Sherlock Holmes: The Father of Material Culture?

Christopher Pinney, UCL

Sherlock Holmes was many things: cocaine addict, violinist extraordinaire, expert on Ceylonese Buddhism, master consulting detective, and accomplished amateur boxer. He was also a published anthropologist of sorts having (as is revealed in The Adventure of the Cardboard Box [1889]) published two short articles on the outer morphology of the human ear in the Anthropological Journal. But was he also a pioneer in Material Culture?

The firmest evidence for this proposition comes from the first chapter of The Sign of Four (1888). Titled “The Science of Deduction” there is much here that lays the ground for Alfred Gell’s later elevation of the Peircean notion of “abduction” as a key element in his theory of a new anthropology of art (Gell was an ardent Sherlockian).  But it is here that Holmes also reveals that several of his “works” were in the process of being translated into French for publication. These included a volume titled Upon the Distinction Between the Ashes of the Various Tobaccoes which detailed the visual appearance of 140 ashes of different cigar, cigarette and pipe tobaccos with the help of coloured plates. Visual signs and the ability to read them properly were crucial to Holmes’ new “exact science” one based first and foremost on rigorous observation. As he tells Watson: “To the trained eye there is as much difference between the black ash of a Trichinopoly and the white fluff of bird’s eye as there is between a cabbage and potato”.

Another work in translation described the “tracing of footprints, with some remarks upon the uses of plaster of Paris as a preserver of impresses.” This work was doubtless influenced by Notes and Queries in Anthropology’s pre-occupation with making transient indexical traces permanent with “paper squeezes” and other moulds, and was perhaps also inspired by the work of Gujarati pugees in identifying the movement – through footprints – of criminal tribes. There is an echo here of the “low common intuition” which Carlo Ginzburg suggests colonial practitioners such as W. J. Herschel appropriated when they took Bengali practices of “finger-tipping” and translated them into bureaucratically systematized regimes of finger-printing. Holmes’s pioneering work (including the Priory School narrative – see below) would also have a considerable amount of what, in our present bathetic age, we would term “impact” for it was the inspiration for George Whitty Gayer’s promotion of footprints in Indian police detective work. Gayer, an officer in the Central Indian Police published Footprints: An Aid to the Detection of Crime for the Police in Nagpur in 1909 and acknowledged Holmes’ pioneer work as an inspiration.

Perhaps of more interest from a Material Culture perspective is Holmes’ third monograph, which was also extensively illustrated, although he deprecated it as “a little work”. This examined the “influence of a trade upon the form of the hand, with lithotypes of the hands of the slaters, sailors, corkcutters, compositors, weavers and diamond-polishers”. Holmes declared these “of great practical interest to the scientific detective” but Holmes’ investigations need to placed in the context of the occultism and palmistry which would shortly bear fruit in William John Warner’s popular Cheiro’s Langiage of the Hand (1894) a quasi-Theosophical echo  (Warner claimed to have studied with Brahman palmists in India) of Charles Bell’s The Hand: Its Mechanism and Vital Endowments as Evincing Design (1833). Despite also being an Edinburgh surgeon Charles Bell was sadly only a remote relative of Joseph Bell who had taught Conan Doyle at Edinburgh and who is conventionally credited with providing the lineaments for Holmes’ character and method. From the viewpoint of intellectual history we might see Holmes work as indebted to the two Bells. But equally we might see it as prefiguring what we now know as techniques du corps. It is but a small leap from Holmes’ concern with the manner in which different kinds of work, reflecting cultural practice, come to remodel the body, to the work of later anthropologists. What for Bell was a singular and natural hand becomes for Holmes – in anticipation of Mauss and Leroi-Gourhan’s technogenesis – a concern with the nature of cultural influences “upon the form of the hand” as Holmes puts it. The concern in other works is with hands in the plural, in their social determination.

In addition to this, Holmes is surely the pioneer of the social life of things and The Sign of Four again provides us with magnificent examples. Watson poses a decidedly anthropological question (worthy of Janet Hoskins) to Holmes: “I have heard you say that that it is difficult for a man to have any object in daily use without leaving the impress of his individuality upon it in such a way that a trained observer might read it”. Watson then proceeds to test Holmes with his own pocket watch. Holmes studies it, opens the back and examines it with a convex lens before returning it with a crestfallen look. Holmes then declares his investigation “unsatisfactory [but] not entirely barren” and announces that the watch belonged to Watson’s elder brother who inherited it from his father. This deduction was based on the observations that the initials “H.W.” inscribed on the watch suggested a link to Watson, the watch was fifty years old, jewelry usually descends to the eldest son.

But this is of course just the start: Holmes also concludes that the elder brother was a person of untidy habits, experienced spells of poverty and died of drink. These biographical traces are all materially indexed in the watch: the lower part had been dented by coins and keys kept carelessly in the same pocket as the watch; there were four tiny pawnbrokers’ numbers inscribed inside the watch case suggesting alternate periods of poverty and prosperity; finally there were thousands of scratches around the hole for the winding key suggesting a lack of sobriety (“you will never see a drunkard’s watch without them”). Watson’s watch is an entangled object par excellence.

Holmes also provides a memorable example of a deadly Gellian art-trap in The Adventure of the Dying Detective. The artifact in question is “a small black and white ivory box with a sliding lid” which Watson describes as “a neat little thing”. When Watson attempted to pick the box up, Holmes screamed at him to put it down and in due course it is revealed that it is indeed a trap, in this case a very dangerous one. The box was owned by Culverton Smith, a Sumatran plantation owner gone mad, and when opened delivered a “sharp spring like a viper’s tooth” contaminated with one of the “many strange pathological possibilities [of] the East” which killed anyone sufficiently seduced by its allure.

I have suggested that there is much in Sherlock Holmes’ life and work which anticipates some of the current concerns of a Material Culture perspective within anthropology. For the most part this involves demonstrating the manner in which Holmes prefigures what others would later finesse within a historicity which we understand, following Benjamin,  as homogenous empty time. But sometimes the past suddenly flares up as a future which is still unfolding. This is the feeling one gets in The Adventure of the Priory School (1901) when Holmes and Watson engage in an exemplary phenomenological approach to landscape (tracing a “miry path” in a bog and subsequently “scrambl[ing] from rock to rock”) in their efforts to locate a missing schoolboy who has been seemingly abducted by his German teacher who (uncannily) is named Heidegger.  It is on the moor that Holmes reveals that he is familiar with the impressions left by 42 different types of bicycle tire (it was this which especially inspired George Whitty Gayer), and distinguishes a Dunlop (“with a patch upon the outer cover”) and Heidegger’s Palmer tires with their “longitudinal stripes”. Finally they come upon “an impression like a fine bundle of telegraph wires”, the mark of a Palmer tire, causing Holmes to exclaim: “Here is Herr Heidegger, sure enough!”  Here we glimpse the messianic dimension of the Holmesian corpus, pointing as it does towards Tilley, Ingold, paths, lines, and traces which will not be fully articulated for another eighty years to come.

This I believe is just the start of what might be a much longer list of Holmes’ pioneering investigations into Material Culture. Perhaps other blog readers can contribute further examples from the cannon that will help consolidate his seminal role in this new discipline?