Thursday, April 22, 2010

All That Glitters

There are some books that I find myself returning to all the time for quick research, and this one "At Home: The American Family 1750-1870" is one of those. A well-researched, topical survey of domestic life for some 120 years, it is still light enough to make for good lunchtime reading. That's exactly what I was reading when I was inspired to write today's blog.


Human beings seem to be attracted to shiny things. Like magpies, many of us can be lured with a bit of gilding or twinkling glass (diamonds are a girl's best friend?). In fact, the human eye is instinctively drawn to bright areas and flashes of light. Americans of the 18th and 19th century were certainly no exception this fascination with all that glitters.
Shining surfaces represented cleanliness and affluence. Sparkling silver, mirrors, cut glass, polished woods, even varnished wallpapers were consequently favored decorations for the homes of the wealthy and increaingly as we reached into the 19th century, the upwardly-mobile middle class. Consequently, a trip to an historic house museum can be a visually dazzling experience.

Take a look around Clermont the next time you are in the mansion. Almost every room is littered with bits that shine, but the rooms that got the most attention were the "best" rooms: the dining room and drawing room.
Metallic objects were a favorite way to bring shine into a home. On the dining table, silver flatwear and serving pieces were polished to a high shine. These pieces became increasingly accessible to more middle class households as the 19th century progressed, especially with the introduction of more affordable silver plated in the early 1800s (see the Library of Congress advertisment from 1840 at right).

Often in museums, you may see that some silver is not kept as highly-polished as it may have been by the household mistress. Since polishing silver actually removes a very small layer of the metal, 100 or 200 years of polishing can eventually wear away all of the silver on a piece! So some museums will try to minimize their polishing on historic silver.


Gold was also a popular way to add some sparkle to a room. Elaborately-carved wooden frames gilded with gold leaf surrounded paintings. Our golden eagle, who hangs in the stairwell is constructed just like a frame. Brought back from the France by Chancellor Livingston, this uncommon piece is built of wood structure, covered with gesso and then gold leaf. Bits of gold were also very popular on furniture of the Empire period (popular in the early 19th century) as well as some other eras. Why not draw attention to those little flights of fancy on tables and cabinets?

Gold's inherant softness meant that it could not be used alone to create serving trays or flatwear the way silver was. Instead, ormolu (or gold plated over brass) was used. The shining tea set that resides in Clermont's drawing room is a great example of 19th century ormolu pieces.

Metal was by no means the only sparkle around the house though. Dating "way back" (if you'll pardon my vagueness. Visit the Corning Glass Museum for more information), crystal clear glass was a sign of wealth. Flat planes of glass, called crown glass, to make windows were expensive, and the windows of "respectable" homes were expected to be shiningly clean. Mirrors were another large expanse of flat, clear glass. Often of great size and expense, they were both beautiful by themselves and practical. They bounced light around rooms that were often dark. At Monticello Thomas Jefferson even placed his mirrors directly across from windows where their light-bouncing effects would have the most power.

During the nineteenth century cut glass (and its later, cheaper cousin: pressed glass) also found its way onto dining tables and parlors where its tiny prisms could bounce light around in every angle. Chandeliers, like the small one in the study pictured at left, not only provided light from above, but turned twinkling candles into hundreds of dazzling stars. Cut glass pendants were also suspended from candle holders, called girandoles (pronounced with a soft "g" in the French manor). These were extremely popular in the late Victorian era and were often sold in sets, which adorned mantles and were often set in front of large mirrors (more sparkle).

Glass dishes of course found their way onto dining tables. Elaborate and expensive cut glass wass favored by the well-to-do, but more middling classes soon found options when pressed glass was developed in the 1820s. Whole matching sets, including glasses, tooth pick holders, cellery dishes, relish dishes, and a broad array of other serving pieces soon became a point of pride for many housewives.

We have quite an array of glassware from various periods in Clermont's collections so we rotate it several times a year.


Many other kinds of shine could be found in houses of the 18th and 19th centuries as well. As was mentioned earlier, fine woods were kept to a highly reflective polish. Mahogany and other dark woods were favorites, and it was during the Late Neoclassical Period of the early-mid 19th century (just after the Empire period. An example is pictured at left) that they really came into their own. Broad curving expanses of wood necessitated frequent dusting to keep them looking their best.

In fact, all of these twinkling, shining objects required constant attention to keep them at their best. Servants were kept busy with shining, polishing, and cleaning in a never-end "dog trot" routine. In houses with high asperations and no servants, these duties were left to housewives and any children trusty-worthy enough to handle the valuables.

As modern industry made these shining surfaces easier to replicate inexpensively, and cleaning products developed that minimized the time required to keep them looking good (when I think of all that "dust-resistant" spray product that my mother had me apply to her furniture!), the status that they represented became diluted. Sure shiney brass candle sticks are still a great way to wow guests at the dinner table, but the popularity of "Shabby Chic," "antiqued" finishes, and other things that mimic age and wear suggests to me that maybe we've been there, done that when it comes to the shine. Although maybe the Be-Dazzler could be used as evidence that I'm wrong.

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