Ch 5. The Figure in the Carpet

Chapter 5: The Figure in the Carpet

It was only in areas from which the propaganda of culture was completely excluded that the vernacular aesthetic of the machine was wholeheartedly accepted. The presentday interest in Shaker crafts and architecture, no matter how carelessly the antique collectors and folk-art enthusiasts may lump them with the quaint survivals of an agrarian era, is essentially a recognition of the vitality and strength of vernacular forms evolved without any reference to the cultivated tradition. The Shakers had no fear of the machine. Their communities actually seem to have produced more mechanics and inventors per capita than most other towns and villages of comparable size. In the Shaker laundry and dairy at Canterbury, New Hampshire, at least as early as iL868 tfiere was a stationary steam engine that did "all the work of lifting, lowering, turning, washing, ironing, drying, churning, etc."-which indicates a degree of mechanization not achieved in commercial laundries for some years thereafter. Indeed it is a noteworthy fact that the mechanical and inventive faculties which have so long been claimed as the peculiar virtue of rugged individualism turn out on mispection to have been a distinctive characteristic not only of the Shakers but of a number of other nineteenth-century socialist communities as well. Charles Nordhoff traveled across the country in the early 1870s, visiting and collecting data on the Shakers, Perfectionists, Rappists, and others, and reported his findings in The Communistic Societies of the United States (1875). No one, he says, who visited a society which had been for some time in existence could fail to be struck with "the amount of ingenuity, inventive skill, and business talent developed among men from whom, in the outer world, one would not expect such qualities."

At the Shaker colony in New Gloucester, Maine, Elder Hewitt Chandler was the inventor of a mowing machine which was manufactured by the society, and of other machines which were used in making oak staves for molasses hogsheads. At the Oneida community the Perfectionists had contrived all the machines for making traps, including a very ingenious one for making the links for the chains, machines for measuring silk thread as it was wound on spools, and machines for testing the strength of thread. The severity and stripped utility of all Shaker objects (their furniture is never decorated with stencils or painted designs as are chairs and chests made in a true folk tradition like that of the Pennsylvania Dutch) was in perfect harmony with machine work. But its plain forms-though admired by "outsiders" for their utility-could scarcely have seemed beautiful to people who were accustomed to the ornamental design of the cultivated tradition. When Nordhoff, for instance, visited the Shaker settlement at New Lebanon, be was depressed by what seemed to him to be the homeliness of the buildings, which struck him as "mere factories or human hives." He asked Elder Frederick Evans whether, if they were to build anew, they could not "aim at some architectural effect, some beauty of design." Evans' reply was a direct, though negative, statement of the deliberate rejection of embellishment which Greenough had achieved in theory and the Shakers in practice. "No," he replied with great positiveness. "The beautiful, as you call it, is absurd and abnormal. It has no business with us. The divine has no right to waste money upon what you would call beauty, in his house or his daily life." If they built anew, he added, they would design their buildings with an eye to "more light, a more equal distribution of heat, and a more general care for protection and comfort, because these things tend to health and long life. But no beauty."

Shaker art was thus much more closely identified with the vernacular than with what the antiquaries call the folk arts. In its simplici , lightness, linear clarity, and mechanical ingenuity it was sensitive to the technological environment, and its social alms were in harmony with equalitarian democracy. It had a share in molding the new tradition.

But the tradition was certainly not appreciated or understood by those in Elder Evans' time who were interested in encouraging an American style of decorative art. To be sure, Emerson's essays and lectures were quite widely known among the cultivated classes, and Emerson had expressed some ideas about art which bad a touch of Greenough in them. In The Conduct of Life (1860), for instance, he had said, in the essay on "Beauty," that "outside embellishment is deformity. . . . Hence our taste building rejects paint, and all shifts, and shows the original grain of the wood . . . " and had pronounced it as "a rule of widest application, true in plant, true in a loaf of bread, that in the construction of any fabric or organism, any real increase of fitriess to its end, is an increase of beauty." But few, if any, of Emerson's readers then were free enough from cultivated preconceptions about design to grasp the literal truth of his idea. One may doubt, indeed, whether Emerson himself, in spite of his fondness for a man who liked a good barn as well as a great tragedy, would have been able to see in the New Lebanon buildings the application of his own rule. That perception had to wait for another sixty years, and for the intuitive grasp of a painter like Charles Sheeler, working in a medium for which Emerson had little use.

In the meantime culture-conscious Americans, in their search for suitable decorative arts, as in their search for a suitable architecture, overlooked the products of the vernacular. just as Washington Irving had filled his pseudoGothic Surmyside with furnishings many of which were pure Georgian, people everywhere tried to adapt assorted available styles to their everyday requirements. Far from being plain, the various fads and fashions which were encouraged by our cultural teachers--from A. J. Downing's Elizabethan and Gothic hybrids to the Eastlake-Morris styles which were so well advertised at the Centennial--were elaborate and ornate. It was left to industrial commercial folk to appreciate the plywood (or, as it was then called, "pressed-work") furniture, made out of thin sheets of wood glued together and then heated and pressed in molds, which in the seventies was replacing the oldfashioned solid, high-backed chairs and ponderous tables. It was one of the anonymous authors of The Great Industries of the United States who pointed out the relationship between these "lighter articles and more graceful forms" and the lightness and strength of balloon-frame construction.

No one in the mid-century had a greater influence on American taste in architecture and decoration than Downing. He published a number of books which sold widely, and his influence was further spread through the work of disciples like Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmstead, the designer of New York's Central Park. On the whole his influence was healthy, and he did much to encourage the formation of what he liked to call a free and manly school of republican tastes and manners as opposed to transplanting "the meaningless conventionalities of the realms of foreign caste." But he was aware that to many people memory is dearer than hope, and he instinctively shared the tastes of these "natural conservatives," as he called them, "whom Providence has wisely distributed, even in the most democratic governments, to steady the otherwise too impetuous and unsteady onward movements of those who, in their love for progress, would obliterate the past, even in its hold on the feelings and imaginations of our race." He was happy to assure such people that they were under no obligation to be interested in an architecture related to their own time. They were quite free, he said surround themselves with the "forms and symbols" of some former age.

Downing was not unaware of the importance of the nlirelv functional elements in desian but he was not prepared to follow Greenough (or the Shakers) into a rejection of all embellishment.

A head of grain [he insisted], one of the most useful of vegetable forms, is not so beautiful as a rose; an ass, one of the most useful of animals, is not so beautiful as a gazelle; a cotton-mill, one of the most useful of modem structures, is not so beautiful as the temple of Vesta...

Therefore it was an undeniable truth, he argued, that the beautiful was intrinsically something distinct from the useful, and it was consequently inevitable that many people would be unsatisfied with mere utilitarian design and would "yeam, with an instinct as strong as for life itself, for the manifestation of a higher attribute of matter." With the result in Downing's own case, for example, that though he lays it down as a general law of design that "the material should appear to be what it is," when he gets down to cases he nevertheless specifies that woodwork should be "oak or other dark wood, varnished, or it should be painted and grained to resemble it." (Italics mine.)

Downing and his followers all opposed the brightness which was characteristic of American interiors. "Soft and delicate tints," cool and sober tones," "fawn or neutral shades"--these are the recurrent phrases in their prescriptions for wallpapers, drapery, ahd carpets. They agreed with Edgar Allan Poe, who had told the readers of Burton's Gentleman's Magazine in 1840 that "glare is a leading error in the philosophy of American household decoration," and had lamented that no one here, least of all the money aristocracy, understood "the spirituality of a British boudoir."

Poe's article'about house furnishings suggests some interesting points about the relationship between the vernacular tradition and popular taste in interior decoration. It reminds us that the very concept of decoration, whatever its nature, is incompatible with the vernacular's unembellished utility. There could not be any such thing as vernacular decoration, in the sense which we have here attributed to that term. But the democratic-technological environment which determined the characteristics of vernacular design also imposed certain qualities upon decorative patterns wherever they occurred.

Take the matter of carpets, for example. According to Poe, whose taste in these matters was molded altogether by his affinity for a romantic if decadent aristocracy, the soul of every room is the carpet. From it should be deduced not only the hues but the forms of all other objects.

Everyone knows [he went on] that a large floor may have a covering of large figures, and that a small one must have a covering of small--yet this is not all the knowledge in the world. As regards texture, the Saxony is alone admissible. . . . In brief, distinct grounds and vivid circular or cycloid figures, of no meaning, are here Median laws. The abomination of flowers, or representations of well-Imown objects of any kind, should not be endured within the limits of Christendom. . . . As for those antique floor-cloths still occasionally seen in the dwellings of the rabblecloths of huge, sprawling and radiating devices, stripe-interspersed, and glorious with all hues, among which no ground is intelligible-these are but the wicked invention of a race of time-servers and money-lovers-children of Baal and worshippers of Mammon-Benthams, who, to spare thought and economize fancy, first cruelly invented the Kaleidoscope, and then established joint-stock companies to twirl it by steam.

Everyone, it seems, who wanted to "improve" American taste in decoration-in Poe's time and for many years thereafter-tried to discourage the popular taste for bright'light, cheerful color, and for realistic forms in ornamental design. In High Life in New York (1854), Mrs. Ann S. Stephens ridiculed the fashionable dining room where "everything glittered and shone so it fairly took away my appetite," and the parlor whose carpet was "the brightest and softest thing I ever did see . . . enough to make a feller stun blind to look at it, the figgers on it were so allfired gaudy." And in the seventies cultivated writers were still objecting to flower patterns in carpets and to rugs which were "the best imitation of landscape painting that can be woven in dyed wool."

In this opposition to realism in fabric design, cultivated Americans were reflecting the opinion of the most respectable English authorities. They were fond of quoting, for example, from Sir Matthew Digby Wyatt, Slade professor of fine arts at Cambridge and author of a learned volume on Industrial Arts of the Nineteenth Century (1853). Sir Digby thus put the case against floral designs in upholstery and carpets in his painfully academic prose:

The moment one is impressed with the idea of walking or sitting upon what no person in his senses would think of walking or sitting on, a painful sense of impropriety is experienced, proportioned in intensity to the vivacity with which this misappropriation of judicious design is expressed in the fabric.

But in spite of all cultivated objections, realistic representatiOns of natural forms continued to suit the popular taste. If carpets were to be colorful, people in general shared Walt Whitman's preference for figures closely imitated from nature: the deep and pale reds of autumn leaves, the green of pines, the bright yellow of hickory. "How much better," Whitman had written in 1862, "than the tasteless, meaningless, and every way inartistical diagrams that we walk over, now, in the most fashionably carpeted parlors."

Similarly, people continued to be "violently enamored of gas and of glass" in spite of Poe's or anyone else's objections. At the Centennial the furnished rooms exhibited by American firms were full of glass (one New York manufacturer exhibited furniture all made of mirrors), and looked, as one disapproving observer remarked, like the bridal chambers of hotels or the saloons of steamboats. Indeed, it may well be that the popular ideal of interior decoration found its most accessible symbol in the cabins of the Mississippi steamboats which Mark Twain delighted to describe. The subdued tones and the air of repose encouraged by Downing, Vaux, and their successors had no place in the "snow-white cabin; porcelain knob and oilpicture on every stateroom door; curving patterns of filigree-work touched up with gilding . . . ; big chandeliers every little way, each an April shower of glittering glass-drops"; nor, for that matter, in the ladies' cabin, with its "pink and white Wilton carpet, as soft as mush, and glorified with a ravishing pattern of gigantic flowers."

Marietta Holley's "Samantha Allen" had a carpet in her parlor in Jonesville which would have perfectly suited Whitman's taste and have horrified Poe. In affectionate detail she describes its "green ground work that looks just like moss, with clusters of leaves all scattered over it, crimson and gold colored and russet brown, that look for all the world as if they might have fell offen the maple trees out in the yard in the fall of the year." Here is the same insistence upon meaningful design and the realistic representation of natural forms which we will later encounter as an important characteristic of the vernacular attitude toward painting.

The Centennial brought to America an impressive display of English decorative arts. TheIllustrated London News had told its readers that Great Britain certainly would carry off the prizes in the departments of art furniture and ceramics. And so, indeed, she did. For a decade and more thereafter, America had her share of consciencesmitten women (to use the phrase of a later female authority on decoration) who went in for "art" wallpaper, . art" furniture, and "art" textiles. But it wasn't many years before Eastlake and Morris were forgotten, and the floral wallpaper, floral carpets, and floral upholstery against which they had inveighed were back in fashion.

Some light on this is shed in an essay by Mary Gay Humphreys on "The Progress of American Decorative Art," which appeared in the London Art Journal in 1893, Faced, at the close of the century, with the same popular preferences which had been opposed from the beginning by various exponents of cultivated taste, she concluded that since we were short on museums, private collections, noble houses, and other "depositories of accumulated treasures of Art," and since our "foraging-ground" for such materials was across many thousand miles of water, we bad been thrown more or less on our own resources. Our designers had been driven to seek their inspirations in natural forms and had thus contracted an "allegiance to nature," as Miss Humphreys called it, "which the most determined theorist on the subject of conventional decoration" could not overcome. The consequence, she admitted, was that "in purely American work the boundaries between realism and conventionality are far less rigidly defined than elsewhere."

In this area of the arts, as in the others we have looked at, the vernacular and the cultivated traditions interacted. Even in a curtain designed by the painter John La Farge, applique and embroidery were used to define a realistic perspective landscape. But by the end of the century we had gone a long way toward'accumulating on this side of the Atlantic enough "treasures of art" to threaten to suffocate not only the patterns which had evolved in the vernacular tradition but even the popular taste for realistic decorative designs. Too many of us, convinced that the useful and the aesthetic were antithetical and that our genius lay with the former, had comfortably decided-like the editor of Harper's Magazine in 1859-that "what is fine in the buildings of the old countries we can borrow; their statues and their pictures we will be able in good time to buy." Borrow and buy we did, filling our homes as well as our museums with the plunder, and sending generations of our children to school to study the uprooted masterpieces of another civilization. In that cultural climate Emerson's essay on "Art" must have seemed like pure vapor. Perhaps only in our own time, when the achievements of the vernacular have begun to be recognized, has that strange essay found its audience. At all events, these paragraphs provide a fitting postscript to this chapter:

The old tragic Necessity, which lowers on the brows even of the Venuses and Cupids of the antique...--namely that they were inevitable; that the artist was drunk with a passion for form which he could not resist, and which vented itself in these fine extravagancesno longer dignifies the chisel or the pencil. But the artist and connoisseur now seek in art the exhibition of their talent, or an asylum from the evils of life. Men are not well pleased with the figure they make in their own imaginations, and they flee to art, and convey their better sense in an oratorio, a statue, or a picture. Art makes the same effort which a sensual prosperity makes; namely to detach the beautiful from the useful, to do up the work asunavoidable, and, hating it, to pass on to enjoyment.

Now men do not see nature to be beautiful, and they go to make a statue which shall be. They abhor men as tasteless, dull, and unconvertible, and console themselves with color bags and blocks of marble. They reject life as prosaic, and create a death which they call poetic.... Beauty must come back to the useful arts, and the distinction between the fine and the useful arts be forgotten.... In nature all is useful, all is beautiful. It is therefore beautiful because it is alive, moving, reproductive; it is therefore useful because it is symmetrical and fair.

Beauty will not come at the call of a legislature, nor will it repeat in England or America its history in Greece... It is in vain that we look for genius to reiterate its miracles in the old arts; it is its instinct to find beauty and holiness in new and necessary facts, in the field and roadside, in the shop and mill.

Emerson wrote these words a generation before the Corliss engine or the Eads bridge were built. Indeed, it was to be several years before Emerson's friend Greenough identified specific manifestations of the vernacular, in the clipper ships, for example, and in machines and scaffolding. But by a characteristically perceptive insight Emerson grasped the inevitability of a new tradition in art. He faced the stubborn fact that art could never be at home in the new civilization if it clung to forms which were no longer alive and reproductive.

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