[Uncle Tom's Cabin.]

STOWE Harriet Beecher. (1855.])



Twenty-two hand-painted circular magic lantern slides. Diameter measuring 77mm, in wooden frames c.160 by 105mm. In a custom wooden box. [London? c.

A rare, hand-painted set of magic lantern slides for an early dramatisation of Harriet Beecher Stowe's American abolitionist classic, Uncle Tom's Cabin.


The most commercially successful literary phenomena of the nineteenth century, Uncle Tom's Cabin was a global sensation. Following serialisation in an abolitionist newspaper, The National Era, the work was first published in book form on March 20th 1852. The title was an immediate hit, and sold 3000 of the edition's 5000 copies on its first day. Within months it had been adapted for the stage, with the first mention of a performance in New York, on September 3 1852. Several scripted adaptations for the stage were quickly produced, and in response to the public's seemingly insatiable appetite for this work, it rapidly disseminated into other popular forms of entertainment. Sheet music was printed, and as early as 1853 it was being performed in the format of the magic lantern show. 


The present set of slides constitute an almost certainly early iteration of the story in this medium. The most famous magic lantern series for Uncle Tom's Cabin was produced by the Philadelphia company of C.W. Briggs co. in the 1880s and featured the artwork of Joseph Boggs Beale. Although Beale's slides have the appearance of traditional hand-painted unique works, they in fact employed a clever photographic technique of reproducing his drawings onto the glass, before the colour was filled in by hand. This allowed for a far greater number of high quality slides to be produced than by other means. The present example however is all worked by hand, and may indeed represent a unique or extremely limited set


The images, furthermore, in the present case draw primarily upon the Clarke & Co of London 1852 "People's Illustrated Edition" of the work. Of the twenty-two slides, ten are explicit versions of the "fifty splendid engravings" advertised on the title-page of this edition. The remaining eleven slides illustrate other elements of the story but deviate from the printed engravings. In once case, however, we have been able to isolate the additional source. The slide depicts the character of Legree, whip in hand and fist raised to Tom's face. This image appears as the lithographed cover of an 1855 London sheet music publication entitled "Poor Tom!" One could perhaps therefore infer from the visual sources that these slides were also prepared in London to meet early demand for this imagery, but before mass production techniques had caught up with the phenomena. 


Most mass produced slides of this era would have been numbered and often captioned, with a specific, sometimes printed script to accompany them. The wooden frames in which these slides have been mounted show evidence of several numbering systems, both pasted on and incised into the wood. The fact that these numbers do not correlate with the chronological narrative order of the slides would suggest that the frames have been reused, further supporting the notion that this is a unique set. 


Though the present slides have no titles or captions, the engravings from the Clarke & Co. edition which are referenced are as follows:

1). "Can't ye be decent when white folks come to see ye? ..." (Frontispiece)

2). "Now for it! Cotch him! Cotch him!" (p.40)

3). "Hailey packs up Uncle Tom for the "Down South" Market." (p.83)

4). "Will "Down South" Join Issue in the Fugitive's Appeal?" (p.93)

5). "Scenes daily and hourly acting under the shadow of American Law." (p.94)

6). "The article escapes into a state which never gives up a fugitive." (p.110)

7). "Could flesh and blood do otherwise" (p.160)

8). "Field sports "Down South." Coming in at the death." (p.198)

9). "Uncle Tom and the gentle Emmeline introduced to the ferocious members of Legree's establishment." (p.292)

10). "Death of Uncle Tom". (p.353)


The other eleven slides certainly depict recognisable moments from the narrative, but have either referenced other visual sources, or the artist has merely adjusted the images to fit the magic lantern performance script. The fact that one slide certainly derives from a published song score would imply that others could be adapted to better accompany the inclusion of musical numbers. Among others, these scenes include Tom saving Eva (p.125 in the Clarke & Co. edition), Rosa trying on Marie St. Clair's dress and another of her pleading with Miss Ophelia to argue her case on the matter (pp.270-1), and also one of young George Shelby punching Legree (p.355).


Two scenes of enslaved characters bring taken to auction, and being pursued by a white man on horseback have been framed with landmark American architecture in the background, perhaps to give additional context for a British audience. One of these buildings is almost certianly based on the depiction of the Capitol Building in Washington D.C., as featured in Joseph Andrews' 1840 The History and Topography of the United States... Another slide, depicting three chained African men is a clear visual reference to the supplicant stance most commonly associated with the "Am I not a man and brother?" motif, created by the ceramist Josiah Wedgwood, and oft repeated thereafter in the work of other abolitionists. 


The final indication that this set represents an early adaptation to magic lantern is the way in which the black characters are depicted. As the nineteenth century wore on, through the Civil War and into the reconstruction period, the racialised elements of performances of Uncle Tom's Cabin took a nasty turn from an initially paternalistic view of enslaved Africans in America, to full blown minstrelry. Later illustrations of Topsy overwhelmingly emphasise her short braided hair, and contrast her with the white character Eva. None of the slides contain obvious nods to blackface or other demeaning performance conventions which can be seen in later examples. 


OCLC lists sets of 24 slides created in [London] 1870 at University of South Carolina and U. Wisconsin Madison. A further set of 4 slides attributed to Boston, 1860s can be found at U. Wisconsin Madison. An incomplete set of 1890s Primus slides are found at Princeton. 


Stock Code: 232750

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