Standing on her dignity- a firm explanation of Knoxville’s snooty reputation

Posted by | October 17, 2012

 The following article by Jack Neely appeared in the October 10, 2012 edition of Knoxville TN’s Metropulse, and is reprinted here with permission.


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.

Gay Street, Knoxville, from Miller's Building, ca. 1890.

Gay Street, Knoxville, from Miller’s Building, ca. 1890.

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.

Article continues in full at the Metropulse site…


2 Responses

  • Rob Baker says:

    Knoxville seemed to follow a historical trend all too familiar to Appalachia. Its “modernization” takes place post-Civil War, largely influenced by outsiders. It seems as through the “frontier mud” wasn’t shaken or cleaned from its boots; the boots were changed.

  • Daniel Way says:

    Being from the Tri-Cities near by I can say there is no small amount of animosity towards Knoxville because of these changes.

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