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The Panic of 1837

Cartoon showing the problems of a tradesman during the Panic of 1837

        You can't study the life of Robert Ball Hughes (1804-1868) and his family without studying the times in which they lived. Robert and his wife, Eliza (Wright) came to New York from London, England in early 1829. Many of his early customers for portrait busts were merchants and bankers who were becoming very rich as commerce in the young republic grew rapidly. In 1835, Ball Hughes completed the marble statue of Alexander Hamilton for the NY Merchants Exchange. It was the first life-size statue carved in marble in America. Ball Hughes became an artist of celebrity before the statue was sadly destroyed in the Great Fire of 1835.

    In 1837 or 1838 [?], Ball Hughes moved to Philadelphia to compete for an equestrian statue of George Washington. He was kindly received in Philadelphia and found plenty of work in the way of busts and medallions while waiting for an opportunity to make the Washington Monument, as it was to be called. Finally he was called upon to make a sketch and a model of the proposed statue. The committee for the equestrian statue approved his design in 1840(?) but the panic of 1837 was still having an impact on the economy after a brief rally from 1838 to 1839.

    According to Eliza Ball Hughes Eliza in the Sketch of the Life of Robert Ball Hughes, the committee "told the sculptor more important things demanded their immediate attention." That was an understatement. The Second Bank of the United States, located in Philadelphia, failed in February 1841 and funding was lost for the statue. During the 5-year depression that followed the Panic of 1837, 40% of the country's banks failed. Confidence dropped and currency was devalued.

    Businesses went bankrupt and many people lost their entire life savings. Unemployment at the time has been estimated to be about 30%. Mobs in New York raided warehouses for food and soup kitchens and bread lines sprouted up. This was Americas first major depression, second only to the Great Depression of the 1930's. Economists still argue about the cause: land speculation, easy credit, Specie Circular, government intervention, government inaction, etc.

    Even with high unemployment, Ball Hughes still had work, though not always steady work. In 1839 he was hired by the U.S. Mint in Philadelphia to modify the Christian Gobrecht design of the Seated Liberty on U.S. coins. He apparently was paid $75 for his services. By 1842, Ball Hughes had given up hope of completing the Washington Monument and moved his family to Dorchester, MA, near Boston, where several orders awaited him. He was most kindly received in Boston and made it his final home.

    By about 1843 the depression was over and the economy improved again. Ball Hughes continued to do colossal sculpture, including the Nathaniel Bowditch Monument in 1847. It was the first life-size statue cast in bronze in America. He also continued to work in clay, plaster, and marble, engrave medallions, and carve cameos.

    In the 1850's Ball Hughes reinvented himself by creating "poker pictures" burnt in wood with a hot poker. He is credited with being the first person to popularize pyrography in America. He also supplemented his income in his later years by lecturing on art. Eliza taught art students to help support the family and their oldest daughter, Georgina, also an accomplished artist, taught drawing in the public school.


last update 3/2/2012
For noncommercial use, Copyright David E. Brown 2008-2012