Tired of ads?
Join today and never see them again.
Advertisement - Guide continues below
Blackface minstrelsy was the most popular form of antebellum entertainment after it began in the 1830s. T.D. Rice, a comedian who was born in New York, was the first person to wear blackface on stage, where he debuted the dance known as "Jump Jim Crow" to a New York City audience in 1832.
He claimed to have based his performance on the dance of a crippled slave who Rice saw performing it while traveling through the South. Many slaves had developed a dancing technique of shuffling their feet, because crossing your feet in a dance was considered sinful.
But this aspect of African-American culture was distorted by the crippled slave's condition, and further distorted by Rice's extremely exaggerated rendition of it on stage. The term "Jim Crow" would later become synonymous with the system of separate and unequal segregation and discrimination that prevailed in the South for over a century after the Civil War.
In a minstrel performance, four or five white men applied burnt cork or coal to their faces and hands and outlined their mouths with white makeup in order to assume the appearance of distorted, grossly exaggerated caricatures of Blacks.
They dressed in ragged clothes and happily danced around the stage as "Sambo," the stereotyped carefree plantation slave. Alternatively, they wore formal clothing to depict the "Zip Coon" character, through which they mocked the aspirations of Northern free Blacks who wanted to attain an education and a civilized demeanor that might demonstrate their racial equality.
Armed with instruments such as the banjo, fiddle, bone castanet and tambourine, the performers usually appeared in three parts:
Whites caricatured Blacks for fun and profit, and many in the North depended on economic ties with the slave system for their own livelihoods. But blackface minstrelsy obscured this financial connection with a system of violence and exploitation by depicting slavery as benign, natural, and timeless.
Minstrelsy also arose from a white obsession with the Black male body, which was seen as a dangerous sexual entity as well as a source of labor. Additionally, the blackface character served as a vehicle through which Northerners could define whiteness, since the question of what it meant to be "white" was increasingly complicated with the influx of Irish and other European ethnic immigrants at mid-century.
Minstrelsy provided a means for whites to act out their own ideas of what it meant to be Black. It also provided a form of escape for performers who could enjoy a sort of release under the auspices of impersonating a supposedly more "savage and hot-blooded" race.
By 1805, the U.S. slave population had reached 1 million people, and gradual emancipation laws had been passed in all Northern states. These laws were designed to phase out slavery over time; they declared that all slaves born on or after a specified date would be emancipated when they reached a certain age, usually in their twenties.
All slaves born before the deadline remained in bondage for the rest of their lives. The Northern economy was becoming increasingly based on manufacturing, and was not nearly as reliant on slave labor as the South. In both sections of the country, settlement and climate patterns dating back over a century had led to the divergent pattern of economic development, and while northern textile manufacturers remained closely tied to the cotton planted and picked by slaves in the South, the North itself was not directly reliant upon the chattel system.
Despite—or perhaps because of—all this, and the fact that less than ten percent of the nation's Black population lived outside of the South, Northern whites remained fascinated with Black people, their language, and their culture.
In its appeal to mass urban culture throughout the Jacksonian age, blackface minstrelsy utilized on-stage sketches to convey powerful messages about race and identity, couched in a form of potent "insult humor" that audiences found very entertaining.
Through brief thirty-minute sketches such as "The Hop of Fashion," by Charles T. White, the "natural" state of the races—both socially and economically—was illustrated by depicting traditionally stereotyped minstrel characters and displaying their absurdity in such "inappropriate" circumstances of class and rank as a masquerade ball.
These routines were considered comical, but they conveyed severe underlying notions of racial, ethnic, and sexual inferiority by playing on the notion that Irish immigrants and Black people couldn't function as civilized members of society.
Such programs often managed to parody Blacks, Irish, and women (all of the actors were male). They catered to the interests and predilections of the primarily middle- and lower-class Jacksonian Democrat audiences by interjecting parodies on class and society. Many of the characters were presented as satirical manifestations of classic Shakespearean figures, with which audiences certainly would have been familiar, since Shakespeare was extremely popular among Americans of all backgrounds in the first half of the nineteenth century.
While blackface minstrelsy appears blatantly offensive and racist today, it was in fact a very complicated phenomenon that enjoyed widespread acceptance—or at least tolerance—during the antebellum period. Mark Twain, Abraham Lincoln, and even Frederick Douglass, a Black man, all went to see minstrel performances.
But Douglass did criticize the practice as racist. He attended performances of Black minstrels after they began to break into show business in the 1840s. He said that any Black man who could appear before a white audience was a sign of some progress, but often complained that such actors were not delivering an authentically Black performance.
Though his concerns were certainly justifiable, given the white-engineered and manipulated origins of the performance, this led to the controversial notion that there was a single authentic performance that Blacks could give.
Such complications and controversies remain to this day, in the way that race and sex remain popular subjects in American comedy and mass entertainment, in the impressions of white people that Black comedians like Richard Pryor and Dave Chappelle have performed, and in the influence of Black culture on broader American popular culture.
According to the masculine code of the antebellum period, to attack a man's body—even just his nose—was to attack his very honor, and such an affront could not be permitted to take place without aggressive retaliation if the victim wanted to prove himself a gentleman.
In 1828, President Andrew Jackson removed a naval officer, Lieutenant Robert Beverly Randolph, from his post after it was discovered that Randolph was in debt to the U.S. government, although no evidence indicated that he had intentionally done anything wrong. Randolph thought that he should've been vindicated by the investigative report, since it stated that he had not consciously committed any wrongdoing.
Instead, Jackson stuck to his guns and declared Randolph "unworthy" of the Naval Service.
Five years later, President Jackson visited Randolph's hometown of Fredericksburg, Virginia, so Randolph seized the opportunity to challenge the president's honor to avenge the disgrace he had suffered.
Gutsy move, man.
On a boat en route to Fredericksburg, Randolph entered Jackson's cabin along with a group of well-wishers. After most of the visitors had left, Randolph approached Jackson—standing in a room full of loyal Democratic party members—removed his glove, posing as if he was going to shake the former president's hand.
Instead, he reached out and tried to tweak the former president's nose, although Jackson swore—probably "by the eternal God"—that Randolph had been unsuccessful. Jackson tried to beat Randolph with his cane but was held back by the men in the room. Randolph fled and Jackson insisted that no one was to "take revenge on my account" since one friend had offered to go and kill Randolph immediately.
Also wasn't manly to have friends that have your back.
For years afterwards, Jackson contended that neither Randolph nor anyone else had ever pulled his nose, for if they had, that would have compromised Jackson's honor. In this culture, a man's honor was intricately tied to his appearance and his entire personal identity.
A nose-pulling, though a very trivial affair today, was considered to be a blatant public insult to another man's credibility and honor. Any offense, or attempted offense, against a man's reputation warranted a violent response. The nose was considered to be uh, one with the rest of the body, so by extension, with the reputation of the person, newspapers referred to this incident as the "Lieutenant Randolph outrage" but rarely specified the word "nose" by name.
Years later, Randolph was apprehended and charged for what he had done, but Jackson asked his friend, President Martin Van Buren, to pardon the Lieutenant.
Why? Not because of any sudden change of heart.
In the culture of honor, as Jackson's own mother had taught him, it would be shameful to allow anyone else, especially the legal system, to seek retribution for you. The only manly response to a personal attack, it was believed, was another personal attack.
The Lieutenant Randolph Outrage was hardly an isolated incident. Just months later, two men—named Thomas Walker Gilmer and William C. Rives—were in the midst of a heated argument in the back room of a Charlottesville, Virginia tavern when Gilmer applied his right hand "gently" to the other's nose.
In response, Rives beat Gilmer with his horsewhip, and when Gilmer finally got control of the weapon, he then inflicted "several stripes" on Rives' legs, shoulders, and forehead. (Source)
To our horror, conflicts like this were actually considered somewhat restrained, cause they didn't ultimately lead to a potentially mortal duel.
Amazingly, for most readers today, the initial reason for the argument was a disagreement over U.S. tariff policy, but the ultimate cause of the attack was that both men escalated the conflict by calling each other liars and hypocrites. A gentleman was supposed to defend himself against such charges, even to the point of death, rather than allow the accusation to stand.
Taking the high road can be tough. But hey, it's a heck of a lot easier than having to defend your life with a horsewhip.
The ultimate disagreements of honor in antebellum America were the ones that resulted in a duel.
An elaborate song and and dance, code of conduct, rules, and procedures—known as the code duello—governed these affairs. The code was passed down through generations and reinforced within the elite communities of the period, particularly in the South. A very elite concept, dueling was restricted to members of the upper echelon who would not deign to fight a man beneath their own social stature.
In contrast to their Southern counterparts, Northerners expressed a widespread disapproval of the dueling practice after founding father Alexander Hamilton was mortally wounded by Republican political leader Aaron Burr in an 1804 duel in Weehawken, New Jersey.
The showdown even took place in New Jersey because dueling had already been outlawed in New York.
By the 1830s, dueling was illegal everywhere, and the justice system sought to supplant the reasons for which it had once been deemed necessary. In 1838, when Kentucky Representative William Graves shot and killed Maine Representative Jonathan Cilley in a duel on a field in Maryland, all of the Supreme Court Justices refused to attend the funeral as a show of protest against the practice.
But the honor code involved a series of elaborate, protracted and deliberate steps: the entire process was well thought-out and scripted, not simply a matter of fights between hotheaded men. The arguments usually centered on speculations or implications that one of the parties involved was not a man of honor, that he had lied, schemed, or cheated, for example.
If such a charge were made, the "victim" would send his accuser a letter requesting his response. If the accuser didn't expressly clarify that his correspondent was a man of honor, more correspondence ensued until some form of satisfaction could be reached.
In the pre-war South, this elite culture was no doubt tied to slavery, since slaves were deprived of both honor and the control over their appearance and reputation, the two cornerstones of a respected gentleman's identity. Slaves represented the antithesis of the civilized white man, and the Southern whites who didn't have the propertied status to ascend into the dueling elite—that is, the majority of Southern whites—aspired to assume such a role as a symbol of status and prestige.
To subscribe to the code duello was to be a gentleman of honor, who would not even correspond with a poor white man who had insulted him. The difference in status meant that a propertied man would actually be debasing himself by recognizing any insult from such a "common" origin.
Poor Southern whites found themselves placed above the slave and below the dueler in an elaborate regional hierarchy of class and race. Their race kept them out of the bottom rung of society, but their class prevented them from ascending to the elite level. Honor was linked to social status in this world, while the inferior Black slave was also considered barbaric, savage, or simply inferior, where the wealthy planter was supposed to be principled, well-mannered, and refined.
Although by the antebellum period, most duels were confined to a very small and elite subset of the ten million people who lived in the South, they did occur elsewhere.
Even in Illinois, the protracted dueling dance occasionally took place among the educated and propertied class. As a Whig legislator in the state senate, Abraham Lincoln—along with Mary Todd, whom he had not yet married—wrote a number of viciously satirical letters under the pseudonym "Rebecca." They made fun of the Democratic State Auditor, James Shields.
After the letters were published in a newspaper, Shields wrote to Lincoln and demanded a retraction. Lincoln refused to do so because he hadn't written all of the letters. When Shields demanded a retraction of the letters Lincoln had written, Lincoln once again refused unless Shields was willing to withdraw his original letter, the one that accused Lincoln of character defamation.
The stubborn stalemate led to a planned duel in Missouri on September 22nd, 1842.
As the challenged party, Lincoln could specify his terms: he chose cavalry broadswords instead of pistols, because he thought that he could disarm Shields with the sword and he feared that Shields would have killed him had he chosen pistols.
But any potential violence was avoided on the day of the arranged duel, when both men's friends—each dueler had to have a "second" present to serve as a witness and orchestrate the dueling protocol—agreed to settle the matter before any actual fighting commenced.
Shields' friends withdrew the Auditor's original note to Lincoln before Shields had even arrived. Shields would later become a brigadier general in the Union Army, under Lincoln's command, and the only United States Senator in history to represent three different states: Illinois, Minnesota, and Missouri.
The Confidence Man and the Painted Woman: these two stereotypical figures represented much of what made middle-class Americans anxious during the antebellum period, when the boundaries between newly developing classes were still blurred, when industrialization brought about separate spheres for the sexes, and when rapid urbanization prompted the mushrooming growth of cities in a country that was still overwhelmingly rural.
The stereotypes of the Confidence Man and the Painted Woman represented threats to the comfort, security, and morals of a middle-class society that was rapidly moving into the modern age. The term Confidence Man—which survives today as "con man"—was most famously memorialized as the title of Herman Melville's last major novel, published in 1857.
In Melville's story, a man sneaks on board a Mississippi steamboat and proceeds to engage the passengers in a number of confidence games, or tricks in which he deceives them by misrepresenting himself in various guises. As Melville's character "Charlie" remarks to his friend "Frank" in the novel, "You have hearkened to my story in vain, if you do not see that, however indulgent and right-minded I may seem to you now, that is no guarantee for the future."
But Melville didn't coin the term "Confidence Man." The penny press of the period had used it for years to report on criminals who had defrauded their victims by posing as respectable gentlemen.
A culture of sentimentalism emerged simultaneously with the Confidence Man because sincerity was thought to be under attack. Suddenly, in a public marketplace bustling with strangers, respectable men could not be sure who to trust and who was merely posing as a gentleman.
The Painted Woman symbolized a number of figures, from prostitutes to women who followed the latest fashions. She was the antithesis of the idealized nineteenth-century woman because she represented a dissembling female. That was supposed to be a contradiction in terms. A true woman was portrayed in the popular literature and the theater as incapable of deceit—she was the moral center of the home and the anchor of the bourgeois family. The very existence of the Painted Woman threatened to take that hallowed role and turn it on its head. Suddenly, women could embody the corrupted public sphere of the anonymous marketplace.
From the 1830s through the 1850s and beyond, middle-class attitudes towards the use of makeup, known as "face painting," were gradually changing, and cosmetics grew increasingly acceptable from its former marginalized status as the tool of prostitutes. But this only made it harder to distinguish between respectable middle-class ladies and scheming lower-class seductresses and con artists. A parallel shift in ladies' fashions, aided by the invention of the sewing machine, brought about a more worldly emphasis on elaborate designs and skirts twelve to fifteen feet in circumference.
This widespread acceptance of ornament in dress, appearance, and even hairstyles all meant that a woman's forms of disguise were multiplying, not diminishing. Though bourgeois ladies thought of this practice as the "fine art" of a refined appearance and the display of good taste, it could also be duplicated more easily by potential impostors.
The bourgeoisie developed a culture in response to these perceived threats in which they prized the virtues of self-reliance, sincerity, and integrity. Etiquette books, fashion magazines, and advice manuals identified women—and many women promoted themselves—as the special guardians of acceptable conduct. Their supposedly safe role at home kept them in a domestic environment that was viewed as a bastion of Christian principles, as opposed to the emerging marketplace where their husbands went to work each day. That public sphere was characterized by temptation, vice, and crime.
Ironically, this conflicted new culture boomeranged on itself, bringing about many of the bad characteristics and habits that it had sought to avoid. Where sincerity was heralded as a virtue, middle-class men and women increasingly performed such genuineness in superficial—and therefore hypocritical—roles.
The elaborate dress and etiquette of mourning for a loved one became a sort of theatrical demonstration, although it was supposed to evoke a bourgeois family's piety and gentility. True ladies were supposed to conduct themselves with a near-perfect level of physical and emotional self-restraint in society, to demonstrate their civilized nature, but that very restraint belied the sentimental ideal of a woman's honest and transparent self-expression.
While substance was prized over superficiality, grand demonstrations of such substance often morphed into the artificiality and pomp of elaborate rituals and melodramatic theatricals.
External appearance became a way for antebellum Americans not only to know one another but to read each other's innermost selves. The central problem was, they could not always rely on appearance, and they knew it.
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.
But 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, or as democratic as they could be at the time.
No surprise here. They discriminated against Blacks and most women (though few women were present at all, aside from prostitutes), who if present, 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 silly comedy, and a variety of between-act skits.
The barrier between the audience and the performance was remarkably porous. The audience freely interacted with the actors on stage, yelling at them and sometimes mobbing them.
And where do you think throwing tomatoes came from? Pelting actors with rotten produce of any kind, including rotten eggs, actually came before tomatoes.
There was no expectation of silence from the audience, as many theaters left the house lights on—(a) they didn't have fancy dimmers yet and (b) well, electric lights hadn't been invented yet either—throughout the show. People came in order to see one another and to be seen.
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.
Where do you think the most violent conflict in urban America between the Revolution and the Civil War took place?
You might say at a protest of a trial for a Black man? That's totally plausible.
Or at a duel between two dudes that turned too real? Also possible.
But your first thought wouldn't be during a production of Shakespeare's Macbeth.
Welp, that's the one, ladies and gentlemen.
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'd hissed at Macready in Edinburgh.
Hiss? Seriously? Is that what they did back then?
Macready didn't want to engage in the rivalry and tried to avoid the whole matter, but Forrest and his American followers developed a serious hatred for 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 toward the strict dress codes and prohibitive admission prices that catered to the bourgeoisie. The so-called "Bowery B'hoys," the hardscrabble young men of New York City's working-class Bowery neighborhood, resented this change.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.
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.
So, Macready's very appearance incited a mob. Forrest's posse of 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 stuff.
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 free-for-all that the theater had once represented.
By the 1850s, popular entertainment in America was changing its tune.
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.
Even Shakespearean drama performances were pushed aside.
This wasn't 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. The middle class was 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, 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 and 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.
But 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. But "Daguerreian 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.
But the persisting confusion over photography manifested itself in the term "art-science," which was regularly employed by the press to encompass the duality in the use and effect of photographs.
P.S. It wasn't just mug shots where people were mean muggin'. How bout those scowls in those nineteenth-century daguerrotypes?
Well, photos were reserved for those who could afford them and were often taken in professional studios. These were rare and serious occasions, not your casual selfies that you take today.
Plus, dental hygiene was uh, not really a thing. So, pass on the cheese, please.
Photography was a game-changer and was quickly integrated with many popular forms of entertainment, like the panorama.
These precursors of the motion picture incorporated background lighting and musical accompaniment with an exceptionally large, moving canvas, which 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 or his very soul.
Food for thought: America presented itself as a country where "all men are created equal," and yet, still harbored deep racism in its soul.
So, 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 just from feeling the size and location of a bump on her skull.
Phineas T. Barnum, a Yankee entrepreneur and showman, helped to bring about a new era in American culture mid-century.
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 $1,000 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.
Barnum. Bruh. What were you on?
This exhibition clearly tapped into a complicated and conflicted race-relations climate.
On the one hand, 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'd use the proceeds from Heth's display to buy the freedom of her five grandchildren.
But he 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."
We repeat. Barnum. What were you thinking?
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 for a century and a half, kept on kickin' until mid-2017 when the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus was scheduled to shut down "The Greatest Show on Earth."
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 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.
Oh, okay, Barnum. You had money on the mind.
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.
Well, B. Go ahead and give yourself a pat on the back, cause we can't quite tell if we should.
In the 1850s, some of America's greatest authors published works that still compose a core of the American literary canon. These included big-shot poets, novelists, essayists, and philosophers like Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Emily Dickinson, Edgar Allan Poe, Herman Melville, and Walt Whitman.
Though big shots today, few of these writers were popular while they were alive.
Nathaniel Hawthorne was a New Englander working in Salem who examined the legacy and morality of his Puritan forebears in works like Twice-Told Tales and The Scarlet Letter. These works centered on the concept of sin and its ramifications, and fun fact: 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.
In contrast to the poor writers we just mentioned, Harriet Beecher Stowe 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. In fact, 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.
But the work 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 toward, 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 even mailed Stowe a black person's severed ear.
Uh, thanks but no thanks.
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" and some shows employed a variety of demises for Uncle Tom at the end of each performance, in order to keep audiences coming back.
So, the distortions and exaggerations of the theater spread the influence of the book but also sometimes misappropriated Stowe's message.
By 1860, the United States was one of the most literate societies in the world. Even counting slaves, who were mostly illiterate, the U.S. ranked behind only Denmark and Sweden in literacy rates.
Clearly this created a lucrative market for novels, magazines, and print journalism, all of which were produced at record rates and sold to a much larger audience than ever before in Western civilization.
In the 1830s, newspapers underwent a critical transition in America and the number of daily papers more than doubled.
The average circulation doubled as well, and single copies of a magazine could sell as many as 300,000 issues. This rapid expansion was facilitated by new steam-powered presses that could print 4,000 sheets per hour by 1825, and 20,000 sheets per hour by 1847.
Before this transition, paper had functioned as expensive merchant sheets mailed through the post office that gave shipping and price quotes, but not local news. With the transition in journalism that reflected the growth of cities, reading the morning and evening paper became a daily habit for thousands of city-dwellers, which encouraged newspapers to compete to obtain the latest information possible.
It contained all the developments of the previous day, which helped to establish the day as a key temporal unit of orientation in a rapidly industrializing country that increasingly relied upon clock time, rather than the natural patterns of daylight.
Farmers didn't have to "clock in" anywhere, though they certainly had to rise before dawn in order to complete their work, toiling in sync with the seasons to get their crops planted and harvested.
But the new class of industrial workers labored indoors and depended upon a salary that they could earn only through starting and stopping work at specific, pre-specified times. Along with the advent of a 9-5 job, school quickly came to follow the same routinized, clock-reliant process.
Nowadays, we tend to take our form of time-telling for granted, but it wasn't always this way.
In 1833, Benjamin Day started the trend of successful one-cent papers with The New York Sun. The New York Herald followed two years later, as did several other papers in places like New York, Baltimore, and Philadelphia.
Newsboys sold the papers in the city streets, calling out the headlines, which became increasingly sensational as competition heated up and the papers tried to maintain their advertising revenue.
But these papers were an urban phenomenon, restricted to the largest cities, and most Americans still lived in small towns, so their association with the penny press was usually indirect. When the Alamo fell to the Mexican army in 1836, it took over a month for many towns to get the news, as it migrated from paper to paper.
But the new "free press" journalistic style helped to introduce the concept of the public's "right to know," which quickly became a value central to democracy.
The successful presidential campaign of Andrew Jackson in 1828 began the "Jacksonian" period of populist politics and participatory democracy for white men. Previously, white male Americans often had to pass certain property qualifications in order to vote because many believed that only property ownership gave a person an interest in the nation that meant he could be trusted to vote responsibly.
But these qualifications were low hurdles.
Many people owned property, and a greater proportion of the population voted in the American colonies than anywhere else in the world during the eighteenth century. These qualifications were lowered still further after the American Revolution, and the democratization process continued until all property and taxpaying qualifications were abolished every state but South Carolina and Delaware by the time of Jackson's election to office.
With these developments, political strategists cultivated a candidate's popular appeal on the basis of his reputation for courage, bravery, and masculinity. This formula was amply demonstrated by Jackson's military history in fighting the Creek Indians and then as the hero of the battle of New Orleans against the British in 1815. Democrats hosted mass rallies, parades, and barbecues to stir up popular support and enthusiasm for Jackson, and to encourage voters to identify with their party.
Women couldn't vote, but still often became involved with these events because their cooking and sewing assistance was often required, and because the spectacular nature of the scenes created excitement even among non-voters.
Jackson and subsequent presidential hopefuls in the antebellum era tended to avoid making clear statements of their positions on the important political issues of the day, from the national banking system to the tariff. They usually made vague and broad promises to cleanse the government of corruption and privilege, and while they did not usually specify how they planned to do so, their good intentions were usually enough to win over the electorate.
White men became actively involved in politics as a central component of their sexual, national, and even class identity. Though Jackson was a prosperous slaveowner by the time he ran for office, he portrayed himself as a man of the people and derided his opponent, John Quincy Adams, as an intellectual and an elitist.
After Jackson lost his first bid for the presidency to Adams in 1824, the national voter turnout skyrocketed from 26.9% to 57.6% of those eligible to cast a ballot in 1828. Some of this was due to the progress in universal male suffrage during the period, but most of it was a popular response in favor of Jackson and in an outcry against the very narrow election of Adams four years earlier, which Jacksonians termed "the corrupt bargain."
Since no candidate received an electoral majority in 1824, the decision was to be determined by a congressional vote. Democrats speculated that the "bargain" resulted from underhanded maneuvering in Congress, where Whig representative Henry Clay forced his supporters to vote for Adams, who had promised Clay a cabinet post. No evidence materialized to support this conspiracy theory, except the fact that Clay did lobby his supporters against Jackson and did receive a cabinet post after Adams was elected.
That didn't seem to matter to Jackson's supporters, who believed that 1824 had been an undemocratic election. In 1828, Jackson received 56% of the vote, the highest percentage of popular support for any president elected in the nineteenth century. Jackson had begun the process whereby successful and propertied candidates had to appeal to a mass electorate and fashion themselves as "men of the people" in order to win elections.
No fundamental redistribution of wealth followed his or any subsequent elections. These candidates presumed to relate to the voters whilst representing the sort of heroism or success that was supposed to be possible for any man in America. Candidates in this new political era quickly learned that they could succeed by touting their military backgrounds or by appealing to popular sentiments and prejudices.
Democrats had dominated American politics since the election of Jackson in 1828, but their opponents in the Whig party finally caught up with them in 1840. Many historians describe this election as the birth of modern party politics.
The 1840 campaign, and almost every one that followed for several generations, involved gaudy displays of partisan loyalty on both sides. Political strategists mounted an impressive public relations onslaught, seeking to portray their respective candidates as simple men of humble origins, embodying the "log-cabin mystique" of the simple man born in humble circumstances who rises to greatness, thus living out the American dream.
The parties aimed to recruit new members and to retain the ones they already had. In an echo of the Jackson campaign twelve years earlier, Whigs touted the military achievements of William Henry Harrison—nicknamed "Tippecanoe" after the battle he won against Shawnee Indians in 1811—and his running mate, John Tyler.
Whigs promoted Harrison as a man of the people and lambasted his Democratic opponent, President Martin Van Buren, as an aristocrat, much as the Democrats had done to John Quincy Adams. Whigs hosted torchlight parades, commissioned popular songs—hey, "Tippecanoe and Tyler, Too"—and produced an array of cartoons and paraphernalia to support their slate and ridicule their opponents.
Such campaigns were not a complete victory of show over substance.
The Whigs did fashion themselves as the party of law and order. They tended to appeal to Americans who were nervous about the religion, illiteracy, poverty, and "papism" (Catholicism) of the new immigrants.
This was because they feared that all of these characteristics would undermine American liberty and democracy and create a class of voters who could be bought or who would follow the Pope above their own elected leaders. Many also believed that the Irish composed an inferior race to the Anglo-Saxon, and political cartoons of the day equated the Irish with blacks as a sign of their inferior nature.
The Irish immigrants themselves did tend to be poor and uneducated when they first arrived in the midst of the potato famine. They were overwhelmingly Catholic and voted overwhelmingly Democratic.
Many Quakers, Congregationalists, evangelical Protestants, and Presbyterians were Whigs. They supported temperance, whereas their urban working class and immigrant counterparts tended to engage in a drinking culture that the Democrats employed to their advantage on election day.
Whigs also sought laws to provide for a strict observance of the Sabbath, government initiative in economic development, and support of public education. Their party also benefited from popular discontent over a worsening financial depression during the campaign.
Even if most of their members were from the middle and upper classes, the Whigs discovered that they could win elections by employing popular rhetoric and masculine, patriotic imagery that appealed to the mass electorate. After they successfully elected Harrison by a narrow margin, he delivered a long inauguration speech on a cold day, caught pneumonia, and died after a month in office.
But the true significance of the 1840 election was its legacy for the political process in America. Four out of five eligible voters cast a ballot in the election. 80.2% in all, the third-highest voter turnout in American history. The highest was the Hayes-Tilden election that determined the end of Reconstruction in 1876. The second-highest was Lincoln's election in 1860, which led to secession and the Civil War.
Politics became a central aspect of life for most white American males. Their partisan loyalty could often provide them with valuable contacts and lucrative jobs such as postmaster or tax collector. They gained friendships and camaraderie, not to mention entertainment, at political meetings and events. They expressed their patriotism and exercised their rights as citizens by participating in the electoral process, and they felt powerful and influential as a result.
Oh, and don't forget manly.
Big surprise here: not everyone in antebellum America internalized the values of middle-class reform, like sobriety, chastity, thrift, and hard work.
Even many of those who claimed to be upstanding citizens, shocked by reports of crime, sex, and sinful activity, implicitly supported a new culture of sensation, scandal, and vice by their fascination with and purchase of printed media that addressed the taboo stories of the day.
Murder mysteries were sparked by the violent deaths of young urban women like prostitute Helen Jewett in 1836 and cigar salesgirl Mary Rogers in1841.
Jewett was hit in the head with an axe three times and her body was half-burned when she was found seven hours after the attack. The press created a nationwide sensation out of the story, and it was re-told many times with several degrees of distortion, in one case as a murder mystery involving an elegant courtesan.
The metropolitan penny press first discovered the popular appeal that such sensational stories possessed, and their persistent front-page coverage in turn brought about a public fascination with scandalous news and inspired the first "detective novels," one of which was written by Edgar Allan Poe.
Although New York Herald editor James Gordon Bennett headed a citizens' Committee of Safety after the public demanded action from the police to solve the murder of Mary Rogers, such editors also profited from reporting on these violent crimes. Bennett became the first editor in the history of American journalism to tour the scene of the crime when he reported on Jewett's dead body, one of many descriptions that took on a quasi-erotic undertone.
In fact, men and boys lined up to view her mutilated and charred corpse. Newspaper reports played on public anxieties about the city and its growing reputation as a hotbed for unrestrained sexual and criminal impulses. But the murder rate in New York remained fairly low. Only 110 people were reported killed during the 1830s, as the city's population hit the quarter-million mark.
Although prostitution is commonly known as "the oldest profession," dating back to antiquity in Greece and Rome, it became highly visible in America during the antebellum period.
Another booster for the expansion of nightlife culture in New York was the invention of the gaslight in the 1820s
The urban world was illuminated, but not too much.
Commercialized forms of entertainment took a turn toward pleasure and catered to a fairly new but quickly growing demographic of urbanites who sought companionship or uh, merriment, at night.
Tales of this new world were printed in books like George G. Foster's New York by Gas-Light and Other Urban Sketches, published in 1850, which took presumably unfamiliar Victorian readers through a scintillating tour of the city and its seediest oyster bars, brothels, and neighborhoods, like the notorious Five Points district.
Before television, radio, motion picture, or widespread urbanization, newspapers and books were the primary sites for depiction and discussion of sex and violence in America.
But popular anxieties over sex were created and compounded by the print media, the sensationalist journalism of the age, new forms of literature, and the rapidly expanding urban world, whose scandals and crimes were disseminated throughout the countryside in the letters, newspapers, magazines, and books conveyed by postal system.
Join today and never see them again.