Tag Archives: history

Frequencies in Whisker Forms

At Vox, Phil Edwards dug up and revived an article from the American Journal of Sociology published in 1976. It tracks facial hair trends — or what the author whimsically calls “frequencies in whisker forms” — from 1842 to 1972. He notes, in particular, the overwhelming dominance of the clean face at the time of publication.

This is your image of the week:

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The original author uses the data to make an argument about the existence of fashion trends. He’s interested, too, in why fashions change and, in like any good sociologist, recommends further research. He does speculate, though, about one possible driver of change: old people. He writes:

…as long as any considerable number of people who have stuck to a superseded form of personal appearance are still living, the young may tend to avoid such a mode as old hat. These distasteful associations seem to be safely overcome only after the passage of a century or more.

His theory holds. If his data is correct, beards disappeared right around 1915. It’s been a hundred years and beards are back!

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Culture and Privacy: A Sociology of the Shotgun House

In the working and middle class neighborhoods of many Southern cities, you fill find rows of “shotgun” houses. These houses are long and narrow, consisting of three or more rooms in a row. Originally, there would have been no indoor plumbing — they date back to the early 1800s in the U.S. — and, so, no bathroom or kitchen.

Here’s a photograph of a shotgun house I took in the 7th ward of New Orleans. It gives you an idea of just how skinny they are.

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In a traditional shotgun house, there are no hallways, just doors that take a person from one room to the next. Here’s my rendition of a shotgun floor plan; doors are usually all in a row:

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At nola.com, Richard Campanella describes the possible origins and sociological significance of this housing form. He follows folklorist John Michael Vlach, who has argued that shotgun houses are indigenous to Western and Central Africa, arriving in the American South via Haiti. Campella writes:

Vlach hypothesizes that the 1809 exodus of Haitians to New Orleans after the St. Domingue slave insurrection of 1791 to 1803 brought this vernacular house type to the banks of the Mississippi.

In New Orleans, shotgun houses are found in the parts of town originally settled by free people of color, people who would have identified as Creole, and a variety of immigrants. Outside of New Orleans, we tend to see shotgun houses in places with large black populations.

The house, though, doesn’t just represent a building technique, it tells a story about how families were expected to interact. Shotgun houses offer essentially zero privacy. Everyone has to tromp through everyone’s room to get around the house. There’s no expectation that a child won’t just walk into their parents’ room at literally any time, or vice versa. There’s no way around it.

“According to some theories,” then, Campanella says:

…cultures that produced shotgun houses… tended to be more gregarious, or at least unwilling to sacrifice valuable living space for the purpose of occasional passage.

Cultures that valued privacy, on the other hand, were willing to make this trade-off.

Sure enough, in the part of New Orleans settled by people of Anglo-Saxon descent, shotgun houses are much less common and, instead, homes are more “privacy-conscious.”

Over time, as even New Orleans became more and more culturally Anglo-Saxon — and as the housing form increasingly became associated with poverty — shotguns fell out of favor.  They’re enjoying a renaissance today but, as Campanella notes, many renovations of these historic buildings include a fancy, new hallway.

Cross-posted at A Nerd’s Guide to New Orleans.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

The Story of the Shopping Cart

Flashback Friday.

Behold, the taken-for-granted, unexceptional shopping cart:

Until last week I had never truly thought about shopping carts. I mean, I occasionally notice one stranded in an unexpected place, and as a kid I loved the occasional chance I had to push one a bit and then jump on and race down an aisle. But last week I started reading Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture by Ellen Ruppel Shell, and it turns out that the story of the shopping cart is fascinating!

So, way back in the day, stores weren’t like they were today. You went in and there was a long counter and you had the clerk show you the wares. If you’ve read some Jane Austen or Laura Ingalls Wilder, you’ve undoubtedly come across a scene where a clerk is showing someone bolts of cloth. That’s how things worked: almost everything was behind the counter; you told the clerk what you were interested in and they showed you your options. You haggled over the price, decided on a nice gingham, the clerk wrapped it for you, and off you went. Most retail outlets worked more or less along these lines (think of a butcher, for instance).

But if you were a shop owner interested in keeping prices down, this situation might be less than ideal. It required a lot of clerks, and experienced clerks who knew all the goods and could be trusted to set an acceptably profitable price for them, too.

Eventually retailers, including F.W. Woolworth, tried putting more products out on display in the store so customers could help themselves. Some customers liked the ability to pick items off the shelves directly, but more importantly, you didn’t need as many clerks, and certainly not such highly-paid ones, if their job was mostly reduced to ringing up the purchases at the register.

Of course, this presents a new problem: how are customers going to carry all their purchases around the store while they make their selections? Well, a basket they could carry over an arm would work. But these baskets had a downside: they didn’t hold much and they quickly got heavy.

As Shell notes, in 1937 a man from my home state of Oklahoma, Sylvan Goldman, came up with a solution. He owned the Humpty-Dumpty grocery store chain (I still remember Humpty-Dumpty!). He and a mechanic he hired came up with a cart on which two shopping baskets could be suspended. And thus the shopping cart — or, as Goldman named it, the “folding basket carrier” — was born. As Goldman suspected, people bought more when they didn’t have to carry a heavy basket on their arm. The folding basket carrier was advertised as a solution to the burden of shopping:

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The only problem was…people didn’t like the new contraptions. From a 1977 interview (via):

I went into our largest store, there wasn’t a soul using a basket carrier, and we had an attractive girl by the entrance that had a basket carrier and two baskets in it, one on the top and one on the bottom, and asked them to please take this cart to do your shopping with. And the housewive’s, most of them decided, “No more carts for me. I have been pushing enough baby carriages. I don’t want to push anymore.” And the men would say, “You mean with my big strong arms I can’t carry a darn little basket like that?” And he wouldn’t touch it. It was a complete flop.

Goldman eventually had to hire attractive models to walk around the store pushing the carts to make shopping carts seem like an acceptable or even fashionable item to use.

Over time the basic design was changed to have a single basket, with a flat shelf on the bottom for large items. The baskets could also then “nest” inside each other (instead of being folded up individually), reducing the amount of space they required for storage.

The Baby Boom ushered in the final major design change, a seat for kids:

Notice in the illustration above how small the cart is compared to what we’re used to today. I remember as a kid going to the local grocery store, and the carts were quite small; eventually a big warehouse-type grocery store came to the nearest city and their baskets seemed gigantic in comparison. Because obviously, if people will buy more if they have a cart instead of a full arm-carried basket, they’ll buy even more if they have a bigger cart — not just because there’s more room, but because it seems like less stuff if it’s in a bigger cart. Restaurants discovered the same principle — people will want bigger portions if you give them bigger plates because it visually looks like less food and so they don’t feel like they’re over-eating.

Without enormous carts, Big Box discounters and wholesale club stores couldn’t exist. You can’t carry a box of 50 packages of Ramen noodles, 36 rolls of toilet paper, a box of 3 gallons of milk, enough soup for the entire winter, and a DVD player you just found on sale around without a huge cart.

So there you have it: labor de-skilling + marketing – stigma of feminine association + Baby Boom + profits based on increased purchasing of ever-cheaper stuff = the modern shopping cart!

I love it when I learn totally new stuff.

Originally posted in 2009.

Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.

What is Creole?

Flashback Friday.

In his book, Authentic New Orleans, sociologist Kevin Fox Gotham explains that originally, and as late as the late 1800s, the term meant “indigenous to Louisiana.”  It was a geographic label and no more.

But, during the early 1900s, the city of New Orleans racialized the term. White city elites, in search of white travel dollars, needed to convince tourists that New Orleans was a safe and proper destination. In other words, white. Creole, then, was re-cast as a white identity and mixed-race and black people were excluded from inclusion in the category.

Today most people think of creole people as mixed race, but that is actually a rather recent development. The push to re-define the term to be more inclusive of non-whites began in the 1960s, but didn’t really take hold until the 1990s.  Today, still racialized, the term now capitalizes on the romantic notions of multiculturalism that pervade New Orleans tourism advertising, like in this poster from 2011:

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Like all other racial and ethnic designations, creole is an empty signifier, ready to be filled up with whatever ideas are useful at the time. In fact, the term continues to be contested. For example, this website claims that it carries cultural and not racial meaning:

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This book seems to define creole as free people of color (and their descendants) in Louisiana:

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Whereas this food website identifies creole as a mix of French, Spanish, African, Native American, Chinese, Russian, German, and Italian:

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In short, “creole” has gone through three different iterations in its short history in the U.S., illustrating both the social construction of race and the way those constructions respond to political and economic expediency.

 

Cross-posted at A Nerd’s Guide to New Orleans

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Chart of the Week: The Breadth of European Colonization

This is a map of the countries Europe colonized, controlled, or influenced between 1500 and 1960. The purple is Europe. The orange countries are ones never under European rule. Almost the entire rest of the map — all the green, blue, and yellow — were dominated by Europe to some extent. “Influenced” is pretty much a euphemism and often not all that different than outright domination.

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Max Fisher, writing at Vox, summarizes:

There are only four countries that escaped European colonialism completely. Japan and Korea successfully staved off European domination, in part due to their strength and diplomacy, their isolationist policies, and perhaps their distance. Thailand was spared when the British and French Empires decided to let it remained independent as a buffer between British-controlled Burma and French Indochina…

Then there is Liberia, which European powers spared because the United States backed the Liberian state, which was established in the early 1800s by freed American slaves who had decided to move to Africa.

More details and discussion at here.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Irish Dance and the Evolution of Race

“No. We’re Italian. We don’t Irish dance,” said Kristi Corcione’s mother in 1973. The proscription wouldn’t last a generation. Today her daughter trains for the World Irish Dance Championships

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Irish dance has left Ireland and the ethnic communities in which it used to be quietly practiced.

Irish dancing schools have sprung up in Israel, Japan, Norway, Romania, Russia and many other countries not known for their Irish populations. Competitions… can now be found in Hong Kong, Prague and St. Petersburg, among other far-flung cities. More than 5,000 competitors from 20 countries are expected in April at this year’s World Championships in London.

At the New York Times, Siobhan Burke gives the credit to Riverdance, a phenom that “exporting [Irish dance] to an international audience of more than 24 million.”

The spread of Irish dance is a great example of the social construction and evolution of our invented concepts of race and ethnicity.

When it was whites who made up the majority of U.S. immigrants, it really mattered if you were Irish, Italian, or some other white ethnicity. The Irish, in particular, were denigrated and dehumanized. If one wasn’t Irish, it certainly wasn’t a group that most people would want to associate themselves with.

Over generations, though, and as new immigrant groups came in and were contrasted to Europeans, the distinctions between white ethnics began to fade. Eventually, ethnicity became optional for white people. They could claim an ethnicity, or several, of their choice; others would accept whatever they said without argument; or they could say they were just American.

Once the distinctions no longer mattered and the stigma of being Irish had faded, then Irish dance could be something anyone did and others would want to do. And, so, now anyone does. The three-time winner of the All-Ireland Dancing Championship in Dublin is a biracial, black, Jewish kid from Ohio.

Today, the big Irish dance production is “Heartbeat of Home,” a show that Burke describes as a “multicultural fusion” that delivers “plenty of solid Irish dance steps.” Irish dance is evolving, borrowing and melding with other cultural traditions — and it increasingly belongs to everyone — in the great drama of ethnic and racial invention and re-invention.

7Thanks so much to @Mandahl, a proud grandmother of two world class Irish dancers, for suggesting I write about this!

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

The Most Common Job in Every State, 1978-2014

NPR put together a nice graphic showing the most common job in every state every two years from 1978 to 2014. It’s a fascinating ride from secretaries, farmers, and machine operators to truck drivers, truck drivers, and truck drivers. Click to enlarge.

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Quoctrung Bui explains some of the trends:

  • Truck drivers came to “dominate the map” partly because the job can’t be outsources or automated (yet).
  • Much of the work of secretaries was replaced by computers.
  • Manufacturing jobs have been sent overseas (but you knew that).
  • And advances in farming technology means that we can grow more and more food with fewer and fewer people.

She also points out — with a “heh” — that the most common job in Washington D.C. is lawyer. But she didn’t mention that in 1996 it was janitors. There’s gotta be a politician joke in there, too.
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Here are some of the changes I found interesting, with mostly uninformed commentary. The three boxes represent 1978, 1996, and 2014.

Methinks reality television is not telling me the truth about Alaska.

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Well, we know what Nevada‘s for. Except I guess people used to go there to do stuff and now they just go there to buy stuff.333

South Dakota and North Dakota, holding strong.444New York, the only state on the list that’s top job is nursing. Take that, Florida!

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You go, Delaware.222

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Who Kills Themselves Binge Drinking? It’s Not Who You Think

At Everyday Sociology, sociologist Karen Sternheimer made a nice observation about the problem of teen drinking. It’s not our biggest alcohol problem.

According to the CDC, the age group most likely to die from binge drinking is people 35-64 years old. In fact, three out of every four alcohol poisoning deaths are in this age group — 4.5 out of a total of 6 a day — and 76% of them are men, especially ones who earn over $70,000 a year.777

So why all the PSAs aimed at teens?

Sternheimer argues that the focus on teens has to do with who what groups are identified as problematic populations. In the 1800s and early 1900s, she points out, laws were passed in several states making it illegal for African Americans and Native Americans to drink alcohol. Immigrants were also targeted.

Young people weren’t targeted until the student rebellions of the 1960s and ’70s. Like the “protest psychosis” attributed to black Civil Rights activists, the anti-establishment activism of young people was partly blamed on drug and alcohol use.

Today, she observes, the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism focuses its attention on young people, minorities, women, and people with HIV.

It’s about power. She writes:

White, middle-class men over thirty typically have more social power than the groups commonly targeted as problems. They also vote, and no sane politician is going to campaign warning of the danger some of these men cause and how we can control them.

Not to mention, she says, how the alcohol industry would feel about the government telling their richest customers to curb their drinking. They much prefer that PSAs focus on young people. “This industry can well afford the much-touted ‘We Card’ programs,” says Sternheimer, “because teens usually don’t have the money for the expensive stuff that their parents can buy.”

The industry’s marketing to wealthy, white men, then, goes unchecked.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.