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Material culture refers to the material products of a society, those things that can be touched, as well as the knowledge, traditions, expertise, and infrastructure that allow the production of those things. The material culture includes the built landscape, the houses, barns, bridges, fences, and so forth, as well as the tools and the knowledge that make possible the creation of these things and the furnishings and other equipment that allow their use and enjoyment.

West Virginia’s material culture varies in different parts of the state, but in most places agriculture, centered around the family farm, dominated the cultural landscape until the late 1800s and in some cases much later. This lifestyle served as the focal point for the development and diffusion of West Virginia’s material folk culture. To a greater or lesser degree the pre-industrial family farm was a largely self-sufficient economic unit, especially in the more mountainous parts of the state. Patterns of self subsistence were less common in less rugged areas, where commercial agriculture was able to establish itself from an early date.

Typically, a mountain farm used no more than ten to 15 acres to produce crops to feed its people and animals. Additional forested acreage was used for sustenance as well but was not farmed intensively; hogs were allowed to forage there, and families hunted wild game and collected items such as nuts, greens, sassafras, golden seal, and witch-hazel. The family might own the forest lands or share them in common with others.

In early days, clothes were produced directly from the wool harvested from sheep. The production of woolen cloth was a multi-step process. Before the wool was spun children and grandmothers would use steel brushes known as ‘‘cards’’ to card or comb the wool so that its fibers would be straighter and easier to spin. After the wool was carded it was spun into yarn on a spinning wheel. Women would typically get together to do spinning, making the work a social occasion similar to a quilting party, where women gathered to socialize while making quilts. Spun yarn was then woven by using a loom constructed from local timber. Within nearly every Western Virginia log home one could find a spinning wheel and loom. Both were part of the material culture, as were the fabrics they produced.

Cooperative labor was commonly used to erect cabins, barns, and fences. Extended families and close kinship networks provided the bulk of collective labor for such activities. With most hollows being settled by just a few families, all directly dependent upon the land for survival, the development of work-swapping relationships was critically important. Shared-labor events were commonly referred to as ‘‘workings’’ and included the heavier tasks of farming as well as building.

Log houses and barns are some of the best early representations of our material folk culture as they are more permanent than other creations. The log cabin was primarily Scotch-Irish in form and German in construction technique. Traditional log houses in West Virginia are a combination of two types: the Appalachian log house (also referred to as the Scotch-Irish log house) and the Pennsylvania German log house.

Pennsylvania German log houses were rectangular, typically having three rooms, with a chimney in the center of the house. Pennsylvania Germans used three corner-notching techniques: dovetailing, V- notching, and saddle notching. The horizontally cut dovetail joint was preferred as it was more effective at carrying rainwater away from the notch. The Scotch-Irish log house, in contrast, was square and had only one large room. The chimney was at the end of the house rather than the center.

In all, the Scotch-Irish house was faster and simpler to build. As Germans moved south and east into Western Virginia from Pennsylvania, they retained the aforementioned corner-notching techniques while adopting the simpler square house design used by the Scotch-Irish. The limited availability of flat land influenced the size of dwellings. It was more practical to construct smaller log houses, often located along hillsides.

Thus, most log houses built in Western Virginia represented the Scotch-Irish square form and the German corner-notching techniques. The synthesis of these two log house types represents a unique form of material culture that extends throughout the southern Appalachians. A similar integration of German and Scotch-Irish building techniques and construction types may be seen in many West Virginia barns.

Once the log house and barn were built, it was necessary to fence in or fence out livestock. The wooden split-rail fence was most common, with chestnut being the preferred wood due to its durability. Three types were commonly used: the post and rail, the snake, and the buck. A paling fence, tight enough to exclude poultry and small wildlife, often enclosed the house, yard, and kitchen garden.

Tools were necessary for any sort of building. The ax, of which there were three common types, the felling ax, the broad ax, and the foot adz, was probably the most important and versatile tool on the family farm. Axes were used for chopping, shaping, and splitting the wood necessary for every type of construction and for firewood. More precise splitting was often done with a froe and mallet. These were used to split fence palings and clapboards as well as the roof shingles for log houses and barns. Another important tool was the draw knife, which was useful in making furniture as well as handles for axes, plows, and rakes.

Material folk culture was dominant within West Virginia until the industrialization of the state precipitated a change from subsistence farming to industrial capitalism. As railroad, timber, and coal companies transformed West Virginia, people gradually made the transition from farming to the selling of their labor for a wage in coal mines and factories. As West Virginians became proletarianized, losing access to their productive natural resources, the demise of many aspects of the folk culture followed. For many West Virginians this transition to modernity has been incomplete, as many aspects of folk culture are practiced throughout the hills and hollows of the Mountain State.

This Article was written by J. Todd Nesbitt

Last Revised on October 08, 2010


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Glassie, Henry. Pattern in the Material Folk Culture of the Eastern United States. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1968.

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Cite This Article

Nesbitt, J. Todd "Material Culture." e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia. 08 October 2010. Web. 18 July 2024.


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