A reminder that the Syracuse University Archives is seeking to record and preserve the personal responses of Syracuse University students, faculty, and staff during the COVID-19 pandemic. Take a look at our website page on this project for more information.
The image featured in the header of this post is from our Henry M. Beach Adirondack Camp Photographs (Henry M. Beach Adirondack Camp Photographs, Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries), part of the Special Collections Research Center’s manuscript collections.
This fall semester, we planned on launching an exhibition honoring the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. However, the pandemic abruptly interrupted those plans. Transitioning to working at home left us with no access to our collections, so researching, selecting, and writing about our materials were temporarily suspended.
Because of these uncertain times, we have decided to take another path. Instead of having an onsite exhibition, we will be highlighting some of the stories from our collections related to disability histories and studies in the form of virtual short video clips.
Syracuse University’s School of Education played a foundational role in developing Disabilities Studies, and because SCRC is the home of the University Archives, we hold the papers of some of those SU professors who made significant contributions to the field, like William Cruickshank and Burton Blatt. We also have records from outside of the University that relate to the topic of disability studies more broadly across the state of New York. Inside Albany, a weekly television news program from the state’s capital, features segments that amplify the voices of the disabled. The Willowbrook Collection, relating to Geraldo Rivera’s 1972 exposé of conditions at Staten Island’s Willowbrook State School for people with intellectual disabilities, contains film, photographs, pamphlets, correspondence and more. These are just a few of our holdings in SCRC that tell some of the stories of the disabled community.
Exhibitions usually highlight what an institution has in its collections, but it is important to note and acknowledge what stories are missing from this narrative. These gaps inform us of areas that we need to further develop our collections to make a more accurate and unmediated picture of the many communities of disabled people. To this end, I have sought to learn about other voices that have been excluded from the official record. One source is the recently published book, Disability Visibility: First-Person Stories from the Twenty-First Century, edited by Alice Wong. The book spotlights a diversity of people who tell their own whole and complex stories. Stories like these need to be included in the archives.
We look forward to sharing with you some of our collection materials that highlight the field of disability studies and the lives of disabled persons in the upcoming months. While telling these stories, we acknowledge those that are absent from the official record and are committed to widening the circle of voices, creating a richer telling of the disabled community.
Danny Sarmiento, Director of Administration & SCRC Curatorial Intern for the Plastics Collection
It’s possibly the most retold story about a haircut. One Connecticut newspaper headline read simply, ‘IRENE CASTLE CUTS HER HAIR.’” In 1914, as an internationally-recognized ballroom dancer, silent film star, and one of the first celebrities with an eponymous fashion line, Irene Castle was, in the truest sense, an influencer. Her newest look, the “Castle Bob,” caused something of a scandal and would later manifest in the short, fringed hairstyle made iconic by flappers in the 1920s. Today, Castle’s shorn locks reside in the Museum of the City of New York. The Syracuse University Special Collections Research Center (SCRC) holds its own piece of Irene Castle iconography in the below photograph and Picture-Play cover image of the star, part of SCRC’s Street and Smith Archive Serial Covers.
The social and cultural implications of Castle’s dramatic chop were immediately remarked upon and debated in the press and public. Castle, herself, tossed off the remark, “I believe I am largely blamed for the homes wrecked and engagements broken because of clipped tresses,” in the Ladies Home Journal. And though this response can be read in the same tongue-in-cheek spirit as the “accusations” being levied at her, the very real impacts Castle’s haircut had are undeniable. In addition to the social commentaries that would emerge about femininity and gender in the years that followed, several more immediate effects were felt in the fashion and beauty industries. Business boomed as hair salons flooded with requests for bobbed hair, while the beauty supply market was met with a quite different reality – a story which is told, in part, through SCRC’s antique comb collection.
In an interview for the Antique Comb Collector’s Club, Alice Sawyer recalled, “The hairpin business died overnight in 1914 when Irene Castle cut her hair.” Sawyer had been working in Leominster, Massachusetts, a plastics manufacturing town responsible for two thirds of country’s comb supply and, within a few years of the infamous haircut, nearly half of the comb manufacturers in Leominster were forced to close. Although no one in the industry could have anticipated the influence that this singular act would have on their business, manufacturers of plastic beauty products were, by now, no strangers to major market disruptions of this scale. Only a few decades earlier, the introduction of cellulose nitrate (celluloid), opened many new possibilities for comb design and manufacture that had previously been constrained by materials less abundant and less versatile, such as wood, glass, rubber, various metals, porcelain, bone, and even papier-mâché.
Thanks to celluloid, decorative back combs and hairpins such as those picture below, could be manufactured in abundance, making them both more affordable and accessible to the general population. What was previously seen as a luxury item, available only to those of means was, by the late 19th century, mass-produced and made widely available. Susan Freinkel, writing on the history of celluloid combs suggests, “[P]lastics freed us from the confines of the natural world. [They] held out the promise of a new material and cultural democracy. The comb, the most ancient of personal accessories, enabled anyone to keep that promise close.” But if this was true, what are we to make of that closely-held promise when plastic combs were seemingly cast off into obsolescence not all too long after being brought to market?
When the advancing technology of plastic injection molding was introduced to comb manufacturing in the mid-nineteenth century, it became largely a single-material industry in a matter of just a few years. “Plastic,” according to Roland Barthes, “is the very idea of its infinite transformation […], less an object than the trace of a movement.” The traces left to us by the plastic comb, then, might be seen not as mere relics, but as markers on a path of continual transformation. And for Alice Sawyer, now running Diadem Manufacturing Company with her husband Lester, transformation was, indeed, a matter of her company’s survival. With the ornamental appeal of the comb waning, Sawyer would move on to develop several new comb designs aimed at the utility-minded consumer, introducing products such as the lifter comb, the hair trimming comb, and the “Grip-Tuth Hairtainer.”
Meanwhile another comb manufacturer in Leominster would remake itself in quite a different way. In 1917 – a year when Irene Castle could be seen reenacting her legendary haircut in the film serial Patria – Sam Foster was contemplating the future of the plastic comb business he helped to build. Foster was a plastics man who, after failing to find his market with ideas that ranged from plastic jewelry, to dice, to “tiny birdcages that held plastic birds,” eventually settled into the more lucrative market for beauty products. And now, faced with a diminishing comb market and a group of concerned employees, Foster, unshaken, is said to have addressed his staff matter-of-factly: “So all right. We’ll make something else.” And so they did. Within a few years, the company would sell its first pair of plastic children’s sunglasses and, the business originally founded as Foster Manufacturing Company, was renamed Foster Grant. Under the new name, their product line expanded with the company’s first pair of adult sunglasses sold in 1929. By this time, Irene Castle’s fame had dimmed somewhat as the silent film era gave way to talking pictures and a new generation of celebrities. Bright lights on Hollywood film sets and the Southern California sunshine meant that many of the biggest film stars were seen (and photographed) in their sunglasses, priming Foster Grant to be part of the beauty supply market’s next Hollywood-fueled transformation.
The Plastics Artifacts Collection and the Foster Grant Collection held by the Syracuse University Special Collections Research Center are bound together both by their physical material and by the material culture of which they are a product. These collections represent markers in the development of plastics design and manufacturing and allow us to trace, at least in part, 20th century conceptions of beauty, fashion, and celebrity, as embodied by the likes of Irene Castle and those that came after her.
The Plastics Artifacts Collection (Plastics Artifacts Collection, Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries) and the Foster Grant Collection (Foster Grant Collection, Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries) are part of the Special Collections Research Center’s manuscript collections. The Street and Smith Archive Serial Covers (Rare books, Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries) and Antique Comb Collector’s Club newsletters (Rare books, Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries) are part of SCRC’s rare books collection.
Barthes, Roland. Mythologies. 1957.” Trans. Annette Lavers. New York: Hill and Wang (1972): 302-06.
Castle, Irene. “I bobbed my hair and then—.“ The Ladies Home Journal, October (1921): 124.
Denise N. Green, Denise N. “The best known and best dressed woman in America: Irene Castle and silent film style.” Dress 43.2 (2017): 77-98.
This summer, I have been working for the Special Collections Research Center (SCRC) from my dining room table. While working remotely comes with its challenges, it has also presented the SCRC team with opportunities to embark on meaningful digital projects. For example, as part of an ongoing effort to increase the accessibility of our collections, we are writing accessible descriptions for SCRC’s collection of Street & Smith dime novel covers.
Founded in 1855, Street & Smith was the largest publisher of pulp fiction and dime novels in the United States of its time. The prolific publishing house was a “fiction factory” that produced juvenile book series, fashion magazines, comics, and dime novels. The company had a clear vision for their publications and, under this model, the publishing editors set strict restrictions on the style of writing and cover art produced by the company. Over time, Street & Smith shrank its line of pulp titles before abandoning the genre entirely in 1949. The Street & Smith dime novel cover collection is the second collection for which the SCRC team has written accessible descriptions. This collection was selected to be visually described because of Street & Smith’s importance in the history of United States publishing, the dime novels’ rich representation of American popular culture, and because over 1,700 of these covers are now digitized and available at SCRC’s Special Collections Online. Scanned images of these covers were microfilmed as part of a 1995 National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) funded project to preserve and catalogue SCRC’s Street & Smith collection.
Simply stated, accessible descriptions are a descriptive summary that accompanies an image. Accessible descriptions go beyond standard image captioning by describing the actual content of the visual material. Providing images with accessible descriptions ensures that they are accessible to researchers with visual impairments who rely on screen readers. This is because visual descriptions can be read by screen readers, thereby providing the same meaning and non-text content as its visual counterpart. These descriptions can also serve to protect fragile archival materials from excessive handling. When looking through the visual material of a collection, a researcher may have to handle much of it to find what they are looking for. By making visual descriptions of this material available online, researchers are able to begin narrowing down their search before accessing the collection on-site. This reduces the overall amount of material they must handle in order to access what they need, which ultimately helps preserve the state of the collection.
I found writing accessible descriptions to be deceptively difficult because every visual description should increase both accessibility and discoverability of the image it describes. In order to accomplish these two goals, the information must be presented consistently, clearly, and concisely. Consistent terminology increases image discovery by ensuring the text can be indexed and searched. In order to be accessible to researchers with visual impairments, however, the description must be thorough enough to transmit the same content as the image. Finally, the description must avoid bias and interpretation to present an objective reading of the image. Take, for example, the 1900 Street & Smith dime novel cover, A Gentleman Born (Round the World Library no. 166). While the man in the yellow shirt appears to me to be rushing into the scene and threatening the other two figures, this is an interpretation of the scene rather than an objective analysis. A more neutral presentation of this material is:
“A man in a yellow shirt strides toward the two figures in the center of the cover, placing his right hand on the man’s left shoulder. The central figures look up and over their shoulders as if startled by the man’s presence.”
This description removes my reading of the scene as threatening, thereby allowing the reader of the text to form their own interpretation.
Having just received my master’s degree in Art History from Syracuse University, I have found working on this accessible description project both fun and rewarding. Art historians must be able to accurately describe visual artworks, and this is a skill we spend years cultivating. The Street & Smith visual description project has allowed me to utilize this skill in a meaningful way by making SCRC materials accessible to more individuals. As someone who advocates for far-reaching accessibility in academic spaces, I am encouraged by the increasing presence of accessible descriptions and hope it becomes a standard companion to visual archival materials.
TheStreet & Smith dime novelsare part of SCRC’s rare books collection (Rare books, Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries). TheStreet & Smith Records(Street & Smith Records, Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries) andStreet & Smith Collection(Street & Smith Collection, Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries) are part of the Special Collections Research Center’s manuscript collections.
Describing Visual Resources Toolkit: Describing Visual Resources for Accessibility in Arts & Humanities Publications, University of Michigan Library, https://describingvisualresources.org.
This post has been updated on 7/8/2020 to reflect the terminology used in the Street & Smith metadata project, changing ‘alt-text descriptions’ to ‘accessible descriptions.’ Thanks to Deirdre Joyce for the correction!