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In the Classroom > Course Overview > Unit Overview > Lesson 5

Lesson 5
Reasons for the Revival
by Angela Goebel Bain

At the turn of the 20th century, the United States experienced rapid social, economic and technological changes. Unprecedented numbers of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe entered the country, bringing new political assumptions and cultures. Americans whose ancestors immigrated earlier from northern and western Europe feared that their traditions would be swept away by this flood of foreign ideas. New technologies encouraged large-scale enterprises, making traditional family farms and workshops nearly obsolete. These social and economic shifts led disillusioned Americans to seek refuge in a romanticized, nearly imaginary, past where the population was homogeneous and goods were handmade by independent artisans.

As native-born Americans struggled to imagine the country's future in the face of what they believed was the corruption of traditional American culture and modes of production, they turned to two aesthetic movements, the Arts and Crafts Movement and the Colonial Revival. Through the production and consumption of goods in the context of these movements, they asserted their Anglo-Saxon ethnicity and cultural values while simultaneously trying to define what it meant to be "American." Tastemakers and reformers advocated moving away from the heavy, European-influenced ornamentation found in Victorian homes toward simple, austere and more "American" decorative forms and interiors. At the same time, artisans and manufacturers produced and sold consumer goods with the underlying message that owning these confirmed Anglo-Saxon sensibilities and had the potential to homogenize the non-Anglo-Saxon population to this way of thinking. These movements began in the 1890s as elite adventures and entered the American mainstream in the early decades of the 20th century.

The Arts and Crafts Movement began in late 19th century England, under the influence of art critic, John Ruskin, and designer, William Morris. By 1890, their ideas had spread to America. Adherents to this movement were convinced that industrialization had caused the degradation of the worker and his product, through the division of labor and separation of design from construction. Mass-produced Victorian furnishings were considered especially corrupt because of the common use of veneer and applied decoration. The reformers' solution was a return to hand craftsmanship, employing an honesty of materials and harmonious design. To upper- and middle-class Americans, the Arts and Crafts Movement was a rejection of mass-produced goods made by dehumanized factory workers in favor of handcrafted products made by small-scale autonomous artisans, whose English ancestry informed their modes of production and the style of their products. They perceived an additional danger of industrialization in the largely immigrant workforce, believing newcomers introduced foreign political ideas, such as communism and anarchism, which threatened traditional American individualism, republicanism and democracy.

The Colonial Revival emerged in America after the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition sparked a popular and romantic reflection on America's pre-industrial past as a time of social harmony, independent work, and prosperity. Colonial Revivalists were interested in remembering and communicating wholesome values, which they believed their colonial ancestors possessed. As a result, the last quarter of the 19th century saw great activity in preserving colonial antiquities and celebrating the triumphs of English-born ancestors. Ethnic Anglo-Saxon-founded heritage societies like the National Society of Colonial Dames and the Sons of the American Revolution, preserved and opened to the public colonial icons like Mount Vernon, and embarked on the task of Americanizing immigrants.

On an individual level, the Colonial Revival inspired many native-born Americans to surround themselves with romanticized ancestral landscapes, homes, and artifacts. Consumer goods connected with the colonial past were meaningful signposts to assert one's cultural affiliation. In this period antiques also became popular commodities for the first time. If one did not inherit ancestral heirlooms, one could purchase them. New products, whether reproductions of Colonial styles or interpretations in the Arts and Crafts tradition, served as reminders of the values and fortitude of the revered Anglo-Saxon ancestors, whom many native-born Americans wished to retain as inspirational moral guides of American culture.

In the years following the Civil War, Deerfield, Massachusetts, like many small towns in New England, experienced economic and population declines. By the late 19th-century, Deerfield farmers struggled to compete with those in the west, and area manufacturers could no longer keep up with those in the cities. As a result, many Deerfield residents left the area to seek better economic opportunities. The migration of young workers left the predominately agricultural village with a population that was increasingly older and female. This pattern was particularly acute on the main street, the area of the original Deerfield settlement of 1671, still lined with 18th-century houses, many of which were occupied by descendents of the original owners. Since women were disproportionately becoming heads of households, the land was increasingly farmed by hired labor. By the turn of the 20th century, Eastern European immigrants who initially had been hired laborers began to acquire farms from old Deerfield families in the areas surrounding the central village. By 1900, over 37 percent of Franklin County residents were either foreign-born or children of foreign-born parents.

To stem their eroding economic, social and political prominence, Deerfield residents increasingly turned to a nostalgic and romantic view of the past as both an economic and social solution. They historicized their village and asserted their English identity by capitalizing on their revered history. Villagers established a museum, preserved colonial-era houses, raised monuments, and held historical pageants. In effect, they created a "real" colonial village, which brought public attention and economic gains to their community.

In this spirit of Colonial Revivalism and in accord with the ideals of the Arts and Crafts Movement, a number of Deerfield artisans formed the Deerfield Society of Arts and Crafts in 1899, later renamed Deerfield Industries, which organized the joint marketing and exhibition of their goods. A variety of individual crafters created basketry, woven rugs, metalwork, jewelry, paintings, photography, and embroidery. The colonial era artifacts in the local museum, Memorial Hall, served as the inspiration for their modern day handicraft.

The Society's 1919 promotional brochure is void of illustrations, but is rich in descriptive language about the ideals underlying the artisans' work. The pamphlet concretely links their products to their ethnic heritage through ideological connections to the Arts and Crafts Movement and the natural link to the artisans' Anglo-Saxon ancestors. They compared their traditional modes of production and ancestry to industrial America and its foreign workers. The pamphlet reads: "[a] great desire was in the air to supplant the machine made ugliness of the merchandise of the period, with good hand work, done by intelligent craftsmen, instead of dull factory hands working under conditions that made both their lives and everything they produced unbeautiful." Deerfield artisans further connected their heritage and bucolic rural landscape with the authenticity and pureness of their goods by claiming, "the old traditions of hand-work had never died out in this commercially uncorrupted spot [Deerfield]." Finally, the pamphlet reminded its readers that products were created in the Anglo-Saxon based American values of individualism and democracy. "With true New England individualism each crafts woman works independently, and with New England honesty judges her own work with a trained eye."

Numerous articles about Deerfield Industries appeared in specialized magazines and continued this line of promotion. An article entitled, "The Crafts of Deerfield" in New Idea Woman's Magazine reported how this "quaint little town of Deerfield, Massachusetts ... embodies the spirit of the past, through adapting itself with Yankee ingenuity and self-reliance to the spirit of the present," and that "[n]o smoke from noisy factories mars the landscape and no busy shops proclaim the labor of the people."

Co-existing with Deerfield Industries was the Deerfield Society of Blue and White Needlework, an arts and crafts organization founded in 1896 by Ellen Miller and Margaret Whiting, "with the intention of reviving the traditional embroidery of the Colonial Period and of establishing a village industry." The group originally consisted of four embroiderers but grew to nearly thirty women before it closed in 1926. Miller and Whiting discovered fragile 18th century textiles in the Memorial Hall Museum, recreated the patterns so they would not be lost. Like the Deerfield Industries marketing pamphlet, their brochure is void of illustration but strongly links their work to the "homeland" of England: the "design, coloring and stitches owed their origin to England ... these in turn being direct in descent from the famous early Anglo-Saxon embroideries." A 1902 article in Everybody's Magazine reported that the Misses Whiting and Miller were led by a "feeling of patriotic affection" to recreate and build on colonial designs. It claimed that their society is "known in every State in the Union." For both the Deerfield Industries and the Deerfield Society of Blue and White Needlework, national publications and their own promotional pieces emphasize historical and ideological underpinnings as much as the quality of the work itself.

Frances and Mary Allen, two other Deerfield women, were renowned photographers who worked in the pictorial tradition. Pictorialism was a turn-of-the-20th-century movement to elevate the field of photography to the level of art. Pictorialists connected themselves to the Arts and Crafts Movement by claiming that they "crafted" their photographs; they did not merely take them. The Allens took picturesque images of children and rural landscapes, but one of their primary genres was "colonial life." They dressed their family and neighbors in clothing intended to recall styles of a hundred years earlier and posed them in activities designed to conjure up memories of simpler days.

Although they were nationally and internationally acclaimed art photographers and sold their work to individuals for home decoration, their primary income came from their commercial photography. They successfully supported themselves through commissions for book and magazine illustrations. Their work frequently appeared in the Ladies Home Journal, Good Housekeeping, House Beautiful, Colonial Homes, and The Craftsman among others, attesting to the strength of their images in popularizing the look of the Colonial Revival. One such commissioned work is entitled "Thanksgiving Pies" (1996.14.0712) and was used as an illustration in Alice Morse Earle's 1898 book, Home Life in Colonial Days. This image shows generations of women working together in preparation for a holiday gathering. The women are cooking on an open hearth, decades after cook stoves were commonly found in American kitchens. Several artifacts from the Colonial Period like the candle-making equipment (on the mantle) would not have been in regular use at the turn of the 20th century. The room features a mixture of Colonial (candle-making equipment and bake oven) and early Federal Period artifacts (Dutch oven), suggesting that the Allens integrated objects from different time periods to achieve what they defined as "colonial." This is in line with Earle's book, because she discusses the Dutch oven as a colonial piece, even though it was first invented in the early 19th century. Had this photograph not been an illustration for a book on colonial days, it may have served simply as a romantic image of pre-industrial rural America. This image, with its generations of women working in a low-tech environment, evokes nostalgia for a family-centered, slow pace lifestyle where simplicity was the mode of operation.

Other Allen images overtly point to the Colonial Period. "Barbara Reading" (1908-1910) (1996.14.0065.01-.03) shows a girl dressed as a puritan, right down to her buckled shoes. However, it is clear the photographers were less concerned about historical accuracy than communicating a feeling. Barbara's clothing is indicative of a girl from around 1700, but the background shows wallpaper, carpet on the stairs and sheer curtains, all exposing her true placement in the 19th century. At other times, Allen photographs communicated a stronger message. "Letter of the Law" (1996.14.0295.01-.02) can be interpreted in several ways. The sitter is in puritan garb and could be either a minister or a magistrate. The law is either the law of God or the law of the society, but in early New England settlements, these are one and the same. At any rate, the sitter communicates stern, austere, unquestionable authority. His expression is hostile and unwavering, and he seems to expect absolute acquiescence.

Frances and Mary Allen were concerned with creating a feel for an idealized past, not accurately portraying it. They conflated imagery from the 18th and early 19th centuries to create nostalgic scenes from pre-industrial America. In their landscape images, they even went to great lengths to remove the modern elements from the scenes. No Allen photographs reveal telephone poles, automobiles, or trolleys even though they were commonly seen in their time.


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