What Is the Colonial Revival?

Historians generally date the beginnings of the Colonial Revival to the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition of 1876, and consider 1880 to 1930 the peak of its popularity–though it’s never really gone away completely. During this period, many Americans were interested in collecting colonial furnishings and decorative arts, and preserving or restoring colonial structures. But the Colonial Revival is more than an architectural or decorative style. It has also been a way for Americans to help ease their transition from past to present. Not simply an expression of nostalgia for a supposedly “simpler” time, the Colonial Revival became a vehicle for the promotion of ideas about patriotism, morals and family life, good taste, and democracy.

Exhibits like the New England Kitchen at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition helped spark an interest in early American material culture

Exhibits like the New England Kitchen at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition helped spark an interest in early American material culture

Born in 1863, Alice Miner came of age just at the moment when the Colonial Revival was beginning to flourish, and she witnessed many of the key moments in its history: the Philadelphia Centennial and the Chicago World’s Fair; the creation of the first period rooms at the Essex Institute in Salem; the opening of the American Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; and the restoration of Colonial Williamsburg.

Most of the individuals involved in these Colonial Revival projects were, like Alice, middle- to upper-class Americans of Protestant British heritage. They had a particular vision of what colonial America had been like–largely populated by people like themselves–which was informed by their concerns about the changes they saw around them. The United States was rapidly industrializing; urbanization was well under way; and a massive influx of immigrants from Europe (most of whom worked in factories and lived in cities) was changing the makeup of the nation.

The first period rooms in an American museum opened in 1907 at the Essex Institute in Salem, Massachusetts

The first period rooms in an American museum opened in 1907 at the Essex Institute in Salem, Massachusetts

To many observers, these were worrying developments. They believed that the United States had been formed at a time of ethnic and linguistic homogeneity, in an agrarian society of independent farmers, craftspeople, and merchants. How could the nation continue to maintain its traditions–even its existence–under such changed conditions? The Colonial Revival was one way of addressing this problem. While its proponents valued early American material culture for its historic and artistic value, they also saw it as a valuable teaching tool.

Showing Americans the settings in which the founders of the nation had lived would make these great men (and they were almost all men) more human and spark interest in the past, which in turn would promote patriotism and civic engagement. Moreover, 20th-century collectors were great believers in the power of environment to shape behavior. They felt that by recreating the physical settings of early America, they could revive the values associated with that period, thereby counteracting the forces of change that threatened to undermine social and political stability.

Wallace Nutting’s photographs of idealized colonial scenes were popular among a broad spectrum of early-20th century American consumers

Wallace Nutting’s photographs of idealized colonial scenes were popular among a broad spectrum of early-20th century American consumers

The items that Alice collected and the way she chose to display them reflect her engagement with the Colonial Revival. From settees to samplers, the objects she chose had stories to tell about the times in which they had been made–but they also tell us as much about Alice herself and the time in which she lived.