Knoxville's been agonizing about its identity for a good while. Are we a major educational center, a green-tech energy powerhouse? Or "authentic," the Just-Folks Capital of the USA?
The question was even more bewildering in 1892. The compact city of about 25,000, in a county of close to 70,000, was more than twice as populous as it had been just a decade earlier. Driven by diverse industrial development, Knoxville was maybe five times as big as the city that barely survived the Civil War. Most had no memory of those days. An overwhelming majority of Knoxvillians were from somewhere else. Some were from western or central Europe, some from the Deep South, some from the Midwest, a few even from New York. All were trying to get a handle on the place, mostly without much luck.
As recently as the 1870s, Knoxville had been a rough-edged, practical place that hadn't kicked the frontier mud off its shoes. In 1882, three of Knoxville's leading citizens shot each other to death on a weekday morning on Gay Street, in a feud whose motives haven't become much clearer with the passing years.
Suddenly, with population and prosperity, Knoxville had literary journals, a public library, a college football team, art-gallery showings, exclusive intellectual clubs, annual opera festivals. The Misses Crozier, as Cornelia and Annah styled themselves, kept their Gay Street voice and piano studios, teaching classical music by the quarter.
We don't think of opera and football as having much to do with each other, but they arrived in Knoxville almost simultaneously, each with the same motive stated sometimes subtly, sometimes directly, of making Knoxville more cosmopolitan by enhancing its resemblance to the big cities its more affluent citizens visited.
Knoxville had tennis, but not yet a golf course, a fact that was disquieting to frustrated duffers who thought it high time.
And by the early 1890s, Knoxville was getting a reputation as a snooty place.
Franz von Suppé's Boccaccio was playing at Staub's Theatre on Gay Street the week, exactly 120 years ago, that the Knoxville Tribune's society editor wrote a column titled "Knoxville's Social Life." The 500 block of Gay was an especially swish one, with McArthur's Music Hall, known for its vocal and piano recitals, and for selling pianos and violins; and Maxwell's, the upscale milliner and dress shop, about where the Krutch Park extension is today.
The society columnist opens quoting a giddy pedestrian. "‘You may stand in front of Maxwell's and see more handsome women than you can on Broadway, New York,' remarked a close-observing cosmpolite to me the other day. My friend was right. It is not mere local bombast and puff to say that Knoxville society has among its numbers an extraordinarily large number of remarkably handsome women. They are all types. We each...have our favorites among the beauties, and it is interesting to note the widely varying difference of opinion.
"‘I think,' remarks A., ‘that Miss Blank is the most beautiful woman in Knoxville.'
"‘You do?' queries B., in astonishment. ‘Why, I think she is positively homely.'
"And thus it goes. Fortunately for capricious human tastes, there are all kinds of beauty in this fair city of ours. Just now you may have in mind a stunning blonde or a dashing brunette who has haunted your dreams....
"Of course, with all these handsome women, Knoxville society is an attractive thing, and a large reception or ball is, as far as externals are concerned, at least, a dream of fair women. The stranger is enchanted; the native goer-out—lucky devil—is enthused....
"Speaking of strangers, Knoxville has, somehow, become possessed of a reputation she does not deserve. It is said elsewhere that Knoxville is stiff and conservative, that she is cold and inhospitable to strangers, and that society's doors are only unlocked by the golden key.
"It is certainly true that our society folk do not ‘run after' people coming to town. It seems to me there is nothing at all reprehensible about this. Knoxville is an old town and by no means poverty-stricken, and she is entitled to stand a little on her dignity."
Knoxville's not snobbish, the writer seemed to be explaining, but if it—or she—were, there's nothing wrong with that. She deserves to be.
The column is unsigned, but the most likely suspect is "Miss Pattie" Boyd, the eccentric young East Knoxville socialite who was Knoxville's first long-term female professional journalist. She was 25 in 1892, at the beginning of a career that spanned 60 years. Not allowed in the Tribune's men-only Gay Street newsroom, Miss Boyd filed her columns via butler.
Our writer continues:
"As to the golden-key business, there is not a city in America, North or South, where strangers coming to town who are willing to spend money and time in attending upon the fair sex will not receive in return both hospitality and encouragement."
So the economics of society, as understood, consisted mainly of men spending money and time on pleasing women. Society was stratified in 1892, and working-class women were at the very bottom. Shut out of most professions, burdened with caring for children, sometimes alone, poor women likely suffered more than poor men.
But a lucky few women were also at the very top.
"That money is not necessary to one's entree in society here is very clear, however. Yet he who would expect to be well received must have something to offer, be it money or brilliancy or personal charm, or all of these and other things. Social life demands reciprocity."
It sounds like a veiled criticism of some lout who doesn't get it.
The fall of 1892 may have been the very crest of Knoxville's high-society aspirations. Six months later, the city was crippled by the national recession known as the Panic of '93. Big businesses closed. Major construction projects, like the plan to build a second opera house, ground to a halt. Some white-tie swells left town. We can only hope Knoxville women remained just as stunning.