Imperial Interiors

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Images of US territories became popular trinkets for collectors. This map of the Philippines was included with every purchase of Vermont Fancy Butterine syrup. Courtesy of David Rumsey.

As the nation expanded, its international profile rose and American women strove for a more cosmopolitan aesthetic. A decorating manual from 1913 associated women with the homes they kept. It claimed: "We are sure to judge a her surroundings. We judge her temperament, her habits, her inclinations, by the interior of her home." Elite women staged the world in their homes. Wallpapers depicted scenes from the Philippines so that families could peer into the Pacific from the comfort of their drawing room. The pineapple became a symbol for wealth and charm; only the most gracious (and incidentally, wealthiest) hosts welcomed guests with Hawaii's trademark fruit. Meanwhile, Americans overseas held tight to traditional fashion and design from home. In the Philippines, for example, westernized spaces provided familiar comforts in new lands, as well as a model of civility for native peoples.

US obsession with imperial imagery was controversial. The trend was based almost entirely on orientalist stereotypes—how the West chose to imagine the East. The thought of women as imperial homemakers also perpetuated the thought that a women's only place was in the home. For all its imagination, American popular culture ultimately kept the reality of empire, its lands, peoples, and politics, at bay.