Material Culture refers to:
• the psychological meanings that
all physical objects have to people
in a particular culture
• the range of manufactured
objects that are typical within a
socioculture and form an essential
part of cultural identity.
Human beings perceive and
understand the material things
around them according to their
In Other Words...
You can tell a lot about people by looking at their stuff—the things
they make, possess, think, and value. That is the idea that drives the
ﬁeld of material culture, in which scholars explore the meaning of
objects of a given society. And nowhere are those meanings more
revealing than in the material culture of the United States.
To understand Realistic novels,
we need to appreciate that:
“the things that people use and acquire in order
to deﬁne themselves—their tools, their furniture,
their accessories . . . are indeed part of the
very deﬁnition of ‘character,’ of who one is
and what one claims to be. And the picture of
the whole only emerges—if it does—from
the accumulation of things.”
Peter Brooks. Realist Vision. Yale U P, 2005.
Today, We’ll Survey Yezierska’s Use
Of Material Culture As:
• Oppositional to the realm of the spirit
• Expressions of being “a real person”
• Representative of 19th-20th Century class
distinctions & consumerism
• Veneers to portray oneself in a different social
The Setting For Bread Givers:
NYC in the early 1900s
& bustle of
The press of urban
humanity and mass
market commodities &
Yezierska’s use of Material
Culture As Oppositional to the
Realm of the Spirit
• As early as page 11, Yezierska presents the
parable of Rabbi Chanina Ben Dosa and
the “big chunk of gold”
• From this story, it is clear that the desire
for things of this earth come at the expense
of heavenly treasures and “the wine of
Sara & Her family Are
Taught Not to want the
Things of This Earth
Sara Learns The World Doesn’t [always]
Work That way--she Witnesses Reb’s
Confrontation with the Landlord
“She took one step
towards him and shut
his book with such
anger that it fell at her
feet. Little red threads
burned out of Father’s
eyes. He rose slowly, but
quicker than lightning
ﬂashed his hand....
Father slapped the
landlady on one cheek,
then on the other, till
the blood rushed from
her nose” (18).
These scenes &
opposition to The
Realm of the Spirit
The Family Choice: Reb’s Holy Books or The
When leaving Russia, the choice had to be made...
What would YOU take?
They also left feather beds, table cloths, curtains,
towels—all sorts of domestic items (32-33).
That The Desire For
Might Put One’s
Soul In Jeopardy
Yezierska’s use of Material
Culture As Expressions of
being a “Real Person”
Ask Yourself: How Does One
Develop a Sense of Self without:
• Privacy or room of one’s
• Financial support?
• Time to explore?
• Permission to play and
In Order To Discover a Sense Of Self--
Kids Need To Be Kids
In Her Struggle to Feed Her
Family, Gain Her Mother’s
Respect & Assert Herself, the
10-Year-Old Sara Peddled
Herring On the Street
“Earning twenty-ﬁve and
sometimes thirty to ﬁfty cents
a day made me feel independent,
like a real person” (28).
“And throwing the ﬁfty
pennies, like a shower of
gold, into my mother’s lap, I
cried, ‘Now, will you yet
call me crazy-head? Give
only a look what “Blood-
and-iron” has done’” (23).
At First, Sara Believes That Things
Make the Family More American
• “Mother began to ﬁx up the house like other people” (28).
• “[W]e could all sit down by the table at the same time and
eat like people” (29).
• “I want to do something. I want some day to make myself
for a person and come among people” (66).
• “[W]ith seventy-eight dollars and eighty-nine cents coming in
every day, we’ll soon be able to buy a piano and I’ll begin to
take piano lessons. And if I were a piano-player instead of a
shop hand, I wouldn’t have to marry myself to a common
man...I’ll try to catch on to a doctor, or a lawyer” (118).
The “things” of
Empowerment, a Sense
of Personhood &
Material Culture: Mass
Production & Consumerism
• Standards of Western Beauty
• New World vs. Old World Values
• Portraits of the American Dream as
seen in popular culture (consumer
ads, ﬁlm, periodicals)
• Perceptions of “Hand-Made” vs.
Mashah “buys-in” to New
World Values & Beauty
• “Like a lady from Fifty Avenue I look, and for only ten
cents, from a pushcart on Hester Street” (2).
• “[T]hese pink roses on my hat to match out my pink
calico will make me look just like the picture on the
magazine cover” (3).
• “[S]he came home with another new-rich idea, another
money-spending thing, which she said she had to have.
She told us that...everybody in the family had a
toothbrush and a separate towel for himself ” (6).
What Does a Personal Toothbrush &
Towel MEAN to the Smolinsky Family?
Standards of Western Beauty
Mashah’s Pink Calico
Become the Indicator of
High Class & Taste
B. Altman advertisement 1926
Ornately Decorated Hats Indicate Breeding &
B. Altman Advertisement 1887
the Picture of Health
Movie Poster 1917
20th Century American
Material Culture Can:
Represent Social Class,
of Beauty, & Endorse
Yezierska’s Portrayal of
Material Culture As a Veneer
to Mask Genuine States or for
Shenah uses things to create the
appearance of wealth & comfort
to attract boarders:
• She uses empty herring pails as a bed riser
• She puts a board over a potato barrel, covers it
with newspaper and creates a “table”
• She uses a oilcloth-covered soapbox as a chair
Examples from p. 15
The Ultimate “American Dream”
The Family Buys a Store in NJ
The American Dream
• Be one’s own boss
• Make one’s own hours
• Protestant Work Ethic: Hard work pays off
• Honesty is the best policy
• Freedom of choices
The stock in the store was a
Ultimately, However, Sara Rejects Material
Culture as an Escape from Poverty
and Recognizes ‘Things’ as Merely Veneers
• “But the more people get, the more they want. We no sooner
got used to regular towels than we began to want
toothbrushes, each for himself like Mashah” (29).
• “It’s only when poor people begin to eat and sleep and dress
themselves that the ugliness and dirt begins to creep out of
their black holes” (38).
• “I’m going to make my own life!” (138)
• “I looked in the glass at the new self I had made.
Now I was exactly like the others! Red lips, red
cheeks, even red roses under the brim of my hat....
But my excited happiness soon sank down. I felt
funny and queer. Something was wrong. As if my
painted face didn’t hang together with the rest of
me. On the outside I looked like the other girls.
But the easy gladness that sparkled from their eyes
was not in mine. They were a bunch of light-
hearted savages who looked gay because they felt
gay. I was like a dolled-up dummy ﬁxed for a part
on the stage” (182-183).
“My one hope was to get to the educated world,
where only the thoughts you give out count, and
not how you look. My longing for the living
breath of a little understanding became centered
more and more in my dream of going to
Laura Nicosia, PhD