A new exhibition opening May 26 at UT’s McClung Museum of Natural History and Culture depicts consumer culture in the American Gilded Age. The exhibition includes a number of objects on loan from UT Libraries’ Special Collections.
Fish Forks and Fine Furnishings: Consumer Culture in the Gilded Age explores the personal and household objects that served as visible symbols of wealth, power, and social class during the Gilded Age.
The American Gilded Age, defined in the exhibition as 1870–1900, offered unprecedented access to consumer goods. What one owned or had the ability to buy became an important way to assert one’s identity. Though there was also vast income disparity, the time period saw rapid modernization and great expansion of the country’s middle class, which experienced an increase in overall quality of life.
The period takes its name from Mark Twain’s novel satirizing the gross materialism and political corruption of the era. An 1874 edition of Twain’s The Gilded Age from the libraries’ rare book collection is included in the exhibition. Other items on loan from Special Collections are an 1898 edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll; The Gibson Book (1906), a collection of illustrations by Charles Dana Gibson, creator of the turn-of-the-century feminine ideal, the Gibson Girl; and an 1888 Christmas menu from Schubert’s Hotel in Knoxville.
Also on display are issues of two iconic magazines of the era. Godey’s Lady’s Book was known for its hand-colored plates presenting the fashions of the day. The growth of trade and travel in the Gilded Age meant that Americans had new access to, and interest in, goods from around the world. This is evidenced by 1876 issues of Harper’s Weekly featuring “The Japanese Bazaar” and a “Scene in the Chinese Department” at the Centennial International Exhibition held that year in Philadelphia.
McClung Museum will host Fish Forks and Fine Furnishings: Consumer Culture in the Gilded Age from May 26 through August 27, 2017. Read more about the exhibition and affiliated lectures, tours, and other events at tiny.utk.edu/fish-forks.
“Scene in the Chinese Department,” Centennial International Exhibition, Philadelphia, 1876. Harper’s Weekly, September 2, 1876.