Tag Archives: material culture

Artistic Nationalism

I started this blog to indulge in the discovery (and rediscovery) of Salem’s history, but also American history, which I haven’t really studied in any depth since high school. And I’ve completely forgotten what I learned then, or before, because it was the same old narrative, year after year, Plymouth to Ford’s Theater again and again and again. Past politics. So boring–I hated history by the time I went away to college and was determined to avoid it by majoring in something that was almost completely contrary to my interests and talents: economics. But my time abroad, along with the few history courses I allowed myself to take, convinced me that it was only American history that was boring, so I went on to get my Ph.D. in European history and become a history professor, which is quite simply the best job ever. Of course now I know that American history is not boring (though it is short), because I’ve uncovered more of its layers, including that which is most interesting to me: its culture. My American history curriculum starts with creativity and ends with events, and so I tend to fall down a rabbit hole when I encounter an amazing database like the Index of American Design, a project that commissioned Depression-era artists to produce nearly 18,000 watercolor renderings of traditional American arts and crafts made before 1900 under the auspices of the Federal Arts Project (FAP) of the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The project encompassed 34 states, regional exhibitions of the renderings, and the creation of a permanent inventory of reference materials with which one can rediscover American material culture again and again and again–as accessed today through the portal of the National Gallery of Art.


Robert Pohle, “Sheaf of Wheat” Shop Sign, American, active c. 1935, 1935/1942, watercolor, graphite, and pen and ink on paper, Index of American Design

Index renderings are photographic in their simplicity and detail: the artists are documenting and creating at the same time. Like all WPA initiatives, the Index was first and foremost a way to put unemployed people, in this case artists, to work, but like several FAP projects, the goal of archiving all forms of American culture seems to be just as important. The artists of the Index of American Design, just like the architects of the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS), used their own artistry to capture and preserve American artistry, as a form and expression of artistic nationalism. Their meticulous drawings of shop signs, andirons, cabinets, dolls and dresses, showcased in a series of national exhibitions, enabled an anxious American audience to discover (or rediscover) its own cultural identity, through very familiar forms.


Margaret Knapp, Silver Teapot, American, active c. 1935, 1934, graphite on paper, Index of American Design


Lillian Causey, Quilt, applique, American, active c. 1935, Index of American Design


Bessie Forman, Dress, American, active c. 1935, 1935/1942, watercolor and graphite on paper, Index of American Design


Bessie Forman, Man’s Hat, American, active c. 1935, 1935/1942, watercolor and graphite on paperboard, Index of American Design

There are several Salem items in the Index (of course), including some very primitive wooden dolls, a cartouche, and a very characteristic chair. I’m biased, I know, but I think more Salem items should have been included–and wondering if the democratization goals of the Index worked against seats of “high” culture?


Beverly Chichester, Salem Dolls, American, active c. 1935, 1935/1942, watercolor, graphite, and gouache on paperboard, Index of American Design


Alfred H. Smith, Cartouche from Salem Gate, American, active c. 1935, c. 1939, watercolor, graphite, and pen and ink on paperboard, Index of American Design

William Kieckhofel, Salem Chair, American, active c. 1935, c. 1937, watercolor and colored pencil on paper, Index of American Design

William Kieckhofel, Salem Chair, American, active c. 1935, c. 1937, watercolor and colored pencil on paper, Index of American Design


A few posters of WPA/FAP/IAD exhibitions held in 1937-38:

IAD Collage

Occupational Art

I’m looking forward to the Valentine’s Day opening of the exhibit “Cosmopolitan Consumption: New England Shoe Stories, 1750-1850” at the Portsmouth Athenaeum: it is co-curated by my friend Kimberly Alexander and strikes me as the perfect afternoon activity for that particular day (of course I am female). You can read much more about the exhibit on Kimberly’s blog: SilkDamask. I want to see amazing shoes and support my friend, but she had me as soon as I saw the invitation, which features one of my favorite early modern genres, which I will call “occupational art”. The image is by Martin Engelbrecht (1684-1756), an entrepreneurial artist and publisher from Augsburg who produced  170 “Mr. and Mrs.” engravings for his series Artists, Craftsmen, and Professionals (circa 1730). On the invitation, appropriately, we see the wife of a shoe peddler, and while I haven’t been able to source her partner in peddling, I did find another very striking couple, the porcelain maker and his wife, at the Winterthur Museum.


Occupational Art Porcelain Maker Winterthur

Occupational Art Porcelain Makers Wife Winterthur

This genre seems to have two categories: the fantastic–even grotesque–and the realistic. Engelbrecht’s images fall squarely in the former, and while he appears to have been an innovator in many aspects of his business, these creative composites were nothing new. The depiction of people as assemblages of objects goes back to the Renaissance, and his near contemporaries Nicolas de Larmessin and Gerard Valck produced even more fantastic occupational images decades before him. Engelbrecht’s women are unique though: he even includes a lady cartographer and prosecutor! Images of real workers are going to have to wait for the nineteenth century for the most part, but in keeping with the shoe theme here are Valk’s and Larmessin’s leather workers, in all of their glory.

Occupational art Shoes Valk

Occupational Art Larmessin Sauetier

Cordonnier BNF

Occupational Art Ceinturier

Gerard Valck’s Habit de Cordonnier (c. 1700) from the invitation to the Bata Shoe Museum’s 2012 exhibition, Art in Shoes~Shoes in Art; Nicolas II de Larmessin’s Habit de Cordonnier and Habit de Sauetier from his Les costumes Grotesques: Habits des métiers et professions, c. 1695, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and Bibliothèque nationale de France; Gerard Valck print of Habit de Ceinturier after Nicolas de Larmessin, c. 1695-1720, British Museum.

On Gossamer Gowns

As part of my own little Inauguration celebration, I’ve been looking at the Smithsonian’s collection of Inaugural ballgowns of our past and present First Ladies and one thing is clear: the lighter in color and more crystalline the fabric, the more timeless the dress. Nellie Taft, one of my very favorite First Ladies (think cherry trees, subtle support for the Suffragettes and attendance at the opposition Democratic National Convention to quell criticism of her husband) and the first to walk in the Inaugural Day parade alongside her husband and donate her ballgown to the Smithsonian, started the trend with her embellished white silk dress, and those First Ladies who chose more vibrant frocks pale by example. Certainly Mrs. Obama followed Mrs. Taft’s example with her 2009 Jason Wu gown–a century later.

Inaugural gown Nellie Taft 1909

Helen Taft                  53791/ 12858

Inaugural gown of M Obama

Mrs. Taft in her 1909 Inaugural ballgown (Library of Congress), and the gown in the Smithsonian First Ladies Exhibition, along with the Jason Wu gown worn by Mrs. Obama in 2009. Though Mrs. Taft’s dress has discolored with time, both dresses are made of white silk chiffon.

I don’t have any historical evidence, but it seems to me that two more fashionable First Ladies were mindful of Mrs. Taft’s example when they chose their Inaugural ballgowns:  Mrs. Kennedy and Mrs. Reagan, twenty years apart. Both ladies chose gowns that were creamy and embellished, regal and ethereal.

Inaugural Gown of Mrs. Kennedy

Inaugural gown of Mrs. Reagan

The Bergdorf Goodman gown of Mrs. Kennedy (1961) and the James Galanos gown of Mrs. Reagan (1981), Smithsonian Institution First Ladies Exhibition.

Two First Ladies who abandoned the Taft tradition for their first Inaugural balls and then reverted to form for their second galas were Mrs. Clinton and Mrs. Bush. The fashion parallels seem striking with these two ladies!  Both picked lesser-known designers from their home states and bright partisan colors for their first Inaugural gowns–Democratic blue for Mrs. Clinton and Republican red for Mrs. Bush–and then chose more neutral gossamer gowns in gold and silver by Oscar de la Renta for their second balls, in 1997 and 2005, respectively, making them look above-the-fray, transcendent.

Inaugural Collage Clinton

Inaugural Collage Bush

Mrs. Eisenhower’s 1953 Inaugural gown was not really neutral, but rather (and of course) pink and with a distinct 1950s silhouette. Still, I think its 2000 rhinestones render it rather regal–and it is pale pink. I think it might be my favorite, even though it is not as timeless as the columns that came before and after.

Inaugural ballgown of Mrs. Eisenhower 1953

Mrs. Eisenhower’s Nettie Rosenstein Inaugural ballgown, 1953, Smithsonian Institution First Ladies Exhibition.

While looking for Mrs. Johnson’s Inaugural gown, I had a happy surprise.  Lady Bird wore a buttery yellow, very 1960s satin gown to the 1965 Inaugural ball, but four years earlier, just before President Kennedy’s Inauguration, she and her daughters posed in their gowns:  on the right, Lynda Bird Johnson is wearing my wedding dress:  the same Harvey Berin dress that I bought from a Boston vintage dealer years ago. It’s really fun to see it on her.


Lady Bird Johnson with her daughters Luci Baines Johnson, left,  and Lynda Bird Johnson, right (in my dress!), 1961. Getty Images.

One last Inaugural gown:  this one worn by a mere guest rather than a First Lady. Actually, I don’t think the word mere is appropriate when referring to someone who wore this gown:  the “Four Leaf Clover” gown designed by Charles James for Mrs. William Randolph Hearst, Jr. to wear to the 1953 Eisenhower Inaugural ball. Too conspicuous and architectural for a First Lady, perhaps, but WOW.

Inaugural Gown by Charles James 1953

Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; Gift of Mrs. Cornelius V. Whitney, 1953.


This poster for the Watch City Festival this weekend in Waltham, a very happening city to the west of us, caught my eye not only because of its fetching image but also because of its reference to the Salem Zouaves, a reference I’ve seen quite a few times in these past few months.  Who or what are the Salem Zouaves, you may ask, a question I’ve been asking myself.  I think I’m going to use this post to try to figure them out.

It’s not too difficult to figure out who the Salem Zouaves are here in the present:  a reenactment group who “recreate the exotic, flashy drill and uniforms of the original Salem Zouaves, including our signature bayonet and sabre fencing.”  But who were the original exotic Salem Zouaves?  Apparently they were a Civil War incarnation of the Salem Light Infantry, and among the first responders to President Lincoln’s call for volunteer militias to defend the capital after hostilities broke out in April of 1861.  They were attached to the 8th Massachusetts Regiment, and spent several months guarding Old Ironsides in Baltimore Harbor before returning home.  I doubt that their sabres or bayonets left their sides. This is hardly heroic service deserving of reenactment 150 years later:  what’s the rest of the story?

I suspect the secret of the Zouaves’ appeal, then and now, lies more in their exuberance than their service.  They looked and acted in a dramatic, romantic, even theatrical fashion, and thus captured the imagination of those who wanted to believe that war was glorious.  The mid-19th century Zouave craze was inspired by the dashing exploits of French soldiers in north Africa who adapted the native attire for their own uniforms before and after the Crimean War (1853-56), which was the first war to be documented extensively by “foreign correspondents” for the major western newspapers, along with photographers like Roger Fenton, who had himself photographed as a Zouave on the front.  The majority of his striking Crimean photographs, including his famous “Valley of the Shadow of Death” can be accessed through the Library of Congress.

Roger Fenton in the Crimea, 1855 (Library of Congress) and a mid-nineteenth-century print of French Zouaves (New York Public Library Digital Gallery).

Roger Fenton did not want to offend early Victorian sensibilities by showing pictures of the dead and wounded, so the contemporary image of the Crimean War that emerged was one of dashing exploits in an exotic locale, symbolized succinctly by the Zouaves.  In America, several voluntary militia companies–still very much in existence after their colonial foundation–transformed themselves into Zouave regiments.  The key figure in the transformation of Salem’s Light Infantry into the Salem Zouaves was clearly Arthur Forrester Devereux, the son of a prosperous Salem family who became commander of the Infantry in 1859.  In his early career, Devereux lived in Chicago, where he became a close associate of the founder of the American Zouave movement, Elmer Ellsworth, a close associate of Abraham Lincoln who would also be the first casualty/martyr of the Civil War (in the process of taking down a confederate flag in Alexandria, Virginia spied from the White House).  Devereux seems to have been more fascinated by the precision drill tactics of the Zouaves than their uniforms, but his company was well-outfitted just the same.  Pictorial envelopes of the era, one of my very favorite visual sources for the Civil War, emphasize both Zouave distinctions:  they stand out among other regional regiments on the first postcard (the Salem Zouaves are #6, at right), and are able to deftly jump confederate cannonballs in one minute and form a human hanging post in the next!

I’m having a hard time reconciling these printed exploits with the reality of the war; the very existence of the dashing Zouaves seems to point to a clash between war expectations and experience. Harem pants just don’t seem to fit into my perception of the Civil War!  And we have seen that the Salem Zouaves did not last long nor did they see any real action:  though Arthur Devereux certainly did, commanding the 19th Massachusetts Regiment at Gettysburg. Perhaps the Salem company is not representative:  there were regiments like the 114th Pennsylvania and the famous 5th New York Volunteer Infantry of Abram Duryée that were thoroughly, and heroically engaged.

The 114th Pennsylvania at Brandy Station, Pennsylvania, in April, 1864 (Library of Congress); the 5th New York Voluntary Infantry in Virginia in the winter of 1862-63 as drawn by wartime illustrator Edwin Forbes (New York Public Library Digital Gallery).

Despite the service of the brave men in these companies, it’s still difficult for me to see the American Zouave movement as much more than fashionable , a perception that is reinforced by contemporary images such as those below:  a page from Godey’s Lady Book (of all places!!!) illustrating the new Zouave jacket in 1860, and Thomas Nast’s 1862 painting The Young Zouave.  But I could be wrong.

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