The Genesis of American Folklore and Anthropology in the Gilded Age


Volume IX, Number 1
Fall, 1989

(Book Review Essay)

Though the edited essays in Folklife Studies from the Gilded Age do not serve to redefine the Gilded Age, they tell us a great deal about the attitudes of those times.  The authors describe Culture at the turn of the century when there were few working definitions.  If these essays were the first attempts to understand other culture groups, then the Victorian prudishness, which pronounced as exotic everything not found on Main Street, can be excused.  By the end of the Gilded Age the growing middle class of Victorian America eagerly sought to know more about tribal peoples.  Out of this search for knowledge, major shifts occurred in intellectual thought as the old values of Herbert Spencer and his Social Darwinism gave way to the radical ideas of Franz Boas and cultural relativism.

The colonized world of 1890 was ready to be explored.  In wooden boats, John Wesley Powell ran the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon.  Robert E. Peary raced dogs to the North Pole, and Frank Hamilton Cushing lived with the Zuni Indians for four-and-one-half years and became a member of their warrior society.  From his fiefdom at Columbia University and his presidency of the American Folklore Society, Franz Boas stressed the radical new idea the “civilization is not something absolute, but that it is relative, and that our ideas and conceptions are true only so far as our civilization goes.”  Though much has been written about Boas, Bronner’s book suffers from not including an edited essay by the great anthropologist.  He influenced so many of his contemporaries, and he was such a pivotal figure in the intellectual shift to relativism that his absence is a regrettable omission.

This one oversight aside, Simon Bronner’s Folklife Studies from the Gilded Age successfully transports the reader back to the pivotal time when Americans searched for new systems of thought as they tried to comprehend the diversity of the immense continent they inhabited.  Though racism remained entrenched, and territories like Arizona and New Mexico were denied statehood until 1912 because of their large Hispanic populations, the establishment of the American Folklore Society (1888-1889) and the American Anthropological Association (1902) quietly initiated an intellectual revolution.  The cultural relativists believed that no culture was better or worse than any other, and that each culture must be evaluated on its own terms and studied from the inside out.  Their innovative thinking began to challenge the evolutionists.

Bronner’s book is a collection of essays from that period that seek to define and describe objects, rites, customs, and the methodology of two emerging disciplines---anthropology and folklore. Unfortunately, the title and cover illustration might lead a casual observer to conclude that this is a book about Victorian America.  Simon Bronner, who is Associate Professor of Folklore and American Studies as well as coordinator of the American Studies Program at the Pennsylvania State University at Harrisburg, provides a superb introduction in which he sets forth his understanding of the cultural relativist movement.  The excerpts, many from early issues of the Journal of American Folklore, begin with notes and explanations by Bronner as well as brief bibliographic references on the author.  Instead of limiting the contributors to one essay on a given topic, where they published twice on the same topic Bronner condensed their work into a single essay.  Publication dates in parenthesis follow the essay’s title.

The better essays include Stewart Culin’s “Folk Custom and Medicine of Chinese Americans” (1887, 1890), George E. Vincent’s “A Retarded Frontier: Appalachian Material Culture and Folklife” (1898), H. Carrington Bolton and Ernest Ingersoll’s “Folk Decoration of Southern Black Graves” (1891, 1892), and the witty essay by John G. Bourke, “Folk Foods of the Rio Grande Valley and Northern Mexico” (1895).

Nowhere in the book, except perhaps in Fanny D. Bergen’s “Folklife of American Children” (1893, 1896), does Simon Bronner deal with the values of mainstream America.  Instead he presents the reactions of famous scientists of the day seeing the United States for the first time, describing their observations, and collecting artifacts for their museums.  Otis T. Mason of the Smithsonian Institution writes about cataloging hunting traps of the American Indians in a chapter from 1900 that deals with the classification and study of folk technology from the perspective of a museum curator.  Washington Mathews distills twelve years of research with the Navajos into an exhaustive account of their sacred objects, which include cigarettes, a basket drum, and a yucca drum stick.

Many of these essays, written in a style as stuffy as a Gilded Age black-tie dinner, are pedantic and professorial in tone.  The content of the essays, however, frequently redeems them.  Although the cultural anthropologist Clifford Geertz sees the possibilities of anthropology as a literary as well as a scientific activity, many of the tedious essays in Folklife Studies from the Gilded Age fail as literature.1  The writers who exhibit enthusiasm for their subjects, however, provide invaluable first-hand accounts, such as Henry C. Mercer’s patriotic “Tools of the Nation Maker: Toward a Historical Interpretation of American Folklife”  (1897,1907) and John Gregory Bourke’s “Folk Foods of the Rio Grande.”

As an aide-de-camp to General George Crook in the Southwest, Bourke took extensive notes on Indian tribes and local folklore. In his essay he discusses native plants, including Spanish bayonet, and foods that can be derived from them.  He writes that the Rio Grande Mexicans “take the baked shoot of the plants” and “distill a variety of mescal, said by experts to be even more soul-destroying than the genuine”.  One can imagine the first encounter of General Crook’s troops with this potent drink, the forerunner of tequila concoction.

Nor does Bourke take kindly to Mexican food.  He states, “The abominations of Mexican cookery have been for years a favorite theme with travelers rushing hastily through the republic, and pages have been filled with growls at the wretchedness and inadequacy of the accommodations offered in the hotels and restaurants.”   He complains of “an appalling liberality in the matter of garlic” and a “recklessness in the use of the chile colorado or chile verde.”  Yet he is delighted by the hospitality of Mexican homes and the sights and sounds, smells, and excitement to be found at feast days and fiestas.

While Bourke observed a relatively unchanged culture, Henry C. Mercer, after a stint in the Yucatan in 1895, returned to Buck’s County, Pennsylvania, to start a  museum precisely because of rapid cultural change.  He fervently believed, “…in so far as the equipment of man with tools and utensils is concerned, a greater change has taken place in the last two or three generations than took place in any fifteen or twenty generations preceding.”  Mercer claimed that “disused home-made tools of wood or iron…give us a fresh grasp upon the vitality of the American beginning.”

If Mercer looked at discarded farm tools for his museum and saw the birth of a nation, George E. Vincent began the first of dozens of forays by folklorists into the Blue Ridge and the Great Smoky Mountains where he found that “the drainage system, as in most hilly countrysides, creates social groupings, determines lines of travels, fixes the location of little settlements and county seats, and furnishes a means of local designation.”  While Henry James may have sought culture in the refined capitals of Europe, Folklife Studies from the Gilded Age represents a different type of sojourning and a seminal exploration of local cultures in America as defined by the emerging methodologies of folklore and anthropology.

Writing at the turn of the century, many of the authors operate within the framework of Social Darwinism.  They use the words “primitive” and “savage” with little regard for their informants. Sexist attitudes abound, as in George Wharton James’s essay titled “Primitive Inventions” (1903) where he states, “In the arts of hunting and war man has always been the inventor---those were his prerogatives.  In the arts of peace, the domestic arts, woman was the pioneer; she was in her peculiar province.”  Nor had paternalism been put to rest.  James continues, “There have been explorers to blaze the trails, and pioneers to suggest possibilities, and, in our race struggles, the little brown man and woman whom we know as North American Indians have played a noteworthy part.”

These essays may be read on two levels---as descriptive narrative and as intellectual insight into the Victorian mind.  In the same way the authors were trying to describe the “savage” mind, or the folklore of Pennsylvania Germans, we can learn about the authors’ own perceptions of their time and place.2  Folklore Studies from the Gilded Age is very much like an old-fashioned telescope.  We can use it to magnify and focus on cultures being described for the first time in the 1890’s.  Or we can reverse the telescope and look backwards through the lens to see and understand middle-class Americans through their descriptions of objects, rites, and customs foreign to them.  As intellectual history, as an introduction to folklore, and as a look at changing attitudes towards culture, Folklife Studies from the Gilded Age provides an excellent window into the past that also mirrors previous prejudices.  Simon Bronner and UMI Research Press have produced a useful work that helps define and delineate a pivotal epoch in American culture.


1Clifford Geertz, The Works and Lives:  The Anthropologist as Author (Palo Alto, 1988).  

2Claude Levi-Strauss, The Savage Mind (Chicago, 1968).