The Spectacle Frame, the Broken Nail, and the Concrete Sample: Materials Telling Histories of Change

Research output: Contribution to journalJournal articleResearchpeer-review


Inspired by researchers’ observations of the increased use of things in modern society, discussions about non-human actors, and the author Georges Perec’s interest in what happens when nothing seems to happen, this article explores how a collection of materials originally used for educating engineers can be used to study the history of everyday life. Changes in everyday life are investigated through the lens of three objects from the collection: a broken nail moulded in zinc during World War I; a piece of concrete from an experiment performed in 1980; and spectacle bows made of titanium. Through these objects, the article examines what twentieth-century history looks like when we take non-humans seriously in history writing and use such objects as starting points, inspiration, and sources. It also suggests the concepts of ‘non-things’ and ‘taken-for-granted things’ as a way of paying more attention to objects that are central to our daily life but usually go unnoticed. Using the history of concrete and titanium as cases, the article becomes a history of the many changeable materials that form the mostly unnoticed and seemingly stable background of everyday life. In affluent society, these materials have contributed to both predictability, comfort, and environmental problems.
Original languageEnglish
JournalRethinking History
Issue number2
Pages (from-to)209-228
Number of pages20
Publication statusPublished - 2020
Externally publishedYes


  • Materials
  • Concrete
  • Titanium
  • Non-human actorsMaterial culture
  • Everyday
  • Non-things
  • Taken-for-granted things

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