All Decked Out: Easter in the Gilded Age

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Photo Credit: Let all rejoice sweet Easter Day, 1881, stock card, published by Geo M. Hayes, Boston Public Library, Print Department: Boston Public Library/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

It’s officially Easter and, if you’ve been reading my blog, you know that I love to dive into the way things were during the holidays. The Gilded Age made of Easter what it made of many other holidays — an opportunity for opulence and excess. But, then, Gilded Agers knew how to enjoy life.

Easter in America didn’t become a spectacle until after the Civil War. In the first half of the 19th century, it was an important holiday for Christians and Catholics, but some religious groups were apt to ignore it. Others made Easter Sunday a day of mourning the fallen soldiers of the war. 

But things began to change around the 1870s (which coincides, not coincidentally, I think, with the birth of the Gilded Age). Easter was still, of course, a religious holiday and honored as such, but the Gilded Age mentality began to slip in. Gilded Agers saw it as a time to celebrate spring in the best way they knew how — by showing off.

Now, here’s a cartoon that is a sign of the times: An elderly Victorian lady dressed to the nines points toward a lavish Easter bonnet on a maypole while other equally garish women gather around to worship this sign of Gilded Age opulence. But the New Woman isn’t buying it and, in her sensible and comfortable suit, gives her a look like, “Seriously?”

Photo Credit: She won’t bow to the hat, C. J. Taylor, 1896, Library of Congress, Chromolithographs: Picryl/No known restrictions

The tradition of new Easter clothes took off during this period. Easter was the perfect time to jump into spring with bright, pastel shades and adornments. As with other holidays, such as Christmas, consumerism ruled, and it suddenly became a necessity rather than desirable for women and men to get new clothes for the holiday. Advertisements for men’s clothes urged them not to wait to order their new Easter suits, and buying a new hat for the holiday was the order of the day for most women (thus was born the “Easter bonnet”). As you can see from the photos on this page, not a ribbon or a frill was spared on these elaborate headgear. 

Where did Gilded Agers take themselves to display their new Easter garb? To church, obviously. In fact, there were those who weren’t regular churchgoers but would make an exception for Easter Sunday so their fellow worshipers could admire their new spring clothes. Another place Gilded Agers went to see and be seen in their new Easter garb was restaurants and hotels. Just as with Thanksgiving, hotel dining rooms had special menus for Easter that might have included lamb and asparagus (a vegetable just coming into vogue in Victorian cuisine). And the height of showing off in the Gilded Age was the Easter parade. In fact, the idea of the parade was conceived when aristocratic Victorian ladies flocked down Fifth Avenue dressed in their finest after church. In 1948, the musical Easter Parade, starring Judy Garland and Fred Astaire epitomized this Easter tradition, especially in this song where Garland tackles all the cliches of Easter in one tune.

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A Gilded Age Christmas

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Photo Credit: Christmas card by Louis Prang, showing a group of anthropomorphized frogs parading with banner and band. Note the card has the makings of a work of art (see below for more details about Prang and his philosophy of Christmas cards). 19th century (no specific date), American Antiquarian Society. M2545/Wikimedia Commons/PD Old 100 

If you’ve been reading my blog for awhile, you know I love seeking out historical traditions of our beloved holidays so that you know how the Alderdices in my Waxwood Series would have spent their holidays. I’ve done this post on Thanksgiving in the Gilded Age, and I’ve also written this post about New Year’s Day traditions in the 19th century. So it’s fitting that we take a look at Christmas traditions as well.

Many of us in the 21st century grumble about the way Christmas has become so commercialized (Christmas in July, anyone?) Many of these commercial ideas about Christmas were planted in the Gilded Age. For example, the tradition of the decorated Christmas tree was brought over from Germany, but the Gilded Age added its own philosophy of splendor and excess. As you might recall, modesty was not exactly the order of the day for Gilded Agers. They liked lavishness and glitz, and they weren’t afraid to make a profit from it. They turned the decorations of simple strings of popcorn and beads into a display of lights, colored glass balls, and wax angels, creating a commercial enterprise of Christmas tree ornaments.

The humble Christmas card also acquired a different meaning in the Gilded Age. Louis Prang, one of the most successful printers of the Gilded Age, began producing Christmas cards less for profit than for an opportunity to give a lesson in fine art on a budget. He saw his cards as mini artistic achievements that even the working and middle classes could afford. This idea of democratizing fine art, an exclusive domain of those who could afford it, was not one Gilded Agers were willing to embrace. So predictably, Prang’s idea of elevating Christmas cards fell by the wayside when other manufacturers decided to cash in on the trend and produced cheap variations. It was then that Christmas cards became big business.

Also big business was the gift-giving that now dominates Christmas in our modern world. Today we might find it appropriate to give a family member or friend an Amazon gift card and let them choose what they want, but in the Gilded Age, such gifts just weren’t to be had. Presents had to be individualized and carefully thought out and chosen. It was also an opportunity to show one’s generosity by the expensiveness of the gifts one was giving others.

Wrapping presents was also a Gilded Age invention, as it fit in with the idea of elaborate presentation that characterized the age. Here also, people like the Alderdices could flaunt their wealth. Plain white wrapping paper was more about the gift than what the giver could afford, but elaborate wrapping paper told loved ones that one bought the gift at the “right” place.

Photo Credit: Merry Old Santa Claus, Thomas Nast, 1 January 1881, Harper’s Weekly: Soerfm/Wikimedia Commons/PD Art (PD Old 100)

We think of Santa as a jovial, generous white-bearded, somewhat heavy-set man bestowing presents to “good” little boys and girls. In the Gilded Age, Santa also had political and social implications. Santa was the glorified symbol of Capitalism with a capital “C”, an authoritative and somewhat mystical figure who held gifts aplenty — for those who deserved them, of course.

Here’s where you can find out all about the Waxwood Series, my Gilded Age family saga. 

Want to explore the nooks & crannies of history, the stuff that isn’t in the history books?Like social and psychological history and not just historical events and dates? Want in on exclusive sneak peeks, giveaways, and polls? Then sign up for my newsletter! Plus, you’ll get a free short story when you do :-). Here’s the link!

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