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Confidence Men and Painted Women: A Study of Middle-class Culture in America, 1830-1870 (Yale Historical Publications, Miscellany) Reprint Edition
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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.
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.
In Chapters 3 through 5, the heart of the book, Halttunen describes "the cultural effort to resolve the problem of hypocrisy with the sentimental ideal of sincerity" (xvi). Writers of conduct manuals waged a cultural battle on the fronts of genteel codes for women's dress, social etiquette, and mourning rituals. But in time the custodians of American culture came to realize that their plans could be, and were being subverted. Halttunen reiterates her conclusion as follows: "Those archetypal parlor hypocrites, the confidence man and the painted woman, were masters of the false art of etiquette: their artificial manners were assumed merely to dazzle and deceive an ingenuous audience. Sentimental critics of middle-class culture feared that etiquette, like fashion, was poisoning American society with hypocrisy" (92).Read more ›
Most Recent Customer Reviews
Interesting, but from leafing through it I see a lot more about mid nineteenth century fashion than confidence men. Hopefully a more careful read will improve on my impression.Published 3 months ago by Mark R Williams
Focuses on customs and beliefs, which are not easy to interpret or analyze. Fine scholarly reading in a style that would be appealig to non-academic readers as well.Published on August 12, 2013 by Joe Smoke
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... Read morePublished on September 12, 2009 by Vicky Oliver
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. Read morePublished on August 5, 2007 by Jennifer Jones