Uncle Tom’s Cabin on the Big Stage

We commonly think of Uncle Tom’s Cabin as a literary phenomenon. But it was on the big stage that this story had some of its greatest impact.

Uncle Tom at the whipping post
Scene from the stage production of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”
All photos in this post are by Joseph Byron, N.Y., circa1901
Source: Library of Congress (click on the link for identification and other information)

In 1860, at the eve of the Civil War, there were 18 free states, where slavery was prohibited. Those states had roughly 18.5 million whites, and 225,000 free blacks. So, only 1% of the free state population was African American. 168,000 of those free blacks lived in just four states: Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, and Ohio. Millions of northern whites saw ‘real live’ black people only a handful of times in their entire lives, if at all. And as unlikely as it was for them to see a black person, it was even less likely that they would ever see a slave.

There was, of course, no radio, television, telephones or Internet. The kind of immediate, in your face journalism that’s enabled by today’s technology did not exist. Slavery was certainly not an uncommon subject for the press, or other forms of paper communication. But for many northerners, the horrors of slavery were out of sight, and would have been out of mind – if not for people like Harriet Beecher Stowe.

The isolation of northern whites from slavery helps to explain the interest in Stowe’s book Uncle Tom’s Cabin; or Life Among the Lowly. The book was published in 1852, following a serialized version in an antislavery newspaper. It opened a window to a world, hidden by distance, that many northern whites never saw or knew.

The book’s negative portrayal of slavery was filled with melodrama and overt religious symbolism and appeals. It was not just a story about the grace and love of little Eva; the abuse of the devout Uncle Tom; the salvation by love of the slave girl Topsy; and the preservation of Eliza’s family. It was, as historian David Goldfield put, “a book about family, God, and redemption-surefire topics to attract a broad audience in mid-nineteenth century America.”

The Auction Scene
Source: Library of Congress (click on the link for identification and other information)

For several years, Uncle Tom’s Cabin was a huge best-seller, second in popularity only to the Bible. It would become an international best-seller as well. Historian James McPherson noted that “within a decade [of its 1852 release] it sold more than two million copies in the United States, making it the best seller of all time in relation to population.”

But Uncle Tom’s Cabin was more than just a literary phenomenon. As mentioned in Wiki,

“Given the lax copyright laws of the time, stage plays based on Uncle Tom’s Cabin—”Tom shows”—began to appear while the story itself was still being serialized… Even though Uncle Tom’s Cabin was the best-selling novel of the 19th century, far more Americans of that time saw the story as a stage play or musical than read the book. Eric Lott, in his book Uncle Tomitudes: Racial Melodrama and Modes of Production, estimates that at least three million people saw these plays, ten times the book’s first-year sales… The many stage variants of Uncle Tom’s Cabin “dominated northern popular culture… for several years” during the 19th century and the plays were still being performed in the early 20th century.”

These stage productions allowed the book to be visualized and dramatized, and touched theater patrons in a way that the written word could not. Now the horrors of slavery had a human face that northern people could see. The resulting ire led Abraham Lincoln to tell Stowe in 1863 – apocryphally, it turns out – “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war!”

Little Eva’s death scene
Source: Library of Congress (click on the link for identification and other information)

The unidentified production in these pictures features a cast of dozens and elaborate stage settings. The photographer is identified as being from New York, and these may be from a New York City production. The pictures are dated 1901, which shows the story was still drawing interest over 30 years after the end of slavery.

And oh my – is that a horse on the stage in the last photograph?

In the cottonfield
Source: Library of Congress (click on the link for identification and other information)

Crowd scene in front of plantation house; Uncle Tom is standing between girl in pony cart and couple in carriage
Source: Library of Congress (click on the link for identification and other information)


One thought on “Uncle Tom’s Cabin on the Big Stage

  1. The northern states had gradually phased slavery out, giving their slaveowners time to sell their slaves to the South. Once they had gotten their money out of their slaves, they decided to tell the South that they had to free their slaves without any compensation.
    Many Abolitionists were offended by the sight of mulattos (persons of white and “colored” parentage), the whiter the mulatto the more they were offended.

    “”In New Orleans, for the first time Lincoln beheld the true horrors of human slavery,” wrote Mr. Lincoln’s legal colleague, William H. Herndon. “Agains[t] this inhumanity his sense of right and justice rebelled, and his mind and conscience were awaked to a realization of what he had often heard and read.” Herndon wrote from Hanks’ memories: “One morning in their rambles over the city the trio passed a slave auction. A vigorous and comely MULATTO girl was being sold. She underwent a thorough examination at the hands of the bidders; they pinched her flesh and made her trot up and down the room like a horse, to show how she moved, and in order, as the auctioneer said, that ‘bidders might satisfy themselves’ whether the article they were offering to buy was sound or not. The whole thing was so revolting that Lincoln moved away from the scene with a deep feeling of ‘unconquerable hate.’ Bidding his companions follow him he said, ‘By God, boys, let’s get away from this. If ever I get a chance to hit that thing [meaning slavery], I’ll hit it hard.” This incident was furnished me in 1865, by John Hanks. I have also heard Mr. Lincoln refer to it himself.”

    From the above it can be seen that it wasn’t slavery as such that sorely offended “The Great Emancipator,” but that an obviously part white person was being sold as a slave. He later as president, in his first inaugural speech, endorsed the Permanent Slavery Amendment to the US Constitution, which had passed the Congress by over 66%. If the Southern States had wanted slavery protected forever, then all
    they would have had to do is return to the Union and ratify this proposed constitutional amendment.

    But they seceded because of the 40% import duty that had just been passed by Congress. The South did over 80% of the import-export business, so therefore would have paid near 4/5 of all import duties. The Charleston Harbor duty collection fort (Sumter) and the like fort in Pensacola were the only places that Lincoln threatened to invade over.

    The shots fired at Fort Sumter were due to the US Navy’s attempt to reinforce Sumter under the ruse that the ships were bringing nothing but food and medical supplies. But a Southern spy let the Southerners know that the ships were bringing troops and ammunition, not just food and medical supplies.

    Odd that none of this is mentioned in the official history books. If you win the war, you get to write the history.

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