Monday, December 31, 2018

Symbolism in American Public Spaces - Moral Emblems, hidden lessons in 18C commercial gardens

Activities at early American public pleasure gardens after the Revolution offered visitors more than the obvious inspiration from the symbols of their newly won independence which sat & grew & even exploded on the grounds around them. Statues, paintings, flowers, & fireworks were visible affirmations of the inspiring new republican way of life.

There were also symbols in the garden that were not explicit, but understood by the patron's knowledge of the symbolism a variety of activities implied. Throughout the 18C many garden guests recognized that activities in gardens represented deeper lessons of everyday life. Many garden games were emblems for moral living.
London's Vauxhall Gardens by Samuel Wade c 1751

Before the Revolution, symbols of garden statues & games often focused on the dangers of sex & folly. To ensure that their guests understood the deeper implications of their leisure pastimes, owners of London's oldest commercial public pleasure grounds at Vauxhall Gardens decorated the grounds there with paintings containing short morality poems below each picture.

Over half of the paintings conspicuously hanging at various points around the Vauxhall Gardens depicted games & recreations that were enjoyed in the commercial garden. The verses beneath the paintings both described the individual game & offered a rule for life or a moral to be drawn from it. You could go to the garden & misbehave, but those pesky poems about proper moral behavior were always hanging nearby to remind you of the error of your ways.

Obviously visitors could gain from the experience of garden pastimes directly by participating in them & more importantly, indirectly, by acknowledging the accepted moral inherent in the game. Even the most moral or infirm non-participants could share in the moral insight of the emblems.

Emblem verses warned of the vanities of many worldly pursuits & of the precariousness of the game of life. Most 18C colonials understood that even the simple, innocent amusements offered at American gardens were more than just frivolous pastimes.
18C English woodcut

Although there were warnings about the immoratity of it, both men & women enjoyed playing cards in colonial British America, especially in the Southern colonies. Virginians George Washington & Thomas Jefferson both recorded in their journals losing small wagers to female card players. In the mostly rural South, colonials enjoyed playing cards at home, in taverns, &at public pleasure gardens.
Cards & gaming went hand in hand. Gambling was such a probem in the colonial South, that the Virginia General Assembly set a ten shilling fine for gaming with cards or dice at their first session in 1619. Unlawful games included bear baiting, bowling, cards, cockfighting, & dice.
In Virginia, gambling was a gentleman's privilege, as laws forbade servants, apprentices, laborers, &students from playing, at least in public. Legislators, who were the gentry of course, designed statutes to outlaw "unlawful, crafty, and deceitful Gaming, and the inordinate haunting of Alehouses and Tipling Places."
But British American colonials, male & female, at home & in their pleasure gardens would not give up their cards or their wagers. They played games called whist, piquet, ombre, commerce, loo, ace of hearts, faro, slam, all-fours, put, & cribbage. When no one was around or when they could not stand the available company, they played cards alone. And they often concentrated on building a house of cards to test the steadiness of their hands & their balancing skills. William Byrd wtote that he "killed the Time, by that great help to disagreeable Society, a Pack of Cards."
Jean-Baptiste-Simeion Chardin (1699-1779). House of Cards. c 1736.

As the elder Charles Carroll in Annapolis, Maryland, probably knew when he urged his son to visit the public gardens in London, even the simple task of building a house of cards could be instructive to a youth such as his son, who had been away from home for years receiving a "proper education."

An 18C English wit wrote,

"Whilst innocently Youth their hours beguile
And joy to raise with Cards the wondrous pile,
A Breath a Start, makes the whole fabrick vain,
And All lies flat, to be began again:
Ambition thus erects in riper Years,
Wild Schemes of Pow'r, & Wealth, & endless cares;
Some change takes place, the labour'd plan retards,
All drops--Illusion All--an House of Cards."
18C English woodcut

The young & the adventurous also participated in more active games such as Blind Man's Bluff in public pleasure gardens, but often these apparently innocent, carefree pastimes were seen as symbols for amorous intrigues in the 18C. Men & women played blind man's bluff together, & the blindfold was a good excuse for an occasional indescretion.  One anonymous Englishman noted, 

"Intent on Mirth alone the Rural Train
Pass the gay vernal hours in rest from Pain:
The buxom Youth hoodwink'd each other find,
And innocently laugh to cheat the Blind.
Thoughtless in Sport they urge the wanton Play,
Nor heed the latent Pow'r that reigns in May;
Beware ye tender Maids, your glowing Hearts,
For Love tho' blind is not without its Darts."
18C English woodcut

One 18C -century gentlemen saw a learning experince inherent in a the simple children's game of Leapfrog,

"While blooming Health bestows its warm supply
The active Youth their Limbs elestic try
By turns they yield the pliant Back prepare
By turn they spring and seem to move the Air
Hence learn in Life with Similar address
Prudent to bend or resolute to press
Your force examine ere you chuse your part
The World is Leap Frog play'd with greater Art."
18C English woodcut

Battledore & Shuttlecock was very popular in 18C London commercial gardens. Bandying cork & feather back & forth also flourished in 18C British American colonial public & private pleasure gardens as well.  Englishman John Newbery wrote,

"The great E. Play.
The Shuttle Cock struck
Does backward rebound;
But, it it be miss'd
It falls to the Ground.
Thus chequer'd in Life,
As Fortune does flow;
Her Smiles lift us high,
Her Frowns sink us low."
18C English woodcut

Even the simple straddling exercise of See-Sawing inspired some obviously male (surely a strong proponent of a double-standard of behavior) versifier to create a moral on the dangers of virginity lost,

"When at the top of her adventrous Flight.
The frolick Damsel tumbles from her Height:
Tho her warm Blush bespeaks a present Pain
It soon goes off she falls to rise again:
But when the Nymph with Prudence unprepar'd
By pleasure swayed--forsakes her Honours Guard;
That slip once made, no Wisdom can restore.
She falls indeed!--and falls to rise no more"

More complicated symbolism, not associated with traditional emblems, was also common in early American gardens after the Revolution, especially in the new French gardens popping up around New York City. Joseph Delacroix was famous in New York City for staging reportedly "stupendous emblematic spectacles" in his public pleasure garden. Occasionally the complicated symbolism prompted questions in New York City newspapers,
"Now Monsieur De la Croix, pray explain,
What did your emblematic worship mean?"

Garden owner Delacroix developed fireworks programs as inspiring symbols for his commercial garden partons' immediate amusement & continuing moral education. In 1800, Delacroix presented Augustus Von Kotzebue's tragedy Pizzaro in fireworks & followed that spectacular presentation with a fireworks play called Tit for Tat; or, the Fire Worker's Pleasure Day. The stage represented a fireworks laboratory with "all the apparatus necessary for that art." The action centered around the good journeyman & the evil master fireworks maker who was finally revealed to be the devil. Not a presentation that might appeal to the master, but there were many more workers than bosses in the new republic.

In newly democratic America, garden owners targeted their morality spectaculars at everyman, not just the gentry. Garden entrepeneurs aimed their emblems, symbols, & spectaculars to the common working man--the mechanics & shopkeepers. This focus allowed the public pleasure garden proprietor in the new nation to exhibit his egalitarian ideologies & to attract a larger paying audience to his commercial garden.

Emblem Books

Emblem books are a style of illustrated book developed in Europe & Britain during the 16C & 17C. The emblems are usually a combination of a visual image & accompanying text intended to inspire readers to reflect on a general moral lesson derived from experiencing both picture & text together. Emblem books were meant to inspire people from all social strata to lead a more moral life.
There are great online resources for emblem books. To learn more about emblems see the

English Emblem Book Project at Pennsylvania State University. Their fine project posts emblem books from their collections online.

Or you might want to ferret out these emblem books.

1586 Geffrey Whitney, A Choice of Emblemes, Francis Raphelengius, Leiden.
l635 Francis Quarles, Emblemes, John Marriot, London.
1635 George Wither, A Collection of Emblemes, Robert Allot, London.
1658 John Hall, Emblems with Elegant Figures, Roger Daniel, London.
1673 Emblems Divine, Moral, Natural and Historical, William Miller and Francis Haley, London.
1683 Philip Ayres, Emblemata Amatoria, R. Bentley and S. Tidmarsh, London.
1686 John Bunyan, A Book for Boys and Girls, Nathaniel Ponder, London.
1709 Cesare Ripa, Iconologia; or, Moral Emblems, by Caesar Ripa, Pierce Tempest, London.
1729? Anon, Emblems for the Entertainment and Improvement of Youth, T. Green, London.
1740 Francis Tolson, Hermathenae, or Moral Emblems, and Ethnick Tales
1772 John Huddlestone Wynne, Choice Emblems, George Wiley, London.
1779 George Richardson, Iconology, or a Collection of Emblematical Figures, George Richardson ('printed for the author by G. Scott'). London.

Depending on which language you are most comfortable with, these additional websites also explore and exhibit emblem books:

~Glasgow University Emblem website (This site provides an overview of many current projects and includes references to numerous related sites of interest.)

~The University of Illinois – German Emblem Books project

~Alciato's Book of Emblems: The Memorial Web Edition in Latin and English