The point of public protest is to draw attention to something — to make the invisible wrong visible, and thus demand that we recognize and engage with it. To this end, protest and resistance movements have long made use of material culture, from murals to t-shirts. While by current prevailing wisdom we should phone our elected officials to make the greatest impact, humble objects can also command notice. Especially in the aggregate, things can express a potent political message, because they confront us physically. They take up space. They excite multiple senses at once — touch and sight, sometimes smell and sound. Their embodiment makes them not only good symbols and bearers of a message, but actors in their own right.1
Amid all the expressions of protest following the Presidential election, the safety pin campaign and the pussy hat project ignited publicity in the way that perhaps only objects can. Given the concerns over racial injustice and civil rights raised by the Presidential election results, it seems particularly fitting that these protests echo strategies of the abolitionist movement almost 200 years ago.
Antislavery activists ingeniously used objects to harness the political power of consumers. In Great Britain and the United States, Quaker women led campaigns to stop purchasing sugar from the West Indies, because it was the product of enslaved labor. (Abolitionists enacted boycotts of cotton, indigo, and rice as well, for the same reason.) If any sweetener graced their tea tables, it was East Indian sugar, not made by slaves, and carefully marked as such by the inscriptions on their sugar bowls.
A visitor made uncomfortable by this ceramic declaration might find herself reaching for a needlepoint potholder declaring “Any holder but a slave holder,” or leaning back on cushions embroidered with antislavery mottoes. In her haste to flee, she might pick up her host’s silk reticule by mistake, only to find it stamped with the image of a slave mother. Abolitionists emblazoned pen wipers, work bags, needlecases, and all other sorts of humble domestic objects with political slogans and icons.2 It was an ingenious idea: practicing politics by the things one chose to buy, or not to buy.
Among the most eloquent abolitionist objects was the antislavery cameo, particularly the iconic design produced by Josiah Wedgwood’s company. Wedgwood, an eminent English potter, took up the emblem and motto created by the English Committee to Abolish the Slave Trade in 1787: “Am I Not a Man and a Brother?” Like the safety pin, these medallions were meant to indicate that the white women and men who wore them felt empathy with enslaved people, across their racial difference. The words and image expressed a shared humanity and solidarity with the vulnerable — quite the radical assertion at the turn of the nineteenth century.
Similar to the safety pin (borrowed from the U.K. in the wake of Brexit), this wearable symbol crossed over from Britain to the United States. Both cameo and safety pin became “collectable” and creative types flocked to feed the trend, sometimes in lavish forms. Wedgwood’s original version might have been unglazed stoneware, distributed free to fellow antislavery advocates. But others set the antislavery medallions in gold or strung many together to make bracelets.3 This commodification invited criticism even then, much as the sale of expensive, gold safety pin jewelry has recently elicited accusations of opportunism and hypocrisy.
Most importantly, objects often become flashpoints for divisions within political protest. The supplicant male slave and declaration of brotherhood on the antislavery cameo invoked Enlightenment ideals of fraternity. Burgeoning numbers of women activists felt this gendered icon was exclusionary. It overlooked the plight of enslaved women, and it reflected the male domination of the anti-slavery movement. In 1826, the Ladies’ Negro’s Friend Society of Birmingham, England, produced its response: a kneeling bondswoman instead of a man, asking, “Am I Not a Woman and a Sister?”4
Soon, white and black abolitionist women on both sides of the Atlantic were raising funds by selling tokens, writing paper, needlework, and other objects bearing the new, woman-centered icon.5 At the same time, women themselves became increasingly important to the movement. The more abolitionism relied upon tactics besides the ballot, the more integrated its female members could be. As the makers, marketers, and users of symbolic objects, they could stand on the front lines of protest, even in an era when it was unseemly for women to occupy the public (much less political) sphere.
Long after the victory of emancipation, an increasingly broad range of protestors began sending objects en masse to make an impact on government officials. These campaigns voiced concerns not only about race, but over family, health, and gender equality in the twentieth century. At the close of World War II, for example, Congress had to confront a poignant onslaught of baby shoes, courtesy of the “Bring Back Daddy” campaign for more rapid demobilization. The next generation delivered a barrage of pens to President John F. Kennedy, pressuring him to make good on his campaign promise to end public housing discrimination by executive order — or, as JFK put it, “with the stroke of a pen.” By the late 1960s, consumers and conservatives followed suit.
In 1969, opponents of restrictions on saccharine slipped postcards into their favorite soft drink cartons; their appeal convinced Congress to delay its ban on the artificial sweetener. Anti-ERA activists in Florida sent their state representatives jars of homemade jelly galore, exhorting the government to “Preserve the family unit.” Here current protest has begun to follow; an absurdist initiative by Cards against Humanity mailed over 2,000 potatoes to a U.S. Senator who refused to hold a town hall meeting with constituents.
These historical examples show how ordinary things have made insistent and articulate public statements on many issues. Sugar bowls, pin cushions, and cameos; baby shoes and preserves; safety pins, knit hats, and potatoes: all these types of objects were originally made or bought for use in the home. In being pressed into political service, even “women’s things” rise above their domestic origins. The context of protest transforms them into a politics that we can wear on our sleeves.
- Leora Auslander, “Beyond Words,” American Historical Review 110, no. 4 (October 2005), 1017. Return to text.
- Alice Taylor, “‘Fashion Has Extended Her Influence to the Cause of Humanity’: The Transatlantic Female Economy of the Boston Antislavery Bazaar,” in ed. Beverly Lemire, The Force of Fashion in Politics and Society: Global Perspectives from Early Modern to Contemporary Times (NY: Routledge, 2016). Return to text.
- J.R. Oldfield, Popular Politics and British Anti-Slavery: The Mobilisation of Public Opinion against the Slave Trade, 1787-1807 (NY: Routledge, 2012), 157-159. Return to text.
- Jean Fagan Yellin, Women & Sisters: The Antislavery Feminists in American Culture (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), pp. 5-26. Return to text.
- Beverly Gordon, Bazaars and Fair Ladies: The History of the American Fundraising Fair (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1998); Debra Gold Hansen, Strained Sisterhood: Gender and Class in the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1993); Lee Chambers-Schiller, “‘A Good Work among the People’: The Political Culture of the Boston Antislavery Fair,” in Jean Fagan Yellin and John C. Van Horne, eds., The Abolitionist Sisterhood: Women’s Political Culture in Antebellum America (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994). Return to text.