Visitors to the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition (WCE) in Chicago were met with a dizzying array of peoples and cultures. Walking the mile of the Midway Plaisance, many visitors felt as if they were traversing both geography and time as they passed from a Javanese village to an Egyptian bazaar. Upon entering the Anthropology Building, located in the White City, they could examine Haida material from the Pacific Northwest, copper earspools from Hopewell mounds in Ohio, and rare stone weapons and tools from the Australasian Islands. In the midst of these artifacts of what was termed "primitive” culture, visitors were met with something unexpected: the unclothed bodies, artistically rendered in white plaster, of a young Anglo-Saxon man and woman. Painted bronze in the early twentieth century, their original color highlighted their relationship to classical sculpture as well as their racial characteristics.
“The Typical Americans” were the culmination of over a decade of labor by the Harvard professor and physical education expert Dudley Allen Sargent. After arriving at Harvard in 1879 to direct the Hemenway Gymnasium, Sargent began to take a series of 65 measurements to assess students’ physical condition. Always looking for ways to communicate his gospel of health and physical fitness to the public, the 1893 WCE provided Sargent with a perfect platform. In 1892, he compiled the statistical mean measurements from ten thousand white male and female college students from Harvard, Radcliffe, and other universities. He gave the data to two well-known sculptors, Henry Hudson Kitson, and his soon-to-be wife Theo Alice Ruggles, who in turn each sculpted the figure of their own sex.
In sculpture, Sargent found a medium that fully combined his aesthetic and scientific goals. The statues were to depict the average young man and woman as they were, ideal in the sense that their measurements placed them at the center of a normal curve, but with room for progress and improvement. As Sargent noted, “the statues will best serve the object of science in being considered the base line for future observations and comparisons. If individuals of other nations and races can be induced to make similar contributions, and if the experiment is repeated every 25 years – we should, soon have visible evidence of our physical progress or degeneracy.”
This exhibit was created by Eva Payne (American Studies, Ph.D. 2017) in conjunction with the exhibit, "All the World is Here: Harvard's Peabody Museum and the Invention of American Anthropology."