The History of African-Americiana
by: Barbara E. Mauzy
As seen in Antiques & Art Around Florida, Fall 09 - Winter 10 Issue
Why write a book on collectibles showcasing African-Americana? Not only is this theme among the most popular collecting genres, images of African Americans have been used in advertisements and more for centuries.
To take an honest look as this subject one is compelled to at least briefly examine the connection of African Americans and white America as these collectible items are borne from Anglo-Saxon America’s preconceived ideas, stereotypes, and prejudices.
After perpetrating years of slavery, inequality, and inhumanity, White America was forced to address civil rights issues as a result of legislation passed by Congress in 1964. Anglo-Saxon Americans were mandated to eliminate the division between races and the blatant discrimination of African Americans: separate schools, separate restaurants, even separate restrooms and water fountains, and separate had not meant equal.
Most of the items today’s collectors seek are items that pre-date this era of burgeoning social consciousness. White society’s understanding or appreciation of African American culture, heritage, and traditions simply did not exist from the moment the first Africans were captured, taken across the Atlantic Ocean, and deposited on Virginian soil in 1619. The relationship between the races was established as a hierarchy that many African Americans still fight to overcome almost 400 years later.
The derision felt for African Americans became reflected in an Anglo-Saxon American culture that embraced stereotypes. African Americans were considered to be lazy and low-functioning creatures that were easily pleased by simply eating chicken and watermelon. Full lips, tightly curling hair, and other physical characteristics were mocked and exaggerated. A litany of degrading names and terms used to identify African Americans were added to English vernacular, and even adults could never shed the “boy” or “girl” reference.
The legacy of this appalling history leaves us with a huge variety of concrete reminders of a reprehensible past. Oldest collectibles include items from the slave trade: chains, whips, and other shameful tools of the business. Objects such as these do show up in auctions on rare occasion and they are certainly pieces to be preserved lest we forget the misery brought upon innocent people.
Much of what is collected today stems from more recent days and does not directly involve the slavery issue. African American images were frequently utilized in advertising during the nineteenth century. Faces with overstated characteristics were commonly featured in print advertisements as well as trade cards. Trade cards were small paper or cardboard advertisements, often whimsical in nature, that were given away by storekeepers to promote products. Although known to have been used in the 1700s, trade cards were most heavily utilized in the mid- to late-1800s when the use of color in printing became practical and affordable. African Americans were shown endorsing everything from oysters to peanut butter. Trade cards were collected and often preserved in scrapbooks so today they remain relatively easy to acquire and continue to be popular.
With the turn of the century African American images were placed on sheet music and lithography. Tin containers of lard, oil, and other products were often decorated with images of African Americans. Some depictions were flattering, others were not. The use of trade cards waned as magazines became available, but advertisements continued to exploit African Americans. The most notable early twentieth century periodical in regard to this genre is “Needlepoint Magazine” which regularly featured full-page Cream of Wheat advertisements in the 1920s. An African American chef, “Rastus,” was integrated into most of the artwork, but sometimes black cupids or black children were pictured. Rastus was usually serving Cream of Wheat to white folk, relegated to a subservient position but always smiling as this was all he needed to do to be content. The advertisements were usually realistic artistic renditions as opposed to degrading caricatures, an unusual circumstance for this time and for advertising with African American images in general. Today framed Cream of Wheat advertisements are often used as decorating accessories.
Toys and games of the early 1900s often integrated African American images. Again, the vast majority of these pieces were negative portrayals with names like “Alabama Coon Jigger” and artwork that emphasized stereotypes.
The use of African American images, mostly insulting and debasing in nature, continued until the commencement of World War II. Our country’s participation in this war affected all forms of manufacturing as during the Second World War American society became wholly focused on a victorious end to the war. Factories were retooled and manufacturing was principally directed toward a successful conclusion of the war with the production of arms, ammunition, airplanes, tanks, and so on. Objects for the home simply weren’t being produced until the cessation of hostilities.
The majority of the kitchen collectibles which represent the most collected segment of this subject are post-WWII with the resumption of non-military manufacturing in America, Europe, and Japan. European manufacturing was largely bolstered by the Marshall Plan. During the American occupation of Japan, 1946-1952, this country benefited from American aid receiving $1.8 billion in support. The reconstruction of Japanese factories did not include assembly line production as that required a greater financial commitment than America was willing to provide. Compared to $13 billion of assistance given to Europe after the end of WWII, $1.8 billion might seem a pittance, but European aid was distributed among sixteen countries.
Post WWII financial assistance brought Japanese manufacturing back to life, to a point. Without assembly-line factories more work had to be completed by hand. This brings us to much of what is today most popular: ceramic and china items made in Japan that were painted by hand. These items were “cold painted,” the paint was applied by hand but not fired-on to bake the coloration/glaze onto the surface which would have produced a more permanent finish.
Domestically, plastic became the “modern” material as Americans moved into the 1950s, and many items that had once been produced in metal or ceramic materials were now being manufactured in America using plastic. An interesting assortment of African Americana in this material was created. One can safely assume vintage hard plastic objects that offer no manufacturing information were made in the U.S.A. Most of these items were kitchen-related: shakers, memo holders, and so on.
By the 1960s the civil rights movement was in full swing and the initial twinges of being politically correct had been felt. A willingness to begin to accept, at least on some levels, African Americans as equals to Anglo-Saxon Americans had started and what was manufactured during this era reflected newly-emerging social values. African American images that promoted stereotypes disappeared as children of different races were pictured in the same circumstances engaged in the same activities. The use of derogatory names in print vanished and so did the production of what is currently seen as collectible. Even “Little Black Sambo” evolved; he became known as “Little Brave Sambo.” As pieces featuring black faces became identical to items featuring white faces the production of African Americana ceased.
The vast majority of vintage African Americana items were produced for the kitchen. One can conjecture the reasons: during the Depression items for the lady of the house were “free” with the purchase of a good or service to promote sales, the kitchen was the central room in the home so what better place to focus one’s marketing strategies, a home might not have a parlor, library, and perhaps even a bathroom but every house offered some configuration of a kitchen. Whatever the explanation, we are left with a fascinating array of kitchenware pieces of which are still found in millions of American homes.
The image of Mammy was prolifically used throughout African-Americana. Although “Mammy” seems a relatively benign word to most, eBay does not permit the use of this word in auction titles and descriptions. Probably the most recognizable Mammy is Aunt Jemima, a character that was brought to life by seven different African American women. This rotund personality was used to promote the now Quaker Oat Company breakfast products. This “Mammy” identity was a figment of white men’s imagination, and Aunt Jemima was simply another Mammy. Female slaves were beaten, raped, and underfed. The image of a delightfully contented, overweight, smiling Mammy is a fantasy promoted by slave owners, partially to hide the sexual assaults as who would rape an obese woman? This myth continued to be perpetuated following the abolition of slavery. Today’s collectors search for virtually any vintage Aunt Jemima item, and a good assortment is available. Collectors also continue to employ the “Mammy” nomenclature as it remains the accurate descriptor.
As stated earlier, African American images were frequently used to promote a variety of products, and occasionally there would be a bit of logic influencing the choice to use a Black face on a package. Five vintage packages are shown, all with an African American image. The sugar canister shows a man toiling in a cane field, so this design is somewhat appropriate, albeit the man would have been slaving to the point of exhaustion with an overseer ready to beat him at any time. Red Cap Cleaner would have implied that the black dirt would be removed, hence the use of a black face. Carter’s Musilage was produced by an ink company that regularly used a black face on labels of black ink, so this image is consistent with others used by this company. Mascot Baking Powder might be based on opposites – baking powder is white, the image on the label is black. Banania is a tropical item so it would seem more appropriate to utilize a native’s image here than on many other products.
It is interesting to note that currently reproduction African Americana is prolific and ongoing. There are so many versions of the well-known McCoy Mammy cookie jar that is it virtually impossible to create a comprehensive listing. What’s new is old, what’s old is new. Some things never change, but hopefully the ugliness behind the collectability of African Americana has disappeared forever.
About the author:African-Americana is one of 18 books written by Barbara; all of which can be purchased directly. To arrange for a seminar or to order an autographed copy of African-American contact Barbara at firstname.lastname@example.org, or send a $43.50 check to Barbara Mauzy PO Box 1417 Kitty Hawk NC 27949.
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