History is supposed to be classy: there's a reason antiques are so expensive. The past is as quiet and cool to the touch as a marble statue, while the present is loud and slightly sticky.
But the truth is that just like today, the world never had good taste. Yes, tackiness is subjective, but these examples show that everybody in the past — including the elites — were occasionally trashy.
1) Greeks slapped paint on their marble sculptures
We imagine Greek sculpture as we see it today: perfect marble bodies, blemished only by time. But what most people don't realize is that in their own day, these statues were covered in tacky paint.
As Smithsonian magazine reported in depth, researchers have used ultraviolet light and microscopic examination to uncover the original colors of Greek statues, and they believe they were very bright (and very tacky). In the exhibition "Gods in Color," archaeologist Vinzenz Brinkmann has made it his mission to restore the full color versions of ancient statues. And they are definitely ... bright.
So why did the Greeks paint their statues? As described in The Color of Life: Polychromy in Sculpture from Antiquity to the Present, the Greeks believed their gods were larger than life, so it made sense that their sculptures should be adorned with the brightest colors available.
In addition, color had the artistic benefit of helping distinguish shapes and different figures more easily (which was important if you had a bunch of sculptures in a row). From textual evidence, like contemporary poetry, we know the Greeks believed wiping the paint from a statue was akin to defacing it.
Coincidentally, it's the garish nature of the painted statues that led scholars to ignore color for so long. Scholars began to develop a belief that the "ideal" statue was unpainted, and that led some to overlook textual and physical evidence of paint. Though there have long been pockets of scholars who believed in painted sculptures, technology since the 1980s has helped it become more universally embraced. It took so long because preconceptions made it harder to break away and realize the truth: the Greeks were tacky.
2) There were so many wallpaper murals — including in Andrew Jackson's house
Wallpaper doesn't have to be tacky, but when it's a mural depicting ancient Greece, the word "tasteful" does not apply.
At the Hermitage, Andrew Jackson's Nashville estate, the walls are still covered in a version of the Telemachus wallpaper he bought in 1836. They depict the journey of Telemachus as he searched for his father, Ulysses, which means Jackson and his family spent all day staring at various pictures of Greek people.
The wallpaper was designed by a French firm and cost about $40 a set (not cheap for the time, but also not a one-of-a-kind masterpiece). Thanks to the multiple sets of Telemachus wallpaper displayed in the mansion, everyone who entered the home got to stare at people wearing togas.
Jackson was never a particularly classy guy — when he got to the White House, he displayed a 1,400-pound cheese wheel in the entrance hall — but he wasn't alone in his wallpaper obsession. As recalled in Wallpaper in America: From the Seventeenth Century to World War I, French scenic wallpapers were very trendy in the 1800s.
The French were the only craftsmen able to make these sophisticated panoramas, and that kept them in high demand. Other popular (tasteless) wallpapers included "Adventures of China," "Indian Hunts," and "Savages of the Pacific Ocean." Takeaway point: from the 1800s on, rich people were gluing giant pictures to their wall (and they were pictures that we'd probably call racist today).
Over time, the wallpaper only got tackier: one traveler reported that in hotels and dining rooms across the country, bored patrons enjoyed drawing tiny speech bubbles next to the people's heads.
3) The Washington Monument is topped with Reynolds Wrap
The Washington Monument was dedicated in February 1885, and it had what was then a rare and exotic metal at the top: aluminum.
At the time, putting aluminum on top of a national monument seemed fitting, rather than being the equivalent of wrapping up a monument like a leftover sandwich. George J. Binczewski wrote why in his history of the monument's unusual top: the original intention was to create a lightning rod from copper, bronze, brass, or platinum plating, but aluminum was ultimately chosen because of its color and stain-resistant qualities.
At the time, aluminum was considered a precious metal. That's because the Hail-Heroult process, which made aluminum easy to mass-produce, hadn't been invented yet. In 1884, aluminum cost $1 an ounce — the same price as silver, even though there was more aluminum than silver around. The aluminum pyramid cost $256.10 to make, despite being less than a foot tall (that would be about $6,600 today).
The precious nature of aluminum wasn't necessarily the reason it was chosen to top the Washington Monument, but it didn't hurt, either. Contemporaneous reports characterized it as an extremely classy metal. As late as 1911, the New York Tribune called it "silver from clay." Today, of course, getting a roll of "silver from clay" wrap will cost you about $2.99.
4) The English decorated with ornamental hermits — who were real people
Imagine the tackiness of a pink flamingo on your lawn. Now imagine if that flamingo were a person in costume.
Gordon Campbell wrote about these hermits in The Hermit in the Garden: From Imperial Rome to Ornamental Gnome. It's about what it sounds like: in the 18th century, rich English people housed or hired other people to dress like druids and live in constructed "hermitages" on their property. It was an easy way to be entertained: Campbell describes how in 1784 a hermitage let you ring a bell and go inside to look at the delightful hermit.
People kept hermits in their yards to demonstrate that they were contemplative people. To heighten the illusion, the hermits often grew out their beards and hair so they looked even more like druids.
If you couldn't afford a real (fake) hermit for your lawn, a stuffed one was considered an acceptable replacement. Though living garden hermits went out of vogue around the end of the 18th century, they were replaced by the slightly less tacky garden gnome and hermit statues that you still might see around today.
5) Fake jewelry has been around for centuries
You could reasonably say that fake jewelry is not tacky but prudent. But there's still something a little gauche about the massive fake jewels many elites wore in the 18th century.
Paste jewels were polished leaded glass that, with a lot of time and effort, ended up looking something like true gems. In another indicator of their classiness, the "paste" name might come from the jewels being soft, like pasta.
Fans of paste jewelry (like those interviewed here) would say it's an art form of its own that's much more than a mere imitation of real jewels.
Those connoisseurs still argue that paste jewelry is better than the stuff you'd find at Claire's. But the fact remains that rather than go without jewelry at all, the elites of the 1700s chose to wear fake baubles to impress people at parties.
Those who forget the tacky past are doomed to repeat it
All this tackiness isn't a reason to judge the past. Instead, it's better taken as proof that what we once viewed as classy can quickly pass out of favor. In the same way, what's classy today will be the kitsch of tomorrow.
Just as we realized it wasn't awesome to have a hermit living in your home, soon we'll reach that golden day when people realize that crazily patterned Lululemon leggings are tacky, too — after all, don't they look like something that might be painted on a Greek sculpture?