Letters About 19th Century U.S. History

Lesson Plan

Lesson

Students will look at decorations and details of a late 19th century cabinet and imagine the life and times of the family who owned it by researching events during this time period. Students will write imaginary letters to a family member based on historical information they research from this time period.

Intended Age Group

Secondary (grades 6-12)

Length of Lesson

Three 50 minute lessons

Standards Area

Social Studies

Objectives

Students will be able to:

  • understand the values and tastes of late 19th century American society;
  • research primary documents and other resources that describe the social climate in the late 1800s;
  • create a series of letters to an imaginary loved one describing the values and tastes of the culture and events happening during the late 19th century; and
  • listen and speak as they share their letters with a small group of peers.

Lesson

Day 1

  1. Show students the Renaissance Revival/Aesthetic Cabinet and share with them information on who made the cabinet and how intricate the craftsmanship is. Present the students with a timeline of major events happening in the United States between 1860 and 1900. As a class, discuss how the country changed over the course of 40 years and the events that influenced those changes.
  2. Have students read the About the Art section on the cabinet or, if time allows, research information about the cabinet including the mythological figures, and the use of gilding, marquetry, and rare woods.
  3. Invite students to imagine or discuss in small groups who may have owned this cabinet. What would he, she, or the family be like? What might their place in society be? Why might they have wanted a cabinet this elaborate?
  4. Explain to the students that they will be writing two letters from the viewpoint of the original owner of this cabinet. The first letter will be to an imaginary family member or friend describing the cabinet and why the piece is important in his or her life.
  5. Have students write their first letter.

Day 2

  1. Today students will research some of the major events that happened in the United States between 1860 and 1900. Remind students how they have already discussed some of these events. Explain that in the next lesson, they will be using what they research today to write a second letter from the viewpoint of the cabinet owner about the events they may have witnessed or lived through. These events may include but are not limited to:
    • 1868 election and 1872 re-election of Ulysses Grant as president
    • addition of 15th Amendment to the Constitution
    • founding of Yellowstone National Park
    • Civil Rights Act of 1875
    • founding of the National Baseball League
  2. Students may wish to focus on one specific event, or explore a few. Encourage them to take notes on what they research and to remember to cite any websites or books where they get their information.

Day 3

  1. Show students the Renaissance Revival/Aesthetic Cabinet again and review what they have learned in the previous two lessons. If a few days have passed, it might be helpful to have students discuss what they have learned in small groups so they can help each other remember better.
  2. Using their notes from the second lesson, have students write another letter to an imaginary family member or friend from the viewpoint of the original cabinet owner. This letter should talk about the historical events they have researched as though they actually lived in that time. A few examples of what the letters might entail:
    • 1876—talks about the Civil Rights Movement, Klu Klux Klan, or the Emancipation Proclamation
    • 1877—refers to President Grant and the founding of Yellowstone National Park
    • 1878—refers to the Civil Rights Movement and the addition of the 15th Amendment to the Constitution
    • 1879—talks about the National Baseball League or the beginnings of American Modernist art
  3. When students have finished their second letter, have them get into small groups and share both of their letters with their peers. Do they see any relationship between the images represented on the Renaissance Revival/Aesthetic Cabinet and the historical events that were happening at the time?

Materials

  • Timeline of the United States during the late 19th century
  • Information about the mythical figures found on the cabinet (refer to the About the Art section for information on what figures are represented)
  • Color copies of the cabinet for students to share, or the ability to project the image onto a wall or screen
  • About the Art section on Renaissance Revival/Aesthetic Cabinet
  • Access to Internet for student research, or copies of information on topics such as:
    • 1868 election and 1872 re-election of Ulysses Grant as president
    • addition of 15th Amendment to the Constitution
    • founding of Yellowstone National Park
    • Civil Rights Act of 1875
    • founding of the National Baseball League

Standards

CO Standards

  • Social Studies
    • History
      • Evaluate and analyze sources using historical method of inquiry and defend their conclusions
      • Understand the concept that the power of ideas is significant throughout history
      • Analyze the concepts of continuity and change and effect
      • Analyze the concept of complexity, unity and diversity
      • Become familiar with United States historical eras, groups, individuals, ideas and themes
  • Visual Arts
    • Observe and Learn to Comprehend
    • Relate and Connect to Transfer
  • Language Arts
    • Oral Expression and Listening
    • Research and Reasoning
    • Writing and Composition
    • Reading for All Purposes

21st Century Skills

  • Collaboration
  • Critical Thinking & Reasoning
  • Information Literacy
  • Invention
  • Self-Direction

About the Art

Renaissance Revival/Aesthetic Cabinet

Renaissance Revival/Aesthetic Cabinet

1870-75

Attributed to Gustave Herter and Christian Herter

Who Made It?

Up to 100 craftsmen, each specializing in a single technique, were employed by the Herter Brothers decorating firm to create this cabinet. Herter Brothers, the New York firm of the German-born brothers Gustave and Christian Herter, was one of the leading cabinetmaking firms in the United States during the late 1800s. Furniture made by Herter Brothers is known for its beauty and design, as well as its fine craftsmanship and attention to detail. The number of materials and the various techniques used to produce this cabinet—including carving, incising (cutting into), gilding (applying gold to the surface), and veneering (covering furniture with other materials, like brass or copper)—create a complex and beautiful piece. People who purchased Herter cabinets were typically wealthy investors, industrialists, and institutions. The Herters were even commissioned for thirteen pieces for the Grant Red Room in the White House.

What Inspired It?

The Herters created furniture of extraordinary craftsmanship; their design was legendary and extremely ornate. Dozens of different woods from all over the world were combined to create this cabinet. The predominant wood used, however, is rosewood, an exotic material at the time, known for its fragrance, smoothness, and strength. This cabinet is an example of American Victorian design. It features rich materials, multiple techniques, and diverse motifs drawn from a variety of cultures—this eclectic style characterized much of the Victorian era. Different motifs to look for in this cabinet include animals, statues, flowers, geometric patterning, and architectural elements. It is believed that this piece was either placed in a parlor opposite a fireplace or in a bedroom to be used as a storage unit. The cabinet would probably have been adorned with a bust or a vase with peacock feathers.

Details

Marquetry
Marquetry

The most noticeable technique used in this cabinet is marquetry. Marquetry is a process by which small pieces of wood that have been stained or bleached to create different colors are fitted together to form patterns. This process is similar to creating a jigsaw puzzle: each piece has to fit perfectly with the one next to it. Check out the two standing figures on the central doors. The folds in their robes are not painted; they are actually made of many tiny pieces of wood that have been meticulously fitted together.

Gilding
Gilding

Gilding is a finishing process that involves applying a thin layer of gold to the surface of an object. Look for examples of gilding at the very top of the cabinet.

Ormolu
Ormolu

Another type of gold finish can be found on the cabinet’s three roundels—the three round circular elements (two on the side edges of the main frame and one at the center of the base). The material used for this type of finish is called ormolu [ORma-loo]: literally, “ground gold.” Ormolu was a common decorative finish during the 1700–1800s, especially in France.

Carving
Carving

Look for carved details at the cabinet’s triangular top and the series of rectangular boxes that run along the inside border. Notice the architectural elements that have been carefully carved: the fluted (or vertically grooved) columns, the female masks beneath the columns, and the winged sphinxes.

Incising
Incising

Incising is another technique used by the artist to embellish the surface. It involves carving shallow lines into the surface of the cabinet. These lines are often filled with gilding to make them stand out.

Mythological Figures
Mythological Figures

The mythological figures on the two center doors hold staffs and baskets of grain. They represent Demeter, the Greek goddess of fertility. Demeter is known for mourning the abduction of her daughter Persephone by Hades, god of the Underworld.

Sphinxes
Sphinxes

These are mythological winged creatures that have the body of a lion and the head of a woman. A sphinx is said to have killed anybody who passed by and could not answer her riddle.

Classical References
Classical References

On each of the two small side doors is a large amphora (an ancient Greek jar) that is filled with flowers. These classic, two-handled jars have oval bodies and narrow cylindrical necks.

Renaissance Influence
Renaissance Influence

The portrait medallions, located above and below Demeter, most likely portray a Renaissance academic. He wears a traditional academic skullcap.

Female Heads
Female Heads

Note the carved female masks beneath the fluted columns on either side of the two central doors. This element was seen throughout the Herters’ work. The faces have no pupils, an almost continuous brow, a straight nose, and full lips.

Funding for lesson plans provided by a grant from the Morgridge Family Foundation. Additional funding provided by the William Randolph Hearst Endowment for Education Programs, and Xcel Energy Foundation. We thank our colleagues at the University of Denver Morgridge College of Education.