Archive | August, 2008

The Brothers Chrimes and abortifacient scams

18 Aug

Not too long ago, L. H. Crawley at Virtual Dime Museum posted an advertisement for cotton root pills, an abortifacient thinly disguised as a ‘female regulator’, which appeared in the Toronto Telegram in 1893. 

Apropos of this, I just came across a discussion of the aptly-named Chrimes Brothers in London, who went to trial for blackmail in 1898. This unscrupulous trio advertised in various newspapers to sell ‘Lady Montrose Miraculous Female Tabules’ for what they called FEMALE AILMENTS (‘The most OBSTINATE obstruction, irregularities, etc. of the female system are removed in a few doses’). Some 10,000 women wrote to receive their pills. Many of these women were then forced to pay the brothers after receiving threats that their pregnancy and attempt to procure an abortion would be exposed.  

As Jeffery Weeks puts it, one of the most extraordinary things about the Chrimes trial was its revelation that thousands of women were attempting to bring an end to their pregnancies. Not surprisingly, numerous English papers immediately denounced the practice of selling and using ‘female pills’. In a particularly egregious instance of irony (or humbug), Reynolds published a column denouncing other papers for running and profiting from advertisements for these pills – but in the very same issue contained five of its own ads for abortifacients, and twelve for dubious surgical appliances.

There was obvious a grubbily lucrative business to be made by manufacturers of these pills. Even if they didn’t resort to blackmail à la the Brothers Chrimes, they were hardly likely to be made responsible by their female clients for pills which were dangerous or which simply didn’t work.

The Toronto Times ad. (taken from The Virtual Dime Museum)


Angus McLaren, Sexual Blackmail: A Modern History (Harvard University Press, 2002). (Observer review of this book available here).

Jeffery Weeks, Sex, Politics and Society: The Regulation of Sexuality Since 1800, 2nd ed., (London and New York: Longman, 1989), p.71-2.


On Bowery Gals &c

17 Aug

In her now-venerable book, City of Women, first published in 1986, Christine Stansell writes about the emergence of an ebullient young workingwomen’s culture in 1840s New York. This young womanly culture was expressed most vibrantly in the figure of the Bowery Gal, she tells us (otherwise known as the Bowery g’hal). This Gal was easily distinguished by her in-your-face sartorial dash and brash ways, and by her tendency to hang out in the cheap theatres, dance halls and on the pavements of the Bowery after-hours. ‘George Foster, the would-be Dickens of the New York scene, noted how such young women emerged in a crowd at the end of the workday, streaming towards the east side’, Stansell writes, ‘”all forming a continuous procession which… loses itself gradually in the innumerable side-streets leading thence into the unknown regions of Proletaireism”‘.

In Cheap Amusements, another now-venerable work, Kathy Peiss looks at what happened next. Writing a kind of turn-of-the-century version of Sex and the City (but without all the fawning over designer labels, thank God), she explores young workingwomen’s visits to dance halls, nickleodeons and cheap vaudeville between 1880 and 1920. Young single working-women used these places of leisure to express themselves at the turn of the century, she says. They paved the way for the changes which would take place in American youth culture more generally in the 1920s and beyond. Some of the more audacious girls danced ‘tough dances’ in low halls, shimmying up against the bodies of their partners in a way that we would well recognise now. Some, too, became known as ‘charity girls’, so-called because they picked up men prepared to treat them to a good time in exchange for sex. And then there were the girls drawn to rides at Coney Island which sent their skirts flying or their bodies falling crazily across those of men nearby.

City of Women and Cheap Amusements are each fascinating studies of past women’s lives, full of fine-grained and evocative detail (such a relief after reading abstract analyses of gender discourse, with their endless genuflections to Joan Scott!). I’ve just read a perceptive critique of Stansell’s work in particular, however, which notes that her discussion of Bowery Gals is very unclear about how they related to New York workingwomen’s culture at large. When Stansell wrote about the girls with their mischievous gait and ostentatious hats on the Bowery, she was really talking about a particular sub-culture of young New York workingwomen, and she needed to be more explicit about this fact. Stansell was also unclear about how much the phenomenon she was describing was specific to New York. Was there an equivalent of the Bowery Gal in Chicago, for example, or Philadelphia – or, indeed, one might well ask, in Johannesburg, or Sydney, or Auckland?

From my research thus far into Australian larrikin girls, it seems that there certainly was an Antipodean equivalent to the Bowery Gal: if not in the 1840s, then certainly by the 1880-90s. Accounts of smart-mouthed ‘rough’ girls hanging out with ruffians, dressed in violently-coloured cheap finery, were part of the social concern voiced about larrikinism in Australian colonial cities at the end of the century. These women were very much a subculture unto themselves, however, and for this reason I am planning to start reading into the work on subcultures first developed by British cultural studies scholars in the 1970-80s: the work Stansell would have benefitted from reading when she wrote City of Women.  So many titles scrawl across on the screen as soon as one starts searching for them, however: Beyond Subculture, After Subculture, The Graffiti Subculture, Inside Subculture, Subculture: The Meaning of Style and Resistance Through Rituals… Am feeling both a sense of exhaustion and of possibility just thinking about tackling the field.


Faye E Dudden, Review of Christine Stansell’s City of Women, American journal of Sociology, vol. 93, no. 4 (Jan 1988), pp.1010-1011.

Kathy Peiss, Cheap Amusements: Working Women and Leisure in Turn-of-the-Century New York (Temple University Press, 1987).

Christine Stansell, City of Women: Sex and Class in New York, 1789-1860 (University of Illinois Press, 1986).

Dark pathways at the Brisbane Ecca

15 Aug

 Sideshow Alley, Brisbane Ecca, c.1940 (State Library of Queensland)

Sideshow alley, Brisbane Ecca, c. 1940 (State Library of Queensland)

As I wrote in my last post, Lynn Abbott and Doug Seroff have recently written a book on the black bands which played coon songs, jazz and the blues in circus sideshows down south in early twentieth-century America.

This week in Brisbane the ‘Ecca’ is showing: the Brisbane Exhibition, such an institution that the schools give their kiddie two days off to go see it. Flicking through a copy of Showtime: A History of the Brisbane Exhibition (UQP, 2008), I was interested to see the above photograph. It shows that in the 1940s, a waxworks tent in the Ecca sideshow alley advertised its wares with a wax model of a black American playing a banjo, entitled ‘The Singing Coon’.

There isn’t any evidence that black American bands ever played the sideshows of Australian events like the Ecca – not to my knowledge, anyway. (There were bands playing coon songs in the tent-shows of Australian bushranger/American Wild West Show impresario, E I Cole, in Brisbane at the turn of the twentieth century, although they would have been white Australians doing ragtime: obviously not at all the same thing). But this Queenslandish echo of those sideshow bands across the Pacific is intriguing, nonetheless…


Lynn Abbott and Doug Seroff, Ragged But Right: Black Traveling Shows, ‘Coon Songs’ , and the Dark Pathways to the Blues and Jazz (University of Mississippi Press, 2007).

Joanne Scott and Ross Laurie, Showtime: A History of the Brisbane Exhibition (St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2008), p 88.

Ragged But Right: A Book Review

15 Aug


Lynn Abbott and Doug Seroff, Ragged But Right: Black Traveling Shows, ‘Coon Songs’, and the Dark Pathways to Blues and Jazz (University of Mississippi Press, 2007).

The landmark histories of American minstrelsy which appeared in the 1990s were all concerned with the blackface minstrel show in the first half of the nineteenth century. The histories of Eric Lott, David Roediger, and W T Lhamon Jr focused on densely urban locations in America’s north, most notably New York in the 1820-40s, when minstrelsy first became popular. They placed the minstrel show in the context of the rapid growth and industrialisation of northern American cities, of bourgeois efforts to create a compliant workforce, and the racial tensions caused by the ‘slavery question’ and the influx of free blacks from the south.

For Lott and Roediger, the minstrel show was essentially about white northern workingmen’s desires. It was about their desire on the one hand to wield anti-authoritarian humour against employers and the middle classes, and on the other to assert their superiority over non-white peoples. This argument has set the terms of discussion about American minstrelsy ever since. Later historians such as Dale Cottrell, William Mahar and Lhamon Jr have all argued that minstrelsy wasn’t only about white imperatives – indeed, in some circumstances, they claim, it could actually upset racist assumptions. But even though these historians tried to cavil with Roediger and Lott’s conclusions, they were still largely discussing minstrelsy on their terms.

Lynn Abbott and Douglas Seroff’s new book, Ragged but Right, quite stunningly shifts the terms of this debate. It presents almost a mirror image of the setting in Lott’s Love and Theft, introducing us to African-American minstrel performers in the rural south during the first half of the twentieth century. Drawing on accounts in the contemporary black press, they tell us about African-American bands who played ‘coon songs’ and jazz in circus sideshows (having been banned on account of their colour from playing under the big top). They also tell us about the minstrel shows performed in tents by African-American companies throughout the south. Emerging around 1900, these shows maintained the three-part structure of early-nineteenth century minstrelsy. They began with a tambo-and-bones singing-and-comedy routine and usually ended with a musical farce-comedy. But they also incorporated ragtime, blues, jazz music and new dance styles into their repertories.

The all-black blackface minstrel shows of the twentieth century attracted white audiences. Indeed, sometimes they played in towns which banned blacks, no doubt a harrowing and bizarre experience (‘we have been in anti Negro towns …where coloured people have not been seen for seventeen years’, reported one band member in 1901). But they also acquired a loyal following of black Americans. They fostered the growth of the blues and ‘coon shouting’ singing styles among rural southern black communities. And they realised the potential for minstrel comedy to work against white racist stereotypes – a potential which Cottrell and others tried to argue (unsuccessfully, in my view) was partially realised in nineteenth-century white men-in-blackface shows. The black comedians in early twentieth-century tented shows ‘gradually transformed the ancient stereotypes of “Ethiopian minstrelsy” into vehicles for the development of racially self-referential humor’, Abbott and Seroff tell us, as well as for ‘the advancement of modern African American popular music’ (p. 211).

I have to say that I found Ragged But Right a difficult book to read. It is not that the language is difficult – it’s just there is such a mass of information, presented via absurdly long and ramshackle chapters, that it is hard to take in. (Similar criticisms were made about Abbott and Seroff’s previous work, Out of Sight: The Rise of African American Popular Music, 1889-1895, and it doesn’t appear that they took these enough on board).  But nonetheless, this work is the result of an extraordinary research endeavour, and its implications for understandings of minstrelsy are surely profound. Not just that: anyone interested in the development of the blues, of African American popular culture, and indeed for a view of American culture not focused on the urbanised north, should get their hands on Ragged But Right.