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Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Blacking Up: African Americans and the Cast-Iron Stove (upd. 2 June 2014)

Anybody looking at the advertising copy used in the sales of stove polish ("black lead," whose main constituent was plumbago, or graphite), essential for keeping stoves shiny and black and preventing rust, can't fail to be impressed by the presence of African Americans in them, even when they weren't anything like so common in most ads for consumer goods.  [Marilyn Kern-Foxworth, Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben, and Rastus: Blacks in Advertising Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow (Greenwood Press, 1994), pp. 34-5.]

This one is the earliest I have come across yet (1859), from the Library Company of Philadelphia's wonderful "Philadelphia on Stone" collection, and is just a wonderful image.  Here's another, for "Leadbeater's Renouned (sic) Stove polish," from the same source, but a couple of years later:

And here's another, from 1885 -- a bit of a joke card, from one of the country's leading brands, emphasizing its ability to blacken even the most difficult surface:

Dixon's made quite a habit of this style of advertising -- racist caricatures in the spirit of late C19th minstrel shows, that ranged far beyond the kitchen and household, and out into an imagined African-American society:

The above is a reference to the contemporary humorist M. Quad's Brother Gardner's Lime-Kiln Club: Being the Regular Proceedings of the Regular Club for the Last Three Years; with Some Philosophy, Considerable Music, a Few Lectures, and a Heap of Advice Wirth (sic) Reading (1882), which is full of wit like the above about blacking stoves (pp. 28, rates for different jobs; pp. 52, 73, 131, 144, 151, 234; p. 248, "colored men" doing the job for less than the customary rate; p. 254, difficulty of rate-fixing), and mentions stoves on one page in eight.  This is because the club's membership is made up of African American men whose job is whitewashing fences and blacking stoves.  The humour lies in their ignorance and inability to speak proper English, i.e. it is minstrelsy on a page, in the same way that the ad is minstrelsy on a trade-card.

The three images above were lifted from EBAY, and can be dated to the 1880s; there is a version of the lower panel in the last image at

Why did African American servants figure so much in stove-polish advertisements?  It's not simply a reflection of their place in real households where dirty jobs like stove-blacking fell to their lot -- writers about the "servant problem" made it clear that their stereotype of the difficult servant who couldn't manage the stove was young, female, and immigrant white (generally Irish), the demographic group dominating domestic service outside of the South, i.e. in the main stove-using areas, from the 1840s-1850s.  [Margaret Lynch-Brennan, "Ubiquitous Bridget: Irish Immigrant Women in Domestic Service in America, 1840-1930," in Joseph lee & Marion R. Casey, eds., Making the Irish American: History and Heritage of the Irish in the United States (New York University Press, 2006), pp. 332-353 at pp. 333-6.] What we are dealing with here is a cultural convention rather than a direct representation of everyday life.  [See Alice Deck, "'Now Then -- Who Said Biscuits?'  The Black Woman Cook as Fetish in American Advertising, 1905-1953," in Sherry A. Inness, ed., Kitchen Culture in America: Popular Representations of Food, Gender, and Race (Universiity of Pennsylvania Press, 2001), Ch. 3.]  

There is this possibility, too: shiny dark skin (the stereotype of an African American servant from at least Uncle Tom's Cabin onwards) and the surfaces of a well-blacked stove just went together so well, particularly given the conventions and techniques of engraving -- cf. this, from 1891.

Or perhaps it was something that was originally a sort of irresistible visual joke (blacks, blacking) that quickly turned into a trope, later unthinkingly deployed.  I wondered about that possibility when I came across an early (1841) advertisement by a maker of ink guaranteed to have a "beautiful and permanent colour" and also of boot-polish, applied so effectively by the sort of cartoon coon familiar from later decades of stove polish ads, that the little dog can see its own reflection in the shiny leather, in the same way that the maid does in the Leadbeater's ad:

Advertisement section, p. 33, A. McElroy's Philadelphia Directory for 1841.

Finally, to actuality: two real African American workers, in believable working clothes, cleaning and polishing a genuine baseburner heating stove.
Anon., "Two Workmen Polishing a Stove," c. 1865, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Accession Number 1994.91.220.

P.S. 2 June 2014 -- I just came across this wonderful image in the Boston Public Library's 19th-Century Stove Cards Flickr collection, which demonstrates that it wasn't just stove-polish manufacturers who capitalized on the supposed "humorous N-word" in order to make their advertisements distinctive.

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