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The White Glove Treatment

Ike, he found a chair and asked her
"Won't you set down?" with a smile
And she answered up a-bowin'
"Oh, I reckon t'ain't worth while"
That was jes' for style, I reckon,
'Cause she sat down just the same
And she stayed down....

-Paul Laurence Dunbar, The Party

There's an interesting article that's been reprinted this morning on the website of the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers. The author writes on the debate over the use of white gloves in antiques auctions.  She's writing in the context of old books; but the arguments are the same ones raised about the handling of antiques in general:  is this a matter of giving the right impression, etiquette, what is or is not de riguer in terms of custom and style; is it just the fashion or is there a specific and necessary function involve here?

All issues I have raised myself.

Now, I'm clumsy.  I'll admit it.  I'm also clean, and if you ask me, my freshly-washed hands are a damned sight better for the care of precious antiques than other people's grimy, germ-ridden gloves. I'm not happy about wearing gloves for handling porcelain and glass, for example.  I've always stated what it seems to me is the bleedin' obvious:  gloves are slippery, for Pete's sake.  Handle a several-thousand dollar's worth piece of old glass with white gloves and you've got broken glass.  The argument that one leaves deposits and skin oils in dangerous quantities on the surface of the item never washed with me, and anyway, isn't glass non-porous and isn't that why it's such a useful container?

People like Dr Lori slam people like the good folks on the Antiques Roadshow for not using gloves.  But it seems that the facts don't support her vehemence; I've not seen any concrete scientific evidence about the detriment of bare hand holding.

Now we've got people on the other side of the argument who are just as vehement:  according to the article, '
Cathleen Baker, a senior paper conservator at the University of Michigan library, feels so strongly about the subject that she has walked out of institutions that asked her to wear gloves.'  I think Ms Baker has a point; a tactile review of these works is part of the experience.  I won't buy glass if I can't feel for damage with my naked fingers.  Your eyes can deceive; your fingertips are less likely to.

Now, there's another aspect to this, and in some contexts I'm all for the wearing of gloves, same as I'm all for the wearing of vestments by clergy, wearing your best suit to go meeting someone important or dressing for a night at the opera.  What these things all have in common is lending a feeling of 'specialness', and of being appropriate, reverent and respectful of the item, the person or the occasion.  Seeing a special item handled reverently at auction, or even when you're locked into a secret reading room to view an ancient manuscript, keeps us mindful of our privilege. Following social mores and setting standards are an essential part of what makes us human, and an 'Event' is a good thing.

I'll be watching avidly for other reactions to this.

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