Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Gibson Defied the Stereotype

Through much of the nineteenth century, American publications of all sorts depicted the Irish maid, "Biddy" as she was stereotyped, in brutal terms. She was crude, clumsy and clueless. These depictions endured into the early twentieth century.
"An Imitation of the Lady of the House," Studies in Expression," 1902.

The career of artist Charles Dana Gibson spanned the two centuries. In his day, he was arguably the country's most popular illustrator. Gibson specialized in portraying America's High Society. His young women—“Gibson Girls”—helped shape prevailing notions of feminine beauty. This is one of my favorite Gibson sketches. Rather than depicting the elite playing polo or dancing at a debutante ball, Gibson here shows a group of household servants entertaining a policeman in the kitchen. They are Irish. The center of attention is a maid who, to the amusement of all (even the cat), mimics the affectations of her mistress. Gibson's Irish maid breaks the ill-favored, ill-mannered mold. She is willowy and attractive, just like a Gibson Girl. Even better, she is witty.

"The Reason Dinner Was Late," Life, October 24, 1912.

Ten years later, Gibson published
 "The Reason Dinner Was Late." This sequel to "An Imitation" depicts several Irish domestics watching as their coworker sketches the visiting Irish cop. The mixing of Hibernian maids, cooks, and cops was a familiar theme in comic illustrations. Again, what sets this image apart is that Gibson portrays his subjects without scorn (although, as the title suggests, dinner gets served later than mistress would want). One can only speculate on why Gibson did not follow the trend in disparaging the Irish. My own guess is that as a child of privilege--Gibson grew up in a wealthy Connecticut household--he may well have had an Irish nursemaid or cook, much as did so many among America's elite. If that were so, one suspects that he nurtured fond memories of a friendly kitchen.  

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

The Raw Irish Girl

Harriet Beecher Stowe is remembered today as the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1851), an immensely popular novel that galvanized anti-slavery feeling in the northern states before the Civil War. Stowe’s sister, Catherine Beecher, was also a famous author, becoming a Martha Stewart-like figure with the publication of several volumes on home economics from the 1840s through the 1870s. Harriet and Catherine co-authored The New Housekeeper’s Manual (1873), which went through numerous printings and revisions under various titles.  At more than 500 pages, this omnibus guide to the "maintenance of the Christian home" featured chapters on a host of household matters and is a great source of information on the genteel American home of the latter 1800s.

At the time, “the domestic problem,” that is, the difficulty of finding and keeping servants, was a hot topic in women's publications. America’s middle class was growing rapidly and desperately desired household help, but American girls refused to do this work. They considered domestic service demeaning. Irish girls filled the gap, becoming the largest source of household labor outside the southern states. The bourgeois homemaker needed the Irish girl, but the cultural gap between Yankee mistress and Celtic peasant could be cavernous. Catherine Beecher relates the story of a delicate New England woman who, unable to find an American girl to serve as a made-of-all-work, settled on “a raw Irish girl..., a creature of immense bone and muscle, but of heavy unawakened brain.” It wasn't long before the Irish girl established a "reign of Chaos" in the household and had to be released.

Mark Twain deep in thought. And a kitten too. 🐱 1906. #history #history101 #historicphoto #literature #americanhistory #historygeek #historybuff #americanliterature #vintagephoto
Perhaps it was from his front porch that Mark Twain saw his aged and feeble neighbor, Harriet Beecher Stowe, "in the care of a muscular Irish woman." 

Such descriptions of Irish female help were typical for the time. In his autobiography, Mark Twain provides a piquant epilogue to Catherine's anecdote. Towards the end of her life, Harriet Beecher Stowe was Twain's neighbor in Hartford, Connecticut. Twain refers to her last days, recalling that, “Her mind had decayed and she was a pathetic figure. She wandered about all the day long in the care of a muscular Irish woman.” Stowe died in 1898. Some 25 years after Mrs. Beecher told her tale of the strong but hapless Irish domestic, delicate New England women continued to rely on the raw Irish girl. Maybe these girls were not so hapless after all.