, to the “Red African” countries in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and Iran the middle east after they became mass oil producers, surely the desire that their people’s showcase their modernity through capturing snapshots of themselves in  Chandigarh, or Brasilia or posing before Azadi Tower, provided part of the impetus for their construction?

Azadi Tower - Tehran City

Azadi Tower Tehran, By Hooperag (File:Azadi_Square_in_Tehran,_Iran.jpg) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

All of these iconic constructions, however, are best suited to pre-digital photography. The bold statements that they make are perfectly shaped to fit the contours of an age prior to our own, when photography was not something that could be-in the words of Nancy Van House-done “any time, any place, without any prior planning” (Van House 2011). Twentieth Century tourists flocking to national capitals and coming home with a few dozen cherished frames, were relatively easily satisfied with a few sightseeing snapshots, a few intimate moments captured, maybe a frame or two providing a dash of local colour. Today’s highly networked camera phone wielder might still take “old fashioned” snapshots whether out of a sense of tradition or proprietary or for the sake of older relatives or acquaintances who are familiar with and comforted by the older style of picture (a similar logic presumably attaches itself to the lingering ritual, perhaps peculiar to the UK, of the posed school child in their school uniform). However, given how much a part of their everyday life photography is, it is necessary for the 21st Century iconic structure to offer a larger palette of photographic possibilities.

Tate Modern in London is a classic case in point. Designed in the 1990s at the tail-end of the traditional snapshot era, Tate Modern is designed to be encountered from the far side of the Millennium Bridge. Here the snapshot taker can arrange the objects of their affection, friends, family a lover, on the north bank of the Thames-opposite the squat gallery building with its distinctive chimney, the Millennium Bridge providing a graceful and easily legible way into the picture-and immortalise their own instantly classic shot.

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Tate Modern opening day 2000, Wurzeller at the English language Wikipedia [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

In contrast to this traditional, snapshot album friendly vista, the Tate Modern Extension-opened in the summer of 2016-is a mishmash of crazy angles, making it very hard to get the whole structure into the frame when trying to compose a shot. Which is surely the point. Whilst bracingly curved, anti-geometric museum and gallery structures; have been something of a fetish in the cultural sector ever since the Bilbao branch of the Guggenheim Museum appeared briefly on screen in The World is Not Enough just prior to James Bond abseiling out of a window, it is clear that the Tate Modern Extension has been designed for a very 2010s purpose: the selfie.

The Tate Modern Extension’s jagged form from its heavy dark bricked protrusions, to its gash like windows providing views over central London, is not supposed to offer a sense of the whole. Instead it offers up small individual chunks of itself and of London for the visitor to snap pictures of themselves against and promptly pass on to their social networks. The shear array of potentially interesting posing places offered by the new gallery (and many other buildings of the 2010s for instance the Library of Birmingham) is perfectly suited to an age when the “entry barriers to art [or merely artful photography” (Van House 2011) have crashed down. The purpose that the building’s endlessly selfiable aesthetic serves is similar to that offered by the optimistic national monuments of the mid-20th Century and the millennial naivety of the Millennium Bridge/Tate Modern vista: it allows for a certain limited kind of bourgeois self expression and self fashioning, whilst proclaiming the power of certain institutions. It also, thanks to the networks from which 21st Century digital photography gains its power, offers the Tate as an organisation, London as a “global city” and the United Kingdom as a worldwide brand brilliant exposure.

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By Jim Linwood from London (The New Tate Modern Extension – London.) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Just in time for the 2016/17 academic year the University of Birmingham completed the switch from its old main Library, built in the late 1950s, to a brand new one. There were many reasons for the switch, many of them very good as the old library really wasn’t fit for purpose, however, one that wasn’t openly discussed was the potential for either of the University of Birmingham’s Libraries to serve as a photographic object.

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Old Main Library University of Birmingham, Author’s Photo (all rights reserved, 2016)

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New Main Library University of Birmingham, Author’s Photo (all rights reserved, 2016)

It was clearly grasped in the 1950s that the University’s Library was a potent symbol of the institution and its values. There is for example newsreel footage of the Queen Mother opening Library in 1958. This is however, nowhere near as interesting as the role which the old Main Library came to play in one key aspect of the University’s life: graduation. When they have had access to cameras students have always been keen photographers, however, given the relative difficulty and barrier to taking photographs prior to the invention of digital photography and the camera phone, students until into the 2000s probably did not take all that many more pictures than the rest of the population. One occasion when photography was very likely to be present was at graduation right at the end of the students’ studies, when the family camera clasped in the hands of a proud older relative; would snap pictures of the proud newly minted graduate in their full regalia clutching their hardwon scroll.

At the University of Birmingham the sweeping rise of steps up to the terrace in front of the Main Library became the natural location for graduation photography. It is certainly a fairly well established tradition. My Mum and my uncle graduated from Birmingham Medical School in 1985 and 1990 respectively. Many of the half a dozen or so photographs from their graduations feature the Library and its steps prominently. Like a World Fair pavilion or the sweep of the Millennium Bridge towards Tate Modern the old University of Birmingham Library provides the perfect situation for the quintessential graduation picture. Its appearance solid, plain, vaguely modernist but with traditional flourishes, hewn from safely bourgeois redbrick (deeply evocative of the buildings built by the Edwardian Birmingham elite that created the institution) provides the perfect backdrop for a newly minted graduate about to step out into the world of respectable, comfortable employment.

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Frontage, Old Main Library University of Birmingham, Author’s photo (all rights reserved, 2016)

 

The “visual cliche” (Berger 2011) of a graduate stood before a building that oozes with visual signifiers that connote the popular image of what a civic university’s buildings should look like carries with it the full weight of the expectations that are placed upon graduates. The photograph, once printed, framed and situated on the sitting room wall, carries with it the weight of the graduate’s expectations for their future, the family’s pride that they have achieved a university qualification (with all the social power that connotes) and on an ideological, level society’s wider investment in reproducing certain codes, values and behaviours in its middle class citizens.

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Entrance, Old Main Library University of Birmingham, Author’s photo (all rights reserved, 2016)

Birmingham’s new Main Library also lends itself to photography, but not of the traditional snapshot kind. As with the Tate Modern Extension it is very hard to fit the entirely of the new Main Library in one photographic frame. Suggests that the photo taker is not supposed to try and do so, as with the Tate Extension the granularity of the Library’s structure, the intricacies of its casing and its gaudiness lend itself to being the backdrop for a selfie.

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The author takes a selfie (completely unironically) outside the University of Birmingham’s new Main Library (all rights reserved, 2016)

Whilst there are certain angles from which it might be possible to pose a reasonable traditional snapshot with the new Library as a backdrop, in future graduates who want a classic graduation shot will have to make do with the Aston Webb, Law School, base of Old Joe or-if needs must-cross University Green to the Faculty of Arts Building. This suggests that if-viewed as a photographic object-serving as the site for a graduation photo is not its purpose.

Whether intentional or not the old Main Library building signified the end goal of western higher education: the reproduction of a certain kind of patriarchal bourgeois order. By contrast the new Library signifies and provides a backdrop for the higher education journey itself. To return to the “selfie spot” it can be read as a marketing tool with forty miles of shelving. On open days and school visits in the future it will act as a tempting canvas against which potential applicants will be able to picture themselves at University. Once they arrive the distinctive metallic cladding and gold fins will provide an infinite number of social media starbursts fleeting signifying the University to those who glimpse them on their newsfeeds.

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Frontage, New Main Library University of Birmingham, Author’s photo (all rights reserved, 2016)

Internally as well as externally the new Library provides a perfect playground for curating and cultivating certain images of University life. Countless Instagrammed, Snapchatted and Tweeted images of airy, well equipped, yet welcomingly informal study spaces, reinforce the (if not glamourous then at least worthily exciting) conception of university life that is the dominant code in popular discourse and the media. Social media posts provided for free do the work of the University Marketing Department more effectively than several Scandinavian forests worth of paper flyer and prospectuses thrust into wilting arms on a summer’s open day.

Reading the University of Birmingham’s libraries as photographic objects brilliant illustrates how networked digital photography and the emerging practices surrounding it has transformed popular photography. It is clear how the graduation photographs taken by generations of Birmingham students, and the countless everyday pictures of University life taken and shared by their successors, connote and reinforce certain key social meanings and messages. Today’s photography, like the photography that preceded it and like visual culture throughout time; speaks to the society in which it is created and the relationships through which it gains its meaning. It serves to illustrate a society in which technology has brought near infinite abundance and possibility in some spheres, whilst at the same time experiencing a sense that everything is ephemeral, provisional and liable to vanish into air.  

“I would like to thank a number of typists…”

“I am grateful to Deirdre Barker who did my typing until the moment she was ‘carried off’ to hospital to have her baby and to Wendy Rigg for coming to my aid at the last moment”.

Documents have stories inscribed upon them, but stories are also woven into their creation.

I was recently in the University of Birmingham’s Library studying a couple of dissertations submitted “in fulfilment of the requirements of the degree” of MA and PhD by members of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies in the 1970s. In many ways the concerns that the researchers sought to address, de-industrialisation, race and gender relations, underemployment, alienation… have a lot of contemporary resonance. Which perhaps isn’t surprising, the earliest dissertation that I’ve called up from the store was awarded in the spring of 1972 twenty years before I was born, the most recent in the Autumn of 1978 (a few weeks after my parents began their A-Levels). What is surprising, at least for a reader who learnt how to use Microsoft Office Millennium edition alongside how to produce cursive script; is the way the dissertations are presented.

As the quote the that starts this post, taken from the Acknowledgements section of A study of working class women at home : femininity, domesticity and maternity, Dorothy Hobson’s MA thesis attests: they were typed, by hand, on manual typewriters.

When first approaching, the bulging, battered, hard bound volumes that contain the CCCS theses, the full import of this doesn’t immediately sink in. Sure, the typescript is smaller, harder, less softly and invitingly serifed than computer fonts, but as, Kindle aside, there isn’t-yet-a commercially available form of reading digital texts that’s especially quick use, (Adobe, and online e-books don’t really cut it) the tactility of the theses as physical objects makes up for it.

Then suddenly it hits you: the little imperfections, a letter out of sync here,

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“Letter out of sync” A study of working class women at home: femininity, domesticity and maternity (Hobson, 1978), Author’s photo (2016)

A neatly tippexed correction there,

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“Tippexed correction”, A study of working class women at home: femininity, domesticity and maternity (Hobson, 1978), Author’s photo (2016)

a place where a comma has been discretely added with a pen.

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“comma added with a pen”, A study of working class women at home: femininity, domesticity and maternity (Hobson, 1978), Author’s photo (2016)

Together they add up to show the reader how different a manually typed document is from one which is word processed. This is I reckon, opens up a number of interesting questions to explore about the documents as physical objects, the thought and craft that goes into creating them, and the stories-the social history-that we can gleam from how they came into being.

Terms like word processing betray their origin in manual typing. Manual typing is highly physical work, which requires accuracy and judgement. The CCCS theses I have been studying demonstrate this with aplomb. Whilst typing on a computer I have a lot of software holding my hand: an algorithm automatically moves the cursor at the end of the line, another algorithm wired to a database (both ever more accurate) corrects, or enables me to correct, my spelling, typos and sometimes grammar, yet more algorithms control for spacing and so on.

With a manual typewriter there isn’t any of that, spelling, spacing, margin widths, even reaching the end of a line, are entirely in the hands of the operator. This isn’t the only way in which the operator was key. When I type, I am engaged in a physical process in that my hands are moving, but, I am merely telling my computer which characters to display in which order. It’s at a power station-probably hundreds of miles away-fired by gas, coal, nuclear fission, the wind, whatever; where the hard work of providing the energy that makes the process run happens. By contrast on a manual typewriter it is the typist exerting themselves that provides the power that makes the production of the document possible. You can see the sheer force with which they had to hit the keys on the backs of the pages which comprise the volumes, just like a photographic negative.

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“Back of a typed page”, A study of working class women at home: domesticity, femininity and maternity  (Hobson, 1978), Author’s photo (2016)

And indeed it is just like a negative. Much as the sun’s rays are captured through a chemical process by an old style photo film, and the jazz sax solo we hear on an old ‘78 is a sound enabled by the lungs of a musician now decades deceased, so a physical trace of Deirdre and Wendy who toiled to make it possible, remains in every character of Dorothy Hobson’s MA thesis.

The job of a typist was rather like that of a lathe operator in a factory, the skilled craftsperson who with some skillful judgement and adjustment here and there, skills won through practice and training, brings the designer’s blueprint to life. In this sense the mid-century intellectual who wanted their work neatly presented in typescript, but who either couldn’t or wouldn’t type it themselves, becomes more like an engineer giving instructions to a fitter. The longhand draft is the blueprint, the typed up chapter the finished widget.

In many regards this is a radically different relationship from one enjoyed by creative worker’s today. Whilst in the early twentieth century, higher education and other forms of knowledge creation and transmission have called into being a whole new range of support professions,  today’s academic or student is far more expected to live up to ideal of the “lone genius” in many crucial regards. Computer word processing at once liberates and enslaves them.

The death of the typing pool, whilst being yet another example of how skilled, yet monotonous, work has been edged out by technology, doubtless changes the kind of work that scholars produce. The media scholar Friedrich A. Kittler has argued with reference to Nietzsche (one of the first writers to use a typewriter) that the machine transformed the form of his work from “arguments to aphorisms, from thoughts to puns, from rhetoric to telegram style.”

But, it is beyond the scope of this short post, and certainly my abilities as a critic, to unpack this to much, so I shall let another German-Gunter Grass-have the final word on this topic:

“I would like to put a stop to this movement toward reading on computers, but it seems that nobody can do this. Nevertheless, the drawbacks of the electronic process are already apparent during the writing of the manuscript. Most young authors write directly on their computers, and then edit and work in their files. In my case, on the other hand, there are many preliminary steps: a handwritten version, two that I’ve typed myself on my Olivetti typewriter and, finally, several copies of versions that my secretary has input into the computer and printed out, and into which I’ve incorporated many handwritten corrections. These steps are lost when you write directly on the computer.”    

What I can comment upon is some of the social and cultural history that is revealed by the typed theses I have been reading lately. Hobson’s brief mention of her typists in the “Acknowledgements” section of her thesis go beyond the formulaic and express with economy-I think-a lot of genuine gratitude, friendliness and familiarity with them. Whilst also serving as a reminder that computers don’t take maternity leave. It is I think, possible to see in a slight darkening of the ink on the page, the point at which Hobson’s typist changed.

There is lots yet to be written about the now vanished social formation that was the typing pool. If anyone wants a place to start, during the 1970s and ‘80s the CCCS, especially female members like Hazel Chowcat, some of whom came from secretarial professional backgrounds, produced quite a lot of work the explored skilled and semi-skilled office work as a phenomenon. Typing was a skill that women who were entered for public examinations at school were expected to learn, it was a respectable, but not necessarily especially respected (even in comparison to their male counterpart the lathe operator) trade.

This meant that a great many women who attended university in the second half of the twentieth century would have had some familiarity with typewriters. I think that it might be possible to see this in the production of another CCCS thesis, Popular music and youth culture groups in Birmingham by Paul Willis.

Whereas the typing up of Hobson’s thesis is of a very high quality, giving it a rather polished professional look, the production of Willis’ (admittedly far longer thesis) is rather more hit and miss in terms of its production values.

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“Changes on the page” Popular Music and youth culture groups in Birmingham, (Willis, 1972), Author’s photo (2016)

Words have been, left out, misspelled and corrected,

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“Word added”, Popular Music and youth culture groups in Birmingham (Willis, 1972), Author’s photo (2016)

elsewhere words haven’t come out well on the page and had to have been added in by hand.

Here and there words, or even entire sections have been added by someone’s, small, spikey, but legible hand; using a black fountain pen,

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“Sentence added”, Popular music and youth culture groups in Birmingham (Willis, 1972), Author’s photo (2016)

Whilst in other places sections of the typing seem quite faded, like it was done haltingly, and or on a machine that had a fading ribbon, was poorly calibrated, or perhaps just didn’t work that well.

I wonder whether an explanation for this might be found in the relative Iliad about producing the typescript that is recounted in the “Acknowledgements” section of the thesis, which begins:

“I would like to thank a number of typists for their unstinting and often unpaid efforts…”

Willis then goes on to thank a total of six typists (all women) for producing the final version. Towards the end of the typist’s paragraph Willis mentions that he initially attempted to type much of the thesis himself, but that it proved necessary for the women thanked to “rescue [Willis] from two eleventh hour crises… and [his] own indifferent typing”. It is of course possible that the sections riddled with errors and corrections are Willis’ own efforts at typing up his work, however, the fact that most of those who worked to produce the submitted version of Youth Culture were “unpaid” leads me to wonder whether they were fellow students, or possibly friends of Willis and his wife, who offered to help him produce the final version. Given that typing was a very common skill found among women at university during this period, and amongst those educated beyond a very elementary level among the population in general, this seems to me a perfectly plausible explanation.

Does the difference in terms of the “finish” on their respective projects point to the evolution of the CCCS project?

In 1972 when Willis submitted his thesis the CCCS was still in its infancy, it was a very small research centre, with only a couple of staff, offered no taught programmes, and had few sources of funding beyond a grant from Penguin books. In this straightened environment, it possibly made a lot of sense for people to chip in and deploy skills that they had to assist each other. By contrast in 1978 when Hobson submitted her thesis the Centre’s taught MA had been up and running for some years, networks bringing teaching work the way of CCCS research students had opened up, and the Centre itself was (comparatively) secure financially and in terms of its expanding reputation.

This blog post is not intended as a eulogy to the typewriter. For all of typescript’s tactility and romanticism, not to mention the seductive idea of having someone else to do the administration, the benefits (and distractions) of computers outweigh the relative hassle and lack of utility that comes with producing typewritten pages. This blog also makes a number of somewhat speculative claims, however, they serve their primary intention which is to suggest ways in which the construction of documents (or any other types of source) should form part of the histories that we write, and indeed can be history that we write in of themselves.

As a final note in having these discussions today I feel that we have to thank those like the CCCS scholars, who having done it-or grown up with it looming as an overdetermined career choice-began asking questions and taking an interest in the significance and nature of routine office work and the world’s, relationships, structures of feeling and meaning that it creates. I certainly know that my understanding of how things are or aren’t recorded, how decisions are reached and systems of thought reinforced and articulated, was honed, improved and on occasions radically tilted by days, months and years spent filing, data inputting and typing in routine office jobs.        

Kinds of Place

Like every child growing up I became increasingly aware of spatial difference and inequalities within the city where I was raised. This is basically a fancy way of saying that I became aware that there were some areas that were richer, sometimes dramatically so, than others.

Slowly realising the implications of this was one of the ways in which-for better or worse-I figured out who I was and what my place was in scheme of things. Without ever explicitly being told it I came to realise that I was “at home” in the well established, left-leaning, middle class suburb where I grew up. Differences of taste, appearance and yes; implicit notions of fear and threat, served to mark out the boundaries of where I wanted to go, where I could and couldn’t go.

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A great view from the author’s walk to work, and handy illustration of Birmingham’s spatial divisions (Author’s own photo)

My middle-middle class, middlebrow intellectual mindset semi-consciously marked out other parts of the city as “posh”, “boringly average” and “rough”. Places to hurry through at best, avoid at worst.  

Despite liking to think that I am a fairly critical individual, in possession of a fair bit of empathy and imagination I admit that a lot of this went unchallenged in my mind until I was eighteen and left where I grew up to attend university in York.

York is a predominantly prosperous city, with the peculiar character of having a large transient population. Even out of season it’s population is swelled by thousands of day trippers, tourists and conference delegates. Their number is complemented by tens of thousands of other semi-permanent residents students, soldiers and agency workers posted there for a fixed period of time, many of whom will leave when they get their degree scroll, next deployment or a better contract. A tier above them sit the academics, civil servants and technicians, not really rooted anywhere, who swoop in to work at the universities, DEFRA, English Heritage, Network Rail one of the building firms, financial services companies or technology groups who make York their home. A tier beneath them sit a raft of people who gravitate towards York’s bright lights, some have just left prison, some are homeless.

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Different users of York’s St. Helen’s Square (Author’s own photo)

Mushed together these different groups give the impression, once you’ve been there a little while, that York is a city in a steady state of flux. The experience of this, very clearly implanted in my mind the idea that everybody experiences cities in a different way. There isn’t one York, there isn’t one Birmingham, there isn’t one Tallinn or Bogota or anywhere else. At the most you can say that there are “kind of cities” that certain groups experience urban life in a certain way and enjoy a certain type of shared communal experience.

That this is the case struck me on days when I used to walk around York’s old city. It became obvious that my experience of York, as full time student at the pre-92 university to the south of the city, was very different from that of one of the shopkeepers on Stonegate, or a white collar council worker buying their lunch opposite St. Leonard’s Place. And that their lives and experiences of the city were as different again as that of the tourists strolling the walls with cameras slung round their necks, were from that of the beggars sat strung out along the pavement from the Railway Station to the Minster.

This impression, essentially a moment of clarity, was only further reinforced a few years later when I briefly worked as a local journalist in York, getting to know and working to represent, a very broad cross section of the city’s people.

When it finally dawned upon me that this was how urban experience worked it made a really powerful impression upon me. An impression that has stayed with me, and I hope, made me a better denizen of the urban realms that I have inhabited (and indeed written about) since.                     

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Dusk in York’s King’s Square (Author’s own photo)

The idea that an individual’s personal situation shapes their urban existence has, after a period of abeyance (at least in mainstream discourse), recently become a hot topic of much interest and debate. Yet the very suggestion that it is something that we should be concerned about still has the potential to provoke.

This article, about how women are structurally disadvantaged within the built environment was published a couple of months ago on CityMetric, one of my favourite “wonkish” websites. CityMetric, whilst noted for its love of maps, charts and stats, typically takes a highly humanistic approach to issues that impact upon those living urban lives.

Here’s a few choice quotes:

“Last year, councillors for the city of London, in Ontario, Canada, spent 90 minutes discussing a 12 word addition to a document. The contentious sentence read, ‘Consider a gender lens during the development and execution of new policies’.”

 

“…some… male politicians felt the line impugned their honour. Bill Armstrong, representative of Ward 2 since the 90s, accused Maureen Cassidy, the councillor who introduced the offending line, of ‘questioning the integrity of our administration and suggesting they were doing practices that would be discriminatory’… ‘Plain and simple,” he concluded, ‘all people are treated equally, so it doesn’t have to be said.’”

The article goes on to state that:

“…treating people equally has a long rap-sheet when it comes to achieving equal outcomes. That is to say, treating people equally often translates as treating people like men.”

CityMetric’s piece is talking about policy making in the here and now, and of course, in the near future. But it helped me formulate something concrete from a sea of considerations-hunches if you like-that had been swimming around my subconscious for a long time. If, and unlike the London, OT Councilman Anderson I do not consider this contentious in the slightest, an individual’s experience of the city is subjective and highly shaped by who they are, then surely someone’s memory of the city, the way that it interplays with their psyche is just as conditional and subjective?

The claim that a person’s experience of a city is inedibly marked by who they are is nothing new or in of itself especially novel. A memorable and well known example is the section in the Road to Wigan Pier where Orwell writes about how as a middle-middle class child his access to the city was curtailed by the injunctions, entreaties and vignettes of disgust hurled by his parents and other adults; at the residents of working class parts of the town where he grew up that they were “dirty”. This created a psycho-semantic field of disgust that remained with him into adulthood. In The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie a novel set during a similar period to the one in which Orwell sets his autobiographical reflections, Muriel Spark uses Brodie’s decision to take her class on walking trips around the moody, decrepit tenements of Edinburgh’s Old Town (still decades away from any kind of “gentrification”) as an illustration of how she is striving to lead her class into other kinds of transgression, transgressions of both morality and decent.

Eton rifles 1915 (accessed via pictify.saatchigallery.com)

Both of these literary accounts, one essentially fictional, one a bit less so; present the bourgeois experience of urban life’s mental boundaries. Boundaries which as Seth Koven shows in Slumming it can be exciting to transgress. What then of those people whose position in society lacks the comparative privilege afforded to the middle class?

In City of Dreadful Delight a brilliantly political work of history that works an extended essay illuminating the parallels between the Jack the Ripper killings of the 1880s and the Yorkshire Ripper Murders of the 1970s, Judith Walkowitz writes about how the perils of navigating late Victorian London governed the movements of Victorian women. By examining the pages of the Pall Mall Gazette in the 1880s she uncovers a fascinating series of exchanges between “ladies” and “gentlemen” frequenting the parks and shops of the West End. The letters, spanning a period of time, are a loose dialogue between women who experienced harassment and unwanted attention from men in public places and men who felt that it was “their right” to stare at, comment upon, and in some cases touch, women who were out in public.

This fascinating dialogue-which shows just how long standing the roots of contemporary concerns about, and struggles against, street harassment are, comprises part of a wider section of the book which explores the impact of increasing numbers of women using public spaces upon late-Victorian London. An experience, which many women at times found unpleasant, and which many men found unsettling. Experiences which-as Walkowitz shows-shaped emerging codes about how women should behave in and approach public spaces.

Returning to the present day it is worth exploring some contemporary manifestations of how personal situation and personal experience shape people’s urban existences. In Reading the Everyday, a book that must rapidly be becoming a classic, Joe Moran provides a fine example of how matters like class shape urban existence.

Partially taking his cue for LeFebvre, partially taking his cue from cultural studies, Moran focuses on the political meanings and decisions that structure our built environment at the most basic level. For instance: the privileging by both planners and popular culture of the motorist (more middle class, more masculine) over the bus passenger (more working class, more feminine).

I believe that just as attention has turned, once more; to the inequalities inherent in our built environment and the urban realm more widely so it is possible to explore how particular patterns of thought and preferences are shaped by people’s interaction with of experience of particular urban environments. I will be returning further to these themes in due course.

Aaron Andrews-University of Leicester

“…‘declining cities can still be great cities.”

For the latest in my series profiling urban historians at work today, I have been lucky enough to catch up with the University of Leicester Centre for Urban History’s Aaron Andrews. Aaron explained some of the ways in which his research contests and complicates established tropes of “decline” in post-war urban Britain.

What is your background?

I come from a fairly normal working class family in Northampton, and have become one of those ‘perpetual students’ that give postgrads a bad name. I moved to Leicester in 2009 to study for a BA in International Relations and History – unfortunately my international relations training hasn’t helped me bring about world peace yet. I then went to Bristol to study for an MA in History where my interest in contemporary British history really grew, before returning to Leicester to do my PhD.

What led you to choose your subject matter?

“…from the very beginning I’ve had to think about the ‘real world’ applications of my research…”

During my Masters, I worked as an admin assistant for a consultancy firm that was looking to branch out into local government work. I was offered funding to research ‘urban decline’ in the hope that the end product could be useful to urban regeneration projects across the country. So, from the very beginning I’ve had to think about the ‘real world’ applications of my research, which can be particularly difficult when ‘imposter syndrome’ hits.

Of course, I hope my research will also be historiographically relevant, especially with regard to questions of ‘decline’ and ‘de-industrialisation’ to which I was introduced during my time at Bristol.

Is there anyone (historian or otherwise) that particularly inspires your approach to your topic?

Of course, the first name that comes to mind is Simon Gunn. As my supervisor, he reads and comments on almost everything I write, with this (consciously and subconsciously) informing the way I try to do history. There is a whole network of urban and social historians who have inspired me and continue to do so, and it would be difficult to name just a few. I recently read Leif Jerram’s Streetlife which, to be honest, I should have done years ago! Not only is this a brilliant history of 20th Century Europe, it is one example of a book which shows the importance of space and cities in writing the histories of much larger processes of change.

What do you hope that readers take away from your work?

“…contemporary discourses should be understood in relation to material processes.”

Well, first of all thatdeclining cities can still be great cities. ‘People Make Glasgow’ isn’t just a slogan, but something I definitely believe (then again an awful lot of my family live there so I have to say that!) Secondly, and perhaps more seriously, decline did happen in Britain. It wasn’t simply a political construction, but occurred in particular spaces and within a specific context. And finally, contemporary discourses should be understood in relation to material processes. The interaction between the two is an important part of my thesis. I hope that this can be seen as an attempt to take the two as equally seriously when considering the issue of decline.

How has your work evolved over the course of your project?

It has become narrower – much narrower! In fact, in the last two weeks I have decided, after much contemplation, to remove one case study from my thesis. This narrowing hasn’t affected the questions I’m asking, but will allow greater depth and should hopefully make the answers more accessible for the reader. Though, it seems this is an experience most PhD students have to go through. It can be tough, but necessary!

What led you to choose Glasgow and Liverpool as your two case studies?

When I first began my research, there was a lot of discussion over picking the right case studies, but in identifying these two, there were two key factors. Firstly, they were the archetypal declining cities, especially in the 1970s. This was evident in the way that urban policy discourses developed, in the geographies of government (and other) studies, and in contemporary media coverage. Secondly, access to the archival material was (of course) crucial. Having family in and around Glasgow made the trips to Scotland easier (and cheaper)!

But now I’m focusing on Liverpool, which is a fascinating city and one on which a lot of great research has been and is being done (not to imply too forcefully that mine is included in that!)

Have you discovered any striking differences between how the two cities developed during the period you study?

“…Glasgow’s decline has been questioned, but Liverpool’s has not…”

There are many striking differences between the two, which is inevitable. What is often striking, however, is the way Glasgow’s decline has been questioned, but Liverpool’s has not in conversations I’ve had about the two. I suspect that this has something to do with the politics of ‘urban crisis’ and they way in which processes of change are interpreted. It’s something I think about a lot, and will hopefully have a decent answer for, because many of the processes of change which affected the cities were, in many ways, ‘the same’.

How does your work relate to wider narratives about economic change, “globalisation” and the decline of traditional industries in the second half of the 20th Century?

I’ve said a lot, though maybe more in style than substance, about ‘processes of change’. ‘Globalisation’ was one of the processes which was impacting on urban Britain during the latter half of the twentieth century. We can see this with shipbuilding in Glasgow and port services in Liverpool, in which global economic change was seen to undermine ‘traditional’ and other industries. But narratives of de-industrialisation and economic decline do loom, and it is with these that I have to be especially careful at times. The ‘declinist’ label is something I’d rather avoid! But again, I think we should be looking seriously at the interplay between materiality and narratives/discourses, as well as considering the spaces in which economic changes occurred. Hopefully my work does this!

What was the relationship between the “core” urban areas of Liverpool and Glasgow and their wider urban networks? The smaller neighbouring towns, both well established and newly created, that are closely interlinked with them.

“…space was central in contemporary discourse – it was the urban core which was the problem, and policy interventions within the urban network were geared towards alleviating the problems at the centre.”

That’s a good question, and one which I could spend an awful lot of time discussing. The process of urban change saw people and jobs move from the ‘core’ areas to towns further afield. So ‘decline’ can be seen, on the face of it, as the result of successful policy making. In terms of how these urban areas worked together (or didn’t), we can see different structures developing which facilitated the development of the Merseyside and Clydeside ‘conurbations’. Into the 1970s, the idea of the ‘inner city’ was developed in Britain. With this, we can see how space was central in contemporary discourse – it was the urban core which was the problem, and policy interventions within the urban network were geared towards alleviating the problems at the centre. Nothing is ever this black and white, and there were competing spatialities of concern. Which is good, because at some point I might need a new research project!

Glasgow Finnieston area

By innoxiuss (Somewhere under the rainbow….) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

You can read more about Aaron’s work on his academia.edu page. He can be contacted via the University of Leicester’s Department of History and is on Twitter.  For more urban historians profiles click here.