Perceptions of the Amish by outsiders may range from hostility to friendliness and suspicion to approval, but for the most part, according to a recent journal article, they have a “hallowed status.” Bruce Tharp, an anthropologist, observes that the Amish are sometimes the butt of jokes, Hollywood comedies, and reality television, but many people nonetheless have a “quiet respect” (p.38) for the way they avoid the consumer culture of mainstream America.
Evidence of the popular respect for the Amish is the fact that some businesses use the word “Amish” as a trope to advertise the genuine nature, wholesomeness, and purity of their products or services. Also, the vast tourist industries in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, Holmes County, Ohio, and Shipshewana, Indiana, testify to the highly positive perceptions that many Americans have for them.
The point of Tharp’s research was to examine the notion that they generally avoid consumer goods and live romantic, pristine lives free from materialism. He argues that, at least in Northern Indiana, the myth isn’t entirely true. Visitors to “Amish Country” in Indiana might notice the incongruity of Amish people leaving a Wal-Mart with plastic, battery-operated toys for their kids, or carrying a cordless tool out of the local home improvement center. Tourists might wonder about horses and buggies tied up in front of a McDonald’s while the owners sit inside enjoying their Big Macs.
Tharp focused his research on the stuff that the Amish own and, especially, what they think of their possessions: how do they value them? He sought to find out what their most treasured possessions are, how they value material possessions compared to non-Amish people, and how the pervasive culture of consumption in the surrounding society affects their conceptions of the things they own.
Tharp got to know many Amish people in the Elkhart-LaGrange settlement of Northern Indiana by offering his services as a driver. He got to know hundreds of Amish families that way. With that entrée into their community, he was able to begin his investigation by conducting 33 semi-structured interviews with Amish adults. He talked with 17 men and 16 women, each for an hour and a quarter to an hour and a half.
The Amish of Northern Indiana, in contrast to other settlements, are primarily workers at various factories in the area rather than farmers, though many of the factory laborers also farm on the side, and many of the farmers also have jobs in factories. In LaGrange County, where he conducted his study, 58 percent of the Amish heads of households work in factories, either full-time or part-time, while only 28 percent work on farms either full-time or part-time. He found that distinctions between the attitudes of Amish people who farmed or who worked in factories were irrelevant to his study. Few, in that part of Indiana, are purely farmers any more.
Tharp points out that the Amish who work alongside non-Amish people in the factories may be exposed to information about new products and services and tempted to purchase them. Furthermore, the Ordnung, the rules that govern appropriate behavior in each church district, do not necessarily deal with every available consumer device. These products are subject to negotiation. Some Amish church districts in Northern Indiana have recently allowed rubber tires on buggy wheels or windshield wipers on carriages. Other districts, he writes, allow members to purchase skid loaders, lawnmowers, solar-powered lights, weed whackers, bicycles, and swan-shaped planters.
As far as placing value on things, he found that Amish women most highly treasure their glassware, quilts, and china cabinets, primarily since they received them as wedding gifts or as heirlooms from older Amish women. The most highly valued items for men are their hunting rifles.
The author also asked each of his interviewees to imagine a situation where his or her house was burning. If all the people and pets were safe and they had the opportunity to rescue from the flames a few objects, what would they be? His intent was to see what things represent their most comforting, treasured, and emotionally significant possessions. Nearly all the respondents, male and female, indicated that their clothing was essential. “I would look kinda funny runnin’ around naked,” one person said (p.43).
The special sentimentality that many of them attach to their clothing may also be due to the fact that it is often made by hand and would be difficult to replace, though some items such as shoes, socks, hats, and underwear may be purchased in Amish stores or at the nearest Wal-Mart. They tend to have sentimental feelings toward wedding dresses, baptismal suits, and other special-occasion clothing. Some women also spoke of the importance of rescuing their sewing patterns from the imagined fire.
The author emphasizes that the Amish, at least in his section of Indiana, can be just as consumer conscious as anyone else. One woman admitted she had a passion for collecting anything related to bluebirds. “When I went somewhere and I seen bluebird dishes—‘Ahh, that’s pretty!’ I want it, I want it! I would collect more if my husband would let me,” she said (p.44).
Perhaps the most interesting result of the study is the relative lack of strong emotional feelings for the Bible, or other religious books in the household, as things to save from the fire. The people mentioned those items, but they were clearly less concerned about them as objects than they were about the sentimental things that had strong family connections. One man admitted that the Bible should be his most treasured possession—but it obviously was not. The Bibles that are treasured are valued not for religious reasons but because they are family heirlooms. Tharp did find that older Amish respondents valued their Bibles more than the younger people did.
The author concludes that, despite the increasing consumption of contemporary consumer goods by the Amish, they still treasure their traditional objects that have the highest sentimental value, particularly items with strong family, community, and in some cases religious, connections.
Tharp, Bruce M. 2007. “Valued Amish Possessions: Expanding Material Culture and Consumption.” The Journal of American Culture 30(1): 38-53