Borrowing Symbols: Gilded Appropriation

The material splendor and luxury of First Gilded Age (1870-1920) was certainly facilitated by a booming American industry, but the elite did not limit themselves to local goods and classically American symbols.  Looking outside their own society, wealthy New Yorkers sought items that indicated their connectedness with “Others” — and proved their ability to afford, collect, and adorn themselves with others’ symbols.

The borrowings came in many forms, and linked elite New Yorkers of the First Gilded Age to an array of people and traditions. This exhibit, however, focuses on the stories of three particular objects from the New York Historical Society’s collection that mark elite appropriation of materials and symbols from three sources: the urban working class, Native American cultures, and European artistic traditions.

Crucially, this exhibit recognizes that the glamour of borrowing and appropriating is not merely a First Gilded Age phenomenon: it has evidently continued into the Second. Each historical object is compared with a contemporary one from the Second Gilded Age to reflect on the ways that socioeconomic inequality, in the past and present, paves the way for complex relationships between the group in power and those who are outside. The pairs of objects we analyze in this exhibit — a pair of First Gilded Age gloves and pair of Timberland boots, a 20th century pocket watch and a modern T-Shirt with Native American designs, a historic cosmetic jar and a modern ceramic anthora — examine how the privileged classes of both Gilded Ages construct their identities with borrowed symbols.

Objects from this theme:

Click the thumbnails below to learn more about these objects.

  • borrowingSymbols_split_gioino
  • borrowingSymbols_split_peck
  • borrowingSymbols_split_schwab