The Gilded Age Stretches Back To Antiquity

The process of gilding is the application of gold to a surface as decoration. Long before the birth of Christ, it was discovered that malleable gold could be beaten into very thin sheets. These leaves were then applied to surfaces of various articles with the help of a gluelike substance called a "mordant."

Costly gilding has been in existence since ancient times and always has been afforded high status. Entire Egyptian mummies were encased in gold leaf. In the Middle Ages, hand-copied books often were illustrated with miniature paintings that included embellishments of gold leaf.

A bright history

One French masterpiece created about 1413 depicted the Duke of Berry. In the illustrations, the artist or artists were very generous with gilt -- especially with a halolike background surrounding the duke.

In the 1400s and 1500s, gilt began to enrich architectural elements such as the pointed tips on iron fences. By the 1600s, artistic history was made when, for the first time, frames for paintings were gilded. Before electricity, this comely addition with its mirrorlike quality exaggerated precious artificial lighting.

By the 1700s, members of Europe's aristocracy preferred gilt furniture for their regal residences. The Louis XV style in France lavishly gilded pieces. English cabinetmaker Thomas Chippendale designed Chinese-styled mirrors with carved pagodas on top.

The combination of gold leaf and looking glass stylishly intensified candlelight. Although long established as an art form, the technique of gilding did not reach its pinnacle until the Victorian era.

Conspicuous consumption

During the mid-1800s, great affluence existed in Europe and the United States. The newly prosperous paraded their privileged circumstances via flamboyant touches in their homes. Victorians did not esteem understatement so, by the end of the century, golden touches abounded everywhere.

Some variation decorated most china whether crafted by a French Limoges firm or by English Minton. Gilt often highlighted woodwork and ceilings of grand houses. A piece of 1800s furniture was not considered top drawer unless it was emblazoned with gilding.

Curio cabinets duplicating the 1750s Louis XV style wore a glowing sheath. In dining rooms, gold-plated silver flatware called vermeil adorned many a grand dinner.

Even an area of Chicago, which was turning quite posh in the 1880s, became known as the Gold Coast. Certainly the glittering furnishings of its upscale residents helped inspire its befitting nickname.

One piece that defines the Victorian era was a very tall and skinny mirror usually placed between two elongated windows. Gilded pier mirrors were deemed crucial for any fashionable home for style and reflecting light. Today, they are highly prized antiques.

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