The Emergence of the American System
The Emergence of the American System 1790–1860
Most extreme in this regard were the New England Puritans, who regarded themselves as God’s chosen people and sought to build a spiritual ‘city upon a hill’. Even in Virginia, settled for commercial motives, the concept of a grand design proved compelling. Protesting against imperial controls in the 1770s, Thomas Jefferson described a
tyrannical ‘design’ to rob colonists of traditional English liberties. If God no longer directed events, then Enlightenment rationalists assumed that conscious human intention must be shaping society’s course. Nothing could happen by chance. Everything happened ‘by design’. Such uses of the word design might seem unrelated to the design of material artefacts, but there is indeed a connection. The Puritans anticipated a spiritual redemption of the material realm, counter to traditional wisdom which had held it to be unchanging and unregenerate. Reacting likewise against the stasis of medieval society, the patriots of the American Revolution sought to apply reason to
create a society open to political experiment and social change. Such beliefs gave meaning to the experiences of ordinary men and women as they made their livings in the New World. Americans were prepared to participate actively in transforming the material environment—a process that involved them in design at every turn.
The myth of colonial self-sufficiency
Most North American colonists of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries lived off the land as farmers. Even into the twentieth century, long after manufacturing and commerce had claimed most workers, many Americans continued to think of their nation as rooted in agriculture.
But the self-sufficient, individualist yeoman farmer, famously celebrated by Jefferson in 1787 as the sole guardian of national virtue and independence because he remained free of debt and beholden to no one, unlike the industrial workers of Europe, was mostly a myth. Even during the earliest years of colonization, when few people lived
beyond a subsistence level, most depended on others in the colonies 20 the emergence of the american system, 1790‒1860 and in Britain for material goods essential to survival or to self-respect.
Many colonists, especially in New England, eked out a living raising foods for their own consumption. But New Englanders also harvested raw materials such as furs, fish, timber, and pitch for trade with Britain. Farmers in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania produced wheat for export to other colonies and to Britain. Self-reliance failed most notoriously in the southern colonies, where planters relied on African slaves for intensive labour required to grow tobacco, indigo, and—later—cotton for export. In return, by 1750 the colonists were receiving a steady stream of manufactured goods from Britain: iron tools, hardware, nails, tinware, earthenware, glassware, pewter, window glass, clocks, carpets, bolts of cloth, buckles, and buttons.
At first only wealthy merchants in the seaports or the wealthiest southern planters could enjoy an array of imported goods. By the eve of the Revolution, however, they had trickled down to a wider market whose customers considered them no longer as luxuries but as necessities, or at least as things they could hope some day to possess— in effect, as objects of consumer desire just out of reach. For him the solution was not the individual self-sufficiency of Jefferson’s yeoman farmer but a national self-sufficiency derived from domestic manufactures and the mutual cooperation of trade. Coxe’s overheated rhetoric suggested a fear of becoming too comfortably involved with the things of the material world. This ambivalence coloured American perceptions of ‘finery’, style and fashion, and—later—design. The work ethic of production that marked American culture even into the twentieth century masked
a fear that people became weak and passive as they yielded to the attractions of consumption.
Colonial Americans had lived simply, however, and many continued to do so after independence. But they also relied on craftspeople or artisans as sources for many goods essential to even the simplest lifestyle. Although the first colonists ground their own corn and wheat by hand, in most districts there was a miller using water power to turn
large grindstones. Sawyers and their mills were equally important, as were blacksmiths, carpenters, coopers, shoemakers, tanners, and eventually weavers, tailors, hatters, and cabinetmakers. Many artisans were itinerant, stopping only long enough to satisfy local demand. Others who could not survive by their craft alone earned much of their living the emergence of the american system, 1790‒1860 21 through farming. Many villages supported several such individuals, bartering their work for that of others and for agricultural produce.
In port cities like Philadelphia, Boston, and New York, a diversified market economy developed by the mid-1700s. Specialized artisans plied their crafts in response to expanding consumer demand. Rapid population growth stimulated new construction, which gave employment to carpenters, masons, bricklayers, plasterers, and painters.
Other artisans earned their living as candle makers, saddle makers, silversmiths, clockmakers, engravers, printers, and, when social leaders sought reassurance of their status, as portrait painters. In 1792 a British visitor credited cosmopolitan Americans for being as advanced as Britons in the pursuit of style.
This comment suggested that cultural independence did not immediately follow political independence. At least into the 1830s and 1840s, when the rise of Jacksonian democracy coincided with the awakening of romantic nationalism, most Americans looked across the Atlantic for cultural guidance. But not everyone who sought to maintain appearances could afford furniture and tableware from Britain. Even many among the wealthy had to accept furnishings made in America. With city-dwellers pursuing the latest London styles, urban craftsmen satisfied
the demand by directly copying imported goods or by borrowing motifs from pattern books such as Thomas Chippendale’s Gentleman and Cabinet-maker’s Director (1754). Chairs and cupboards made in Philadelphia or New York eventually reached the provinces, where they inspired local woodworkers to produce furniture that was meant
to evoke up-to-date style, though it only faintly echoed the original British models.
Urban aspirations penetrated small towns and rural areas as fairto-middling folks demanded more and better things than the bare necessities they had traditionally provided for themselves or obtained from neighbours. Anecdotal evidence appeared in 1787 in a popular magazine that described the marriage preparations of three sisters
living on a farm near Philadelphia. The eldest, married in 1780, had to spin the family’s best wool and flax to make her own shifts, stockings, and gowns. Two years later, however, the mother travelled to Philadelphia
to buy her second daughter ‘a calico gown, a calamanco petticoat, 22 the emergence of the american system, 1790‒1860 a set of stone teacups, a half-dozen pewter teaspoons, and a teakettle’— none of which the mother had ever possessed. Three years after that, the youngest received ‘a silk gown, silk for a cloak, a lookingglass,
china, tea-gear, and other finery’. Far from being coerced to consume things they did not need, this Pennsylvania farm family— and thousands of others like them—hungered for material goods and actively sought them out. The last thing they wanted was the selfsufficiency of Jefferson’s archetypal yeoman.
This rising consumer demand generated social and economic pressures that transformed the material conditions of everyday life in the early nineteenth century. The process of making things changed as traditional craft methods evolved into machine-based factories staffed by unskilled labour. The process of acquiring things changed as warehouses, retail shops, and networks of peddlers replaced the traditional face-to-face meeting of artisan and customer. Developing unevenly here and there, these new forms of production and consumption comprised an ‘American System’ so unprecedented that a visiting delegation of British engineers in the 1850s coined that phrase to refer to it. Mediating between production and consumption, though no one knew quite how to talk about it, was design. Confronted with the challenge of satisfying a faceless multitude, makers and sellers of manufactured goods began to pay attention—at first naively and awkwardly— to appearance, attractiveness, and appropriateness. From the
outset, design thus involved a confusion of motives. An emphasis on more than simple function suggested that design addressed a democratic people’s desire not only to emulate those of higher social status but also to outshine them.
From craft to mechanized production More than any other factor, the great western migration across the
continent—a chaotic influx of varied peoples—determined the material parameters of everyday life in the United States. Between 1790 and 1860 the population increased from nearly four million to more than 31 million. At the same time population density more than doubled as people gravitated towards towns and cities where they rubbed elbows with diversity, aspired to possess more than they could personally make, and learned how to put on the appearance of enhanced social status in fluid, impersonal situations. An expanding population stimulated consumer demand for manufactured goods, challenging producers to devise innovative methods for supplying an ever higher volume of products. Unlike population growth in Europe, which was constrained by enclosed land, entrenched aristocracies, and relative scarcity, American growth during the early nineteenth century was surrounded by abundance and optimism. New the emergence of the american system, 1790‒1860 23 households required a steadily increasing supply of furniture, housewares, domestic tools, and farming implements. As if rising consumer
demand were not challenging enough for artisans and craftspeople, they also suffered an acute labour shortage. Farming attracted young men who would otherwise have entered apprenticeships and siphoned off skilled European immigrants who abandoned craft training to seek fortunes in the fertile soil of Ohio or Illinois.
Struggling to overcome labour shortages and meet runaway consumer demand, artisans and entrepreneurs devised the manufacturing side of the American System. For an individual manufacturer, the challenge was to produce a greater number of things—guns, clocks, or chairs, for example—in a fixed period of time, using unskilled labour,
and without sacrificing the quality consumers expected. The solution involved rationalizing the steps involved in manufacture and mechanizing as many as possible. In traditional craft production, a single artefact took shape under the direction of a master craftsman who personally carried out or guided his apprentices in carrying out a
series of operations involving different hand tools in a sequence that varied considerably with each individual artefact. The American System involved transferring these imprecise actions to a carefully sequenced series of specialized machine tools (milling machines, drills, presses, and lathes), each performing a single action so unvaryingly that it could be operated by a relatively unskilled worker, and so precisely that it yielded a series of nearly identical objects. The intuitive intelligence of the craftsman yielded to the rational intelligence of the mechanic who organized the precise, repetitive motions of a series of machines.
John H. Hall (1781–1841) finally made good on Whitney’s promise in 1824 by delivering to the government 1,000 breech-loading rifles with fully interchangeable parts. In designing his machine tools, Hall developed a means of assuring precise dimensions as a part moved 24 the emergence of the american system, 1790‒1860 through a sequence of mechanical operations. The challenge was to overcome a multiplier effect in which a minor dimensional imprecision introduced by one machine became a major functional distortion when amplified by subsequent operations of other machines. His solution involved giving each piece of work a single register point at which it
was clamped to each machine tool in the production sequence. Each tool thus started its work from the same fixed reference point, and Hall avoided the cumulative effects of random errors.
Although interchangeability of parts was to transform industry in the twentieth century, historians have exaggerated its significance to nineteenth-century manufacturing. Such a degree of precision appealed
to government arms purchasers who could ignore high cost as they sought reliable performance under rigorous conditions. However, mechanics and entrepreneurs who expanded the American System to such consumer goods as clocks, reapers, sewing machines, and bicycles rarely sought interchangeability. Almost all manufacturers employed
workers called ‘fitters’ who filed each part to the tolerances required for the emergence of the american system, 1790‒1860 25 proper assembly. Not even the famous revolvers of Samuel Colt (1814–62) boasted interchangeability because, unlike armies ordering thousands of identical guns, individual customers had no need for that
feature and could not afford it. The real attraction of the American System was mechanization. Makers of consumer goods rationalized production and increased output of goods in the face of rising consumer demand. By transferring skill from human beings to machine tools, they could employ unskilled workers, often recent immigrants
who tended to quit as soon as they had saved enough money to outfit themselves as farmers and move westward, where they would in turn contribute to rising consumer demand.
The debate over a functional ‘American vernacular’ There was an urban class of merchants, manufacturers, financiers, and other entrepreneurs with a cosmopolitan interest in the latest fashions in fabrics and furniture from Europe, whose taste preferences may have exercised a trickle-down effect on the rest of the nation. The economic historian Nathan Rosenberg, however, has argued that most Americans were middling people with ‘a relative simplicity of taste and a stress upon functionalism in design and structure’, whose demands could be satisfied by a narrow range of goods.4 This emphasis on democratic simplicity and efficiency is typical of interpretations of the
cultural roots of design and material culture in the US—though often subtly modified by the observation that a frontier people tended to cut corners in their haste to develop the land, even as its abundance encouraged waste and impermanence.
American engineering practices of the nineteenth century diverged sharply from those of Europe. In house construction massive timber framing with painstaking mortise-and-tenon joints yielded to the balloon frame’s forest of thin lightweight studs and joists quickly nailed together. A similar divergence marked railway construction.
While British engineers made deep cuts through hills and erected stone arches over valleys to keep tracks on the level, Americans threw up makeshift timber trestles when they had to, but otherwise they laid track along the rising and falling contours of the land. This approach required an overall elimination of weight, with light, flexible rails and locomotives mounted on wheel trucks capable of swivelling on sharply curving track. Visiting the Baldwin locomotive works in Philadelphia in 1838, the Scots engineer David Stevenson (1815–86) admired ‘fine
workmanship’ in all parts ‘indispensable to . . . efficient action’ but noticed that ‘external parts, such as the connecting rods, cranks, framing, and wheels, were left in a much coarser state than in engines of British manufacture’. Wondering why American ships were ‘built . . . to last for only a short time’, Alexis de Tocqueville (1805–59) was, 1790‒1860 told that ‘rapid progress’ would render ‘the finest vessel . . . almost useless if it lasted beyond a few years’.
European observers concluded that practical considerations also took precedence in consumer goods. Francis Grund (1805?–63), a factfinding German, declared that American furniture was better than any in Europe. He singled out New England rocking chairs as ‘the ne plus ultra’ of furniture—not for their admirable ‘elegance’ but for their
‘excellent adaptation to the purpose for which they are intended’.
Comments from two British sources, a London journalist and a newly arrived immigrant, represented a typical range of European opinion.
Speaking generally, the journalist praised ‘democratic’ American industry for rejecting ‘pomp and magnificence’ and choosing instead to provide ‘for the masses, and for wholesale consumption’. The immigrant, more grounded in immediate realities, observed that Americans had ‘improved almost every object involving mechanical skill, from a
stay-lace to a steam-boat’. But design improvements extended beyond function to more intangible qualities. From tables and chairs to brooms and brushes, ‘articles of domestic use’ made in America were ‘lighter and more tasteful than similar articles in the “old country”’.
Even de Tocqueville, the French traveller who published the most renowned analysis of Jacksonian democracy in the 1830s, meditated on the ‘virtuous materialism’ of Americans.
Pondering the nation’s abundance and rising population, de Tocqueville observed that as ‘conditions of men . . . become more and more the emergence of the american system, 1790‒1860 27 equal, the demand for manufactured commodities becomes more general and extensive’. With ‘poor or ignorant handicraftsmen’ overwhelmed
by ‘fresh demands . . . on all sides’, the initiative passed to ‘large establishments’ organized by a new class of capitalists employing ‘a strict division of labor’. At first glance, de Tocqueville seemed to agree that this new system of ‘greatest speed’ and ‘lowest cost’ promoted simplicity of design. They preferred ‘the useful to the beautiful’ and required that ‘the beautiful should be useful’. However, de Tocqueville also noticed that quality
suffered under this system. As evidence he cited the pocket watch, formerly a well-crafted precision instrument so expensive that only a wealthy man could afford one. Although new manufacturing techniques had democratized the pocket watch, they had also cheapened its quality. The aristocratic Frenchman scornfully noted that most
watches were no longer ‘worth much’ now that ‘everybody has one in his pocket’.
To make matters worse, de Tocqueville observed that status anxiety often drove democratic Americans to pursue illusions of quality they could not afford. People who were rising in a fluid society experienced material desires growing ‘faster than their fortunes’, while those who were slipping down retained desires they could no longer satisfy.
Whether rising or falling, members of a generally expanding middle class embraced a ‘hypocrisy of luxury’ and sought products endowed with superficially ‘attractive qualities . . . they do not in reality possess’.
Far from retaining frontier simplicity, the ‘arts’ in America made a virtue of ‘imposture’. Entrepreneurs created such cheap impressions of wealth as ‘imitation diamonds . . . easily mistaken for real ones’.
Opposing the old provincial need to survive on as little as possible, according to de Tocqueville, was a democratic ‘confusion of all ranks’ in which ‘everyone hopes to appear what he is not’. Americans of shifting status acquired clothes, furnishings, and other possessions whose broadly fashionable cut or extravagant decorative motifs conveyed
often misleading impressions of strong personal identity and solid material worth.
From the early nineteenth century to the present day, an emphasis on superficial effects has marked popular American design, which tends to exhibit a baroque exuberance of forms, materials, and colours.
From the cast-iron kitchen stoves of de Tocqueville’s time, covered in fanciful geometric or allegorical ornament, to the marbleized Formica plastic laminate of the 1950s, Americans have gloried in design that offered just a little bit more—and then some. This preference has often appeared gratuitous or even un-American, especially to midtwentieth- century historians who valued functionalism. In 1948, for, 1790‒1860 example, John A. Kouwenhoven (1909–90) identified ‘a democratictechnological vernacular’ style whose functional simplicity, in his opinion, exemplified the best, most typically American examples of ‘the design of useful things’. Such artefacts were distinct from those gaudy objects that through the years had aped the ornate traditions of European decorative arts. Kouwenhoven deplored a nineteenthcentury tendency to emulate European goods because their contrived artificiality and lush ornament violated what he conceived as America’s natural simplicity. According to de Tocqueville’s shrewd assessment, however, the democratic ‘passion for physical comforts’ was expansive enough to embrace both functional simplicity and decorative extravagance— leading to a confusion of material virtues and vices that puzzled Kouwenhoven and which continues to perplex those who comment on American design.
Eventually he learned he had to attend to visual appearance when marketing goods that were substantial enough to embody the status of their purchasers. Hitchcock learned his craft traditionally as apprentice to a cabinetmaker at Litchfield, Connecticut. After he became an independent chair maker in 1818, the combined effects of rising consumer demand, labour scarcity, and difficult rural markets challenged him to do more with less. He used water power to operate mechanical saws (for cutting out parts) and lathes (for turning rungs and legs). His chairs were constructed of local birch, maple, and pine, and had rush seats woven from local cat’s-tail reeds. Hitchcock’s genius lay both in high-volume mechanization of chair making and in an innovative use of peddlers, with networks extending west and south from Connecticut.
For them he prepared inexpensive kits of disassembled chair parts, light and tightly packed, which farmers as far away as South Carolina could purchase and assemble in do-it-yourself fashion.
This marketing ploy was so effective that demand for his chairs outstripped the ability of peddlers to satisfy it. As a result, Hitchcock built a larger factory in 1826 and was soon shipping 15,000 chairs annually down the Connecticut River to New York and from there to other eastern ports. By then, the backwoods chair maker had discovered the usefulness of design or styling. This desire for style strongly influenced another functional object, the inexpensive mass-produced shelf clock, whose purpose of marking time’s passage declared the most humble
owner to be in step with the modern era. The wooden shelf clock was the emergence of the american system, 1790‒1860 33 an innovative product whose manufacture and marketing exemplified the American System applied to consumer goods.
Clocks for the world
Clocks remained luxury goods into the nineteenth century. The face might come from an old pewter plate, with
hands shaped and hammered from spoon handles. The result was a precision instrument, a unique mechanism with each part exactly fitted to mesh with all others. Each clock was ‘bespoke’ in advance for a patron who separately commissioned a cabinetmaker to fashion a wooden case, often richly inlaid and ornately carved according to current furniture styles. The result was a handsome instrument, usually six feet (about two metres) high and weighing a hundred pounds (45 kg), often a wealthy household’s most expensive possession.
34 the emergence of the american system, 1790‒1860 All this was changed by Eli Terry (1772–1852), a clockmaker whose innovations sped up the manufacturing process, lowered the cost, expanded the market, and democratized the clock. After about 1800, frustrated by a shortage of customers for his luxury product and influenced by local clockmakers of German descent, Terry abandoned brass and began making movements with wooden parts. While still hand-crafted, these wooden movements were cruder, less precise, and easier to produce. They ran for only 30 hours instead of the standard eight days, but they weighed less and could be sold for half the price of a traditional clock. A whole new market opened up. This changeover eased the labour shortage because Terry could hire farm boys familiar with wood as a material.
Independently following the logic of military arms manufacture. After a year spent outfitting a water-powered factory, Terry made good on his promise. In moving from craft work to mass production, Terry so completely transformed his business that every middling person in America could aspire to own a clock—and thereby to assume the status traditionally indicated by such a possession.
Terry’s other major innovation responded to the needs of peddlers and their customers. Despite a lighter, cheaper mechanism, his standard clock of 1810 was bulky to transport and required any selfrespecting purchaser to hire a carpenter to construct a six-foot (twometre) cabinet to house it (though an uncased clock could be hung on
a wall with its pendulum swinging free). After several years of work, in 1816 Terry received a patent for a compact clock only 20 inches high, 14 inches wide, and 4 inches deep (50 by 35 by 10 cm). Its wooden movement was enclosed in a simple wooden case designed to sit on a shelf, thus eliminating the need to pay extra for a cabinet. This socalled shelf clock cost nothing more to produce and was easier for peddlers to transport. Terry’s immediate success provoked competitors to violate his patent and take advantage of the seemingly limitless potential
of democratic demand.
By some accounts that was the end of the story. But in fact competition forced Terry and his imitators to focus on style, even in a cheap mass-market product. In the same year that Terry patented the 30-hour shelf clock, he hired as a case maker Chauncey Jerome (1793–1868), who had already designed and built cabinets for another clockmaker. The resulting cabinet, in one historian’s dismissive opinion, was ‘nothing more than the original box clock design surrounded with some molding and painted glass’.11 Yet that was the point. Easily created with powerassisted
tools and inexpensive veneers, the pillar-and-scroll cabinet transformed a simple, cheap, crude clock into a miniature expression of the neoclassical style that defined high fashion for cosmopolitan Bostonians or Philadelphians. By 1820, Terry and his sons were supervising 30 workers in the annual production of 2,500 clocks in four major styles with many variants.
Individual members of a restless public who sought to distinguish themselves from each other by means of consumption were not long satisfied by functional simplicity, Yankee ingenuity, and other puritan design virtues that foreign visitors and later historians like the emergence of the american system, 1790‒1860 35, 1790‒1860 Kouwenhoven wrongly claimed as the sole significance of American manufacturing success. Instead, rising material desires and intense competition between firms stimulated styling, product differentiation, and other marketing strategies whose symbiotic relationship to production identified them as a vital, equal aspect of the American System.
From the very beginnings of mass production, the American design vernacular oscillated between engineering and art, mechanics and marketing, function and ornament, reason and emotion, as it adjusted to practical needs and visionary desires.
Even more innovative was Jerome’s return to brass movements after the economic depression of 1837 sent prices and sales plummeting.
He used sheet brass from new rolling mills, specialized machine tools, and such clever stratagems as stamping extremely thin gear wheels with circular beading to strengthen them. Within a few years his eight-day brass movements completely replaced the 30-hour wooden ones. By 1850, Jerome’s firm annually produced nearly 300,000
clocks, with the most basic costing 50 cents to produce and selling for $1.50. Jerome emphasized the production side of the American System when he claimed that success depended on ‘every part of their manufacture’ being ‘systematized in the most perfect manner and conducted on a large scale’. According to an associate, however, the
consumption side reigned supreme. Jerome’s clocks appeared in a multiplying variety of sizes and styles during the 1840s and 1850s, ranging from turreted Gothic steeple versions to brightly painted rococo papier-mâché models inlaid with mother-of-pearl. In fact, ‘the desire to make and sell great quantities’ had stimulated so many ‘new designs’ that clock dealers became ‘annoyed and bewildered’. Only a few movers and shakers like Jerome recognized that success or failure was in the hands of style-conscious consumers whose preferences changed frequently.
Jerome’s fame in Britain derived from his first shipment of brass clocks in 1842. The shipment’s declared value was so low that customs agents assumed he was trying to avoid import duties. They confiscated everything and paid the declared value as compensation. Still believing Jerome to be bluffing, they confiscated a second shipment at the same declared value. Only when Jerome sent a third shipment did British customs believe he was really making clocks so cheaply. This story sparked considerable British interest in the American System. It was not surprising that British observers emphasized the functional simplicity of products displayed by Americans at the Great Exhibition,
the first world’s fair, held in London in 1851. For Americans, however, the exhibition held a different meaning. They were captivated by the extravagant ornamentation of Victorian furniture and decorative arts.
Rather than reinforcing a supposed simplicity or primitivism, the exhibition focused American attention on the complicated relationship of art and industry. Manufacturers, journalists, and the growing ranks of 38 the emergence of the american system, 1790‒1860 middle-class consumers became self-consciously aware, for the first time, of the significance of design.
The US and the Crystal Palace
Nothing like the Crystal Palace had existed before, shimmering over London’s Hyde Park, 20 acres (8 hectares) of glass supported by a prefabricated cast-iron structure enclosing a collection of artefacts from around the globe. US participation in the Great Exhibition got off to a bad start owing to poor organization. Many displays were not
yet installed when Queen Victoria opened the world’s fair in May 1851.
To make matters worse, the US executive committee had contracted for a space too large for the number of exhibits. Although most visitors were captivated by The Greek Slave, a chaste but enticing female nude by the American sculptor Hiram Powers (1805–73), many agreed with a journalist who disparaged the American section for its ‘dreary and empty aspect’.14With British attention focusing on French decorative arts, there was little interest in utilitarian goods like Borden’s meat biscuits, Goodyear’s rubber boots and life-rafts, Cincinnati cured hams,
and a towering pyramid of soap.
Over the summer, however, three highly publicized events provoked reassessment of practical Yankee ingenuity. The first involved an American locksmith who succeeded in picking a famous British bank lock, the ‘Bramah’, which had withstood all challenges since 1788. Adding insult to injury, his own ‘Parautoptic’ lock, on display at
the Crystal Palace, resisted all attempts by British locksmiths. Just as impressive was the performance of the mechanical reaper invented by Cyrus McCormick (1809–84). The British press dismissed this the emergence of the american system, 1790‒1860 39 agricultural implement as ‘a cross between an Astley’s chariot, a treadmill,
and a flying machine’. Again the Americans had the last word when McCormick’s horse-drawn machine was demonstrated in a field in Essex. While it handily mowed down rain-sodden green wheat, a competing British reaper clogged and failed. When returned to the Crystal Palace, the McCormick reaper attracted ‘more visitors . . . than
the Ko-i-noor diamond itself ’, according to a New Yorker. Finally, the sleek, flat-sailed schooner America defeated 15 other yachts in a race around the Isle of Wight to win a prize that initiated the America’s
Cup series. This victory prompted the Liverpool Times to warn that ‘America, in her own phrase, is “going ahead” and will assuredly pass us unless we accelerate our speed.’
These exemplary triumphs of straightforward American design appealed to British reformers who had hoped the Great Exhibition would establish new standards of popular taste. Instead they recoiled in shock from displays of overwrought machine-made ornament, gaudy machine-printed patterns and colours, and supposedly vulgar imitations
of one material by another. British manufacturers had spared no expense in designing and fabricating objects for display whose ornamentation exceeded anything available in London shops. Although some American products in the Crystal Palace seemed artless in their functional simplicity, many of them also embodied the luxurious ornamentation we now think of as epitomizing Victorian design. For 40 the emergence of the american system, 1790‒1860 example, a massive 15-foot (4.6-metre) chandelier made by Cornelius curlicues supporting 15 light globes activated by gascocks whose resemblance to ‘bunches of fruit’, according to an exhibition catalogue,
‘combin[ed] beauty with utility’. The same guide described a huge silver table centrepiece from Hooper & Co. of Boston, with branches the emergence of the american system, 1790‒1860 41 dripping with vines and clusters of fruit, as an object ‘of very tasteful design’ with ‘decoration . . . neither too sparing . . . nor too profuse’.
To cite a final example, a rosewood piano, ornately carved in rococo style by artisans at Nunns & Clark of New York, offered evidence of increasing ‘taste for the elegant and the beautiful’ as Americans ‘advance[d] in intellectual power’ and sought out ‘the refinements of life’. Even if some Americans rejoiced with Horace Greeley (1811–72), the editor of the New York Tribune, at seeing McCormick’s ‘ungainly’ reaper win out over the ‘thousand and one beautiful knick-knackeries’ of the Great Exhibition, the trend in American popular design was running towards ornamentation. Clever engineering developments enabled ever cheaper mechanical imitation and reproduction of wealthy materials and hand-crafted forms. The tide of supposedly tasteless products that disgusted British reformers was about to become a democratic flood in the US.
One American appalled by this prospect was Horatio Greenough (1805–52), a sculptor who toured the Crystal Palace while visiting London in September 1851 on his way home after many years in Italy.
He complained to the philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–82) about American citizens ‘struggling’ to attain beauty while the ‘excremental corruptions’ of foreign ‘gewgaws and extravagance’ washed over them. Unfortunately, he continued, ‘our own manufacturers have caught the furor, and our foundries pour forth a mass of illdigested
and crowded embellishment’. Americans had ‘negative quantities to deal with, before we can rise to zero’.
In place of the ‘excremental’ excesses of Victorianism, Greenough proposed an organic or evolutionary theory of design. Equating aesthetic beauty with efficiency of form and perfect adaptation to function, rather than with mindless imitation of past styles or wealthy luxuries, Greenough described the process by which a ‘cumbersome
machine’ evolved into a ‘compact, effective and beautiful engine’. To dismiss American simplicity of design as an ‘economical’ or ‘cheap’ style was a serious error.
Greenough’s essays attracted little attention, but Emerson echoed them in such philosophical writings as an essay on ‘Beauty’, proposing that ‘the line of beauty is the result of perfect economy’. Rejecting the emulation of wealthy display that de Tocqueville had observed in democratic Americans, Emerson boldly stated that ‘if it is done to be seen, it is mean’. Just as important for the study of American design was the rediscovery of Greenough’s essays in the 1940s, an event that shaped Kouwenhoven’s influential theory of an American functional vernacular style.
However, that vernacular style existed during the first half of the nineteenth century only in the production side of the American System—in the manufacturing tools and practices devised in federal armouries, clock manufactories, and other mills and workshops. The consumption side was equally innovative in terms of volume and low cost of goods made available to a democratic middle class, but popular desires ensured that designers of consumer goods would emulate European luxury rather than impose vernacular simplicity. The new material world of the mid-nineteenth century was embodied in the comforts of plush abundance, not in the sacrifices of austere practicality.
A historian like Kouwenhoven might celebrate the functional design of such artefacts as the chairs produced for sale after 1850 by the Shakers, a communitarian religious sect whose workshops advertised ‘durability, simplicity and lightness’.20 But middle-class Americans of that era desired and demanded more for their money.
Consumer design in the 1850s
Evaluating the US performance at the Great Exhibition, Greeley insisted ‘we can and must do better next time’.21 An opportunity arose two years later in 1853 when the Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations opened in a domed octagonal iron-and-glass structure known as the New York Crystal Palace. With one third of its space reserved
for domestic exhibits, American firms could hope for a better showing than in London. However, the opening was delayed until July, giving an official delegation of British observers time to investigate the workthe
emergence of the american system, 1790‒1860 43 ings of the American System. George Wallis (1811–91), the director of the Government School of Art and Design in Birmingham, spent 11 weeks visiting mills and workshops in New England, the mid-Atlantic states, and the Ohio Valley. As a design educator, he paid particular attention to consumer industries. American use of styling in marketing goods impressed him as effective—and thus a threat to
As the earliest trade to be mechanized, by steam in Britain and water power in the US, the textile industry had employed artists to devise patterns or designs for weaving and printing since the lateeighteenth century. Although Wallis saw many immigrant designers from England, Scotland, and France, he also favourably commented on work by graduates of the Boston School of Design, founded in 1851.
Several other schools were also training women as pattern designers.
The Franklin Institute absorbed an existing design school in Philadelphia in 1850, and Cooper Union took over another in New York in 1858.
Whether or not such schools were responsible, Wallis observed a general ‘good taste’ in colours and patterns as he visited fabric and carpet mills in New England. Designs varied according to ‘the market or class of customers for which the goods are intended’. A calico printer in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, produced ‘showy patterns, large
in form, and strong in contrasts of colour’ for distribution to southern and western states, while northeastern states received ‘smaller patterns, more subdued in colour, and approaching to the best character of goods used in England’. For the most part, Americans followed European styles as manufacturers and merchants pored over reports of the latest French fashions before making decisions. However, Wallis reserved his sharpest criticism for an American original—a machinewoven carpet with alternating portraits of George Washington and views of Mount Vernon. All of it, to his dismay, was ‘intended . . . to be walked upon!’ After examining products from many consumer industries, Wallis concluded that Americans of all classes indulged ‘a love of display’ that could be playful, hedonistic, or annoyingly shrill. Even an artefact as large and solid as a cast-iron cooking stove displayed somewhat elusive new style qualities. Too large and heavy for peddlers, iron stoves were made regionally by about 200 companies, with Cincinnati alone producing 50,000 stoves each year. Wallis marvelled not only at their size,
and at the natural abundance that allowed Americans to burn forests for fuel, but also at the cleverness of stove design and marketing.
Manufacturers displayed ‘ingenuity’ in devising integrally cast ornamentation that helped ‘to strengthen the panels, sustain the angles, and hide defects in casting’, but they carried the search for ‘novelty’ to
such extremes that the result often seemed more an ‘excrescence’ than a ‘decorative adjunct’. Most surprising to Wallis was the use of brand 44 the emergence of the american system, 1790‒1860 names to distinguish the indistinguishable, with each stove boasting ‘a distinct title by which it is known in the market’. The ‘euphony’ of
these names was ‘often more amusing than appropriate’, and he would have appreciated the so-called ‘Puritan’ model of several decades later with its heavily ornamented surfaces.
A few years later Wallis would have encountered the sewing machine as a new consumer product with considerable investment of effort in design and marketing. He and other British delegates were aware of how the recent invention had decentralized the garment trade and fostered ‘putting out’ schemes and sweatshops. As of yet, however,
the sewing machine was not domesticated as a machine for personal use by middle-class women. The company founded by Isaac M. Singer (1811–75) in 1851 was one of many seeking to perfect and exploit the new technology, but Singer did not introduce the first home machine until 1856. The company employed young women to demonstrate the machines in urban showrooms that were lushly carpeted, carved, and gilded. Just as importantly, Singer initiated an instalment purchasing plan—the first ever for a consumer product. Eventually, as the Singer machine became a staple of middle-class homes, sales agents met annually to review consumer preferences and offer suggestions for design changes both mechanical and decorative.Wallis’s investigation of other industries from inexpensive pressed the emergence of the american system, 1790‒1860 45 glassware to cast-iron building fronts yielded evidence of ‘a vague seeking after novelty’ that merged by degrees into ‘an almost Oriental love of splendour’. Although he so admired some ‘useful and cheap’ furniture from the Midwest that he shipped it home to England, he concluded that Americans had moved beyond the ‘simpler habits and tastes’ of their early history. Furniture revealed ‘redundancy and verornamentation’
as its makers sought to ‘crowd as large an amount of work into as small an amount of space as possible.’25 Here Wallis might have been referring to the rococo revival furniture of John Henry Belter (1804–63), a German immigrant in New York, whose innovative technology created chairs and sofas with complex arabesques simulating
hand carving. Although Belter’s ‘pressed work’ (as he called it) was too expensive for the average citizen, the papier-mâché furniture that had inspired him quickly made its way down class lines. Papiermâché appealed to manufacturers because it could be easily shaped, sawed, polished, and used to imitate expensive materials. Its ‘plasticity and malleability’, according to the design historian Clive D. Edwards, suggested ‘a potential control over form that was unheard of ’.
That unprecedented degree of unfocused control worried Wallis as he pondered his American tour. His hosts regarded their rapid progress beyond frontier scarcity and simplicity with a blend of wondrous awe and smug acceptance. They had little idea how to direct their energies towards greater refinement and civilization. Wallis found manufacturers and consumers locked in a vicious circle of responsibility for the American System’s cultural failings. Manufacturers had no alternative but to supply ‘glittering nonsense’ in response to voracious
public demand. At the same time, the public enjoyed ‘little choice’ because everything available projected ‘an enormous display of unmeaning decoration’. Constant exposure to ‘ugliness and exuberance’ provided by ignorant manufacturers made public taste ever more ‘vitiated and depraved’. And so it went. Seeking a solution, Wallis looked to ‘more enlightened manufacturers’ as the ‘real instructors . . . of the taste of the people’. If this select group maintained its principles in the face of the current democratic lack of taste, they would eventually be rewarded by a more sophisticated public, owing in part to increased transatlantic travel and greater awareness of refined European decorative arts. Although Wallis predicted the slow emergence of a ‘national
style’, he failed to realize that most people would continue to desire an the emergence of the american system, 1790‒1860 47 extravagance in design appropriate to the apparently unlimited abundance of the new world.
That in fact was the meaning of the exhibition of 1853 that had brought Wallis to the US in the first place. When the doors of the domed New York Crystal Palace finally opened, it was clear that the organizers had learned too well the lessons of their London model.
British design reformers had regarded the 1851 exhibition as a failure because it celebrated an extravagance they considered tasteless and morally corrupting. But that very extravagance proved seductive to American visitors. The New York organizers hoped to demonstrate in 1853 that the US could emulate and surpass what Europeans had
displayed two years earlier.
As distilled in the pages of The World of Science, Art, and Industry, the exhibition continued to reflect the split personality of the American System. On the one hand, practical ingenuity was in evidence in articles on the cotton gin, bridge engineering, shipbuilding, glass manufacture, and similar topics scattered at random. On the other
hand, popular desire for elegant consumer goods shone through in detailed engravings of heavily ornamented tea sets, pianos, music stands, vases, ewers, candelabra, lighting fixtures, table centrepieces, fireplace surrounds, crystal decanters, wallpaper, tables, and chairs. A massive carved oak sideboard from Bulkley & Herter of New York, which was a centrepiece both of the exhibition and of the catalogue, appeared fit for ‘an English manor-house or an Austrian castle’.
Scattered throughout the book, in no particular order or scale, with silverware next to statuary, revolvers next to papier-mâché novelties, these images generated a complex phantasmagoria, as in the exhibition itself, pleasantly disorienting, which invited viewers to aspire to the artefacts displayed, to imagine a time when such goods would be ‘within the reach of the mechanic and tradesman as well as the opulent and noble’. Dismissing the perspective of Greenough or Emerson, the authors insisted that ‘the plainness that was once satisfactory’ was no longer enough for American consumers who demanded ‘decoration in every branch of manufactures’.
Even more enthusiastic was newspaper editor Greeley, a social reformer and abolitionist, for whom the New York Crystal Palace offered evidence that the nation’s mechanics, artisans, and designers had ‘democratized the means and appliances of a higher life’. Modern progress was ‘bringing . . . the masses of the people up to the aristocratic standard of taste and enjoyment and . . . diffusing the influence of splendor and grace over all minds’.30 Greeley’s conflation of the material and the spiritual indicated that American culture still looked back
to that formative era when God’s design and the shaping of a new world seemed one and the same. Within a few years, however, the crisis over slavery threatened to shatter that spiritual design and the resulting Civil War interrupted the flow of material goods. Already, however, the nation had moved beyond the subsistence economy of
early colonists and settlers and had come to accept a dependence on the greater complexity of an expanding material world. That world of goods seemed heavier, less buoyant, and considerably more artificial as the nation entered a post-war era that was known, not without reason, as the Gilded Age. The extravagant visions of the New York Exhibition of 1853 were to become democratic realities during the final decades of the nineteenth century when middle-class consumers emulated an upper-class Aesthetic movement that promoted rich, exotic, many-layered domestic interiors. Eventually, however, a spirit of reaction set in as designers and promoters associated with a nostalgic
Arts & Crafts movement looked back to the simplicity that was lost when everyday life filled up with manufactured things. Even the reformers were to learn, however, that simple things are never really that simple.