Symposium Introduction

Laura Carter‘s exploration of the idea behind the conference and her overview of the chosen papers

My PhD is about popular social history in mid twentieth-century Britain, especially why ‘the history of everyday life’ was considered a useful narrative by cultural reformers from the 1920s to the 1960s. I’ve been particularly interested in a series of popular history books written in the interwar years by Charles and Marjorie Quennell, called A History of Everyday Things in England. These books are all about how the objects that have historically populated and determined everyday life might improve the aesthetics of production, people’s attitudes to work, and the wider problems of society. As historians of everyday life the Quennells were optimistic that their history writing had something useful to say to mass culture in the present.

The idea for a symposium on this theme came after conversations with my supervisor about my own thesis. I was (and still am) grappling with the idea of everyday life, trying to untangle complex and interrelated currents of class, gender, democratization, and the legacies of the Arts & Crafts movement, which drove the individuals in my own study to write, curate, and broadcast a history of everyday life for the twentieth century. So from a purely selfish perspective, we thought that a discussion about new research on everyday life would be a great way to get at some of my questions! Following a faculty-training day in February where we both presented research in progress, Alex and I realized we were both working with a very similar idea but in very different ways. I told him about my dreams of a symposium and he was also very keen to see what we could bring together.

In the event, Alex and I were really overwhelmed by the scale, variety, and quality of abstracts we received after publishing (and tweeting) the call for papers. In total we had sixty-two submissions from universities all over the UK and some from further afield. The disciplinary range evoked by the concept of everyday life, particularly struck us.  We heard from those working not only in history faculties but photography, philosophy, sociology, fine art, law, archaeology, and women’s studies, to name just a selection.

Reviewing this research, some definite patterns emerged. I think we were both interested to see that social class did not appear to be the most dominant theme. As Alex’s introduction showed, everyday life is now seen to encompass human experiences and subjectivities well beyond the economically determined. Class did of course appear, but equally as prominent in the submissions were papers that explored spaces of the everyday, particularly visual readings of domestic settings, urban locations, and the built environment. Prominent too were ideas about consumption – both in terms of luxury and poverty – the ‘things’ of everyday life whose materiality and aesthetic worth might be valued over the terms of their labour or production. The seminal events that both punctuate and complicate the ‘everydayness’ of our everyday lives – such as birth, leaving home, death and bereavement – were also particularly manifest. I hope that some of these themes can be explored in our questions and discussion, as well as broader reflections on why we continue to find everyday life so ‘good to think with’ in research.

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