Conspicuous Consumption

Popular culture often portrays 19th century Arkansas as a sleepy backwater populated almost entirely by barefoot moonshiners, children wearing tattered homespun dresses, and gaunt old widows smoking corn cob pipes. While modern Arkansans can take pride in our ancestors’ legacy of resourcefulness and grit, these historical caricatures tell only a fraction of a complex story.

In addition to the ‘dregs of Kentucky and Tennessee,’ western settlement brought discerning ladies and gentlemen from important families, as well as skilled craftsmen and enterprising merchants eager to supply a growing middle class with the latest trends in housewares, textiles, accessories, and more. As industrialized processes gained widespread use in the early 1800s, artisans quickly adapted. Classically trained craftspeople either expanded their product lines and started factories of their own or shifted to retail and repairs. A handful of the most fortunate and profitable continued practicing their arts using traditional methods.

By the second half of the 1800s, shipping by river, road, and rail made almost everything readily available to even the most rural Arkansans. Improvements in industrial technology and mass-production meant items could be constructed cheaply and quickly and sold at reduced prices. These advances increased access to items that previously belonged only to exclusive members of early American aristocracy – descendants of European nobility and barons of capitalist industry. Converging commercial forces created an environment primed for conspicuous consumption: parlors outfitted with fine furniture and china, day dresses of patterned silk, and the flash of a gold pocket watch increased the social prestige of middle- and working-class Arkansans. This exhibit features some of the exceptional objects made, purchased, and flaunted by Arkansans during the Victorian era.