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Pattern in the Material Folk Culture of the Eastern United States

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What is folk culture? What distinguishes true folk creations from the cultural hybrids of commerce and popular innovation? To clarify this muddled situation and to provide clear standards and visual examples for the study and appreciation of a broad range of objects, Henry Glassie has written this detailed examination of material folk culture in the United States. He isolates American material culture—that segment of our culture that embodies the people's plans, methods, and reasons for producing things that can be seen and touched—and discusses methods for determining whether an object is truly folk—as opposed, say, to merely popular—by examining its form, construction, and use.

The book represents the first attempt to compare different kinds of material folk culture, including architecture, tools, and cookery, to detect common patterns and, in doing so, challenges conventional views of both folk culture and American culture.

344 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1969

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Henry Glassie

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Displaying 1 - 6 of 6 reviews
Profile Image for Kate.
151 reviews11 followers
January 26, 2021
A foundational text for the study of American material culture. Glassie’s extended essay on material folk culture (and what that term means) lacks in-depth analysis of non-Euro influences (particularly African and Native American), but still remains necessary reading for any student of material culture in America, and his scholarly call to action still rings true.
Profile Image for Samuel.
430 reviews
April 13, 2014
In 1968, Henry Glassie’s "Pattern in the Material Culture of the Eastern United States" began a scholarly discussion about how folk cultural information might be drawn from material culture particularly toward defining cultural regions in the Eastern United States. Glassie argued that it was not enough for folklorists and other academics to study ordinary objects in order to define them and their history and distribution, but that objects ought to be studied in order to answer deeper social questions such as “what [an object’s] role in the culture of the producer and the user is, and what mental intricacies surround, support, and are reflected in its existence” (16). The folk life material culture patterns he seeks to find and contend for are primarily concerned with geographic or spatial regions in the United States of America as opposed to popular or academic culture that is more concerned with temporal periods (33). Using a variety of material culture objects ranging from architecture to food ways, Glassie categorizes three distinct regions in the Eastern United States: the Mid-Atlantic, the South, and the North. According to Glassie, these three major folk cultural divisions became particularly distinct roughly between 1750-1850 when the regions’ varied agricultural systems were steered by different values such as the “predominance of popular culture over folk culture in the North, the selective conservatism of the Mid-Atlantic region, and the persistence of traditional patterns in the South” (188). Although these generalizations are all-too broad and conclusive sounding, they do offer a framework of understanding that can be built upon. Glassie acknowledges this actually. His section on “Nonregional Patterns” begins to tease out some of the shortcomings of thinking only regionally and illustrates how some material culture such as log cabin quilts and snake fences do not fit neatly into a particular region but transcend all of them. He also speaks of the vast differences between the subregions of the South, the Lowland vs. Upland, but seems less concerned with subregions in the Mid-Atlantic and North. But overall, his fieldwork sketches and thorough, diverse examples of regional patterns are impressively constructed and do move toward his reasonable call to action for more material cultural studies of the Eastern United States.
Profile Image for Julie H..
1,408 reviews22 followers
November 19, 2016
I stop and revisit this classic, first met in undergrad days, every so often. Am happy to report that it's still a must-read 40 years after its original publication!
Profile Image for Alex.
417 reviews20 followers
October 23, 2020
Honestly this is more like a really-extended essay review. It's hugely generalized overview of topical observations meant to create in-roads for future scholarship in an area of study that has gone almost catastrophically neglected. It does exactly what it's meant to, and while it's fascinating to someone in a Cultural Studies field of active academia, I'm pretty sure it's audience among my followers will be limited. Still, I thought it worth putting up here, just in case.

The Glassie piece is a fantastically comprehensive look at the enormity of what tasks underlay the idea of creating a nuanced understanding of the folklorist field of study. It highlights the difficulties of exploring the development of individual localized cultures and the interactions between various localized cultures, with the interplay between development and interaction muddying the waters tremendously. The most interesting part of how this essay was undertaken is the self-admission of presumptuousness on the part of Glassie examining these cultural items and extrapolating points beyond the technical limit of the evidence’s purview. As he mentions very early on, there is a fine line between observing genuine patterns and correlating dataset out of points that have no genuine connection. Humans are exceedingly skilled at noticing patterns, to the point that our brains, on a biological level, have the ability to imprint and overlay patterns onto things where no true pattern exists. Of course, all humans have this biological trait, and have had it since the delineation of Homo Sapiens from other ancient humans (if not even earlier than that). So, that leads me into thinking that the patterns observed in cultural in-groups are both intentional and unintentional, for both parties (the one who produced the material objects and those observing them). That keen eye for pattern-fit must impact the degree to which elements of a foreign culture are accepted and worked into any given isolated culture (and which elements are chosen to be integrated).

The void Glassie speaks of in the lack of understanding for (and attention given to) the Folk studies of indigenous Eastern American populations is a tragedy. Unfortunately, due to the difficulties in exploring and cleanly accounting for the nuances of cultures that have been almost entirely eradicated, the task of embarking on proper scholarship for the region seems so daunting and undertaking that I can’t imagine the lack will be corrected any time soon. Historically speaking, it HAS prompted a good number of follow up studies, but honestly they make the lack of attention to local-artifact scholarship all the more noticeable. Regardless, Glassie’s essay, and the critical start it makes on delineating culture groups, seems like a good in-road for scholarship that will hopefully continue to manifest in future developments with even more detailed and scientific scholarship that is truly worthy of being in the field.

It's also remarkably accessible, so a reasonable starting point for anyone interested in learning more about Folklorist or Cultural studies (or even museum studies). That said, it is a rather daunting and dense bit of text, because it IS meant for academia, but considering all that it's a great stepping stone into more academically inclined sorts of reading!
Profile Image for Frederic.
1,016 reviews15 followers
January 2, 2020
Henry Glassie is one of my favorite scholars, and has been ever since I first read this book almost 40 years ago. This is one of his first books, and while it isn't (and doesn't claim to be) the Last Word on the subject it has been one of the most influential books in regional history and material culture studies. As usual with Glassie, it's also remarkably readable while being also scholarly. I've often recommended it to students and others, and continue to do so; I've also re-read it several times and always find something thought-provoking.
Displaying 1 - 6 of 6 reviews

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