Friday, October 17, 2014

The Colonial Revival Heads West

In the years between the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition of 1876 and the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, interest in and knowledge about early America had grown enormously. In fact, there were more examples of the Colonial Revival on display at the Columbian Exposition than had ever been brought together anywhere before. Moreover, this was the first time that the Colonial Revival had been exhibited extensively outside the eastern seaboard, meaning that for many native midwesterners, as well as foreign immigrants, this was their first exposure to the style.

Pennsylvania State Building
Perhaps the most obvious manifestation of the Colonial Revival were the state buildings. Of the 39 states represented at the Fair, 21 chose to erect colonial-style buildings. Most were loose adaptations of local colonial architecture, while four states chose to adapt or replicate historic structures. Pennsylvania based its building on Independence Hall, Massachusetts on John Hancock's house, New Jersey on George Washington’s headquarters in Morristown, and Virginia on Mount Vernon. 

In explaining the reasons behind Massachusetts’s choice of architectural style, the Board of Managers described its “air of aristocratic distinction and reserve and dignity” while still retaining “a homelike and comfortable appearance.” States wanted their buildings to impress visitors while also presenting a welcoming exterior to fairgoers. Colonial styles, because of their associations with a historic and patriotic period in America’s past, seemed especially appropriate for official buildings.

Massachusetts State Building

Except for Virginia’s building (the only one that was a true replica inside and out), none of the state buildings attempted to recreate an accurate colonial interior. The state buildings had to serve a variety of functions, and needed office space, meeting and reception rooms, and restrooms which could not be accommodated in a colonial floor plan. They did, however, include colonial furniture (some antique, but mostly reproduction), woodwork, and wall and window treatments.

Essex Institute exhibit

Most state buildings also housed exhibits of colonial artifacts, including furniture, textiles, ceramics, and portraits. For example, the Essex Institute of Salem contributed an exhibit for the Massachusetts State Building that included 41 pieces of furniture from the 16th through the early 19th centuries, pictures “showing well-known houses in Salem and representative of the various styles of architecture in use in Colonial and pre-Revolutionary times,” and 10 display cases crammed full of coins and paper currency, almanacs, pamphlets, newspapers, needlework, manuscripts (sermons, letters, account books), medals, snuffboxes, shoe buckles, and more. 

“Mother Southwick” and her assistants
On the Midway--the Fair’s entertainment district--visitors would find that Emma Southwick Brinton, proprietor of the New England Kitchen at the Philadelphia Centennial, had reproduced her popular restaurant and museum. “Ye Olde Tyme” kitchen still served traditional New England fare such as pork and beans, puddings, pumpkin pie, doughnuts, and flapjacks with molasses. While the exhibit didn’t make quite as much of a splash in Chicago as it had in Philadelphia--it had more colonial competition now--Brinton and her assistants were chosen to represent the United States in a souvenir photographic portfolio of “Midway Types.”

“The Ripe Fruit of Freedom”
Colonial-themed entertainment also included impresario Imre Kiralfy’s Grand Historical Spectacle, “America,” which “presented in music, dance, costume and scenery the story of the nation.” Then there were quirkier manifestations of the Colonial Revival, such as the three different replicas of the Liberty Bell--one made of wheat, oats, and barley; one made of citrus fruits; and one made of melted-down colonial relics. 

Virgina’s Mount Vernon
One of the most interesting aspects of the state buildings is the extent to which women were responsible for coordinating the exhibits. In many cases, the state simply turned the whole project over to a State Board of Lady Managers and left it to them to figure out how to get the job done. For example, the Virginia legislature appropriated only $25,000 for all aspects of the state’s participation in the Fair. The Virginia Board of World’s Fair Managers then appointed a special women's committee, charging them with the “patriotic duty” of raising funds to duplicate Mount Vernon in Chicago--which they did, very successfully. For the most part, the women on these boards had no formal experience in handling historical materials, but they nonetheless managed to persuade owners to lend items for exhibition and then took full responsibility for the safe packaging, shipping, display, and then return of every item on exhibit. The experience that the “lady managers” acquired at the Fair would later be put to use in museums and historical societies across the country.

The enormous size and location of the Columbian Exposition, and its massive attendance, were significant factors in the popularization of the Colonial Revival. The Fair received over 20 million visitors--more than twice as many as had visited the Centennial. Many of them were people who had had little or no exposure to the historical sites of the original thirteen colonies, and the novelty of the style attracted much attention. The wide variety of regional colonial architectural styles and colonial artifacts, gathered together in the heart of the midwest, helped to solidify the Colonial as the country’s national style. 

It seems quite likely that the World’s Fair was one of Alice Trainer’s first encounters with the Colonial Revival. Though it would be another ten years before she became a collector, the boom in research and publications about the colonial era that was triggered by the Fair would provide valuable resources when she began to gather items for her Colonial Collection.

The photos of the state buildings and the Liberty Bell are taken from the Field Museum Library’s flickr album.

The photo of the Essex Institute exhibit comes from the Report of the Massachusetts Board of World's Fair Managers.

The photo of Emma Southwick Brinton and her assistants is from the Smithsonian’s collection, and is reproduced in The Colonial Revival in America.

Much of the information in this piece is drawn from Susan Prendergast Schoelwer, “Curious Relics and Quaint Scenes: The Colonial Revival at Chicago’s Great Fair,” an essay in The Colonial Revival in America. 

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