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Industrial Arts and Good Taste

Published onApr 22, 2021
Industrial Arts and Good Taste

An American home has become something more than its original intent. It distracts the individual too much from mankind at large, tempts him to centre therein wealth, luxury, and every conceivable stimulus of personal ease, pride and display. The tendency is to narrow his humanity, by putting it under bonds to vanity and selfishness.

James Jackson Jarves, 1864 ([48], 251)

Every great international exposition is conceived to demonstrate the progress that has been made in the arts and the sciences. It becomes an invitational tournament whereby the host nation challenges others to enter their accomplishments in the lists for fame and glory. However, beneath its cultural splendor and good will, it carries the arms of economic competition. The great Centennial Exhibition that was staged in Philadelphia in 1876 was no exception. Under a proclamation from President Ulysses S. Grant in 1874, Secretary of State Hamilton Fish invited other nations to participate in an exhibition “designed to commemorate the Declaration of the Independence of the United States” with a “display of the results of Art and Industry of all nations as will serve to illustrate the great advances attained, and the successes achieved, in the interest of Progress and Civilization, during the century which will have then closed.” ([59], 19)

Expositions often follow periods of national unrest or depression, and tend to allay the concerns of the public about the present by reaffirming national purpose, recounting national achievements, and parading glorious promises for the future. In this case, two of the concerns to be allayed were the bank panic of 1873 and the charges of political corruption in Grant’s administration.

It was a stated goal of the Centennial Exposition (held at Philadelphia) to illustrate “the happy mean … which combines the utility that serves the body with the beauty that satisfies the mind,” in that “artful living which can be provided by manufactures.” ([82], 7) The addition of ornamentation to utilitarian products in order to make them more pleasing to the eye was claimed to occupy that middle ground between fine arts and industry to be known in the future as industrial art.

The nearly 10 million Americans who visited the Centennial Exposition were offered, besides exhibits in the fine arts of painting and sculpture, the promise that the industrial arts, in forms that they had formerly associated with an aristocratic style of living, might now be made available to them at affordable prices. They applauded the promise that American industry was now able to compete successfully with the more expensive foreign manufactures. Bishop wrote in 1868 that American manufacturers such as Reed and Barton “familiarize the American people with forms of beauty and elevate the standard of public taste.” According to Bishop, “An American artisan can now command exact copies or the choicest plate in the repertory of kings … the American people are being educated in taste and love of the beautiful.” ([11], III, 331)

However, something sounded wrong from the very beginning of the exposition, when Richard Wagner, who had been commissioned to write a centennial march for the opening, let it be known that the best thing about his pompous work was the $5,000 that the Americans had paid him for it. Apparently a majority of the nations that had accepted the invitation to participate had not sent their best work in the fine and industrial arts. The English felt duty-bound to do their best because of their former relations with the American colonies and their present political and economic ties. The Japanese, as a result of Perry’s visit and the subsequent treaty, went all out with the most expensive installation; their exhibit launched a general interest in Japanese arts that exerted a powerful effect on American decorative tastes and influenced the work of designers and architects for many years. But other countries apparently looked upon the invitation not so much as an opportunity to honor the democracy, but rather as a chance to sell to the aesthetically impoverished Americans those products that were not of sufficient good taste to satisfy their own home markets. It was argued by some that because the Americans did not produce art of the highest quality, they could have no appreciation for it. The American taste establishment, feeling that wealthy and knowledgeable Americans who had traveled abroad extensively were quite familiar with foreign products and thus able to select the best objets d’art for their homes, resented the implication that American tastes were barbaric. They suggested that, at the very least, the works of high quality they might purchase at the exposition would “benefit the community in cultivating a correct taste and a higher standard of excellence in art.” ([82], 185)

Opening day on the Grand Plaza of the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, May 1876. The Memorial Building was one of five main structures erected on 450 acres in Fairmount Park. Reference 59.


The American industrial-art objects exhibited at the fair were generally considered to be little more than ostentatious echoes of European eclecticism. Although it is difficult through the haze of years to see much that is different between the stylistic presumptions of American and European products of the time, one may conclude that the mixture of Gothic and Grecian elements on a chandelier exhibited by the Cornelius Company of Baltimore leaves something to be desired. The Mason and Hamlin organ was clearly identified as an Eastlake organ even though Charles Eastlake himself discounted any blame: “I find American tradesmen continually advertising what they are pleased to call ‘Eastlake’ furniture, with the production of which I have had nothing whatever to do, and for the taste of which I should be very sorry to be considered responsible.” (29, xxiv) A tea service and a swinging ice-water pitcher by Reed and Barton were baroque forms smothered with romantic ornament. The Bryant vase in silver designed by James H. Whitehouse, the chief artist of the Tiffany Company, was conceived in an extravagant allegorical mode to honor the American poet’s affinity for nature. This not inelegant vase struggled to tell its story with apple blossoms, eglantine, amaranth, primrose, ivy, fringed gentian, water lilies, Indian corn, cotton plants, waterfowl, and bobolinks. The American masterpiece of the exposition was considered to be the Century Vase from the Gorham Company, which was designed by George G. Wilkinson and J. Pierpoint and required 2,000 ounces of silver to build. The exposition’s largest industrial-art product, this vase paraded 100 years of American history. On the top stood “America holding up the olive branch of peace and the wreath of honor, summoning Europe, Asia and Africa to join with her in the friendly rivalry with which she enters on the second century of her existence.” ([82], 56)

In retrospect, the cacophony of historicism in the industrial-arts section of the Centennial Exposition can be seen to have resulted in an aesthetic headache for the Americans that lasted beyond the end of the century. The capricious mix of styles that earned for the period such epithets as “Late Halloween” or “Early Awful” had a disastrous effect on the aesthetic quality of most American industrial-arts manufactures, despite the importation of samples, illustrations, machinery, designers, and artisans (or perhaps because of it). Walter Smith blamed both the manufacturers and the public: “The multitude desires quantity without regard to quality, and a manufacturer with the aid of his machine saws and lathes panders to this taste by turning out vast quantities of products loaded down with florid and cheap ornament.” ([82], 228) Smith questioned the judgment of manufacturers when it came to selecting products to be copied, and deplored that the manufacturer most often put his own taste above that of the artist he may have employed to help him. Smith reflected the popular dichotomy in that, while he felt machine-made products could not be as good as those that were made by hand, he praised the fact that the machine was bringing what had once been available only to the rich into the homes of the poorest citizens.

The affection of the Americans for mechanical devices was illustrated at the Centennial Exposition by a number of ingenious contraptions by which some articles of furniture could be made to serve more than one function. A bed that could be transformed into a sofa and a washstand that became a writing desk were justified on the ground that a young couple furnishing their first home needed such adaptability for economic reasons. Additional evidence of the American preoccupation with comfort and specialized convenience was shown by convertible chairs for invalids and other chairs designed especially for sewing, typing, barbershops, and trains.

However, the most technologically significant industrial-arts products shown at the exposition were some pieces of furniture made by the bent-wood process that had been developed by Michael Thonet in the Rhineland some 40 years earlier. This type of furniture had first gained recognition in 1851 at the Crystal Palace in London, where a set of rosewood furniture was shown that demonstrated a basic commitment to the elimination of handwork such as carving and joinery in favor of knock-down construction for easy transport. In a way, the Thonet process was the nineteenth century’s equivalent of the previous century’s Windsor method of construction. By the time of the American centennial the Thonet Company’s factories in Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Poland were producing more than 4,000 pieces a day, of which 85 percent were being sold abroad. The inventive rationality of the Thonet process predicted the future control of product form by manufacturing process rather than by artisanal whim. It resulted in an industrial aesthetic, as handsome as it was economical and useful, that served the democracy as well as it served the aristocracy. The Shakers, who had a small exhibit at the fair that is said to have influenced Scandinavian furniture design, were themselves intrigued enough by the Thonet process to produce several bentwood pieces of their own.

The Mason and Hamlin company exhibited this organ in the Eastlake style. Its decoration was considered by Walter Smith to be both quiet and massive and “free from all the abortions in the shape of ornament with which many pretentious instruments are disfigured.” Reference 82.


Smith considered this “seventy-two-light chandelier of Lacquer gilt in imitation of fine unalloyed gold” to be one of the masterpieces in his book on the Centennial Exposition. Reference 82.


This silver-plated swinging icewater pitcher and tea service by the Reed and Barton Company was commended at the Centennial Exposition as being just as beautiful as its solid sterling equivalent with a cost that was “largely in favor of the plated ware.” Reference 82.


The sterling silver William Cullen Bryant vase by Tiffany occupied a place of honor in the main building of the Centennial Exposition. It was the result of a subscription of $5,000 raised by friends of Bryant. For others it was available in a $500 electroplated copy. Reference 82.


The Gorham company’s contribution to the Exposition was the solid sterling Century Vase, conceived to tell the story, in romantic allegory, of the republic that on its hundredth birthday commanded “the respect and admiration of the world.” Reference 82.


An article in the London Art Journal, cited by J. Leander Bishop in 1868 (11, III, 331), reflected the apparent insensitivity of the Americans to decoration: “The Anglo-American . .. seems the only nation in whom the love of ornament is not inherent. The Yankee whittles a stick but his cuttings never take a decorative form.… he is a utilitarian, not a decorator; he can invent an elegant sewing machine, but not a Jacquard loom; an electric telegraph, but not an embroidery machine.” However, the Americans did find an interesting and even profitable accommodation between their interest in machines and their aspirations to become decorators in the fret- or jig-sawing process. The fret saw was a familiar hand tool that employed a C-shaped frame to hold a fine saw blade, generally made from a watch spring. Some unknown mechanic transformed it into a machine similar to the newly invented foot-pedaled sewing machine, thus making it suited to female as well as male operators. Within five years after the machine was introduced, over 12,000 units had been sold. The version shown at Centennial Exposition, a continuous-band saw powered by the Corliss engine, “gave the business a great push.” “Nothing in the exhibition of mechanical processes in Machinery Hall,” according to Harper’s, “had such a constant crowd of observers as one of these sawing-machines.” ([143], 533) It was estimated that within a year after the centennial 500,000 blades a month were being sold in the United States.

The American interest in industrial arts, given additional stimulus by the Exposition, was related to the notion that not only was the average home entitled to share the decorative furnishings of the American aristocracy, but further that each family could use its own talent and energy to ornament its own furnishings. “True decoration,” announced the catalog of the School of Design at Cincinnati University, “may be said to be the beautifying of useful things.… Construction may be regarded as the peculiar province of men; to beautify is as naturally the province of women. The practical art department aims to instruct those who will be artisans and artists … those who will produce and those who will buy.” It was generally presumed that interest in the industrial arts was the special province of cultured ladies; therefore, the schools of art and design that were founded within this rather narrow period (1867–1887) tended to concentrate on courses directed at them, ranging from nature drawing and design in the currently popular Queen Anne and Eastlake styles to practical instruction in pattern design, fret-sawing in wood and metal, wood-carving, needlework, and other similar skills. The avowed purpose of these courses was not only to enable one to “surround one’s self with one’s own creations and thus heighten the peculiar charm of the home” ([143], 538), but also to enable the graduates to build reputations of commercial value.

Walter Smith, who had come to America from England in 1870 to serve as director of art and education in the state of Massachusetts, observed the following: “if the United States is to gain and maintain a place in the markets of the world for manufactured articles of all description into which artistic design enters, … we must provide schools of art instruction and art museums in the great commercial and manufacturing centres of the country. And the sooner the manufacturers awaken to the necessity of this and act accordingly, the better it will be.” Smith was convinced that the place to start was by teaching drawing in the public schools as a language and not as an art—as an instrument rather than a plaything. In fact, he felt that drawing should be taught before writing. Smith also said that no line could be drawn between the fine and the industrial arts, because artists often select utilitarian objects upon which to apply their art. “Ornamental art,” he wrote, is “the fruition of industrial design” ([82], 475), but, since utility constitutes more than half of the value of the object, “faithful service” must come first, then “graceful service.” ([82], 514) Smith acknowledged that there was already a school of design in Philadelphia, and must have known not only that the School of Design of the University of Cincinnati had a student exhibition in the Centennial Exposition but also that the Russian exhibit included examples from the Stroganof School of Technical Drawing, established in 1860 with the “view of forming an intelligent class of designers and ornamenters for the work of manufactories and industrial establishments.”

Michael Thonet invented not only the process for making bentwood furniture, but also the machines and tools to manufacture it. He also designed the factory that housed the enterprise. Walter Smith described the furniture as “exceedingly light and graceful… especially adapted to use in summer-houses, where its lightness and coolness make it agreeable to the eye and touch.” Reference 82.


The foot-operated fret saw had a particular appeal to the Americans because it combined the labor-saving benefits of a machine (however simple) with rapid production of ornamental products. Furthermore, its association with the sewing machine made it acceptable for women to operate. Harper’s Monthly, March 1878.


This fret-sawn clock housing in bird’s-eye maple, ebony, mottled walnut, and ivory illustrates the capacity of the process for ornament. It was made for the Centennial by a student in the School of Design at Cincinnati University. Harper’s Monthly, March 1878.


The “Mohawk Dutchman wood-sawyer,” a popular attraction at the Centennial Exposition. His versatile demonstrations on the bandsaw reflected the current interest in the sort of architectural ornament that has become known as “Carpenter Gothic.” Reference 59.


President Ulysses S. Grant and the Emperor of Brazil started the great Corliss steam engine that served as the theme piece of the Centennial Exposition. The largest engine ever builtit symbolized the sweep toward industrialization that was transforming the United States. Reference 59.


Machinery Hail was a great shed that carried power from the Corliss engine by way of pulleys and belts to drive the machinery that was being demonstrated. Wilson, The Masterpieces of the Centennial International Exhibition, volume III.


The J. A. Fay company’s exhibition of woodworking machinery. Some of the machines were driven by open belts, others by belts beneath the floor. Scientific American, November 25, 1876.


The movement toward schools of art and design was well underway before Walter Smith came to America. Some were specialized private schools, such as the Minneapolis College of Art and Design (founded in 1867), the Art Institute of Chicago (1869), the Columbus College of Art (1870), and the Philadelphia College of Art (1876). Others were schools of art and/or design at private universities such as the University of Cincinnati (1870) and Syracuse University (1870). The Centennial Exposition provided the final incentive for the founding of the New York School of Decorative Arts (1877), the Rhode Island School of Design (1877), the Cleveland Institute of Art (1882), the Kansas City Art Institute (1882), and Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute (1887). Recognition should also be given to the fact that the Maryland Institute of Art in Baltimore (1826) and the Moore College of Art in Philadelphia (1844), which preceded these schools by decades, were probably more concerned with the fine arts.

The exhibit of the School of Design of the University of Cincinnati in the Women’s Pavilion at Philadelphia may have been typical of the work being done by the American schools in the industrial arts. Most of the 74 pieces that were shown were carved and fret-sawn products, ranging from a bedstead and a mantle to small inlaid boxes. In addition, there were designs for frescos and illuminations. The catalog lists 208 graduates of the school over an eight-year period, including some 50 women employed as lithographers, designers, sculptors, engravers, landscape painters, sign-painters and “stripers,” architects, decorators, turners, and in other jobs. Those who did not find a place in industry apparently turned their talents to their own homes.

It is surprising that, despite the occasional mention of the application of decoration to utilitarian products and the rare use of the term industrial design, the general aesthetic reference at the Centennial Exposition was to domestic and public furnishings rather than machines. Yet many of the newly invented machines of industry, transportation, and farming displayed cast-iron structures that were decorative in form, with gold striping and colored embellishments. Such attempts to make strange new products palatable were criticized by the taste establishment as irreverent pretense, but machine products were developing an inherent aesthetic that would one day discard such costuming.

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