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Currents of Change, Art and Life Along the Mississippi, 1850-1861
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Currents of Change

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Currents of Change
Father of Waters
Commerce and Culture
Mississippi Panorama
Handsomely Furnished
In the French Taste
Collectors and Exhibitions
Longfellow and the Mississippi
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The steamboats plying the Mississippi River during the mid-19th century were floating pleasure palaces and carried domestic furnishings as well as raw materials. They had long functioned as a lifeline for industry and agriculture, transporting crops such as cotton and sugar. E.R. Willis, a visitor to St. Louis in 1856 observed:

The business of the great and growing West is evidenced in the stir and activity visible here upon the shore of the Mississippi River...Upon one side, blocks of commission houses and furnishing stores stretching away in the distance: the rivers opposite filled with all kinds and descriptions of steam boats and tugs, receiving and discharging freight. While the well-paved levee intervening is piled with bales and boxes of merchandise; with products of various climes; and Evidences of the handicraft of men of remote nations."

Steamboats had been considered a luxurious form of travel on the Mississippi well before the 1850s according to Timothy Flint in the History and Geography of the Mississippi Valley (1832):

A stranger to this mode of travelling would find it difficult to describe his impressions upon descending the Mississippi for the first time in one of these steam boats...He contemplates the prodigious construction, with its double tiers of cabins, and its separate establishment for the ladies...the splendor of the cabin, its beautiful finishing of the richest woods, its rich carpeting, its mirrors and fine furniture, its sliding tables, its bar room, and all its arrangements for the accomodation [sic] of an hundred passengers.

Flint's description is corroborated by the only known pre-Civil war painted image of a Mississippi River steamboat interior, a gouache depicting the Imperial . From the architectural tracery and medieval-inspired stained glass windows to the elegantly draped gilt brass chandeliers and sumptuous floor coverings and tablecloths, the steamboat's interior was intended to impress the passengers and influence their taste.

Passengers were presented with a wealth of decorating ideas and purchasing options on the design emporiums that were steamboats. Retailers of furnishings could profit from the steady flow of passengers in the hundreds of vessels that traveled the Mississippi River. The accomplished New Orleans painter and gilder Rudolph Lux had a thriving business decorating porcelain for steamboats in the 1850s and 1860s. On his presentation set of the steamboat Ruth, the vessel's architectural elements are carefully delineated, from the billowing smokestacks to the broad galley with spectators, and the packet plies Mississippi waters that are realistically muddy.