marycatelli (marycatelli) wrote,

Confidence Men and Painted Women

Confidence Men and Painted Women: A Study of Middle-Class Culture in America, 1830-1870 by Karen Halttunen.

History of an attitude.  And while I've said that before,  The Nobility of Failure traced a single attitude through various incidents throughout centuries.  This one studies the ramifications of one attitude through many complications.

Sincerity.  Hypocrisy.  Major issues in the era for Americans.  For all sorts of reasons.  For one thing, cities exploded in this time, and that meant that people kept on meeting up with people they didn't know.  One person wrote in a letter that, shockingly enough, she has only twice met someone she actually knew while walking the streets of Philadelphia.  And many people had to work with people they didn't know and couldn't know.  Apprenticeships, even, became rare.

Worse, the spread of democracy meant that traditional authority was being upended, and people were rising in social status.  Many advice books fulminated about how men could subvert the authority of fathers and clergy. 

The old Puritan habit of self-examination to determine whether one could be saved carried over nicely to the role of examining one's self's for hypocrisy.  Especially since being a hypocrite was the great fear of the Puritan conscience.

The "confidence man" was a major bogeyman in the cult of sincerity that arose as a consequence.  A man who could allure the innocent young man to his doom by his false professions -- and worse, by his ability to read the unfortunate young man's feeling on his sincere and open face.  One reason why the cult of domesticity emphasized the woman's role in the cult of sincerity was that it might prove fatal for the man's ability to manage, if he adhered strictly to its code.

And it produce interesting ramifications.  Fashion, for instance.  Godley's Lady Book -- a fashion book -- railed against fashion and the attention women paid to it and how the dress should simply express the wearer's heart.  Make-up was frowned on; not only did the "painted woman" hide her true face, she hid the paleness and blushes that expressed her sensibility.  Dress abruptly turned from "romantic" fancy and adorned, to "sentimental" which was plain, close to the human form, and simple.  Well, close to the human form in theory.  Women used corsets and padding to fit it more closely.  That was not fatal to the theory that the dress a woman wore merely put forth her sincere heart.  What really didn't work was the problem that as soon as you put forth dress as expressing sincerity, any false fashion seeker could put it on.

Etiquette was worse.  Heavily complicated, demanding strict adherence ot many rule, stern in its demands for self-restraint -- and, in theory, the spontaneous overflow of a sincere heart.  Etiquette books demanded a sincere and natural presentation, and scorned those who followed the rules woodenly.

Mourning was particularly changed.  In the old towns, everyone knew the dead, everyone participated in the funeral rites, and there was no division of the bereaved and the mourners.  But in the new cities -- sentiment frequently underlined how alone and isolated the bereaved were, and how hard it was to reach them, and talked of the private expression of grief.  At the same time, the rules of wearing mourning were in force, and department stores had mourning departments.

Well, it did not last.  The problem of hypocrisy and sincerity grew less morally earnest and more light-hearted.  Fashion grew more convoluted and dropped its interest in expressing the wearer's soul.  Etiquette started to demand only formal appearances.  And middle-class America learned to love private theatricals.

That's the problem with cults of sincerity.  Faking is particularly disastrous to the cult.
Tags: ethos, history reviews: 19th century-wwi, secondary source

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