Confidence Men and Painted Women
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Confidence Men and Painted Women is an unusual and rich book that attempts to capture the essence of American life in the mid-nineteenth century. This remarkable work interprets the social history of the middle class as it unfolded through the 1800's. Halttunen relies on advice manuals, etiquette books, fashion magazines, popular drama, and fiction to paint a vivid portrait of life and typical conscious thought in this era. The author argues that sincerity and the fear of hypocrisy were at the forefront of American ideals.
America was a young country in the early 1800's, and many of its citizens were fearful that it might collapse or be unable to survive. The prevailing thought at that time was that if Americans could maintain high ideals and character in all their dealings with one another, this would be the solution to all of the social ills of the time.
Changes and Confidence Men
Despite the newness of the nation, the country was already undergoing the following rapid changes:
- As fathers died, leaving their vast farmlands to be divided among their offspring, farms got smaller and less profitable.
- Agricultural technology saw tremendous progress, which resulted in the need for fewer workers. As a result, many young men traveled to large cities to find work.
- Employment in urban areas was plentiful, as clerks were needed to fill jobs associated with insurance, banking, bonds, and so on.
The life of a rural family tends to allow a tremendous amount of control over offspring. Neighbors tend to know one another. Most residents went to churches during this era. Thus, families, neighbors, and churches were available to monitor and correct the behavior of young boys and to offer them advice.
Aloneness and Confidence Men
However, life in large cities was different. Typically, the new citizen knew no one. This "aloneness" made them easy marks for men who would provide opportunities for immoral behavior, such as gambling, drinking, and prostitution, or insincerity. First, the confidence man would befriend the young man, offer to show him the city, and to help him get acquainted with other people. The confidence man, dressed as a gentleman, would seem worthy of trust. Consequently, the young man would be well on his way to a life of depravity. If enough young men succumbed to this way of life, the character of the United States would be lost; the end of America was at stake. As a result, an individual's identity and authenticity became critical for his or her standing in middle-class society. Without these characteristics, an individual's self-worth and moral being would weaken.