Are You Prepared for … the Unthinkable? Part 16: The Great Menken

(This is the 16th installment of a series of blog entries. Be sure to start with Part 1.)

My parents both died in 2009, when they were each 87 years old. Dad was an Old School Old Guy, a WW2 vet who hated modern music, modern movies, modern TV shows … just about anything reflecting society since the death of his hero, John Wayne. Mother was a stroke victim … a 1986 stroke left her unable to read or write for over 20 years, and unable to concentrate on anything for more than a few minutes. So she didn’t read women’s magazines, didn’t watch Chick Flicks, didn’t watch TV sitcoms, didn’t pick up the National Enquirer at the supermarket checkout. If they listened to music at all, it was on an Oldies station that played Big Band Era platters.

HOWEVER … the CNN cable channel was blasting on their TV almost 24 hours a day so they could keep up with their beloved politics (they’d been Democrat and proud—even during the Clinton/Lewinsky fiasco—since voting for Franklin Roosevelt) and significant world news. But of course CNN and all the news channels don’t limit themselves to info about politics and wars and economics. And thus my octogenarian parents were well aware of just who Britney Spears was … and the state of her underwear in public—or lack thereof. They were also aware of the meaning of the term “wardrobe malfunction,” and how and why it applied to singer Janet Jackson and the Super Bowl.

Those kinds of “news” stories are what you might refer to as “ephemeral news.” Ephemeral—lasting a short time, transitory, fleeting. In other words, it doesn’t have the “weight” carried by Big Stories about wars or major stock market crashes or devastating natural disasters. Societies tend to record for posterity those Big Stories and put them in The History Books.

Some ephemeral stories last a little longer than others, particularly if they involve individuals who make a strong impression on a generation… or two, or three … because of their fame—or notoriety.

Yes, in addition to knowing about Britney and Janet, my parents could both tell you about the ins and outs of the marriages of Liz Taylor from back in the 50s and 60s. Mother even remembered quite a bit about many other marital pairs … she knew, for instance, that Arnold Schwarzenegger was married to Maria Shriver, who was a niece of John Kennedy. (She missed the scandal in 2011, two years after her death, when Arnold confessed to fathering a child out of wedlock with a family housekeeper, and Maria left him and filed for divorce. Mother would have been very disappointed in Arnold …)

Although my parents may have known about all this “stuff,” what do you think will make it into the high school history books of 100 years from now if US society keeps chugging along? I think all of the ephemera will be swept into the “dustbin of history.”

The ash heap of history (or often garbage heap of history or dustbin of history) is a figurative place to where objects such as persons, events, artifacts, ideologies, etc. are relegated when they are forgotten or marginalized in history.

The expression—or something like it—arose in the 19th century in various places. But it was popularized by Leon Trotsky in response to the Mensheviks walking out of the Petrograd Second Congress of Soviets, on October 25, 1917 (Julian calendar), thereby enabling the Bolsheviks to establish their dominance. Trotsky declared: “You are pitiful, isolated individuals! You are bankrupts. Your role is played out. Go where you belong from now on—into the dustbin of history!”

It has since been used in both the direct and the ironic sense in political and nonpolitical contexts. [Wiki: Ash Heap of History]

It only recently occurred to me that most of what happened in any era in history actually ends up in that dustbin or on that ash heap, when it comes to whether or not it is included in formal descriptions of historical periods, such as that which shows up in high school and college “overview of history” textbooks.

Where did you get what you know about any period of history? Except for the relatively small number of “history buffs” among us, the answer is—a combination of what we read in those textbooks and a hodge-podge of isolated tidbits of information we have picked up willy-nilly from mass media and pop culture. That can include movies (I’m guessing the Charlton Heston movie Ten Commandments is where many people in recent generations have gotten everything they know about the period of history around the events of the Book of Exodus in the Bible—most have never read the Old Testament itself!) It can include short biographical blurbs about famous people that show up in Reader’s Digest or Guideposts magazine, or slightly longer popularized versions of bite-sized pieces of history on the History or Biography cable TV channels. It can even include popular artwork—what was life and society in the 1800s in the US like? Many people likely assume it was like the Currier and Ives pictures that still dominate the Christmas card industry and all its spinoffs such as tree decorations, figurine dioramas, and more.

Currier and Ives was a successful American printmaking firm headed by Nathaniel Currier (1813–1888) and James Merritt Ives (1824–1895). Based in New York City from 1834–1907, the prolific firm produced prints from paintings by fine artists as black and white lithographs that were hand colored. Lithographic prints could be reproduced quickly and purchased inexpensively, and the firm called itself “the Grand Central Depot for Cheap and Popular Prints” and advertised its lithographs as “colored engravings for the people.”

…In 1835, [Currier] created a lithograph that illustrated a fire sweeping through New York City’s business district. The print of the Merchant’s Exchange sold thousands of copies in four days. Realizing that there was a market for current news, Currier turned out several more disaster prints and other inexpensive lithographs that illustrated local and national events, such as “Ruins of the Planter’s Hotel, New Orleans, which fell at two O’clock on the Morning of May 15, 1835, burying 50 persons, 40 of whom Escaped with their Lives.”He quickly gained a reputation as an accomplished lithographer.

In 1840, he produced “Awful Conflagration of the Steam Boat Lexington”, which was so successful that he was given a weekly insert in the New York Sun. In this year, Currier’s firm began to shift its focus from job printing to independent print publishing.

In other words, Currier caught on to the value of quickly getting out pics of ephemeral news! The Planter’s Hotel fire and Steam Boat Lexington conflagration are certainly nothing that made the history books. But the news-hungry public of his time for some reason loved the idea of having their very own print to hang on the wall of the event. (Which could tell us something about the times back then, if we would meditate on it perhaps! Something somewhat akin to the modern fascination with disaster movies like Towering Inferno.)

…The name Currier & Ives first appeared in 1857, when Currier invited James Merritt Ives (1824–95), the company’s bookkeeper and accountant, to become his partner. … Nathaniel Currier soon noticed Ives’s dedication to his business and his artistic knowledge and insight into what the public wanted. The younger man quickly became the general manager of the firm, handling the financial side of the business by modernizing the bookkeeping, reorganizing inventory, and streamlining the print process.Ives also helped Currier interview potential artists and craftsmen. The younger man had a flair for gauging popular interests and aided in selecting the images the firm would publish and expanding the firm’s range to include political satire, and sentimental scenes such as sleigh rides in the country and steamboat races. In 1857, Currier made Ives a full partner.

…Currier & Ives prints were among the household decorations considered appropriate for a proper home by Catharine Esther Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe, authors of American Woman’s Home (1869): “The great value of pictures for the home would be, after all, in their sentiment. They should express the sincere ideas and tastes of the household and not the tyrannical dicta of some art critic or neighbor.”

Reading between the lines, one can easily see that the content of the “sentimental” pictures produced by Currier and Ives to be displayed in the home weren’t necessarily a reflection of the way the vast populace of the country actually lived. They were more a reflection on the “image” that the aspiring middle classes wanted to project in their homes.

It is interesting to note that the “unsentimental topics” that were the subject of many Currier and Ives prints—disasters, military engagements, sporting events, political cartoons, even a major series—their best-selling!—of spoofing of the lifestyle of African Americans (with the usual gross caricaturizing of features intending to be “humorous” that would now be considered abominably racist)… none of that was retained to today except among collectors. But the subliminal assumption of American Life of the period being reflected in the idyllic winter scenes on Christmas cards shown in C&I pics is almost impossible to resist. Like this one…

We don’t see mass-produced today any of the examples of the other not-quite-so-idyllic C&I winter scenes from the so-called “Darktown” series.

What is my point? My point is that it actually would be sifting through a huge collection of “ephemera” of the Victorian Age that would likely give a much more honest picture of what life was like back then, than just reading the skim-over-the-top of “significant events” that show up in high school history texts.

What is ephemera? It’s a word that basically means “lasting only a day,” or “lasting but a short time,” or “transitory.”  Among collectors, it is a specific type of (usually) printed materials. The Ephemera Society puts it this way:

Ephemera includes a broad range of minor (and sometimes major) everyday documents intended for one-time or short-term use. The 402-page Encyclopedia of Ephemera lists more than 500 categories from bookmarks to fruit wrappers to posters to theater tickets.

It also includes newspapers and, to a lesser extent, magazines.  Why do I say “to a lesser extent” magazines? Well, you can’t really call the National Geographic Magazine “ephemeral!” For most of its run since 1888, its content has been so cool—especially the amazing photos—that almost no one could bear to part with the magazines from their subscription as they piled up. Early on it was just the internal photos, as the covers were pretty bland.

But it became even more difficult when they added fabulous full-color pics on the covers, starting with the July 1959 issue, such as this intriguing pic from October 1978.

I can remember as a teenager in the 1960s my own parents’ collection, which went back to the 1940s, and continued on almost until their deaths in the 2000s. My grandparents had a similar collection too. Almost nobody, of course, really “collected” them … and read them over and over. They merely “accumulated” them and consigned them to storage boxes. There are no doubt lots of “almost mint condition” Geographics out there because of this.

The affliction is almost universal … and has long been a topic of both humor and angst. You can google “hoarding National Geographic” and get 296,000 websites! Humorously, the National Geographic Channel website itself mentions a number of its own television programs which have been about the topic of pathological hoarding.  I don’t know if they addressed the issue of … hoarding issues of National Geographic or not!

(Sigh. I just succumbed myself. While googling for old issues of the mag to find some neat pics of covers, I discovered that you can order on Amazon.com a searchable computerized 6 DVD set of every National Geographic from 1888 to 2009 for less than $30. The whole set weighs less than 11 ounces, and takes up a space just 2.8 x 5.8 x 7.8 inches—barely that of a single mid-sized paperback book.  Compare that to the literally tons that the complete collection of paper editions would have weighed, and the garage-sized storage unit you would have needed to keep your whole “collection.” Besides …I need it for my research…  )

So what does all this have to do with the history of sexual morality in America, and what it may have been like in the Victorian period? It is my contention that The History Books are not going to even cover the topic of sexual morality at all, other than merely in passing with perhaps an off-handed reference to Victorian prudery. Because the “primary sources” they use to compile those history books  focus almost entirely on accounts of wars and battles, politics, inventions, major disasters, major economic upheavals, lastingly-famous artists and musicians, and the like.

For instance, lots of basic history books will make at least a passing mention of “Jenny Lind, the Swedish Nightingale” in terms of the “popular culture” of the time.

Jenny was the premier female singer of her time, famous in opera circles in Sweden and across Europe. She was brought to America for a major concert tour in 1850 by showman P.T. Barnum (later founder of the Barnum and Bailey “Greatest Show on Earth” Circus.) Jenny demanded $187,500 for herself and her entourage, plus a percentage of the “take,” to make the tour, and Barnum was so sure she’d be a hit that he mortgaged all his own commercial and residential properties to raise the sum.

Still slightly short, Barnum finally persuaded a Philadelphia minister, who thought that Lind would be a good influence on American morals, to lend him the final $5,000. Barnum sent the $187,500 to London. Lind signed the contract to give 150 concerts in a year or eighteen months, with the option of withdrawing from the tour after sixty or one hundred contracts, paying Barnum $25,000 if she did so.

Few Americans had ever heard of Lind, and Barnum’s first press release set the tone of the promotion. “A visit from such a woman who regards her artistic powers as a gift from Heaven and who helps the afflicted and distressed will be a blessing to America.” Her biographical pamphlet and photograph proclaimed: “It is her intrinsic worth of heart and delicacy of mind that produces Jenny’s vocal potency.” Barnum heavily promoted her record of giving frequent benefit concerts for hospitals and orphanages. Before Lind had even left England, Barnum had made her a household name in America. In a statement to the New York Herald, Barnum spoke of the huge sums he had committed, but assured the paper, “If I knew I should not raise a farthing profit I would yet ratify the engagement, so anxious I am that the United States should be visited by a lady whose vocal powers have never been approached by any other human being, and whose character is charity, simplicity and goodness personified.”  [Wiki: Jenny Lind]

Boy. Sounds like the perfect match to the tastes of “godly, prudish Victorian America”!  And she was a hit, from Day One. On her arrival by trans-Atlantic Steamer…

So great was people’s desire for a glimpse of the star that several people were “severely bruised, some came off with bloody noses, and two boys, about twelve years of age, appeared to be seriously injured. Had not the rush been checked in time, many lives would have been lost.”When she set foot on American soil, Lind kissed her hand to the U.S. flag and exclaimed, “There is the beautiful standard of freedom, which is worshipped by the oppressed of all nations.” She further endeared herself to the welcoming crowd by stopping Barnum’s coachman from clearing a path through the throng with his whip.

And here was the upshot of the tour:

Lind gave 93 concerts in America for Barnum, earning her about $350,000; Barnum netted at least $500,000. From the outset, Lind had determined to give all her fees to charity. Her principal beneficiaries were free schools in her native Sweden, but she also distributed her U.S. concert earnings to local charities, including $1,000 to help build a church in Chicago, and $1,500 for the “mother church” of the Lutheran Augustana Synod in Andover, Illinois.

Yep. If one ever needed proof of what appealed to the Moral Victorians, these reports sure provide it!

Ahem…

But if one digs a bit deeper into the “ephemera” of the time, that has been collected and kept in obscurity by professional historians (not deliberately, just because there is so much of it crammed in ephemera collections in museums and libraries and private collections), a somewhat different picture comes into focus. At one point the picture looks like this:

Looks pretty much like the cherubic Jenny, doesn’t it? In fact, it looks like this young woman, Adah Isaacs Menken, age 19, could be the model for an illustration of the admirable Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, as shown played here by Jennifer Ehle in the BBC production.

But as we all know, looks can be deceiving.

Digging in old newspaper clippings is particularly helpful in what one might call “social archaeology” of the period.

In September 1863, between the Battle of Gettysburg and Lincoln’s Address, a cub reporter named Samuel Langhorne Clemens described for his Nevada newspaper a stellar event that jolted San Francisco:

“About this time a magnificent spectacle dazzled my vision-the whole constellation of the Great Menken came flaming out of the heavens like a vast spray of gasjets, and shed a glory abroad over the universe as it fell. I have used the term “Great Menken” because I regard it as a more modest expression than the Great Bare.”

The notorious actress Adah Isaacs Menken, at the beginning of a wildly successful year-long tour of the gold country, affected Sam viscerally. His employer, Virginia City, Nevada’s Territorial Enterprise, printed his piece, “The Menken, Especially for Gentlemen.” He signed it Mark Twain, one of the earliest uses of his alter ego. Sam boasted to his distant Ma that he had “the widest reputation, as a local editor, of any man on the coast.” Actually, the young dandy, with curly hair and flowing mustache, was a hard-drinking smart-aleck and an aspiring ladies man. Fortunately, Mark Twain would mature, shedding his bad habits such as punning “bare” for “bear.” [The “Great Bear”—Ursa Major—is the name of a larger stellar constellation that includes the stars making up the Big Dipper. Thus Twain’s pun that the dazzling effect of the presence of The Great Menken was like that of The Great Bare… er, Bear. Read on to see the reason for the pun.]

…Adah, athletic and five-foot-two, had a curvy, hour-glass figure that pleased masculine tastes in the age of Queen Victoria. When Sam Clemens called her “a Venus,” he recognized that Adah Menken was the original American love goddess. Before burlesque theaters, Hollywood, and adult DVDs, Adah drove her largely male audiences to distraction, while women scoured the newspapers for gossip about her latest amour. Fans collected her “cheesecake” photos for albums, and at her theatrical shows “big men” tossed bags of gold dust on stage.

…The going wager was whether she would or wouldn’t take it all off. Sam Clemens answered the question for his Nevada readers:

“When I arrived in San Francisco, I found there was nobody in town but “the Menken”-or rather, that no one was being talked about except that manly young female. I went to see her play Mazeppa. . . . She appeared to me to have but one garment on-a thin tight white linen one, of unimportant dimensions; I forget the name of the article, but it is indispensable to infants of tender age.  (Twain)” [from “thegreatbare.com”]

Yes, Miss (or Mrs., depending on the month and year) Menken, the sweet cherubic lady with the curly hair in the pic above, performed in “legitimate theaters” (not just grimy western saloons…) appearing to the eyes of the audience to be at best topless (as described by Mark Twain above) and at worst (or maybe this was considered “best,” by many I suppose!) totally nude. From contemporary accounts it’s difficult to be totally sure just what was going on. Some describe her as being clad in a skin-tight, very sheer “pink body suit,” appearing from the vantage point of the audience as if wearing “nothing at all.” Others, such as Twain, describe her as literally going topless, with just a tiny diaper-like garment. One thing is for sure … there are still photos extant of her from the period which make it clear she had no problem posing at least topless for the close up camera. No sheer pink body suit that might fool the eye from a distance on the stage.  Yup, her pics would have fit right in to the stereoscope Peep Shows at the 1893 World’s Fair, although she lived thirty years earlier. Back when nudity wasn’t acceptable by polite Victorians.

Except when it was.

Even though Menken has never made it into most “respectable” history books, and I never heard of her until recently, the ephemera related to her fame of the time was so extensive that many folks, particularly in the entertainment industry, are well familiar with her story, even though she died in 1868. And it’s hard to over-state her popularity back in that prudish Victorian time.

She was so well known internationally at the time that she was called “the Menken”.

Check out the next entry in this series to find out more of the Rest of the Story of the Victorian Obsession with The Great Menken. Continue on to Victorian BareBack Riding.

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