Fords, Bombs, and Archives: The Biography of a Wheel Hub

June 10, 2019

~ Noah Mapes, a student employee with University Archives, recently received the Art History Department’s Warfield Family Art History Essay Prize for his paper on the Sterling Hall bombing van wheel hub.

Objects tend not to be thought about in terms of their previous experiences. However, in the presence of a wheel hub housed by UW Archives and Records Management, it is imperative to consider the events and hardships it endured. Officially known as “Wheel hub from Sterling Hall van,” this car part is intrinsically tied to the past. In “The Cultural Biography of Things: Commoditization as Process,” Igor Kopytoff considers the life of objects as they maneuver classifications of “common” and “singular.” Furthermore, he details how humans use and interact with objects based on their position within such a dichotomy. As this wheel hub alternated between categorizations in its lifetime, marks and impressions were left upon it indicating such statuses. As a case study, the materiality of this wheel hub presents an opportunity to explore the biography of the object and its human-object relationships using the writing of Kopytoff as a guide.

Examining the wheel hub on a purely material level opens the door for viewers to begin crafting their interpretation. There are two sides to the wheel hub, and the general appearance of each can be considered rusted and dilapidated. On the front side is a central circular piece, from the middle of which protrudes a cylindrical extension with a grooved end (fig. 1). Around the face of this initial circular piece are five bolts. Three bolt heads have been soldered to the circular piece, and one bolt is loose and easily moved. Atop their heads are “F” markings.

Beyond the central circular piece is a larger metallic plate. It is clear this larger plate had too been circular at one point but now it bends and folds around itself. The damage seems to have been the result of a concussive force. Along with its sides are rectangular extensions, similar to the teeth of a gear. One is much wider than the others and is cracked. Throughout the edges of the plate are small scratches or incisions.

Read the full essay here.

Figure 1 Front of wheel hub from Sterling Hall van
Figure 3 Figure 52 in “Manufacturing the Third Generation Econoline”
Figure 5 Bombing damage to Sterling Hall.