restricted access The Material Culture of Marriage: What Wedding Gifts Can Tell Us about 1940s Dublin
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The Material Culture of Marriage:
What Wedding Gifts Can Tell Us about 1940s Dublin

The material culture of Irish domestic life has recently been addressed, most notably in the work of Toby Barnard, whose exploration of the possessions owned by Irish families in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries has revealed a rich and varied world of material goods that sheds light on larger questions about class and consumerism.1 Yet studies of the material culture of Irish households in subsequent centuries are rare. In part, this lack of attention to more contemporary domestic goods may be attributable to the fact that, as the twentieth century progressed, these goods became more numerous and disposable. Therefore lists and inventories, the raw data for such analyses, were less likely to be compiled. In the twentieth century, and even today, wedding presents are one of the few forms of gift exchange that continue to be recorded formally.

In 1940 Ada K. Longfield (1899–1987) and Harold Leask (1883– 1964) were married in Dublin (see figure 1). The extant record of the wedding gifts presented to this couple provides us with an opportunity to examine the type of objects that were purchased, valued, and used by a certain cohort of Irish society, namely the educated middle class. The anthropologist Arjun Appadurai’s biographical approach to the material history of objects encourages us to trace the social life of things to better understand their transition from mere [End Page 177]

Figure 1. Photographic portrait of Ada Leask ca. 1930. National Museum of Ireland. Art and Industrial Archives, AI/020/011.
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Figure 1.

Photographic portrait of Ada Leask ca. 1930. National Museum of Ireland. Art and Industrial Archives, AI/020/011.

commodities to items of social significance.2 Yet because many personal transactions and exchanges remain unrecorded, it can be difficult to outline the social trajectory of a material object. Longfield’s and Leask’s albums, diaries, and photographs were left to the family and passed into the collection of the National Museum of Ireland, where they provide a unique insight into the traditions surrounding [End Page 178] the exchange of gifts and the material culture among the Dublin elite. In particular, Ada’s diaries and family snapshots invite us not only to consider the gifts the couple received upon their marriage but also to pinpoint how the bride felt about them. These wedding gifts tell us much about the values and interests of this group, and they are the type of things that, according to Judy Attfield, become absorbed into people’s lives and “go towards forming a sense of individuality within a group that share the same values.”3 The existence of the Leasks’ register of wedding gifts provides a rare glimpse of the type of objects that furnished and adorned the homes of the city’s leading academic and cultural figures of this period, shedding light on their milieu and its practices.

During the mid-twentieth century, Longfield and Leask were significant contributors to Dublin’s academic life. Both were noted scholars in the field of antiquities and design history. Longfield had worked in the National Museum of Ireland and published widely on ceramics, lace, and wallpaper.4 Leask was an antiquarian who worked for the Office of Public Works as Inspector of National Monuments.5 The guest list for their wedding, which took place on 31 January 1940, reads as a who’s who of Irish cultural figures and included artists, academics, and writers such as the art historian Françoise Henry, the natural historian Robert Lloyd Praeger, and the cooperative leader Muriel Gahan. The guests at the Leask wedding shared many of the couples’ academic interests and were the committee members of groups such as the Royal Irish Academy, the Royal Dublin Society, and the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, all organizations that depended on a spirit of volunteerism and cooperation. The design historian Louise Purbrick has researched wedding-gift-giving in 1940s Britain, basing her analysis on material drawn from case studies compiled by the Mass Observation Study. In her analysis, she contends that “the question of what to give centres on the idea of a proper gift: an object that can display the decisions of the giver, making evident...