Amy K. DeFalco Lippert. Consuming Identities: Visual Culture in Nineteenth-Century San Francisco.

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Book Review

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The American Historical Review





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In Consuming Identities: Visual Culture in Nineteenth-Century San Francisco, Amy K. DeFalco Lippert argues convincingly that San Francisco stood in the vanguard of a new nineteenth-century visual culture centered on lithography, photography, and visual spectacles as diverse as tableaux vivants, panoramas, and minstrel shows. The contention that California’s gold rush metropolis proved such a fertile ground for the development of these cultural forms is fresh and original. Also innovative is the way that Lippert ties the explosive growth of this visual culture to the city’s unique conditions in the 1850s and beyond. As the port of disembarkation and embarkation for seafaring migrants, as the postal node through which sojourners exchanged letters with loved ones back home, and as the nexus for gold rush goods and capital, San Francisco became a laboratory for the century’s preoccupation with the relationship between external appearances and internal substance. If historians have stressed the tension between outward appearance and inner substance ever since Karen Halttunen published Confidence Men and Painted Women: A Study of Middle-Class Culture in America, 1830–1870 in 1982, Lippert extends such inquiry by tracing this tension in the way gold rush participants represented themselves in words and pictures sent to folks back home. She also links their behavior to the emergence of the archetypal miner, a roughly clad, bewhiskered white man who has “seen the elephant” (32)—one who has experienced the tribulations of the diggings and is now poorer but wiser, but nonetheless claims the satisfaction of having been a larger-than-life actor in an epic event. Creating this figure, in turn, was part of a larger cultural process that separated image from referent and that created a new landscape of signs. That process also produced a novel celebrity culture, which took multiple forms. It included the fabulous visual displays of Lola Montez and Adah Isaacs Menken, both in the theater and in the ephemera that accompanied their performances. It also included the phenomenon of celebrity albums, collections of photographs of famous people, exemplified in California photographer Thomas Houseworth’s 1874 Houseworth’s Celebrities. Lippert persuasively supports her contention that San Francisco, far from being a cultural backwater, was at least as crucial to the development of the new nineteenth-century landscape of signs as vaunted cultural capitals like New York and Paris.


United States History



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