‘Everyday Life’ reflections

The following are Laura Carter (co-organiser)’s reflections on the symposium. 

Why would we write the history of everyday life?

For me, this question was never going to remain confined to the unseasonably warm day last month when we met in Trinity Hall to have our symposium. This is because it is the question at the heart of my research into amateur historians and public history in Britain in the middle of the last century. So it was with this simple question in mind that I enjoyed a day of incredibly diverse research papers, and reflections on them from our commentators who were each so enviably precise in capturing the essence of each of our panels.

When we were first putting together the idea for the symposium I was particularly keen that we did not end up hosting an event fixated on Mass Observation. I thought this was a danger both because of the explicit link between our theme and M-O’s mission, and because there is a lot of exciting new work on everyday life being undertaken by researchers using M-O material, taking their lead from historians such as Ben Jones, Selina Todd, and Clare Langhamer. But my concerns proved to be unfounded – we actually received relatively few paper submissions of this ilk. And the papers we selected covered a methodological range from the extremes of quantitative and qualitative research.

Although M-O has provided us with many of the tools and languages for studying the everyday, it functioned on the day as an intellectual stimulus that opened doors, rather than as a limiting frame of reference that closed them. Joe Moran most aptly captured this atmosphere in his keynote talk. He generously walked us through his intellectual biography, exploring why he has come to write the history of everyday life in the process. Joe revealed that M-O was one of three strands that converged for him in the late 1990s, alongside the French tradition of ‘la vie quotidienne’ and the art and photography of Tom Phillips. Together they inspired him to consider postwar British history through the lens of ‘banal’ everyday subjects such as motorways, television watching, and queuing. I was particularly enthused by the introduction Joe provided for us to the work of Tom Phillips. Through the photographic project ‘20 Sites n Years’, Phillips found a way to map ‘invisible’ social change and thus ‘re-enchant’ the everyday.

Phillips’s idea of the history of everyday life as an aesthetic project stuck with me as I have reflected on the symposium over the past few weeks. I came away thinking that the history of everyday life might be most useful for its visual capabilities – a singular way of documenting the colour and creativity of lives past. It goes without saying that as we go about our everyday lives in the present, we are constantly looking for that magic and beauty that will enhance the individual human experience. So as many of the papers demonstrated, assuming that the history of everyday life is a by-phrase for the well rehearsed ‘us’ and ‘them’ of history from below is too simplistic. The visual in everyday life is a rich seam for historians, one that may in turn be useful and illuminating for accessing the politics of class and gender.

Let me provide some examples from the papers we heard. In her paper on pigeon fancying, Kate Whiston demonstrated how the quest for perfection and beautification in show pigeons punctuated urban working-class leisure cultures in late-nineteenth century Britain. Thinking about the home, Greg Salter drew our attention to how the layout and décor of domestic space is closely implicated in the self-construction of personal identities. On a similar theme but moving back into the seventeenth century, Antony Buxton’s paper used probate inventories to map the placement and uses of furniture in early-modern households. He argued that the material culture of the home could shed light on otherwise invisible temporal norms. In the final panel, Holly Dunbar provided a particularly careful reading of the gendered politics of smoking during the Irish war of independence. Holly asked us to imagine the woman’s body, how it was broken down into its constituent parts by commentators seeking to portray the everyday act of smoking as tightly bound to their femininity. During all of these papers, I was consistently struck by the importance of the visual. Although everyday experience is such a contingent, contested, and subjective category for social and cultural historians, we were shown multiple ways in which picturing the past might overcome or at least mitigate such enduring problematics.

During the morning coffee break I spoke to one of our commentators, Lucy Delap. She expressed to me some of her doubts about our premise of ‘everyday life’: was this just another way of describing the (now old?) ‘new’ social history? I was pleased that by the close of the symposium Lucy was able to say that she thought the day had proved that everyday life does do something else for us as historians. Although writing the history of everyday life might still fundamentally be about giving voices (Lucy’s term was ‘finding agency’) to the marginalized, the symposium showed that this can be done with challenging levels of innovation and creativity.