Ghost Stories

This blog is back from the dead (really, sorry about the extended absence)!

I thought it would be fitting to come back with a post on ghosts, spiritualism and seances.

We all know the story of the Salem witch trials, and there is a tendency to look on the 17th century as a dark time of superstition and religious fanaticism, beyond which Americans moved in the age of the Enlightenment. On the contrary, Americans have shown a pervasive fascination with the spirit world, even with the technological and scientific advancements of the 19th century.

During the Salem witch trials and other contemporary accounts of possession, spirits invaded sleeping bodies during the night, in the form of incubii and succubii, and made themselves known through the hysterical (or catatonic) behavior of the victim. At mid-century, however, ghosts became “visible” with the advent of photography.

File:Mumler (Lincoln).jpg

(Famed spirit photographer Mumler’s famous ghost portrait of Abraham Lincoln)

Spirit photography quickly gained popular credence. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, for instance, was a proponent of spirit photography, even after the well-known spiritualist Hope was exposed as a fraud, using the technique of double exposure to create ghostly images.

New communication technologies, like the telephone, emerged at the end of the 19th century and transformed the way the living supposedly contacted the dead. In early American parlor games, “evidence” of ghosts came through knocks, which eventually translated into Morse code as use of the telegraph became more widely spread. By the early 1900’s, ghosts were speaking through gramophones. The plot of Jack Yeats’ play The Silencer revolves around this popular practice of necromancy through the gramophone. In the first act of the play, the seance is clearly a hoax, but then, a ghost appears of his own accord, actively destroying the technology that supposedly summoned spirits from beyond.

Our concepts of the afterlife are closely related to communication technology, and I suggest that this is a reaction against Enlightenment rationality. The intangible and the spiritual haunt our technology and act as a counterbalance to scientific discourse. Jacques Derrida coined the term “hauntology” to discuss alternate modes of knowing that were discredited by science and rationality, and typically relegated to the realm of folklore, superstition and spiritualism.

Nineteenth and early twentieth century accounts suggest that scientific knowledge and belief in the spirit world coexisted– and belief was not relegated to a “clandestine existence in modern society,” as folklorist Marilyn Motz claims (Motz, 341). Rather, the belief in ghosts and spirits cohabits quite openly with science. True, these practices did not hold the same intellectual and political authority as scientific knowledge, but they were still a significant component of popular culture, and even elite culture. For instance, wealthy businessman John Jacob Astor was praised as “an enthusiastic devotee of the Goddess of Electricity” (quoted in Marvin, 39). The language surrounding technology and science, even as it actively discredited and devalued tradition and belief, still utilized spiritual metaphors and a vocabulary of belief and faith, alongside a separate scientific language. Professional experts, most notably electricians, often criticized writers of popular science publications (directed towards those without special training) for their lack of “obedient submission to expert authority” (Marvin, 44). These experts were anxious to guard their concentrated power from dispersal among the public, and so they actively excluded non-experts through narratives: “electrical journals delighted in anecdotes about how technical knowledge was misunderstood and misapplied by amateurs, charlatans, and even students” (Marvin, 47). While these narratives reinforced the power structure based on scientific knowledge, they could not avoid being subsumed into a discourse that attributes magical power to the language of technology. Professional experts had to fight so hard to differentiate themselves from popular science fiction because scientific discourse is inevitably haunted by that which it excludes: folklore, superstition, belief, spiritualism, the ghosts of the powerless, the obsolete, the dead.

 

Works Cited

Marvin, Carolyn. “Inventing the Expert: Technological Literacy as Social Currency.” When Old Technologies Were New: Thinking about Electrical Communication in the Late 19th Century. New York: OUP, 1998.

Motz, Marilyn. “The Practice of Belief.” Journal of American Folklore, 111 (1998): 339 – 355.

Hysteria

The American Psychiatry Association recently released the DSM-5, and the latest incarnation has come under a great deal of criticism since the early stages of development. The DSM-5’s new diagnosis criteria, definitions, and disorders have raised concerns about over-diagnosing and over-medicating what used to be considered normal. I thought this would be a good time to examine the history of mental illness, particularly the hysteria “epidemic” of 19th century Europe and America. In many ways, the history of psychiatry can be traced through the history of hysteria; interpretations of the hysteric evolved as conceptions of the causes of mental disorders changed. As the name suggests, the earliest conceptions of hysteria centered on the uterus as the cause of the overwrought emotions and nervous delusions that defined the disease.

By the mid-19th century, however, psychiatry experienced a shift due to developments in medical technology and changing conceptions of consciousness. Rather than hysteria being a purely physical disorder, focus shifted to the “nerves” as psychiatry centered in the brain as the cause of mental disorders. Treatment for mental illness shifted away from the family and toward institutionalization at this time as well; prior to the late 18th century, mental illness was dealt with primarily within the family unit, but in the search for the origins of madness, the asylum system insisted on the patient’s separation from the family for treatment.

Women were more susceptible to being institutionalized in the 19th century; their economic dependence on men made them easy targets for institutionalization if they were unmarried or failed to perform their duties as wives, daughters, sisters, etc. These women were often classified as hysterical.

Michel Foucault interpreted the hysteric as a rebel against psychiatric (and therefore patriarchal) power. Foucault notes that hysteria and other nervous syndromes, or neuroses, could be simulated quite easily. Foucault calls hysteria “epistemologically bad” and “morally bad due to the ease with which [neurotic disorders] could be simulated and the fact that, in addition to this possibility, there was a constant sexual component of behavior” (Foucault, p. 307). The hysteric’s speech is vulgar, obscene, embarrassing, and her actions are deliberately scandalous. Throughout the 19th century, the cure for mental illness required an autobiography, a recounting of the patient’s history in order to reveal the origins of the illness. This autobiography had to be a complete confession of all of the mad and unacceptable thoughts the individual has had over the course of a lifetime. It had to be cohesive and orderly.

Resistance to the demand for confession requires “undoing the synthetic work of rhetoric and its tropes” (Tell, p. 114). One must subvert the dominant discourse, perhaps with a mad or hysterical discourse that refuses synthesis and stable identities. Feminist critic Luce Irigaray insists on the hysteric’s revolutionary potential: “Even in her paralysis, the hysteric exhibits a potential for gestures and desires… A movement of revolt and refusal, a desire for/of the living mother who would be more than a reproductive body in the pay of the polis, a living, loving woman” (Irigaray, p. 47-48). Hysteria does not speak in language, but in gestures and symptoms; it dramatizes woman’s relation to the mother, the self, and other women, and the desires that patriarchal systems force into silence, paralysis, and enclosure within the body.

The hysteric is a performer, an actress, and, perhaps, an artist of resistance. She is not, however, an author. Resistant discourse cannot adhere to the accepted forms, and especially not to psychiatric power’s demand for a cohesive autobiography, an author of madness. Obliterating the narrative voice, the “I” capable of relating an autobiography, renders confession impossible, and is therefore potentially liberating. Psychiatric power exerts its force by pinning individuals to identities through confession. Confession locates the origins and allows the disciplines, including the psychiatric system, to identify abnormal, mad, and delinquent individuals more efficiently, before the abnormal conditions even manifest.

The case of Catherine X, however, is a fascinating study of mental illness, gender, and the power structures that define madness and sanity, and the problems I have with Foucault’s interpretation of hysteria as meaningful resistance.

Catherine X was an inmate of Salpêtrière and patient of Leuret, “a woman whom he said he would never be able to cure… [because of] her inability to own to this biographical schema that carries her identity” (Foucault, p. 160). In interviews with the hospital staff, Catherine X did not use the pronoun “I,” but “the person of myself” instead. She lost touch with outer reality, claiming that invisible people conduct “physical and metaphysical experiments” on her, but more significantly, she had no sense of inner reality. Her identity completely dissolved and she became alienated from herself, thus making her incurable and any escape from the asylum impossible. A similar exile occurs for the disciplined subject in Foucault as it does for women’s lack of place in the symbolic order. The woman, the subaltern, and the madman are all exiled in language and exist on the outside of the symbolic order. In his notes, Leuret implies that the individual who does not take up the “I” is incurably mad and, resultantly, imprisoned in the asylum system. Within psychiatric power, the autobiography is a coercive tool of domination; the patient must accept the mad identity and confess his or her madness in the terms established by psychiatric discourse. An individual like Catherine X, however, did not admit to anything; she refused to fix her identity and thus did not participate in the power game of interview and confession. Catherine X is the absolute limit of psychiatric power and an assertion of the omnipotence of madness because she refuses to provide a self for the psychiatrist to examine.

Is this resistance? Or is Catherine X an example of the most oppressed, the most radical outsider and subaltern whose voice has been stripped away by the asylum?

I do see how the hysteric’s morphing symptoms out-maneuver the doctor’s treatments and possibly open new creative and linguistic avenues for self-expression, but it is problematic to view pathologization as true resistance. The hysteric in the asylum does not have true autonomy; she has to resort to self-obliteration to escape the analysis and control over her body and mind. Valorizing madness as a form of resistance has problematic implications of romanticizing it and inscribing it within a restrictive narrative of politics. Madness may only be a symbolic form of resistance and, according to Gilbert and Gubar, madness as a metaphor must be distinguished from clinical mental illness. Yet the use of these metaphors is still problematic; the metaphorical madness threatens to replace the lived experience of madness in the same way the confession in psychiatric power. Aestheticizing experience through representation is inevitably reductive; madness cannot be contained in a metaphor any more than it can be adequately explained by the metonymical replacement of symptoms. Treating madness or illness as a metaphor effaces the reality of madness itself. The experience of madness is often one of degradation and exploitation. Foucault describes the use of the hysteric as a “kind of functional mannequin” in the asylum (Foucault, p. 315). A mannequin is not even a human being; it is a prop, a speechless and powerless doll. This is not an adequate model for any real resistance to the psychiatric power structure.

The DSM is suppoesd to be free of all of these past issues of pathologizing otherness; homosexuality used to be considered a psychological disorder, after all, and the DSM removed that in an attempt to eliminate the cultural biases and arrive at a scientific understanding of psychological disorders. I am not well-versed in the DSM or psychopathology, so I will not offer any direct criticism of the latest edition. However, it is important to note that definitions of mental illness are always inscribed in a complex cultural context, so cultural biases and power dynamics are inevitable. Although we may believe we have escaped one power structure, as the hysteric who out-maneuvers and escapes the system of the asylum, we may find ourselves immediately incorporated into yet another power structure; for the hysteric, it is the concept of sexuality, and some critics of the DSM suggest that for contemporary patients, the pharmaceutical industry has replaced the asylum as the means of exerting control over the individual.

Works Cited

Foucault, Michel. Psychiatric Power: Lectures at the College de France 1973-1974. Ed. Jacques Lagrange, tr. Graham Burchell. New York: Picador, 2006.

Irigaray, Luce. “The Bodily Encounter with the Mother.” Tr. David Macey.  The Luce Irigaray Reader. Ed. Margaret Whitford. Cambridge, MA: Basil Blackwell Ltd., 1991.

Tell, Dave. “Rhetoric and Power: An Inquiry into Foucault’s Critique of Confession.” Philosophy and Rhetoric 43.2 (2010): 95-117.

The Near Assassination of Jesse James by the Fantastic Electric Stage

The infamous outlaw Jesse James was killed on April 3, 1882, and he has since become a piece of American folklore. Jesse James’ name and characteristics were used in western novels during his life as his infamy grew. Shortly after his feath, he was the subject of dime store novels (which often portrayed him as a rebel against industry and Reconstruction). His death was reenacted onstage, oddly enough starring his actual assassin, Robert Ford. In the early 20th century, he became a Robin Hood-like hero to the Populist movement and Progressives. He has been the subject of many films throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. The 2007 film The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, which was lauded for its historical accuracy, portrays Jesse James as a self-aware showman.
 
After visting James’ hometown in Missouri, Oscar Wilde observed that “Americans are certainly great hero-worshippers, and always take their heroes from the criminal class.” During the 1880s and 1890s, dime store western novels often romanticized Jesse James as a folk hero, a charming and charismatic rebel standing up to the big banks.
 
Jesse James' Long Chance (Book Cover)
(Cover of a 1901 dime novel)
 
Jack Wright and His Electric Stage is sympathetic to its “notorious bandit king” anti-hero. James is portrayed as dangerous, but charismatic, daring, clever and restless. The anonymous author does not offer any moral justification for James’ robberies. Rather, the plot is almost purely action (there are no real paragraphs, only single-line sentences interspersed with dialogue) and the thematic emphasis falls on Jesse James’ daring and adventurous nature. After escaping from Sheriff Timberlake, Jesse immediately suggests another robbery. He observes that “we all lost every dollar we had, playing faro in the city. How are we going to ride back to Missouri without a cent? It’s my opinion that we’ll have to do some work about Wrightstown to get ahead.” His works consists of forging a check, withdrawing $5000 from a wealthy inventor’s bank account, and disarming, bounding and gagging Sheriff Timberlake. The novel does not depict any of the brutal murders that contributed to James’ infamy. He is amoral and motivated by self-interest and adventure, but he isn’t exactly evil–he’s a sympathetic and charismatic ruffian, an outlaw, yes, but a daring and intriguing one. 
  
As the title suggests, this novel also addresses modern technology. Jesse James and his gang just happen to leap off of their train in the hometown of “an inventor of electric machines for flying through the air, navigating under water, and running over the land,” the titular Jack Wright. They promptly swindle the genius, using low-tech means; Jesse asks him humbly for $10 so he can pay his train fare, and Jack Wright makes out a check without hesitation. Jesse then takes the check to his hostel, makes out a blank check for $5000 in the inventor’s handwriting, and then, because he cannot forge Wright’s peculiar signature, he places the $5000 unsigned check under the original for $10 and tore them both in half to separate the dollar amount and the signature. He matched the signature to the $5000 check, and went to the bank, explaining that he had accidentally torn the check. Because the halves matched, the teller believed his story and handed him $5000. Jesse James, an uneducated man who still travels by horseback, outwits a genius.
 
I wrote earlier of the anxieties surrounding the new technology at the end of the 19th century. Even the bicycle was controversial in the 1890s, so Jack Wright’s “electric overland engine” was, at the time, fantastic and somewhat frightening. In fact, the vehicle is called the Terror; it runs on electricity, “can run at the rate of fifty miles an hour over rough ground,” and is bulletproof. Jesse James pushes against the advancements. Sheriff Timberlake credits James’ success to his wits and his horse “named Siroc which is unequaled in speed and intelligence by any horse in the world that I know of, and he can easily outfoot the fleetest animal that ever chased him.” In contrast, Jack Wright’s power lies entirely in his ability to harness and control electricity. He brings the sheriff to his workshop, and dazzles the lawman with “scores of incandescent electric lamps,” which “illuminat[ed] the room as if by day.” In 1893, electricity was a modern marvel and the focus of hopes for American greatness. A few years after Jack Wright and His Electric Stage was published, Buffalo, NY hosted the Pan-American Exposition, which boasted the Electric Tower as the greatest attraction and remarkable technological achievement of the time.
 
The novel is apprehensive and ambivalent over scientific knowledge and power, however. The story downplays new technology’s inaccessibility to the masses and its association with the educated elite. Even though Jack Wright’s invention is more advanced than any existing vehicle, he emphasizes its simplicity:

“It don’t require a skilled electrician to see how the Terror operates.” said Jack, as he showed the sheriff the interior, “for I have based her construction upon the simplest known principles.”

Jack Wright’s sudden departure from proper grammar at the beginning of this sentence signals a change in the novel’s sympathies. Jack Wright may be a genius, but he operates under the principle of simplicity and approachability, synonymous with democratic ideals.  He claims that he invented the stage “just for fun” because he has “plenty of money and leisure,” but now he can put it to a purpose–revenge on Jesse James, not to recover his money (he has plenty, after all) but to defend his pride and avenge a crime. Jack Wright has principles, unlike Jesse James. However, he only becomes the hero of the novel when he also steps outside the law; he insists on vigilante justice when Sheriff Timberlake tries to persuade him to “league [himself] with the State government against the outlaws.” Jack, too, is an adventurer; he tells Sheriff Timberlake,  “I rather like the wild, exciting adventures in view if I run after those outlaws” (ibid). This appeal to adventure and excitement cause Sheriff Timberlake to abandon the regulated channels of the State and join in the chase of Jesse James and his gang. Jack proves to be more in-line with the rugged masculine ideal of the time than a typical scientist; in fact, after the initial explanation of the engine, Jack’s scientific knowledge is not mentioned and has nothing to do with his success against the James Boys. Instead, he relies on his “iron grip” and steely will, and the Terror is only a fantastic tool and convenient plot device. The heroes have to become more like the charismatic outlaw to appeal to the reader’s sympathies, which still partially lie with Jesse James. The novel continues to aggrandize him, even as it describes him as evil and detestable, and emphasizes the virtues of Jack Wright. 

The Terror ultimately defeats Jesse James. The James Boys push an enormous bolder onto the Terror’s roof, crushing its body, though somehow leaving the engine undamaged. The chase continues, with Jack eventually intercepting Jesse, desperately driving his horse to his limit. Jack shoots Jesse James in the head, and though it’s “only a scalp wound,” the blow is enough to allow for his arrest. The horse, Siroc, escapes, to Jack’s chagrin, and after Jack leaves town, Jesse and Frank escape as well; the victory was short-lived. The wild power of the horse and Jesse James are beyond the reach of technology, requiring Jack to get started on a new “mavelous invention.”    

Works Cited

Noname. Jack Wright and His Electric Stage, or Leagued Against the James Boys. New York: The Boys Star Library, 1893.

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

Biker Chicks

Bicycles are a 19th century invention, and “bicycle crazes” surfaced periodically, beginning in 1819, then again in1868 (in England and France), but the bicycle craze hit the United States in the last two decades of the century. Bicycles were everywhere in late 19th century American cities; cycling clubs were formed in major cities and small towns alike. An 1895 article in the New York Tribue even made the hyperbolic declaration that the bicycle was “of more importance to mankind than all the victories and defeats of Napoleon, with the First and Second Punic Wars” (quoted in Spreng 269). Bicycling was a regular topic in newspapers, even in relatively sparsely-populated areas like Minnesota and North Dakota. However, there was a lot of controversy about bicycles in the 1880s and 1890s; many of the articles were letters to the editor, complaining about bicyclists riding on sidewalks or riding too fast, but the most scandalous of all bicycle-related news was women cyclists.

Biker chick

Part of the controversy was the bicycling costume, pictured above, especially women wearing bloomers. Several letters in daily newspapers from the Fergus Falls Daily Journal, for instance, express horror at the immodesty of female bicyclists. Bloomers first appeared in the 1850s, but had always had a bad reputation due to their drastic departure from the socially accepted and extremely cumbersome women’s fashions of the time. The short, baggy trousers revealed women’s legs, which was very taboo and was considered by many to be outright risque and indecent. The cycling costume also blurred gender lines, allowing women to wear traditionally masculine clothing. Bloomers and bicycles were very closely related to the New Woman and her defiance of traditional gender roles, to the point that cycling and cycling costume were symbols of late 19th century feminism. For instance, the Grand Forks Herald described “bloomers,” a nickname for female bicyclists, as “women who stood on their rights” (quoted in Spreng 272). And when Cambridge University first granted full admission to women in 1897, male undergraduates protested by hanging an effigy of a woman on a bicycle.

Cycling was also a sort of literary hallmark for a New Woman character. In Grant Allen’s novel The Type-Writer Girl, the main character Juliet is a prototypical New Woman figure; she is educated, employed, she rides a bicycle and has a keen sense of adventure. She opens the narrative musing on the theory that the Odyssey was written by a woman, and she declares, “I will go forth into the world in search of adventures” (Allen 11, 12). For Juliet, exploration, mobility, and employment are essential components of freedom, although, predictably, she longs for romance as well. She observes that “the nineteenth century has a chivalry all its own, which I scruple to depreciate. If it speaks of us as females, it has given us the bicycle, and it almost admits that we are as fit for the franchise as the forty-shilling lodger… That I call magnanimity” (Allen 16). The 19th century has given women the somewhat cold and clinical label “female,” thus erasing the romantic “lady,” but in return it has given these females greater freedom, epitomized by the bicycle. Juliet later describes her love of bicycling:

How light and free I felt! When man first set woman on two wheels with a set of pedals, did he know, I wonder, that he had rent the veil of the harem in twain? … A woman on a bicycle has all the world before her where to choose; she can go where she will, no man hindering (Allen 43-44).

Grant Allen’s protagonist is not alone in this association between bicycling and women’s freedom. Susan B. Anthony praised the bicylce as a vehicle of feminism: “Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. It gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel…the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood.” The bicycle itself and the less-restrictive clothing worn to operate it were symbols of women casting off patriarchal constraints; freed from the heavy skirts and layers of structured underclothing, “bloomers” could go where they pleased. As The Type-Writer Girl demonstrates, the bicycle was closely related to women’s freedom through independent employment; these New Women often used their bicycles for recreation and transportation to and from their places of employment. The bicycle is a liminal vehicle, allowing a woman to traverse the landscape between the domestic and public spheres, using her own will and physical power.

Works Cited

Allen, Grant. The Type-Writer Girl. Broadview Press, 1897.

Spreng, Ron. “The 1890s Bicycling Craze in the Red River Valley.” Minnesota History, summer 1995.

Image source: http://www.vintag.es/2013/02/a-woman-on-bike-circa-1890s.html

The Gibson Girl

Fashion was a preoccupation of American women throughout the 19th century, especially after the availability of mass-produced textiles; newspaper ads and popular publications include fashion segments detailing the latest trends from Europe. The Gibson Girl, named after artist Charles Dana Gibson’s  fashion illustrations, was the first nationwide standard of beauty and an unprecedented sensation. The Gibson Girl embodied a set of ideals and a “new” feminine standard of beauty.

I place “new” in quotations because, physically, the Gibson girl is not drastically different from earlier fashions, with her hourglass figure, tall and slender form, and elaborately coiffed hair. Corsetting was still standard in the 1890s and a more cinched silhouette was preferred, especially in comparison to the early 19th century. The exaggerated figure of the Gibson girl required a swan-bill corset, which forced the bust forward and the hips backward. The Gibson girl’s large bust and hips indicate a vast change in ideal feminine figures over the course of the 19th century. Compare these two dresses, one from 1900 and the other from 1820:

Dinner dress

Ball gown

The columnar silhouette and empire waistlines were popular until around the late 1820s, when the waistlines began to drop and cinch inward. In the 1860s, bell and hoop skirts were in fashion, creating a more exaggerated difference between the constrained, corsetted waist and the wide skirt. These cumbersome skirts fell out of favor in the 1870s and were replaced by bustles, maintaining a great difference between waist and hip ratio. By the late 1880s, the bustle moved completely to the back of the dress, so that it projected at nearly a 90-degree angle. The emphasis on the hips and breasts in the late 19th century, with lower necklines and the swan-bill corset-induced “S-curve,” suggests a more sexualized feminine ideal than the passionless purity of Victorian era femininity.

What was “new” about the Gibson girl was the set of ideals that she epitomized. The Gibson girl’s behavior is a departure from Victorian standards of femininity that focused on a woman’s submissiveness, timidity, purity, and suitability to the role of wife and mother. In contrast, the Gibson girl is educated and independent, and more daringly assertive, and even flirtacious, in her interactions with men. She is the glamorized and romanticized icon of the literary figure of the New Woman, depicted in novels like Henry James’ Daisy Miller and Grant Allen’s The Type-Writer Girl. The New Woman was unwilling to sacrifice herself and her pleasures, unlike her Victorian predecessor. The New Woman often had a job outside the home and was physically active (in some cases, engaging in the controversial pastime of bicycling–I will write a more detailed post on bicycles later on, but conservative society considered it an improper and dangerous sport for young women, and criticized bicycles as a public nuissance). She was quite different from the delicate woman prone to fainting and nervous fits so common in novels from earlier decades. However, the New Woman and the Gibson Girl are not interchangeable, despite their similarities. The New Woman was typically more politically active and more rebellious, while the Gibson Girl was more frivolous and less of a threat to the institution of marriage. Her boldness is attractive, but ultimately not as threatening as that of the New Woman.  The Gibson girl is also part of the apotheosis of youth, which the New Woman does not always represent (the terms “girl” and “woman” imply this subtle difference). They offer different commentaries on an emerging concept of American womanhood, one that pushed against the cult of domesticity.

The Gibson Girl is a representative of high society, so some discussion of social class is essential in interpreting her role in the public imagination. In The Theory of the Leisure Class, Thorstein Veblen explains the changing gender roles in great detail, and in reference to economic status. Veblen posits that women’s exemption from labor is a form of conspicuous consumption; woman’s “work” is to display the economic prosperity of men, most often through their bodies. Earlier cultures, like the ancient Greeks, preferred “a robust, large-limbed woman” capable of physical labor because, while prosperous women were exempt from certain forms of labor, they still needed to perform the tasks of household drudgery (Veblen chapter 6). Slightly more advanced (but still pre-modern) societies idealized an “infirmly delicate, translucent, and hazardously slender” female form, which is achieved through devices like corsets and foot-binding (ibid.). Veblen summarizes that “In the course of economic development the ideal of beauty among the peoples of the Western culture has shifted from the woman of physical presence to the lady, and it is beginning to shift back again to the woman” (ibid). This is because “under the higher efficiency of modern industry, leisure in women is possible so far down the scale of reputability that it will no longer serve as a definitive mark of the highest pecuniary grade” (ibid). Later on, Veblen specifically addresses the New Woman, and like many male writers of the time, he is very critical:

In this “New-Woman” movement—as these blind and incoherent efforts to rehabilitate the woman’s pre-glacial standing have been named—there are at least two elements discernible, both of which are of an economic character. These two elements or motives are expressed by the double watchword, “Emancipation” and “Work.” (Veblen chapter 13)

He elaborates, “there is a demand, more or less serious, for emancipation from all relation of status, tutelage, or vicarious life” from upper-class women; they seek emancipation from uselessness, emancipation through work (ibid). Veblen claims that modern upper-class women’s purely vicarious lives are repulsive to the natural instincts toward work, and the New Woman is a reversion to a primitive form of human; she “belongs to a cultural stage that may be classed as possibly sub-human” (ibid). Veblen suggests that women’s return to work is evidence of social regression, even as it is a sign of economic progress. He also implies that women’s generally more “masculine” character in the present age is due to the effeteness of men, that is, the New Woman emerged in order to compensate for the effeminate character of the dandy. This was a common criticism against the New Woman; she was “an avant garde attacking marriage and reproduction,” associating with decadent dandies rather than austere and rugged men, and often rejecting the idea of marriage in favor of her own career and education (Showalter, “Introduction,” ix). New Woman fiction addressed women’s marital discontent and feelings of oppression in patriarchal society. The Gibson girl softens this threat to the institution of marriage in her constant reference to men as a romantic interest and her conformity to most standards of decency. Although she wears low-cut necklines and exhibits flirtacious behavior, she is not shocking or scandalous. Even though she challenges men intellectually, she is always in a socially acceptable situation– she certainly not experimenting with drugs like the narrator of Kate Chopin’s “The Egyptian Cigarette,” she is not overtly involved in the suffragette movement or rejecting marriage outright.  However, the popularity of the Gibson girl and her challenges to patriarchal constraints on women’s behavior in society are important indicators of the changing concepts of femininity and gender roles in the United States through the 19th century.

Works cited:

Glasscock, Jessica. “Nineteenth-Century Silhouette and Support.” Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of
Art, 2000

Showalter, Elaine (ed). Daughters of Decadence: Women Writers of the Fin-De-Siecle. Rutgers, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1993.

Veblen, Thorstein. The Theory of the Leisure Class. Accessed through Project Gutenberg.

Image sources:

1900 dinner dress: http://www.metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the-collections/80096050

1820 ball gown: http://www.metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the-collections/80096826