Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Two Looks at 19th Century Mourning

Since the dawn of time people have mourned after the loss of a loved one. Grief is one of the human emotions that can reach across time and space. Despite the passage of nearly four thousand years I felt the pain and loss Tutankhamen felt just by gazing upon the mummy cases that stored the fetuses of his stillborn daughters. Through grief the past comes alive again. Through the expression of loss we can see the people of the past as flesh and blood characters that exhibited the same emotions that we express today.

Despite being universal, historians have largely overlooked the material culture of death in nineteenth-century America. True, death is not one of the “glamorous” historical topics. But to fully understand the values and outlook of nineteenth-century Americans a serious discussion of death is required. Bernadette Loeffel Atkins’s Widow’s Weeds and Weeping Veils: Mourning Rituals in 19th Century America and Karen Rae Mehaffey’s Rachel Weeping: Mourning in Nineteenth Century America are both good introductions to nineteenth-century American mourning customs. As both Atkins and Mehaffey illustrate the American Victorians were not morbid, as some critics have asserted. Rather nineteenth-century Americans were realist who recognized that they were surrounded by death. In an era with lax sanitation, poor medical care, and a massive Civil War most Americans were intimately acquainted with death. Instead of trying to brush it under the rug, like in today’s culture; American Victorians held frank, public conversations about death as witnessed through the era’s literature and music.

Bernadette Loeffel Atkins’s begins her study with a brief introduction which outlines the profound influence the death of Prince Albert in 1862 and the American Civil War from 1861 to 1865 had in establishing mourning customs that would later be associated with the era. The death of Prince Albert and the Civil War’s influence of mourning rituals cannot be underestimated. Queen Victoria made mourning fashionable, the Civil War spread death into every town on an unprecedented level. Atkins then turns toward a study of wakes and funerals. Before the Civil War most people died at home and as a result most funerals were then held in the home. After a death people not only displayed their grief through their clothing, but by also placing their home in mourning. By decorating the inside and outside of the home, American Victorians altered the community that there had been a death in the family. This was essential in an era when communication was slow. Wakes were essential in the mourning process as it assured the family that the deceased were in fact truly dead.

After the funeral the body was removed from the home and transported to the cemetery. Before the nineteenth-century most burials took place within the church yard, but by the 1830s this practice was largely abandoned in the United States in favor of the rural cemetery movement. These large, well manicured cemeteries’s were placed on the outskirts of the town and became for many community’s the first public park. (Mount Hope Cemetery in San Diego, CA; Oak Ridge Cemetery in Springfield, IL; and Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia are all excellent examples of the rural cemetery movement). Atkins then turns to the development of the role of the undertaker and the evolution of coffins which replaced caskets by the end of the nineteenth-century. Of particular importance to understand nineteenth-century America’s outlook on death the myth of the good death and the art of dying must be examined. The good death and the art of dying were perpetuated throughout popular literature and song, the most famous being Eva’s melodramatic death in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. American’s expected that on the deathbed the dying person would be able to offer inspiring message’s about what lay ahead for them on the other side. The myth of the good death and the art of dying saturated American culture to the extent that many were emotionally scarred when their loved ones died contrary to the dictates of the “good death.” Mary Lincoln is a good example; the way her son and husband died denied Mary the comfort of the classic last words adding to her grief.

Another aspect of nineteenth-century mourning that is largely misunderstood in today’s society is post-mortem photography. The idea of taking a photograph of the dead today seems morbid and creepy. But during the nineteenth-century the art of photography was just emerging, for many Americans getting a photograph taken was a luxury. The majority of nineteenth-century post-mortem photographs are of children; a sad testament to the high child mortality rate in nineteenth-century America. Looking at the selection of post-mortem photographs Atkins assembled, the reader realizes that these images might have been the only photograph ever taken of them.

Atkins does an admirable job in placing spiritualism into the narrative of nineteenth-century mourning custom. Like nineteenth-century post-mortem, spiritualism has been largely misunderstood. Spiritualism offered the consolation that it was possible to contact the dead and assured believers that loved ones would be reunited again in heaven. The majority of spiritualists were grieving parents trying to contact their dead children. The Civil War changed nineteenth-century mourning forever as Atkins illustrates. With thousands dying on battlefields far away from loved ones, grieving families were denied the comfort of the good death. The remainder of Widow’s Weeds and Weeping Veils examines how nineteenth-century Americans exhibited their grief through their clothing and jewelry.

Karen Rae Mehaffey’s Rachel Weeping: Mourning in Nineteenth Century America covers the same ground as Atkins study. But Mehaffey does delve into some subjects that Atkins neglected. The study of cremation and consolation literature is particularly well done. The inclusion by Mehaffey of a glossary of symbols used in mourning and other terms associated with mourning is also very helpful for the reader.

Atkins’s and Mehaffey’s illustrate their studies with images out of their own personal collections; many which have never been seen in print before. The images alone are worth the purchase price of both of these works. While Atkins includes more images in her book, unfortunately many of the images did not print out well which is the only major drawback of the book. Mehaffey’s pictures are much clearer, enabling the reader too fully appreciate the image. Both works are generally well written, though there is one major mistake in Rachel Weeping where Mehaffey accidentally spells genteel as “gentile.” I won’t be too hard on Mehaffey though, I once turned in a paper about John Brown where I spelled trial as “trail”! (My professor said it was alright since John Brown did leave a trail through Harper’s Ferry). While not intended to be a comprehensive study of nineteenth-century American mourning Widow’s Weeds and Weeping Veils and Rachel Weeping provide an excellent introduction to this fascinating facet of American society.

Widow’s Weeds and Weeping Veils: Mourning Rituals in 19th Century America. By Bernadette Loeffel Atkins. Gettysburg, PA: B. L. Atkins, 2004. Pp. 34.

Rachel Weeping: Mourning in Nineteenth Century America. By Karen Rae Mehaffey. Dearborn, MI: Moss Rose Books, LLC, 2006. Pp. 50.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Honest Abe

This is a commercial from Geico Insurance, you might have seen it on TV. I decided to post the commercial here because I thought my readers would enjoy seeinf it. There has been quite a number of commercial this summer in which advertisers are using famous individuals from American history to sell their products. Out of the group the Geico commercial with Abraham and Mary Lincoln is the best of the bunch.

The Kraft macaroni and cheese commercials portrays Thomas Jefferson as a whiny, petulant teenager (FYI ad director: Thomas Jefferson did not wear a powdered wig). It is so ridiculous to anyone who has studied Jefferson that it is not even funny. In this commercial, Jefferson comes out as a caricature. The commercial for Bud Light is just as bad; Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, and John Adams are portrayed as cartoon buffoons more interested in drinking and carousing with women over declaring their independence from England. It tries to be hip with "Living in America" playing in the back ground as Washington leers at a colonial floozy asking if she wants to be the "second lady" while he is looking down her bodice (just tacky).

Besides being hysterically funny, the Geico commercial has the hint of realism that makes a really good commercial. The classic line of "does this make my butt look big?" has been used for comedy for years as we see the uncomfortable husband squirm with the wife shooting glares at her spouse. This commercial pairs Lincoln's famous honesty paired Mary Lincoln's notorious temper and love of clothes to produce a comedy gem. The faux old film with scratchy audio quality coupled with the long pause by Lincoln add to the realism that makes this commercial funny and relatable. Also I think Americans generally considered the country's historical figures as marble saints, so by having a commercial where one of the nation's greatest president's actually looks at his wife's backside reminds us all that they were in fact real people.

Magazine Update: The History Channel Magazine July/August 2010

As the temperature rises, it is time to pore yourself a glass of your favorite beverage as we turn to the latest issue of the History Channel Magazine’s History. Unlike its parent channel History is actually dedicated to the exploration of American history. (If only the History Channel would follow the example set by its official magazine—but enough fantasizing!) History is geared for the armchair historian as a result the articles are short and written in a breezy, conversational style by a collection of free lance writers. I have always considered it a shame that History has yet to employ some of the regular historians featured on its parent channel to write feature articles, since many of the cover stories are tied directly to History Channel specials.

History is everything that the History Channel is not. While in recent years the History Channel has become pre-occupied with trying to determine if ancient aliens built the Great Pyramids and who the Anti-Christ might be; History has remarkable kept itself grounded firmly in American history. The sad part is that many of the feature articles produced by History would have made better shows than the dribble that passes as “history” on its parent channel.

Because History exclusively focuses on American history, the Civil War is a common subject—much to my delight. The latest issue of History (July/August 2010) proves to be no exception as a number of Civil War related articles are sprinkled throughout its pages. With next year marking the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War greater attention has been given to the tumultuous political climate of the 1850s; particularly seen through the political career of Illinois lawyer Abraham Lincoln. As part of the “This Day in History” section the start of the Lincoln-Douglas debates on August 21, 1858 receives top billing as one of the most important events that occurred during July and August (pg. 10). Perhaps the most famous example of American political theater, the Lincoln-Douglas debates were more about Lincoln’s attempt to get national press coverage than to sway potential voters. But the Lincoln-Douglas debates deserves it’s place in American political history as it demonstrates clearly the divided nature of American politics on the eve of Civil War through Lincoln’s opposition to the spreading of slavery versus Stephan Douglas’s support of popular sovereignty. The brief feature on the debates is a clear and concise summary of the debates and the outcome. While Lincoln lost his bid for the United States Senate, Stephen Douglas was never able to repair his image within the Democratic Party. Douglas’s nomination for president in 1860 was one of the contributing factors to the sectional splitting of the Democratic Party that allowed Abraham Lincoln and the Republican Party to win the Presidency in 1860.

As part of the “Save Our History” section writer Rick Beyer contributes a wonderful, but brief article on Civil War era illustrated envelops (pg. 12-13). Usually overlooked, Civil War illustrated envelops are fascinating window into 1860s material culture. Illustrated envelops, largely produced in the North, were used by civilians and soldiers alike to express their patriotic feelings. Flags, political slogans, camp scenes, popular generals and politicians were the main subjects featured on illustrated envelops that were used in both the Union and the Confederacy. The heyday for illustrated envelops occurred during the euphoric early days of the war. By mid-1862 it became clear to both sides that the Civil War was going to be a protracted struggle, the original patriotic frenzy subsided as bodies piled up and resources dwindled. Beyer article recounts the history and production of illustrated envelops accompanied by several examples of the wide diversity of subjects featured on illustrated envelops.
The July/August edition of History magazine’s feature article explores the evolution of America’s national image Uncle Sam in David Hawley’s article “Yankee Doodle Dandy: We’re All Real-life Nephews (and Nieces) of Our Universally Recognized Uncle Sam” (pg. 20-24). Known today as the stern image accosting viewers in World War I and World War II recruiting posters and the fodder of political cartoonists, Uncle Sam has had a number of makeovers since his appearance in the early nineteenth-century as the stand in for the United States. The Uncle Sam that we recognize today owes his likeness to Thomas Nast who turned illustrated journalism into an art form during the nineteenth-century. Nast not only transformed Uncle Sam for the readers of Harper’s Weekly, but also turned Santa Claus into the jolly old elf we see every Christmas, he also created the donkey and the elephant as symbols for the Democratic and Republican parties. Hawley traces Nast’s part in Uncle Sam’s long and storied history and even includes an informative side-bar highlighting Nast’s artistic accomplishments. The main problem with the article is that Hawley or the editors who assembled the collection of images to go with the article failed to include a representation of Nast’s Uncle Sam. This makes absolutely no sense—the majority of the article is dedicated to Nast! Instead the reader gets an entire page devoted to the many images of Uncle Sam which consist of World War I and World War II propaganda posters.

The final Civil War related topic covered in this month’s issue of History is the discovery of a rare Lincoln film (pg. 40). While not made during the Civil War, but of interest nevertheless to the Civil War community and early film enthusiast was the discovery of the only known copy of the film made in 1913. Titled When Lincoln Paid the thirty minute movie was made by and stared Francis Ford (brother of John Ford), and is about a dead Union soldier’s mother who pleads with the president to spare the life of a Confederate soldier she had turned in. Basically it’s an example of traditional silent film melodrama. Ford produced eight silent films in which he stared as Abraham Lincoln, but this is the first known copy of these films. Fortunately for Lincoln scholars this film has been re-discovered and restored. With the discovery of the long lost When Lincoln Paid, it gives hope that perhaps the other seven films will eventually be discovered in a long forgotten trunk tucked away in an attic.

History: The History Channel Magazine can be found at selected Borders and Barnes and Noble Bookstores.