Slavery and Imagery

One of the most successful books of the nineteenth century was Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, first published in 1852. It is not a subtle work, and to modern tastes its sentimentality makes it rather unreadable. I suspect it is read nowadays only by a few specialists, or perhaps by students for projects. It is not without power; for example, the cruel, but Christ-like, death of Uncle Tom is very affecting if simultaneously risible. It was an overtly campaigning book, and indeed Harriet Beecher Stowe also visited Scotland as part of her campaigning in the fight against slavery in the U.S. south.

On a steamship journey down the Mississippi, Tom rescues Eva from drowning. She persuades her father to purchase him. Eva is somewhat nauseatingly angelic, and eventually falls ill and in the course of dying has a vision of heaven. The relationship of Eva with Uncle Tom obviously attracted the Victorians, and the commercial possibilities were exploited. Thus, there were a number of different Staffordshire figures of Eva and Uncle Tom, mass-market ornaments for fans. Here, for example, are photographs of the example owned by your blogger:

Your blogger was recently gifted a biscuit tin from the later nineteenth century. This was the century of the start of consumerism and mass markets in prepared foods. This biscuit tin contained biscuits from the well known Edinburgh firm then known as McVitie and Price. It is an ornamental object, decorated with scenes from Uncle Tom’s cabin. presumably it was produced with the idea it should be given as a present. There is the inevitable scene of Uncle Tom with Eva; but there are also depictions of other scenes, all named: the sale of Uncle Tom; the flight across the ice; and Tom with Haley. The image on the lid is unlabelled, but it must be Eva with Topsy:

Of course, Uncle Tom is now seen as an overly passive and subservient figure, and your blogger believes it was James Baldwin who first used the term “an Uncle Tom” in a pejorative way; but in Victorian times he served as an image of the evil of slavery, and the novel undoubtedly contributed to the campaign against it.

Reflecting his scholarly concerns, your blogger owns other objects that depict black people in ways that are undoubtedly much less acceptable nowadays, though interesting in themselves. To avoid offending delicate sensibilities, he will not reproduce them. These objects all draw on the nineteenth-century imagery of the black minstrel. The first is your blogger’s childhood golliwog (whom he named Gilbert); the second is a quite grotesque mechanical bank, consisting of the head and shoulders of a man who “eats” a coin put in his hand; and the third is a rum advert consisting of a statuette of a black man rolling a barrel.

The Staffordshire figures, the biscuit tin, and other other objects all indicate how images of black men and women were used in the past for a whole variety of purposes, both commercial and campaigning.

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