Mapping Cultural Circuits

Later this week I will be giving a talk for a digital history symposium at the University of Newcastle on the subject of “Mapping Cultural Circuits.” Some of my work in this vein can be found under the Mapping subheading on this website, but I will be presenting a more complete view of historical GIS maps that chart the development of a Pacific entertainment circuit in the nineteenth century at the symposium. This information has unfortunately become rather difficult to display in a public-facing website as Google neglected to update the gadgets used to embed KML layers from Google Earth when it transitioned to the new maps API. So I have instead produced a short video that uses Google Earth and some rectified historical maps to trace the grand tour around the world undertaken by the General Tom Thumb Company from 1869 to 1872. The video highlights some of what I find most useful about using this combination of tools to visualize the history of transnational touring circuits.

The new Google Maps API does have some salutary features, one of which is the ability to create ‘heatmaps’ of data. The image below is a screenshot of the aggregate data from the touring routes of some three dozen American shows and entertainers that toured the Pacific between 1850 and 1890.


The visualization shows that Melbourne, which grew into one of the largest and wealthiest cities in the Pacific over the course of the nineteenth century, was the primary destination for American entertainers during this period. And while the cultural traffic between San Francisco and Melbourne was the primary axis of the emergent Pacific circuit, there are also indications of other noteworthy features, ranging from the importance of Honolulu as a kind of transpacific relay station to the somewhat surprising prominence of the Dutch East Indies. All of this will obviously be expounded upon in the talk, but for those that can’t make it, check back for updates as I will be posting more of this mapping material on the webiste in the coming months.

Radio Radio


I was at the ABC Radio complex yesterday for an interview with the peerless Margaret Throsby. We talked a lot about the circus, a bit about entertainment around the Pacific, and even squeezed in some discussion of numismatics. All in all I had a wonderful time and our conversation can be found in podcast form here.

An Aquatint of Lord William, a Horse

One of the things that I am packing up for the move across country is a fine print that I acquired at a garage sale here in Cheesman Park. It is an 1845 aquatint of a trotting horse named Lord William and a delightful example of the widely popular British sporting prints that were produced during the mid-nineteenth century. According to Bent’s Register of Engravings (1846), it was engraved and published in London by J. R. Mackrell after a painting by William Shayer. Prices are listed for both a plain (7s 6d) and colored edition (15s). After a bit of haggling, I paid $20 for this plain version, which I think actually looks better than the color print.

Collection of Matthew Wittmann

Collection of Matthew Wittmann

William Joseph Shayer (1811-1892) was an English artist and the eldest son of William Shayer (1787-1879), a noted landscape and figure painter from Hampshire. The younger Shayer specialized in coaching and hunting scenes, but as both signed their works “W.S.” and painted in the same style, there is often some confusion with regards to the attribution of their respective works. Given the subject and date, it seems clear that this particular print was based on an early work by the younger Shayer (and if a reader can point me to the original painting, do let me know). The painting below, descriptively entitled The London to Brighton Stage Coach (ca. 1850), offers a good impression of his typical subject matter and technique.

Bridgeman Art Library

Bridgeman Art Library

The pleasing pastoral and sporting scenes painted by the Shayer family made their works popular with printmakers who sought to capitalize on the seemingly insatiable public demand for such images. Hundreds, if not thousands, of different prints after the Shayers’ works were produced in volume in London and beyond during the nineteenth century.

The “Lord William” aquatint was made by a prolific engraver named James R. Mackrell (ca. 1814-1866). As previously noted it was first published in 1845, but some restrikes seem to have been made at a later date. An aquatint is a variety of etching that was invented in France in the 1760s, and its characteristic feature is to give the appearance of watercolor washes. The process involves a copper or zinc plate that is covered with powdered rosin and then progressively etched and bathed in acid to create the desired lines and tonal variations. An intaglio method of printmaking, the resulting incised image is able to hold ink and is then passed through a press with a sheet of paper to produce the final print. The appeal of the aquatint was that it provided printers with a way to more easily create large areas of tone, and the durability of the plates used allowed for large print runs. The distinctive “watery” look of the aquatint proved popular with the public as well, and even after the ascent of lithography in the mid-nineteenth century, aquatints were still being produced in large numbers.

Detail of characteristic aquatint wash

Detail of characteristic aquatint wash (middle left background of print)

I was initially under the impression that the titular “Lord William” was the driver, and it was only upon closer inspection that I realized that it was the horse. The descriptive text underneath the image indicates that he was the property of one Samuel Lawrence, Esqr., while also noting the following: ‘This Extraordinary animal Trotted a Match against time in harness, for a wager of 200 Sovereigns aside from London to Brighton in the unprecedented time of Three hours and Fifty minutes. October 14th 1842. Driven by the Owner.’ Harness racing, in which horses race at a specified gait pulling a wheeled cart called a sulky, had originated in North American in the late 17th century and the first recorded harness races in Britain were held in 1750. By the mid-nineteenth century, it was a favored form of sport and gambling among gentlemen of means, as the relatively large stakes of this contest suggest. Although races are now held at formal tracks, at the time they were usually staged as single matches between two gentlemen and their steeds over a proscribed road and/or distance. The famed Brighton Road (the modern day A23) was fifty-one and a half miles as measured from the south side of Westminster bridge to the seaside aquarium in Brighton, which was then a fashionable resort. Horses bred specifically for trotting came to be known as “Standardbreds” because they had to be able to trot a “standard” mile in less than two and a half minutes. In his race from London to Brighton, Lord William traveled at a clip of 13.4 miles per hour or a little less than four and a half minutes per mile, an impressive pace given the total distance. Unfortunately, I have been unable to locate a contemporary account of the contest, so this print might serve as the only record of Lord William’s victory.

Sources: Brian Stewart and Mervyn Cutten, The Shayer Family of Painters (1981); Wray Vamplew, The Turf: A Social and Economic History of Horse Racing (1976); for a more recent and entertaining account of horse racing in New York see Steven Reiss, The Sport of Kings and the Kings of Crime (2011)

Mandarin and the Strangling of Circus Elephants

One of the things that I referred to in the op-ed I had published over the weekend was the public execution of the elephant Mandarin, which occurred in November 1902. It happened shortly after the Barnum & Bailey Circus arrived aboard the S.S. Minneapolis, docking at Pier 40 on Manhattan’s west side. The circus had been on an extended tour through Europe, and just before departing London, Mandarin struck and killed a keeper with his trunk. He was unruly throughout the crossing, and owner James Bailey decided to have him killed rather than risk Mandarin killing or injuring another worker or the other animals. When the circus steamed into New York Harbor, the Evening World sensationally reported that there was a “MAD ELEPHANT” rampaging onboard and helpfully provided a sketch of the ship for readers.

Chronicling America

Chronicling America

Four years earlier, the circus had departed for Europe with a herd of eighteen elephants. A photograph on Buckles Blog shows the herd of ten large and eight small elephants. Six of them, including all four big males, died during the tour.

Conklin and Baby Elephant

George Conkling at St. Vincent’s Hospital, 1908

George Conklin (1845-1924) was a lion tamer and elephant trainer who served as the “Superintendent of Animals” for the Barnum & Bailey Circus while it was abroad. His memoir as recorded by journalist Harvey W. Root was published by Harper & Row in 1921 as The Ways of the Circus: Being the Memories and of George Conklin Tamer of Lions. Conklin believed that choking was the “easiest and most humane” way to put down an elephant. In his account of the tour, he describes how a rope and block system was first used to kill Don Pedro at Liverpool in May 1898 after he became aggressive. On the last day of that initial touring season at Stoke-on-Trent, another male Asian elephant named Nick was strangled after becoming unruly. The largest of the elephants, Fritz, was killed after going on a rampage in Tours, France. It was only with much luck that Conklin was able to get him chained to a tree, and a hundred men pulled for fifteen minutes before he was finally choked to death. Fritz’s body was donated to the Musee de Beaux Arts, where it is still on display today.

Last but not least was of course Mandarin. Conklin’s rather laconic account of the killing of the elephant is as follows:

Mandarin was about forty-five years old, all of eight feet high, and heavy in proportion. We brought him to New York in a big crate on the upper deck of the boat. On the way over, Mr. Bailey decided to have him killed, so instead of unloading him on to the pier, Mr. Bailey had a big seagoing tug come alongside, and the crate, elephant and all, was swung down to the deck of the tug, which then put out to sea. When far enough outside the crate was loaded down with pig iron, swung out over the water, and let go. And so ended Mandarin (131).

The New York Tribune, on the other hand, provided a much more sensational account of the proceedings in its November 9 edition. Mandarin, with “head cased in leather harnesses,” and “trunk and legs manacled with huge chains,” was slowly strangled to death on the deck of the ship using a two-inch thick hawser (rope) and windlass. The article also suggests why Conklin’s account was terse, observing that: “George Conklin, the trainer, who had made an especial pet of Mandarin, could not witness the elephant’s end. He watched the preparations, but just before the time for the execution burst into tears and ran away.” A crowd of spectators watched from the docks as the elephant was choked to death; it took about eight minutes and seemed “painless” to the reporter on hand. The next morning Mandarin’s body was disemboweled on deck with “his comrades trumpeting the while,” and then loaded onto another ship, weighted down with lead, and dumped out at sea.

Though less infamous than the electrocution of Topsy at Coney Island or the hanging of the elephant Mary in Kingsport, Tennessee, Mandarin’s execution was an instructive example of the way that the contemporary circus industry valued profits over the welfare of its animals. But part of what makes “The Elephant People” chapter of Conklin’s book so fascinating is that he so clearly cares for the elephants, even as he describes doing things that most modern observers would undoubtedly find troubling. Ideas about what constitutes the humane treatment of animals have simply changed over the last century, and this is what has made the use (and abuse) of wild animals in commercial entertainment increasingly problematic.


The John & Mable Ringling Museum of Art

It took over half a century for elephants to become integrated into the circus in the United States, and it was not until the late nineteenth century that herds of performing elephants like the one advertised above became common (for a penetrating historical analysis of this process, see Susan Nance’s Entertaining Elephants: Animal Agency and the Business of the American Circus). As the fortunes of the circus in the United States declined over the course of the twentieth century, so did the use of elephants, and the circus revival of recent decades has been driven almost exclusively by shows that have abandoned traditional wild animal acts. Clearly something akin to the public execution of Mandarin is unlikely to happen today, and the episode serves as an apt illustration of the way ideas about animal welfare in the United States have evolved. Now it is up to the American circus industry to fully catch up.

Let Us Now Praise 12 Years a Slave


This past weekend I was finally able to see 12 Years Slave, which has been one of the most talked about and lauded films of the past year. Given the rather harrowing subject matter, it was not necessarily something I was looking forward to, but I came away impressed with the film as both a work of art and a powerful consideration of the historical legacy of slavery in the United States. As most readers will undoubtedly already know, it is based upon the experiences of Solomon Northrup, a free-born African American from upstate New York, who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841. After over a decade working on different plantations in Louisiana, Northrup was able to secure his freedom with the help of an itinerant Canadian carpenter and friends from the North. Working with an editor named David Wilson, Northrup subsequently published a narrative of these events entitled Twelve Years a Slave (originally published in 1853, link is to an 1859 edition). Although there is some scholarly debate about the veracity of all the happenings and anecdotes included therein, it is unquestionably a powerful account of the American slavery system.

Illustration from 1855 edition of Twelve Years a Slave

Illustration from 1855 edition of Twelve Years a Slave

John Ridley’s admirably spare adaption for the most part remains faithful to Northrup’s narrative, and the episodic fashion in which Steve McQueen’s film unfolds was, I thought, particularly effective. In short, I liked it because it does not try to do too much. I am not sure what I can contribute to the already voluminous and penetrating commentary on the film (see this great piece by Wesley Morris for one), but I had a few thoughts that I wanted to share. For one, it was simply refreshing to see an honest depiction of slavery in American popular culture. The racial power dynamics portrayed in the film long outlasted slavery, and the nation’s tortured race relations have been reflected and refracted in American culture in ways that typically marginalize black people and experiences or turn them into a form of entertainment for white audiences. In presenting the brutal historical legacy of slavery from a black perspective, 12 Years a Slave powerfully confronts the pernicious cultural legacy that haunts American popular culture. One of the more striking scenes in the film for me was when the drunken Master Epps rouses Solomon and the other slaves from their quarters late one night to dance for his amusement. Finding their enthusiasm wanting, an enraged Epps screams at the “damned niggers,” whip in hand, until sufficient spirit is shown and he begins to cavort with his “property.” The dismal scene is arguably an apt metaphor for the traditional dynamics of popular entertainment in the United States.

While I certainly found the film and its implications disturbing, it was not as hard to watch as I expected. Part of this was no doubt due to my knowledge about the history of slavery going in, but it was also due to McQueen’s masterful direction. Despite telling a relatively straightforward and downright brutal story, the film is not unrelenting. At times the camera lingers on the natural beauty of a scene; at others we see some of the small triumphs of Solomon and the other slaves in their struggle to preserve their humanity. Probably the most cutting scenes for me were those in the New Orleans slave market, where we see the dehumanizing process of chattel slavery at work (for a great scholarly take on the same, see Walter Johnson’s Soul by Soul). The one scene that fell a bit flat for me, and one which I appreciate was supposed to be a very emotional moment, was Solomon’s singing of “Roll Jordan Roll” at the funeral of an unnamed fellow slave. Spirituals, and music more generally, clearly played an important role in slave life (see Shane and Graham White’s The Sounds of Slavery), but the use of this particular song in what was ostensibly a transformative moment just felt a bit contrived to me. I could probably write an entire book on the role of music and dancing in the film, though, so it is perhaps best to move along.

This might sound strange, but the work that resonated most with me in thinking about this film was James Agee and Walker Evans’ Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941). Although McQueen is trying to represent something of the historical reality of slavery and Agee/Evans are considering the contemporary lives of white sharecroppers amidst the Great Depression, both are works of art that center on somehow capturing and communicating the humanity of their subjects. This probably deserves a much longer post and explanation, but I cannot help but think of the two as complementary. In the “Preamble” to Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, Agee struggles with the limits of representation and human experience, writing that “a piece of the body torn out by the roots might be more to the point” than a “book,” and he goes on to warn the reader that if they were to truly understand what he wants to communicate, “you would hardly bear to live.” I imagine that McQueen likewise struggled with these issues, albeit in a rather different context. I also cannot help but think that Agee would have appreciated the naturalism, economy of style, and moral force of 12 Years a Slave. There’s a powerful moment in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (“Late Sunday Morning”) when a group of African-American singers perform for Agee and Evans at the behest of their white landlord, much to the discomfort of both parties. The scene eerily echoes Epps forcing his slaves to dance, though in this case Agee is “sick in the knowledge that they felt they were here at our demand, mine and Walker’s, and that I could communicate nothing otherwise.” Though much had obviously changed in the intervening century, the stultifying racial power dynamics remain, and a disconcerted Agee plays his part through by tipping the young men, who thank him in a “dead voice” and go on their way. Agee and McQueen each in their own way grapple with the discomfitting history of American race relations, and their respective works of art succeed in part because they are so clearly moral efforts. In 12 Years a Slave, McQueen has produced an at once beautiful and harrowing film that forthrightly addresses the terrible history and complex cultural legacy of slavery in the United States. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

*A quick final note, and one that some will no doubt find superfluous. Solomon Northrup was lured from Saratoga Springs to Washington by two men, Brown and Hamilton, who promised him work with a circus company there. Brown was apparently a small-time magician and ventriloquist as he performed a show in Albany for an audience that Northrup recalled was “not of the selectest of character.” They arrived in Washington in early April and a quick check of the relevant sources shows that that there was no circus wintering there and a touring show did not arrive until later that summer. It thus seems clear then that neither Brown nor Hamilton were actually affiliated with a circus and this was simply a ruse to lure Northrup south. While the nineteenth-century American circus undoubtedly had its share of dodgy characters, skipping out on debts was more par for the course. Still, the deception does reinforce why itinerant entertainers were looked on with such suspicion by so many Americans at the time.

Further reading: Solomon Northrup, Twelve Years a Slave (1853); Clifford Brown, et. al., Solomon Northup: The Complete Story of the Author of Twelve Years a Slave (2013); Walter Johnson, Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market (2001); Shane and Graham White, The Sounds of Slavery (2005); James Agee and Walker Evans, Let us now Praise Famous Men (1941); Laurence Bergreen, James Agee: A Life (1984).

RBB&B Circus at the Bronx Coliseum, 1929

Collection of Matthew Wittmann

Collection of Matthew Wittmann

Above is a large-format photograph of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus performing at the Bronx Coliseum in March 1929 that I recently acquired at an auction. It was taken by Edward J. Kelty (1888–1967), who has been described as the “Cecil B. DeMille of circus photography” for the spectacular series of oversize prints he made using a custom-built banquet camera in the 1920s and 1930s. The photograph is of the so-called grand entrée when the circus performers and animals paraded around the ring in spectacular costume to open the show. The 1929 Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus was notable for being the last of the lavish editions of the show produced prior to the stock market crash that plunged the United States (and the circus industry) into depression. The circus was also unique for the fact that instead of beginning the season at Madison Square Garden, it began in the Bronx to celebrate the public opening of what was then called the New York Coliseum. The building was originally constructed as an auditorium for Philadelphia’s 1926 Sesquicentennial Exposition, and it was subsequently purchased by Edward B. Whitewell, owner of the Starlight Amusement Park, which was a kind of Bronx version of Coney Island that flourished in the 1920s. The arena was reconstructed at Bronx River and 177th Street with a Romanesque facade and seating for around 15,000. The March 21st opening of the building was celebrated by ex-Governor Al Smith and other dignitaries, although the photo above seems to be from a later daytime performance by the Ringling show. The stars of the circus were Goliath, billed as “The Monster Sea Elephant,” and Hugo Zacchini, an Italian daredevil who sensationally reintroduced the “human cannonball” act to the American circus. After a successful week in the Bronx, the circus transferred to Madison Square Garden for the remainder of its New York run. Despite its glittering debut, the New York Coliseum was not very successful as a venue, although it hosted everything from boxing matches to midget auto racing before being repurposed by the U.S. Army as vehicle-maintenance center during World War II. It was subsequently taken over by the New York City Transit Authority, and the building is now known as the West Farms Bus Depot.

A massive collection of Kelty photographs is available via the Ringling Museum here. For further information, see Step Right this Way: The Photographs of Edward J. Kelty and my own Circus and the City catalogue. All information about the history of the Bronx Coliseum is from a “Streetscapes” column by the peerless Christopher Gray in the New York Times.

*A reader noted that there is a Kelty photograph in Josh Sapan’s neat new book The Big Picture: America in Panorama


The Armory Exhibition at 100

Archives of American Art

Archives of American Art

The centennial of the International Exhibition of Modern Art, better know as simply the Armory Show, has prompted a renewed wave of interest and a number of competing exhibitions about what many regard as the most important event in the history of American art. A full list of exhibitions and related publications can be found here, but perhaps the most prominent of these shows is the New-York Historical Society’s Armory Show at 100, which runs through February 23, 2014. I had the opportunity to visit when I was in New York City last week, and I must say that I came away rather disappointed (though the accompanying website is useful). Although the NYHS was able to get some fantastic material on loan for the exhibition, the overall interpretation was creaky and its organization was at times simply confusing.

First and foremost, it is not clear where the exhibition actually starts, with a small gallery of material about “Organizing the Armory Show” and a hallway full of contextual information about New York City in the early twentieth-century awkwardly positioned before the main gallery (I am still not sure if I was meant to go through these before or after the art). Whatever the case, the central gallery includes some 100 works drawn from over thirteen hundred pieces that appeared in the 1913 exhibition. One thing that is made very clear from the beginning is the overall theme, which promises “Modern Art & Revolution,” but much of what follows belies this bold promise and the conflation of politics and aesthetics is problematic throughout. The NYHS exhibition is roughly structured along the same lines as the original show, but the very truncated wall texts deal in such generalities that it is sometimes difficult to get a strong sense of either the historical exhibition or the contemporary interpretation being proposed.

Archives of American Art

Archives of American Art

One salutary feature of the present exhibition is its fidelity to representing the wide range of art works that appeared in the Armory Show, much of which was neither revolutionary nor particularly modern. The American painter Albert Pinkham Ryder (1847-1917) and French Symbolist Odilon Redon (18401-1916) were among the most well-represented and received artists, and neither are particularly well-known today.

Terra Foundation for American Art

Terra Foundation for American Art

My favorite paintings in the exhibition (and it is almost entirely paintings) were those by what I would call the American avant-garde. George Bellows’ The Circus, Robert Henri’s Figure in Motion, Arthur B. Davies’ Line of Mountains, and John Sloan’s McSorley’s Bar are all wonderful paintings by artists identified with the so-called Ashcan School. All of these artists were also “revolutionary” and “modern” in their own way, but the framing of the exhibition is so narrowly focused on celebrating an ostensibly sui generis European modernism that it effectively marginalizes innovative American art. Indeed, this was something that many American artists bemoaned about the the Armory Show at the time, so I suppose it is only proper that this current exhibition similarly elevates the European artists over their supposedly hidebound American counterparts. In short, the NYHS exhibition does not do American artists any favors, and all the Armory Show’s complications and contradictions are elided in favor of the shibboleth that the “new” European art revolutionized American culture in one fell swoop.

One noteworthy section positioned amidst the transition to the vaunted European works is a selection of prints by a variety of artists, ranging from John Marin and Stuart Davies to Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Edvard Munch. These delightful prints suggest a much more complementary relationship between European and American art than is elsewhere acknowledged.

Philadelphia Museum of Art

Philadelphia Museum of Art

Still, in arriving at the exhibition’s version of Gallery I, the infamous “Chamber of Horrors” that featured Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 and Henri Matisse’s Blue Nude, it is easy to see why some visitors found these works so surprising in 1913. The NYHS was able to borrow an impressive array of what was regarded as the more sensational art in the Armory Show, but it is of course impossible to resurrect the shock of the new with what are now canonical works. Count me as skeptical that “everyone” was so stunned by these artworks. Recent scholarship suggests that the response to the Armory Show by critics, artists, and the public was much more complicated than the conventional narrative suggests. Moreover, one of the most tired tropes in cultural history and criticism is the idea that X (film, book, album) shocked the world and/or changed everything. As J.M. Mancini, Christine Stansell, and many others make clear, this supposed cultural and aesthetic revolution had a much longer trajectory.

To be fair, some of these complications are addressed around the edges of exhibition, and I can appreciate why the curators stay so focused on the conventional, if flawed, interpretation of the Armory Show to give the exhibition a certain clarity. But other decisions seem less defensible. The end of the main gallery contains a mixed bag of material that confusingly includes some works from J.P. Morgan’s collection in an apparent effort to show that not all contemporary collectors were interested in modern art, which hardly seems surprising. There are also a smattering of works that do not convincingly address the legacy of the Armory Show in American art, though it is a subject that gets more satisfying treatment in the historical materials displayed in the hall adjacent to the main gallery. I really wish that an effort had been made to integrate the very useful and important contextual material in this hall that both sets the scene and explores the legacy of the Armory Show with the actual art. It would have made for a much more coherent interpretation and introduced a level of dynamism that the simple recreation of the original show in smaller form lacked. Of the other ancillary room on “Organizing the Armory Show,” the less said the better about this text-heavy and generally uninteresting display. In sum, I feel like what the Armory Show at 100 needed was to find a better angle, one that would have integrated the Armory Show art with the other materials into a larger story about the development of American modernism. All of that said, the NYHS has assembled a truly wonderful collection of art, and it is well worth a visit. I should also note that the museum has another exhibition open downstairs called Beauty’s Legacy: Gilded Age Portraits in America, which has a rather more satisfying and focused interpretative line and some really excellent portraits so be sure to check that out as well.

Some final notes. The accompanying catalogue, which has a great roster of contributors, undoubtedly deals with some of the complications and criticisms of the exhibition that I offered above, but its size and price ($65!) precluded me from getting a good look. I will update when I do! There are also some great resources online about the Armory Show for those interested. Beyond the aforementioned New-York Historical Society website accompanying the exhibition, the Smithsonian Archives of American Art has a good collection of primary sources here, and the Art Institute Chicago’s has a neat site here about the Armory Show’s sojourn to the Midwest.