19th and 21st Centuries Collide!

I joined Pinterest recently (I know, I know, I’m behind the times. But hey, I write an antiquarian blog so that’s my excuse) and I just realized that many of the “some e-cards” use a Gibson girl as a picture.

One of Charles Gibson’s sketches

Funny Confession Ecard: You incomplete me.

 

Funny Flirting Ecard: You make me not want to kill myself.

It’s really funny to me how the images have resurfaced in the deliberately rude and harsh, “you can’t say that out-loud” humor of some e-cards. The Gibson Girl challenged earlier 19th century notions of femininity and propriety, and now the same images are put to use to lampoon the schmaltzy sentimentalism of Hallmark greetings. The Gibson Girl was a bit shocking for her day, but of course these captions would never have been published in the 19th and early 20th century fashion magazines that prominently featured Gibson Girls. An old fashion sensation, repurposed for 21st century humor.

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Beauty and the Beastly

I’ve mentioned Thorstein Veblen’s book The Theory of the Leisure Class in a few previous posts; this book was very popular at the time and many applauded Veblen for his wit, though modern readers would likely find his style dense, dull, and extremely grating (or maybe that was just me…). Anyway, I’m returning to The Theory of The Leisure Class after seeing a few brief references to the major dog shows in the last several weeks. Crufts, the world’s largest dog show, took place earlier this month and the Westminster Dog Show was held last month. These exhibitions cater more toward a niche market now, and are the subject of quirky comedies like the 2000 film Best in Show, but in the late 19th century, dog shows were enormously popular. Veblen noted this in his book and related the popularity of and fascination with purebred animals to displays of conspicuous consumption. One had to be very wealthy to own the obviously genetically manipulated breeds that could serve no practical purpose in the home. (An interesting side note that perhaps undermines or at least complicates Veblen’s argument, dogs from the toy group very rarely win Best in Show. The most successful group has been the terrier, followed by the sporting group.)

One of Veblen’s more intriguing sections concerns the treatment and perception of animals among the leisure class, especially his characterization of the “standards of beauty” for dogs as degrees of grotesqueness and deformity. This association of beauty with physical deformity recalls Veblen’s earlier discussion of feminine standards of beauty. For dogs, their economic value “rests on their high cost of production, and their value to their owners lies chiefly in their utility as items of conspicuous consumption,” strikingly similar to his descriptions of the house wife (Veblen 142). Veblen never directly addresses sexuality, his discussions of gender differences and the pervasive language of breeding necessitate considering sexual exchange, especially in this intersection between feminine and canine beauty. Veblen views the attractiveness of deformity and monstrosity in female and canine forms only as evidence of conspicuous leisure, but the issue presents itself as much more complicated than that in The Theory of the Leisure Class.

Because of his Darwinian perspective, Veblen views humans as animals, but he also views the “progress” of society as a reversion to a subhuman state. His narrative indicates a desire to uncover the animal in the human, especially with regard to sexuality. The term “breeding” suggests controlled sexuality; dog breeds were developed by restricting and manipulating animal sexuality, only allowing certain dogs to mate. The language of dog breeding is also tied to that of eugenics (Veblen’s use of the cranial index to differentiate between human ethnicities is also used to differentiate types of dog breeds), but Veblen observes that the fittest for survival were not the most venerated with respect to women and dogs. Rather, an aesthetic of weakness (e.g., the extremely small size of toy breeds, dogs with thin and silky coats that would provide poor protection against harsh weather conditions) and unnatural proportions (extremely short snouts with large eyes) signaled beauty in lap dogs.

For feminine beauty, Veblen suggests that the deformation of corseting and other cosmetic alterations place woman somewhere between human and animal. Veblen claims that this visual indication of costliness and conspicuous leisure becomes conflated with attractiveness; thus, male sexuality is also controlled by leisure class standards, to such an extent that men genuinely find the corseted form attractive, because their sexuality is entirely enclosed in pecuniary standards. Costliness comes to stand for sexual attractiveness, and there is a continual displacement of sexuality; this is crucial in Veblen, and I think this is why he never directly addresses sexuality, despite the obvious ties between sex and commerce in prostitution, sexualized performances (e.g., burlesques). Male sexuality is also contained by standards of aggressive masculinity, sublimated in sporting activities. Sports are also closely tied to animals, in the “wildness” of aggression and competition, and the use of animal mascots to symbolize the team. But, men are rarely described as “creatures” the way 19th century romance writing often characterizes female characters. The animal serves as a symbol of male aggression and virility in the sublimated sexuality of contact sports, but it takes on a different power dynamic than the association between feminine sexuality and animality that Veblen posits. One is a wild animal completely under his own power; the other is a weak, domesticated animal dependent on another for survival.

Although Veblen reads the corset as strictly evidence of a lady’s incapacity for physical labor, it also effaces female fertility by compressing the abdomen, indicating the woman’s incapacity for the physical labor of childbirth. This is controlled sexuality to the extreme. Veblen does not address the sexual freedom associated with the New Woman, but the looser clothing associated with “bloomers” and women bicyclists were inextricable from notions of looser morals, a freer sexuality. As mentioned in an earlier post on the New Woman and the Gibson Girl, the corset was not obsolete in the 1890s; the skirts of women’s garments became less voluminous, but the ideal of an extremely slender waist held for much of the decade.

For Veblen, the New Woman is situated between human and animal: “It is a type of human nature which… belongs to a cultural stage that may be classed as possibly sub-human” (Veblen 361). This subhuman cultural stage he describes earlier in the book is also prior to the institution of marriage (derived from the violent practice of wife capture), without regulated sexual competition, and, perhaps, without regulated, constrained female sexuality. So, the fear persists that the New Woman embodies a more masculine type of animality; she is not a creature of beauty, but a wild animal that resists control.

Weddings and Spectacle

In the early and mid 19th century, wedding guests used to shower the newlywed couple with rice and shoes as they departed on their honeymoon, or as it was often called at the time, wedding journey. That’s right, shoes.

This practice fell out of popularity in the late 19th century, partially due to restrictions from railways. An article in the September 1897 issue of The Ladies’ Home Journal praised a New York City railroad company for banning the throwing of rice and shoes at its terminal. One would assume the reason for the ban was the mess of rice littered all over the platform, but the author focused on the disturbing undercurrent of overwrought emotions and threat of violence as a reason to restrict the practice. The author laments the devolution of what was once a sweet, sentimental and elegant practice:

We have not been able to keep these graceful customs within their bounds. The little papers of rice have become large handfuls… hurled with force into the faces of the bride and groom… The sentiment of the customs has been lost. (“Rice and Shoes at Weddings,” 14)

The author continues on about the dangers of this excessive fervor, recalling one incident in which a bride suffered permanent damage to her eyes as the result of overly rambunctious rice-throwing. This article is just one of many from the time expressing disapproval of the presence of spectacle in weddings, which threatens to lure out malicious, invidious emotions among the guests. The wedding ceremony is supposed to be a celebration of unity and community, but the “Rice and Shoes at Weddings” article suggests that the modern guest has introduced discord and violence, resulting in a rupture with tradition.

Similar arguments were used in the early 19th century against public executions; many feared that overwrought emotions would override the rational thinking individual and transform the gathered spectators into a passionately violent mob. The presence of strangers in the gatherings that formed around railroad platforms, spectators hoping to get a glimpse of the bride in her travelling costume, also added to the anxiety. In William Dean Howells’ first novel Their Wedding Journey, the newlywed couple discusses their embarrassment at being recognized as “bridal,” and they create a sort of game in which they try to act like a long-married couple on an anniversary trip, rather than their wedding journey. Howells deliberately avoids any discussion of the wedding in order to focus on the marriage; the novel ends with the couple’s happiness to return home and settle into the normalcy of marriage, free of the excessive sentiment and spectacle of the wedding.

In the early 19th century, the wedding was a fairly low-key, community-based event, but around the 1870s, more elements of the wedding were on public display; the bride’s trousseau was often available for semi-public viewing, the rising standard of formality required a special white wedding dress, and rings were a newly incorporated tradition. All of these symbolical elements were also objects of public attention and fascination. These elements also introduced the market, and the accompanying skepticism of capitalism as irrational, into the wedding. Pecuniary display is part of the aesthetic of the wedding, and cause for moral discomfort. Other articles attempt to conceal the monetary aspect of weddings by overcompensating with the sentimental components; the anxiety of “Rice and Shoes at Weddings,” then, is that, if sentiment is
lost, the commercial aspect will dominate the wedding and threaten marriage and the family-based society. The conspicuous, glamorous bride threatens to supplant the wife, and the ephemeral, picturesque ideal of the wedding displaces the stability of marriage.

In another article, published in 1895 in The Ladies’ Home Journal, Reverend Charles H. Parkhurst insists that “the meaning and sanctity of marriage is badly enfeebled by being brought into the market and made a matter of trade and dicker” (Parkhurst 15). Thorstein Veblen describes marriage as a financial transaction in The Theory of the Leisure Class. For Veblen, the wife herself is a symbol of conspicuous consumption; women are, traditionally, charged with displaying the economic prosperity of their husbands by refraining from labor. The bride is even more impractical and a sign of conspicuous consumption, in her white dress, her jewels, her flowers.

The public and domestic spheres blur in the commodification and spectacle of weddings, which recall other points of contact more overtly threatening such as women’s entry into the public sphere as voters. Blaming the wedding ceremony for the failures of marriage is a way to avoid the very real Marriage Question of the 1890s, which, as Sarah Grand explains in “The New Aspect of the Woman Question,” was inextricably bound to the Woman Question. Women’s possible rejection of wifehood and motherhood as oppressive and unsatisfying threatens the core of the social structure; resultantly, the wedding ceremony grows increasingly sentimentalized, elaborate, and extravagant to reinforce the centrality of marriage and the family. These changes in the wedding ceremony, however, make marriage’s contamination by the market even more overt, thus provoking further anxiety over the survival of marriage and the effectiveness of weddings as community events.

Similar anxieties over excess in weddings (both material and emotional) persist today, especially the undertones of materialism and spectacle. The wedding industry has exploded and the average cost of a wedding has grown exponentially (and so have divorce rates). TV shows like Bridezillas, Four Weddings, and Who’s Wedding is it Anyway? inundate the wedding with drama, material expectation, performance and competition. I think that the concerns and criticisms surrounding weddings in the late 19th century and those surrounding weddings today reflect a general anxiety about the state of marriage at both points in history. In the late 19th century, it was the Woman Question and fears over an emasculated, effete western culture. Now, the high rate of divorce, the fact that fewer Americans are choosing to marry, and the push for gay marriage rights have raised anxieties over the relevance of marriage as an institution and departure from established traditions. As a result, the wedding ceremony is again saturated with spectacle to allay those fears and instead fixate on creating an image of perfection.

Works Cited:

Parkhurst, Rev. Charles H. “Marriage and its Safeguards.” The Ladies’ Home Journal 12.8 (July 1895).

“Rice and Shoes at Weddings.” The Ladies’ Home Journal 14.10 (September 1897).

Theatrical Adaptions of Uncle Tom’s Cabin

Two of the most popular forms of 19th century entertainment were reading novels and attending the theater, so it is no surprise that best-selling novels were often adapted to stage plays. In an earlier post on domestic dramas, I mentioned the theater’s bad reputation in the early 19th century, but the stigma attached to the playhouse dissipated over time. Theater attendance gradually became more socially acceptable and even fashionable among the middle class by the 1840s and ’50s, partly due to  theater managers and playwrights’s deliberate efforts to appeal to middle class values and moral standards, and partly due to the Victorian era reverence for Shakespeare, which resulted in higher regard for the theater. By the 1850s, theaters were central to the developing culture of American cities.

Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin was one of the best-selling novels of the century and spawned many stage adaptations. As popular as the novel was, many Americans were first exposed to the story at the playhouse. Copyright laws did not prevent dramatizations of novels and other printed fiction, so the first stage production of Uncle Tom’s Cabin actually debuted before the final installation of the novel was published. Uncle Tom’s Cabin is remembered as an important text in turning northern sentiments more toward abolitionism, and one would expect that the theatrical productions would have served the same purpose, moving audiences to oppose slavery as immoral and inhuman. However, the dramatizations differed significantly from each other and from the original novel, often resulting in completely divergent political messages and tones. Some productions made their own additions to “finish the story”; manager G.C. Howard and actor George Aiken’s 6-act production ended with Uncle Tom’s death and ascension to heaven (Frick). Other adaptations changed the tone of Stowe’s text, undermined Stowe’s overtly abolitionist politics to promote compromise between the North and South, and, worst of all, some of the most popular adaptations reinforced racial stereotypes and the dehumanization of slaves.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin is notable as an instigating force in tensions between the North and South over slavery; Abraham Lincoln referred to Stowe as the “little woman who started this war.” Stowe’s story moved some sympathetic viewers and readers to support the abolitionist movement and view slavery as an immoral instution. However, the theatrical productions were deeply problematic with regard to representing race on the stage. It was relatively easy for white readers to sympathize with the Black characters; Stowe heavily emphasized the morality of Eliza and Tom as humans and Christians in spite of their race, and there is the fact of Eliza’s light skin and her ability to “pass” as white. Scholarship on the problems of racial stereotypes and representation in Stowe’s novel is extensive, so I will not analyze that here. On the stage, audiences were confronted with the characters’ physicality in a more direct way, and many productions fell back on the established stereotypes of Black characters. This was especially true of the “Tom Show” adaptations of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, short comedic pieces that were loosely based on the novel, but which often resembled blackface minstrels. For example, C.W. Taylor’s production was presented as an afterpiece, so he cut several key episodes, two major characters, and added several musical numbers; the result was a play mocking the South and side-stepping many of the controversial and overtly abolitionist material in Stowe’s novel. Other Tom Shows were sensationalized melodramas that greatly expanded the roles of white characters and eliminated secondary Black characters like Topsy. Tom Shows often reduced the characters to racist caricatures and often turned the text into slapstick comedy.  Unfortunately, the Tom Shows were exceedingly popular throughout the 19th century and into the early 20th century (with most references to slavery erased from the text after the Civil War), and perpetuated the racist genre of the minstrel show.

Even among the dramatizations that stayed close to the original novel’s text, racial representation on stage was still a problem. Nineteenth century productions typically had all-white casts, so there is the significant issue of the erasure of Black characters by virtue of their representation by white actors. As mentioned earlier, Eliza’s race is ambiguous, and Stowe emphasizes the lightness of her skin, the fact that she didn’t “look like a slave,” so one may expect a white actress to fill this role. However, Tom and his family are clearly described with dark skin, a fact that no production could avoid. Although the theater often attracted individuals from more marginalized sectors of society, including immigrants from southern and eastern Europe and individuals with Gypsy and Jewish heritage, the vast majority of actors in major theaters were white. Resultantly, actors used make-up to play characters of different races. Acting manuals from the era include detailed instructions for playing characters of different races, especially Native Americans and African Americans, because these were popular stock characters in American plays. These instructions are rife with racial stereotypes that were typical in dehumanizing minstrel shows, and likely informed the way actors played the minor characters in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, even in the more faithful adaptations of Stowe’s text. The audience expected particular portrayals of minority characters and theater managers and star actors were all too willing to cater to those expectations.

Works Cited

Frick, John. “Uncle Tom’s Cabin on the Antebellum Stage.” http://utc.iath.virginia.edu/interpret/exhibits/frick/frick.html

http://www.harrietbeecherstowecenter.org/utc/american_culture.shtml