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Object Analysis


Brass compact from the late 1800s
Brass compact from the late 1800s

This round object is four inches in diameter and weighs a scant two to three ounces. By its size, the object seems constructed to fit into the palm of a hand. It is circular with a few dings and dents along the edges. It is made of brass and has a dirty brownish patina, almost the color of burnt sienna. Although round, the object has a flat top and bottom, and is very thin, slim. The top is a disc or plate resting on a bottom disc or plate. At what could be considered the top edge of the object is a cylindrical chamber that connects the bottom piece to the top piece. A small round pin slips into the chamber creating a hinge connecting the top plate to the bottom plate. This hinge allows the top disc to separate from the bottom disc and still stay connected at the topmost edge. Upon lifting the top disc from the bottom disc a tiny thin lip rims each plate. The lip or edge of the top disc is slightly larger than the bottom plate which allows it to nestle over the bottom plate when closed. The lip jutting from the edge of the bottom plate is interrupted at the bottom most edge (the point furthest away from the connective hinge) by a small rectangular notch. This notch allows for access to open or separate the two discs.

While the two bronze discs are connected and almost identical in size, the top disc is slightly larger and is imprinted with raised decorative pattern. This decorative pattern denotes that this disc is the top piece or lid of the object, and indicates that the object is likely made for a woman. The decorative pattern is a series of repeating teardrop paisley shapes that follows interior circumference of the lid. The pattern is inset from the edge of the lid by just a few millimeters. The interior edge of the teardrop pattern rests along two thin parallel lines that complete the edge of the decorative border. Another decorative detail stamps the center of the lid. A circle created by two thin lines identical to the interior border of the teardrop pattern sits in the very middle of the lid. This circle is framed by a delicate, curlicue decoration resembling a shield or crest. The emptiness of the center circle seems like it might be holding a place for a monogram or further decoration.

The interior of the top lid has the same repeating pattern, but it is stamped into the metal rather than raised in relief as it is on the top. This suggests that the pattern was stamped from the bottom and then protrudes from the top of the lid. The interior of the bottom disc has no such decoration, and is in fact very rough and scratched. This rough texture indicates that something was once attached by some form of adhesive to the bottom plate.

The object has to have some purpose. It is not just two attached lids that open and close. The decoration on the inside and outside of the top lid indicates that the object is meant to be open and gazed at. The shield-like crest on the front is another clue to the use of the object. The shield is delicately decorated, and the void in the center circle could possibly be for a monogram. But the shield emblem alludes to a framed object, like a mirror. Since there is no decoration on the bottom lid, it is likely that what ever the object contained rested there. The scratched surface of the bottom lid indicates that something was attached by an adhesive. The delicate decoration, the slim, lightweight dimensions are all clues that this object belonged to a woman and was likely carried in her purse.

The object is a compact that was unearthed somewhere on the west side of Atlanta near what is now the Bankhead MARTA station. The object is tarnished and pretty banged up, most likely from age and being at some point lost or discarded. The mirror and the woman’s image it once held are both long gone. The brass material and the delicate decoration indicate that it was at one time a rather fancy fashion accessory.

This small brass compact pocket mirror uncovered on the west side of Atlanta holds much untold history in its slim form. Who owned it? What woman, for it was surely a woman, gazed into the long lost mirror that snugged inside the decorative lid and discreetly dabbed pressed powder on her cheeks? The compact itself dates back to the late 1800s, just post civil war. Was it a carpetbagger that brought the brass accessory down from the north? Perhaps more likely it belonged to a genteel woman from the surrounding farm land that ringed Atlanta at the turn of the century, since a northern interloper would have more likely to settled closer to the city limits. Or, even more likely, the fashion piece was just unwittingly misplaced, lost as so many items eventually are, during a move to another home or just walking down the street. Whether a precious heirloom or just a casual fancy, the compact was found once again when the city of Atlanta prepared to expand its MARTA public transportation system. The piece which some lady thought lost forever was now back on the radar, not just a pocket mirror now, but as an artifact telling a story of an Atlanta long past.

West Atlanta, Georgia Tech Campus Image Credit:

The brass compact, though, has a history that extends much further than just the Atlanta, GA. Why did the woman have a make-up compact in the first place? Why do we look in the mirror? What is the significance of the brass material and its design? I started thinking about the inherent duality of the mirror itself. The intricately designed brass, a thing of beauty used for the purpose of beautification. The origins of brass metallurgy date back to ancient times. Romans crafted brass into decorative armor and also into jewelry like brooches and bangles. Some of the very first uses for it were for currency, and the earliest Roman coins were made of brass. Later on the Romans employed it more and more for battle pieces, emblazoning helmets, shields, and chest plates, and then for death masks and burial markings after the ultimate battle was fought. So even the first craftsmen of the metal recognized its duality, its value for both beauty and destruction.

Echo and Narcissus by John William Waterhouse

The forgotten pocket mirror heralds the Greek myth of Narcissus. The handsome young hunter was cursed to fall in love with his own reflection. He gazed at himself in a river, refusing to eat or sleep. His despair of unrequited love with his own image led him to commit suicide. Again, the cutting tale of what the Romantic poets would call the sublime. Beauty and danger, life and death are both present in the same vessel. Or more succinctly, immortality captured in a moment's reflection. The same is true of this humble brass compact unearthed here in Atlanta.

The compact held more than just a mirror, though. The pressed powder make up cake that lined the bottom of the compact also represents the sublime essence of beauty mingled with death. People have been using make up for thousands of years, and some of the concoctions used were more deadly than beautifying. While early forms of cosmetics ranged from the grotesque like crocodile dung, boys' urine, and blood, to the more exotic and beautiful like crushed gemstones, beeswax, and henna, many beauty products contained lead as well as other toxic materials. Egyptian women applied a combination of metals, including lead, to their skin for color definition. This practice of lead treated make up was common throughout history to achieve a coveted pale complexion.  Queen Elizabeth I popularized the use of white lead paint to create a youthful appearance.  Queen Victoria eventually declared make up vulgar and only for actors after the use of leaded make up paints resulted in facial paralysis and some deaths. The practice never totally went out of fashion, obviously, as we spend millions of dollars on make up here in the US alone. At the turn of the twentieth century, though, the powder in the brass compact very likely contained some degree of lead or other toxic metals. The use of lead in cosmetics was not fully banned here in this country until 2007.

During the mid 1800s, near the time when this little brass compact was likely made, lead was used for purposes other than lightening skin tones. Lead minie balls were the ammunition most common here in the south during the bloody civil war. I was struck by the contrast of such a beautiful fashion accessory existing at the time of such violence and strife, and how the compact—the material of which it was composed and the material which it contained—embodied the sublime nature of life and death, beauty and horror.

Image Credit:

All of these inferences may seem a little too gigantic for such a small finite pocket mirror. Walter Benjamin's article "The Collector" from The Arcades Project addresses just  how these collectible objects like compacts become so much more than the physical space they inhabit.

The truth of making things present is to represent them in our space (not to represent ourselves in their space...the method of receiving the things into our space. We don't displace our being into theirs; they step into our lives. 

The compact has stepped into a Georgia State Classroom in 2015 Atlanta. I have held it in my hand and changed its reality just as it has changed mine. I may never know the actual history of this compact. Who owned it? Was it a gift from mother to daughter, husband to wife? How did it come to be lost? But I can look at it and imagine. I can write about it, photograph it, describe it.

Through the stylistic analysis of objects, we encounter the past at first hand; we have direct sensory experience of surviving historical events, not necessarily important events, but authentic events nonetheless. This affective mode of apprehension through the senses allows us to put ourselves, figuratively speaking, inside the skins of individuals who commissioned, made, used , or enjoyed these objects, to see with their eyes and touch with their hands, to identify with them empathetically, is clearly a different way of engaging the past than abstractly through the written word.-- Style as Evidence, Jules David Prown

Strange that such an object represent so many dimensions of reality.





Compact Sublime

This timeline represents one possible history of the brass compact unearthed during the MARTA rail construction on the west side of Atlanta. Both the make up of the compact and the make up it once contained embody the sublime, beauty and horror, eternal youth and death intertwined.

Blog Post #7 The Voyage of the Mimi


Reading Neal Postman's book Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business revealed a new perspective about learning and research. Postman disparages multi modal learning models, lamenting the loss of real discourse due to the advent of technology. Postman contends that the telegraph heralded the "now...this" mentality. Information available instantly limits the value of discourse and communication. I wonder what Postman would think about this class? Certainly Postman could not have foreseen the impact of what he quaintly calls micro-computers on the education system, but he did fear that the incursion of television into the education system was turning the classroom into commercialized show business. One of the extravagances that he discusses in his book is the government funded PBS series "The Voyage of the Mimi." This bloated-budget attempt at televising education left a bad taste in Postman's mouth. In his view, learning about the migration patterns and songs of the humpback whale was a waste of brain power. After all what of any value at all could be learned by tracking nautical patterns and singing whales on a boat? American students were missing out on the heavy-hitting typographic discourse that promoted genuine critical thinking skills, the kind of discourse thought of and taught by crotchety old white men. What Postman failed to imagine was what could be learned by following, recording, describing, and sharing the patterns of animals like the whales. We have discovered more about our world, about our planet. We have learned that we have an impact on others beyond the tip of our nose,or beyond our block, or our little town.http://

New ways of learning exist today than in the mid eighties when Postman was writing. People have more access to many different kinds of education. The multi modal exposition that we are experimenting with in this class is a prime example. The medium in which our work lives has totally changed. Postman's nostalgia for print is just that and nothing more. Yes there are few things better than the crisp smell of a new book, but life is bigger than the black and white words on a page.  By daring to live and learn in the digital age we see how our actions can affect the world. News now sources immediately from events through tweets and smart phone video. Individuals create our own discourse rather than having it spooned to us. I think Postman's privilege shielded him from the possibilities of multi modal discourse, and I can relate to his fear of change. As a teen during the time Postman was writing Amusing Ourselves to Death  I understand facing the digital age with trepidation. But learning is about discovering new things without an attachment to the outcome. We have no way of knowing what we will learn by listening to the songs of humpback whales and trying to figure out what they mean. By listening to them, though, we might learn more about ourselves and our value to the world.

Image Credit: PBS


What exactly am I supposed to be writing about…?

John Maguire's  argues in his article that effective student writers, and writers in general, write about objects rather than ideas. I see his point. Communication occurs when the audience connects to a tangible experience. If I can't illicit recognition from my readers then my writing hasn't been too effective. Maguire's suggestion that writers start with describing objects intrigues me, especially given the nature of this expository writing class and the Prown readings. The definition of exposition as a description of an idea or theory falls short without the medium. I think of an actor whose facial expressions and body language convey a message beyond the dialog. My words have to convey this meaning, have to evoke a reaction, a recognition. The most effective communication tool that I have to accomplish this goal is through narrative discourse. Neal Postman suggests in his book Amusing Ourselves to Death that the natural form of American communication is in story telling, and I agree. Sometimes when I am totally stuck about how to relate to my audience I think of a story, an event, and I start there. My audience doesn't always know where I am taking them, but when I get to the end of the story I can actually feel the recognition and understanding.

Amusing Ourselves to Death

I think Maguire suggests a similar approach to teach and executing quality writing. He is basically saying start with what you know. Ideas or vague concepts can't just be conjured out of thin air. A writer must have a starting point or foundation solid enough to support a theory. For instance in Prown's description of the teapot, he begins with actually describing the physical characteristics of the vessel-- dimensions, shapes, materials, mass-- before he suggests the idea that teapots are surrogates for breasts. Prown's approach is powerful and provocative. I doubt I ever would have made that almost intangible connection on my own, but after reading and seeing the teapot through Prown's words I have a new perception.


Maguire makes another valid point about the importance of teaching students how to describe objects. Start with the basics. to become a strong writer and communicator of ideas I have to first hone my craft. If I can't tie my shoelaces then I very likely can't walk very far much less run a marathon.  Just like Maguire says, "all abstract ideas derive from objects. You can approach them in that concrete way and teach students to do the same." In order to convey complicated theories and ideas I must first proficiently describe the commonplace objects. How can I persuade someone or effect someone's mind if I lack the most basic descriptive writing skills? Or, if I hit the mother load and become a successful novelist, I definitely need to be painting vivid pictures with my words. No one would buy the movie rights to my books otherwise. Closing in on a decade after Twilight Stephanie Meyer  still rides the wave of phenomenal success just because she was able to describe a dream of a sparkly man standing in a meadow. And we all know what Edward looks like, for reals.

Amusing Ourselves to Death Image Credit:

Teapot Image Credit:

Blog Post # 5: Sharp Things

John Cline's article What is a Machete, Anyway? describes the ambiguity of dangerous objects. A machete, just like many tools, has a very useful purpose, but it can also be a deadly weapon. I am a trained chef, and my knife skills are pretty decent. If I keep a sharp edge on my blade and use proper techniques then I am less likely to cut myself. The same with the gas burners and flames that I use to cook delicious food. But the truth is that when you work with knives and fire you will get cut and burnt. It is not a matter of if but when. The same is true for combat zones and military bases. When people are working with a lot of weapons and ammunition, someone will eventually be "accidentally" shot. Watch how Eric Bana's demonstrates in Black Hawk Down  that it is a person that makes the object the most dangerous.

I started thinking about what objects are the sharpest, the most painful. I thought about how the most common accident in the professional kitchen is the blade on the box of plastic wrap. The most common injury in the restaurant world is slicing a hand while tearing off plastic wrap. I thought about what seemingly innocuous objects can do the most damage to human beings. I thought about hoarding.

hoarding book

An uncontrollable compulsion to collect or hang onto objects can suffocate the individual who suffers from the mental illness and everyone in the individual's family and sphere of influence. If the objects being hoarded are animals then even more lives are damaged. No sharp edges here, but severance from reality is everywhere.


Hoarding and mental illness made me think about family. How the juxtaposition of the Norman Rockwell image of the loving family  cannorman rockwell thanksgivingbe as deadly as Lizzie Borden's axe.


Yes of course machetes, axes, and guns can kill, but perhaps it is the unseen object lurking just behind the eyes that can be the deadliest weapon.


Cline suggests that the difference between a weapon and a tool is symbolism. A machete wielded by Che Guevara is a rhetorical weapon whereas one wielded by a farmer in a field is a tool. But symbolism is subjective while the edge on the machete's blade is not.  Both are true. The knife's edge is sharp and can cut a man even under the meekest circumstances. The equally sharp symbol of the machete as one of rebellion can cite people to riot and overturn governments. It seems like the human is the sharpest object of them all.







Blog Post #3: Nothing Wrong with Dead Things


Beloved Guru Ma Jaya Sati Bhagavati teaches how to live life without fear of death. She herself took mahasamadhi almost three years ago, passing from this realm into another, and when she died her body was burned to ash. I have some of that ash. I have watched others eat her ash as I rubbed the ash on my third eye. Her body is now part of us just as it is part of the great Ganges River in India where her son strew her ash to mingle with so many others who had passed before her. All of this makes perfect sense to me. To live is to be always moving towards the certainty of death. So dead things should be no big deal then, right? The skull and then ultimately the ash that it burns to is the purest form of the physical, the form closest to the formless.

Sedlec Ossuary

Skulls adorn ancient cathedrals linking the physical world to the divine through death. Christianity worships a dead man on a cross, and pieces of this ancient murder weapon are prized relics. A less esoteric, example of the relevance of dead things is the redneck obsession with taxidermy. Avid hunters like my nephew parade their kills on their trucks and rv's before paying hundreds of dollars to mount and display the carcasses. Even the blue blood elite decorate their homes with exotic hunting trophies and rare entomological displays.


While we may think we fear the dead and dead things we actually celebrate them in so many ways. The proliferation of skulls in fashion is a modern integration of ancient worship practices, perhaps stemming from the western popularity of yoga. Halloween, Dia de los Muertos, Easter-- all holidays which honor the dead. Horror films, thriller novels, and popular tv shows like from the fantasmagoric American Horror Story and The Walking Dead all reflect a human infatuation with the dead. But these are only artistic renderings of death rather than actual dead things. Seeing death up close and personal is a whole other ballgame. American media shields viewers from devastating video and stills of actual death. The internet links that sneak through the filters are quickly deleted. Seeing the real deal is instantly recognizable. The gut seizes in recognition of death. The dead thing is sublime, simultaneously majestic and fearsome, compelling and repulsive.

Stephen King's Stand By Me
Stephen King's Stand By Me