Poe doesn't single out the nouveaux riches of the Industrial
Revolution. Poe is not concerned with them, generally speaking, as the
Industrial Revolution began in England before it spread to America,
and he finds no fault with the English. Indeed, he lauds the English
taste for interior decoration.
"In the internal decoration, if not in the external architecture of
their residences, the English are supreme."
He is appalled, however, by American taste which he believes to be the
corrupt product of American republicanism, that is to say, the
capitalistic class structure, which he contrasts with the hereditary
class structure of England.
"The Yankees alone are preposterous."
Taste, he says, is shaped by the aristocracy of a country. In England,
the position of the aristocracy is not based upon wealth, but rather
upon birth and blood. The English aristocracy, he argues, are not
motivated to ostentation as a means by which to establish their
superiority, therefore, and they form more harmonious tastes as a
result, which become the model for the lower orders. In America,
however, social position is based primarily upon wealth rather than
lineage, and the American "nobility" are distinguished by their wealth
alone. Having only wealth as measure, they must flaunt it in
ostentatious display as evidence of their class superiority, and they
form corrupt tastes as a result. The lower classes of America, as in
England, imitate the upper classes, but Poe argues, having in America
only a corrupt model, the lack of good taste pervades American society
from top to bottom.
"We have no aristocracy of blood, and having therefore as a natural,
and indeed as an inevitable thing, fashioned for ourselves an
aristocracy of dollars, the display of wealth has here to take the
place and perform the office of the heraldic display in monarchical
countries. By a transition readily understood, and which might have
been as readily foreseen, we have been brought to merge in simple
"show "our notions of taste itself."
"In England, for example, no mere parade of costly appurtenances would
be so likely as with us, to create an impression of thebeautiful in
respect to the appurtenances themselves or of taste as regards the
proprietor: this for the reason, first, that wealth is not, in
England, the loftiest object of ambition as constituting a nobility;
and secondly, that there, the true nobility of blood, confining itself
within the strict limits of legitimate taste, rather avoids than
affects that mere costliness in which a parvenu rivalry may at any
time be successfully attempted.
The people will imitate the nobles, and the result is a thorough
diffusion of the proper feeling. But in America, the coins current
being the sole arms of the aristocracy, their display may be said, in
general, to be the sole means of the aristocratic distinction; and the
populace, looking always upward for models,,are insensibly led to
confound the two entirely separate ideas of magnificence and beauty.
In short, the cost of an article of furniture has at length come to
be, with us, nearly the sole test of its merit in a decorative point
of view and this test, once established, has led the way to many
analogous errors, readily traceable to the one primitive folly."
"It is an evil growing out of our republican institutions, that here a
man of large purse has usually a very little soul which he keeps in
it. The corruption of taste is a portion or a pendant of the
dollar-manufac sure. As we grow rich, our ideas grow rusty. It is,
therefore, not among our aristocracy that we must look (if at all, in
Appallachia), for the spirituality of a British boudoir."
Poe's criticism is aimed at reforming American taste, which, he
laments, lacks the restraint of the English, a lack that he traces to
the formation of an American aristocracy by the exultation of the
wealthy. The source of that wealth is not important, merely its social
function as a mark of merit. In England, it can be inferred, the
wealthy Industrialist would follow the lead of the gentry, and would
be exempt from lapses of taste. It is American society's veneration
for wealth that is the source of its unrefined taste, not the wealth
itself. The parvenu, the new man, is the problem only in the sense
that he gauges his social superiority solely by the dollar, all other
class distinctions and indexes of merit having been abolished in
Poe was living in Philadelphia, PA at the time the article was
composed and published in Burton's Magazine. One might assume that
Philadelphia society was the inspiration and audience for the article.
Philadelphia, it should be noted, was justly famous for its furniture
makers. The article is definitely ironical in tone. Poe was using
humor to make a point. His mock-serious words that begin the article
'"PHILOSOPHY," says Hegel, "is utterly useless and fruitless, and, for
this very reason, is the sublimest of all pursuits, the most deserving
of our attention, and the most worthy of our zeal" a somewhat
Coleridegy assertion, with a rivulet of deep meaning in a meadow of
words. It would be wasting time to disentangle the paradox and the
more so as no one will deny that Philosophy has its merits, and is
applicable to an infinity of purposes. There is reason, it is said, in
the roasting of eggs, and there is philosophy even in furniture a
philosophy nevertheless which seems to be more imperfectly understood
by Americans than by any civilized nation upon the face of the earth.'
The Philosophy of Furniture by Edgar Allan Poe
POE HOUSE - PHILADELPHIA
Edgar Allan Poe NHS Park Brochure
"The importance of this house lies in its location and its connection
to Poe. During the entire six years (1838-1844) that Poe lived in
Philadelphia, he attained his greatest successes as an editor and
critic, and he published some of his most famous tales, including,
"The Gold Bug," "The Fall of the House of Usher," "The Tell-Tale
Heart," and "The Murders in the Rue Morgue". Of his several
Philadelphia homes, only this one survives. It serves as a tangible
link with Poe and his days of greatness in Philadelphia. For this
reason, it is fitting that Congress chose this site as our nation's
memorial to Edgar Allan Poe."
Philadelphia Museum of Art: History of the Museum (5 of 12)
Philadelphia Furniture & Furnishings Show - The Art of Collecting
"In 18th-century Philadelphia, business leaders made a patriotic point
of buying locally rather than sending off to Europe for their
furnishings, supporting the historic flowering of the furniture and
decorative arts here in that period."
Seminar Sheds New Light on Early Philadelphia Decorative Arts; ...
"The Philosophy of Furniture" Poe
Philadelphia furniture history 18th century