Objects of our Affections

From artwork and furniture to clothing and kitsch, material items are often imbued with human emotions, identity, and desire

By Anne SteinMarch 6, 2018

A child’s tiny dress, long outgrown. A framed vacation photo with friends.  A T-shirt that’s still haunted by the scent of a lost love.

Whether it is the clothing we wear or the objects we display, the items filling our homes carry extraordinary emotional charges. Simply touching or seeing these things can arouse passion, ignite desires, and stir regrets. They represent who we once were, who we are, and who we want to be.

Northwestern faculty from various disciplines — including history, literature, psychology, and anthropology — explore this terrain to offer compelling insights into how passion and identity are related to the objects and institutions that shape our domestic life.

Fantastic Journeys

Postcards are one of many objects that cultural anthropologist Mary Weismantel examines in her best-known work, Cholas and Pishtacos: Tales of Race and Sex in the Andes. Like other everyday objects, these travel mementos are infused with emotion. “It has to do with the way we have vaguely passionate fantasies about other places, and certainly the people who make and produce postcards try to capitalize on that.” They elicit memories of good times and exotic lands that become even more exotic over time.

Those fantasies about place carry over to illusions we have about people; she cites Denise Brennan’s book What’s Love Got to Do with It?, an account of German sex tourists who travel to the Dominican Republic to “set up house” with local women. The men think the women are primitive and sensual, while the women fantasize that the men will marry them, take them back home, and support their families. “At some point the illusions fall apart,” says Weismantel.

Clothing can also be emotionally charged — even becoming as arousing as a nude figure. Picking up an old sweater associated with childhood can bring a rush of emotions and memories. It’s why discarding the clothing of a deceased parent can be so intense. “We have relationships with our clothing that embody relationships with other people and even animals. That’s one way that objects are powerful.”

For hoarders the emotional attachment is more extreme. “They revisit the past through those objects,” Weismantel explains, citing a hoarding reality TV show episode about a lonely woman who touches items that remind her of happier times, when she was married with children. “Life seemed full of promise, and now she’s divorced and the kids are gone. People revisit the past by handling objects reminiscent of those times.”

More Money, More Stuff

It’s not just modern people whose domestic goods embody passion, identity, and desire. In her book Household Gods: The British and Their Possessions, historian Deborah Cohen documents “a history of the British love affair with the domestic interior.” Her study begins in the late 18th century, when an evangelical revival swept the nation.

“You see plates displayed in households inscribed with messages like ‘Prepare to meet thy God,’” says Cohen, the Peter B. Ritzma Professor of the Humanities and professor of history. The friction between faith and finery could play out like a morality tale, exemplifying worry about the consequences of indulging material impulses. “People spent huge amounts of time fretting about eternal damnation for buying a carpet – and these were prosperous types donating huge amounts to the church.”

As the Industrial Revolution took hold and the standard of living began to increase in the mid-19th century, people enjoyed more disposable income to spend on possessions, so homeowners bought objects that had “moral” qualities. “Victorians evaluated the merits of sideboards and chintzes according to a new standard of godliness,” writes Cohen in Household Gods. “A correct purchase could elevate a household’s moral tone; the wrong choice could exert a malevolent influence.”

British design exploded, giving consumers a huge selection of goods, from bedsteads to fabrics. “They were the first people to be so closely identified with their belongings.”

This trend toward embedding religiosity into everyday domestic life experienced a setback in the 1890s when people rebelled against moral and religious furnishings and become obsessed with expressing their individuality. They filled their homes with decorative objects, from palm trees and stuffed bears to screens, draperies, furniture, and crafts. “There’s a big boom in handicraft and domestic arts and crafts, and people take it really seriously,” Cohen explains. “The Victorian era was the apogee of people passionately expressing who they were with their objects.”

It can be harder to figure out the emotions prompted by older objects. Weismantel has studied pre-Columbian Moche sex pots — ceramics from the first millennium A.D. depicting sexual encounters.

“As researchers, we have to be cautious about how we talk about these objects, because we don’t know what people’s reactions were to them.”

Weismantel believes that these pots were made by and for elite families, using potent representations to communicate important social messages about status and authority. “So for this ancient society, these pots could have invoked emotions about preserving inheritance and loyalty.”