- Not a Model:First Lady Julia Gardiner Tyler And New York City's Print Culture
The sixth day of May, 1840 did not end well for nineteen-year-old Julia Gardiner. The young woman, living in East Hampton, New York, a coastal village located at the tip of Long Island, had just received dreadful news by way of stagecoach from New York City. The stage had stopped briefly at Sag Harbor, a whaling port town, before the driver made his way to East Hampton. The news came in the form of a broadside poster. Julia, daughter of one of the most prominent families in Suffolk County (and later first lady of the United States), was the subject of a libelous satire in a domestic-themed lithographic caricature. Obtaining a copy of the broadside from the stage driver, she looked at the image that would ultimately define her for one-hundred and seventy-eight years. It was not a good image.1
Measuring roughly thirteen inches in length by ten inches wide, the image was not large; in fact, it was the average size broadside poster that aggressive, dirty-faced newspaper boys sold on the streets by the dozens for pennies. In the foreground, a smartly-dressed young woman with a luxurious feather draping from one side of a fashionable bonnet, face obscured by a veil, is promenading on the sidewalk alongside a much shorter, mustachioed and bearded man. The man, bundled in a fur-lined overcoat, beaver top hat and cane is clearly a dandy, a nineteenth century's term for a man who is overly concerned with his physical appearance. The couple's faces are somewhat concealed by a parasol she is holding; the edge of the cover is tilted to a perpendicular position, so as to (in the words of a whimsical nineteenth-century history of the parasol) "repel the inquisitive gaze." Encircling the woman's wrist is a golden chain from which dangles an elaborately embellished placard with the words, "I'll purchase [End Page 331] at Bogert & Mecamly's No. 86 9th Avenue. Their Goods are—Beautiful & Astonishingly Cheap!" Depicted in the background are a row of three-story buildings drawn in perspective. The second building from the corner has a sign drawn faintly above the multi-paned window "Bogert & Mecamly," and underneath the sign is the number "86." This is the name and address of a dry-goods store newly opened in 1840, located at the northwest corner of Eighteenth Street and Ninth Avenue in New York City. In front of the store window stands a carriage—a stylish, open-aired barouche with a single top-hatted man seated inside, his driver perched up top holding the reins of a pair of horses. Both men are directing their "inquisitive gaze" at the conspicuous couple in the foreground. In the bottom left hand corner, just beneath the date, the artist boldly writes his name and the address of his lithography shop: "Lithograph and Published by Baker, 8 Wall St. N.Y." The final touch to the broadside—a rebus at the bottom of the image—is a picture of a flower that has lost its bloom, a drooping rose where the words "The" and "Long Island" are inserted on either side of the flower, so Julia and anyone else viewing the image immediately understands its meaning: "The Rose of Long Island." This was clearly a caricature meant to teach the beautiful Julia Gardiner of Long Island a lesson.2
Traditionally, the interpretation of the Rose of Long Island lithograph has been rooted in errors and an arrogant interpretation, resulting in a mythology that has dominated the scholarship on Julia Gardiner Tyler, as well as public perception of her. The lithograph is the most referenced image in discussions of the future first lady's early life. The lithograph's impact on this historiography cannot be overstated. Indeed, everything ever written about her asserts that this broadside was an endorsed advertisement for a department store, perhaps the first advertisement of its kind in nineteenth-century America. Hence, Julia's character was dipped in pictorial formaldehyde used to preserve her reputation as an impetuously beautiful...