Browse Exhibits (10 total)

Cotton Chronology 1827-1869

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What follows is the first section of a logbook of primary records chronicling the life of Benjamin Allen Cotton (1827-1908), a 19th century blackface minstrel. The bulk of the entries reference what were then contemporary materials documenting his performance career - a career spanning 60 years between 1845 and 1905.  

These materials include newspaper advertisements, interviews, photographs, letters, playbills, songsters, sheet music, and programmes.  

To access the full log for any particular year(s), click the link "Cotton Chronology" that appears in red at the top of the individual pages.

Cotton Chronology 1870-1889

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This exhibit offers the second section of a logbook of primary records chronicling the life of Benjamin Allen Cotton (1827-1908), a 19th century blackface minstrel. The bulk of the entries reference what were then contemporary materials documenting his performance career - a career spanning 60 years between 1845 and 1905.  

These materials referenced, or displayed, include state and federal census data, vital statistics, marine passenger manifests, town directories, and military records. 

To access the full log for any particular year(s), click the link "Cotton Chronology" that appears in red at the top of the individual pages.

Cotton Chronology 1890-1908

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Presented in this exhibit is the third and concluding section of a logbook of primary records chronicling the life of Benjamin Allen Cotton (1827-1908), a 19th century blackface minstrel. The bulk of the entries reference what were then contemporary materials documenting his performance career - a career spanning 60 years between 1845 and 1905.  

The materials that are referenced, or displayed, include hotel registrations, journal entries, cemetery transcriptions, posters, tax records and scrapbooks. 

To access the full log for any particular year(s), click the link "Cotton Chronology" that appears in red at the top of the individual pages.

Cotton Letters

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In the middle of the 19th century American minstrels raised funds for individual players by holding benefits. The practice was widespread, with informal features that typified these special, dedicated performances: they were public, usually advertised in the newspapers; they appeared to arise spontaneously, and were not the contrivance of the player, him or herself; and they were often accompanied by a public exchange of correspondence that was then included in an advertisement for the benefit.   

The written record of the benefit puffery is a fragment of the public face of minstrelsy.  But occasionally there were other opportunities to direct a public missive to a reading audience.  

Cotton Music

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Entries in Ben Cotton's musical catalogue are concentrated in a twenty year period, roughly between 1855 and 1875.  This is when the printed record of his music was accumulated. The materials include a number of different media, including songsters and song sheets that reproduced the lyrics. The song sheets (also called broadside ballads) are printed on one side only. The songsters were multipage booklets.  Credit for compostion is rarely acknowledged.  The songs are often implicitly understood to be the original work of others, but credited only "as sung by Ben Cotton." This phrase may also signal the addtion or subtraction of orginal lyrics - in other words, a customization by the singer.    

Only a small percentage of Cotton's surviving repetoire includes musical notation. This sheet music probably brought minstrelsy into the living rooms of middle class homes.  Venues for minstrelsy were not patronized by large numbers of women. The male audiences were too rough and unruly for most females. The sheet music allowed women to vicariously enter a dangerous space and simultaneously tame it.  

Cotton Photographs

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What follows is an unique collection of visual imagery related to the life and career of one of the most popular blackface minstrels during the 19th century: Ben Cotton. The photographs offer a rare look at the world of blackface minstrelsy - from within the Cotton family. Tintypes and cabinet cards of the Cotton performers are set side-by-side images of cousins and aunts, showmen and celebrities, children and friends.

Most of the images gathered here were taken in a twenty-five year period between 1855 and 1880. Of the more than 150 images the majority were taken by photographers in the principal cities of New England. Rhode Island studios in Providence and Pawtucket are well represented.

Cotton Sisters

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Charles Nelson Cotton, house painter, Civil War veteran, and minstrel, had two children - girls. When they got older, with children of their own, they corresponded. Jennie lived on Nantucket Island, MA. Her older sister, Emma (Cotton) Blake, lived in Pawtucket, R.I., where the two of them had grown up. Nearly all of the letters they sent back and forth between the Island and the mainland disappeared. However, between 1906 and 1917 Jennie (Cotton) Dunham collected postcards, a wildly popular visual medium. 

Although the cards were originally saved for their imagery, inadvertantly an unusual family record was preserved, albeit a terse, one-sided narrative. The bulk of that narrative was Emma's hurried messages. The collection displays the everyday uses of the postcard, the social functions of travel, and the visual record keeping of Pawtucket's growing urbanization. The messages themselves highlight the advent of a telegraphic grammar and style that had to conform to rigid limits of space.

Emma's circumstances were a stark contrast to Jennie's. Emma had married a blacksmith who manufactured horse drawn carriages. In his later years Emma's husband, Franklin Blake, served in the city government of Pawtucket.  He was a well respected member of the community, with membership in many fraternal orgaizations, and service on a committee of New England businessmen advocating the construction of a Cape Cod Canal.  

Jennie's husband, Elbert Dunham, had eked out a living on remote Tuckernuck Island. The handful of families that lived on Tuckernuck farmed and fished. Elbert died at the age of 27, in the same year that his only child was born. There are indirect glimpses of his wife's poverty in this collection of postcards; oblique views of her struggle to raise her son, Olney, and to take care of her elderly father, Charles. At the age of 35, Jennie's life ran aground.  

During the years that these postcards were collected, Jennie's father was irregularly housed in a veteran's facility in Togus, Maine.  Some of the cards picture the National Home at Togus

There are also occasional cards from her cousin "Lizzie," Ben Cotton's oldest daughter." Sarah Elizabeth (Cotton) Rounds lived in Bristol, RI. When she came to visit Nantucket she brought news of her own family and her sisters, Dora and Retta.  

Terms of Engagement: A - M

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In progress:

In the United States, a plantation is a very different thing from what it is in England.  Noah Webster, "Preface," American Dictionary of the English Language, New Haven, 1828.

Historical studies of words - their origins, grammatical catagorization, or pronunciation - recognize the semantic horsepower of industrialization. A vast number of new words coined in the 19th and 20th centuries are attributable to increasing mechanization. Advances in the technologies of weaponry, for instance, accounted for new entries in Webster's. "Iron Clads" - warships like the Monitor and the Merrimack - appeared in the Civil War era.  Wars in general - their common clash of cultures - have this effect. (See Raymond Gozzi, New Words and a Changing American Culture, Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press, 1990.) The Civil War era added "skedaddle," "telegram" and "employee" to the American language. Among the performance technologies of 19th century blackface minstrelsy were many negroisms - terms and dialect adopted by minstrels to portray  a nation in rapid and violent transition. This new language was as important as a costume, burnt cork, a tamborine, or a stage, in the machineries of performance.  

 

Terms of Engagement: N - Z

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In progress:

The power inherent in the naming of anything is enormous. This is particularly true in the naming of individuals, which is why so many entertainers adopt stage names. Assuming a stage name was a common, but by no means required, practice among the minstrels. Cotton's given name, for instance, already encompassed a host of semantic associations... with whiteness (and blackness), with English origins (and a Puritan heritage), with the plantation systems to grow and harvest cotton, with the transportation systems to move the cotton to markets, and with the textile mills that spun the threads. A Ben Cotton, costumed as a raw recruit or a zouave, could see the manufacturing origin, "Pawtucket," stamped on the brass buttons of his uniform. The simplicity of Cotton's name served hm well with a variety of audiences. It offered a lot of ways to read and remember him.

Word play was a key element of minstrelsy. Words were the centerpiece of the performances. The stump speeches were verbal extravaganzas of misconstrued meaning. The interaction between the middle man and the endmen was a choreographed interplay between the vocabularies and speech of the master/slave relationships. The sketches were an exploration of the language and dialect of immigrant origins and class structures. Minstrelsy's prolific "naming" - verbal and visual - has left a largely unpacked legacy.    

 

Texts

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In progress:

A chronological bibliography of key texts in minstrelsy scholarship and performance, with associated entries documenting a contemporary context, critical receptions, or published quarrels.