ca. 1935

From the Exhibition:

Confluences: An American Expedition to Northern Burma, 1935

Of all the objects on display in the exhibition Confluences: An American Expedition to Northern Burma, 1935, this humble safety pin is perhaps the easiest to overlook. This ordinary-seeming object lacks the size or visual impact of the textiles, spears, and movie camera on display nearby. However, pins like this one played an unexpected role in the success of the Vernay-Hopwood Chindwin expedition, which Confluences chronicles. (Although the pin on display in the exhibition dates from the mid-1930s, it was not taken on the expedition.) The role of these quotidian items in the expedition highlights the serendipitous nature of field collecting. It also provides an intriguing example of how the significance of objects can change when they cross cultural boundaries.

In 1935 Arthur S. Vernay, an American antiques dealer and field associate of the American Museum of Natural History, led a team of scientists, big-game hunters, porters, mule drivers, animal skinners, and servants through a remote area of northwest Burma, along the upper reaches of the Chindwin River. The party’s explicit goal was to collect animal and botanical specimens for the museum; they also amassed ethnographic items from the indigenous Chin, Kachin, and Naga peoples they encountered along the way. Months of careful planning and purchasing had gone into assembling the provisions for the journey. Although the group’s six British and American leaders carried safety pins—presumably for their originally intended purpose, to fasten gaps in clothing—these items were apparently such an afterthought that there is no mention of them in the party’s extensive correspondence related to planning for the journey.

In contrast, plenty of items were clearly packed specifically for trade and gift-giving with the indigenous people: salt, tobacco, blankets, and other sundries. Throughout the three-month journey, the expedition found that giving these objects proved essential in engendering local goodwill. In turn, Chin, Kachin, and Naga hunters provided animal specimens, for which they were compensated with small amounts of money. The local people sometimes gave other items, such as spears, as gifts to the expedition, and acted as guides in the region’s dense jungle. In at least two instances they also cleared sections of the forest so that the expedition caravan could pass without difficulty. Gifted and exchanged items were vital to securing good relations and certainly contributed to the expedition’s success.

Yet Vernay and his comrades were surprised to find that the most desirable object they had to offer was the ordinary safety pin. As Vernay later recounted in an issue of Natural History magazine: “Unfortunately our supply was limited in one of the most popular and desirable items of barter. I refer to the ordinary safety pin. Safety pins are prized as earrings, one pin being linked to another; and the short jackets the natives wear would often be decorated with a dangling chain of safety pins. They serve as an invaluable medium of trade, and in the future they will be included in large quantities as part of our equipment.”1

This phenomenon was so novel to Vernay that he recounted it again for several newspaper articles in the United States. What he did not speculate on, however, was how the results of the expedition could have turned out differently had the items they offered to the Chin, Kachin, and Naga peoples not been so well received. No matter how well an expedition is planned, there is an element of chance inherent in field collecting. Weather, terrain, season, and hunting ability are obvious factors affecting what animal and plant specimens can be gathered on an expedition, but the success of Vernay and his colleagues’ interactions with the local people also contributed to their freedom of mobility in the region and the number of specimens they were able to gather, including those given to them by indigenous hunters. Who knows how the expedition might have fared if its leaders not had safety pins to barter with?

The pins also show how, in the context of intercultural exchange, objects can acquire new meanings. The safety pin, patented in the United States in 1849 by Walter S. Hunt, had been used for decades in Western nations to fasten clothing and especially to hold cloth baby diapers in place. The pin’s distinctive clasp, which kept the sharp point covered and the entire mechanism closed, was a welcome alternative to straight pins, which could prick the skin at the slightest movement. The peoples of northwest Burma, however, found a use for the safety pins beyond this. In the context of northwestern Burmese dress, it became a conspicuous decoration, serving to adorn clothing rather than to fasten it. John Henry Green, a British army officer who photographed the peoples of this region from the 1910s through the 1930s, captured several images of villagers decorating their outfits with safety pins; corroborating Vernay’s account.

Whereas this transformation of an object is interesting to note, the expedition members did not ask—or perhaps did not record—why the people they encountered valued the pins as decoration. Was it the eye-catching effect that a long chain of gleaming silver-colored pins could have? Or was the pin’s appeal exotic, as a foreign object? The latter is an intriguing possibility. A tradition of using foreign coins, punctured and strung on thread, to adorn clothing and to serve as jewelry was already documented in the same region by the mid-1930s. Still, no definitive answer was provided by Vernay and his colleagues, one of many gaps in the documentary record of the expedition.

It is perhaps ironic that Vernay and his Western comrades were surprised to see their safety pins taken out of the context in which they were created and given a new meaning by their new owners. After all, without the pins and other goods they offered, the expedition leaders might not have been so successful in acquiring biological and ethnographic items for the collection of the American Museum of Natural History. By becoming a part of the museum’s collection, these items, like the pins, gained new context and new meanings.

[1] Arthur S. Vernay, “Exploring the ‘Mighty Chindwin.’” Natural History 36 (1935): 36–50.