Mangling Symbols of Gentility in the Wild West: Case Studies in Interpretive Archaeology

Gentility (a.k.a., “Victorian culture”) was the preeminent model of propriety in mid- and late-19th-century California. Thanks to industrial production and an efficient supply network, the genteel mores of Victoria’s England came to be expressed in a suite of artifacts that became de rigueur for anyone who aspired to a position of respectability— even in the wilds of the American West. The trappings of gentility, however, were not used only by the aspiring white middle-class to achieve some kind of nervous social acceptance. In this essay, we present archaeological examples from the Mexican-California ruling class, a Chinese-American merchant, expensive brothels, and the home of African-American porters, to show that the symbols of gentility had power outside the parlors of the white middle-class and that other groups manipulated the powerful symbolic content of these artifacts for their own diverse ends.