This week, I’ve touched women’s fashion magazines from as early as 1788, advertised as a “Polite, Entertaining, and Fashionable Companion for the Fair Sex,” and as late as 2022, flaunting an article on “The Real Dua Lipa: Optimist, Advocate, Pop Sensation.” Through these magazines, it is clear to see that much has changed in the last 3 centuries. Political, economic, religious, and technological factors have shaped the structure of societies and the role of women within them.
Looking at these magazines through the philosophy of technology lens, I will isolate those aspects of change and continuity that are a result of technological innovation. The relationship between the individual and certain technologies informs many aspects of life. Some concepts that have jumped out to me this week are those of identity, trust, power, and values.
One thing I noticed as I viewed magazines from a broad temporal scope was the importance of gaining the trust of readers. Many women used fashion magazines to inform their decisions about what to wear and how to present themselves. Before widely available photographs made it possible to see what people were wearing in such fashion hubs as London and Paris, editors relied on detailed letter correspondence to learn about current fashion trends from those in Europe. They then shared these descriptions and drawings with readers, and readers trusted that they were accurate. One particularly fascinating article in Godey’s Lady’s Book (1855) advertised that fashion editors would pick dresses or bonnets for rural women and ship them from New York City for a fee. The women using this service were placing a large amount of trust in unnamed fashion editors via mail correspondence. As technology evolved, women no longer had to rely on fashion editors to buy dresses sight-unseen. Now, without leaving the comfort of their homes, women have access to almost every article of clothing available via online shopping. This leaves very little need to trust others in decisions related to fashion, which many consider to be an outward expression of identity.
This has been my first week working at CCEPS processing the Hoover collection. I get to learn the skills of an archivist and get to engage with history. Most of my tasks were taking notes on what I have found in the collection and how I should process it. Some boxes I opened were already organized alphabetically, others had folders labeled “Hoover Collection”, “correspondence”, or “catalog.” I have to do a tour throughout all of the collection. What comes as a surprise is the cool air (to preserve the books) inside the archive. It was amazing to see and touch books that were hundreds of years old. There is a variety of sources, ranging from correspondence letters when they first arrived to Harvey Mudd College in the 70s and 80s, when Hoover was first buying his collection in the 1900s and 1910s, and even some primary source books from the 1700s that I found in a box called “miscellaneous.” It is cool just seeing, feeling telegrams, putting photos inside plastic folders, and the frustration of trying to read cursive handwriting. There were some funny correspondence between researchers, such as reports of Martin Luther forgery on some books inside the Hoover Collection. The oldest item I found was from 1482 of Euclid’s elements.
As a CCEPS fellow, I am taking a somewhat different approach than most. Instead of cataloguing a specific collection, I will be conducting a research project in the general fields of philosophy of technology and women’s fashion. Using materials from both the special collections at Honnold-Mudd Library and Ella Strong Denison Library, I intend to curate an online Omeka exhibit for students studying philosophy of technology and those interested in the way new technologies shape our values, identity, and structures of power.
This week, I had the privilege of touring the book rooms of both Honnold-Mudd and Denison Library. I got to touch books that would fit in the palm of your hand, as well as books so large I would need to team lift them. At Denison, I got to see and touch an early version of a hymnal made of real parchment. The stars of the show were artists books. Denison collects artists books, which are books designed by artists where special attention is paid to design an its connection to the words inside. Some of these books looked like very beautiful books, while some looked like a cell phone in a shoe, or a wallet. Seeing these books was a perfect way to begin my experience as a CCEPS student. I hope that my project will encourage more people to come into the book room and experience old and rare books for themselves.
Touching these rare books further reinforced my interest in philosophy of technology. Books created by hand before the advent of the printing press employed agriculturalists to grow and harvest cow skin, specialists to write each letter by hand, and artists to design cover pages, each costing countless hours in training and labor. These expensive books contributed to an entirely different power structure than mass-produced paperbacks, or further, an exclusively electronic book written and produced by the same person. Those who owned books in the 14th century would have power in the form of both money and of information. Today, books give power in the form of knowledge to anyone with a library card (and time to read.) Asking questions about the way that technology informs power, values, and identity is a fascinating way to view the world. It will become extremely important as the world becomes more and more reliant on the connection through the internet and as artificial intelligence becomes more prevalent.