Dog Days Classics: Halttunen on Confidence Men, Painted Women, and Borrowed Watches

confidence men and painted women

We begin our annual Dog Days Classics series this year with a reflection on the work of Karen Halttunen.  Past entries have looked at influential works by Barbara Fields, Giovanni Arrighi, the Roberts Caro and Wiebe and many others.

In spring 2005, I was a graduate student at the University of Illinois, just a few months out from passing my oral prelim and beginning my dissertation research on Progressive Era higher education and intercollegiate football.  I was also getting ready to teach my first stand-alone course, Civil War and Reconstruction, in the upcoming summer term.  I realized that having grown up in central Illinois in a working-class family that rarely traveled, I had never been to a Civil War battlefield. This shortcoming had to be remedied, and soon. So that April I visited one of my college friends, a Senate staffer in Washington, DC, who was also a Civil War buff who made frequent weekend trips to Eastern Theater battlefields. We trekked to Gettysburg and spent a chilly, gray spring day climbing Little Round Top, surveying the Peach Orchard, and observing the field where Pickett’s men had perished in vain nearly 142 years earlier.

After trudging around the battlefield, we stopped into the gift shop, where I marveled at their selection of Civil War-era books.  Of course, the usual regimental histories and battlefield guides populated the shelves, but there were also a few honest-to-goodness academic titles.  One that caught my eye was a paperback edition of Karen Halttunen’s 1982 classic, Confidence Men and Painted Women: A Study of Middle-Class Culture in America, 1830-1870. The book had come up in seminar on at least one occasion, and the previous spring I had given it the “kamikaze” graduate student reading for exams (two hours in front of the computer, furiously taking notes the whole time).  That weekend in Gettysburg, I decided that I would purchase the tidy little Yale University Press paperback and give it a more thorough reading upon returning to Champaign.

What a fortuitous decision.  Over the next week or two, Halttunen was my traveling companion as I devoured the book on my daily bus ride to campus.  The book is a cultural anatomy of a generation’s fears and hopes, detailing the many ways that nineteenth-century Americans wrote prescriptions for maintaining honest and ethical social relations in an era of openness and fluidity.  In antebellum America, those who could skillfully manipulate the trust and emotions of others could move upward quickly—and, in many cases, unfairly.  As young men and women moved away from home and into cities, they were immersed in crowds of strangers and often became untethered from traditional cautions, restraints, or mores. This was the native habitat of the confidence man, an urban trickster who could “influence” an impressionable young man and seduce him into depravity. (Although the trope is older, the term first appeared in print in 1849, describing a New York swindler named William Thompson who would approach men on the street, chat them up, ask if they were confident enough to lend him their watch; then he would walk away, chuckling, with the watch.)  After gaining a young man’s trust, the confidence man might take his money—or even worse, swindle his soul.

A symptom of the market economy

In response, middle-class Americans invented a sentimental culture based in “the powerful…impulse to shape all social forms into sincere expressions of inner feeling.” (xvii). Advice manuals “warned young men against joining the ranks of the confidence man, who prowled the streets of American cities in search of innocent victims to deceive, dupe, and destroy.” And not only were men vulnerable: “Advice books, fashion magazines, and etiquette manuals cautioned young women against emulating the arts of the painted woman, sometimes a prostitute but more often a woman of fashion, who poisoned polite society with deception and betrayal by dressing extravagantly and practicing the empty forms of false etiquette” (xiv-xv). Halttunen even analyzes funeral customs, showing how the rituals of mourning and bereavement were calculated to demonstrate piety and sincerity.

By the mid-1800s, of course, the confidence men and painted women were reading the advice manuals, too—the same way a 21st-century hacker might closely study Internet articles about how to choose a password or PIN. The astute urban trickster knew all of the right fashions and rituals that would demonstrate his or her sincerity.  Paradoxically, moreover, the very middle-class Americans who strove to portray their own sincerity were turning into confidence men and painted women as they mastered the “art of social performance” (152) that was necessary to survive in a world increasingly based on presentation and artifice.  Parlor theatrics gained popularity in the 1850s, as Americans learned to use “costume, cosmetics, and the dramatic art of caricature” (179) in their daily performances.

It is likely that Halttunen’s ideas made an appearance in my Civil War and Reconstruction course, although I do not recall.  I do remember, though, that it really helped my research take form.  While a study of 19th-century middle-class culture was seemingly unrelated to my research, it turned out to be instrumental in helping me formulate parts of my dissertation.  First of all, at the time I read Confidence Men and Painted Women cover-to-cover, I was writing my first chapter on antebellum college education and physical culture.  While reading primary sources from the era, I started to see how antebellum collegiate leaders saw higher education as a way to train young men to navigate the dangerous undercurrents of the growing market economy.  They wanted young men who could succeed in the marketplace but not succumb to its temptations.  In other words, they were trying to train young men to be ethical economic actors without letting them become confidence men.  Physical culture—including gymnastics, which was much more common than team sports in antebellum colleges—was valuable only if it helped build young men’s morals, not their pocketbooks.

Second, I started to see how fear of insincerity and modern-day tricksters permeated university culture well after the Civil War. In the archives, I noticed that applicants for late-1800s faculty positions frequently stressed unique preparation for such positions: they were sincere, they were trained, and a particular field was their chosen profession, not a lark.  In effect, they were saying, “I am not a confidence man; trust me and hire me.”  Of course, some applicants who made such claims were, in fact, academic tricksters who were clearly overreaching their scanty preparation or credentials—and this certainly applied to the field of physical education and coaching. (Of course, at this time there was no discipline or professional accrediting agency for physical culture, so men came to the field from many different fields or walks of life.) Over time, I started to see that the culture of college coaching had emerged in a context where men were constantly putting on an academic mask and performing pseudo-academic rituals.  Just like antebellum Americans who had embraced parlor theatrics, many coaches became indistinguishable from their performance—and their disciplinary mask became its own quasi-discipline.

After finishing the copy of Confidence Men and Painted Women that I had picked up in the Gettysburg gift shop in 2005, I struggled to figure out why such a marvelous yet distinctly academic tome was even present on those shelves.  Then, one day, it hit me: the book’s many illustrations of ladies’ fashions and hairstyles from mid-1800s middle-class periodicals must have rendered it a valuable resource for Civil War re-enactors.  Surely, what a dumb reason to stock such a wonderfully complex study of American Victorianism!  Nevertheless, I still recognize that it was my good fortune to acquire and read that book at a moment when I was a young scholar open to academic influence of the best kind.

Brian M. Ingrassia is an assistant professor of History at Middle Tennessee State University and the author of The Rise of Gridiron University: Higher Education’s Uneasy Alliance with Big-Time Football (University Press of Kansas, 2012).