Archives For Gilded Age

During the Gilded Age, the American traditions of New Year’s Eve started to transition from the folk celebrations of immigrants to the elaborate soirees we are more familiar with today, especially for those of a certain class.

New Year’s Eve in Chicago and at the Nickerson Mansion

Chicagoans in the Gilded Age celebrated New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day in a similar manner to the way many Americans do today.  The week leading up to New Year’s was full of entertainment, with society leaders like Bertha Palmer and Matilda Nickerson hosting grand New Year’s Eve events where guests danced in the New Year to music played by Johnny Hand’s Orchestra, Gilded Age Chicago’s favorite bandleader.

Johnny Hand conducting his orchestra. Chicago Daily Tribune, “Round About Chicago: Johnny Hand,”. September 15, 1910. The paper noted, “Nobody that was anybody could think of  giving a party until they knew if they could get Johnny Hand to play.”

Johnny Hand conducting his orchestra. Chicago Daily Tribune, “Round About Chicago: Johnny Hand,” September 15, 1910. The paper noted, “Nobody that was anybody could think of giving a party until they knew if they could get
Johnny Hand to play.”

In 1890, the Nickerson’s “Marble Palace” was the site of a lavish New Year’s Eve Reception. The guest list of over sixty-five included the children of neighbors and other prominent Chicago families from both the North and South sides.  The Nickersons followed the common practice of featuring elaborate floral arrangements at receptions.  The marble hall was “decorated with calla lilies” and “the centre-piece on the dining-room table consisted of a bank of delicate pink carnations on a background of maiden-hair ferns.” (Chicago Daily Tribune, “Children Make Merry,” January 1, 1891).

The Chicago Daily Tribune, "Mrs. Nickerson's Party," January 1, 1891.

The Chicago Daily Tribune, “Mrs. Nickerson’s Party,” January 1, 1891.

Dressing Up for New Year’s Eve 

Just as it is customary today to wear something with plenty of glitz and glamour, guests also wore fashion-forward designs in the Gilded Age to New Year’s Eve events. Men wore formal “white tie” dress with black tailcoats while women donned glamorous evening gowns often designed by the preeminent House of Worth in Paris, and received great attention in the society pages of the newspapers.  According to one account, Bertha Palmer wore a “black velvet gown, the bodice studded with diamonds, and a diamond tiara in her hair” at her New Year’s Eve cotillion (“In the Society World,” January 6, 1901).

Left: Cover of Ladies Home Journal from January 1901 Right: Bertha Honoré Palmer. From Address and Reports of Mrs. Potter Palmer, 1894.

Left: Cover of Ladies Home Journal from January 1901 Right: Bertha Honoré Palmer.
From Address and Reports of Mrs. Potter Palmer, 1894.

New Year’s Eve at the Mansions of Newport

Newport, Rhode Island was home to some of the most fabulous mansions of the Gilded Age.  Although initially established as a quiet summer retreat for the newly-wealthy, as the nineteenth century progressed, Newport became a center for the affluent to gather not only during the summer but also during the winter holiday season.  New York society elites, like the Vanderbilts and Astors, threw lavish New Year’s Eve receptions and hosted sumptuous New Year’s Day events reflective of their newly established social status.  Newport celebrations continued to rise in prominence and eventually society reporters began travelling from New York City to cover these spectacular events. While across the nation prominent families of the Gilded Age hosted exclusive and extravagant New Year’s events, Newport was one of the most popular destinations.

Celebrating With Champagne

When attending a New Year’s Eve reception, guests enjoyed novel party favors, refreshments featuring the “delicacies of the season,” a light super (often featuring en vogue French cuisine) at midnight, and plenty of champagne.

moet-chandon

Chicago Daily Tribune, “Moët & Chandon,” December 16, 1901.

French Champagne became a popular drink among wealthy Americans who enjoyed the perceived sophistication of the drink and its intoxicating effects. Beginning in the 1870s, Americans consumed champagne in “astonishing” large quantities and would often pay exorbitant prices for the imported beverage (champagne was subject to import taxes).  In 1894, for example, Americans imported over 70,000 cases of champagne, a significantly greater amount than just twenty-five years before (Chicago Daily Tribune, “Champagne Drank in This Country,” February 24, 1894). Etiquette manuals gave advice on how to host a “bachelor” Champagne supper, and champagne was the drink of choice for celebratory toasts- including on New Year’s Eve. French Brands such as Moët & Chandon catered to the luxury market, with advertisements persuading Chicagoans that the “ablest excerpts” pronounced the brand to be “without question, far superior in quality to any other brands” (Chicago Daily Tribune, “Moët & Chandon ‘White Seal’ Champagne,” May 1, 1900).

Alphonse Mucha, Menu, c. 1899, The Richard H. Driehaus Collection. For more information on this work by Mucha, visit L’Affichomania: The Passion for French Posters, opening February 11, 2017.

Alphonse Mucha, Menu, c. 1899, The Richard H. Driehaus Collection. For more information on this work by Mucha, visit L’Affichomania: The Passion for French Posters, opening February 11, 2017.

New Year’s festivities during the Gilded Age reflected the evolving expectations of celebrations, from the lavish receptions of the wealthy to the café and dancehall revelries of the middle and working classes.  Although at the time celebrating with champagne would have been reserved for society’s elite, champagne is a nearly obligatory part of New Year’s Eve rituals today. We still associate champagne with social status, sophistication, and prosperity. So when you raise your glass of champagne to usher in the New Year, you are making a gesture that is a nod to the past, while also celebrating the future New Year and all of its possibilities.

Sources:

Top image: Wikipedia

Chertoff, Emily. “How Rich People Celebrated New Year’s Eve in the Gilded Age.” The Atlantic. (2012). http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2012/12/how-rich-people-celebrated-new-years-eve-in-the-gilded-age/266663/.

Glover, Ellye Howell. “Dame Curtsey’s” Book of Etiquette. Chicago: A.C. McClurg & Co., 1909.

Sengstock, Charles A., Jr. That Toddlin’ Town: Chicago’s White Dance Bands and Orchestras, 1900-1950. Chicago and Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2004.

Chicago Daily Tribune, "Suppression of Vice: Organizing the Chicago Branch," September 27, 1879.

Chicago Daily Tribune, “Suppression of Vice: Organizing the Chicago Branch,” September 27, 1879.

“The object, purpose, and aim in view of the Society and its branches, as set forth in the constitution and in the brief but pointed talk which followed the making of the report, were to put down the vile traffic in obscene books, pictures, etc., by prosecuting those responsible for it either under the Revised Statutes or the State laws. The extent of the evil, which has shown its ugly head with peculiarly refreshing boldness of late, was dwelt upon to some extent, and the movement met with the unqualified moral and financial support of all present. The constitution was unanimously adapted…”

Right: Original ink drawing for "A Dreadful Predicament" by Samuel D. Ehrhart. Left: Anthony Comstock. By Photographer unknown; author of book Charles Gallaudet Trumbull [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Right: Original ink drawing for “A Dreadful Predicament” by Samuel D. Ehrhart.
Left: Anthony Comstock. By Photographer unknown; author of book Charles Gallaudet Trumbull [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Puck & Anthony Comstock

In the southwest corner of the “Social Commentary” Gallery of With a Wink and a Nod there is a small, unassuming cartoon featuring a woman in “a dreadful predicament” and the lurking figure of Anthony Comstock. The cartoon pokes fun at the woman’s hesitation in bending over to tie her shoelace- a rather innocuous activity that she is afraid Comstock will interpret as an action with lascivious intent. In 1873, Congress passed the Comstock Law, which was the first anti-obscenity statute to be adopted at the federal level. In effect, the law made it illegal to send “obscene, lewd or lascivious” materials and information through the mail.

Anthony Comstock was the United States Postal Inspector, which gave him the authority to enforce the Comstock obscenity law. He also became the leader of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice- and a notorious public figure. He was not just an arbitrator of morality, he had the force of law and order on his side. We may share in Puck’s amusement at the thought of Comstock over-stepping his purview as a regulator of morality, but the Comstock Act did have far-reaching (and even tragic) consequences. Not satisfied with the work being done in his native East Coast, Comstock and the Society for the Suppression of Vice set their sights on Chicago, a city with a notorious reputation.  One of the missions of the Chicago Branch of the Society of the Suppression of Vice was to “prosecut[e] those responsible” for the “vile traffic in obscene books, pictures, etc.” (Chicago Daily Tribune, “Suppression of Vice,” Sept. 27, 1879).

Souvenir Map of the World’s Columbian Exposition, Jackson Park, 1893. Hermann Heinz Source: Chicago Historical Society (ICHi-27750)

Chicago first drew Comstock’s attention during the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, where he was (in particular) horrified by the danse du ventre famously performed by “Little Egypt” at the Egyptian Theater.

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Left: Portrait of Ida Craddock. Circa 1900. Source www.idacraddock.org.
Right: Little Egypt, the stage name of dancer Fahreda Mahzar. By The original uploader was Ratwod at English Wikipedia (Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons.) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Anthony Comstock faces Ida Craddock in Chicago

While Comstock found so-called belly dancing to be indecent and obscene, author, High Priestess of Yoga, and leader of “peculiar religion” Miss Ida C. Craddock publicly and passionately supported the dance. In fact, Craddock supported many things that Comstock considered indecent- and he prosecuted her to the full extent of the law for “having circulated improper literature through the United States mails” (Chicago Daily Tribune, “Author Ends her Life,” October 18,1902).

Craddock was arrested in Chicago in 1899 and spent time in prison.  Instead of backing down from the expression of her beliefs, she continued to publish literature and speak to the public about sexual education. Comstock personally arrested her again in 1902, and when she was again convicted, Craddock decided to become a martyr for the cause of freedom of expression.

Ida Craddock’s court battles with Anthony Comstock ultimately helped shape the interpretation of the First Amendment, including freedom of speech and freedom of the press. In 1906, Theodore Schroeder, an attorney for the Free Speech League of New York, was set to debate Anthony Comstock at the Purity conference in Chicago. Comstock did not show, but Schroeder spoke on behalf of free speech to the crowd anyway.  Echoing Ida Craddock, Schroeder argued for the “development of healthy mindedness through sexual education” instead of the current suppression of anything deemed “obscene.” (Chicago Daily Tribune, “Purity Debate One-Sided,” October 11, 1906).

Puck, "A Dreadful Predicament," vol. 12, no. 570, February 8, 1888.

Puck, “A Dreadful Predicament,” vol. 12, no. 570, February 8, 1888.

“O, dear me, what shall I do? My shoe string has come untied, and there’s that dreadful Anthony Comstock just behind me!”

Anthony Comstock saw Gilded Age cities like Chicago as tarnished, and sought to suppress anything that continued to mar the city’s character. Ida Craddock, on the other hand, seemed to recognize that there was greater danger in suppression than expression. Unlike Puck, which just scoffed at the absurdity of the Comstock Law, she worked to combat it.

 

Further Reading/Viewing

For more on Ida Craddock and her crusade: http://www.npr.org/2011/07/15/131878498/a-wanton-woman-the-life-of-ida-c-craddock.

For a motion-picture filmed by Thomas Edison of a “belly dancer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zxZoXJBILbc.

World’s Fair Puck

Lindsey Howald Patton —  November 1, 2016 — 1 Comment

In 1893, Chicago put on a fair that would awe the world. The World’s Columbian Exposition, so called in honor of the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the New World, displayed the most fascinating innovations and arts of the period in one grand place. The fair organizers envisioned a 630-acre park, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted of New York Central Park fame, filled with bone-white neoclassical buildings by such eminent architects as Henry Ives Cobb, Richard Morris Hunt, Charles McKim, and Louis Sullivan.

Jackson Park itself was a wonder, and it also exhibited wonders. Visitors saw life-size reproductions of Columbus’s three ships, a 1,500-pound Venus de Milo made entirely of chocolate, a 70-foot tower of light bulbs, an 11-ton block of Canadian cheese, and the world’s first Ferris Wheel. The ‘Street in Cairo,’ a re-creation of the medieval city, immersed fairgoers in exotic Egyptian dance, architecture, and animals. Other cultures were likewise on display in attractions such as the Turkish Village, Dutch Settlement, Indian Village, Esquimix Village, Japanese Ho-o-den, Old Vienna, and German Village. Eadweard Muybridge showed the world’s first moving pictures, Louis Comfort Tiffany stunned with his magnificent chapel, and Frederick Pabst won a blue ribbon for his beer.

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The Grand Basin. The World’s Columbian Exposition, Jackson Park, Chicago, Illinois, 1893.

 

Puck—the first successful humor magazine in the United States, and at the peak of its popularity—also joined the world’s fair fray.

Puck positioned itself not only on the cutting edge of satire in America, but also on the cutting edge of printing technology. As the first magazine to print brilliant full-color cartoons each week, Puck showed off the emerging technique of chromolithography. So the fair organizers invited Puck founder Joseph Keppler and his partner, Adolph Schwarzmann, to give fairgoers an open-air demonstration of their process.

 

Joseph Keppler, founder of Puck magazine.

Joseph Keppler, founder of Puck magazine.

 

Keppler and Schwarzmann left New York for Chicago, launched a special World’s Fair Puck edition, and produced it on-site in Jackson Park, displaying their irreverent editorial style and chromolithographic technique for the fair’s nearly 26 million visitors. The fair organizers awarded Puck a central location in one of the “cheerful little pavilions” between the Horticultural Building and Women’s Building. Each week from May to October, they produced twenty-six issues from their McKim, Mead & White-designed Puck Building, while the parent magazine continued its regular weekly production schedule in New York.

Cover of the May 1, 1893 edition of World’s Fair Puck featuring a politely welcoming Puck. The caption reads, “GREETING. Will you walk into my workshop? Do not pass it on the fly, /—For to see how Puck is printed will delight your mind and eye: /And I only hope the people of the world will give to me /A welcome half as hearty as their welcome here will be!”

Cover of the May 1, 1893 edition of World’s Fair Puck featuring a politely welcoming Puck. The caption reads, “GREETING. Will you walk into my workshop? Do not pass it on the fly, /—For to see how Puck is printed will delight your mind and eye: /And I only hope the people of the world will give to me /A welcome half as hearty as their welcome here will be!”

Puck Building. Image from digitized record of The Chicago World’s Fair of 1893: A Photographic  Record, Photos from the Collections of the Avery Library of Columbia University and the Chicago Historical Society by Stanley Appelbaum, 1980.

Puck Building. Image from digitized record of The Chicago World’s Fair of 1893: A Photographic
Record, Photos from the Collections of the Avery Library of Columbia University and the Chicago Historical Society by Stanley Appelbaum, 1980.

 

 

At just twelve pages, World’s Fair Puck was about a third of the size of regular Puck. But each page packed just as powerful a satirical punch, with a few favorite themes that were revisited again and again.

 

The Country Boy in the Big City

The idea of an unwitting Midwestern “hayseed” bumbling around in the cosmopolitan world of Chicago provided plenty of laughs for readers.

But Keppler often backed the working classes against the rich, and couldn’t resist taking a shot at the fair organizers’ ticket prices. Labor unions had petitioned for the exposition to open on Sundays so working class families could attend. Even after a series of lawsuits resulted in the organizers’ agreement to the deal, few of Chicago’s factory workers could afford the price. World’s Fair Puck pointed out that “had you taken a microscope to aid you last Sunday, you would hardly have found a trace of the Workingman, whom Sunday-opening was expected to benefit.”

In a twist on this class theme, World’s Fair Puck poked fun at Midwesterners in general, depicting them as uncouth compared to high society in the Eastern U.S. In one issue, a Chicago hostess interviews a new butler. “Well, if, as you say, you lived in all the fin de siècle Boston houses, perhaps you may do for me,” she says. “But I must test you with a few questions first.” Her question reveals her inexperience, however: “In arranging the table for a ladies’ luncheon party, where would you put the toothpicks?”

 

Chicagoans Versus New Yorkers

Chicago and New York competed fiercely with one another to host the World’s Columbian Exposition, so this theme was especially in force before the fair opened. The cartoon below represents the tussle between Chicagoans and New Yorkers for the prestigious honor, a Lady Liberty figure at center representing the fair. She stands between Chicago—the cowboy, left—and New York—the statesman, at right. Her preference for the statesman, with his carefully laid plans, is clear. But the wild Chicago cowboy lassos the reluctant World’s Columbian Exposition and ropes her in. The smoke from his gun contains the words “Wind.” New Yorkers thought smooth-talking Chicago politicians were ‘full of hot air,’ as the saying goes, resulting in the nickname the “Windy City.”

“Between the Rip Snorting and the Slow-Going Wooers.” Puck, C.J. Taylor.

“Between the Rip Snorting and the Slow-Going Wooers.” Puck, C.J. Taylor.

 

Anthropological Encounters

World’s Fair Puck made much of the inevitable strangeness and intimacy of Americans coming face-to-face for the first time with people brought from as far as Egypt, Benin, Java, or Alaska.

The fair made these exotic people into a kind of living diorama, showcasing their crafts, dress, architecture, and diet. World’s Fair Puck took easy shots when joking about the cultural differences, often leaving political correctness far behind. For example, one cartoon depicted a large Eskimo woman roasting in her furs during the hot Chicago summer, while a man from Dahomey (a now-defunct African monarchy), with only a leaf skirt and battle shield, shivers. Romance—and a costume swap—ensues, with the title “A Climatic Change.”

 

"A Climatic Change:  A Romance Antipodeon of the World's Fair." World's Fair Puck, 1893.

“A Climatic Change: A Romance Antipodeon of the World’s Fair.” World’s Fair Puck, 1893.

 

Others were blatantly racist. The cartoon below, entitled “Darkies’ Day at the Fair,” is an example of prevailing racism that placed people of color at the bottom of the social hierarchy and enforced cruel stereotypes.

 

“Darkies’ Day at the Fair (A Tale of Poetic Retribution).” Frederick Burr Opper, World’s Fair Puck, 1893. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C.

“Darkies’ Day at the Fair (A Tale of Poetic Retribution).” Frederick Burr Opper, World’s Fair Puck, 1893. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C.

 

 

Hurrah for the Red, White and Blue!

Other World’s Fair Puck cartoons put biting humor aside for a moment to celebrate what brings us together. The Fourth of July and closing ceremonies were two occasions for patriotism, as you see in the cartoons below.

 

“Hurrah for the Red, White and Blue!” Joseph Keppler, World’s Fair Puck, July 3, 1893.

“Hurrah for the Red, White and Blue!” Joseph Keppler, World’s Fair Puck, July 3, 1893.

 

“Grand Finale of the Stupendous Spectacular Success, ‘Uncle Sam’s Show.’” Frederick Burr Opper, World’s Fair Puck, 1893. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C. The cartoon shows people from all over the world, including Africa, Italy, and Japan, joining hands with America to celebrate the end of the fair. In the text below, Uncle Sam sings: “It’s done, it’s done! The show and fun / We’ve had for six months past; / I’ve made the world stare / At my wonderful Fair, / And swear that nothing could compare / With the beautiful, wonderful things seen here -- / But the end has come, at last. / And now, it’s over, we thank you all / For giving so hearty a curtain call; / And you all agree with me, I guess, / That it’s been a howling, big success!” Then the “chorus of all nations” sings, “For he’s a jolly good fellow.”

“Grand Finale of the Stupendous Spectacular Success, ‘Uncle Sam’s Show.’” Frederick Burr Opper, World’s Fair Puck, 1893. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C. The cartoon shows people from all over the world, including Africa, Italy, and Japan, joining hands with America to celebrate the end of the fair. In the text below, Uncle Sam sings: “It’s done, it’s done! The show and fun / We’ve had for six months past; / I’ve made the world stare / At my wonderful Fair, / And swear that nothing could compare / With the beautiful, wonderful things seen here — / But the end has come, at last. / And now, it’s over, we thank you all / For giving so hearty a curtain call; / And you all agree with me, I guess, / That it’s been a howling, big success!” Then the “chorus of all nations” sings, “For he’s a jolly good fellow.”

 

World’s Fair Puck would be the final innovation in Joseph Keppler’s career, although the parent magazine stayed in circulation until 1918. He worked at a feverish pace during the fair, amid working conditions that weren’t exactly ideal. Like the other Columbian Exposition buildings, the Puck Building was made of plaster, only meant to be a temporary, albeit grandiose, shelter for editorial and printing activities that summer. It was uncomfortably hot inside, and the tensions arose between writers and artists who were working while on public display. Keppler never recovered from the strain of the fair. He become ill with, according to his obituary in The New York Times, “a nervous disorder due to overwork,” and died in his home on the Upper East Side in February 1894.

 

 

RESOURCES
“Joseph Keppler and ‘Puck’” by Anne Evenhaugen. Smithsonian Libraries Unbound, December 12, 2012.
https://blog.library.si.edu/2012/12/joseph-keppler-and-puck/#.V2Gx-5MrKHo
“Death of Joseph Keppler, A Noted Caricaturist and Part Owner of Puck.” The New York Times, February 20, 1894. 
PUCK: What Fools These Mortals Be! by Michael Alexander Kahn and Richard Samuel West, 2014.
Coming of Age in Chicago: The 1893 World’s Fair and the Coalescence of American Anthropology by Ira Jacknis, Donald McVicker, and James Snead. University of Nebraska Press, 2016.
Perfect Cities: Chicago’s Utopias of 1893, by James Burkhart Gilbert. University of Chicago Press, 1991.
Popular Culture and The Enduring Myth of Chicago, 1871-1968, Lisa Krisoff Boehm. Routledge, 2004.
“The World’s Columbian Exposition”, The Chicago Historical Society, 1999. www.chicagohs.org/history/expo/html.
World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, made available by the Paul V. Gavin Library Digital History Collection – Illinois Institute of Technology.
Zinc Sculpture in America, 1850-1950 by Carol A. Grissom. Associated University Presse, 2009.

Frederick Walton, Gilded Age Inventor

Standing on the shoulders of the Industrial Revolution, the Gilded Age spawned an astounding number of inventions that profoundly changed life inside the American household. Those last few decades of the 19th  century will always be known as a great era of invention. Thomas Edison invented the electric light bulb and built the first power station; he also gave us the phonograph for listening to music and the kinetoscope for watching motion pictures. Alexander Graham Bell created the telephone. Eastman Kodak produced the first camera for amateurs. Dr. John Pemberton sold the first bottles of Coca-Cola in Atlanta. John Kellogg accidentally discovered flaked cereal and changed American breakfast forever.

Frederick Walton isn’t as famous as Edison or Kellogg, but his defining invention is just as ubiquitous as Frosted Flakes. Walton, an inventor from England, gave the world linoleum.

Walton started his career working with his father and brother in a small family workshop where they manufactured India rubber (natural rubber made from the sap of the rubber tree, and a favored waterproof industrial material).

In 1855, Walton happened to notice the way a used can of oil-based paint would develop a thick, leathery ring around the lid. The flaxseed oil in the paint seemed to slowly oxidize and harden over time. “It occurred to me that…I could use it as a…waterproofing material, similar to [natural] india rubber,” Walton wrote. After figuring out how to fast-track the natural oxidization process by boiling the oil, he began to experiment with the material’s durability, attempting to dissolve the plastic-like oxidized oil in a solvent, or seeing how it took to water, oil, or heat. It was—as you know, if you’ve ever had a linoleum floor—impervious. It was also cheaper than India rubber.

In 1863, Walton took out a patent for the “Improvement of the Manufacture of a Wax Cloth for Floors”. He used straightforward Latin for the name of his new material—flax, also known as linseed (Latin: linum), and oil (Latin: oleum). The ingredients and process he outlined in this and subsequent patents—oxidized linseed oil mixed with coal dust, cork or sawdust and resin, and pressed into sheets with electric rollers—are almost identical to that of 21st-century linoleum. In 1864, Walton launched the Linoleum Manufacturing Company in Staines-Upon-Thames.

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Statue of linoleum workers on the high street of Staines-Upon-Thames, England, commemorating the workers of Walton's factory.

Statue of linoleum workers on the high street of Staines-Upon-Thames, England, commemorating the workers of Walton’s factory.

Factory workers inlaying linoleum flooring.

Factory workers inlaying linoleum flooring.

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Linoleum became increasingly recognized as an inexpensive and easy-to-clean decorative material for dining rooms, passages, and kitchens. This illustration from the 1920s advertises an attractively painted linoleum rug.

This illustration from the 1920s advertises an attractively painted linoleum rug.

Linoleum became increasingly recognized as an inexpensive and easy-to-clean decorative material for dining rooms, passages, and kitchens. So what was initially meant for commercial and industrial use—protecting factory floors, for example—migrated into European and American households. Subsequent linoleum companies hired artists to paint decorative designs on the flooring surface, eventually integrating pigments in the manufacturing process. Molds and stencils created texture and inlaid patterns for hallways or carpet surrounds, until the material hit the height of popularity as 20th-century kitchen flooring.

 

From Linoleum to Lincrusta

Linoleum may have been a practical material, but Lincrusta-Walton would be a beautiful one. Walton patented this material, thinner than linoleum and beautifully sculpted with artistic patterns, in 1877. Again, the term is Latin, lin for linseed oil and crusta for a hardened material like plaster or stucco.

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Walton outlined a manufacturing process similar to that of linoleum—oxidized linseed oil  blended with wood fiber, gum, resin, and paraffin wax and spread onto a canvas or paper backing. But once embossed by rollers and skillfully painted after installation, this new material could pose as hand-tooled leather, repoussé metal, carved wood, or ornate plasterwork—all coveted top-end home finishes during the Gilded Age. (Business-minded Walton was well aware from the beginning of Lincrusta’s copy-cat abilities; the first patterns he designed were imitations of Cordovan leather, a Renaissance mark of prestige.) Lincrusta was far less expensive than what it imitated, and as a new middle class of Americans with disposable income began to design and build grand homes in New York, Boston, and Chicago, provided an expanded palette for interiors striving for extravagance. By 1885, Beck & Co.—a Connecticut firm licensed by Walton’s firm—offered 150 different patterns of Lincrusta inspired by Egyptian, Greek, Persian, Moorish, Japanese, Medieval, Renaissance, Louis XIV, and Eastlake motifs.

Lincrusta would be purchased unpainted in an embossed pattern.

Lincrusta would be (and is still today) purchased unpainted in an embossed pattern, such as this one featuring  acanthus leaves.

 

Lincrusta wainscoting painted to resemble wood in an 1890 Boston home.

Lincrusta wainscoting painted to resemble wood in an 1890 Boston home.

Lincrusta lost none of the practical applications it shared with linoleum, however, and advertisements called it the “indestructible wallcovering.” Indeed, it proved waterproof, easy to clean, insect-resistant, and less prone to warping or cracking over time. Decorators and tastemakers enthusiastically recommended Lincrusta be applied to walls as dados, fills, and friezes.

 

Lincrusta at the Driehaus Museum

The Dining Room of the Nickerson Mansion (Fisher Period, ca. 1900).

The Dining Room of the Nickerson Mansion (Fisher Period, ca. 1900).

Lincrusta took the American nouveaux riche by storm, appearing in six luxury cabins aboard the fated ship RMS Titanic, in the White House, and John D. Rockefeller’s New York home.

For their new mansion in 1883, the Nickersons blended the latest in building technologies, such as fireproofing and indoor plumbing, with the latest in fashionable interior design.  Lincrusta featured prominently in the Dining Room and Smoking Room of the residence. In the Dining Room, the wall fill above the elaborately carved oak wainscoting emulates Spanish leather. Its design—embossed and scrolling leaves, painted burgundy and highlighted with gold by master artisans on-site—is inspired by the Renaissance. In the Smoking Room, the Lincrusta frieze featured a Japanesque pattern of red, black, and gold chrysanthemums.

When restoration of the Nickerson Mansion commenced in 2004, the Lincrusta in the Dining Room showed damage from objects hung on the walls, including framed paintings and stuffed animal heads.

When restoration of the Nickerson Mansion commenced in 2004, the Lincrusta in the Dining Room showed damage from objects hung on the walls, including framed paintings and stuffed animal heads.

 

Detail of the Japanesque chrysanthemum pattern on the Lincrusta upper frieze in the Nickerson Mansion Smoking Room.

Detail of the Japanesque chrysanthemum pattern on the Lincrusta upper frieze in the Nickerson Mansion Smoking Room.

During the 2004-08 restoration of the Samuel M. Nickerson Mansion, conservators found the Lincrusta had survived. But a hundred years’ worth of grime, salt, and nicotine stained its surface, and decorations (the Nickersons hung paintings, and the mansion’s second owners, the Fishers, displayed stuffed animal heads on the walls) had damaged it further. Late 19th-century advertisers had perhaps exaggerated Lincrusta’s strength; the material is actually more brittle and delicate than the hard materials it emulated. Care needed to be taken with cleaning so as not to damage it further. Parma Conservation, a Chicago firm, designed a unique solution to meticulously lift the grime without damaging the painted surface. Fill for missing areas was cast from molds taken from the intact Lincrusta, then painted to match. Today, the Lincrusta is luminous, complementing the sheen of the beautifully restored wood paneling in both rooms, as it did in 1883.

 

The Dining Room of the Nickerson Mansion after restoration.

The Dining Room of the Nickerson Mansion after restoration.

 

 

“Take one step inside the Nickerson Mansion and its splendor is obvious. Yet behind every architectural detail there are hidden stories. They are the stories of the craftsmen and artisans who created the carved mantles, tiled mosaics, scrolled marble capitals, and elaborately painted decorative schemes on the walls and ceilings within the house. It would be almost impossible today to find artisans capable of producing such exquisite details—the necessary skills are all but extinct.”  (Peter Schoenmann, Head Conservator of Paintings and Murals, Parma Conservation)

 

Resources
“Lincrusta-Walton: Can the Democratic Wallcovering be Revived?” Bruce Bradbury. The Old-House Journal, Vol. X No. 10, October 1892.
“Linoleum,” Bonnie Wehle Parks Snyder. Twentieth-Century Building Materials: History and Conservation. Edited by Thomas C. Jester (Getty Publications, 2004).
“Linoleum: A Chiswick Invention,” Ralph Parsons. Brentford & Chiswick Local History Journal No. 5 (1996).
“Added Dimensions,” Lynn Elliott. Old House Interiors, Summer 2004.
“Conservation of Lincrusta-Walton Wall Coverings at the Nickerson House,” The Richard H. Driehaus Museum. http://www.driehausmuseum.org/pdf_documents/Driehaus_Museum_Lincrusta.pdf

This post is part of a series exploring the stories behind the Driehaus Museum’s latest exhibition, With a Wink and a Nod: Cartoonists of the Gilded AgeFor information on visiting the exhibition, click here

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The Puck of Puck magazine isn’t exactly Bacchus from ancient myth. Nor does he really resemble the “knurly limed, faun faced, and shock-pated” creature from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Rather, he looks like cherub dressed as up a Gilded Age dandy—complete with a top hat and frock coat. The coat is left wide open to expose his chubby nude figure, and in his hands he holds the keys to Puck’s reign of American humor: a fountain pen and a hand mirror.

This is how Puck appeared in Puck magazine. This is also how he appears on the Puck Building exterior in New York City. Two gilded statues of this mischievous character still stand sentry outside the historic building, where, from 1887 to 1916, Puck turned out page after satirical page.

 

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Statue of Puck above the Puck Building entrance. Image via The Bowery Boys: New York City History (boweryboyshistory.com), 24 April 2009.

The Austrian-born publisher of Puck, Joseph Keppler, commissioned the building in 1885. He’d launched an English-language version of his small German satirical magazine seven years ago, and Puck had become a milestone in the history of American humor, with circulation hitting 80,000 in the early 1880s and climbing to 90,000 by the end of the decade. Riding the tide of success, Keppler, along with printer Adolph Schwartzmann and lithographer J. Ottman went in together on a property on the edge of the great publishing district of New York City. They hired German-born New York architect Albert Wagner to envision what would become one of the most iconic buildings in Lower Manhattan. The seven-story structure occupied an entire city block. King’s Handbook of New York City called it “the largest building in the world devoted to the business of lithographing and publishing, having a floor area of nearly eight acres.”

Albert Wagner worked out a design for Keppler that reflected a distinctly German style of Romanesque and Renaissance Revival architecture, called Rundbogenstil. The repeating arches—Rundbogenstil literally means “round-arch style”—and intricate brickwork are hallmarks of this short-lived but popular late nineteenth-century style. Romanesque Revival’s popularity is tied to Henry Hobson Richardson (a New York architect known in Chicago for the Glessner House), but Wagner’s Romanesque Revival is different from Richardson’s. Richardsonian Romanesque is a tad heavier, with rusticated stone and squat columns, while Rundbogendstil has smooth facades and an elegant lightness.

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Puck Building Exterior, 1895, from King’s Photographic View of New York, via Daytonian in Manhattan. (daytoninmanhattan.blogspot.com)

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Puck Building, Richard Haas, 1971. Image via The Old Print Shop, New York, oldprintshop.com.

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The massive brick building was constructed in three phases—the original structure was finished in 1885-86, expanded in 1892-93 to make more room for Puck printing, and altered in 1899 to make up for the intrusion of Lafayette Street into its footprint. Wagner closely supervised all three stages, giving cohesion to the building’s overall design. Seemingly endless arches of varying heights define three vertical sections of the façade, the richly colored brick contrasted by polished gray granite blocks, brownstone, and ornamental ironwork.

Little is known about Albert Wagner. He settled in New York in 1871 and worked for Leopold Eidlitz, a prominent Bohemian architect who may have passed his passion for Rundbogendstil on to his protégée. While Wagner never became as famous as Eidlitz, he kept up a busy stream of commissions for residential, commercial, and industrial buildings during his career. He died in 1898, leaving his firm and the final touches on the Puck Building’s last addition in the hands of his relative Herman Wagner.

The Puck team advertised their arrival in the neighborhood with typical tongue in cheek, topping off the building with statues of their mascot, larger than life and gleaming with gold leaf. Sculpted by Henry Baerer, the German-born artist known for his stern-faced bust of Beethoven in New York’s Central Park, the largest Puck statue stands above the building’s main entrance on Houston and Mulberry Street. (Another, smaller Puck is stationed above the Lafayette entrance.) The chubby sprite holds a hand mirror—the better to reflect society’s follies with—as well as a fountain pen. At his side hangs a book inscribed with his character’s jest in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, “What fools these Mortals be!”

Puckbldg

Keppler, Udo J., , Artist. Puck: “Congratulations, Mr. President; they wanted you” / Keppler. N.Y.: J. Ottmann Lith. Co., Puck Bldg., November 9, 1904. Image. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/2011645584. Illustration shows Puck reaching from the Puck Building to the White House to congratulation Theodore Roosevelt for winning the presidential election; they are shaking hands.

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The building housed the Puck editorial team and the J. Ottmann Lithography Company, which produced the groundbreaking full-color images for Puck ‘s front cover, back cover, and centerfold. They were joined by a number of other businesses, including a bookbindery, hat frame manufacturer, electrotyping company, and hat shop on the ground floor.

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Puck printed its last issue in 1918. So what is the Puck Building today? In 1980, Kushner Companies acquired the building for office and retail space. And in 2011, they got approval from the Landmarks Commission to transform the upper floors of the Puck Building into six penthouses—think Italian marble baths, mahogany-framed windows, William McIntosh floor patterns, televisions inside the mirrors. Luckily, the renovation preserved elements of the building’s original identity. The barrel-vaulted brick ceilings and architectural columns were left exposed, and Puck Penthouse’s brand style even borrows from the magazine’s masthead.

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Puck Penthouses (Image via Curbed New York)

PuckPenthouses

Puck Penthouses (Image via Curbed New York)

 

Want to learn more about the magazine printed in the Puck building during its heyday? Puck‘s illustrations changed the shape of American humor. Join us for next week’s exhibition lecture with Janel Trull, curator of the exhibition With a Wink and a Nod: Cartoonists of the Gilded Age, on Thursday, September 8.

 

 

 

SOURCES
Finn, Robin. “Penthouses for the Puck Building.” The New York Times, Sept. 19, 2013.
Gaiter, Dorothy J. “Restored Puck Building Opens Today.” The New York Times, Apr. 20, 1983.
PUCK BUILDING, 295-309 Lafayette Street, Borough of Manhattan. Landmarks Preservation Commission, April 12, 1983, Designation List 164. LP-1226. Accessed via Neighborhood Preservation Center. (neighborhoodpreservationcenter.org/db/bb_files/1983PuckBuilding.pdf)
Puck Penthouses, puckpenthouses.com
“The Puck Building—Houston and Lafayette Streets”, Daytonian in Manhattan. 19 Jan 2011. http://daytoninmanhattan.blogspot.co.uk/2011/01/puck-building-houston-and-lafayette.html

Branson: “Why do the rituals, the clothes, and the customs matter so much?” 

The Dowager Countess:Because without them we would be like the wild men of Borneo.”

Downton Abbey®. © Carnival Films / MASTERPIECE

Downton Abbey®. © Carnival Films / MASTERPIECE

Queen Victoria’s son, Edward VII, had a brief reign from 1901 to 1910, but it was a decade marked by peace and prosperity at the height of the British Empire. The Edwardian period was indeed a “Gilded Age,” both in England and America. Yet social relationships were strictly defined, and interactions among and between the classes were governed by a series of complex and rigid rules—what we would call “manners”. The etiquette of the Edwardian era was second nature to the people who lived during this period, but to us it’s the fascinating behavior of a unique cultural moment.

King Edward and Queen Alexandra.

King Edward and Queen Alexandra.

Edwardians never, for example, shook hands. Women never removed their gloves in public. Men removed their hats in the presence of a superior, but not for a member of the lower classes. An Edwardian hostess carefully predetermined every aspect of a dinner party—not only the menu and seating arrangements, but even topics of conversation during the meal.

Alastair Bruce with actor Hugh Bonneville on the set of Downton Abbey.

Alastair Bruce with actor Hugh Bonneville on the set of Downton Abbey.

These are just a few of the kinds of details Alastair Bruce, historical advisor to Downton Abbey® (as well as films such as The King’s Speech and The Young Victoria), has to remember as he works with actors. It’s his job to ensure they mind their Edwardian manners perfectly, from ramrod-straight posture to perfectly starched collars.

Through the lens of Bruce’s work on Downton Abbey, as seen in the PBS documentary The Manners of Downton Abbey, let’s take a look at Edwardian etiquette and how it reigned in every corner of daily life.

 …

Servants & Masters

The servants of Downton. Downton Abbey®. © Carnival Films / MASTERPIECE

The servants of Downton. Downton Abbey®. © Carnival Films / MASTERPIECE

“You are a footman, and a footman wears gloves,” says Mr. Carson, the butler of Downton Abbey, in a tone that brooks no argument. The footmen were like the peacocks of an Edwardian country house, impressive to look at and always on display, whether greeting guests at the doorstep or serving them in the dining room. Nearly always well-dressed young men, the footmen represented crisp formality and quiet grandeur on behalf of the entire estate. A tall or particularly good-looking footman would even earn a higher salary than the other members of the household staff.

However necessary the footmen and other servants may have been, they were never, however, thanked. Notice how the Crawleys and their aristocratic peers never say, “Oh, thank you!” to the servants when they bring a cup of tea, lace up a corset, or open a door? This isn’t ungratefulness, however, but simply a matter of practicality, explains Alastair Bruce in The Manners of Downton Abbey. The servants did everything for their masters, and if thanks were given, it would be necessary to say them at least sixty times a day. That would be, as the English say, tiresome.

Etiquette wasn’t just reserved for the relationship between servant and master. A unique set of rules also governed a hierarchy within the servant class itself. The butler and housekeeper were at the head of this group in terms of dignity, authority and earnings. Then came the cook, valets, ladies’ maids, and footmen; last of all were the parlor maids, laundry maids, kitchen maids, dishwashers, and stable grooms. Even among one group of servants you would have minor differences. The first footman served the meat, for example, the choicest course; while the second footman served a minor sauce or side. The under cook was considered an apprentice to the chef, while the kitchen maids were only assistants. The order in which servants sat at their own downstairs dining room table reflected this microcosm of the class system.

 …

Socializing

An afternoon tea outdoors, image via Code of the Gentleman.

An afternoon tea outdoors, image via Code of the Gentleman.

All social interactions, formal or informal, were occasions that required a complex set of rules to govern behavior. Take a look at this list taken from instructions for giving a formal afternoon tea in 1904—it just scratches the surface of expectations and norms for this period.

 

  • Cards must be issued as invitations three weeks in advance.
  • Men should wear a long frock coat with single or double-breasted waistcoat to match; gray trousers; white linen; light tie; silk hat; gray gloves; patent leather shoes.
  • Awnings and carpet should be provided from curb to house.
  • A footman must meet guests as they arrive at the curb to open their carriage doors, and another should open the front door “the moment a guest appears at the top step.”
  • Guests should leave their cards in the tray in the hall before entering the drawing room. The butler then announces them as they enter. Those who cannot attend should send their cards by mail or messenger to the hostess, timed to arrive during the afternoon tea.
  • On entering, women precede the men.
  • The hostess should be just within the drawing room door to receive the guests. If she has daughters who have come out in society, they should receive the guests, then mingle with them “to help to make the function a success.”
  • The hours are from 4 to 7 p.m. Guests should not come at the opening hour, nor stay until the last moment.

 

Even in casual or unplanned moments, including with friends and family, it was important to keep oneself under control. The British are famously described as having a “stiff upper lip,” showing no inappropriate bursts of affection or anger. Alastair Bruce coaches the actors of Downton Abbey, especially those who play characters who most want to uphold the traditional way of life (including Lady Mary, her grandmother the Dowager Countess of Grantham, and the butler Mr. Carson), never to slip on this point. They can’t pat someone’s shoulder, offer a hug, clink glasses, or even say “I love you,” no matter how natural it would seem. Controlled politeness must govern their every word and expression. As William Ernest Henley put it in his classic Victorian poem, “Invictus,” “I am the captain of my soul.”

 …

Courtship and Chaperons

Lady Edith dines alone with a married man. Downton Abbey®. © Carnival Films / MASTERPIECE

Lady Edith dines alone with a married man. Downton Abbey®. © Carnival Films / MASTERPIECE

Lady Edith commits a bold indiscretion when she dines unchaperoned with (married!) magazine editor Michael Gregson in Season 4 of Downton Abbey. She’s defying some of the most stringent rules of all, those which governed the interactions between men and women. The American queen of etiquette, Emily Post, declared in 1922, “Absolutely no lady (unless middle-aged—and even then she would be defying convention) can go to dinner or supper in a restaurant alone with a gentleman.”

“As a matter of fact,” Post writes, “the only young girl who is really ‘free,’ is she whose chaperon is never very far away…but a young girl who is unprotected by a chaperon is in the position precisely of an unarmed traveler walking alone among wolves—his only defense is in his not attracting their notice.” Young single women could also not receive male guests in her own home, dine out, go to the theatre, go motoring for a significant distance, or go to a party without a chaperon present.

 …

Debutantes

Lady Rose performs a curtsey for her presentation at the Royal Court. Downton Abbey®, 2013. © Carnival Films / MASTERPIECE

Lady Rose performs a curtsey for her presentation at the Royal Court. Downton Abbey®, 2013. © Carnival Films / MASTERPIECE

Debutantes being presented to Edward VII and Queen Alexandra.

Debutantes being presented to Edward VII and Queen Alexandra.

 

Young women were introduced to society in their mid- to late-teens, after completing their education and being deemed ready for marriage. The aristocratic debutantes would apply to appear in a royal court presentation as her official entrance into society. Wearing a white dress with a three-yard train and adorned with the required three feathers, the young woman carried a bouquet and curtsied before Alexandria, Edward VII’s queen. (Just as Lady Rose was presented to Queen Mary and King George V, Edward’s son and successor, in the 2013 Christmas special of Downton Abbey.)

After her debutante event, the young lady would attend “the season,” a round of London mansion parties beginning after Christmas and ending in mid-summer. These affairs, with their abundance of married chaperons, provided appropriate places for men and women to meet one another without causing scandal. After the Edwardian period, the significance of the debutante season waned, and austerity forced many wealthy families to relinquish their ‘town’ homes in the big city.

 …

Love & Marriage

Lady Mary between two suitors, one newly wealthy in business, the other inheritor of the Downton land and estate. Downton Abbey®. © Carnival Films / MASTERPIECE

Lady Mary between two suitors, one newly wealthy in business, the other inheritor of the Downton land and estate. Downton Abbey®. © Carnival Films / MASTERPIECE

Lady Mary marries Matthew, inheritor to the Downton fortunes. Downton Abbey®. © Carnival Films / MASTERPIECE

Lady Mary marries Matthew, inheritor to the Downton fortunes. Downton Abbey®. © Carnival Films / MASTERPIECE

 

Formal hairstyle inspiration from the Edwardian era.

Formal hairstyle inspiration from the Edwardian era.

 

A wedding reception in 1905.

A wedding reception in 1905.

 

For well-heeled Edwardians, marriage was a practical arrangement. Rather than love, the reason for marriage often had to do with the acquisition or preservation of land. Land was the lifeblood of aristocratic wealth and secured one’s high station in society. For the same reasons, marriage may also be a pairing of two important families. The character Richard Carlisle in the first season of Downton Abbey was wealthy, but he had made his money as a newspaperman. While the penniless Lord Gillingham—who comes from a well-established bloodline—would be viewed as a more appropriate match for Lady Mary Crawley in Season 5. Whether for practicalities or love, marriage was eagerly awaited by young women; it represented their only chance for independence and a home of their own.

Courtship was not, however, permitted among the servants. Even the architecture made sure of it, as there were no rooms for a couple to live in and work in the same house together. To marry, a woman had to leave domestic service, a kind of forced independence that set her to work on her own household.

 

 …

 

When the First World War broke out, marks of the lavish Edwardian period began to fade. With shocking speed, the old traditions—and traditional manners with them—became things of the past. Although interactions in England had been governed by these rules for centuries, the total social upheavals caused by war and industrialization wiped them away. As country houses in England fell into financial straits and were demolished or abandoned, the old, formal ways of life they represented were replaced by modern norms determined by a new and daring generation.

 

 

 

Resources
Edwardian Promenade, “The Court Presentation,” by Evangeline Holland, December 7, 2007. http://www.edwardianpromenade.com/etiquette/the-court-presentation/
Green, Walter Cox. A Dictionary of Polite Etiquette: A Guide to Polite Usage for All Social Functions. Brentano’s, New York: 1904.
PBS, The Manners of Downton Abbey documentary
PBS, “Manor House” www.pbs.org/manorhouse/
Emily Post, Etiquette, 1922. Chapter XIX. “The Chaperon and Other Conventions.” http://www.bartleby.com/95/19.html
Treble, Patricia. “Downton Abbey’s Master of Edwardian Manners,” Maclean’s, December 31, 2014. http://www.macleans.ca/culture/television/downton-abbeys-master-of-edwardian-manners/
Victorian Domestic Servant Hierarchy and Wage Scale: The hierarchy of British domestic servants in a large manor in 1890 and their wages. http://www.waynesthisandthat.com/servantwages.htm

In the early decades of the 20th century, the fictional Crawley family of Downton Abbey® hosted grand dinners and fretted about the Great War. At the same time, the real Fisher family was doing the same—right here in this Gilded Age mansion the Driehaus Museum calls ‘home.’

In many ways the Fishers were foils to the Crawleys of Downton. The Fishers lived in America, the Crawleys in England. The Fishers dwelled in an urban palace built in 1883 by another prominent family, while the Crawleys inherited their ancient country estate from a long line of genteel landowners. Lucius George Fisher had everything to gain from the Industrial Revolution, the technical inventions of which made his career in the paper industry soar; Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham, saw his own way of life rapidly disappearing in the wake of new changes.

And yet the Fishers and Crawleys shared the same world. Inspired by the era of our current Dressing Downton exhibition, we’ve been digging into our archives for this special blog post in order to share, for the first time, the story of the Nickerson Mansion’s second owners who lived here between 1900 and 1916.

 …

Illustration of the mouth of the Chicago River in 1831. From Chicago: A Biography, The University of Chicago Press.

The mouth of the Chicago River in 1831. Illustration from Chicago: A Biography, The University of Chicago Press.

Lumberyards on the Chicago River, about 1870.

Lumberyards on the Chicago River, about 1870. From Chicago: A Biography, The University of Chicago Press.

 

Chicago appeared out of nowhere.

As one New England newspaper put it back in the mid-1800s, it seemed to rise “like an exhalation from the morass upon which it was built.” Lucius George Fisher, Sr., the father of the man who would one day purchase the Nickerson House, came from Vermont to see the spectacle in 1837. There were just a few thousand pioneering citizens in the brand new city then, and it was in the middle of a financial crisis. He kept traveling, eventually landing in Beloit, Wisconsin—a city which he named, and where he made his own name. He played a leading role in all of the city’s major businesses and institutions—from the railway to the bank, newspaper, post office, local government, and police force.

His only son was also named Lucius George Fisher, born in Beloit in 1843. He was educated there and about to enter Beloit College when gold fever hit him, along with the rest of America. Lucius, Jr. convinced his father to let him go west with a wagon and team of oxen. He stayed on the frontier until he moved to New York City in 1861 to work as a clerk in a hardware store. The Civil War broke out that same year, and in 1863 Fisher was mustered with the 84th Regiment of the New York Infantry National Guard. The regiment was discharged after 100 days, so Fisher signed up for the navy and did administrative work aboard the US steamer Wyandack until the war was over in 1865.

By then Fisher’s parents had moved to Chicago, where his father invested in downtown real estate. Fisher joined them there and started working as a porter in the Rock River Paper Company. He ascended quickly, and within five years, he managed the whole paper bag operation. Fisher would stick with the paper industry for the rest of his career. He incorporated his own company, the Union Bag and Paper Co. in the 1870s, and it grew exponentially as he absorbed other manufacturers around the Midwest.

The Union Bag & Paper Company, 3737 S. Ashland Ave., Chicago.

The Union Bag & Paper Company, 3737 S. Ashland Ave., Chicago.

Like his father before him, Fisher invested in Chicago real estate. He owned a 160-acre tract on the south side of the city, between Seventy-ninth and Eighty-third Streets and Cottage Grove and South Park Avenues. When the World’s Columbian Exposition fairgrounds were designated nearby, the land became worth $1 million—equivalent to $266 million today. He leased the land to the fair in 1892 for the building of 600 three-story houses, to be used as visitor accommodations. Perhaps more famously, Fisher invested in real estate closer to the city’s commercial center as well. He commissioned world’s fair architect Daniel H. Burnham to design the Fisher Building, which still stands at 343 S. Dearborn Street. Its 18 stories of orange terra cotta and glass, made it  one of the tallest buildings in the world when completed in 1896.

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From around 1885, Fisher and his wife of fifteen years, Katherine, lived in a new red brick Victorian home on Ellis Avenue in Chicago’s Oakland neighborhood. It featured stained glass windows, built-in bookcases, large secluded back garden, and an elegant ballroom on the third floor. The lakeside community was populated, in the late 19th century, with other illustrious members of Chicago society. Many of them were entrepreneurs and industrialists who found it convenient to the stockyards, rail terminal, and factories on the South Side. But around the turn of the century, increasing pollution and immigrant neighbors made the area seem less desirable for some. These residents began migrating north, and the Fisher family also began looking for a new home.

Samuel M. Nickerson, recently retired president of First National Bank of Chicago, had constructed a gorgeous Italianate mansion on the north side of the Chicago River in 1883. The mansion at 40 East Erie Street was reported to be the most expensive and luxurious residence in Chicago at the time of its construction, featuring three stories, more than 17 different kinds of marbles from around the world, capacity for 11 live-in servants, and a grand Sculpture Gallery. Nickerson was 70 years old, and originally from Massachusetts. He wished to go live permanently in his summer home on Cape Cod, so he negotiated a $75,000 purchase—over $2 million in today’s dollars—with Lucius George Fisher for the mansion and many of its contents.

The FIsher's 1885 residence on 4036 Ellis Avenue. (Google Streetview, 2014)

The FIsher’s 1885 residence on 4036 Ellis Avenue. (Google Streetview, 2014)

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Front elevation, Samuel M. Nickerson House. Burling & Whitehouse, architects.

The Samuel M. Nickerson House, 1883.

The Samuel M. Nickerson House, 1883.

The Fishers moved into the Nickerson House in the summer of 1900. The census recorded the home’s inhabitants as Lucius and Katherine, both in their 50s; their four children Lucius, Jr. (age 28), Alice (age 26), Ethel (age 17), and Katherine (age 14); Katherine’s sister Francis Eddy; and three female servants from Germany, Minnesota, and Sweden, respectively.

The Fishers kept most of the original furniture, which had been crafted to match the interior design. But their tastes had little else in common with the Nickersons’ clusters of Victorian objets d’art, competing wall and upholstery patterns, and plenteous furniture. The new century came with a new, streamlined aesthetic. By now Chicago’s Prairie School of architecture, with its horizontal lines and air of simplicity, had come into full swing. Fisher hired Prairie School architect George Washington Maher (1864–1926) to redesign Nickerson’s former Sculpture Gallery to his own liking. He re-envisioned the space as a Trophy Room and filled it with game animals, weaponry, rare books, and a mural of hunting scenes along the curved cornice. Among the crowning achievements of the new design was a massive fireplace, with iridescent Art Nouveau tilework, roaring lacquered cherry lion heads, and massive moose head above the mantel. The other striking feature was a stained glass dome featuring autumnal trees, which has been carefully restored and is on view today.

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If Theodore Roosevelt, with his zeal for hunting large game, had anything to do with defining early 20th century masculinity in America, then Lucius George Fisher’s aesthetic would have fit it perfectly. The heads and bodies of wild game weren’t confined only to the Trophy Room; rather, they featured prominently as a defining decorative feature of the house. The Trophy Room displayed sea turtles, a 12-point buck, African antelope horns, birds both local and exotic, and a magnificent tiger skin rug. The first and second floor Halls featured bear rugs—one with the head still attached—and the heads of bison, buffalo, walrus, reindeer, and bighorn sheep lining the walls. The Dining Room featured a large silver fish bolted to the Lincrusta, an owl, and another grand moose head. Historic photographs, taken for fire insurance purposes, also feature a few hairy and indistinct mysterious animals on andirons and floors, including sheepskin throws and something that looks like a porcupine on the floor of the Drawing Room.

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Perhaps a remnant of Fisher’s young days on the western frontier seeking gold, the few objets d’art often depicted the American West. A prominent bronze bust in the Smoking Room depicted a Native American chieftan, for example, and a blanket covering an upstairs divan was woven with the colorful triangles of the Southwest. He was not otherwise a major art collector as Nickerson had been before him, although he did purchase the Greek statuary from the 1893 world’s fair and donate it to Beloit College for its permanent collection.

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Like the rest of Chicago in the early 20th century, the Fishers were confident in their success and enjoyed sharing it. One newspaper item from Christmastime 1902 mentions that the Fishers were the first to kick off that party season with a dinner and dance, and the “big Erie Street house…was decorated in American beauties and Christmas grace.” Few records survive of the other grand parties they certainly hosted in their urban palace in Near North, but previous special occasions, such as debutante receptions in their Ellis Avenue home, prove they were central characters in the city’s elite social class. The society pages in the Chicago Daily Tribune detailed costumes—“Mrs. Fisher wore an apple green and brown brocade gown trimmed with lace, Miss Fisher wore a white crêpe de soie with large white satin sleeves and lace bertha”—and menus—“chocolate, coffee and ice-cream in the billiard room” and “egg-nog in the dining room.”

Fisher Family History-Katherine Fisher to Marry Homer Dixon-Trib6Sept1906

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Lucius George Fisher lived in the Nickerson House for a total of 16 years. In August 1910, he and his wife were traveling in Germany visiting the famous baths of Carlsbad, when Katherine died suddenly and unexpectedly at the age of 61. Fisher returned with her body by ship, and the news came as a shock to the whole family. Fisher himself died on March 16, 1916, inside the Erie Street mansion.

The estate was divided between the three sisters, and Fishers’ youngest daughter Katherine and her husband, Homer Dixon, occupied the mansion after his death. The 1920 census paints a picture of a lively, full household with 33-year-old Katherine at the head. At the time the Dixons had seven children under the age of 11, as well as 11 live-in servants, mainly Scandinavian immigrants.

After the Dixons left, the mansion remained empty and dormant for several years. The rest, of course, is history.

 

 

Mr. Vanderbilt’s House and Collection (1884), a beautifully bound two-volume set that brings to life William H. Vanderbilt’s monumental “Brownstone Twins” and their contents on New York’s Fifth Avenue, is now on view in the Sculpture Gallery at the Driehaus Museum.

The Museum’s new acquisition forges a special and important link between two prosperous late 19th-century businessmen and their devotion to collecting art. Samuel M. Nickerson may have lived in Chicago, while the name of William Henry Vanderbilt was synonymous with New York. But they were both enthusiastic parts of the same wave of artistic interest across America at the turn of the century, which resulted in real cultural phenomena: rooms like our Sculpture Gallery, private collections open to the public as a precursor to museums, and publications like Mr. Vanderbilt’s House and Collection.

William Henry Vanderbilt I (1821-1885). Illustration originally published in Harper's weekly, v. 29, no. 1513 (1885 December 19), p. 845. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

William Henry Vanderbilt I (1821-1885). Illustration originally published in Harper’s weekly, v. 29, no. 1513 (1885 December 19), p. 845. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

William H. Vanderbilt was the eldest son of railroad mogul Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, and inherited the largest slice of his father’s massive fortune. He did a fine job in railroads himself, and nearly doubled his inheritance by the time of his death. In 1879 he embarked on a $3 million building project that would permanently etch the Vanderbilt name in New York brownstone and American architectural history. “Nothing so magnificent had before been attempted in New York in the way of a private residence,” The New York Times remarked afterwards.

Exterior. Corner of Fifth Avenue and Fifty First Street, 1883. B/W negative, 4x5in. The Brooklyn Museum.

Exterior. Corner of Fifth Avenue and Fifty First Street, 1883. B/W negative, 4x5in. The Brooklyn Museum.

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Fifth Avenue at Fifty-First Street, 1900.

Fifth Avenue at Fifty-First Street, 1900.

The Vanderbilt residence at Fifth Avenue and Fifty-first Street was technically two mansions connected by an atrium; his daughters lived in the second with their husbands. It was a feast for the eyes. The architect-decorators were Christian and Gustave Herter, German-born cabinetmakers favored by New York’s elite, and they worked with experienced architects Charles Atwood and John Snook to anchor their profuse decorative elements to a standing structure. No two rooms were alike, and all were exactly to the taste of the moment. Just like the original interior designers of the Nickerson Mansion, the Herter Brothers favored a creative pastiche of historical and cultural styles all arranged together in interesting ways. You had vast groupings of artistic objects heaped on fireplace mantels, walls divided into three or more sections before reaching the ceiling, elaborate carvings in exotic wood, and jewel-tone colors. One’s eye never quite knew where to land.

Mr. Vanderbilt’s House and Collection is really a book of description. And just as we trawl through Curbed or Pinterest to see how tastemakers arrange their interiors or tune in on television for sneak peeks of celebrity’s homes, this description was hungered for by America’s new middle class and nouveaux-riche.

Mr. Vanderbilt’s House and Collection, The Holland Edition, Volume I and II, by Edward Strahan, published by George Barrie, 1884. The Collection of the Richard H. Driehaus Museum.

Mr. Vanderbilt’s House and Collection, The Holland Edition, Volume I and II, by Edward Strahan, published by George Barrie, 1884. The Collection of the Richard H. Driehaus Museum.

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Published in limited number—1,000 editions, of which the Driehaus Museum’s acquisition is #712—of beautiful materials, included richly grained and gilt-edged brown leather and deep blue silk inner linings, Mr. Vanderbilt’s House and Collection offered entrance to the private world of the wealthiest man in America. The reader is treated to a vivid tour of the home, from the Boudoir’s ivory-inlaid ebony walls to the grand three-story Picture Gallery, as well as Vanderbilt’s private art collection, which included around 200 paintings.

 

BOUDOIR. Second Floor—North-East Corner. In the foreground, Turner’s Fountain of Indolence, “by far the largest and most important Turner in America. It was first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1834, and was obtained in 1882 from the dealers Agnew & Sons.”

BOUDOIR. Second Floor—North-East Corner. In the foreground, Turner’s Fountain of Indolence, “by far the largest and most important Turner in America. It was first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1834, and was obtained in 1882 from the dealers Agnew & Sons.”

V-Interior

The author, Edward Strahan (Earl Shinn), was an influential self-made American art critic who studied at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris and returned with a mission—not to make art, but to write about it. He wanted to dazzle American eyes and minds with the wonders of great art, examples of which so few of them had seen. Even the publisher, George Barrie, seemed to emphasize the artistic quality with his beautifully bound books filled with lavish artwork. A year before coming out with Mr. Vanderbilt’s House and Collection, Barrie put the visions of the 1893 Chicago’s worlds fair into people’s homes with an illustrated two-volume set, World Columbian Exposition MDCCCXCIII, Art and Architecture. He also collaborated with Shinn on a series called Art Treasures of America.

They were proponents of a vast sort of gentrification campaign for young America taking place at the end of the 19th century, which needed men like William Henry Vanderbilt. You might call this a kind of Mediciean mindset. Many Gilded Age barons like Vanderbilt saw themselves as bringers of an American Renaissance in which the powerful and wealthy contribute to the public good and encourage the flourishing of the arts. So when Vanderbilt spent over $1 million to amass works by Alma-Tadema, Bougeureau, Corot, Daubigny, Delacroix, Dupré, Fortuny, Millet, Millais, Rousseau, Troyon, and Turner, he had more than his personal financial portfolio in mind. Upon the grand opening of his mansion in 1882, Vanderbilt hosted two receptions, “to one of which he invited other multi-millionaires of the town to inspect his treasures, and to the other poor artists who had never been able to see the great galleries of Europe.” Afterwards, visitors were admitted by card on Thursdays. This was, according to one publication, “an important element in cultivating the artistic taste of the metropolis.”

Gallery of Paintings

 

"Figures from 'Down to the River' by L. Alma-Tadema."

“Figures from ‘Down to the River’ by L. Alma-Tadema.”

 

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Incroyables, by F. H. Kaemmerer.

 

Like Vanderbilt, Samuel M. Nickerson opened the Sculpture Gallery to art students and other interested Chicagoans, not only his personal guests. Art collections were viewed as public treasures, obtained by privilege but not to be hoarded. Rather, they were to be shared for the enjoyment and betterment of society at large. There was a deep belief during the aesthetic movement that exposure to exceptional beauty somehow elevated us, changed us, improved us as humans. Writing about that subject today, Alain de Botton puts it like this:

“What we seek, at the deepest level, is inwardly to resemble, rather than physically to possess the objects and places that touch us through their beauty.”

 

 

 

 

 

Resources
Alain de Botton, The Architecture of Happiness
Bibliopolis, “Publisher: George Barrie”
Dictionary of Art Historians, “Shinn, Earl / Edward Strahan, pseudonym”
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, In Pursuit of Beauty: Americans and the Aesthetic Movement
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Library Table, Herter Brothers (1864-1906)
The New York Times, “Frick Remodeling Vanderbilt Mansion, Will Make Over One of Famous Brownstone Twins. Alterations to Be Costly: William H. Vanderbilt Built the Two Houses in 1880 at the Cost of $3,000,000—George Vanderbilt’s Tenure.” April 16, 1905.
The New York Times, “C. Vanderbilt Gets Mansion and Art, Property Worth $6,000,000 Reverts to Him by Grandfather’s Will on Death of George W. House Let to H. C. Frick. Stands at Fifth Avenue and Fifty-first Street and Cost $1,600,000—Art Valued Above $1,000,000.” March 10, 1914.
Nathan Silver, Lost New York, p. 121-122

J & J. G. Low Art Tile Works was one of America’s great tile companies, and there are many instances of its decorative, low-relief tiles in the Driehaus Museum’s original interiors today.

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An unsinkable ship, carrying more than 2,000 people across the Atlantic, foundered on April 15, 1912 and dashed Gilded Age hopes. And a century later, we’re still talking about the RMS Titanic.

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