Today, advertisements just after the Civil War. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
Last year I picked up a bound
volume of the weekly Appleton's Journal,
August through December, 1869. Once in it, I was
drawn less by the articles than by the
advertisements. To understand American
culture and technology at the end of our first
century, what better place to look than at the
wares we offered for sale?
Every issue has a small ad for Waltham watches made
in Lowell, Massachusetts. They tell us that the
winder is now located in the stem. Lowell had
started out as a model industrial city with two
great industries: the textile mills and the Waltham
By 1869, Lowell was turning into the industrial
slum of Eastern America, and cheap watches were its
major product. The ads also offer a new book on the
Subjection of Women by John Stuart Mill. It
goes for a dollar. The mills of Lowell were famous
for exploiting the labor of young women. But I
doubt this was meant for them. One dollar in 1869
translates to around fifteen dollars today.
You see, this magazine targets the carriage trade.
Lord and Taylor offers whole sets of clothing at
handsome prices. An infant wardrobe goes for a
hundred dollars. A young lady can buy her trousseau
for $250. A trousseau was once a set of personal
clothing and linens that a woman sewed for her
marriage. To sell such a thing prepackaged heralded
the twilight of the old distaff arts.
One dollar buys a toy steam engine that really
runs. Forty-five dollars buys a cabinet organ.
Pianos start around $275. That'd be $4000 today --
about what low-end pianos still cost, but now
they're better made. Middle-class parlors had
keyboard instruments, and they were heavily used.
Everyone sang around the piano.
The ads waste little time on the usual nostrums and
cure-alls. That wasn't for this audience. Instead
we find ads for ladies' private schools with
instruction in both English and French.
Most interesting are weekly notices of mortgage
bonds. Union Pacific had pounded the Golden Spike
that connected east to west by rail earlier in the
year. Now they offer 30 million dollars' worth of
bonds at six percent interest. America was on the
march, and Appleton's readers were the ones who
would put up the capital.
But the staples of these ads (in order of
importance) appear to be books, clothing, upscale
household wares, education, and seeds, with books
leading: books on science; books on language; books
on travel; books on moral, physical, and psychic
well-being; books filled with stories of every
Read the advertisements and you learn who we were
just after the Civil War. Imagine the parlor piano,
the stereopticon on the table, the stuffed sofa
protected by crocheted antimacassars. We sang, we
read, and we husbanded our costly garments. It is a
world I can easily view with aching nostalgia. But
it's also a world that I doubt any of us would want
to exchange for our own.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds