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Elegance and the Middle Class

Published onApr 22, 2021
Elegance and the Middle Class

Our progress in these modern times then, consists in thisthat we have democratized the means and appliances of a higher life–that we have brought and are bringing more and more the masses of the people up to the aristocratic standard of taste and enjoyment and so diffusing the influence of splendor and grace over all minds.

Horace Greeley, 1853 ([39], 52)

In its first years the American republic was led mostly by men who, although they supported and defended the idea of equal privileges for all, had been themselves members of a colonial elite. The public posture of the Americans may have called for asceticism and self-denial, but their private dreams were to share the elegance and luxury of the personal and environmental furnishings of the higher classes of Europe. Those who could afford to do so satisfied their desires by importing original products from abroad. Those who could not had them duplicated in America, primarily by émigré English, French, and (later) German designers and craftsmen.

American manufacturers also had to “contend with one difficulty,” as James Fenimore Cooper observed, “that is not known to the manufacturers of other countries.” Wrote Cooper:

The unobstructed commerce of the United States admits of importations from all quarters, and of course, the consumer is accustomed to gratify his taste with the best articles. A French duke might be content to use a French knife or a French lock; but an American merchant would reject both: he knows that the English are better. On the other hand, an English dutchess (unless she could smuggle a little) might be content with an English silk; but an American lady would openly dress herself in silk manufactured at Lyons. The same is true of hundreds of other articles. The American manufacturer is therefore compelled to start into existence full grown, or nearly so, in order to command success. I think this peculiarity will have, and has had, the effect to retard the appearance of articles manufactured in this country, though it will make their final success as sure as their appearance will be sudden. When the manufacturers of America have once got fairly established, so that practice has given them skill, and capital has accumulated a little, there will be no fear of foreign competition. ([22], II, 328)

However, a weakness developed in American manufactures that still persists in most of the industrial arts. The American climate of open competition fed upon the ethnic ties and cultural nostalgia of the Americans in a way that gave imported articles an advantage in the marketplace. Therefore, manufacturers in this country found it to their advantage to copy the designs of the most popular imports rather than strike out on an uncharted course of their own. They had no need of trained American designers, it appeared, so long as each boat landing brought in the latest sources of aesthetic inspiration.

This circumstance had quite the opposite effect on those countries of Europe that were becoming increasingly dependent upon exports to the United States. They realized that they would have to produce goods that were consciously designed to be more attractive to foreign buyers. The artistic studies that had been part of the mechanics institutes were pulled out and organized as separate design schools in several European countries during the second quarter of the nineteenth century, primarily for the purpose of training artists for industry. In Great Britain the principles of industrial art (defined as manufactured products in which elements of art and style are essential to marketing) were championed by Henry Cole, who set out to show that “an alliance between fine art and manufacture would promote public taste” and that “elegant forms may be made not to cost more than inelegant ones.” Parliament assigned a select committee to examine “the best means of extending a knowledge of the arts and principles of design among the people,” and as a result the Normal School of Design (later to be known as the Royal College of Art) was established in 1837. The following year a committee of interested citizens in the important English manufacturing center of Manchester recommended that, since mechanics were already being excluded from classes at the design school in London, Manchester too should have a separate school for designers. Though they acknowledged that the mechanics institute in Manchester offered several courses in artistic drawing and hoped that these would be continued, they recommended “the formation of a society having for its sole and peculiar object to improve the arts of design, an object sufficient to occupy the whole time and attention of a society with reference to the improvement of those manufactures in which design is required; and also in the education of persons to direct the mechanical powers of this great community.” The committee further noted that “superiority in manufacturing depends, in a great measure, on the fortunate exercise of taste, economy, industry and invention,” and recommended the establishment of a school of design in Manchester “in order to enhance the value of the manufactures in this district, to improve the taste of the rising generation; to infuse into the public mind a desire for symmetry of form, and elegance of design; and to educate, for the public service, a highly intelligent class of artists.…” ([134], 129)

In 1840, President Alexander Dallas Bache of the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia described in the Journal of the Institute the program and structure of the Institute of Arts in Berlin, making particular note of the fact that it was supported by the combined efforts of government and private interests. He concluded his report with the expressed hope that “it will not be very long before the institution of seminaries, analogous in principle … will become an object of legislative regard in some, at least, of the United States.…” ([135], 46) And, from abroad, the essays of Horatio Greenough lent support to Bache’s plea for schools of design in America. He realized that the older countries of Europe had founded and supported schools of design not because they had been “invaded by a sudden love of the sublime and beautiful.” “I believe,” Greenough wrote, “that they who watch our markets and our remittances, will agree with me, that their object is to keep the national mints of America at work for themselves; and that the beautiful must, to some extent, be cultivated here, if we would avoid a chronic and sometimes an acute tightness of the money market. The statistics of our annual importation of wares, which owe their preference solely to design, will throw a light on this question that will command the attention of the most thrifty and parsimonious of our legislators.” Greenough expressed a “desire to see working Normal schools of structure and ornament, organized simply but effectively, and constantly occupied in designing for the manufacturers, and for all mechanics who need aesthetical guidance in their operations.” He was not certain to what extent the central government would be willing to support such a school, but expressed a hope that if it did not some of the states or private individuals would step in. Greenough suggested that a study of the matter “called for by Congress, on the amount of goods imported, which owe the favor they find here, to design, would show the importance of such schools in an economical point of view,” and stated the belief that such a report “would show that the schools which we refuse to support here, we support abroad, and that we are heavily taxed for them.” ([41], 21)

Neither the government of the United States nor the manufacturers of the time gave sufficient weight to the pleas of Bache and Greenough for the establishment of European-type design schools. In his 1854 report on American manufactures the Englishman George Wallis noted that only one design-related school in the United States, the Maryland Institute in Baltimore, was in any way close to the standards and objectives of European schools. The only other schools were primarily devoted to teaching young women in art as applied to the textile and wallpaper industries. The first of these was a private school, The Philadelphia School of Design, that was founded by the Franklin Institute in 1850 with courses teaching design and drawing in classical, mechanical, and oriental styles and ornament. Its success encouraged the establishment of similar schools in Boston in 1851 and New York in 1852. In general, manufacturers were aware of the value of teaching female designers to be decorators; thus they provided some support to these specialized schools and offered employment to qualified graduates.

Wallis made an interesting observation on a developing difference between European and American art education: In England, Wallis wrote, such education was directed at creating a class of artisans for industry, but the United States had “reached that point at which it has become desirable that originality of thought should be infused into [manufactured products] by means of the designer.” ([76], 297) Nevertheless, many decades were to pass before pressure for indigenous product aesthetics was to become great enough to awaken academic institutions and manufacturing industries to support the establishment of schools of industrial design. Though a succession of studies had recommended such schools over the years, it was evident that, for the time being, the growing nation preferred to meet its needs with imported aesthetics. American talent, it would seem, was not to be judged respectable until it had been bathed and perfumed in the latest cultural fragrance of the continent. Few were able to sense that an art of democratic manufactures was taking form in America—born out of necessity and economy, with a growing affection for the spare aesthetics of utilitarian products. For many years, the unique beauty of American products was to be ignored by those to whom aesthetic value was simply a layer of style.

One of the earliest schools of design, that of the Franklin Institute, was organized primarily to train young women who were deemed to be superior in skill and more sensitive to current ornamental styles. Wright, The Story of the Franklin Institute.Images

During the early decades of the democracy, American furnishings were primarily based on the neoclassical fashions of England and France. Furniture for the wealthy was generally imported, or handmade on this side of the Atlantic by immigrants like Charles Lannuier and Gabriel Quervelle from France and Joseph B. Barry from England, or else copied by American craftsmen from the imported design books of the Adams Brothers, George Hepplewhite, or Thomas Sheraton. Later the design books of George Smith and the Nicholson Brothers served as sources for the bolder forms and heavier style known as Greek Revival. By 1840 American cabinetmakers were producing their own style books, such as The Cabinet Maker’s Assistant by John Hall of Baltimore.

The emerging middle class in America struggled first for security and convenience; however, these goals were, for the most part, only stages to a higher standard of living. The common man of the democracy was not content to remain common. Having acquired the necessities of living, he hungered for its felicities. If he could not afford the unique treasures of the wealthy, he welcomed whatever semblance of the finer things of life that manufacturers could provide. Even so, he felt more comfortable if such domestic accessories as he purchased were identified for him as “practical luxuries.” Alexis de Tocqueville captured the dichotomy of middle-class taste:

It would be to waste the time of my readers and my own, if I strove to demonstrate how the general mediocrity of fortunes, the absence of superfluous wealth, the universal desire for comfort, and the constant efforts by which everyone attempts to procure it, make the taste for the useful predominate over the love of the beautiful in the heart of man. Democratic nations, amongst which all these things exist, will therefore cultivate the arts which serve to render life easy, in preference to those whose object is to adorn it. They will habitually prefer the useful to the beautiful, and they will require that the beautiful should be useful. ([86], II, 56)

Tocqueville’s perceptive insight into the aspirations of the middle classes lies close to the dynamism that moves democratic design. Over the two centuries that followed the Revolution, American philosophers and designers have made repeated efforts to achieve recognition of the alliance between the useful and the beautiful. Industrial design in the United States came into being as a result of just such a demand for sensitive individuals who could provide utilitarian objects with forms that would be meaningful as well as handsome.

American manufacturers reacted to the increasing demands of the middle class by developing machinery and processes to produce larger volumes of glasswares, furniture, oilcloth and floor coverings, wallpaper, lighting fixtures, clocks, and many other domestic products. Methods of manufacture that had been suitable for low-volume, labor-intensive production were modified to meet the opposite objectives of high-volume, low-labor production.

The invention and manufacture of “pressed glass” offers a good example of American ingenuity in increasing volume by transforming the original practice of blowing glasswares and then facet-cutting them to bring out the brilliance of the glass into a process of using cast-iron molds for pressing glasswares, pattern and all. This brought the general appearance (if not the ultimate quality) of cut glass within the financial reach of the average American, and by 1834 it had stimulated a reverse flow of glass products to England. Despite complaints that such products were cheap and would degenerate public taste for decades to come, American pressed glass has been elevated to the status of important antiques.

Of all furniture, the chair quickly became the dominant symbol of middle-class gentility. As now, it served notice of the level of taste of the householder. Therefore, chairmakers were especially responsive to increasing demands. In the transformation to quantity production, hand-carved legs gave way to stiffer ones with forms that could be produced by profile-cutting lathes that ensured uniformity at the hands of relatively unskilled factory workers. Seat and back elements became flatter, generally more rectangular in shape, and decorated with stenciled painting rather than carving.

Painted furniture was not new to the democracy, but now paint was used either to simulate the more expensive woods, to conceal the mismatched grain of inferior wood, or to provide a smoother base for the stenciled decoration used on “fancy” chairs. Fancy chairs had been developed originally in imitation of oriental lacquering. However, the neoclassic style of Adams followed by Hepplewhite and Sheraton had succeeded the Chinese influence. By the time American fancy-chair manufacturers began production in the early nineteenth century, these English designers were setting the aesthetic pace. Fancy chairs were produced in great quantities over the first half of the century, and as their prices came down they found their way into private homes and public places and on to the river steamboats. A good indication of the number of fancy-chair manufacturers is the fact that no fewer than 200 took part in the great civic parade in New York celebrating the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825. The most famous of the fancy-chair makers was Lambert Hitchcock (1795–1852), whose chairs may have been the first to be adapted to quantity production in the United States. He established a factory in 1818 in Connecticut to manufacture chair parts for others. Between 1828 and 1848 he was manufacturing his own chairs, and the settlement that grew up around his factory became known as Hitchcockville. (It was changed to Riverton in 1862, ten years after Hitchcock’s death.) The original factory was reopened in 1949 in response to the demand for Hitchcock chairs. At its peak, Hitchcock’s factory was producing as many as 15,000 chairs a year, some of which were sold at wholesale for as little as 25 cents each. At one time or another there were as many as 50 other manufacturers producing Hitchcock chairs, as the style came to be known generically. Today original Hitchcock chairs are often among the prized offerings at antique auctions—bringing bids of several hundred times their original cost—and stenciling, originally developed as an industrialized substitute for handwork, has been elevated to an American folk art.

Clockmaking was the next craft-based industry to be transformed by mass production in the early years of the nineteenth century. By 1840, American clocks were outselling British ones. A correspondent of the Rochester Democrat noted in a letter from Hartford, Connecticut, that 500,000 clocks were being manufactured annually in Hartford and that a quantity of clocks exported to Great Britain at an invoice price of $1.50 with a tariff of 20 percent had been seized in Liverpool on the ground that they were undervalued. They were released for sale only after evidence had been presented that they could, in fact, be manufactured at that low price and still provide a profit to the manufacturer. These were eight-day clocks, and since the item was unknown in England they were sold at auction for about $20 each—better than 1,000 percent over cost. These and many other American products that were manufactured to meet the demands of the middle class were produced in such quantities that they not only satisfied American markets but also found ready markets abroad, where their ingenuity and low cost gave them an undeniable appeal.

American pressed glasswares were invented to provide a democratic substitute for the far more expensive blown glass. However, as illustrated by this compote, soon the patterns in pressed glass developed a character of their own and could not be cut on a wheel. Corning Museum of Glass, Corning, N. Y.

In the early days of the republic it was not unusual for glass to be pressed into designs with patriotic themes, as in this plate. Corning Museum of Glass.

Democratized elegance, it would appear, had just as much appeal abroad as it had in the United States—if the price was right. Even so, the general prejudice still favored foreign imports. Percapita imports almost doubled between 1830 and 1840, largely because some areas of American manufacturing were not developing as fast as others. As a result, the federal government instituted in 1842 a new structure of restrictive tariffs that virtually eliminated duty-free imports by setting penalties (averaging 33 percent) on all foreign goods. The effect of the new tariffs on American manufacturing was startling. Within 10 years the production volumes of many items tripled and quadrupled. Numerous patents were issued for new machines and processes, as well as new products, as it became evident that the greatest market for manufactures lay in providing products that could be bought and used by the greatest number of people.

One area of nineteenth-century American enterprise that deserves particular attention, despite the fact that it was to a degree outside the headlong rush to industrialize, is represented by the ennobling philosophy of service before self expressed in the functional aesthetics of the Shakers and their products. This communistic theocracy of celibates, removed from the temptation of aristocratic pretension, emerged as a reprise of the Puritans. The Shakers were dedicated to the dogma that clarity of mind, precision of talent, and thrift of effort were the true paths to glory. Through all of their buildings, furniture, clothing, appliances, and farm products their manifesto shines as a beacon for democratic design: “[Let] it be plain and simple … unembellished with any superfluities, which add nothing to its goodness or durability.” In an extraordinary flowering of creative genius, the Shakers invented and produced appliances, mechanical devices, and accessories—many of them patented. Some of their simpler products were nests of oval boxes, flat corn brooms, and wooden clothespins. They even came up with a complete washing-machine system.

The Shakers endowed their furnishings with eternal grace. Unhappily, their philosophy of form seems to have taken root and flourished abroad more than it has in the United States. The success of Shaker products was entirely in tune with the seemingly insatiable public demand for comfort and convenience. However, while their vernacular products exhibited a spare elegance, the American public, it seems, was still infatuated with the aristocratic posture of English and continental styles and eagerly followed the fashions from abroad.

The extensive forests of young America stimulated the production of countless wooden products. “Fancy” or painted chairs by Lambert Hitchcock (1795–1852) were no exception. The chairs were much sought after by the general public as a symbol of domestic refinement. Index of American Design, National Gallery of Art.

Eli Terry, Seth Thomas, the Willard brothers, and other New England clockmakers adapted their craft to mass production and opened a rewarding new era in the clock industry. This shelf clock by Aaron Willard had a weight-driven movement that replaced the long pendulum. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Gift of Mrs. Mary D. B. Wilson in memory of Charles M. Wilson.

The Shaker slat-back chair represents the essence of the sect’s philosophy. “Beauty,” which they associated with worldly ornament, had no place in their lives—they considered it a waste of time and therefore morally repulsive. In compensation, however, their sense of form and proportion produced a quiet harmony that did not need embellishment. Index of American Design, National Gallery of Art.

Eating, like all other activities, was communal for the Shakers. This produced the need for large simple tables. Chairs and other small furnishings could be hung out of the way on wall-mounted strips of pegs. Andrews and Andrews, Shaker Furniture.

These oval boxes, made with pine bases and tops wrapped with a band of thin steamed birch, were products of the Shakers’ drive for perfection and glorification of work. The shaped ends and copper pinning of the strips suggest ornament. Andrews and Andrews, Shaker Furniture.

The clothespin, as conceived by the Shakers, was first sawn in long sections, then cut apart and rounded to avoid damage to clothes. Index of American Design, National Gallery of Art.

The Journal of the Franklin Institute, which reported all American patents for many years, shows a steady increase in those granted for domestic products (washing machines, churns, cooking stoves, and the like) relative to those issued to mechanical devices, scientific apparatus, and machines. The pressure for federal protection became so great that in 1836 Congress was obliged to revise its patent laws. It reestablished a Commissioner of Patents (who appointed examiners to review every application in order to determine the priority of the invention as well as its degree of novelty and utility), and set the period of monopoly on patents for 14 years with provision for extending it for 7 more years. This was changed in 1861 and now stands at 17 years with no renewal permitted. To assist the Patent Office in its new obligation, Congress also voted to establish a library and a gallery of models and specimens of manufactures and the like. However, later in 1836 a disastrous fire destroyed the Patent Office, and with it some 2,000 models, 9,000 drawings, and 230 books, and other records. Although Congress promptly appropriated $100,000 to rebuild the records and asked all those holding patents to redeposit their copies of issued patents and such other evidence as they had in the Patent Office, many valuable artifacts of American ingenuity were gone, never to be recovered.

Less than a decade later the Smithsonian Institution was established in Washington as a result of the bequest of James Smithson, an English scholar and scientist, to the United States “for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.” The Smithsonian has in principle become the repository of American arts and sciences; however, it provides only a modest record of the vast contributions that the applied sciences and design have made to the United States. The main record is scattered in hundreds of small community and industrial museums and private collections across the country, little of it properly documented. Even the largest and most successful American companies have made little or no scholarly effort to properly document their progress and achievements. The United States has made only modest moves toward the establishment of a national collection of industry’s great contribution to the national culture. Most of the collections that do exist are displayed as curios rather than as documents of the philosophy of design that they represent. Such scholarship as exists tends to be either transparent or opaque—seldom translucent.

The “castle” of the Smithsonian Institution, located on the mall in Washington, D.C. Author’s collection.

By 1840 manufacturers had realized that what Bishop refers to as the “Polite, Fine and Ornamental Arts” had become an indispensible ingredient in the success of domestic furnishings. They realized that, although the consumer might not always understand the mechanism or construction of a manufactured product, he felt that he could always depend upon what his senses told him about it. They realized that the consumer would always seek to elevate his taste by purchasing fashionable products that reflected a higher level of aesthetic appreciation. A few manufacturers concentrated their efforts on out-and-out cultural products such as pianos, melodeons, and seraphines for music in the home and printing and daguerreotype processes for visual gratification. Many others, however, began to pay particular attention to the notion that artistic values applied to utilitarian manufactures might also increase their saleability.

Thus began the long, sometimes frustrating but always exciting game of style between consumer and manufacturer. The consumer seeks to advance his taste forward and upward, not only for his private satisfaction but also for the approbation of his fellow citizens. The manufacturer attempts to anticipate the consumer’s often volatile preferences and seeks either to place before him the exact style of product that he desires and will purchase or to increase the consumer’s dependence upon the aesthetic judgment of the manufacturer. This contest continues unabated as another element in the American design ethic. Though it has resulted in many excesses and more than a few tragedies, it has served to hasten the transformation of abstract science into consumable technology and to nourish an indigenous American culture.

One characteristic of the American consumer that was pointed out at mid-century was that, because he expected an article to last for only a limited time, he was reluctant to pay a premium for higher quality. Nevertheless, in his conviction that industry and technology were constantly improving products under the pressure of open competition, he insisted on evidence of such improvement in the appearance of the manufactured product from year to year. No change implied that the product was falling behind.

In a curious way that is not normally understood by critics of American popular culture, manufacturing introduced a semblance of the quality of rarity that is normally associated with aristocratic products. The ever-increasing variety in patterns and detailing and the deliberate seasonal changes facilitated by mechanization made possible a kind of contrived uniqueness that could be presumed to allow for the expression of individual taste. That this often produced a tasteless, almost desperate melange of styles was not so important as the promise that machine-made culture need not result in aesthetic homogenization. More disturbing, however, was the fact that design was becoming such an important element in the success of manufactured products that it encouraged the imitation, if not the outright piracy, of those designs that were most successful in the marketplace. (Incidentally, whereas Dunlap in 1834 had anticipated today’s definition of design as the plan of the whole and had noted that it could be applied to the solution of every problem from a necessity to a nicety, conventional thinking of his period associated design with the fine arts. Therefore, as the application of art and style to manufactures became important to their marketing, the word design was used to identify such decorative treatments as were applied superficially to the form and surface of a product—be it one normally expected to have a patterned or textured surface, such as a fabric, a wallpaper, or a floor covering, or be it a utilitarian appliance or machine.)

The reconstructed Patent Office of the United States had not, however, begun to issue protection for the ornamental design of products or for their distinctive appearance. It would seem that American manufacturers were too dependent upon imported inspiration to tolerate any interference with their practice of borrowing and putting out for sale any newly imported design, especially in the area of fabrics, as soon as it became or threatened to become popular. American mills, operating behind a shield of domestic tariffs, were so adept at copying foreign designs and so quick to get them to market that the best of the imports were quickly beaten out of their fair market.

Design piracy became such a problem in international trade that other countries developed legislation in an attempt to curtail it. England passed in 1839 “An Act to Secure to Proprietors of Design for Articles of Manufacture the Copyright of such Designs for a limited time.” William Carpinael, a Londoner of the time, described the circumstances that brought on this first such act:

In many branches of our manufactures much money is annually expended in the designing and producing of patterns for which, formerly, no legal protection could be obtained; and it constantly happened that when a pattern was brought out in any department of manufacture, which was approved of by the public, other persons, engaged in the same trade, quickly copied the successful patterns, and having paid nothing for the design, the copyist could bring his articles into the market at a reduced price, thereby depriving the original proprietor of all reward. Thus the enterprising and talented manufacturer of integrity had less chance of success than those in the same trade, who, employing no skill or taste, were willing to depend on copying the production of others. (16, 3)

In 1843 the act was expanded to cover not only flat pattern designs but also “any article of manufacture, having reference to some purpose of utility, and that, whether it be for the whole of such shape or configuration, or only for a part thereof.” However, according to Carpinael, these acts did not apply to “any mechanical action, principle, contrivance, application or adaptation except insofar as these may be dependent upon, and inseparable from, the shape or configuration or the material of which the article may be composed.”

The passage of the Design Act did not go unnoticed in the United States. Trade between the United States and England was so interlaced that any legal action taken by one country to protect the original design of its products must certainly lead to reciprocal moves on the part of the other. The United States Commissioner for Patents, therefore, proposed a similar law in his report to the Congress in 1841:

The justice and expediency of securing the exclusive benefit of new and original designs for articles of manufacture, both in the fine and useful arts, to the authors and proprietors thereof, for a limited time, are also respectfully presented for consideration. Other nations have granted this privilege, and it has afforded mutual satisfaction alike to the public and to individual applicants.… Competition among manufacturers for the latest patterns prompts to the highest effort to secure improvements, and calls out the inventive genius of our citizens. Such patterns are immediately pirated, at home and abroad.… If protection is given to designers, better patterns will, it is believed, be obtained since the impossibility of concealment at present forbids all expense that can be avoided. It may well be asked, if authors can so readily find protection in their labors, and inventors of the mechanical arts so easily secure a patent to reward their efforts, why should not discoverers of designs, the labor and expenditure of which may be far greater, have equal privileges afforded them? ([136], 276)

As a result of this proposal, Congress passed, on August 29, 1842, an “Act to Promote the Progress of the Useful Arts” that permitted the Commissioner of Patents to issue design patents granting a limited monopoly to qualified applicants for their design concepts, including among other elements “any new and original shape or configuration of any article of manufacture not known or used by others before.” ([137], 352)

The Journal of the Franklin Institute for November 1842 acknowledged that the new act would give great impetus to the development of design in America, and in a subsequent issue began the regular publication of patents. In the first year, 1843, fourteen design patents were granted, the first for a bust of Robert Burns and the next three a design to be cast in metal as an ornament to surround stoves, a design for a floor oilcloth, and a figure for ingrain carpeting. That same year almost 500 patents were issued for other inventions. Within 10 years, the annual number of design patents had increased to 100 (compared with 2,000 mechanical patents). The annual number of design patents issued did not reach 2,000 until 1920, but a surge of interest in styling and industrial design more than doubled the number of design patents to more than 4,500 a year by the mid-1920s. On the eve of World War II the flood of design patents reached its maximum of 6,500 a year. Since then, as the effectiveness of existing design-patent law has been questioned, the annual number has fallen back to some 2,000. There have been repeated attempts to provide more effective design legislation; however, the number of manufacturers in the United States who depend upon borrowed design is still greater than those who would prefer to be originators. It must be pointed out that imitation tends to destroy initiative and may in the end make a slave of the imitator to the same degree that it makes a pauper out of the innovator.

Over the years great battles have been waged over product aesthetics. Whenever there is an unusual profit to be made through a desirable form, manufacturers find themselves locked in slashing conflict over its paternity. Because the patent commissioners are not permitted to pass judgment on the quality of a design (only on its presumed originality), designers are often forced to exaggerate the form of their expression so that its character will be inescapable to the commissioners. Federal law, therefore, encourages novelty and extravagance rather than simplicity and eloquence. A good design idea tends to be coarsened as it comes down the ladder of taste to a broader consumer base. In the end, the pure design idea is transformed into a bizarre caricature of its original self. Moreover, in its myopia, the U.S. Patent Office has carefully disassociated the form of an object from its utility, so that although form may indeed follow function, as Lamarck and others proposed, it is prevented by law from ever catching up.

The American public’s infatuation with domestic refinement and its struggle to elevate its standard of living brought out not only manufacturers interested in feeding its desires, but also the professional tastemakers that Russell Lynes has written about so searchingly. By the middle of the nineteenth century these new professionals realized that the middle class hungered for guidance in its efforts to achieve a higher level of culture, and they established a unique position between the consumer and the producer. They took it as their mission to be informed about and sensitive to changes in the cultural climate and to transform their observations into salable commodities—personal counsel to wealthy patrons, private advice to manufacturers, and published guidance for an aesthetically insecure public. These counselors of culture have become an important part of the American design ethic, and often their self-fulfilling prophecies have had a profound influence on the quality and character of the American environment.

Andrew Jackson Downing (1815–1852), one of the first American tastemakers, developed the basic formula by which most operate. They begin by disparaging an existing fashion in order to clear the way for a new one that they can then praise as more honest than its predecessor and therefore more sensible and appropriate for those who wish to be up to the moment. Until Downing (originally a landscape architect) came along, the orderly classicism of the Federal style had dominated American domestic and public buildings and was considered eminently suitable for the young republic. However, Downing’s sensitive mind caught the change in the air, and he attacked the “tasteless temples” as examples of architectural imperialism. He built his own house in the Elizabethan style, later to be known as Gothic Revival, on the ground that since every man’s home was his castle it should look like one. Downing recommended the castellated Gothic for those who could afford it and a “rural” Gothic for the more modest homes of the middle class.

Andrew Jackson Downing’s cottage, in the Rural Gothic style now referred to as “Carpenter Gothic,” emulated in wood the stone tracery of the original Gothic. The sensible plan placed a bedroom on the first floor for the old and infirm and pushed the kitchen out the back to get the heat, moisture, and odors of food preparation out of the way. A. J. Downing, Cottage Residences, Rural Architecture and Landscape Gardening.

The Gothic impulse permeated the American environment as a rejection of the implied imperialism of the classical. This chair and stand combined the Gothic and rococo styles in a self-conscious yet not inelegant attempt at stylish comfort. Metropolitan Museum of Art. Edgar J. Kaufmann Charitable Foundation and Ronald S. Kane.

This whimsical chair by German immigrant George Hunzinger combines the designer-manufacturer’s inventive mixture of Renaissance revival styles with the influence of the machine process. Metropolitan Museum of Art. Gift of Mrs. Florence Weyman.

This design for a library bookcase by Charles L. Eastiake, in the Gothic style that he championed, reflects his conviction that sturdy furniture with pegged joints and no artificial finishing was “honest” and should “suggest some fixed principles of taste for the popular guidance of those who are not accustomed to hear such principles defined.” Reference 29.

His two books on landscape gardening and cottage residences proved invaluable to those who were waiting for aesthetic guidance. Downing proposed that Americans could not be happy with utilitarian design and that they would happily accept higher standards. He preached that the young democracy had to cultivate those arts that elevate and dignify the character. His own writings and those of others in the same vein—some illustrated by Alexander Jackson Davis (1803–1892), another prophet of culture—were accepted as gospel by an aspiring public and lent force to the race to keep up with the latest styles, not only in architecture and furnishings but also in industrial products.

After mid-century, the influence of the tastemakers increased all the more as steam-powered and belt-driven machines spewed out lathe turnings and jig-sawn gingerbread for homes and furnishings, molders cranked out iron castings for buildings, stoves, locomotives and furniture, and stampers and pressers produced metal and glass wares by the thousands. “The taste industry,” as Lynes pointed out, had “gradually become essential to the operation of our American brand of capitalism.” ([61], 4)

In all likelihood the most influential voice of the era was that of the British tastemaker Charles Lock Eastlake, whose book Hints on Household Taste, published in England in 1868 and three years later in the United States, was hailed as a manifesto for reform in the decorative arts. True to type, Eastlake first condemned the volatile styles of the day as insincere and then preached a panacea of simplicity, humility, and economy in the design of objects to replace the wanton extravagance of revival styles. His doctrine promised an escape from the treadmill of style for anyone who had cultural courage and for any manufacturer who sensed a promise of fresh profit in Eastlake’s concepts. Charles Perkins of Boston, who edited the American version of Eastlake’s book, found in it a particular message for his countrymen because, as he wrote, “we borrow at second-hand and do not pretend to have a national taste. We take our architectural forms from England, our fashions from Paris, the patterns of our manufactures from all parts of the world, and make nothing really original but trotting wagons and wooden clocks.” ([61], 104) However, Perkins too, by duplicating Eastlake’s ideas for Americans, was contributing to the American belief that Europe must be the fountainhead of American culture.

Despite the tasteful romanticism of Downing and the moralistic persuasion of Eastlake and his American disciples, the great Centennial Exposition that capped this period failed to show genuine aesthetic progress and made it painfully evident that the country was still aesthetically immature, at least in matters of design.


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