Out of the Ordinary

"Mundane studies" comes of age


Not long ago a friend called my attention to an article by the British historian Colin Jones titled "Pulling Teeth in Eighteenth-Century Paris." I was glad she did. It would be wrong to say that I am captivated by teeth, but they do leave a lasting impression. I recall seeing as a child, in a display case at a museum, a hollow false tooth used by a spy to carry secret messages during the Revolutionary War (not successfully, it would seem). The Centers for Disease Control a few years back released a state-by-state study of tooth loss, the central finding of which I retain: in West Virginia, the most severely afflicted state, almost 50 percent of those over the age of sixty-five have no teeth at all. I can still summon the image, from a book of photographs, of a collection of teeth extracted by Czar Peter the Great, "who fancied himself a dentist," each from a different person, and each carefully labeled. I remember looking twice at an obituary headline that identified its subject as a "DENTIST AND HUMANITARIAN."

The ostensible subject of Colin Jones's article is a man known as le Grand Thomas, a freelance tooth puller of formidable girth who plied his trade from a cart on the Pont-Neuf for half a century, until the 1750s. He styled himself the "pearl of charlatans" and the "massive Aesculapius" and displayed a banner bearing the legend DENTEM SINON MAXILLAM ("The tooth, and if not, the jaw"). Tooth-pulling at the time was, like executions, a form of public entertainment. Jones situates Thomas at the beginning of a process that would lead not only to the emergence of modern dentistry but also, as a consequence, to much of the oral iconography of modern advertising.

"The mouth," Jones writes, "was becoming the imaginary site around which revolved both a nascent academic industry and a new and broader commercialism." Toothbrushes, toothpowder, and false teeth came into vogue in the eighteenth century among an expanding bourgeoisie. As teeth improved, a new phenomenon took hold in the realm of art. Ever since antiquity the convention had been to depict respectable people with their mouths closed and their teeth hidden; the open-mouthed, gap-toothed look was reserved for the depraved, the demented, and the vulgar. Now, in the 1780s, for the first time, the smile was flashed in formal portraiture, celebrating full sets of even white teeth.

Colin Jones's progression from the Pont-Neuf to the Pepsodent smile exemplifies a rapidly expanding genre. Its practitioners are drawn from many fields, and their interests range from the most pedestrian aspects of popular culture to the most rarefied precincts of serious history. The genre doesn't have a single name, but its manifestations could be lumped together under the rubric "mundane studies."

Consider two paths to enlightenment. One is to take subject matter that is vast and grand (the Middle Ages, say) and slice it into thin sections for analysis ("Glazed Pottery and Social Class in Ninth-Century Thuringia"). The other path leads from the particular to the general—it takes something seemingly unremarkable (a kind of food, an article of dress, a body part) and from it derives a larger world of meaning. In the mid-1970s the historian and John Adams biographer Page Smith and the biologist Charles Daniel published The Chicken Book, a conceptual vivisection of Gallus domesticus, and a tour de force. A decade and a half later the engineer Henry Petroski devoted an entire volume to the pencil. Last year the architect Witold Rybczynski produced One Good Turn, a history of the screwdriver and the screw. This approach—the mundane-studies approach—continues to gather momentum. The impetus comes partly from the rise of social history, with its focus on ordinary life. The challenge of extracting significance from some unlikely object provides the further incentive of a postmodernist daredevil thrill.

No subject is too small. A few years ago I received a letter from a man named Jay W. Stein, who, as a government archivist working with original Nazi and Soviet documents, had managed to assemble a museum-quality collection of the binders, fasteners, clamps, and clips that held the bureaucracies' papers together. Now a librarian, Stein had continued to pursue his passion, and he enclosed an article of his from the Law Library Journal—"Something Little and Shiny on the Judicial Stage: The Paper Clip." "What I discovered," Stein wrote in the article, "was that the paper clip is more taken for granted than almost anything in the judicial process"—despite the fact that case after case has hinged on this simple device. Paper clips have figured in deciding whether pages were part of wills. The fact that a document's edge was marked by paper clips has been accepted as evidence that the document was in fact read. Paper clips sometimes turn up as weapons. Stein observed,

Like the horseshoe nail that crippled the horse and thwarted its rider in battle, the paper clip is small compared to most things involved in litigation. Yet, how often it is mentioned suggests pausing to remind oneself how much the little things count.
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Rubbish!: The Archaeology of Garbage
A book by Cullen Murphy and William L. Rathje at Amazon.com.

The common potato seems like a little thing—ordinariness in tuber form. But I began to see potatoes differently after reading a recent essay, "The Potato in the Materialist Imagination," by Catherine Gallagher and Stephen Greenblatt. As the potato became a European staple, 200 years ago, it also became the focus of a fierce intellectual debate. The pro-potato forces celebrated the potato's astonishing utility: it grew with little effort, and fed people and swine alike. The anti-potato forces found this repugnant—and they worried about an insidious social consequence. Bread, the traditional staple, caught people up in a complex web of interactions—growing, harvesting, threshing, milling, baking, selling. The potato required none of that. A vast rural proletariat in a state of utter isolation could feed on roots from the ground, breed, and degrade into dust.

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Cullen Murphy

Says Cullen Murphy, "At The Atlantic we try to provide a considered look at all aspects of our national life; to write, as well, about matters that are not strictly American; to emphasize the big story that lurks, untold, behind the smaller ones that do get told; and to share the conclusions of our writers with people who count."

Murphy served as The Atlantic Monthly's managing editor from 1985 until 2005, when the magazine relocated to Washington. He has written frequently for the magazine on a great variety of subjects, from religion to language to social science to such out-of-the-way matters as ventriloquism and his mother's method for pre-packaging lunches for her seven school-aged children.

Murphy's book Rubbish! (1992), which he co-authored with William Rathje, grew out of an article that was written by Rathje, edited by Murphy, and published in the December, 1989, issue of The Atlantic Monthly. In a feature about the book's success The New York Times reported that the article "was nominated for a National Magazine Award in 1990 and became a runaway hit for The Atlantic Monthly, which eventually ran off 150,000 copies of it." Murphy's second book, Just Curious, a collection of his essays that first appeared in The Atlantic Monthly and Harper's, was published in 1995. His most recent book, The Word According to Eve: Women and The Bible in Ancient Times and Our Own, was published in 1998 by Houghton Mifflin. The book grew out of Murphy's August 1993 Atlantic cover story, "Women and the Bible."

Murphy was born in New Rochelle, New York, and grew up in Greenwich, Connecticut. He was educated at Catholic schools in Greenwich and in Dublin, Ireland, and at Amherst College, from which he graduated with honors in medieval history in 1974. Murphy's first magazine job was in the paste-up department of Change, a magazine devoted to higher education. He became an editor of The Wilson Quarterly in 1977. Since the mid-1970s Murphy has written the comic strip Prince Valiant, which appears in some 350 newspapers around the world.

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