Visual Culture Program

Thursday, May 13, 2021
4:00pm to 5:00pm
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Shoddy: From Devil's Dust to the Renaissance of Rags
Hanna Rose Shell, Eleanor Searle Visiting Professor of History, Caltech (returning 2022); Associate Professor, Department of Cinema Studies & Moving Image Arts, University of Colorado-Boulder,


"Shoddy" is the afterlife of rags. This talk is about why that afterlife matters.

Starting in the early 1800s, shoddy was the name given to a new material made from reclaimed wool, and marked one of the earliest forms of industrial recycling. Old rags and leftover fabric clippings were ground to bits by a machine known as "the devil" and then re-used. Usually undisclosed, shoddy became suit jackets, army blankets, mattress stuffing, and much more.

This talk will examine visual and material cultures of textile recycling and their contributions to histories of science, technology, and medicine. Shell argues second-hand clothing is a vital medium–simultaneously visual and material, embodied and inanimate. Sources include literary and historical publications from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Most vital, however, are the visual and material sources: from military uniforms to mattress labels, from medical illustrations to political cartoons, to some of the best-known photographic documents in American history, here interpreted anew.

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About the Visual Culture Program
The Caltech-Huntington Program in Visual Culture is funded by a grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and based in Caltech's Division of the Humanities and Social Sciences. In collaboration with The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens, the program features undergraduate course offerings, guest lecturers, and other programming to foster conversations between humanists and scientists.

For more information, please contact Cecilia Lu by email at [email protected] or visit the event poster.