Caption This (Nanny and Child)

Dixons carburet of iron stove polish copy
“Dixon’s carburet of iron stove polish,” circa 1885; printers and engravers include Major & Knapp Engraving, Manufacturing & Lithographic Co. (New York) and A. Gast & Co. (New York and St. Louis).
Description: From a “series of illustrated trade cards depicting an African American woman affectionately playing in the kitchen with a young girl, who is partially covered in Dixon’s carburet of iron stove polish. The little girl stands on the kitchen table and grabs the woman’s cheek as a kettle boils on the stove in the background. Joseph Dixon produced his carburet of iron stove polish in 1827.”
Image and Description Source: Library Company of  Philadelphia, African Americana Collection – African American Graphics Collection; see here for Library Company of Philadelphia’s homepage.
(Carburet: car·bu·ret [kär′bə-rāt′, -rĕt′] To combine or mix (a gas, for example) with volatile hydrocarbons, so as to increase available fuel energy.)

OK, what’s your caption for this image?

Blackface Halloween?

Philadelphia children in blackface
Philadelphia children in blackface; by photographer James Bartlett Rich (1866-1942); ca. 1895.
Image Source: Library Company of Philadelphia
Image Description: (From the Library Company of Philadelphia:) “Group portrait in a house foyer of several children in costume, most in blackface, holding tin horns. The children, possibly attired to perform a minstrel show for home entertainment, include the photographer’s daughter, Hazel, seated on a rocker in a large ruffled hat with a mask-like cloth veil.”
Biographical/ historical note: (From the Library Company of Philadelphia:) James Bartlett Rich was a professional Philadelphia landscape photographer who produced several candid portraits of family and friends.

From Wikipedia:

Blackface is a form of theatrical makeup used by performers to represent a black person. The practice gained popularity during the 19th century and contributed to the proliferation of stereotypes such as the “happy-go-lucky darky on the plantation” or the “dandified coon”. In 1848, blackface minstrel shows were an American national art of the time, translating formal art such as opera into popular terms for a general audience. Early in the 20th century, blackface branched off from the minstrel show and became a form in its own right, until it ended in the United States with the U.S. Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Continue reading

Frederick Douglass: He knew why the caged bird sang

From YouTube: This is a clip from the film 12 Years a Slave. The slaves sing “Roll Jordan Roll” during a funeral for one of their own.

Frederick Douglass, as I like to say, was the most eminently quotable man of his generation. This 19th century abolitionist, writer, publisher, orator, community activist, civil servant, and former slave, was perhaps the spokesman for the African American community during his lifetime.

In his memoir My Bondage and My Freedom – which was part of the slave narrative literary genre – Douglass spoke about the meaning of song to enslaved African Americans. Songs had many purposes. They were utilitarian: they helped overseers keep track of slaves working in the fields. They were flattering: they praised the slave master in a way that might curry his or her favor. And they were healing: they helped purge the soul of the pain that bondage brought to the body.

Douglass warned, don’t mistake the slaves’ songs as a sign of their contentment: “Sorrow and desolation have their songs, as well as joy and peace. Slaves sing more to make themselves happy, than to express their happiness.”

These are Douglass’ thoughts on the meaning and value of song to the enslaved, from My Bondage and My Freedom:

Slaves are generally expected to sing as well as to work. A silent slave is not liked by masters or overseers. “Make a noise,” “make a noise,” and “bear a hand,” are the words usually addressed to the slaves when there is silence amongst them. This may account for the almost constant singing heard in the southern states. There was, generally, more or less singing among the teamsters, as it was one means of letting the overseer know where they were, and that they were moving on with the work.

But, on allowance day, those who visited the great house farm were peculiarly excited and noisy. While on their way, they would make the dense old woods, for miles around, reverberate with their wild notes. These were not always merry because they were wild. On the contrary, they were mostly of a plaintive cast, and told a tale of grief and sorrow. In the most boisterous outbursts of rapturous sentiment, there was ever a tinge of deep melancholy.

In all the songs of the slaves, there was ever some expression in praise of the great house farm; something which would flatter the pride of the owner, and, possibly, draw a favorable glance from him.

I am going away to the great house farm,
O yea! O yea! O yea!
My old master is a good old master,
O yea! O yea! O yea!

This they would sing, with other words of their own improvising—jargon to others, but full of meaning to themselves. I have sometimes thought, that the mere hearing of those songs would do more to impress truly spiritual-minded men and women with the soul-crushing and death-dealing character of slavery, than the reading of whole volumes of its mere physical cruelties. They speak to the heart and to the soul of the thoughtful. I cannot better express my sense of them now, than ten years ago, when, in sketching my life, I thus spoke of this feature of my plantation experience:

I did not, when a slave, understand the deep meanings of those rude, and apparently incoherent songs. I was myself within the circle, so that I neither saw or heard as those without might see and hear. They told a tale which was then altogether beyond my feeble comprehension; they were tones, loud, long and deep, breathing the prayer and complaint of souls boiling over with the bitterest anguish. Every tone was a testimony against slavery, and a prayer to God for deliverance from chains. The hearing of those wild notes always depressed my spirits, and filled my heart with ineffable sadness. The mere recurrence, even now, afflicts my spirit, and while I am writing these lines, my tears are falling.

To those songs I trace my first glimmering conceptions of the dehumanizing character of slavery. I can never get rid of that conception. Those songs still follow me, to deepen my hatred of slavery, and quicken my sympathies for my brethren in bonds.

The remark is not unfrequently made, that slaves are the most contended and happy laborers in the world. They dance and sing, and make all manner of joyful noises—so they do; but it is a great mistake to suppose them happy because they sing. The songs of the slave represent the sorrows, rather than the joys, of his heart; and he is relieved by them, only as an aching heart is relieved by its tears. Such is the constitution of the human mind, that, when pressed to extremes, it often avails itself of the most opposite methods… The singing of a man cast away on a desolate island, might be as appropriately considered an evidence of his contentment and happiness, as the singing of a slave. Sorrow and desolation have their songs, as well as joy and peace. Slaves sing more to make themselves happy, than to express their happiness.

Continue reading

The Blackville Gallery, late 1890s


Image Description: 1897 Picture of the Blackville Gallery. Elegant hand colored wood engraving titled,”The Blackville gallery,” from Leslie’s Weekly. Shows scene of a rehearsal of the Blackville Choir. 11 x 16in. $150
Source: Image and Description from Prints Old & Rare, an art seller. The description includes the price of the print.

These are several of the “Blackville Gallery” photographs by Knaffl & Bro. studios of Knoxville, Tennessee, that in appeared in Leslie’s Weekly in the late 1890s.

Per Wikipedia, Leslie’s Weekly, born as Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, was “an American illustrated literary and news magazine founded in 1852 and published until 1922. It was one of several magazines started by publisher and illustrator Frank Leslie… Throughout its decades of existence, the weekly provided illustrations and reports – first with wood engravings and Daguerreotype, later with more advanced forms of photography – of wars from John Brown’s raid at Harpers Ferry and the Civil War until the Spanish-American War and the First World War.”

In 1897/98, the magazine featured a set of photographs called the “Blackville Gallery” series. The photos show contemporary African Americans, presumably from Knoxville, engaged in various aspects aspects of domestic life, such as attending church or weighing a young child to check its growth. Some might say the photos are caricature-ish, and close to being minstrelsy. But as I look at the pictures, I am struck by the energy and enthusiasm that these amateur models (and these are staged images) bring to the photo shoots. They seem to be having fun with it. It’s as if they are comfortable with poking fun at themselves, and don’t see every attempt at humor at their expense to necessarily be degrading or insulting. Or so it seems to me.

The photographs were produced by Knaffl & Bro. of Knoxville, Tennessee. Wikipedia talks about Joseph Knaffl (October 9, 1861 – March 23, 1938) here.

These images are (or were) being sold as prints at the “Prints Old & Rare,” site. I have included the description of the images at the site, as well as their selling price, to give an idea of the current value of these pictures.


Image Description:1897 Photogravure featured in Leslie’s Weekly titled, “The Blackville Gallery, — No. III.” Caption reads, “The Blackville Cotillon, — “Mr. Johnsing, Turn Me Luse!” Image shows a small jazz ensemble playing for some dancers as a man claps to the rhythm of the music. The sign above his head reads, “Welcum.” Copyright by Knaffl & Bro., Knoxville, Tennessee. 22 x 16 in. $300
Source: Image and Description from Prints Old & Rare, an art seller. The description includes the price of the print.


Image Description: 1898 Photogravure by Knaffl & Bro., Knoxville, Tenn. featured in Leslie’s Weekly titled, “Weighing the Christmas Baby in Blackville.” Authentic portrait of a family at home trying to weigh a baby with their makeshift scale. A woman at left pours some water from an old kettle which was heated in the stovepipe as a child has a bite to eat at center. 22 x 16 in. $300
Source: Image and Description from Prints Old & Rare, an art seller. The description includes the price of the print.
Continue reading

“Mama are there any angels black like me?”; from an 1899 song by Thurland Chattaway

Little Black Me Sheet Music Cover
Cover to the Sheet Music for “Little Black Me” by Thurland Chattaway
Image Source: New York Public Library; The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts / Music Division; American popular songs / Sheet music, 1899; Digital ID: 1256368; Record ID: 608633. See also this from the John Hopkins University-Levy Collection of sheet music.

Little Black Me, by Thurland Chattaway

Within a Sunday school, a little child, one day,
Was listening to the teacher tell a story
She told about the Angels and she heard her say
If little girls were good as they should be
That’s some day they might all of them be angels fair,
Like those above that sang sweet songs of glory
But when that night at mother’s knee she said her prayer,
There came a sob; she sadly said: “They’re not all black like me.”

(Chorus)
Mama are there any angels black like me
Are they as good as any little girl but me
If I hide my face do you think they will see
If wonder if they’ll find a place for little black me

And then the mother put the little child in bed;
She brushed away the tears while she was sleeping
And in the night the Angels gathered o’er her head;
Within their midst her child seemed to see
And when the morning came the child had passed away
And while the mother by her side was weeping
She thought her darling smiled;
she seemed to hear her say
“I’m with the angels mama, now; they’ve found a place for me”

(Chorus) Continue reading