I found this cabinet card portrait for sale on eBay in England (Northamptonshire) in January of this year. Books are common props in 19th-century studio portraits, but titles are usually too blurry to read, even after scanning them at high resolution. In this case, the book is large enough that the title is easily readable at low magnification: Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the novel by American abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe.
Neither the young woman holding the book nor the photographer is identified, so we have no way to know where the photo was taken. Two questions come to mind. First, was the portrait made in the United Kingdom, or was it made in the United States? Second, was the book just a studio prop, or did the young woman pose with it because it had personal significance for her?
Uncle Tom’s Cabin first appeared in serial form, in an abolitionist periodical, in June 1851. The first edition in book form was published in March 1852, followed by many editions in later decades. I spent hours trying to determine the exact edition in the portrait, with the idea that it might help to date the photo, but I didn’t succeed. I think the photo was taken in the mid-to-late 1890s, based on the young woman’s hairstyle and her style of dress, particularly her loose sleeves.
Wikipedia says the following about Uncle Tom’s Cabin. I’ve highlighted two sentences in the third paragraph:
Uncle Tom’s Cabin; or, Life Among the Lowly is an anti-slavery novel by American author Harriet Beecher Stowe. Published in 1852, the novel had a profound effect on attitudes toward African Americans and slavery in the U.S. and is said to have “helped lay the groundwork for the Civil War.”
Stowe, a Connecticut-born teacher at the Hartford Female Seminary and an active abolitionist, featured the character of Uncle Tom, a long-suffering black slave around whom the stories of other characters revolve. The sentimental novel depicts the reality of slavery while also asserting that Christian love can overcome something as destructive as enslavement of fellow human beings.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin was the best-selling novel of the 19th century and the second best-selling book of that century, following the Bible. It is credited with helping fuel the abolitionist cause in the 1850s. In the first year after it was published, 300,000 copies of the book were sold in the United States; one million copies in Great Britain. In 1855, three years after it was published, it was called “the most popular novel of our day.” The impact attributed to the book is great, reinforced by a story that when Abraham Lincoln met Stowe at the start of the Civil War, Lincoln declared, “So this is the little lady who started this great war.” The quote is apocryphal; it did not appear in print until 1896, and it has been argued that “The long-term durability of Lincoln’s greeting as an anecdote in literary studies and Stowe scholarship can perhaps be explained in part by the desire among many contemporary intellectuals … to affirm the role of literature as an agent of social change.”
The book and the plays it inspired helped popularize a number of stereotypes about black people. These include the affectionate, dark-skinned “mammy”; the “pickaninny” stereotype of black children; and the “Uncle Tom,” or dutiful, long-suffering servant faithful to his white master or mistress. In recent years, the negative associations with Uncle Tom’s Cabin have, to an extent, overshadowed the historical impact of the book as a “vital antislavery tool.”
I read the novel in my late twenties, roughly twenty years ago. I had relatively low expectations, but I remember finding it well-written and compelling. As societies around the world grapple with racial stereotypes and their harmful consequences, it makes sense to consider both the strengths and the flaws of the best-selling novel of the 19th century.