A TRIP BACK IN TIME TO THE GILDED AGE AT THE WOLFSONIAN-FIU LIBRARY
This past Monday, the executive director of the Vizcaya Museum and Gardens, Dr. Joel M. Hoffman brought a half-dozen distinguished visitors with him on a visit to The Wolfsonian.
After touring the galleries, the group made a special stop-over in the museum library to see a display of some of our rare books and ephemera dating from the 1870s through 1900. Taken from the title of a novel co-written by Charles Dudley Warner (1829-1900) and satirist Mark Twain (1835-1910) published in 1873, this period has come to be known as the “Gilded Age”—from the authors’ criticism of the economic disparities and social ills of the era which they described as being covered up under the thinnest patina of gold gilding.
The Wolfsonian library holds a number of rare materials dating from this period, with particular strengths in two areas: world’s fair materials documenting the architectural styles of the era, and thousands of advertising cards revealing fashions of dress and popular sentiment through the products for sale and the advertising strategies of the age.
The first major U.S. world’s fair, the Centennial International Exhibition opened in Fairmont Park, Philadelphia in 1876 and was intended to celebrate “the One Hundredth Anniversary of American Independence, by holding an International Exhibition of Arts, Manufactures and Products of the Soil and Mine.”
As this was an international exhibition, the spectators had the opportunity to admire the artwork, latest inventions, and manufactured goods from around the world.
The German arms manufacturer, Krupp literally brought their big guns to the Machinery Hall.
The library collection holds a number of stereograph cards from the fair—popular as souvenirs. When looked at through a stereoscope, the duplicate photographic images merged into a single 3-D image.
The next truly monumental American world’s fair was organized by Chicagoans to celebrate the Quadricentennial (one year late) of Christopher Columbus’ “discovery” of America.
Walter Crane (1845-1915) provided a series of illustrations in Columbia’s Courtship that used an Indian maiden to represent Native America before the coming of the Europeans and their transformation into Americans.
Those attending the fair could expect to see idealized statues of Indians on the fairgrounds, and even be able to gawk at actual Penobscot Indians in a recreated Indian village of birch bark wigwams.
A prominent Potawatomi Indian leader, Chief Simon Pokagon, though not invited to the fair, attended anyway in order to distribute his Red Man’s Greeting, a pamphlet that read more like a “rebuke” of white Americans for their treatment of the Indians.
Intent on rivaling the marvels of the Paris 1889 universal exposition (for which the Eiffel Tower was erected), the organizers of the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 spent years in planning and millions of dollars landscaping and erecting the pavilions of the “white city.”
The George B. Post architectural firm (for which the library holds their working reference library) built the Manufacturers and Liberal Arts building—billed as the largest edifice in the world—until it was soon after surpassed in the spirit of architectural one-upmanship.
Other postcards illustrate the Government, Electrical, and Fine Art buildings.
To outdo the Eiffel Tower, the American engineer George Washington Gale Ferris, Jr. (1859–1896) designed a gigantic moving structure—a rotating observation wheel from which fair-goers would be able to get a bird’s eye view of the entire fairgrounds.
The following year, the California Midwinter International Exhibition was organized on the West Coast with much fanfare.
An exhibit in the Midway (or entertainment section of the fair) also capitalized on the popularity of the Orientalist craze of the times.
Turning to the Kate Greenaway collection of advertising cards, one can see the way Americans dressed, cleaned and groomed themselves, and consumed a wide variety of products in the Gilded Age.
Some of the manufacturers are still household names, even if different advertising strategies, messages, and media are employed to move their products.
The prejudices of the Gilded Age have happily been driven out of the marketplace. Advertisements employing such crass racial stereotypes would not be tolerated today.
Other of the products being advertised have been made virtually obsolete over time. Once the cottage industry staple of the Gilded Age, the Singer sewing machine has now been incorporated into the design of chic shops as permeable space dividers.
An avid fan of the Mad Men series, my personal favorite among the advertising cards are those designed to sell B. T. Babbitt’s Soap Powder. One of them depicts a political candidate standing on a podium near the Capitol building. Having just stepped down from his soap box, he curries favor with the electorate by distributing bars of the popular brand of soap.
In other of their ads, empty Babbitt Soap Boxes are transformed into boats and sleds that sail past those of the competition.
A final card that drew the attention of one of our guests was one posing the question: “How can the old be made new?”
When held up to a bright light source, the faded red dress of the woman on the hammock looks bright red once more and a fairy can be seen informing the viewer to purchase the Diamond dyes brand.
I thought it only appropriate to conclude today’s post with an image from The Social Ladder, another critique of the Gilded Age. The author and illustrator, Charles Dana Gibson (1867-1944) ridiculed those “May-December” arranged marriages that saddled beautiful young women with rich older husbands.
These same sentiments were also captured in the popular song, “A Bird in a Gilded Cage” with lyrics by Arthur J. Lamb (1870-1928) and music by Henry Von Tilzer (1872-1946) which was recorded at the tail-end of the era.