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by Sumpter Priddy


  Figure 1. Card table attr. to John and Hugh Finlay, Baltimore,1805 – 1815.
Collection of Mrs. George M. Kauffman.

In the eighteenth century, “Fancy” meant “imagination.” In 1770 the American poet Philip Freneau described Fancy as “the Muse’s pride” and wrote, In thy painted realms reside / Endless images of things, / Fluttering each on golden wings.” After the Revolutionary War, as Romantic tendencies gained credence, Americans began to apply the term “Fancy” to a host of highly decorated household furnishings. In 1803 Fancy chair makers John and Hugh Finlay of Baltimore appealed to this new sensibility when they advertised their ability to make “all kinds of Fancy Furniture . . . of various colors and of every description, painted and gilt in the most fanciful manner.” [fig. 1] Soon, the phenomenon spread. Fancy painting came to refer to surfaces ornamented in imitation of figured marble and colorful woods, and Fancy goods encompassed a wide array of highly ornamented and useful household furnishings. The wide array of Fancy wares relied upon brilliant colors, abstract patterns, and spirited artistic expressions for their universal—and magnetic—appeal. They appeared everywhere. [fig.2].


Figure 2. Earthenware jug, England, ca. 1835.
Rickard Collection, photo Gavin Ashworth.


Fancy goods of the early nineteenth century were a halfway point between the understated styles of the colonial period and the profusion of the Victorian era. At the height of their popularity between 1790 and 1840, these objects reflected the character of an optimistic young country. Many justified the new style by observing that the new goods caught the eye, excited the emotions, and filled the storehouse of the imagination with a wealth of vivid experience. These intriguing goods employed the creativity of the maker to inspire the mind of the viewer, and for Americans they provided an essential alternative to the sedate classical taste. This was particularly important after Britain’s defeat in the War of 1812, when many Americans sought to permanently distance themselves from European influences.

  Figure 3. Cotton chintz coverlet by Rebecca Scattergood Savery, Philadelphia, ca. 1827.
Courtesy Winterthur Museum.

Americans’ obsession with Fancy things was given a significant boost by Scottish physicist David Brewster’s 1816 invention of the kaleidoscope, during his experiments in the polarization of light. This combination of mirrors in a viewing cylinder made it possible for the imagination to “fancy to itself things more great, strange, beautiful than the eye ever saw.” “Kaleidoscope-mania” swept the western world, and by 1822 a European visitor to America was astounded to observe the kaleidoscope fabricated “in quantities so great” that it was given “as a plaything to children.” The kaleidoscope’s ever-changing designs fueled the imagination and provided Americans yet another alternative to classical traditions [fig. 3].

This new vision had an immediate impact on Fancy painting in architecture: An artisan might select one color for the panels, another for moldings, yet another for baseboards—then change the scheme in the adjoining spaces. When an individual moved rapidly from room to room, up the stairs and then back down again, the experience mimicked that of viewing a kaleidoscope on a tremendous scale, and inspired the mind to a heightened state of creativity.

Wool ingrain carpet, American, ca. 1835.
Abby Aldritch Rockefeller Folk Art Museum, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

Americans’ pursuit of Fancy things reached a peak in the 1820s and 1830s, and included a wide variety of goods, from eye-popping wallpapers and textiles to painted children’s furniture. Anne Royall probably echoed the sentiments of many Americans toward these goods when she visited a Baltimore Fancy Store in the 1820s: “I was not only gratified but astonished at the brilliancy of the wares,” she exclaimed. Soon, the style reached a feverish pitch. After traveling in America the French political thinker, Alexis de Tocqueville, observed of the typical American citizen, “Besides the good things he possesses, he every instant fancies a thousand others, which death will prevent him from trying if he does not try them soon.”

By the 1840s, Fancy taste had saturated the home and the marketplace, and a rising tide of condemnation emphasized Fancy as a superfluous and even potentially dangerous phenomenon. Edgar Allen Poe soundly criticized the wildly painted floorcloths that adorned households across America: “As for those antique floor cloths still occasionally seen in the dwellings of the rabble—cloths of huge, sprawling, and radiating devices, stripe interspersed, and glorious with all hues, among which no ground is intelligible—these are but the wicked inventions of a race of time servers and money lovers, worshipers of Mammon who, to spare thought and economize fancy, cruelly invented the kaleidoscope.”3 [fig. 4].

Between 1790 and 1840, Americans across the social spectrum had embraced the concept of Fancy and created a dynamic native style. During the Victorian era that followed, attitudes toward emotion and style quickly changed, and Fancy came to mean nothing more than “decorated.” Soon after mid-century, though the word remained in use, the concept was largely forgotten. Changes in economy, industry, and attitude – and the devastating reality of a civil conflict - caused Americans to turn their attention to a different world.


Anne Royall, Mrs. Royall’s Pennsylvania, or Travels Continued In the United States, 2 vols. (Washington: privately printed, 1829), 1:9.

Alexis De Tocqueville, Democracy in America, edited by Andrew Hacker (New York: Washington Square Press, 1964), p. 206.

3 Edgar Allen Poe, “The Philosophy of Furniture,” in Works of Edgar Allen Poe in One Volume (New.York: P. F. Collier & Son, 1927), pp. 919-920.


This article from our archives was originally published in September 2005.