Wednesday, August 23, 2017

An Object of Terror to All Beholders

Klan costume for "Great Titan"
in Catalogue of Official Robes and Banners 
(published by Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, 1925)

Several years ago while living in Atlanta, I went behind the scenes at the Martin Luther King Jr. Center.  The National Historic Site includes the Ebenezer Baptist Church and King’s boyhood home.  Among various artifacts in the archive: a robe and hood that once belonged to a member of the KKK.  Just glancing at the garments felt chilling.  But the real shock came when I noticed that there were labels attached them. 

During the nineteenth century, the robes and hoods worn by Klansmen were sewn at home by loving wives and mothers.  But by 1915 when the Klan resurgence started, they would have been manufactured in a factory.  And the people who assembled them surely included black workers.

Around the same time, many Confederate statues were constructed in Northern factories, ironically, because industry below the Mason-Dixon Line remained decimated.  These statues, like the Klan robes, would have embodied the labor of black men.

On one hand, a job is just a job. On the other hand, a job may demand the creation of objects that sear one’s body and soul. 

Klan banner featured in Catalogue of Official Robes and Banners 
(published by Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, 1925)

Historians have identified several reasons for the Klan’s second coming after World War I.  They include the influx of European immigrants, which began even before the Civil War and accelerated during the 1890s; it would be stemmed by the 1924 Immigration Act.  Prohibition and its enforcement – which the Klan favored – further united members.  And the fact that black soldiers who fought overseas now demanded respect and equality back home also enraged whites who joined the Klan in droves.

By 1920, the organization reached well beyond the South.  At this time, the garments worn by its members became standardized.  Various colors and insignias reflected a complex hierarchy.  But the point of the costume remained clear. In the words of a Klan enthusiast: the wearer is an object of terror to all beholders.

In 1921, a former KKK member named Henry Peck Fry wrote an expose of the organization which was published as a series in the New York World and picked up by numerous other papers nationwide including, remarkably, the New Orleans Times-Picayune. He wrote:

The organization does not “sell’ robes to members; it merely rents them. The price charged a member for a robe is $6.50, while the Kleagle* must pay $12 as his robe has more trimming. Made in large quantities, there ought to be a profit of at least $5 per garment, although I believe a New York garment maker could show a larger profit than that. . . The present output is about 600 robes per day.


The World articles prompted the U. S. House of Representatives to open hearings on the Ku Klux Klan in October 1921. Unsurprisingly, the hearings led nowhere. This was a year before Southern Democrats defeated an anti-lynching bill that had been proposed repeatedly by Republicans since the early 1900s.

Statement of Honorable Peter F. Tague,
U. S. Representative, Massachusetts;

Hearings on the KKK, 1921

In the meantime, Klan activities continued to roil the American landscape from California to Indiana to Georgia.  While the group achieved power through intimidation and violence, its expansion relied largely on its deft insinuation into the culture of small communities.  The Kiddie Klan and Women of the Ku Klux Klan were important auxiliaries, as the Klan presided over school and church events as well as local celebrations.**  

In 1925 when 30,000 Klansmen marched in Washington, D.C., the group had four million members.   

Waving American flags as they moved along Pennsylvania Avenue, the men cast back their hoods and boldly exposed their faces.

And that’s just about where we are right now.

Imperial Wizard Hiram W. Evans;
Klan March, Washington, D.C., 1925


*Kleagles are Klan officers who focus on recruitment of new members.
**There is an excellent book about this aspect of the KKK: Women of the Klan by Kathleen Blee (1991).

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

The Prints

The Stuyvesant Pear Tree (lithograph, 1861)
(New-York Historical Society)

In 1867 an old pear tree, planted 200 years earlier by a Dutch settler on a Manhattan street corner, met its demise. The tree had been decaying for some time but a collision between two carriages killed it with one blow. More than a few New Yorkers grieved. The loss of the tree became yet another reminder that vestiges of the nation’s Colonial Era were slipping away.  

The most valuable image of the Stuyvesant tree, a lithograph, had been created for the 1861 edition of a long, boring book called the Manual of the Corporation for the City of New York. These manuals contained statistics, rules, minutes, and endless lists of city officials and buildings, livened slightly with maps and pictures. A clerk named Valentine published the books annually between 1842 and 1866.

About 50 years after the last volume was issued, a Scottish immigrant, Henry Collins Brown, decided to revive the Valentine’s Manuals, as they were known. He would change the formula with lots of color illustrations and folklore. He thought he saw an opening: while guidebooks and memoirs of Old New York were readily available, few combined information with local history in an entertaining way.

Between 1916 and 1928, Brown produced eight new manuals. Alas, while the New York Times took notice, the books did not sell.  Yet his endeavor remains interesting for just one reason: The Prints. These were copperplate engravings and lithographs of the city dating back well over 150 years. 

At the time of World War I, most of these “views” belonged to libraries and collectors. Brown scrambled, pleaded, and occasionally dissembled to gain permission to reproduce the images in his manuals.  In order to copy the lithograph of the pear tree, for example, Brown had to beg the librarian of the New-York Historical Society, which owned the original.

Currier & Ives hand-colored lithograph, Central Park in Winter
circa 1873

 (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Making things worse for Brown, the prints started to surge in value during the late nineteenth century, so they became even less accessible. This is what happened:

In the 1890s, a greater appreciation of American traditions, lore, and art emerged among the general public. Some historians believe it originated at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, where millions of Americans visited an old New England farmhouse and viewed American art and furnishings.

The antiques business evolved quickly. Cabinetmakers who were experienced in fixing older pieces leaped to become dealers. And some of those dealers began to comb the New England countryside, knocking on the doors of farmhouses, occasionally under false pretenses, hoping to be invited in, buying many a rare item for a song.

Inevitably, the Americana obsession encompassed The Prints. The market became highly competitive. Among the most important collectors, the blue-blooded Isaac Newton Phelps Stokes occasionally bumped heads with Henry Collins Brown as the latter sought permission to use various images.

Phelps Stokes, who had an epiphany about early American prints while dining at the home of a friend, once wrote:

Can there be anyone so callous, and so lacking in romance, as not to feel a thrill of emotion before such contemporary pictures as Paul Revere’s Landing of the British Troops at Boston in 1768, the inauguration of Washington in the loggia of the old Federal Hall, or the engagement between the Merrimac and the Monitor? 

As interest surged, one saw these headlines more often: 


While many collections were sold, others were donated. For example, Phelps Stokes gave his collection to the New York Public Library during the 1920s. Several other major collections were given to museums around this time.*  

Originally, the New York market for prints was centered in downtown Manhattan. The first print dealers were booksellers who opened shops after the Civil War in the area near City Hall.  They also sold newspapers and stationery.

Over time, some dealers shifted from books to prints. Such was the case with Joseph Sabin, an English immigrant who arrived in 1848. He became a widely recognized expert in rare books and prints.      

In 1912, the New York Times noted:

Since a few men started gathering old maps and views, over forty years ago, the number of collectors has rapidly increased, and things that could be found in the old shops twenty-five years ago or so for $5 or $10 are now quoted in the hundreds. 

Today, the prints march on.  

In John Singer Sargent's 1897 portrait,
I.N. Phelps Stokes stands behind his wife Edith.
(Metropolitan Museum of Art)

*The Pennsylvania Historical Society and the Chicago Historical Society, among historical organizations in American cities, also acquired print collections that tended to be localized.

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