Village life is changing. Of course it is. That fact is so much a given that it seems hardly worth remarking about. Nevertheless, I am dedicating a portion of our website this year to investigate aspects of Northern Thai Village Culture before they completely disappear. I confess that I have little nostalgia about these things we see vanishing. A great deal of village life for our ancestors was hard, hand-to-mouth, subsistence living. Things feel better now. Few of our family and neighbors would prefer to revert to the old days and old ways before there was electricity, roads and money (not to mention available public health and education). But there are consequences to what we see coming that are being disregarded as if they are avoidable or hypothetical.
One of the projects (I think of it as a sub-project) is to compare what we have of village life now with what it was like a few generations ago. Those will be our case studies in this largely inductive investigation.
That brings us, on this New Year’s posting, to the IRON.
There are two versions, were there not? One is flat and one was not. The real flat iron is heated on a stove. A person needs a couple of them to keep working. While one is being used and was cooling off, the other was re-heating. The second version needs a built-in source of heat. In the picture accompanying this essay, the irons use charcoal. They are heavy and cantankerous. One can scorch fabric if the iron gets too hot. The heat is unpredictable and the operator has to be constantly alert. Still, they may be the best irons available.
These charcoal fired irons are a cultural case-in-point. There are some things to notice about them.
First, they are made of metal. In “great-grandmother’s time” (say, before World War I) here in North Thailand there was not much in a village that was made of metal. Entire houses could be constructed without a particle of metal. Kitchen-ware was non-metallic. A metal iron had to be obtained from outside the village. It was a major purchase.
Second, it is not an expendable item, but an appliance meant to last a long time. Things that had to be purchased were expected to serve into the foreseeable future. It was not predicted that the iron would ever become scrap or less useful than the day it was bought. Village culture in that era did not actually include the categories of trash or scrap. There was hardly any category for “obsolete” either.
Third, the iron represented a technological advance. In villages around here there was a time before irons. People had only a few items of clothing and if a piece needed to be wrinkle-less it was washed carefully and spread carefully to dry flat. The charcoal iron was a labor-saving device. Saving “labor” is an indicator of advancing socio-economic conditions. It is a time “after” the time when one’s labor (time + energy + skill) was of less consequence than some other aspects of one’s life. The charcoal iron arrived when subsistence living was ending.
Fourth, the appearance of charcoal irons in Northern Thai villages was a sign of cultural diversification and opening of cultural influences. Irons did not appear before there was commerce. Commerce was concomitant with transportation and travel. When five miles was the farthest a person might ever travel in their whole life, it took a long time for cultural influences to spread. By the time “great-grandmother” thought to strategize about how to get a charcoal iron, merchant-peddlers were plying the routes between towns and villages. The money economy had begun to get a grasp on people’s lives. In fact, it is probable that the first charcoal irons in North Thailand were owned by the elite, and then by those who ironed garments for those who worked for the patrons (people in the military or in government service).
These will be the measures we will use when we look at such other vanishing features of village culture as clay pots, wooden plates, herbal medicine and woven mats. What came before that object and what is replacing it? Why is it significant? What conditions are having an impact on the values people hold and the way they live?
A couple of final thoughts about those charcoal irons.
Rural electrification is almost complete here in North Thailand, so why are these irons still being sold at this market at the end of 2014? They have not yet achieved the status of memorabilia or cultural icons. There were both new and used ones on sale. None were actually antique. They are being bought to use and not to show. Their presence in the market shows that electricity is not yet everywhere. It is expected that people will be coming to this market who will carry these irons beyond the end of the electric wires. Somewhere out there, not too far away, are people living in a pre-industrial culture. The frontier of cultural transition is just beyond here. All you need to do is follow whoever buys these irons.
Since the general view is that electricity has come to everybody important (“almost everywhere” is the way it is stated), then it follows there are some people out there who are less than important. Now, we have come beyond a socio-economic discussion to a socio-political one. There are real people out there who buy real charcoal irons because they do not have access to electricity or cannot afford to use it. I suspect they do not have enough money to attract attention. It could be they do not have other things that money can buy here too, like facilitated access to citizenship papers, cultural identity with the majority, and education or other means to upward mobility and movement out of subsistence living.
Those irons tell us things if we think about what they are saying.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.