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Friday, September 28, 2012


In my blog “Confrontational Curator, Cowardly Cataloguer” I wrote about the sometimes sticky issues one may encounter in describing collection materials which contain racist imagery and texts or which portray minority groups in other negative and unfavorable ways.  Many attempt to use crude ethnic and racial humor to attract viewers disposed to such stimulation.  Nineteenth-century trade cards, which are often colorful and visually delightful in other respects, are a rich (?) source of what we nowadays might consider “hate speech,” in both verbal and pictorial forms.  Fath Ruffins, NMAH curator and former Archives Center staff member, with the help of interns, located hundreds of examples of such offensive material in the Warshaw Collection of Business Americana.
Keystone Manufacturing Co. trade card, ca. 1890. 

Contemporary viewers are often shocked at the ways in which ethnic stereotyping, prejudice, and “ethnic humor” were employed in advertisements to market a wide variety of products.  Since negative portrayals of minorities are so plentiful in nineteenth-century advertising, it is refreshing to encounter the exact opposite, in which diverse ethnic groups are referenced with restraint and respect.   An example is this undated trade card from the “Agriculture” series, which includes imagery portraying a wide international array of faces.  What’s going on here?  It appears that “Uncle Sam” is trying to sell Keystone hay-loaders to an international clientele and has decided that insulting the customers would not be good for business.  Their faces and costumes may be stereotypical, but they are benign, without any obvious attempt to offend.

An interesting research project might be to try to locate similar trade cards, intended for worldwide distribution, along with counterparts issued by the same company for a domestic audience which appreciated “negative” imagery of immigrants and minority groups.

David Haberstich
Curator of Photography, Archives Center  

1 comment:

  1. Racist caricatures are understandably a touchy subject. At the same time, I subscribe to Mark Twain's approach to writing Huck Finn--it's not the author's views, but merely a reflection of the times. To ignore the bias and mindset which existed in a given time is an injustice, because it hinders researchers from comprehending why particular events may have occurred. Simply put, these records and documents function as a testimony of a mindset which was once acceptable in certain regions.

    (Perhaps if there is concerns over the potentially offensive nature of material in a collection, then maybe the facility or institution should include a disclaimer in the finding aid which notes that the material found in the collection does not reflect on the facility/institute's mission or philosophy.)