Charged Agency: Craft and the Souvenirs of War
“We might say that this capacity of objects to serve as traces of authentic experience isz, in fact, exemplified by the souvenir. The souvenir distinguished experiences. We do not need or desire souvenirs of events that are repeatable.”
Nearly twenty-five years ago when curator Laura Brandon arrived at the Canadian War Museum, she came across a small collection of trench art objects that were catalogued as “souvenirs.” She recalls, “During my career there, trench art continued to defy easy categorization. Each piece was challenged by its frequent lack of provenance, its recurrent source in mass production, its widely varying quality, its diverse range of artistry, and the fact that although its original material was a cartridge case, for example, it presented as a clearly non-military item like a lamp, flower pot, or pencil holder.” The challenges articulated by Brandon are not unique to trench art and are similar to the challenges craft poses to the fine art and museological worlds where authenticity, provenance, aesthetics, and rarity reign supreme. Trench art objects are connected to armed conflict and its consequences, and these objects are often, but not always, made from material, and by people, directly associated with war. Distinct from souvenirs such as Canadian collections of German helmets acquired during the First World War, trench art involved some type of transformation by hand during its manufacture, as seen in a jewellery box with an elaborate locking mechanism on its lid.
Authenticity and the categorization of objects by media and/or function are no longer defining features of craft. Instead, process and other craft-related concepts such as time, materiality, and memory have become rich theoretical approaches that one can use when trying to understand “problematic” objects that just do not seem to fit anywhere. Adopting a craft perspective when examining objects made during wartime can help to alleviate the lack of relevance that has historically been associated with these functional, souvenir-type objects. In particular, by exploring time, process, memory, and materiality—all concepts deeply rooted in craft—we have come to appreciate the significance trench art has for their makers, owners, and collectors. This has led us to describe these crafted objects as functioning with charged agency as they transcend hierarchical notions of craftsmanship and materials as well as the privileging of “known” history—such as the written record—over other forms of historical records.
Time and Process
Making a crafted object takes time and involves various processes which are repeatedly included in descriptions and definitions of craft. Mole Leigh states: “it can be seen that time consumption is an aspect of craft that is consistently invested, and with unique significance to this creative field.” Sometimes the value of the crafted object is in part highly prized because so much time was invested in the making. A historical example illustrating this point is Adelaide Alsop Robineau’s porcelain Scarab Vase (The Apotheosis of the Toiler) from 1910–1911, which was reputed to have taken more than one thousand hours to carve. This value in time investment is true of some war-related craft, but the opposite can also be true.
Within the vast array of trench art, there are hurried, desperate objects made in less than ideal circumstances with the materials at hand. For example, in November 1916, 18-year-old assistant postmaster Harry Franklin Ritz was on the front lines of the Battle of the Somme. The war diary for his battalion reads: “rain and mist—mud up to the men’s hips both in the front line and support trenches . . . casualties for forward line: 6 killed & 14 wounded.” Life for Ritz was punctuated with short moments of extreme stress, misery, terror, and action followed by long stretches of waiting when Ritz either acquired or made himself a match safe. We have hypothesized that Ritz spent some of his downtime making this utilitarian object that is designed to protect a box of matches. It is fashioned out of light, malleable aluminum. Now the throwaway material of pop cans, it was then a new and innovative metal used in German airplanes. Aluminium was prized and was used for making rings and other valued objects. Presumably, Ritz sourced a piece, shaped it and then found a tool to scratch his name, battalion, and the battles in which he fought onto this simple utilitarian object. Contrasting the matchbox cover with a trench art lighter made of brass and copper (presumably from spent shell casings) and owned by J. B. McPherson, whose name is carefully inscribed on the back along with the dates of the First World War and “25th Batt 5th Bdge,” illustrates how each object’s agency can resonate differently. Both objects speak distinctly to armed conflict: in the Ritz object, the visible hand and sense of hurried process undertaken during a very stressful time is evident and calls for empathy; the McPherson lighter with its controlled mark making and more intricate, time-consuming processes serves as a tangible reminder of military service. With these two examples, the difference lies not so much in the time spent on each piece but the type of time. Objects such as the Ritz piece resonate precisely because they are so small and quickly made during a time of potential loss.
Conversely, the unexpected care taken to make other objects, such as the complicated cabling knit into a sweater, makes for an affecting object full of charged agency. We do not need to know the specific circumstances to understand that the time spent while making objects such as this sweater was time fraught with circumstances of war. However, knowing more about the sweater highlights its multi-layered history which adds to its agency. The sweater belonged to Canadian Roy Cameron Austin, who was shot and captured on September 26, 1916. Cameron spent the rest of the First World War in a German prisoner-of-war camp where Australian POW Robert Kelly made the sweater out of worn-out socks collected from the camp. Unravelling this history of the materials reveals layers of emotion, eliciting an empathetic encounter with the object. Throughout the War, thousands of socks were voluntarily knit by Canadian and Australian women. With its variegated colours indicating the different repurposed socks, this object of comfort not only speaks to the time Kelly put into unravelling the socks and knitting the garment but to what Bruce Scates describes as the “emotional labour” of war work. Scates explains that “war work was much more than a tiresome tally of socks, balaclavas and pyjamas. Enormous emotional labour was invested in even the most prosaic commodities. . . . war work was a chance to do ‘something practical’ to make their men’s lot easier. And ‘a woman’s touch’ was often contrasted with the rude essentials provided by the army . . . All these items were invested with emotional energy: ‘What prayers are knitted into the socks, what hopes stitched into the pyjamas.’ ” These layers of charged agency illustrate just how complicated this “souvenir” is as it relates to women’s unpaid, emotional labour and life in a POW camp.
Memory and Materiality
The agency of these objects complicates the presumptive hierarchy of time that is often associated with fine craft, but it also helps to shed light on the potency of materials. For example, Austin’s sweater is made from old socks rather than luxurious fibres, and Ritz’s matchbox cover is crudely made from a scrap piece of non-precious metal, yet the objects are full of historical and emotional significance due to the type of time and materials used. These objects serve as souvenirs of an authentic experience and as collective memory holders for their creators, users, and viewers both past and present.
Ethan W. Lasser proposes three key attributes shared by objects designed to keep memories: they are clearly connected to a specific person, they are “crafted” (his word) out of enduring materials, and they contain an inner, secure space. Two frames made by machinist Charles Shawcross illustrate Lasser’s point, as they are intimately connected to Shawcross’ sister Gladys, and wife Margorie. The frames are made from enduring materials and by the very nature of the frame they have a secure space. Charged agency highlights that the frames were made from bullets and shell casings designed to kill but have instead been crafted into potent memory holders.
Embroidered postcards, especially those designed with pockets, are another example of a memory object. Some, interestingly enough, were also scented with perfume, heightening the agency of these objects. They are not really souvenir postcards in the normal sense, as they usually do not depict specific buildings or landscapes in Europe. They were sent by the tens of thousands home to Canada and were made by European textile workers. However, the charged agency remains. One card depicting an exploding artillery shell is made particularly affecting by the embroidered words: “Never absent from thoughts.” Does this refer to death or impending attack or the thought of faraway loved ones? Who is thinking this: the designer of the embroidery, the embroiderer, the sender, or the receiver? Or maybe, all four? In addition, by way of material and process, the juxtaposition of silken threads and the delicate process of embroidery to the horrors of war—represented by the exploding shell—heightens the agency of these objects. In terms of a memory object, the card is intimately linked to a historical event (the First World War), is made of an enduring material (although fibre, it is a hundred years old) and it contains a secure inner space. While there is nothing inside this envelope, many examples do contain notes, and here the empty inner space combined with the delicately embroidered message and artillery shell is a powerful combination. Another example, which does not have an inner pocket but is still a memory object, contains its message in the form of a personal handwritten note on the back: “Just a line to let you know I am still alive.” These cards are gifts of emotional connection and memory and when read bring forth a sense of empathy.
Materially speaking, textiles are rich in memory. Peter Stallybrass eloquently explains that the power of cloth resides in its association “with two almost contradictory aspects of its materiality: its ability to be permeated and transformed by maker and wearer alike; [and] its ability to endure over time. Cloth thus tends to be powerfully associated with memory. Or, to put it more strongly, cloth is a kind of memory.” In the case of the Red Cross quilt made by the women of Port Rowan, Ontario, as a fundraiser for the First World War, it bears the traces of history by way of the carefully embroidered names of soldiers who served in the 133rd (Norfolk’s Own) Battalion, the names of the women who worked on the quilt and the people who donated money to the fundraiser. This cooperative venture is an authentic expression of the patriotism, care, concern, hope, loss, and worry experienced by those on the home front. For Stallybrass, the process of piecing together a quilt is akin to peacemaking as it makes “peace between the living and the dead. A network of cloth can trace the connection of love across the boundaries of absence, of death, because cloth is able to carry the absent body, memory, genealogy, as well as literal material value.” Rebecca Beausaert explains that the collective time spent making fundraiser quilts combined emotional labour and leisure as it “allowed quilters to put their skills to use for the national war effort, but also offered a safe space where wartime anxieties could be vocalized among women, and reciprocal comfort and support offered.” The charged agency found within an object such as the Port Rowan Red Cross quilt, sheds light on omissions within the written historical record on the voluntary work undertaken by women on the home front by way of the carefully stitched names of both men and women upon an object that easily embodies memory and history in the present day. Red Cross quilts serve as alternative historical records full of agency.
Trench art defies easy categorization. As Susan Steward noted, souvenirs act as traces of experience that cannot be repeated. Laura Brandon found these objects to be difficult to categorize and understand within a museum and/or art gallery setting. Yet, with the tools available to the craft historian and theorist, these souvenirs can be understood as potent objects full of charged agency, and as a way to engage with unrepeatable experiences. By thinking through the type of time, processes, and materials used, their association to memory, these objects evoke empathy. Whether the object is finely crafted or hurriedly created, trench art reminds the present-day viewer there is a human being associated with each and every piece, a human who was caught up in a difficult time. The charged agency found in trench art complicates the nationalistic narrative of armed conflict. Craft is a useful tool in understanding these very personal souvenirs.
The exhibition Keepsakes of Conflict: Trench Art and Other Canadian War-Related Craft was at the Thunder Bay Museum and will be at the Art Gallery of Swift Current, Saskatchewan, from November 4 to December 31, 2018.
 Susan Stewart, On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1993), 135.
 Laura Brandon, “The Duality of Trench Art,” in Keepsakes of Conflict: Trench Art and Other Canadian War-Related Craft, edited by Heather Smith (Moose Jaw, SK: Moose Jaw Museum & Art Gallery, 2017),14.
 Nicholas J. Saunders, Trench Art: Materialities and Memories of War (Oxford: Berg, 2003), 11.
 Tim Cook, “ ‘Tokens of Fritz’: Canadian Soldiers and the Art of Souveneering in the Great War,” War & Society 31/3 (October 2012): 211–226.
 Mole Leigh, “Chronomanual Craft: Time Investment as a Value in Contemporary Western Craft,” Journal of Design History 15/1 (2002): 35.
 Janet Koplos and Bruce Metcalf, Makers: A History of Studio Crafts (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2010), 89.
 Quoted in Heather Smith, Keepsakes of Conflict: Trench Art and Other Canadian War-Related Craft (Moose Jaw, SK: Moose Jaw Museum & Art Gallery, 2017), 77.
 Smith, Keepsakes of Conflict, 70.
 Veterans Affairs Canada, “Life in Combat Boots,” March 3, 2017, accessed August 13, 2018, http://www.veterans.gc.ca/eng/remembrance/information-for/educators/learning-modules/vimy-ridge/life-in-combat-boots-handout.
 Bruce Scates, “The Unknown Sock Knitter: Voluntary Work, Emotional Labour, Bereavement and the Great War,” Labour History 81 (November 2001): 31.
 Scates, “The Unknown Sock Knitter”: 31 & 36–37.
 Ethan W. Lasser, “Holding Memory: From Memories Held to Memories Lost,” in Hiding Places: Memory in the Arts (Sheboygan, Wisconsin: John Micheal Kohler Arts Center, 2011), 68.
 Pat Tomczyszyn, “With Love from the Trenches: Embroidered Silk Postcards of the First World War,” Material Culture Review 15 (Spring 2000): https://journals.lib.unb.ca/index.php/MCR/article/view/17841/22122 (accessed August 14, 2018).
 Gillian Vogelsang-Eastwood, “Silk Embroidered Postcards: Who Actually Made Them?” TRC Leiden, 2017, accessed August 14, 2018, https://trc-leiden.nl/trc-digital-exhibition/index.php/silk-embroidered-postcards/item/91-who-made-them.
 Bill V., “A Canadian Love Story in WWI Silk Embroidered Postcards,” Toronto Public Library, June 28, 2014, accessed August 14, 2018, http://torontopubliclibrary.typepad.com/arts_culture/2014/06/a-canadian-love-story-in-wwi-silk-embroidered-postcards.html.
 Peter Stallybrass, “Worn Worlds: Clothes, Mourning, and the Life of Things,” in Cultural Memory and the Construction of Identity, edited by Dan Ben-Amos and Liliane Weissberg (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 199), 30.
 Smith, Keepsakes of Conflict, 50.
 Stallybrass, “Worn Worlds,” 36–37.
 Rebecca Beausaert, “Red Crosses and White Cotton: Memory and Meaning in Frist World War Quilts,” ActiveHistory.ca, July 4, 2017, accessed August 13, 2018, http://activehistory.ca/2017/07/red-crosses-and-white-cotton-memory-and-meaning-in-first-world-war-quilts/.
This article was published in the Fall/Winter 2018-19 issue of Studio Magazine