“Asymmetry is the dominant characteristic of 1870s cover design. Countering the previous two decades’ heavy reliance upon a symmetrical style, designers began to work in a freer way and to use the diagonal as an axis. Shiny black ink was frequently employed, both supported and set off by stampings in gold.”

Beauty for Commerce: Publishers Bindings, 1830-1910

The period that has come to be called the American Renaissance was a study in contradictions. It began with an ending (of Reconstruction, in the late 1870s) and ended with a beginning (of World War I, in 1914). Ornamentation—a long-established hallmark of luxury and taste—grew simultaneously more extravagant and more affordable thanks to industrial advancements. But once the growing middle class could afford intricately-scrolled gingerbread for their front porches and gold-leafed books for their bookshelves, these came to be regarded as vulgar and pedestrian. This ever-widening vein of elitism was distinctly at odds with America’s and self-proclaimed status as heir to the cherished democratic ideals of antiquity—a mythology that was being rapidly solidified by a boom in the construction of public monuments (it was “the great age of American civic sculpture in bronze”). But the bronzes hadn’t even cooled before newly-empowered social groups—women, racial and ethnic minorities, and the laboring class—were looking to recast them.

The era’s many contradictions—it’s shine and the sham—are neatly captured by the term Mark Twain used to describe it: “the Gilded Age.” Scratch it with your finger the gold would peel right off; but if you were willing to accept the illusion, you could live in a world where everything around you glittered.

American Renaissance, European Style

During the first hundred years of America’s nationhood, old Europe was the guiding light of style. But by the mid-1870s, artists and architects were itching define an American “style” that didn’t look to Europe for approval. In keeping with the contradictions of the age, however, they needed Europe’s help to do this. The prevailing taste among rich industrialists and merchants was for continental—especially French—art. So the vast majority of American artists (knowing which side their bread was buttered on) began traveling to Europe to  participate in the thriving artistic communities found there. John Singer Sargent, who would become one of the great artists of the era, was born in Europe of American parents—he was 20 years old when he first visited the United States in May of 1876 (to see the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia.)

An age of public monuments

The years after the Civil War saw a boom in commissions for public sculpture as the deeply-scarred nation sought metaphoric reunification. Additionally, with the big industrial cities bursting with new immigrants (both foreign and domestic, with rural natives flooding into the city looking for new opportunities) there was fear of unrest. In the 19th century, anarchists were viewed with the kind of loathing and distrust that would be reserved for communists several decades later. One answer to this perceived “burgeoning unrest” was the “City Beautiful” movement, which sought to create harmonious architectural order in the hopes that it would foster harmonious moral order. The statues were not only there to look pretty—the City Beautiful organizers could scarcely have enticed the robber barons of the age to dig deep into their pockets to charitably fund such projects if they were. Instead, they existed to remind viewers of all classes of the traditional structures of power all around them. “Throughout the ages, public sculpture has served as a didactic tool, offering moral, patriotic, and cultural instruction,” notes Thayer Tolles, and the lesson being taught to America’s new laboring classes was simply this: like it or lump it.

Sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens was a man whose patchwork background uniquely suited the era in which he worked. Of French ancestry, born in Ireland, raised in New York, and educated in Europe, Saint-Gaudens’ first major commission was in 1876; a monument to Civil War Admiral David Farragut, in New York’s Madison Square. Saint-Gauden’s friend Stanford White (who would be notoriously murdered in 1906 by millionaire Harry Kendall Thaw over White’s affair with Thaw’s wife, actress Evelyn Nesbit) designed an architectural setting for it, and when it was unveiled in 1881, its naturalism, its lack of bombast and its siting combined to make it a tremendous success, and Saint-Gaudens’ reputation was established.

Egyptian, Empire & Eastlake, oh my!

About 10 million people—20% of the nation’s population—visited the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition of 1876, resulting in a surge of popular interest in furnishings from England and Japan. The expanded horizons made for daunting design challenges (could one, within the bounds of good taste, put a Japanese bamboo screen next to a fumed-oak mortise-and-tenon bookcase?) which resulted in the ascendance of a whole industry of trusted advisers—professionally trained architects and designers whose sole purpose was to advise Americans on the niceties of modern style. One such trusted adviser was Charles Locke Eastlake, whose seminal book Hints on Household Taste was published in the United States in 1872. He advocated for hand-crafted pieces of furniture that had low relief carvings, incised lines, geometric ornaments, and flat surfaces that were easy to keep clean.

Egyptian Revival was an interesting style that came into fashion after after Napoleon’s conquest of Egypt but remained popular—for certain types of buildings—through the 1870s. It was often employed for architecture with mystical associations—Masonic temples, for example, or cemetery gatehouses, tombs, or mausoleums. The ancient obelisk dubbed “Cleopatra’s Needle,” erected in New York’s Central Park in 1880, is one example of the form—but perhaps the most infamous example was The Tombs, New York City’s prison and court complex built in 1838.

Fashion reflected women’s changing roles

The nineteenth-century ideal of the parlor as the center of domestic culture began to weaken under the attack of a burgeoning suffrage movement. Numerous women’s colleges opened in the 1870s and 1880s, and working-class women (mostly between the ages of sixteen and twenty-four) were increasingly important to the industrial economy, filling jobs in textile factories and sweatshops.

The dresses of the period were as contradictory as the rest of the era. Gone were the cumbersome hoopskirts of the Civil War era, an awkward and limiting style which couldn’t have been less conducive to womens’ newly emerging roles. In the second half of the 19th century, the fullness of the skirt once supported by hoops was now being pulled back and fastened in the back in the distinctive “soft bustle” shape of the 1870s (as compared with the hard smooth bustle which would come into fashion a decade later.) In many ways, this represented an overall advance in a woman’s fashion lot, as they could navigate through doorways, sit in chairs, and walk down the street on a windy day—all activities which had presented challenges for their mothers. However, this simplicity soon gave rise to another kind of overabundance. Soon, it was no longer a single skirt, but many layers of skirts; a narrow underskirt (which became narrower and narrower as the century progressed, until it was difficult to walk without hobbling) and a swagged bustled overskirt with a train. These trains continued to grow longer and longer in service of additional lavish ornamentations of frills, pleats, ruffles, braids and fringing. The much touted Singer Sewing Machine—which might have made women’s work easier instead became a mechanical aid to adding more ostentation.

All of this frothy excess did not go unnoticed or uncriticized. In England, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and other artistic reformers advocated aesthetic dress—a style featuring hand embroidery, muted colors (an answer to the eye-popping aniline dyes then in favor) and loose, shockingly uncorseted lines. These uncorseted bohemians were, of course, considered to have loose morals and this is the origin of the term “loose” woman.

And indeed, by the standards of the day many aesthetes advocated shockingly anti-social things—not only free love, but vegetarianism. Early animal welfare rights campaigners who objected to the use of feathers and fur as ornament were often found within the movement.

Of course, there were others trying to get women out of their corsets as well. Physician Alice Bunker Stockham railed against them as unhealthy and advocated for dress reform. (She also advocated for gender equality, birth control, and male and female sexual fulfillment for successful marriages, so yay her.) It’s interesting to note that it was specifically tightlacing—not corset-wearing itself—that came in for the most intense criticism. This criticism often had little to do with the health consequences of tightlacing—instead, women who practiced it were condemned for their vanity and excoriated from the pulpit as slaves to fashion. So whether you wore your corset too tight, or too loose, or not at all, someone would surely have something to say about it. Such was life, and fashion, in the late 19th century.

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10 Responses to Shine and Sham: America’s Gilded Age

  1. Serge says:

    So Mark Twain coined the term “Gilded Age”?
    Why am I not surprised?

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  5. Blalalalala says:

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