Topic 5 DQ 1 Read the following articles from the Topic 5 Readings: “The Banality of Gilding: Innocuous Materiality and Transatlantic Consumption in the G

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Read the following articles from the Topic 5 Readings:

“The Banality of Gilding: Innocuous Materiality and Transatlantic Consumption in the Gilded Age,” “Thorstein Veblen: Conspicuous Consumption, 1902,” and “America’s Gilded Age” and then answer the discussion question that follows:

During the Victorian Age, the upper class became very wealthy in part by exploiting the lower classes. For America to become a great and wealthy nation, was the exuberance and disparity of the Victorian age justified? Explain why.

The Banality of Gilding: Innocuous Materiality
and Transatlantic Consumption in the Gilded Age

Paul R. Mullins & Nigel Jeffries

Published online: 12 October 2012
# Springer Science+Business Media New York 2012

Abstract This paper examines Gilded Age affluence by focusing on apparently
inconsequential decorative goods and assessing how such goods were part of shared
transatlantic patterns that reached beyond the Gilded Age and the confines of urban
America. The paper focuses on figurines recovered from nineteenth-century sites in
London and underscores how the American Gilded Age amplified many early
nineteenth-century material patterns and ideological practices that were well-
established in the United Kingdom and continued after the height of Gilded Age
affluence. This study examines the symbolism of such aesthetically eclectic goods
and focuses on the socially grounded imagination that was invested in them borrow-
ing from dominant ideologies and idiosyncratic personal experiences alike.

Keywords Consumption . Affluence . Figurines . Atlantic World

“Material for Thought”: Consumption, Gilded Age Affluence, and Household

In 1876 Henry Ward Beecher greeted the United States’ centennial by celebrating a
prosperous republic in which “there is more material for thought, for comfort, for home,
for love, to-day, in the ordinary workingman’s home, than there was a hundred years ago
in one of a hundred rich men’s mansions and buildings” (Orvell 1989, pp. 46–47). The
material forms taken by Gilded Age affluence included many ostentatious objects,

Int J Histor Archaeol (2012) 16:745–760
DOI 10.1007/s10761-012-0206-x

P. R. Mullins (*)
Department of Anthropology, Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis, Cavanaugh Hall
413B, Indianapolis, IN 46202, USA

N. Jeffries
Museum of London Archaeology, Mortimer Wheeler House, 46 Eagle Wharf Road,
London N1 7ED, UK

and period observers and scholars alike often have focused on the most astounding
material goods found in elite homes. Beecher himself had a spectacular household
assemblage of figurines and decorative goods that was auctioned in November 1887.
Many comparable goods evoking affluence and worldliness were found in homes
throughout the Atlantic World, but Beecher’s collection contained exceptionally
expensive examples of all the goods he had invoked in his Centennial address:
3,024 books, a massive collection of oil paintings, several thousand engravings, 30
antique Oriental rugs, a scatter of stuffed animals, and hundreds of pieces of furniture
went under the auctioneers’ gavel. The assemblage was composed of thousands of
decorative goods with no concrete function besides aesthetic display, including
figurines and statues as well as goods such as Asian ceramics that were generally
reserved for display in bourgeois homes.

It was precisely this sort of pretentious material wealth and the imperative to
consume that Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner (1873) first ridiculed in The
Gilded Age. Twain and Warner’s analysis posed life in the wake of the Civil War as
contrived “gilding” masking an inferior reality. Histories of the Gilded Age have
often followed Twain and Warner’s rhetorical lead, painting it as a period of aggres-
sive capitalist accumulation and growth that, in Vernon Louis Parrington’s words, had
“no social conscience, no concern for civilization, no heed for the future of the
democracy it talked so much about.” Parrington (1927) characterized the Gilded
Age as crass material opportunism, writing in 1927 that Gilded Age society was a
marked contrast “from the sober restraints of aristocracy, the old inhibitions of
Puritanism, the niggardliness of an exacting domestic economy … and with the
discovery of limitless opportunities for exploitation it allowed itself to get drunk.”
Veblen’s (1899) analysis of conspicuous consumption in Chicago was among the
best-known studies linking consumption to Gilded Age social life, and he painted a
picture of consumers driven by invidious status hierarchies that hearkened back to a
ceremonial past. Veblen (1899, p. 85) noted that “No class of society, not even the
most abjectly poor, forgoes all customary conspicuous consumption. … Very much
squalor and discomfort will be endured before the last trinket or the last pretense of
pecuniary decency is put away.” Veblen departed from dominant neoclassical eco-
nomic theories that goods have a specific utility and consumers make rational,
independent decisions based on all possible information. Instead, he argued that
consumers had always acquired things as mechanisms to demonstrate social status.
Writing in the midst of an especially active consumer metropolis, Veblen coined the
notion of conspicuous consumption to explain the high-style materialism that he
witnessed in late nineteenth-century Chicago. He argued that consumption of desir-
able goods was public evidence of a consumer’s wealth and their mastery of social
discipline and style (Veblen 1899, pp. 46–47).

Gilded Age consumption and broader Victorian materialism certainly included
ostentatious symbols of excess and some deluded aspirations to wealth, but focusing
on these factors alone risks ignoring the rich meanings of the mass-produced things
crowding transatlantic households. It is easy enough to ignore such material goods
since many of the material forms fueled by prosperity were at least superficially
mundane. Beecher himself argued that an array of rather prosaic goods should be in
all homes, intoning that “The laborer ought to be ashamed of himself … who in 20
years does not own the ground on which his house stands and … who has not in that

746 Int J Histor Archaeol (2012) 16:745–760

house provided carpets for the rooms, who has not his China plates, who has not his
chromos, who has not some picture or portrait hanging upon the walls, who has not
some books nestling on the shelf, who has not there a household he can call his home,
the sweetest place upon the earth. This is not the picture of some future time, but the
picture of to-day, a picture of the homes of the workingmen of America” (Orvell
1989, pp. 46–47). The goods Beecher singled out were all quite common: carpets,
tablewares, chromolithographs, and books could be found in almost every household
and were readily obtainable for a vast range of consumers. Beecher’s advice to stock
homes with an array of rather prosaic things was somewhat in contrast to his own
household assemblage, which was a spectacular cascade of symbols that invoked
ideological visions of nature, history, culture, nationalism, and wealth. Most homes
were outfitted with comparably quotidian decorative objects, but those goods includ-
ed spectacular aesthetics not much different than those in Beecher’s home. Indeed,
across the Atlantic World nineteenth-century consumers embraced a materiality that
employed spectacular symbolism invoking culture, heritage, domesticity, and a host of
rather ill-defined social beliefs.

This paper focuses on a collection of decorative figurines recovered from
nineteenth-century archaeological sites in London and examines how period com-
mentators on each side of the Atlantic defined their meaning. Some of these figurines
are in chronological contexts that are not strictly Gilded Age assemblages (typically
defined as circa 1870–93), but many identical motifs are found in earlier and later
contexts alike. The Gilded Age is a term reserved for American contexts, but we want
to argue here that many of the patterns in Gilded Age decorative materiality and
broader consumption patterns were transatlantic phenomena. Consequently, we are
interested in the ways that Gilded Age ideologies amplified long-term material styles
outside late nineteenth-century American elite contexts as they also led to a contin-
uation of comparable decorative aesthetics afterward. Comparing objects outside
American contexts alone reveals broad Atlantic World patterns in the relationship
between everyday material goods and social and material ambitions that extended
beyond a narrowly defined American urban elite.

“A Great Store of Shepherdesses”: The Aesthetics of Bric-a-Brac

Figurines were mass-produced by virtually all English potteries from the eighteenth
century onward, and nearly anything that could be modeled appeared as a figurine at
some point. In 1851, Henry Mayhew (1851, p. 354) decried the offerings of typical
London figurine shops, describing them as a “great store of shepherdesses, or grey-
hounds of a gamboges color, of what I heard called ‘figures’ (allegorical nymphs with
and without birds or wreaths in their hands), very tall-looking Shakspeares [sic] (I did
not see one of these windows without its Shakspeare, a sitting figure), and some
‘pots’ which seem to be either shepherds or musicians.” A shepherd figure much like
the ones Mayhew derided was excavated from the Jacob’s Island site in the London
Borough of Southwark. The Jacob’s Island figure had only its base surviving, but the base
bore the identification of it as a “SHEPERD” [sic] (Fig. 1). In the US and UK alike such
broadly defined motifs invoked apprehensions of urbanization and labor by celebrat-
ing a romanticized pastoral heritage, yet the ambiguity of the motif and ideological

Int J Histor Archaeol (2012) 16:745–760 747

references, the small scale and unobtrusiveness of the figurine, and the modest cost of
such decorative goods made them especially rich symbolic vehicles. Decorative
goods like the shepherd figurine occupy an interesting but not wholly unique position
in commodity symbolism. On the one hand, like many commodities, figurines are
physically prosaic forms that reside beneath critical awareness (cf. Mills 2010). To
some scholars they appear to invoke only the most fundamental ideological messages
about wealth, heritage, nature, and similarly broad discourses; they are simply viewed
as yet another class of goods distinguished by their function; their insignificant cost
(in most cases) renders them inconsequential; or very modest excavated quantities of
bric-a-brac makes them seem symbolically insignificant. Many observers (and some
archaeologists) have been unable to see past the seemingly crass surface of gilding,
reducing the flood of inexpensive decorative objects in nineteenth-century homes to
hollow claims to socioeconomic status or insignificant aesthetic displays. Conse-
quently, there is a tendency to see them as utterly banal in terms of their physical and
aesthetic presence and, by extension, their symbolic if not political impacts.

On the other hand, though, figurines often appeared in ambiguous if not spectacular
stylistic forms that sparked a very wide range of public discourses and consumer mean-
ings (Fig. 2). Period observers often commented on figurines and household aesthetics
throughout the nineteenth century, and Gilded Age analyses are rife with dense
material descriptions of the pretentious forms taken by Americans’ sudden wealth.
A rich late nineteenth-century literature on gilding wrestled with the enigma of how
social relations shaped the meaning of things, pushing beyond simply seeing their
meanings expressed as prices (Richards 1990, pp. 263–264). A flood of thinkers
pondered material desire, the “signifying power” of material goods, and the ways in
which consumers projected their imaginations onto material goods (Mills 2008;
Pykett 2003, p. 1). This rich symbolism found an especially receptive consumer

Fig. 1 Only the feet of a “shep-
herd” and a portion an animal
remain on this figurine base.
Pastoral motifs that romanticized
nature and agrarian life were
typical in Atlantic World urban
homes (Photograph by P.
Mullins, courtesy Museum
of London Archaeology)

748 Int J Histor Archaeol (2012) 16:745–760

audience in post-Civil War America, but similar if not identical decorative goods
were marketed and consumed quite extensively throughout the Atlantic World before
the 1870s. In their 1897 survey of household material culture, Edith Wharton and
Ogden Codman (1897, p. 83) argued for common bric-a-brac styles throughout the
Atlantic World, indicating that “the reaction from the bare stiff rooms of the first
quarter of the present century—the era of mahogany and horsehair—resulted, some
twenty years since, in a general craving for knick-knacks; and the latter soon spread
from the tables to the mantel, especially in England and America.” Indeed, the
consumption of such goods outside the US suggests that many of the consumer
patterns linked to wealth and social discipline in Gilded Age America extended in
some forms over most of the “long nineteenth century” and outside the provincial
boundaries of the US alone.

Decorative figurines and similar household goods had been mass-produced
since the eighteenth century. A 1917 collector’s survey of eighteenth-century
figurines indicated that in the second half of the century “about twenty of the
Staffordshire potters engaged in this business. Pastoral groups and animals were
favorites with them, and also scriptural and pseudo-Classical subjects. The
Flight into Egypt, Elijah and the Widow, busts of Franklin, Shakespeare,
Milton, and Falstaff, Toby jugs, cavaliers, shepherdesses, and dogs were all
popular, and indicate the general scope of subjects” (Fearing 1917, p. 82). Such
decorative goods were in most nineteenth-century domestic assemblages. In

Fig. 2 Few figures reflect the
ambiguities of figurines better
than this well-dressed monkey
playing a violin. This figure
might have evoked many differ-
ent things for various consumers
(Photograph by P. Mullins,
courtesy Museum of London

Int J Histor Archaeol (2012) 16:745–760 749

1825, for instance, a criminal case was lodged in London’s Old Bailey by
laborer Robert Williams, who had left a trunk in the home of his landlord
William Gerrard only to find that Gerrard and two women had claimed it while
Williams was gone for an extended absence. The trunk included a modest range
of goods that composed all of Williams’ earthly possessions, including eight
“chimney ornaments” valued at four shillings (Old Bailey 1825). The trunk held
23 groups of items including a tea pot (value 3s), three wine glasses (1s), 15 plates
(2s), three pillows (6s), a coat (value 25s), seven yards of silk (value 11s), a petticoat
(value 20s), two prints (value 3d), two spoons (value 6d), and a pair of sugar tongs
(value 6d). The ornaments apparently held some idiosyncratic if not especially
significant exchange value in an otherwise modest laborers’ assemblage long before
the zenith of bric-a-brac consumption.

The volume of figurines increased dramatically in the nineteenth century, when
they were marketed in various times and places as “chimney ornaments,” “cottage
ornaments,” “knick knacks,” or lumped within the category of “bric-a-brac.” Style
ideologues routinely lampooned mass-produced figurines, but that advice was appar-
ently ignored by most households, because decorative goods were found in at least
modest quantities in virtually every household through most of the nineteenth
century. For instance, in 1870 the British journal The Builder (1870, pp. 402–403)
indicated that “always to be found in the room of the poorest and humblest, are what
are termed ‘chimney ornaments.’ … Figures in coarse china-ware, very gorgeously
coloured, animals of different sorts, grotesques somehow contrived so as not to be
grotesque at all, but only utterly unmeaning and silly; imitation model clocks, a whole
warehouse of stupidities, are common end to be seen everywhere, and are eagerly
bought and carefully displayed, and always on view, for there is no getting away from
them.” Collector Virginia Robie’s (1912, pp. 75–76) survey of figurine motifs
indicated that “your chimney ornament may be anything from a woolly china dog
to a brightly painted villa. It may be common Staffordshire crockery, or a really fine
porcelain; it may be a work of art, or an atrocious daub. If it is a real cottage
specimen, it is quite apt to be a daub, for the cottage ornament pure and simple
was of humble origin, made of coarse clay, decorated by a potter whose education, if
he had any, was not along art lines, and turned out to sell at two-and-six apiece;
sometimes for one-and-six. But two shillings and sixpence was, and is, quite a sum to
an English cottager. It ought to buy a very respectable china cow, and, to the potter’s
credit, it may be said that it did.” European potteries produced figurines, too, and in
1870 The Builder (1870, p. 403) intoned that “It may not here be out of place to
inform or remind the intelligent reader that there are ‘warehouses’ in the east end of
London which regularly import by wholesale cargoes of ornaments of the kind
mentioned. They would seem to be manufactured in France and Germany, and are
the production, for the most part, of children working, of course, under a regular-
system of manufacture, the object passing from hand to hand as it goes on to
completion. … The workshops are the south of France and Germany, but the markets
England and America.”

As Robie (1912, p. 76) acknowledged in 1912, most such goods were quite
inexpensive, and this was the case for most figurines throughout the nineteenth
century. For instance, an 1899 “fancy goods” price list from the London wholesaler
T.M. Whitton and Sons (1899) inventoried a vast range of motifs designed to retail at

750 Int J Histor Archaeol (2012) 16:745–760

six pence, including “New Blue Glazed Tall Figures,” “New Assorted China Dogs,”
“New 10-inch Tall Glazed Figures,” “Negro Umbrella Figures,” “Nodding Chinaman
Figure,” and “Large Cats and Dogs.” Such goods could be acquired in a broad range
of market spaces. In her 1904 survey of life in nineteenth-century Surrey, Gertrude
Jekyll (1904, p. 119) indicated that “I can remember when this class of chimney
ornament was sold at country fairs, such as the yearly fair at St. Catherine’s Hill near
Guildford …. The same kind of ornament was also to be bought in china shops, as
well as a better type, like second-rate Chelsea.”

In some ways, figurines invoked the pretentious material displays and extravagant
aesthetics of elite Victorian households that reached a pinnacle in the Gilded Age.
Period observers like Twain were often suspicious of the ostentatious decorative
affluence found in many American homes. For many of them, this material “gilding”
was pure artifice that aspired to make its consumers appear worthy of social privilege,
and for many thinkers that contrived privilege inelegantly revealed the absence of
substance beneath. The notion of gilding drew a distinction between, on the one hand,
appearances of wealth, taste, or social privilege and, on the other hand, realities in
which dramatic materiality masked character shortcomings, modest material stand-
ing, or an absence of educated style and taste. For instance, William Dean Howells’
1889 novel A Hazard of New Fortunes detailed a “drawing-room … delicately
decorated in white and gold, and furnished with a sort of extravagant good taste;
there was nothing to object to the satin furniture, the pale, soft, rich carpet, the
pictures, and the bronze and china bric-a-brac, except that their costliness was too
evident; everything in the room meant money too plainly, and too much of it”
(Howells 1889, p. 199). The drawing room’s visitors concluded that “this tasteful
luxury in nowise expressed their civilisation” (Howells 1889, p. 199). In 1894,
novelist Sarah Grand (1894, p. 194) wove a similar tale, detailing a home that “was
crowded now to suffocation with curtains, cushions, couches, ottomans, and easy
chairs, upholstered in the modern manner with mere trivialities of a costly fashion,
devoid of association with the past, and not likely or even intended to last into any
distant future. It was decorated, too, in excess with pictures, statues, china, arms, and
ornaments of every sort, stuck any and everywhere till the eye was satiated. …. It was
a house furnished to death.”

These eclectic and striking aesthetics in paradoxically prosaic items often forced
observers to contemplate and question their own preconceptions about consumers. In
1885, for example, Charles Eyre Pascoe’s (1885, p. 293) guide to London devoted a
whole chapter to bric-a-brac shops, acknowledging that “most of us, from the highest
to the lowest, have a liking for such things; the chimneypiece of the humblest cottage
is seldom destitute of ornament of some kind.” Yet Pasco admitted that he “was once
surprised to find in a stuffy back room of a small tenement house in a London suburb,
chiefly inhabited by working-men, a remarkable collection of bric-a-brac—such a
collection, indeed, as would have brought no discredit to a much more cultivated
connoisseur.” Ideologically, all consumers were expected to make the effort to follow
household decorative disciplines, but for various class, racial, and ethnic reasons
ideologues assumed that most consumers could not reproduce dominant standards.
Consequently, stylish decorative goods often registered with observers who recog-
nized that such goods signaled social aspirations if not a circumspect foothold in
consumer society.

Int J Histor Archaeol (2012) 16:745–760 751

Novelist Edith Wharton and architect Ogden Codman Jr.’s 1897 study The Dec-
oration of Houses spent a whole chapter exorcising most bric-a-brac from the
American and British parlor alike, and they noted the ways gilding had lost its
symbolic power as the twentieth century approached. They suggested that the
“deterioration in gilding is one of the most striking examples of the modern disregard
of quality and execution. In former times gilding was regarded as one of the crowning
touches of magnificence in decoration, was little used except where great splendor of
effect was desired, and was then applied by means of a difficult and costly process.
To-day, after a period of reaction during which all gilding was avoided, it is again
unsparingly used. …The result is a plague of liquid gilding” (Wharton and Codman
1897, p. 193). For Wharton and Codman, gilding invoked genuine material and
symbolic wealth, and its reach into commonplace goods and everyday domestic
spaces erased its capacity to confirm such social and material standing, arguing that
“in former times the expense of good gilding was no obstacle to its use, since it was
employed only in gala rooms, where the whole treatment was on the same scale of
costliness: it would never have occurred to the owner of an average-sized house to
drench his walls and furniture in gilding, since the excessive use of gold in decoration
was held to be quite unsuited to such a purpose. Nothing more surely preserves any
form of ornament from vulgarization than a general sense of fitness” (Wharton and
Codman 1897, p. 193).

Animal figurines were probably the most common figurine motif. Many of the
animals rendered in ceramic figurines were domesticated pets, often representing on
the mantelpiece the same animals that might also inhabit Victorian homes. Nearly 100
figurines from London archaeological sites were analyzed for this study, and not one
depicts a wild animal, instead portraying dogs, sheep, and a host of domesticated
animals including house pets and livestock alike. A typical whiteware figurine
recovered from a mid-nineteenth-century cesspit on Randall Row in the London
Borough of Lambeth includes the remains of a seated dog alongside a foot that was
almost certainly understood to be the dog’s owner (Jeffries 2006, p. 284) (Fig. 3). Such
human and animal relationships were widely believed to have domesticating effects
on people. In 1868, for instance, Josepha Buell Hale (1868, p. 244) repeated a view of
pets that emerged in the first half of the nineteenth century (cf. Grier 1999), indicating
that “Home-life is the place for all innocent loves; and, when the love of pet animals
can be judiciously cultivated, it leads to the love of natural history and intellectual
improvement, as well as to thoughtful tenderness and moral sensibility.” Egerton
Leigh (1859, p. 6) agreed that the “love of Pets is one of the flowers of civilization, a
feeling either openly apparent or lying dormant until warmed into existence by
circumstances …. there is something humanizing in a Pet, which makes the heart
open to the genial warmth of kindness, like the rose bud expanding its long folded
leaves when kissed by the sunbeam.”

Many figurines did not depict a human with the animal, yet even in those
cases the central relationship between pets and humans—and the ways both
could be domesticated—was the central implied subject of many animal figur-
ines. For example, a dog figurine from the Chelsea Academy site in the Royal
Borough of Kensington and Chelsea sits on its haunches resplendent in a
sweater with a black collar: impeccably dressed, motionless, and utterly
disciplined, the dog provided a model for behavior that thwarted the dog’s

752 Int J Histor Archaeol (2012) 16:745–760

natural instincts, just as many households hoped their human family members
would curb their own desires and behaviors as well (Cetera 2008) (Fig. 4). Figurines of
sheep and lambs were likewise common. A typical example was recovered from the
Queensborough House site in Lambeth with a now-fragmented human figure along-
side a lamb docilely resting at the figure’s feet (Fig. 5). Such motifs invoked a mostly
fictive pastoral past that was significant as a contrast to the defamiliarization of cities
and factory labor, and on a London mantel the symbols of agrarian life were clear
contrasts with everyday urban life in the metropolis. This approaches figurines as a

Fig. 3 This dog once appears to
have sat obediently beside a
human figure, a very common
figurine motif depicting the
relationship between humans
and domesticated animals
(Photograph by P. Mullins,
courtesy Museum of London

Fig. 4 Many domesticated ani-
mal figurines placed the animals
in seemingly disciplined posi-
tions and even dressed, as this
dog was in a sweater and collar.
The display of a well-behaved
animal was viewed as a disci-
plinary lesson for people reluc-
tant or unable to tame their own
natural instincts (Photograph
by P. Mullins, courtesy Museum
of London Archaeology)

Int J Histor Archaeol (2012) 16:745–760 753

symbolic retreat from everyday experience, albeit one that casts such experience in a
purely escapist if not ideological form.

“Ambitious Borrowed Decorations”: Art, History, and Bric-a-Brac

Disingenuous ideologues constantly pressed to elevate household aesthetics and
fortify genteel standards by championing a variety of stylish and often “artistic”
decorative goods. Much of this overwrought commentary inelegantly attempted to
patrol class divisions and ensure that working people and the elite were distinguished
by material goods. In 1846, for instance, Andrew Jackson Downing wrote in The
Horticulturist (1846, p. 107) that “the mansion of the wealthy proprietor, which is
filled with pictures and statues, ought certainly to have a superior architectural
character to the cottage of the industrious workingman, who is just able to furnish
a comfortable home for his family. While the first is allowed to display even an ornate
style of building, which his means will enable him to complete and render somewhat
perfect—the other cannot adopt the same ornaments without rendering a cottage,
which might be agreeable and pleasing, from its fitness and genuine simplicity,
offensive and distasteful through its ambitious borrowed decorations” (cf. Downing
1856, p. 247). This mid-century commentary pointed toward many subsequent
ideologues’ apprehension that mass-produced goods risked erasing the visible class

Fig. 5 This docile lamb sat
alongside a human invoking a
romanticized vision of agrarian
labor and life that contrasted
radically with many consumers’
real life working experiences
(Photograph by P. Mullins,
courtesy Museum of London

754 Int J Histor Archaeol (2012) 16:745–760

distinctions once rendered in the material world. That apprehension likely fueled the
volume of commentary that criticized figurines and most mass-produced decorative
material culture.

Ideologues’ critique of everyday materiality routinely celebrated household “art.”
In 1870, for example, The Builder (1870, p. 402) moaned that:

It will surely then be seen that the art of common things is a matter of
importance and interest, and the chimney ornaments on the chimney shelf
of a working man’s room, and the pictures hung round the walls of it,
may come to be tests of his educational advancement; and perhaps the
Government inspector himself may actually find out what sort of educa-
tion the workman’s family of sons and daughters are receiving by a
simple inspection of the chimney ornaments and pictures in his posses-
sion, and even get in time an idea of art himself.

Nineteenth-century decorative ideologues routinely counseled consumers to stock
their homes with “art,” an ambiguity that framed a complicated ideological terrain.
When invoked in material ideologues’ thought, “art” routinely included both purely
ornamental objects (e.g., figurines, chromolithographs) as well as functional goods
(e.g., lamps, clocks); it clouded the distinction between a unique work of art and a
mass-manufactured commodity; and it included both contemporary objects and
genuine antiquities. In 1897, Wharton and Codman (1897, p. 186) struggled with
the ways cost shaped aesthetic meaningfulness, arguing that “though cheapness
and trashiness are not always synonymous, they are apt to be so in the case of
the modern knick-knack. To buy, and even to make, it may cost a great deal of
money; but artistically it is cheap, if not worthless; and too often its artistic
value is in inverse ratio to its price. The one-dollar china pug is less harmful
than an expensive onyx lamp-stand with molded bronze mountings dipped in
liquid gilding.” This position was typical of late nineteenth-century stylistic
critiques that aspired to remove clutter from Victorian parlors, and it also
launched a complicated critique of cost-status. Wharton and Codman (1897, p.
186) argued that “it is one of the misfortunes of the present time that the most
preposterously bad things often possess the powerful allurement of being expensive.
One might think it an advantage that they are not within every one’s reach; but, as a
matter of fact, it is their very unattainableness which, by making them more desirable,
leads to the production of that worst curse of modern civilization—cheap copies of
costly horrors.” This was a lamentation about the ways overdone elite styles were
reproduced in mass-produced goods, and they dismissively concluded that “it seems
improbable that our commercial knick-knack will ever be classed as a work of art”
(Wharton and Codman 1897, p. 184). In 1870, The Build

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