What is Colonial Revivalism?
The Colonial Revival movement was an American response to a period of upheaval and social change throughout the nation that is pinpointed as starting around the centennial celebration of the American Revolution in 1876 as the idealization of early—particularly New England America.
Having come through the devastating national horror of the Civil War just ten years earlier, Americans were seeking stability through an idealized and heroic view of a time when Americans were united in a common cause. However, those involved in the movement were less concerned with verified historical fact but, rather, what they saw as the spirit of America’s earliest days.
The movement included notable individuals like Theodate Pope Riddle, a pioneering female architect and designer/entrepreneur Wallace Nutting who created a small empire of historic house museums which he filled with revival furniture made by his own firms. He promoted his ventures with colorized photographic scenes purporting to depict 18th century days of yore.
Backed by organizations like both the Sons and Daughters of the American Revolution and the Colonial Dames, by the turn of the 20th century the Revivalist movement was focused on conservative values that resisted change brought to the nation by surges of immigration. The organizations focusing on the pedigree of ancestors who could be traced back to the days of the first European colonizers and glorified the era in which they lived.
The Colonial Revival focused on a wide variety of areas from. As preservationists’ wealthy organizers managed to save historic sites from demolition by tying them to the founding story of the nation. By the 1920s and 30s these efforts spawned today ambitious projects that survive such as the creation of living history regions like Colonial Williamsburg, funded by the Rockefeller family, Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts, Historic Richmondtown in Staten Island, NY and Old Bethpage Village in Long Island New York.
Where original colonial buildings did not exist modern architects were happy to recreate houses in an idyllic 18th century style, furnishings and accoutrement to round out the colonial décor were provided by firms like Wallace Nuttings but a myriad others dedicated to creating material culture which helped spawn the Arts & Crafts movement.
The Colonial Revival movement was dedicated to recreating the ethos of what its followers saw as America’s “glory days” as a brave, young land forging a bright future. In truth, the earliest days of Euro-American colonization of North America were a fraught and desperate time rife with wars, starvation, and privation. Each day was a struggle for simple survival and while the artistic expressions of the Colonial Revival movement portrayed the American Revolution in Romantic fashion, the truth was that the war was a series of scrappy battles fought under terrible conditions by untrained and often undisciplined volunteers.
In its own way, the movement was an even more effective propaganda machine than even the concerted efforts of programs like the USIA, tasked with promoting American exceptionalism worldwide after World War II.