Tuesday, March 31, 2009

I Find These Paper Towels Troubling

I tend to think that paper towels with little pictures or designs on them are tacky, but whatever. I can ignore a low level of tacky. I'm not one of those people who decants all of her bath and toiletry products into plain containers, like all of life is a photo shoot in Real Simple. But when paper towels start addressing me in actual words, it catches my attention. And look at this.

Yeah, the paper towels say "Home Sweet Home." On every towel. But it's not perfectly aligned to be centered on each towel, so here and there a towel says "Home Sweet" along the bottom. When I saw these Home Sweet Home paper towels, I had to pause and go, "Hmm." So let's take a moment. These paper towels are, of course, referencing a work of handmade needlepoint. Like this one, from the 1880's.

These later Victorian needlepoint pictures were often worked onto paper patterns, as this one is (sorry for the tiny pic). The paper patterns were mass-published, but would be hand-embroidered at home by women and girls. This is well after the heyday of girls creating "samplers" to show that they'd crossed the threshold of competence with a needle. You've seen those--they would usually have the entire alphabet and each numeral. Also a little picture of the girl's house was typical, or the floral motifs that she knew how to do, and her name and the date.

Such a sampling of her abilities was a way for a girl to prove that she was on her way to being an accomplished and eligible (marriageable) woman. Some of them are much, much fancier. Some samplers are also genealogical records--the girl would embroider a family tree. Truly, major works of art, but even a simple sampler is literally one-of-a-kind.

That dark one is from 1786. In the 16th and 17th centuries, and even well into the 18th in colonial America, most girls were not "literate," in the technical sense, meaning that they could not compose and write with a pen. They might have been taught to read in little house schools, called "dame schools," but for centuries, being taught to read and being taught to write were completely separate things. Therefore, many, many girls could make letters and words with a needle, but were not able or were not in the habit of writing the "real" way. Or, they learned to write long after they learned to embroider. Needlepoint was their writing. So the samplers and works of needlepoint that have survived from those days make up a real women's textual history, a kind of alternative tradition --historical documents that happen to be outside the covers of books. It totally rocks.

So what was the cultural, cognitive, or industrial design process by which "Home Sweet Home" came to be printed on those paper towels? I mean, really, what was the thinking there, if there was any identifiable human thought at any point in the chain? Was it as simple as, "Here's a homey motif to make people feel cozy about this roll of paper?" Like they're just words, totally cut off from any real history, and floating free, ready to be re-valued as a way to "decorate" disposable paper products.

I ask you, is this not weird? It's way more bizarre than cereal shaped like vampires, or whatever grocery store monstrosity you can think of. The "Home Sweet Home" paper towels repeat those words 150 times or so, each sheet intended to be torn off, used, and thrown away. Whoever designed these meant them to be blandly cheery (or cheerily bland?) but they actually forcibly remind us of the alienating and non-human aspects of mass production and consumption. And they really bug the crap out of me. Those paper towels hijack and deface a real, rich history. Like, it's come to this?

Not to get all super serious. Was I raving?

I swear, I am this close to busting out Walter Benjamin's The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, because it might help us crack this nut, but I will spare you. For now.

Anything bugging anybody else?


A Lawyer Mom's Musings said...

I'm with you. No platitudes on my disposal paper, please. (Plus, per my always-right mom, the dyes used are bad for us).

I had no idea, however, about the history of needlepoint. Very interesting. Did you come across any Victorian rants? Any grumpy petit points?

Amy said...

Wow, that is the first in-depth exegesis of paper towels that I've ever read. Good on ya! I agree--I think it was probably a thoughtless thing that is meant to be vaguely cheerful

Really interesting about the needlepoint stuff. I hadn't thought about, well, almost any of that before--beyond what I've read in Jane Austen.

clear screen said...

That was great! You should both teach and write wonderful things to the brightest students in the land, and possibly get a gig on the Antique Roadshow explaining the history -- or lack of it -- to the North Dakotan heirloom-bringer. Either way, I'm sold.

Michele said...

Paper towels (if you really really have to use them) should be plain.

While most women in the 17th, 18th, & 19th century were functionally literate some were incredibly well read. There were some incredibly smart women. While doing my masters thesis I came across quite a few including but not limited to Abigail Adams.

Samplers were a teaching tool that mothers passed down to their daughters when formal education was not available to them.

Thank you for sharing the significance of these precious textiles.

The Dental Maven said...

I hate papertowels with any kind of print on them. If it wasn't a man who came up with the idea of adding a design, then it had to be some old blue haired women with nothing more to do then sit in her kitchen contemplating her roll of paper towels.

Anonymous said...

I had no idea of the history of samplers - thank you for that.

You would have thought that the paper towel people might have done a little research.

I hate paper towels with things printed on them. Pointless waste of the earth's resources in my book.

melondonkey said...

I'd be bothered a bit more if 'home sweet home' wasn't already totally devoid of meaning. At least these are disposable.

We need new domestic slogans. Maybe I'll get to blogging again...

Michele Renee said...

On a different note, we are paper napkin users and I can't stand anything but white. When I buy paper towels I get annoyed by the choices. I avoid the pink/blue combos. I though of the book, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan when I read this--about how they sent mesages to their BFF in their fan craft.
(my word is gynal--yeah, yeah, I really do need to set up an appt)

Ginny Marie said...

I read your link to The Work of Art etc., and it made me think of the monks who used to copy the Bible with brilliant illustrations and calligraphy. Then the printing press removed the need for those monks and their art. The printing press made the Bible accessible to many more people...but I don't want to see a bible verse on my paper towels!

Casey said...

Yes, they are tacky and they bug me. That's exactly why I don't let my husband buy the paper towels, he always gets ones with cheesy prints on them vs just plain white.

Becky said...

Ginny, the printing press and the bible is a great reference point for this discussion, exactly for the reason that before the press, each bible had a real "aura," as Benjamin says, that came from its uniqueness and its status as the product of toil. But of course, not everybody could have one. Benjamin sees the loss of "aura" and the advent of mass/industrial production optimistically in a way, as a liberating thing.

And Michele Renee, I haven't read that Snow Flower book, it sounds really fun! Librarian Michele, I didn't mean to say there weren't learned and accomplished women--you get me. The conditions of education for girls make those women's accomplishments all the more amazing. And I had forgotten the thing you mention about samplers being used as teaching tools. Kind of like a primer--so fascinating!

Lawyer Mom, I love the idea of grumpy petit points. You would have been the young girl carefully embroidering not, "Let Virtue Be Thy Guide," but "Why Don't Boys Have To Do This" or something!

Kelly T Keating said...

Lovely and smart post. I really enjoyed it and it made me think- always a good combination.

Cheers, Kelly