September 27, 1852

 

ohIsesowicked

“Oh! I’se So Wicked”

Sheet Music from George Aiken’s Theatre Production of Uncle Tom’s Cabin

featuring Caroline Fox Howard as Topsy

Monday Sept 27th We have done some washing to day and

some housecleaning  I have been to work

about house most of the time  The gardener

has taken up the plants and I washed 

the pots and brought them into the dining

room  Carried my sewing into Edwins

this morning  Augusta is getting quite smart

The weather is delightful

Laundry, choring, and gardening were on Evelina’s agenda this Monday. A gardener – perhaps an extra hand from the shovel shop – was putting the garden to bed. Under Evelina’s direction, no doubt, he dug up particular plants for her to pot and bring indoors. Her perennials, of course, would winter outside, but other plants – herbs among them, most likely – she would try to winter-over in her dining room, which must have been sunny and warm. What practiced forethought Evelina was using to prepare for winter on such a “delightful” September day.

Back on April 6, we saw Evelina and her daughter sewing indoors out of the way of a heavy spring snow storm. They and a friend passed the time reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a brand new novel by Harriet Beecher Stowe. The book was a phenomenal success, selling not only hundreds of thousands of copies in its first year, but becoming the best-selling book of the 19th century, after the Bible. The book’s popularity spawned a host of imitations, rebuttals, and theatrical interpretations. Modern historian David Reynolds has noted that, over time, Uncle Tom’s Cabin’s  “cultural power resulted not only from the novel but also from its many spin-offs – particularly plays, songs and films – that swayed millions who never read the novel.”*

On this very date, in fact, the first theatrical production of Beecher’s story premiered in Troy, New York (later to move to Albany and New York City.) Produced by George L. Aikens, the show Uncle Tom’s Cabin highlighted dramatic moments from the novel and added tableaux and musical numbers. Like other productions that would follow, the story was somewhat reinterpreted.  Aiken “slightly revised”* the plot, dispensing with some characters and inventing others, but kept the essential story line in tact. “Religion, thrills, comedy: the crowd-pleasing elements were all there.”*

The religious component of the story (and, in the north, the anti-slavery message) was enough of a draw to make theatre-going almost respectable, and drew many to the theatre who had never gone before. The play also offered its audience, for the very first time, a single-feature program rather than the variety fare that was usually staged. “The play appealed to audiences of all backgrounds and ages. Horace Greeley, William Lloyd Garrison, the young Mark Twain, and the even younger Henry James were among those who were deeply stirred by the play.”  Competitive versions soon sprung up, including one produced by P. T. Barnum. For decades before and after the Civil War, the story of Uncle Tom and Eliza was everywhere.

 

*David S. Reynolds, Mightier Than the Sword: Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Battle for America, New York, 2011

 

April 6, 1852

330px-Harriet_Beecher_Stowe_c1852

Harriet Beecher Stowe

(1811 – 1896)

1852

April 6th  Tuesday  We have had one of the driving

snow storms of the season  the snow is very

much banked.  We have been reading Uncle

Toms Cabin  Susan has read to us most of the

time  have been sewing & mending.  Orinthia hemmed

a black cravat for O Angier and sewed some

on Susans pink apron.  Have made a little needle

book for mother

Yesterday, Evelina and Orinthia had been in Evelina’s garden planting flowers. Today the two women sat indoors “sewing & mending” because the unstable spring weather had brought on “one of the driving snow storms of the season.” According to Old Oliver, the snow “was all in heaps and the wind blowing verry hard from northeast” *

Yet the women weren’t disconsolate. While they sewed, Evelina’s daughter Susan read aloud to them from Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a popular new novel. Originally published in serial form in the National Era, an abolitionist periodical out of Washington, D. C.,  the full book had just been published in Boston by John P. Jewett and was on its way to becoming the best selling work of fiction of the 19th century.

Written by Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, or a Tale of Life Among the Lowly tells the story of two Kentucky slaves, Tom and Eliza, who are forced to leave their home plantation and make their way in a hostile society, one sold south, the other escaping north. It was a tale that gripped readers north and south, within the country and abroad, and provoked various imitations, interpretations and theatrical iterations. It has never been out of print.

Mrs. Stowe was not only an author, mother of seven children and wife of a Biblical scholar and educator; she and her husband were also active abolitionists. For a number of years they had lived in Cincinnati, Ohio, an active depot for escaping slaves, where they were participants in the Underground Railroad and personally helped hide slaves on the run. When the Fugitive Slave Act was enacted in 1850, Mrs. Stowe was distraught. She wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin in protest.

How might Evelina have liked Uncle Tom’s Cabin?  Very much, one suspects. Though hardly an active abolitionist, Evelina was sympathetic to the slaves. After the Civil War, she even tried to hire some freed black women to come work for her but, according to her grandson Winthrop Ames, the plan never worked out.

*Oliver Ames Journal, Stonehill College Archives, Arnold Tofias Collection

March 20, 1852

faces

 

from The Philosophy of Laughter and Smiling , 1877

1852

March 20th Saturday  Have cut and basted a purple print

apron for Susan of a pattern that Lavinia

brought from Mary  Abby & Edwin & wife were

here to tea  Orinthia dressed in Franks clothes

and paraded around here awhile.  Send for Mrs

Witherell & Mrs S Ames to see her  We have had

a pretty lively time  Orinthia brought over

Edwin & wife.

The ladies laughed today.  After sewing for hours, breaking only for midday dinner, Evelina and her young friend Orinthia Foss laid down their needles to have tea. Orinthia got it into her head to put on nineteen-year-old Frank Morton Ames’s clothes “and paraded around.” She donned his shop pants, perhaps, and shop coat over one of his white muslin shirts. Evelina and her guests were so amused at the sight that they called in Sarah Ames and Sarah Witherell to see the fun. Cross-dressing was a novelty for these women, and Orinthia’s daring act generated hilarity.

All things considered, these women were probably due for some laughter.  It was the first day of spring, and everyone had been pretty well cooped up for months, excepting the occasional trip into town. More recently, they had suffered through a major fire. Some innocent amusement was a good release.

Evelina’s favorite author, Charles Dickens, knew all about laughter: “It is a fair, even-handed adjustment of things, that while there is infection in disease and sorrow, there is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good humor.”**

While the women amused themselves at home,  the best-selling novel of the 19th century was published in book form today, in Boston.  We’ll soon find Evelina reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

 

* Clockwise: “The Giggling Laugh, excited by Boisterous Fun and Nonsense.” “The Obstreperous Laugh, instigated by Practical Jokes or Extreme Absurdities.” “The Hearty Laugh of the Gentler Sex.” “The Stentorian Laugh of the Stronger Sex.” “The Superlative Laugh, or Highest Degree of Laughter.“ From The Philosophy of Laughter and Smiling, George Vesey, 1877. Courtesy New York Historical Society, courtesy of CABINET: The Art of Laughter, Issue 17, Spring 2005

**Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol