The lustrous stone: white marble in America, 1780-1860
Ciregna, Elise Madeleine
University of Delaware
This dissertation is a material culture and visual history of white marble in America between 1780 and 1860. I argue that white marble became the dominant ornamental stone of the early and mid-nineteenth century in America, primarily as gravestones or monuments, but also as architectural elements and interior furnishings. In the 1830s white marble funerary monuments became the defining aesthetic of the rural cemetery movement, beginning in 1831 with the opening of Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Paralleling the blossoming of the rural cemetery movement was the development of the first school of American academic sculpture that relied on ancient Greek and Roman classical examples, and was of white marble. Art historians have acknowledged the importance of white marble to this first generation of American sculptors, but have not considered it as a separate, discrete element. In these studies white marble is treated as a luxury material that became part of America's artistic and cultural landscape in the mid-nineteenth century, and that was associated with the elite classes. I argue, however, that marble was actually a part of everyday life much earlier than has been recognized; and that marble can be studied as a craft similar to other elite crafts such as cabinetmaking and silversmithing. This study begins with an exploration of the technical challenges and business realities of extracting, selling and purchasing white marble in the early nineteenth century to its dominance by the mid-nineteenth century as America's primary ornamental stone. Using the correspondence of Joseph J. Fenner (1788-1851) of Providence, Rhode Island, Chapter Two examines the life of urban stonecutters in New England who were part of the transition from slate to marble gravestones between 1800 and 1820, as well as the early quarry owners and operators who specialized in marble. Chapter Three is a consideration of John Frazee's (1790-1852) career in New York from 1820 to 1840 as first a stonecutter, then a sculptor, and subsequently an architect, with a comparative look at the careers of sculptor Horatio Greenough of Boston and Italy, and John and William Struthers of Philadelphia. Chapter Four examines the career of Alpheus Cary (1788-1869), Boston's foremost marble cutter, as well as parallel developments within sculpture and the large, highly capitalized marble firms that largely dominated marble production by the 1850s. During all of these decades white marble increasingly became the most dominant ornamental stone in use in America outdoors as funerary monuments, and indoors as chimneypieces, mantels, and tabletops. White marble was admired for its lustrous and luminous qualities by casual observers as well as writers, most notably Nathaniel Hawthorne. Beginning in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, white marble began a steep decline in popularity. Outdoor marble deteriorated quickly and cemeteries increasingly required granite for gravestones. By the end of the nineteenth century, white marble had lost its promiment place in America's cultural and visual landscape.