Wednesday, July 9, 2014

What is the Colonial Revival?

Among the many colonial curiosities on display at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition of 1876, perhaps none was more popular than the New England Kitchen. The creation of Emma Southwick, the kitchen was both a restaurant serving “old-tyme” fare and a historical exhibit. The reconstructed log cabin displayed old-fashioned furniture and “Revolutionary relics,” while young ladies in “quaint costumes” served New England delicacies such as boiled dinner, beans, and brown bread. Similar kitchens had appeared at a number of fund-raising fairs during the Civil War, but it was the Centennial Exposition that brought them to national attention.

Historians generally date the beginnings of the Colonial Revival to the Centennial Exposition of 1876, and consider 1880 to 1930 the peak of its popularity—though it’s never really gone away completely. During this period, many Americans were interested in collecting colonial furnishings and decorative arts, or reproductions thereof, and preserving or restoring colonial structures. But the Colonial Revival is more than an architectural or decorative style. It has also been a way for Americans to help ease their transition from past to present. Not simply an expression of nostalgia for a supposedly “simpler” time, the Colonial Revival became a vehicle for the promotion of ideas about patriotism, morals and family life, good taste, and democracy.

The New England Kitchen at the Centennial Exposition

Born in 1863, Alice Miner came of age just at the moment when the Colonial Revival was beginning to flourish, and she witnessed many of the key moments in its history: the Philadelphia Centennial and the Chicago World’s Fair, where yet another “Old-Tyme Kitchen” was on display; the creation of the first period rooms at the Essex Institute in Salem; the opening of the American Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; the restoration of Colonial Williamsburg. But Alice wasn’t content with just reading about these developments in magazines, or participating in the various collecting “crazes” of her day. After all, most Americans—even very wealthy ones—with an interest in the Colonial Revival didn’t start their own museums. Alice Miner did, and what she collected tells us as much about her, and the time she lived in, as it does about the colonial era itself.

In future posts we’ll delve more deeply into the Colonial Revival and Alice Miner’s place in it. What was happening in the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that made the colonial era so appealing? How did people learn about colonial homes and furnishings, and how did they acquire items for themselves or for museums? What were their reasons for collecting, or for purchasing reproductions, or visiting Colonial Williamsburg? And just what did they mean by “colonial,” anyway?

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