This post is by Amanda Bellows, Bernard and Irene Schwartz Fellow.
During the nineteenth century, literature became increasingly accessible to Americans thanks to rising literacy rates, decreasing production costs, and advancements in print and distribution technologies. In 1871, Appleton’s Journal of Literature pronounced that recreational reading had become “the most facile distraction, the most available entertainment of our day.” American readers delighted in choosing from an array of illustrated periodicals that circulated widely. Publications like Harper’s Weekly and Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper were two of the most popular thanks to their vivid pictures, entertaining stories, and engaging commentary on current events.
The New-York Historical Society houses collections of Harper’s Weekly and Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper as well as countless other images in its Leslie Dorsey Collection of Pictorial Clippings, Caricature and Cartoon File, and Subject File. Researchers searching for evidence of the ways in which nineteenth-century Americans viewed their world will find that these engravings and lithographs are essential primary sources.
As a scholar of cultural representations of African American slaves and Russian serfs, I pored over these materials in an effort to locate and categorize images of African Americans produced after the abolition of American slavery in 1865. In doing so, I discovered a range of depictions that reveal the diverse ways in which white Americans conceived of former slaves during the post-emancipation era.
Consider, for instance, the nostalgic portrayal of slavery in the Harper’s Monthly illustration, “In Ole Virginny” (1876).
Here, we see a group of slaves entertaining one another near their quarters on a Virginia plantation. A black male slave strums his banjo while a female onlooker claps her hands and children dance to the tune of the music. Nostalgic images like this one belied the harsh realities of American slavery in which enslaved people engaged in intensive labor with little time for rest or recreation. Nonetheless, many late nineteenth-century viewers preferred these idealized representations of slavery to more realistic images that might have evoked discomfort or guilt.
Representations of African American freedpeople differed significantly from concurrent depictions of happy, contented slaves. Many illustrators mocked black freedpeople’s attempts to self-govern by portraying them as incapable of managing their own lives. For instance, the Northern lithographic firm Currier and Ives produced numerous cartoons that ridiculed black Americans in its “Darktown” Series.
In “The Darktown Fire Brigade – All on Their Mettle” (1889), a group of black firefighters from an all-black town rushes off to fight a fire. Portrayed as possessing exaggerated, racialized facial features, the men hurry to the scene of the fire in a chaotic mob.
As the subsequent image, “The Darktown Fire Brigade – Slightly Demoralized” (1889) shows, many of the hasty men fall off the bridge into a river alongside their dilapidated “engine.” Instead of helping one another, however, the freedpeople begin to brawl out of frustration. Racist illustrations of African Americans such as this one might have appealed to the same viewers who preferred idealized representations of slavery. It is likely that these white men and women harbored deep anxieties about the nation’s post-emancipation absorption of former slaves.
These illustrations of African American slaves and freedpeople represent a mere fraction of the visual holdings here at the New-York Historical Society. For scholars interested in the cultural history of the United States during the nineteenth century, the NYHS’s archives offer an abundance of untapped pictorial primary sources.
 Henry T. Tuckerman, “Literature of Fiction, III. Traits and Influence,” Appletons’ Journal of Literature, Science and Art 6, no. 4, November 4, 1871, page 136.