Two men in high silk hats breathe the style of the times. The year is 1889. They are old enough to remember the century’s watershed event, the Civil War, which is long in the past, it being more than two decades since Appomattox. These gentlemen, and millions of others, have moved on. They are Gilded Age creatures, inhabitants of a rapidly modernizing society enjoying ever-increasing wealth. Their era was empty of historical grandeur: in that respect, the 1880s, with their intense but under-examined social problems (including widening economic inequality), were somewhat similar to today.
Formally attired, but looking like they are often so, the two men smile into the camera of Uriah Hunt Painter. Painter and the man on the left may be engaged in a mutual photo-shoot, for each has a Kodak camera, a new invention that became the era’s most fashionable ‘toy.’ This picture captures how people had begun to use it—not too differently from how people use their cell phones now.
The sun is shining on this Easter Monday, as all Washington gathers for the first-ever Easter egg hunt on the White House lawn. The watch-chain of one man snakes along the surface of his taut belly, a symbol of the symbiosis between efficiency and attaining plenty. He and his friend both sport the flamboyant facial hair that was a hallmark of the Gilded Age—the vast mustaches and expansive mutton-chops that would prevail even it Teddy Roosevelt’s time, the mutton chops first popularized by General Burnside, and eventually leading to the coinage of the enduring term, ‘sideburns.’
George Eastman (1854-1932) had been on a tear. He had dreamed up a series of innovations that, when realized, transformed photography and its role in society, so much so that we may credit him with inventing this photograph and the two-Kodak family who arranged themselves around a slushy curb to take it in Washington DC. Thanks to Eastman, private life gained a new means of preserving its own history, an advance that marked the birth of modernity, in a visual sense at least.
Before the ‘Kodak revolution,’ a family’s ability to record its own existence, its own specific reality, was limited indeed. It helped if one were literate or could draw or paint, for art was the only direct means of capturing the look of one’s child’s face or the cut and color of the clothes one’s beloved wore. Photographers were professionals who wrangled obdurate equipment and understood the complex alchemy of developing the imagery. Either such a one, or a professional artist, could capture the look of a freak snowstorm as it was melting. Without photography of an accessible kind, one’s only hope of chronicling the weather or family life was to write a lot of letters or keep a careful diary.
Eastman’s genius was mechanical and conceptual, too. He invented a new camera and new film processes, while also envisioning a whole new social role for photography, which he realized by assuming all the burden of developing the photographs that Kodak customers made. “You press the button—we do the rest.” With that notion, Eastman transformed the relationship between the would-be photographer and the medium. He gave the world the snapshot, empowering amateurs to practice photography.
Eastman’s Kodak camera hit the streets in 1888. It was lightweight, small, and easy to work. Instead of sensitive or messy plates, his affordable camera was the first to employ roll film (another of his inventions). Once the pictures were taken, customers sent the film back to the company for developing. The very earliest Kodak prints were round, like the one above.
The new technology brought an immediacy to photography that, before, it seldom achieved. It eliminated the middleman, allowing a relationship-driven photography. The girl in this picture epitomizes the change, as she stands stock still, grinning, hugging a new Kodak camera close to her body. The wind lifts her coat hem. Her style and the swing of her mother’s skirt are just as they were in that earlier century. In the street, her father, Uriah Hunt Painter, presses a button, capturing his willowy wife and daughter as they half-stop and smile, a two-Kodak family on a winter’s day.
President Theodore Roosevelt, holding his top hat in one hand and flanked by two officers and an unidentified man, looks down at the photographer from the back of a railroad car. The year is 1903. The spontaneity of this picture registers how mainstream photography and photographic portraiture were changing in the wake of George Eastman’s revolutionary invention of the hand-held Kodak camera.
By then the Kodak camera had been around for fifteen years, but its impact was still widening and generating change. Because the Kodak was not just a new type of camera, but a new type of film, and one that gave the user freedom from having to learn film processing, it made picture-taking easier for everybody. Amateurs began taking pictures like crazy. The Kodak process also represented a big leap forward in terms of stop-motion photography, suddenly endowing pictures of living subjects with greater immediacy.
Those qualities shine in this marvelous photograph of President Theodore Roosevelt, taken during one of his myriad railway journeys. Who was the photographer? Was it a professional photographer assigned to cover him, or an ordinary American, perhaps even a woman, who successfully beseeched the President to pose just this one time? Did he even consent? His aides look amused, but Roosevelt himself looks positively put out.
As the day for James A. Garfield‘s inauguration rolled around, the decision was made to hold his inaugural ball in the newlyconstructed United States National Museum, which had not yet opened to the public.
The massive building, with its grand halls and balconies, seemed tailor-made to soothe a vexation the planning committee faced every four years: finding a venue large enough to accommodate five to ten thousand people. The nation’s past was strewn with disastrous stories of inaugural parties gone awry: rampaging crowds, looted furnishings, overcrowded chambers, guests forced to dance in their overcoats in unheated temporary buildings.
The planning committee went wild preparing the still-vacant museum for the president’s gala. They ordered up three-thousand gas lights, a temporary wooden floor, illuminated garlands, patriotic bunting, placards sporting the monograms of the new president and vice president, and a vast “Lady America” statue to transform the building. (Wooden chairs in the photographs give an idea of the interior’s scale.) Vast quantities of refreshments, including 15,000 “assorted cakes,” awaited the inevitable hour when dancers got hungry.
Yet, in the end, these lifeless photographs scarcely satisfy our curiosity. For what about the ball itself? Specifically, what about the ladies? What were they wearing? Here we run smack up against the bouncers of photography’s limitations, Gilded Age customs, and social mores.
Sadly, Americans couldn’t snap candids of themselves as they stepped out for the ball on that historic night. The Brownie camera that would make amateur photography possible was twenty years in the offing. Only by going to a studio photographer arrayed in her ball dress could a woman who went to the ball retain a souvenir of what she looked like that night. Few such photographs are likely to exist (but let me know if they do!).
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Thank heaven for the internet, which helps dress up a scene so otherwise naked! The foundation of every Gilded Age look was the corset, which molded women’s bodies into an idealized form. It created the hour-glass shape, the essential female silhouette in those days. Ladies attending Garfield’s ball wore either a corset or an evening dress reinforced inside with whalebone stays.
Dresses donned over the corset were complicated. This evening dress was characteristic, with its curvacious form-fitting bodice, cinched-in waist, and eye-catching skirt culminating in a bustle and train. While rigidly sculpted and richly decorated, dresses were relentlessly columnar, emphasizing the figure’s verticality. The torso of the dress was elongated, thanks to a cut of bodice called the Cuirass, which (echoing the corset) extended smoothly beyond the waist and over the hips. Keyhole and “V” necklines were popular then.
Even day-time skirts dripped with pleats, folds, and elaborate drapery, accentuating the hips and creating a coveted multi-layer look. “Tie-back skirts,” though considered scandalous, were all the rage, the skirt being pulled back across the front of the body, supposedly accentuating a woman’s legs.
Evening dresses were made of silk, sometimes heavily textured, and covered with beadwork and ribbon to make them shine. Textile makers produced vibrant colors with the help of synthetic dyes. The surface of the dress was further built up with lace, ruffles, and ruching. Some dresses had heavy tassels of the kind now seen only on fancy furniture and curtains. The backs of dresses, too, were elaborate and bulky. To see how these elements could combine, check out this gorgeous cream silk gown, designed by Frederick Worth, the leading couturier of the time.
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Such are the fashions depicted in the most lifelike extant depiction of Garfield’s ball, created when Frank Leslie’s Illustrated magazine dispatched several “special artists” to capture the scene on the night of March 4, 1881.
The resulting composite illustration includes recognizable portraits of many public figures, with the bearded president, at center, flanked by his son and daughter, and Lucretia Garfield, the new First Lady, hanging on an ambassador’s arm. (Elsewhere, politicians and military men like Carl Schurz, William T. Sherman, John Logan, James G Blaine, and Roscoe Conkling pepper the crowd.)
Five or six ladies appear at the forefront, the artists painstakingly rendering their dresses, hair-styles, fans, jewelry, and bouquets. We see LucretiaGarfield in her high-necked pale lavender gown, for instance, while the younger women wear dresses that are more revealing, with low-cut necklines and negligible sleeves. Yet what joy could they have had in dancing, in such long heavy dresses, and such tight strict corsets?
Looking at this drawing, I am most struck with its subjects’ unknowing. Little could they know that in just a few months, Garfield’s life would be taken, or that in a few decades, the constraints on women’s fashions and movements would be melting away. That soon a woman could vote for the president, or against him, as may be, or pick up a Brownie camera and take a picture of her day.
Images: Photographs of US National Museum courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution via the Commons on Flickr; corset from this source; engraving courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Can corporate models teach us anything about political change? One of the problems politically active Americans face today is that the Republican and Democratic parties are organized around outmoded ideas (a topic I’ve written a lotaboutalready). Yet what do we know about how to bring new political ideas to market? How do we introduce better ways and ideas to a political marketplace that, for over a century, has been dominated by just two parties?
The Instagram/Polaroid analogy
I’ve been thinking about this ever since reading a smart article by Nick Bilton about Instagram, the digital photo-sharing start-up that Facebook paid $1 billion to acquire. The hallmark of an Instagram is its resemblance to an old-fashioned Polaroid.
What interested Bilton was why a start-up had brought this idea to market, rather than an old-line camera company like Kodak or Polaroid. These were, after all, the towering pioneers of innovative film processing. Polaroid, in particular, had made its name developing a camera and film process that allowed people to make and share their photographs instantly. For decades, Kodak and Polaroid were cash cows, dominating the markets that sprang up around their own innovative technologies.
Yet, amid the onslaught of digital technology, neither proved able to change enough. Though the market for their products had been dwindling for decades, neither company managed to make the transition to digital. Today, both companies are teetering on the brink of death, while Instagram has grown rich and famous on the strength of images with a “Polaroid feel.”
Bilton concluded that the success breeds constraints that make established companies hesitant to embrace the next new idea. Companies become wedded to the ideas that brought them to the top. They develop cultures aimed at perpetuating the gains that have already been made. Having once brought a new idea to market, the resulting business rightly views the next new idea or technology as disruptive.
A company dependent on profits from an existing technology will have trouble compromising that in order to capitalize on the next new thing. As one of Bilton’s sources observes, “It’s tough to change the fan belt when the engine is running.” (And didn’t Bill Gates once admit to being terrified of the next unknown, tinkering with a new idea in his garage?)
The analogy applies to the political scene
This is exactly how I think about the political scene, whose very landscape the Democratic and Republican parties have shaped. These two parties became dominant because, at crucial points in our history, they supplied ideas and platforms that were right for the time. The visions and forms of action they proposed were ones around which millions of citizens could organize.
Support for the major parties is dwindling because they rely on outmoded ideas. They sell products many of us have no interest in buying. An estimated 30 percent of voters are not aligned with either party, making each “major” party a minority.
Yet, structurally, the parties deter competition. Though ideologically moribund, the Republican and Democratic parties are vigorous institutions. They are known entities. They have millions of adherents, and familiar brand names. They’re well capitalized. And they sit atop vast hierarchies of state and local organizations that penetrate into every ward and district of the country. Every political event in the US is understood and described in terms of these two entities, a sure sign of their authority.
These behemoths are more interested in maintaining market share than in changing their offerings. Too much newness carries risk, just as it did for Kodak and Polaroid. There may be a broad constituency out there, clamoring for new political leadership, but the major parties will view as a disruption any force hoping to reinvigorate politics by espousing a new ideology.
The calcified rhetoric of our politicians and their parties is strangely at odds with the political ferment of the time. All around lies evidence of amazing levels of political activism and concern, whether on the left or the right, whether in populist movements like Occupy or the Tea Party, or in the billions of comments, tweets, and posts that Americans generate in political conversation every day.
Unlike in business, how ideas move from the bottom to the top of the political hierarchy is incredibly murky. Yet anyone who wants to get this country into better political shape needs to take an interest in the how of political change.
Image: A Polaroid Land Camera 1000, courtesy of the photographer, Chris Lüders, from this source.