Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Menthol Lancaster

Collecting surface litter is one way of constructing an archaeological portrait of a city. As I walk to work, I spend a lot of time staring at the pavements of Lancaster. Yesterday, I decided to do a casual but systematic collection of all discarded cigarette boxes along two half-mile transects (east-west on Liberty Street, north-south on N. Queen Street). My sampling was very casual. I didn't record coordinates for every cigarette box, nor did I properly quantify all the variables. I picked up 26 cigarette packs in various state of deterioration. The drawings below show two examples. My survey lasted only 45 minutes, but produced a clear portrait of the neighborhoods that I walked through. The great majority of the samples were Newport 100 menthol cigarettes.

40°03'04.89"N, 76°18'55.53"W (Left); 40°03'08.3"N, 76°18'40.48"W (Right)

The preponderance of Newports is clear to interpret. Cigarette brands reflect a complex relationship between identity and consumption. We know from the sociological literature, for example, that menthol cigarettes represent an African-American and Latino population group. About a decade ago, menthol was deemed extremely dangerous. More affluent middle-class smokers seem to have abandoned menthols altogether, but poor urban populations continued to smoke menthols as an important element of their identity. The decrease of menthol sales, meant that cigarette manufacturers targeted menthol to African-American consumer most aggressively. One could do a sample of Newport cigarette ads and see the over-representation of African-Americans. Newport ads are seen through cities but rarely in suburbs.

There is much to say about the urban character of my sample areas. Lancaster's size allows one to cross multiple zones even within a mile's walk. With a little more effort, a complete portrait of Lancaster's cigarette identity could be mapped out. William Rathje's Tuscon Garbage Project has transformed the way by which we think of the archaeology of contemporary life. With a minimal effort, a structured derivee could thematize the surface of Lancaster. Finally, I want to give a thumbs up to Paul R. Mullins, The Archaeology of Consumer Culture (2011). It is a great introduction to American material culture and its relationship to consumption.


Richard M. Rothaus, PhD said...

Nice. One of the things about living out here on the edge of the Plains is an absence of such litter. Cigarette butts are common, but cigarette packs, not so much. After being out here over a decade, my reaction to cities east of the Mississippi is "dirty." When I watch a movie set in such cities, I always think "how can people live there?" Of course, I spent the first 1/2 of my life trying to get such places, and am fully aware I am being manipulated, not decisive. So that's the (I think) odd reactions your sketches created in me.

Kevin Brady said...

Fascinating, Kostis. I'm offering a collage course again in the fall, and this might be the start of a very interesting project ...

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Kostis Kourelis

Philadelphia, PA, United States