As he introduced us to lofting –boat design–John Brady, president and CEO of the Independence Seaport Museum, referred to four interpretive panels, each with a blueprint and model showing a different set of lines (water lines, etc.). Brady described the painstaking process of moving back and forth between the different sets of lines to rectify them, to create a smooth shape in three dimensions.
“It’s a spiral,” he said, “an iterative process.”
I propose a similarly spiraling method of object analysis for the object I’ve called “Ray.” As Brady moved from line to line to bring dimension to the boat, I will move between four practices, with each circuit of the spiral providing new insights.
Step 1: Observation/Description
Like Jules Prown, I begin with observation of the object. Looking at it from different perspectives. My first glimpses of Ray came at a distance, which was a useful reminder that seeing an object at different scales is just as important as from different angles. While observing, I sketch, trying to rationalize the curves and angles I’m seeing onto a flat surface; in essence I’m doing John Brady’s work in reverse. I look for things I recognize as evidence–things which I understand, or think I do–and those which mystify me. I pose questions, perhaps, but the emphasis is on documenting the object for easy reference and to make concrete the process of seeing.
Step 2: Thinkfeelgo
Once I have (seemingly) exhausted that path of inquiry, I move on to something akin to Prown’s deduction, but what I will call thinkfeelgo, in which I engage my imagination, sensory memory, and emotions. This step may involve seeking out relevant experiences and places that provide sensory points of reference for this object–taking a ride on a boat, for instance, or visiting the sneakbox’s origins in Barnegat Bay. Like Robin Bernstein I will try to identify ways in which my involvement with this object is scripted. Like Kenneth Ames I may wonder how variation in this object results in variations in the script.
Step 3: Sources
In the third phase, I avail myself of sources, written or otherwise, which tell the story of this object or others like it already. I am not the first person to interact with this object and I would be a fool to ignore other people’s stories and analysis. As Laurel Thatcher Ulrich sought out both other failed textile products and archival sources to give context to her unfinished stocking, I will seek out accounts of use of other sneakboxes and the boats themselves.
Step 4: Big Questions
Finally, I turn the focus from the object to the broader region, nation, and globe. I ask, as Cary Carson pleads for material culturalists to ask, the big questions and locate the object within the world.
The circuit done, I widen the gyre and return to step one, noticing things I didn’t pick up on before. Having learned about the lofting process from John Brady (which I’ll shoe-horn into step 3), I look at Ray again and understand its pattern of planking in a slightly different way. This boat is assembled in a somewhat utilitarian way, with planking starting at the keel and tied into a sort of wooden collar called a harpin at the top, rather than being crafted from both top and bottom for a more aesthetically pleasing effect.
Having heard from Brady that sneakboxes in the mid-20th century, especially the 15-foot variety (this category includes Ray), were often purchased by yachting clubs in fleets of ten or so. They served a similar function to go-karts; they were a set of uniform little sailboats to be raced in order to prove who was the most adept sailor. This generalization, while perhaps not directly pertaining to Ray, makes sense of the bright blue hue of this boat. I slide into Step 2 and can imagine ten sneakboxes racing across a bay, each painted a different color so that the sailor’s family and friends on shore can pick them out at a distance.
Each step does not always lead swiftly into the next, but they form a network of meaning around this object. In Step 4, I attempt to use Ray–and the sneakbox form, Barnegat Bay, boatbuilders, and internet forum writers–to learn something about this country. The allure of regionalism, and the resulting commodification of tradition, is certainly a relevant concern of the American republic.
But there are threads of Ray’s stories that pull the opposite way too: a forum poster considering making a sneakbox out of Western Red Cedar rather than Atlantic White Cedar. This particular hobbyist, wherever he lives, accessed the plans for free from the Independence Seaport Museum, a plan based on a 15-foot sneakbox made by Beaton and Sons, the builder of Ray.[^1] These interactions between men on the internet, disengaged from regional particularity, suggest that this “traditional” boat form has been uploaded into the American milieu.
If the object I were analyzing were more familiar to me, my process would require that I distance myself from many of my assumptions about it and focus more on the close looking. A sneakbox is a thing that I have only just encountered, and all of the other boats I’ve ever seen or boarded have been Latour’s black boxes. They signify “boat” and that is all. In order to examine this sneakbox, I must peer into that black box and, coming up for air, compare the pieces I’ve seen to schematic drawings. By lurching from step to step, I facilitate crossover of various kinds of knowledge that, I hope, will help me understand this object more fully–though never completely–and place it in a larger context.
[^1] Unfortunately at this point ISM no longer offers small water craft plans for free online.