American Essays 19th Century

During the first quarter of the nineteenth century, American silversmiths exchanged the refined, elegant aesthetic of the late 1780s and ’90s for a bolder, more substantial style. The attenuated urns, engraved swags, and geometric plinths associated with the early Federal period gave way to heavier forms, sculptural ornament, and a more confident classicism. By the 1810s, Egyptian and Imperial Roman forms were joining the artistic vocabulary, inspired by the published drawings of Charles Percier and Pierre Fontaine, who had accompanied Napoleon on his Egyptian campaign. French Empire styling became fashionable, particularly for dining silver. Skillfully sculpted and cast ornament, such as serpent handles or winged lion’s feet (59.152.2), reflect French influence as well. Elaborate die-stamped borders (1993.167) replaced the delicate beading or bright-cut engraving characteristic of late eighteenth-century ornament.

Silver had long been associated with ceremony and achievement, but during the nineteenth century the preponderance of presentation vessels became even greater. Political and civic successes were celebrated with monumental gifts of silver. The opening of the Erie Canal in 1825, for example, which set the stage for the commercial and artistic growth of New York City, prompted the creation of the extraordinary pair of vases presented to Governor DeWitt Clinton (1982.4a, b). Although inspired formally by a colossal antique marble urn, the vases are ornamented with American iconography and surmounted by American eagle finials.

The Rococo Revival style emerged during the 1830s as silversmiths and patrons rediscovered mid-eighteenth-century design. Shells and scrolls once again adorned dinnerwares (2003.382a–c), and flowers chased in high relief, called repoussé, appeared on pitchers and tea services (69.141.1a–d). American silver manufactories were established—Gorham Manufacturing Company in 1831, for instance, and Tiffany & Company in 1837—as the industry moved from small workshops to larger factories. The Tariff of 1842 imposed a 40 percent duty on many imported goods, including silver, spurring an expansion of American production. With their love of innovation, Americans quickly embraced new technologies and modern factory practices. Presentation silver celebrated such technological achievements as the development of the telegraph (69.141.1a–d). Following the Civil War, the country’s economy burgeoned as well, increasing the demand for elaborate dining, drinking, and personal silver. It was a period of rampant eclecticism, reflected by styles such as naturalism, japonisme (1982.349; 66.52.2), Persian (97.1.1), Renaissance Revival, beaux-arts, and Viking Revival. The role of the designer became more central, coincident with the greater division of factory labor. Tiffany’s design department was directed by a succession of skilled and influential artists, including John C. Moore, Edward C. Moore, John T. Curran, and Paulding Farnham. Sometimes design competitions were held, as in the case of the vase presented to William Cullen Bryant on the occasion of his eightieth birthday (77.9a, b). International expositions and fairs also inspired creative designers and manufactories, who submitted their finest achievements for public display and recognition. At the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893, Tiffany & Company exhibited such magnificent objects as the Museum’s Magnolia Vase (99.2) and Viking Revival punchbowl (69.4). The jewel-studded Adams Vase (04.1) was exhibited in Paris at the 1900 Exposition Universelle.

Around the turn of the twentieth century, a new wave of interest in handcraftsmanship swayed European and American designers, tired perhaps of ornamental excess and production-line technology. This trend influenced not only individual artists, but also firms such as Gorham, which developed a new line of handwrought silver called Martelé, meaning “hammered” in French. The undulating, sensuous lines of Martelé (1974.214.26a, b) reflect the Art Nouveau style developed in Europe during the 1880s. Art Nouveau, which was at once revivalist and forward-looking, held sway until the 1910s, when changes in the economic, social, and political climate of the country caused the artistic pendulum to swing once again.

Beth Carver Wees
Department of American Decorative Arts, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

October 2004

Over the years, essayists have used their skill to bring the reading public amazing insights into the world around them, complex philosophical issues and hopes for the future. Throughout history there have been a number of notable voices and here we’ve rounded up a few of the most influential.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson was one of the leaders of the Transcendentalist movement during the mid-19th century alongside fellow writers Henry David Thoreau, for whom Emerson was a mentor, and Frederic Henry Hedge.  Emerson wrote on a variety of subjects but focused mainly on nature and the nature of man.  His 1836 essay Nature was the basis for the entire Transcendentalist movement, a belief that God, or any divine being, is shown through every natural thing and that studying the world around us is the only way to truly understand spirituality.  Emerson remains popular today and the Transcendentalist movement remains a popular belief today.

Louisa May Alcott

Best known for her novel Little Women, Louisa May Alcott also wrote several essays and shorter works.  Her subjects included human rights, abolitionism and politics which provided a sharp contrast to her works of fiction.  Alcott’s writing style is more classic and refined which can make her essays a challenging reading.  Her approach on issues regarding human rights and feminism were considered extremely progressive at the time and, even today, her ideas, concepts and observations are keenly astute and remain timely.  Alcott’s essays can be harder to come by since she is more well known for her fictional works, but collections of her shorter writings are ideal for an audience with an interest in human relationships.

Mark Twain

Born Samuel Langhorne Clemens, Twain changed his name after working on a river boat where ‘mark twain’ is jargon amongst the crew.  Twain used at least two other pen names before settling on his most famous and, as a result, a complete bibliography of his work can be difficult to find.  Twain wrote novels and essays and enjoyed injecting humor into all of his writing.  In an essay on advice to youth he recommends obeying your parents “when they are present” and to use caution with lying “otherwise you are nearly sure to get caught.”  Twain’s casual style of writing made both his essays and novels popular with the public at that time as well as today.  His self-depreciating approach has also made him an iconic writer.

F. Scott Fitzgerald

Francis Scott Fitzgerald is well known for his books and short stories, especially since so many of them have been developed into movies.  Both The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and The Great Gatsby have been adapted recently as big budget movies and his stories and writing style are forever intertwined with the 1920s.  His essays aren’t so well known, but for the readers willing to take time and find them among other works, they are real treasure.  The most well-known collection of his essays and letters is called The Crack Up and it offers a poignant insight into the author’s transformation from celebrated author to an alcoholic.  This chronicle of the lowest part of his life ultimately served as his elegy as the collection was published shortly after his death.  Nevertheless, Fitzgerald’s ability to blend romance, opulence and gritty realism has made him one of the most iconic writers in history.

Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway has been compared to an Iceberg not only for his personality, but for his writing style.  Hemingway approached all of his subjects by challenging his readers to look beyond the surface and to consider old or common subjects in a new light.  The writer is particularly well known for his use of short, powerful sentences and was gifted at conveying larger than life stories and characters in a simple, stripped down voice which gave his words even more power.

Hunter S. Thompson

When it comes to writers who have changed the landscape of American literature, Hunter Thompson rides at the head of the pack.  His own brand of immersive writing, known as Gonzo Journalism, redefined journalism and has become a common and popular approach in both printed journalism and television.  Thompson’s most iconic work, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, was originally published in 1971, was made into a successful movie in 1998, introducing a whole new generation to Thompson.  His essays are typically described as visceral, offensive and thought provoking.  Thompson’s style is especially attractive for young writers, thirsty for their work to make a difference.  Thompson’s political essays helped to bring the back-room drama of politics out into the open and his innovative style still resonates with readers today.

These writers are only a handful of the amazing essayists people enjoy.  Today, well known authors like David Sedaris, Jesse Bering, Sarah Vowell and John Jeremiah Sullivan continue to make essays contemporary, proving to readers young and old that the format is still as relevant as ever. Essayists give readers the opportunity to expand their minds, challenge their beliefs and reframe their thoughts, proving that a few thousand words can change a life.

Haley Osborne

Haley is a freelance writer and a blogger for, a company providing essay writing solution. You can follow her on Twitter and Google+.

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