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Culture in Antebellum Period

The Theater

The Puritans who settled in New England had deemed theatrical productions a sin, on account of the idea that playing a character was tantamount to a suspension of one's moral accountability (that is, you could do all sorts of forbidden or taboo things if you were supposed to be playing a part). Although several generations had passed since the European settlement of North America, the Puritan legacy still resonated in the slow start of theater as a form of mass entertainment in the nineteenth century. Yet as urbanization increased, and standards of living elevated to the point where a large number of Americans had at least a little spare income to spend on entertainment, the industry began to thrive, particularly in the growing cities along the Atlantic coast, in Chicago, and in the West, especially in San Francisco.

During the first half of the nineteenth century, theaters were remarkably democratic in terms of class, although they discriminated against blacks and most women, who were confined to the gallery (or balcony) section. In the pit of the theater, a diverse group of people referred to as "the middling classes" rubbed elbows and tended to be the most rowdy contingent by far. Only the "dandies" (self-fashioned respectable people) occupied box seats in the theater. In the first two-thirds of the nineteenth century, Shakespearean plays formed the main attraction for theater-going audiences, but the evening also included an afterpiece (usually a farce), and a variety of between-act specialties.

The barrier between the audience and the performance was remarkably porous; the audience freely interacted with the actors on stage, yelled at them, sometimes mobbed them, and even pelted them with rotten produce. There was no expectation of silence from the audience; many theaters left the house lights on (gas lights, not electric ones, which had not yet been invented) throughout the show. People came in order to see one another and to be seen. Most of the audience was made up of men, and few women were present aside from prostitutes, who were confined to the gallery along with blacks, apprentices, servants, and other poor workingmen. The audiences would sing along with the popular songs, ad-lib responses to the actor's lines, and correct the performers when they forgot or mis-recited their Shakespearean monologues. All of this means that in the nineteenth century, you were probably just as likely to find a person who had memorized soliloquies from Hamlet or Macbeth in a town saloon as you were in a university.

The Astor Place Riot

The most violent conflict in urban America between the Revolution and the Civil War took place during a production of Shakespeare's Macbeth. In May 1849, English actor William Charles Macready was appearing in the title role in New York City. Edwin Forrest was one of the first great tragedians of the American theater, and four years prior he had hissed at Macready in Edinburgh. Macready did not want to engage in the rivalry and tried to avoid the whole matter, but Forrest and his American followers developed a vicious antipathy towards the actor; to them, he was the embodiment of aristocratic snobbery and English debauchery. (The fact that he tried to ignore them probably made Macready seem that much more snobby). He also represented the ongoing shift in theater culture, which was moving away from the working class and towards the strict dress codes and prohibitive admission prices that catered to the bourgeoisie. The so-called "Bowery B'hoys" (the hard-scrabble young men of New York City's working-class Bowery neighborhood) resented this change.

When Macready came to America and was slated to perform in the high-priced, highbrow Astor Place (a venue resented by the poorer crowds that it excluded), his very appearance incited a mob. Partisans of Forrest-working class urbanites and members of the Democratic political machine known as Tammany Hall-went to the hated Astor Place Opera House in order to protest Macready and pelt him with various items. Astor Place itself represented elitism to the masses, since it had strict dress codes and prohibitive admission prices; it was, in fact, a sign of things to come. Additionally, by this time hundreds of thousands of Irish immigrants had disembarked at American ports, primarily in New York City, to seek refuge from the potato famine. They tended to vote Democratic and support urban political machines; they also had a long history of oppression at the hands of the English, so their anti-Anglo resentment mixed nicely with the residual sentiments of Americans who still remembered the War of 1812 and the American Revolution, both fought on North American soil against the British.

Though Macready left relatively early on after the mob arrived and surrounded the theater, the violence continued. Twenty-two people were killed and over 100 injured in a battle that demonstrated the extent of ethnic and class rivalries, as well as the intrinsic place of the theater as a battleground in American culture. The riot became a scandal for all involved and was an important factor in the increasing influence of middle-class values and practices over the theater and other forms of popular entertainment from the mid-nineteenth-century onward. The Astor Place mob scared local authorities, middle-class families, and theater managers into believing that they needed to pass legislation and take action in order to ensure a more composed, civilized, and "stable" audience of theater-goers. They quickly ran out of patience for the populist free-for-all that the theater had once represented.

The "Sacralization" of the Theater

By the 1850s, popular entertainment in America was rapidly changing. The theater became increasingly associated with the values of middle-class domesticity and respectable women's moral authority. Excessive drinking, shouting, or brawling were deemed undignified and unsuited for the safe audience environment that theater managers sought to create in order to make their venues more attractive to middle-class women and their families, who could afford to pay higher ticket prices. Bourgeois families were considered (and usually considered themselves) a rank apart from "the masses" who once reveled in the melodramatic and rowdy farces of the old theater shows. A generation later (in the 1870s), no explanations were offered for the lack of a "farce" in the program, nor were they deemed necessary any longer. Shakespearean drama was performed less frequently. This was not so much the result of an orchestrated or conscious conspiracy, but instead an outgrowth of the consolidation that took hold in businesses throughout American life. With the growth of visible class differences in America came a cultural stratification that separated forms of popular entertainment into the strictly regulated venues of the middle and upper classes and the more rambunctious realm of the masses. The bourgeoisie itself embraced these changes as a means of proclaiming its identity as something apart from the working class. Members of the middle class were a new element in society, an outgrowth of the capitalist system, and in a world that had only ever known peasants and aristocrats before the American Revolution, the new they sought to carve out their own identity.


The daguerreotype (named after its French inventor, Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre) was the first popular form of photography. A one-of-a-kind image, it was formed with a combination of silver and mercury on a copper plate that was exposed to sunlight. The process required up to one hour of patience from the sitter in the initial years after its invention but was quickly shortened to half an hour and later made even more efficient with time. Though introduced in the eastern United States by 1840, the daguerreotype was not widely accessible or affordable until after the Mexican-American War. In the 1850s, daguerreotyping-and, with its invention in 1852, mass-reproducible photography on paper from negatives-were the most popular methods of image production. Though the daguerreotype was a great success all over the world, Americans exhibited an unparalleled fascination with the new medium. They spent between $8 and $12 million on portraits alone in 1850, which was more than the total value of gold mined from California two years earlier. American photographers took approximately three million photographs in 1853; they produced some thirty million photographs in the two decades following 1840. To go into business, amateur photographers needed only a basic knowledge of chemistry and a camera, which consisted of a wooden box with a lens and a sensitized plate on its opposite ends.

Yet the unprecedented accuracy and detail of photographic imagery led to a widespread controversy over whether the new technology constituted an art form or simply a mechanical process that could be operated by anyone, regardless of his or her artistic sensibility or talent. The inventors of photography reasoned that it was the latter; after all, practitioners only had to mix the correct chemicals in order to successfully take a photograph. Yet "Daguerrean artists," as many referred to themselves, jealously guarded their practice against "impostors" who degraded photography to a matter of mere mechanics. They argued that, if practiced correctly by a sensitive and qualified professional, photography incorporated elements of light, shade, angle, and positioning whereby a person's true inner essence could be exuded on the surface in their appearance. The photographers built upon and further entrenched the antebellum faith in the power of the external image to indicate substance, or the lack thereof.

Yet the persisting confusion over photography manifested itself in the term "art-science," which was regularly employed by the popular press to encompass the duality in the use and effect of photographs. Photos could be used as evidence in legal cases and for the new practice of taking criminal mug shots, but they remained equally if not much more popular for private portraiture and scenic landscapes, especially of newfound natural wonders like California's Yosemite Valley.

The gold rush of 1848-1853, which occurred immediately after California and other parts of the Southwest were ceded to the United States in the treaty that concluded the Mexican-American War, constituted one of the first major events to employ the photograph as an instrument of historical documentation. The results were as captivating to the public for the accuracy of their detail as for the nature of their subject matter. The largest trees the world had ever seen were photographed in Sequoia Forest and mesmerized people everywhere. Lithographed letter sheets (mass-reproducible drawings from engraved stones) were produced using photographs of the Golden Gate-not the bridge, which wasn't built until the 1930s, but the entrance to the San Francisco Bay itself.

Photos, Phrenology, and the Panorama

Photography was quickly integrated with many popular forms of entertainment, such as the panorama. These precursors of the motion picture incorporated background lighting and musical accompaniment with an exceptionally large, moving canvas; these canvases were based on paintings but increasingly became paintings-from-daguerreotypes.

Photographs were prized as a means of communication and a token of affection between friends and loved ones, but antebellum Americans also thought that the photograph could reveal a person's inner essence-his very soul. Hence photography occupied a very unique place within a society fascinated by the relationship between internal substance and external appearance. Antebellum Americans put so much stock in the notion that outward appearances reflected inner essences that they embraced and popularized the theory of phrenology. This concept-at the time deemed a respectable science-held that a person's character, personality traits, and any potential criminality were all linked to the shape of his skull, and could all be determined from examining the shapes and bumps on his head. German physician Franz Gall actually mapped out 27 different areas of the head that could be examined by a phrenologist who associated each unique section with a person's capacity for everything from religiosity to homicidal acts. Though phrenology was thoroughly discredited by the early twentieth century, it did lead to certain aspects of modern neuroscience in the sense that medicine was beginning to examine the brain as the organ of the mind and that there were certain areas of the brain responsible for specific functions; but none of this meant that you could determine a person's willingness to kill from feeling the size and location of a bump on her skull!

P.T. Barnum and his "Humbug"

Phineas T. Barnum, a Yankee entrepreneur and showman, helped to bring about a new era in American culture at mid-century, as the bustling masculine landscape of the theater gave way to more "respectable" middle-class forms of entertainment that were more in line with the emerging ideals of sobriety, respectability, and domesticity. His so-called 'American Museum,' which opened in 1842, lay just across the street from Matthew Brady's enormously popular photography studio in New York City, a fitting location for a man who mastered the art of self-presentation and anticipated the increasingly visual culture of the nation during the antebellum period.

In 1835, Barnum exhibited a slave named Joice Heth, a woman supposedly 161 years old, who he claimed was the nurse of George Washington. He had purchased her for $1000 and took her from New York across the North, charging admission to see her and promoting her as a national treasure and a natural wonder. Heth symbolized the link to the Revolutionary generation, which was fast slipping away by the time Barnum "debuted" her to the public. Yet she clearly also tapped into a complicated and conflicted race-relations climate. Barnum bought Heth in the crucial early years of agitation for immediate abolition in the North, taking advantage of the controversy by claiming that he would use the proceeds from Heth's display to buy the freedom of her five grandchildren. Barnum was happy to exploit black people and make a buck off of racist customers. He also bought another slave for more commonplace personal purposes, whipped him publicly, and sold him at auction. He bought the famous African dancer Juba and had him perform in blackface.

Barnum went on to display Charles Sherwood Stratton, the midget known as "General Tom Thumb," who was viewed by an estimated twenty million museum visitors, and Chang and Eng, the original Siamese Twins. Barnum also founded the gigantic traveling circuses of the 1880s that are still known today as "Barnum and Bailey." With a keen eye for star creation and promotion, Barnum orchestrated the much-anticipated and hyped arrival of soprano Jenny Lind, the "Swedish nightingale," in 1850. Unlike most of Barnum's other gimmicks, Lind was real; Barnum's magic in managing to her American debut was his ability to extend her appeal to a mass audience, who (as he told them) would appreciate the natural quality of her voice and the way that she sang form the heart. Although Americans had never before heard her voice, Lind's ship was greeted by thousands, who then followed her to her hotel. The first tickets to her grand national tour sold for $250 and she was guaranteed $187,000 of committed money from her promoters; Jenny Lind was the first modern music superstar.

By contrast, many if not most of Barnum's other attractions were "humbug," or fakes, and Barnum himself often fueled controversies about their inauthenticity, recognizing that his profits would only increase with the public attention. His "Feejee Mermaid" of 1842 was a monkey skull attached to a fish, measuring about three feet long. All such attractions came to be stored at the American Museum, which charged a quarter for admission. Barnum's was not the first museum of its kind, but it became well known because Barnum adeptly utilized the press to gain a national and even international reputation. By 1860, the museum in Manhattan occupied five floors; it had been expanded and refurbished several times, and contained tanks of fish, pigeons painted every color of the rainbow, cases of shark teeth and butterflies, and Rembrandt Peale paintings that hung along the hallways. Though the building burned down three years after the Civil War, Barnum retained his celebrity status.

Barnum became both rich and famous by riding the divide between "humbug" and genuineness. He was usually paid far more than most of his artificial exhibits were ever worth, but part of that was because his democratic audiences enjoyed the game of trying to debunk his elaborate and convincing contrivances. They wanted to "peak behind the curtain," to understand the way that the scheme operated, because of a widespread public fascination with the divide between the fake and the real. In his 1855 autobiography, Barnum noted that the titles of "humbug" and "prince of humbugs" were first applied to him by himself.

An "American Renaissance" of Letters

There was an American renaissance of letters in the 1850s, when some of America's greatest authors published works that still compose a core of the American literary canon. These included poets, novelists, essayists and philosophers such as Edgar Allan Poe, Emily Dickinson, Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Though celebrated today, few of these writers were very popular in their own time.

Nathaniel Hawthorne hailed from New England, worked in Salem, and examined the legacy and morality of his Puritan forebears in works like Twice-Told Tales and The Scarlet Letter, which centered on the concept of sin and its ramifications. One of Hawthorne's own ancestors had presided over a Salem witch trial in the seventeenth century.

Emily Dickinson never married; she and her sister lived with their parents all of their lives, and she wrote 1,800 poems in the second-story bedroom of their house in Amherst, Massachusetts. She withdrew from society in the 1860s, possibly because of her unrequited love for a married minister and possibly because of serious problems with her vision; she remained unknown for years after her death and only two of her poems were published—anonymously—during her lifetime.

Edgar Allan Poe was a tortured literary genius and borderline alcoholic who mastered the genre of the Gothic horror story.

Herman Melville's Moby-Dick is one of the great novels of all time; but after publishing it in 1851, Melville had to support himself by working in the New York Custom House.

Walt Whitman, who is generally considered the greatest poet of the nineteenth century and one of the most well-regarded in American history, has come to be associated with the inclusive, democratic spirit of the age. Yet Whitman perpetuated the myth of Sambo, the happy plantation slave, in his first and best-selling work in 1842, and he was active in Democratic party politics until the Wilmot Proviso of 1848 radicalized him as an anti-slavery activist and turned him against the Democrats. Whitman was also gay and his poetry contained explicitly homoerotic undertones during a time in which it was very difficult if not downright dangerous to be gay. Whitman also rejected the prevailing notion that the proper role for women was to serve as dependent, supportive figures for men.

Uncle Tom's Cabin

Harriet Beecher Stowe, perhaps the most influential author in American history, enjoyed tremendous popularity during her lifetime. The daughter of Lyman Beecher, a famous Congregational minister, Stowe spent her twenties in Cincinnati, Ohio, which was one of the birthplaces of blackface minstrelsy. It was there in Cincinnati that Stowe developed the idea of an unbreachable boundary between right and wrong. In the context of a renewed sectional debate over slavery, the acquisition of new territories, and the infamous Fugitive Slave Law that formed a part of the Compromise of 1850, Stowe began publishing Uncle Tom's Cabin in serial installments in The National Era, a popular weekly paper. In 1852, the novel was published in its entirety in book form, and it sold 500,000 copies in four years. It was translated in French, Armenian, and Italian, among other languages, and by the end of the century, it sold more copies in America than every other book except the Bible. Stowe sought to shock her readers' Christian consciences on behalf of African Americans. In many ways, Uncle Tom's Cabin actually reads like a typical work of nineteenth-century domestic fiction, evoking a sentimental tone that uplifts the enduring image of the home. (Over 1,000 novels were published in the United States between 1830 and 1850, and most of them revolved around "feminine" topics pertaining to domesticity, courtship, marriage, religion, and childcare.)

Yet the work was also stood apart from the feminine genre because it simultaneously assumed aspects of nineteenth-century sensational literature. It transgressed the norms of female domesticity by describing violence and prostitution in detail, in order to shock and abhor readers unfamiliar with (or desensitized towards) the institution of slavery. This approach proved wildly popular in the North and in England, which had already abolished slavery. The South uniformly condemned the work, but did so in a variety of ways; one person mailed Stowe a black person's severed ear. Nonetheless, Stowe did successfully raise popular sympathy for the plight of slaves and increase the temperature of the sectional controversy. Abolitionist activists would remain a small minority in the North, but Stowe's book made their message seem less radical and more Christian. Even if Uncle Tom's Cabin did not single-handedly produce a wave of activists, it did help to foster a widespread distaste for slavery across the North, where before there had existed a sense of general complacency or ambivalence.

For all the popularity of the novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin was even more popular as a play. By some estimates, fifty people saw the stage adaptation for every one who read the book. This was significant for the degree of distortion and variation that abounded in unauthorized stage reproductions of the novel; some 500 different Uncle Tom's Cabin companies were touring in the U.S. by end of the nineteenth century, and there were international productions of the play as well. Many of them depicted a grossly distorted Uncle Tom in blackface as a comical character and toned down the abolitionist message of the novel; characters and sub-plots were dropped to make the show more "entertaining"; some shows employed a variety of demises for Uncle Tom at the end of each performance, in order to keep audiences coming back. Thus the distortions and exaggerations of the theater spread the influence of the book but also sometimes misappropriated Stowe's message.

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