Thursday, March 28, 2013

The Gilded Age of Hartford: A Major Exhibit Now on View

The Mark Twain House & Museum is proud to present the new exhibition in the Museum Center: The Gilded Age of Hartford! The exhibit opened Friday March 15th and features artifacts and rare items from the museum’s collections revolving around Hartford Connecticut’s period of wealth, poverty, dynamism, oppression, plutocracy, populism, corruption, and reform. Twain was an active member of the community and his own ideas and life helped to depict the varying dimensions of the time.

            The Gilded Age spanned from the middle to the late 19th century. During that time, Hartford underwent many reforms and prosperous endeavors. Gas lighting was a major breakthrough for citizens; Mark Twain often felt annoyed about it and in 1891 complained to the Hartford City Gas Light Company about randomly shutting off lights without informing citizens ahead of time. Also, the telephone had been invented by Alexander Graham Bell in 1876, and in 1877-1878, Mark Twain had a telephone line in his home connecting to the Hartford Courant and two of their editors. He was not the best, however, at operating the telephone and regularly recorded his troubles on a homemade chart. Another reform of this period was with sanitation. People began realizing the need for better sanitation to stop the spread of diseases and to make life better, in general, especially for the lower classes. The railway at Union Depot was introduced in 1843, fixing the problem carriages had previously run into of having to lower the gates every time they crossed the tracks, which was daily. The Union Depot has been on the National Registrar of Historic Places since 1975. The Hartford and Wethersfield Horse Railroad allowed people to move outside the city but still keep their city jobs.
A popular leisure time activity for people during this period was the social club. Between 1873-1874, there were more than 90 active clubs and societies in Hartford. Mark Twain belonged to many of these clubs and societies, including The Hartford Club, the Monday Evening Club, and the Saturday Morning Club. Twain felt that belonging to a club created a sense of belonging for himself in the community.
In 1872, Hartford began making some form of education mandatory. Because of this, by the end of the 19th century more than 10,000 children were enrolled in public school. Hartford Public High School was a popular school, but to attend, children had to pass an exam in reading, writing, math, and other subjects, plus be able to pay the $1.50 weekly tuition. Mark Twain’s children, Susy and Clara, briefly attended this school, but were mainly homeschooled by their mother, Olivia. Trinity College was also established in 1823 for men who wanted to receive higher education.
Another great aspect of The Gilded Age was the establishment of the headquarters in Hartford for The Chinese Educational Mission, headed by Yung Wing. The Chinese Empire would send 120 boys ages 12-15 to New England to study between 1872-1874. Mark Twain held a reception during this period of time for Yung Wing at his home. This program ended in 1881. Many students went on to become railroad builders, naval officers, or diplomats. One student in his old age said, “I used to dance with Mark Twain’s daughters.”

            Mark Twain wrote a book about his experiences during this period of his life called The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today, and it was published by Elisha Bliss and the American Publishing Company in 1873.

            The exhibit runs through September 2nd, and is open during regular museum hours. The exhibit is free with a purchase of a tour of The Mark Twain House or $5.00 for a museum-only pass.

            “…& again Hartford is becoming the pleasantest city, to the eye, that America can show.”—Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) to Olivia Langdon, May 12th, 1869

-- Catie Calo, Communications Intern

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