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Gothic Revival: An “Alternative” Trend for Victorian Americans

October 18, 2013 Archive Insight
Prominent architect Andrew Jackson Downing—a big fan of the Gothic Revival—offered house designs in this picturesque style for middle-class Americans in his 1842 book, Cottage Residences. This illustration has the most self-conscious gothic elements—in the chimneys, windows, and the “gingerbread” detail in the central gable. (THF.110992)

Today when we think of gothic, we picture people dressed in dark clothing sporting dyed jet-black hair and best-selling vampire-themed novels like the Twilight series. America has had an on-and-off love affair with this offbeat, alternate style for the past two hundred years. Yet, what began as deliciously gloomy in 18th-century England took hold in Victorian America as romantic and picturesque.

Gothic as Mystery and Delicious Gloom

The idea of the gothic began with 18th-century Englishman Horace Walpole, who created the concept of the romantic-gothic in his fantasy castle, Strawberry Hill, located just outside of London. Walpole’s medievally-inspired “little gothic castle” included battlements, pinnacles, a round tower, fan vaulted ceilings, and pointed gothic arches. Like today’s Goths, Walpole saw mystery in the “dark.” In designing Strawberry Hill, Walpole looked to create an otherworldly—and rather theatrical—environment through the use of mysterious shadows of dark and light. Word spread as others learned of Walpole’s unique creation and gothic elements began to find their way into stylish design—not quite medieval, but not of its time, either.

Gothic as Romantic and Picturesque

By the mid 19th century, a popular trend that came to be known as Gothic Revival emerged from Walpole’s vision. For Walpole, the gothic was a personal fantasy world. For those who embraced it decades later, it was an emotionally–infused alternative to the rational Classical design so in vogue in the early decades of the 19th century. The Classical taste was about symmetry and order. The Gothic taste was about emotion, whimsy, and the spiritual. Many Americans thought the Gothic style pretty and charming—so picturesque—and by the mid-19th century, popular American taste was all about the “picturesque.”

What constituted the Gothic Revival? The kinds of decorative elements one would find on a medieval cathedral like tall spires, pointed arches and trefoils (a stylized three-part leaf design). Where did these design elements appear? On newly-built churches, houses, stoves, furniture, glassware, silver—and even industrial machinery.

Gothic Sofa

This elegant sofa is covered with quatrefoil carvings (a stylized four-part leaf design) derived from medieval stained glass windows. This massive, imposing piece was intended to make a fashion statement in a Victorian parlor.

Cast Iron Andirons

These tall cast iron andirons—with their double “stack” of church spires—are the very definition of the Gothic Revival. They appear to be lifted from a medieval cathedral—although nothing like them ever existed in the Middle Ages.

Covered Casket Jewelry Box

This jewelry box—made of mold-pressed, shimmering, “lacy” glass— features rows of cathedral-inspired, stained glass windows. It was made in the 1830s by the Boston and Sandwich Glass Company in Sandwich, Massachusetts.

Side Chair, Made by Joseph Meeks & Son, 1835-1860

New York City furniture maker Joseph Meeks added pointed arches and trefoils (three-part) cutouts to form the back of this simple, yet elegant, side chair in the Gothic style. Made between 1835 and 1860, this chair is perfect for a picturesque cottage.

Brewster & Ingraham of Bristol, Connecticut between 1844 and 1852.

This mass-produced “cottage” clock, made by Brewster & Ingraham of Bristol, Conn., between 1844 and 1852, merely hints at the Gothic style with its pointed top and simple spires. Thousands of clocks like this one found a place in American homes during the mid-19th century.

1840-1860 washstand was purchased by Mary Todd Lincoln.

Even simple washstands could be adorned with gothic arches. This 1840-1860 washstand was purchased by Mary Todd Lincoln for her Springfield, Illinois home.

Charles Sable is Curator of Decorative Arts at The Henry Ford.

gothic, Victorian

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