New Yorkers Experience South America through Travel

Travel by steamship to Latin America became possible in the 1800s for those with financial means. As travelers returned home with tales and souvenirs, exotic-seeming products became the rage. Fashionable New Yorkers wound tropical birds around their hats and hung beetle carapaces from their ears.
 
The ancient ruins of the Americas attracted widespread interest in the early 1840s after the writer-illustrator team of John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood published accounts of their journeys to numerous Maya cities in Mexico and Central America. The pair attributed the glories they witnessed to indigenous Americans, countering the belief that Europeans or Egyptians must have been responsible. Feeling no obligation to leave the artifacts in place, they carted numbers of them off to New York to start a Museum of American Antiquities. Their plan failed when the structure burned down, destroying many of the artifacts. 

Eagle Relief, Precolumbian: Mexico; Toltec, 10th–13th century. Lent by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Frederic E. Church, 1893 (93.27.1). This carved relief of an eagle—symbolizing the sun to the Toltecs of Mexico—came from an archaeological site near Tampico, Mexico. The painter Frederic Church purchased it there to donate to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. His 1893 gift of two such tablets were among the museum’s earliest Precolumbian objects and are on display there still. 
Eagle Relief, Precolumbian: Mexico; Toltec, 10th–13th century. Lent by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Frederic E. Church, 1893 (93.27.1).
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