Following the Fashions: A Basic American Pastime

AJ1Today’s #ColonialCouture post is by Amy Sopcak-Joseph, a doctoral candidate in American history at the University of Connecticut. She is working on her dissertation, “Fashioning American Women: Godey’s Lady’s Book, Female Consumers, and Periodical Publishing in the Nineteenth Century.” Follow her @AmySopcakJoseph.

It’s that time of year again: time to stash away all of your white pants and head to the nearest Starbucks for a PSL. Love it or hate it, that sugary “Pumpkin Spice Latte” is more than just a drink that allows us to ingest autumn. The PSL reached cultural-icon status when it became the trendy accessory of someone “basic”–a term encompassing a larger set of consumer choices linked to appearance, food, and leisure activities that signal an uncritical devotion to trends. Calling someone “basic” became a kind of epithet against people who like things that are mainstream or, as some writers have suggested, feminine.[1] Some women have taken ownership of “basic,” embracing it as an identity (see social media posts enthusiastically tagged #basic).

Is being “basic” really that bad? Is someone superior–morally or intellectually–for not liking things that are mainstream? Judging other people’s consumer choices and assigning them political or cultural meaning is as American as apple (or pumpkin?) pie. In the 1820s, 1830s, and 1840s, when the United States was transitioning from an agrarian economy to a capitalist one, considerable anxiety emerged about the consumer choices of the burgeoning middle class. Not unlike the criticisms of 21st-century women whose tastes and identity might be called “basic,” some found women’s purchases and self-fashioning to be particularly alarming. Ministers and reformers argued that these choices demonstrated women’s uncritical adherence to the “tyranny” or “evils” of fashion, a devotion that could negatively shape the future of the republic. Continue reading

Guest Post: Review of Farrelly, Anti-Catholicism in America, 1620-1860

Today’s guest poster, William S. Cossen, is an Atlanta-based historian of the nineteenth- and twentieth-century United States, specializing in the intersection of religion and nationalism. He serves as the book review editor for H-SHGAPE (Society for Historians of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era) and am a member of the faculty of The Gwinnett School of Mathematics, Science, and Technology, the top-ranked public high school in Georgia. Cossen received his PhD in History from The Pennsylvania State University and is currently revising a book manuscript entitled, Making Catholic America: Religious Nationalism in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era.

Maura Jane Farrelly, Anti-Catholicism in America, 1620-1860 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2018).

51bnna9rw6l-_sx329_bo1204203200_Whether John Higham was correct in describing anti-Catholicism as the “most luxuriant, tenacious tradition of paranoiac agitation in American history” is a matter of debate.[1] Not as disputed, though, is the reality that, until relatively recently, a great many Americans did view Catholicism as one of the principal threats to liberty and order in the United States. Maura Jane Farrelly’s masterful new volume, Anti-Catholicism in America, 1620-1860, traces the development of anti-Catholicism in the United States (or what would eventually become that country) from the establishment of Plymouth Colony to the coming of the Civil War. Farrelly’s work is at once a survey bringing together several decades of scholarly work on American religious, social, and political history, and an impressive example of primary-source research in its own right. For Farrelly, a professor of American studies at Brandeis University, the history of American anti-Catholicism extends beyond questions of religiosity, instead encompassing the meaning and composition of the nation. As she explains in the book’s introduction, “Any understanding of anti-Catholicism…requires us to interrogate the meaning of American freedom and, by extension, the promise of American identity.”[2] Continue reading

Roundtable: Colonial Couture

Roundtable: Colonial Couture
juntofashion1

Christian Dior (2011) and Dorothy Quincy Hancock Scott (ca. 1772)

You’re invited…to The Junto’s first roundtable on fashion as history in early American life. In step with New York Fashion Week, we’ll present a new perspective daily on how the material question of “what people wore” shaped personal politics and national identity. We’re, er, bursting at the seams with guest contributors, so watch this space for a new post (or two!) every day. Thanks to a diverse array of scholars, over the next week we’ll get a better look at the sartorial identities of the enslaved; explore Native Americans’ role in the textile trade; take in the view from Benjamin Franklin’s Versailles; meet the artisans who bound up the loose threads of Atlantic World couture; and more. Continue reading

Begging for Bounty

1829-city-scatEvery day they took apart the city, and put it back together again. New Year’s Day was no different. They worked while dawn, then dusk, threaded the sky, to patch up narrow streets. Lamplighters, an urban mainstay heroicized by Maria Susanna Cummins’ fictional “Trueman Flint,” heaved up their wooden ladders to trim wicks and refill oil pans. Along with the dry-dirtman, city scavengers spread out to collect loose trash. The scene might have been Boston, Philadelphia, Charleston, New York, Baltimore, Cleveland, St. Louis—and set anytime from the Revolution to the Civil War. Newspaper carriers, mostly young boys, filtered along the avenues. Tucked in sheets of newsprint, the city’s youngest workers also carried on a curious tradition: the New Year’s address. A rhyming blend of local-color writing and cultural commentary, the New Year’s address recapped the past and looked ahead. Laden with ornamental tombstone borders and often draped over double columns, each address ended with a plea for an annual gratuity. Continue reading

A Toast to John Adams

ja wineHappy 280th birthday to President John Adams: lawyer, statesman, and…wine connoisseur? He began a crisp New England morning like today with a tankard of hard cider, but Adams’ years in Europe primed his palate for fine French wine. Continue reading

After the Trail

Sioux Shield FP op

Oglala Sioux Shield, ca. 1846

Consider the sixth-grader of 1907. Gertrude F. Greene’s syllabus passed over Plato, sidelined Scottish ballads, and resisted the Alaskan derring-do of The Fur-Seal’s Tooth. At the top of her reading list—first to devour on a snowy winter break from the old Belcher School—she ranked Francis Parkman’s Oregon Trail (1849). In under a century, Parkman had gone from cliffhanger to canon. Why? What might students learn from a 23-year-old romantic historian’s rambles in the Indian country of 1846? Glints of Parkman’s early artistry shone through, but only when you shook up the story a bit. His sketch of life with the Oglala Sioux melded ethnography and emotion, sense and sensation. His Oregon Trail had been greatly curated, edited, and revised in the retelling. And yet Ms. Greene’s sixth-graders missed out on the juicier bits. What Parkman saw (“a strange variety of characters”), what Parkman heard (“harsh and guttaral” dialects), and what Parkman ate (buffalo, fish, dog) on the road filled his private journals, first made available to readers in the 1940s. There, stashed away in the “no-filter” notebooks that Parkman used to piece together his first blockbuster, lay the real adventure. Continue reading

Before the Trail

Francis Parkman's Medicine Chest

Francis Parkman’s Medicine Chest

Pratt must be paid. There was a route to examine one last time, and three shirts to stuff into a knapsack bulging with flannels and history books, powder and shot. The Berkshire Hills trip was a rush job; he needed to return for graduation in late August, 1844. Into the knapsack went a 4” x 2½” dusky-green journal, with shorthand notes in pencil. After a boyhood spent hunting and riding bareback on the Medford frontier, the blue-eyed Harvard senior, 20, knew how to pack for a research errand into the wilderness. Already, he boasted colorful adventures from past summer forays, fine-tuning the field skills that history professor Jared Sparks did not cover in class. Take July 1841: Scaling his first New Hampshire ravine, the rookie historian slipped and swung free, clawing air. As he “shuddered” and clung to the crag, a hard sheaf of pebbles fell, “clattering hundreds of feet” to the sunny gulf below.

 

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