An Aquatint of Lord William

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 attribution. 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 prints after the Shayers’ works were produced 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), and as previously noted, it was first published in 1845, though 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 it gives 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 subsequently 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 larger 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 loan some fantastic material 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 loan 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.


Elsmore & Forster Circus Jug

The other day a reader sent in an inquiry about an antique circus jug. It is a truly fascinating piece of mid-nineteenth-century English pottery that was manufactured in Tunstall by Elsmore & Forster sometime between 1853 and 1871.

Susan Silver Antiques

Susan Silver Antiques

8341_1292185161_5Tunstall was part of the so-called “Staffordshire Potteries” (modern-day Stoke-on-Trent), a center of ceramic production that developed in the late seventeenth century and which became a hotbed of working class radicalism in the 1840s. Elsmore & Forster seemed to have specialized in this sort of large glazed earthenware jug, which measures 14″ across and 10″ in height. The firm produced several different versions of these jugs decorated with popular entertainment motifs that were “transfer-printed” from wood or metal engravings (see other examples at the V & A here and here).

8341_1292185963_7In this case, the engravings were likely borrowed or purchased from a local printer who used these sorts of illustrations in advertising for circuses and menageries. The assorted animals pictured on the jug are based on the work of artist and engraver Thomas Bewick (1753-1828). As I have written about elsewhere, Bewick’s works of natural history, most notably A History of Quadrupeds (1790), were also frequently copied by American printers and feature prominently in many early menagerie posters. A curious range of animals are represented, including an elephant, a zebra, a tiger, a squirrel, a frog, and several domestic house cats. After the outline of the illustrations was transferred onto the surface, they were colored in by hand before the piece was glazed. The line-up of animals are repeated on each side of the jug with a one or two variations and there are some additional ivy leaf and berry decorations inside of the rim and the spout, and along the main handle.


On either side of the smaller carrying handle there are twin images of a clown, identified by various sources as Joe Cashmore. According to John Turner’s biographical dictionary of British circus performers, Joe’s father was a clown named Ike Cashmore and his mother, billed as Madame Cashmore, was a noted tight-rope performer and equestrian. His full name was Joseph Henry Cashmore, and advertisements printed in The Era (a contemporary trade journal for entertainers) listed his skills as follows: “Comic Knockabout Clown, High Stilts, Juggler, Running Globe, Vaulter, &c.” The clown is the most technically accomplished illustration on the jug, with intricately detailed clothing and checkered tights that required real skill by the colorist to execute. For more on the fascinating world of the mid-nineteenth-century British circus, see The Victorian Clown by Jacky Bratton and Ann Featherstone. The book includes a manuscript by a man named James Frowde, who performed with Hengler’s Circus in the 1850s, and offers a wealth of information about what life was like for clowns like Cashmore.

And, if you are interested, the this wonderful piece of ceramic circus history can be found here for just $2600!

John Hewson Pruyn, Richard Risley, and the Misemono

In an earlier post about the American statesman John Hewson Pruyn, I wrote about the role that the American circus performer and impresario Richard Risley Carlisle played in the evolving cultural relationship between the United States and Japan. Risley arrived in Yokohama on March 6, 1864 with a small troupe of performers, and Pruyn initially expressed hope that the circus would help thaw tensions between the Japanese and foreign communities. The show opened on March 28 in front of an audience of around four hundred people, about half of whom were foreign residents. Pruyn was seemingly less than impressed with the circus as a letter dated April 1 noted that “the Japanese admire the clown very much,” but that he was “the very poorest I ever saw.” He went on to sarcastically speak of the relatively expensive tickets as being “exceedingly cheap for so intellectual a performance.” Whatever Pruyn’s opinion, the circus proved popular and a number of Japanese artists made wonderful woodblock prints documenting the show, including this one by Utagawa (or Issen) Yoshikazu.

Library of Congress

Library of Congress

After its initial success, interest in the circus waned and the performers dispersed, but Risley elected to stay in Japan and pursued a variety of eclectic ventures, including at one point importing dairy cows from California and selling ice cream (for more on Risley’s doings in Japan, see Frederik Schodt’s aforementioned book). But the big idea that he finally hit upon was the realization that the Japanese performers who often entertained the foreign community would be a real novelty abroad. Indeed Pruyn frequently commented on the quality of Japanese entertainment, and he was particularly taken with the characteristic top-spinning performances that he witnessed, which were a novelty to foreigners. Below is a woodblock print that Pruyn saved commemorating a November 14, 1864 performance by a famous top-spinning troupe headed by Matsui Gensui (for a full account of the evening see Francis Hall’s recently published journal).

Matsui Gensui Troop of Top Spinners Woodblock print 1865 Albany Institute of History & Art Robert H. Pruyn Manuscript Collection, CH 532

Matsui Gensui Troop of Top Spinners
Woodblock print
Albany Institute of History & Art
Robert H. Pruyn Manuscript Collection, CH 532

Matsui Gensui and those of his ilk were known as misemono, which Schodt translates literally as “things to show” or “exhibitions,” and included sleight-of-hand, balancing, juggling, acrobatics, amongst a range of other entertainments. The obvious popularity of misemono amongst the foreign community led a number of would-be impresarios to consider organizing a troupe to tour abroad, but the Japanese government’s prohibition on overseas travel and raising the necessary capital made such a venture difficult. With the help of the U. S. consul and local American merchants, Risley cobbled together the needed funding and secured permission for what was dubbed the “Imperial Japanese Troupe” to head abroad. In early 1867, the troupe arrived in San Francisco and embarked on a strikingly successful tour across the United States and eventually around the world. As Schodt notes, Risley’s Imperial Japanese Troupe ultimately played a signature role in introducing the then mysterious world of Japan to those in the West. Risley’s activities are a more or less perfect distillation of one of the major themes of my own work, namely how popular entertainment has served as a medium for cross-cultural exchange.

Though we are straying ever farther from Robert Hewson Pruyn, the man whose papers at the Albany Institute of History & Art originally inspired these posts, I want to highlight one last cultural artifact of interest. It is a short motion picture filmed in Thomas Edison’s New York Studio on April 29, 1904 now at the Library of Congress. It shows two Japanese acrobats performing what was by then known simply as a Risley act. It was this foot-juggling routine that catapulted its namesake to fame and fortune, and its performance by two Japanese entertainers aptly illustrates the ongoing legacy of international exchange via performance and popular culture.

Part II: Aloha America, or, What’s in a Name?

Tonight, ESPN is airing what looks like a cool documentary about Eddie Aikau that delves into ongoing conflicts between Native Hawaiians and the United States. I figured this made it as good of a time as any to write a continuation of an earlier post, which looked at the history and politics of the nomenclature of the islands. By the end of the nineteenth century and despite the persistence of the British designation of Sandwich Islands among outsiders, in its official documents and diplomatic relations the Kingdom of Hawaii invariably referred to the archipelago as the Hawaiian Islands. In January 1893, the Hawaiian Kingdom was overthrown and Queen Lili’uokalani was deposed by a moneyed cabal pushing for American annexation. This resulted in the relatively brief and tumultuous period in which the islands were known as the Republic of Hawaii (1894-1898). Despite resistance by both Native Hawaiians and anti-imperialists in the United States, the so-called Newlands Resolution that provided for “for annexing the Hawaiian Islands to the United States” was controversially approved by Congress and signed by President McKinley on July 7, 1898.

The Hawaiian Organic Act of 1900 subsequently designated the islands as the “Territory of Hawaii” and officially made them an “organized incorporated territory of the United States.” Although political and legal struggles over the islands were ongoing, this more or less settled the nonmenclature issue for a time as the graph below shows.

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After 1900, the Anglo-inspired “Sandwich Islands” slides into obscurity and the singular Hawaii ascends as the preferred designation. But if the name of the islands was for the time being no longer a significant point of contention, its political and legal status continued to be. Historians have generally located “the birth of an American Empire” in the last decade of the nineteenth century when U.S. foreign policy took a distinctly imperial turn and overseas intrusions multiplied. Whatever the merits of this rather creaky interpretation, American exceptionalism dictated that the United States was manifestly not a colonial power. This meant that the imposition of American rule needed to be refigured as something benevolent, and welcomed by Hawaiians (for more on the complicated cultural interactions through which this was accomplished, see Adria Imada’s aforementioned study). But it was also an issue of terminology. To be clear, the relationship between the United States and Hawaii from 1900 forward was clearly a colonial one, but this was obfuscated by the classification of the islands as an “organized incorporated territory,” which ostensibly put Hawaii on a path to statehood. And yet a combination of racial prejudice, island politics, and U.S. satisfaction with the status quo ensured that statehood was consistently deferred. Hawaii’s status became a more pressing issue as the end of World War II approached and Franklin Roosevelt’s vaunted anticolonialism roiled the postwar plans of the Allies. In 1946, Hawaii was placed on the United Nations list of “non-self-governing territories.” Although it obviously remained under American jurisdiction, the list was viewed by many as a precursor to political independence and the United States was required to submit annual reports on conditions there and to support the development of self-government going forward.  The United States of course had no intention of parting with what was perhaps its most strategically significant overseas territory, but Cold War politics and widespread decolonization made Hawaii’s status an increasingly problematic concern for the U.S. in the 1950s. Statehood offered a potential solution, but the politics of Hawaiian statehood proved contentious both in the islands and on the mainland.

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The graph above illustrates something of the confusion, charting how Hawaii was variously described during its time as an American territory (note the post-WWII spike in discussions about statehood). As momentum in the United Nations was building for a resolution granting independence to colonial countries and peoples (resulting in the landmark Resolution 1514 in 1960, which unanimously passed the General Assembly with the U.S. and other major colonial powers abstaining), the Eisenhower administration was finally able to push through the Hawaii Admission Act. The act put the matter of statehood to a vote in the summer of 1959, and despite some noteworthy Native Hawaiian opposition, it was overwhelmingly approved. The United States duly notified the U.N. Secretary General and Hawaii was removed from the list of non-self-governing territories in September. On August 21, 1959, Hawaii was formally “admitted” to the Union. Despite some continuing discontent, statehood seemingly resolved for a time what exactly the islands should be known as, i.e., the State of Hawaii.

This proved short-lived. In the 1970s, the Hawaiian Renaissance and the concomitant rise of the Hawaiian sovereignty movement again threw the name of the islands and their political status into question. One result of the political ferment and the revived interest in Hawaiian language was a push to return to the putatively traditional pronunciation and orthography of Native Hawaiians. This involved a shift from Hawaii (huh-WY-ee) to Hawai’i (huh-WAH-ee or huh-VY-ee) with the ‘okina marking a glottal stop and the pronunciation of the middle syllable as either a w or soft v still in dispute. However it is pronounced, the standard spelling in academia and Native Hawaiian circles is now Hawai’i, and it would seem to be gaining purchase in the larger culture as well.

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What the future holds remains to be seen, but the two-hundred-year struggle over what the islands should be called aptly demonstrates the link between language and power. Ultimately, what’s in a name is politics, and given its history, the nomenclature of the Hawaiian Islands will undoubtedly remain contentious.


Rocky Mountain High, 1861

One of the most remarkable images in the collections of History Colorado is an ambrotype by George D. Wakely of a M’lle Carolista daringly walking across a tightrope extended over Larimer Street in July 1861. Interestingly enough, Wakely was himself an itinerant entertainer who had first arrived in Denver as part of the theatrical Thorne Star Company during the fall of 1859 when the Pikes Peak Gold Rush was in full swing. Charles R. Thorne was a veteran actor and manager who seemingly had a nose for opportunity, having been among the first American entertainers to visit the California gold fields and subsequently touring on the “Pacific circuit” through Hawaii, Australia, and China in the 1850s. Thorne enlisted Wakely, his wife Matilda, and her four children from a previous marriage to perform at the National Theatre in Leavenworth, Kansas, before traveling overland to open at Denver’s Apollo Hall. Although the troupe was initially very successful, Thorne and his son skipped town one evening when business declined, leaving the other members of the company stranded. While some of the Wakely clan continued to perform at the theatre, George opened up the first photography gallery in Denver, having already practiced the trade in Chicago years before. Wakely was a prolific portraitist who also took some wonderful street photographs documenting the city’s growth in the early 1860s. Despite her rather romantic nom d’arena, M’lle Carolista was an acrobat from Cleveland who began performing on the tightrope following the sensationally successful North American tour by the French tightrope walker Charles Blondin during the late 1850. Although American circuses had long featured tightrope ascensions on their programs, the rather more daring and spectacular feats of Blondin included a celebrated walk across Niagra Falls in 1859. After his initial crossing, he introduced a number of variations such as walking blindfolded, on stilts, pushing a wheelbarrow, and with his manager riding piggyback.


Wikimedia Commons

M’lle Carolista performed many of these same feats, billing herself as the “female rival of Blondin.” Her husband and manager was Gus Shaw, and the two traveled around the country giving exhibitions through the late 1860s. Carolista typically performed as an entr’acte in a local gallery or theatre while Shaw attempted to drum up funds from the public for a more sensational open-air exhibition . Once a certain amount of money was raised, a date was picked, the rope was installed, and Carolista would go through her routine. Afterwards Shaw essentially passed a hat around in an attempt to solicit even more compensation from the excited crowds. Such was the format of their visit to Denver in July of 1861, as M’lle Carolista performed at the Criterion Saloon while Shaw circulated a subscription for a “Grand Tight Rope Ascension,” which eventually raised $170. A rope was stretched across Larimer Street from the New York Store to Graham’s Drug Store and on July 18, 1861, a large crowd gathered to witness M’lle Carolista’s daring feats. Ostensibly sensing an opportunity to cash in on the event, the Daily Republican and Rocky Mountain Herald reported that:

Mr. Wakely, Daguerrean and Ambrotypist on Larimer street showed us some beautiful views taken of the crowd assembled yesterday to see M’lle Carolista in her daring feat of rope walking. These are valuable not only on account of representing that interesting affair, but they also present a grand view of Larimer street, the pains, etc. Call at Wakely’s and see those pretty representations.

While the article suggests multiple views were made, the only extant version is the 4.25″ x 6.5″ half-plate ambrotype reproduced below.

Courtesy History Colorado

Courtesy History Colorado

By all accounts it was a very successful exhibition, and M’llle Carolista at one point balanced on the top of her head halfway across, amongst other theatrical variations. As the paper indicated, the ambrotype offers a beautiful view of Denver’s main thoroughfare, which is lined with newly built stores, including a confectionary and ice cream parlor. More entertainingly, a seemingly worried or flabbergasted man standing with his hands on his head can be seen in the center of the foreground.carolistadetail

At right is a detail of M’lle Carolista, who seems to have dressed up for the occasion, as she paused for Wakely’s photograph. This wonderful ambrotype offers both a tantalizing glimpse into the earliest era of Denver’s history and captures something of the vibrant world of mid-nineteenth century popular entertainment in the United States.

Sources: Peter E. Palmquist and Thomas R. Kailbourn, Pioneer Photographers of the Far West (2000); Terry Wm. Mangan, Colorado on Glass (1975)

Aloha America, or, What’s in a Name?

aloha americaI recently reviewed Adria Imada’s book Aloha America: Hula Circuits Through the U.S. Empire for the Journal of Pacific History. It is an engaging study of how the popularization of hula fostered an “imagined intimacy” between the United States and Hawai’i that facilitated that hula played in the United States. The full review is here.

One interesting aspect to note is that like most contemporary studies, Imada’s book follows modern Hawaiian orthography and refers to the archipelago of islands as Hawai’i, i.e., including the ‘okina to mark a glottal stop. One outcome of the Hawaiian Renaissance of the 1970s and the related rise of the Hawaiian sovereignty movement has been increased emphasis on the politics of language. Beyond simply forgoing English words for Hawaiian ones, there has been a concerted effort to use Hawaiian rather than English orthography for various terms. Perhaps the most visible manifestation of this latter shift is promoting the use of Hawai’i over Hawaii. In academia at least, Hawai’i is now the conventional spelling. Still, it remains to be seen if and when this change might be effected at the official government level (the University of Hawai’i and some other local and state institutions have already made the shift). Part of what is so interesting about the debate over what to call the islands (and how to spell it) is that it has been an ongoing and very political issue for over two hundred years.

When Captain James Cook sailed through the archipelago in 1778, he recorded the names of the islands given to him by the local inhabitants, including that of “Owhyhee,” which seemed to have been used interchangeably as the name for the largest of the islands (Hawai’i, i.e. the Big Island) and for the overall group. The seemingly extraneous O in Owhyhee was due to a misunderstanding of the Hawaiian language in which the o’ was used as a copula verb. In short, Cook recorded a phrase, O’ Hawai’i (This is Hawai’i) as the name. Of course, it did not much matter to him, as it was also Cook who designated the group the “Sandwich Islands” after John Montagu, the fourth Earl of Sandwich and First Lord of the Admiralty. Cook’s name stuck and at least through the 1840 most foreign sources and early Hawaiian laws and treaties referred to the islands as the Sandwich Islands. When missionaries standardized an alphabet and written Hawaiian in the 1820s, the native name was rendered as Hawaii. And despite the predominance of the Sandwich Islands in foreign/official usage, there was clearly Hawaiian resistance to that name. Librarian Russell Clement has noted that official correspondence resulting from USN Captain W. C. B. Finch’s visit in 1829 includes the following passage: “the Government and natives generally have dropped or do not admit the designation, of ‘Sandwich Islands’ as applied to their possessions; but adopt and use that of ‘Hawaiian Islands.’” Indeed, by the time of the 1840 Constitution, “Hawaiian Islands” was clearly the government’s preferred designation and it was codified as such. Below is a Google Ngram graph of the rival names:

(click to enlarge)

(click to enlarge)

Of course, this graph only accounts for what British and American sources were choosing to call the islands. Although Google Books has some stray works, the vast majority of the abundant Hawaiian-language books and newspapers produced in the nineteenth century have not been indexed. The preferred designation among Native Hawaiians in the nineteenth century was “Hawaii nei,” or the fuller appellation of “Hawaii nei pae aina.” Although it is not necessarily evident in the above graph because foreign, and particularly British publications, continued to refer to the Sandwich Islands, the government and island residents almost invariably used Hawaiian Islands after 1850. This shift was clearly initiated by the Hawaiian monarchy and supported by its allies, but it was also a reflection of the waning of British influence and the increasing involvement of the United States in Hawaiian affairs. Whether a way of thumbing their noses at the British or simply acceding to the wishes of the Hawaiian Kingdom, the United States dispensed with Sandwich Islands in favor of Hawaiian Islands in all its official diplomatic relations after an 1849 treaty. Insomuch as American and Hawaiian preferences were now aligned, there was a distinct shift in usage as the century progressed.


Matters only became more complicated with the overthrow of the Kingdom and the subsequent annexation of the Hawaiian Islands by the United States at the end of the century. In part II, we’ll have a look at the ramifications of these events on how the islands were referred to and then trace the debate up to the present day.