In Confidence Men and Painted Women, USC historian Karen Halttunen examines the social norms of middle class Americans from the years 1830-1870. She shows that for much of the nineteenth century, Americans viewed hypocrisy as a direct threat to the democratic process. They considered insincerity a "symbolic expression of moral and political decay in America." The possibility of upward or downward social mobility prompted this identity crisis for many middle class Americans. In their desire to appear sincere, urban Americans looked to identify themselves in opposition to confidence men and painted women. Confidence men were familiar figures in 19th century literature; these outwardly friendly men often corrupted young city newcomers. Painted women resided in parlor rooms; their use of makeup disguised the proof of insincere lifestyle. Both figures represented insincerity in domestic and social spheres. There was a fine line between proper attire and the insincere looks of fashion.
Both men and women strove for sincerity in their appearance. In doing so, there arose an inherent contradiction to the ideals of 19th century behavior manuals: namely, that by focusing on the correct attire and etiquette to appear sincere renders the participant insincere. The rest of Halttunen's book looks at society's recognition of this contradiction, the practice of sincere outward appearances in parlor rooms, on the street, and even at funerals. She concludes that ultimately public appearance reconciled with personal insincerity. In short, by the Gilded Age, Americans had not only made peace with the division between ostensible outward appearance and supposed internal sincerity, but had learned to accept this contradiction as a social norm.
Author Karen Halttunen does an excellent job in her study of 19th Century Middle Class Culture in America. CONFIDENCE MEN AND PAINTED WOMEN is a must for both scholars and living historians alike. Halttunen's work vividly details the social and cultural development of 19th Century Middle Class America, their etiquette, values and mores. Taken from etiquette books, manuals and magazines of the era, Halttunen's study covers the sentimental culture of fashion, etiquette, hypocrisy of the time and even mourning the dead. She focuses on the time period of 1830-1870. Halttunen has really done her homework on this topic, and she gives new insight to a bygone era.
In Confidence Men and Painted Women Halttunen traces the transition of style and manners in a society in flux. The author argues that the emerging middle class in America became very self conscious in the antebellum 19th century. As a new group on the move, the American middle class became ambivalent about many of the changes in material culture in terms of fashion and human interaction. The problem of how to tell if the people with whom one was interacting actually belonged to the society they were claiming to be a part of was a constant source of anxiety for the emerging middle class. Halttunen argues that to remedy this problem, the middle class created a strict code of behavior that was supposed to convey the legitimacy of the person and their place in society. The irony of this was that the more the rule defined what it meant to be a genuine person the easier the style could be imitated by imposers. Thus the book traces the in some ways comic efforts to differentiate what it means to be a true gentleman and lady while trying to stay one step ahead of those that would take on the appearance without the substance and in truth one could argue that there was very little substance to it to begin with! As I read this I could not help but picture a dog perpetually chasing its tail without any chance of ever catching it, something that Halttunen says that the middle class of the post war period acknowledged actually embraced focusing more of the show of courtesy than what was going on in the persons head. This is about as interesting a book on fashion and manners that i ever expect to read. It sheds some light on the overblown writing and dressing styles of the period as well as raise interesting questions about the standards for human interaction and what it means to dress and act respectable.
I thoroughly enjoyed this account of American middle class culture between 1830-1870. Well-researched, well written, and fun to read, I thought it was a great lesson in American civilization, and I also appreciated all of the references to popular culture during that time. The author begins the book with an arresting premise and follows through beautifully. A must read for anyone interested in broadening their base of historical knowledge.
Vicky Oliver Author, Bad Bosses, Crazy Coworkers & Other Office Idiots
I haven't gotten finished with this book yet because I bought it for a college English class that hasn't started yet. I was trying to get a head start on it all. The book arrived in great condition and quickly, and so far, seems to be a pretty good read.