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Buying and Selling Civil War Ephemera
Part II: African-Americana

Buying and Selling Ephemera Series

by Michele Behan

#118, 7 April 2008

In 1860, on the eve of the Civil War's outbreak, non-enslaved black Americans comprised only 1.5% of the total American population - a total of 4.4 million out 31 million. Out of that 4.4 million, less than half a million, or 476,748 blacks, were identified as free men or women in the 1860 national census, while 4 million slaves were recorded.

Images of slaves are very rare, and only a special relationship with an owner would have warranted an individual portrait. While the slave population was viewed as integral to the economy of America, particularly in the tobacco and cotton industries predominant in the Southern states, few slaves were photographed and even less had portraits that survived the condition problems endemic to antique photographs.

For this reason, as noted in Part I of this ongoing series on Civil War ephemera, African-Americana, along with ephemera associated with Lincoln and the Confederacy, typically command the upper echelon status in price and desirability among Civil War collectors.

However, based on my own experience, many examples of collectible Civil War African-Americana still exist in the marketplace and can be found at antique stores, estate sales and local auctions at prices that allow one to resell at a profit.

Most booksellers are familiar with Uncle Tom's Cabin, the groundbreaking book by Harriet Beecher Stowe that burst onto the literary landscape in 1852. According to Printing and the Mind of Man, edited by John Carter, "Into the emotion-charged atmosphere of mid-nineteenth-century America, Uncle Tom's Cabin exploded like a bombshell ... the social impact of Uncle Tom's Cabin on the United States was greater than that of any book before or since."

Harriet Beecher Stowe, a 40-year-old wife and mother descended from a lineage of preachers and abolitionists, was inspired by moral outrage over the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which required all citizens to return runaway slaves to their owners. She penned her story based on a disturbing inner vision of a slave being beaten to death by his master and her work was serialized in "The National Era," an abolitionist newspaper, beginning in 1851. The story was embraced by an eager public and, on March 20, 1852, Uncle Tom's Cabin was officially published as a two-volume book. Over 10,000 copies were sold in the first week; by the end of the year, 300,000 copies had been sold in the United States alone.

The first printing was issued as two volumes in three formats: printed paper wraps (first issue) at $1.00, cloth binding (second issue) with a central vignette in gilt at $1.50, and a more elaborate "gift" binding (also second issue) with gold stamped border and gilt page edges at $2.00. The second printing bore the designation "Tenth thousand," and subsequent printings were labeled with ever-higher numbers.

Within two months, the first London edition was in print. [EDITOR'S NOTE: The London (Cassell) edition is sometimes cited as the first appearance, but BAL states that the Clarke and Co. edition was advertised six months earlier than the Cassell.] There were 14 German editions published in 1852, and by 1853, 17 French editions and 6 Portuguese editions appeared. By 1879, Uncle Tom's Cabin had been translated into 37 languages.

The popularity of the book inspired numerous theatrical presentations. Uncle Tom's Cabin was first dramatized in Baltimore in 1852, even before the two-volume book had been published and while the serialization was still ongoing.

The famed George Aiken stage adaptation of Uncle Tom's Cabin followed in 1853 and, soon after, "Tom Shows" sprouted all over the country. It is estimated that, for every one person who bought or read a copy of the book in the 19th century, 50 people saw the stage play.

Due to the copyright laws - or, rather, a lack of them - in 1852, Harriet Beecher Stowe owned only the U.S. rights to her novel and she had no control over the characters she created. Her Calvinist upbringing precluded her from supporting the theatrical shows, and vast liberties were taken with the novel to suit the intended audience. Stage shows in the South tended to support slavery, while those in the North had a pro-abolitionist slant.

The plays degraded the novel's themes, and the book's characters took on the aura of racial caricatures. Song and dance sequences interspersed melodramatic scenes with blackface minstrelsy. Thomas D. Rice, who created the "Jim Crow" dance, played Uncle Tom in a prominent New York stage production. Many productions featured recent songs by Stephen Foster, including "My Old Kentucky Home."

The Civil War years saw the rise of theatrical troupes performing "Tom Shows" and, as late as 1890, an estimated 500 stage shows were touring the country. Such shows were also popularly known as "Tommers."

Last summer, I happened upon an unusual pre-Civil War broadside for a minstrel show performance held on January 9, 1856 at Sanford's Opera House in Philadelphia, advertising Frank Brower performing as "Old Mush" in a performance titled "Black Blunders." I found the broadside at a local Maryland auction and acquired it at a reasonable price.

Frank Brower was an American blackface performer who began his career in circuses and theaters. He teamed up with three other blackface performers - Dan Emmett, Richard Pelham and Billy Whitlock - to form the first organized minstrel troupe in the early 1840s. They called themselves the Virginia Minstrels. Playing the banjo, fiddle, tambourine and bones, the four men each performed on a different instrument and mixed their music with comedic skits. In 1854, Frank Brower took the role of Uncle Tom in the Bowery Theatre's stage play of Uncle Tom's Cabin.

Many believe that minstrelsy had its roots in the circus. This broadside, with its prominent headline of "Two Clowns!" appears to support that theory. The broadside also advertises an upcoming stage performance of Uncle Tom's Cabin.

While such artifacts of early African American history are not extremely common, neither are they impossible to find. Although the blackface performers were not black men themselves, the broadside represents a disturbing but historically accurate reflection of the perception of African Americans in the mid-1800s in American popular culture, prior to the Civil War and pre-dating the abolition of slavery.

The historic minstrelsy broadside sold on eBay for $299.99.

Another artifact of Civil War African-Americana which surfaces with some regularity is the 19th century minstrelsy book. The first book I found in this genre was an 1855 title, Charley White's Ethiopian Joke Book, authored by Charles White. The title page describes it as "the first and only work of the kind ever published, containing a full expose of all the most Laughable Jokes, Stories, Witticisms, &c. &c. as told by this Great Ethiopian Comedian at White's Opera House, New York, the first and oldest established place of Minstrelsy in America."

The small booklet in paper wraps was found in an antiques mall with its back cover not only detached but missing. Nevertheless, it sold on eBay to a collector of early minstrelsy materials for $232.49.

A couple of years later, at another antiques mall, I uncovered a circa 1850 book titled Christy's Ram's Horn Nigga Songster: As Sung by White's, Christy's, Harmonist's, Sable Brothers' and Dumbleton's Bands of Nigger Minstrels. It was a compilation of song lyrics performed at minstrel shows in the mid-19th century.

E.P. Christy was an early blackface performer who formed his first minstrel troupe in Buffalo, New York in 1842. By 1846, Christy's Minstrels moved into Mechanic's Hall in New York, a venue they would occupy for 10 years. Christy favored sentimental plantation ballads and helped to popularize several songs written by Stephen Foster.

The Christy Minstrels performed Foster's "Oh! Susanna" in 1848 and turned it into a national hit. The downside was that the song was widely pirated by sheet music publishers, who earned thousands of dollars from the song's sales, while depriving Stephen Foster of his royalties. In 1851, Foster sold Christy the right to authorship of his composition, "Old Folks at Home," better known as "Swanee River." It was a move he would live to regret.

That early minstrelsy book likewise yielded a nice profit on eBay, selling for $207.50.

The common element uniting these various African American collectibles of the Civil War and antebellum era is their documentation of a history that, while not forgotten, is sometimes ignored. The search for roots in both an individual and collective American past propels these artifacts to values that often seem to exceed comparable collectibles without the race factor.

What exactly is the race factor? While some might question the ethics of profiting from items whose very desirability stems from their status as racist objects, collectors cite the historic value of African American memorabilia. Such objects preserve a record of the racist attitudes held by society in times past and act as a safeguard against the perpetuation of the negative stereotypes reflected in the artifacts.

When buying historic African Americana for resale, it is important to have a basic understanding of the chronological timeline of African Americans from their pre-Civil War status as an enslaved people to freed men and women following the close of the Civil War:

1850 - The Fugitive Slave Law is passed, requiring all citizens to return runaway slaves to their owners.

1856 - The Dred Scott decision legalizes slavery in the territories.

1862 - The Emancipation Proclamation abolishes slavery in rebel territory.

1865 - The 13th Amendment abolishes slavery.

1868 - The 14th Amendment makes citizens of the formerly enslaved.

1870 - The 15th Amendment guarantees voting rights for the formerly enslaved.

15th Amendment: "The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude."

Although the 15th Amendment was passed in 1870 guaranteeing voting rights for all African Americans, the rocky path from slavery to full racial equality would continue to define the history of America into the present day.

An historic ethnic stereoview by photographer J.N. Wilson of Savannah, Georgia depicts an African American riding an ox while pulling a wagon load of crops. It is titled on the reverse with the derogatory slogan, "15th Amendment bringing his Crop to Town."

In his excellent reference book on historic photographs of black Americans, Introduction to African American Photographs 1840-1950: Identification, Research, Care and Collecting, Ross J. Kelbaugh explains, "In recent years the vintage photographs of African Americans have received greater attention by historians, collectors, institutions and, most importantly, African Americans themselves ... I began collecting African American photographs back in the early 1970s as I sought out 19th century and early 20th century American images at antique shows, flea markets, antique shops, auctions and vintage photography shows. Now competition among individual collectors and cultural institutions vying to make their collections more inclusive has caused rapidly escalating prices and new interest in preserving what was largely forgotten not so long ago."

Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark

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