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Tickling the American Fancy

By Nikki Moustaki | HUMANITIES, May/June 2004 | Volume 25, Number 3

Bostonians in the early 1800s paid a penny to peer through a giant kaleidoscope wheeled through the streets. Around the country, people bought thousands of cheap versions of the new invention. This was the height of the American Fancy period of style, when the middle class reveled in whimsical patterns and bright colors, a reaction against the rationalism of the Enlightenment. At that time, "fancy" was a synonym for "imagination," and although classical philosophy and reason reigned in America in the eighteenth century, by 1790 a new fascination with the imaginative was underway.

The Fancy style began with "trifles," generally snuff boxes, fans, and combs made for women. It eventually grew into a broader phenomenon and took over the entire middle-class home--wallpaper, furniture, carpets, ceramics. Thomas Jefferson's walls at Monticello were painted with Fancy patterns, extolling populism. The exhibition is organized by the Milwaukee Art Museum in collaboration with the Chipstone Foundation, and funded in part by the Wisconsin Humanities Council. Sumpter T. Priddy III, a scholar and antiques dealer who has studied the style for twenty-five years, is the guest curator and author of the companion book.

The exhibition not only reveals the popular style, but also explains how people of the time perceived their world. "More than most decorative art shows, which tend to be about the history of style, this is really a story about the history of ideas first, and style second," Adamson says. Fancy's vivid colors and exaggerated detail show early nineteenth-century artisans drawn to the concept of abstraction. "The show covers the intellectual themes, the tenor of the time, and a sense of what it was like to live then. We call Fancy the first democratic style in the arts, because it was essentially the style of the early American," says Adamson.

A two-level period store inside the museum features these wares and the Milwaukee Museum of Art has been painted with a riot of color to mirror the exhibition. A projector creates kaleidoscopic images on the floor in homage to the kaleidoscope mania of the time. "People often talked about the kaleidoscope as a machine that would 'stimulate your fancy,'" says Adamson. "The kaleidoscope influenced quilts, woven coverlets, furniture, ceramics, and glass--we show all of those connections in the exhibit."

Several factors led to the end of the Fancy style, including a financial panic in 1837 and growing political unrest between North and South and the new West. With the invention of photography in 1839, a fascination with realism began and abstract patterns went out of vogue. The closing pieces in the exhibition illustrate the drastic change: two portraits of women, both wearing bonnets and lace collars, one Fancy (1835), and the other in the new realistic style (1840). The Fancy portrait is colorful and exaggerated--she has a long neck, huge shoulders, a flouncy dress, and a cat. The later portrait is black and white; instead of a cat she has a book.

The show examines why Fancy happened, how it evolved, and the reasons it ended. "When people see these pieces they can't believe they're two hundred years old, they're so fresh and exuberant and creative," says Adamson.

About the Author

Nikki Moustaki is a writer in New York City.