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A Great 19th Century U.S. Social History
on February 29, 2008
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.