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Detail from The Panorama of Man

Palmy: An archaic adjective equivalent to “grand” or “golden,” principally used as an expression of nostalgia, as in the “palmy days.” 

 

Panorama:  A form of entertainment and edification that flourished in tandem with the spread of photography in the 19th century. A species of history painting characterized by a canvas scale heretofore unseen in art, requiring remarkably complex logistics to mount and transport.  For this reason the exhibition of a panoramic canvas would remain in place for much longer than a typical art exhibition. The cyclorama represented an evolution of yet greater ambition, providing the audience with a 360 degree view.  Battle scenes of the Civil War, as well as other international conficts were common themes for these huge paintings.  By the close of the century the term panorama had been abstracted to describe any broad image that metaphorically began at the limits of the peripheral vision. The phrenological chart seen here presents the arc and sequence of a visual panorama. In the case of "race" there is a further hierarchical implication of white supremacy.  

Patting:  A muffled, rhythmic sound made by patting the hands against various parts of the body, and/or the stamping of the feet while clapping, to create a percussive accompaniment to musical performance.  

In the course of a few minutes, however, I was conducted into a private room, where I was made to dance "Juba" to the time which the comedian himself gave me by means of his two hands, and one foot, which is technically called "patting."  My performance, it seems, was satisfactory, for I was engaged on the spot.  Ralph Keeler, Vagabond Adventures, New York: Osgood, 1870.

 

Pepper-box:  a revolver with a multi-barrel, repeating action, so named because of the similarity to a pepper grinder in shape as well as the inflamed violent effect of pepper itself.

 

Peculiar:  Ostensibly synonymous with "unique," with shades of oddity. The subtitle of John Russell Bartlett's Dictionary of Americanisms read in full: "A Glossary of Words and Phrase Usually Regarded as Peculiar to The United States." Bartlett chose to include the peculiar institution on his prodigious list of Americanisms. He defined the phrase as "Negro slavery, so called as being peculiar to the South," which seems more than a little odd insomuch as slavery arrived in the Western Hemisphere during the Age of Discovery, thrived throughout the Americas for three hundred years thereafter, and was only abolished in Brazil in 1888. 

 

Phrenology: Derided by minstrels as “bumpology,” a widespread indulgence in pseudo-scientific readings of character and intelligence from exterior physical appearance. This belief system originated in England and found a handful of willing recruits in New York whose publication prowess popularized phrenology in America. The complex of tainted ideas (and behaviors) that comprised phrenology included a narcissistic fascination with photography.

 

Picture: In 1873, M.W. Du Pre of Chicago placed an ad with bold repetitions of the word “Chromos.” In addition to the chromos he also sold, Oil Paintings, Mirrors, Frames, Albums, Stereoscopes and Views. Du Pre closed with a motto that his customers might want to keep in mind: “A room hung with pictures is a room hung with thought.” Arlington, Cotton & Kemble Minstrels. Playbills, 1873. Harvard Theatre Collection, Harvard University.

 

Plantation:   This word was used by Noah Webster to illustrate why an American dictionary of the English language was necessary. His definition of a plantation took special note of the sense of word in the Americas:  In the United States and the West Indies, a cultivated estate, a farm.  American Dictionary of the English Language, New Haven, 1828.

Following the abolition of slavery in England (1834) and the United States (1864) it was possible to see that Webster's definition needed amendment: a) An estate or large farm, esp. in a former British colony, on which crops such as cotton, sugar, and toacco are grown (formerly with the aid of slave labour). b) In extended use (chiefly in African-American usage):any institution regarded as exploitative or paternalistic, esp. in fostering an environment of inequality and servitude reminiscent of slavery. Oxford English Dictionary, 3rd ed., 2006.

 

Portraiture: This term appears on a description of the short performances of Francis Wilson (& Mackin) while with the Arlington, Cotton & Kemble Minstrels in 1873. The word seems to be used (at least by Mackin & Wilson) interchangeably with “impersonation." Arlington, Cotton & Kemble Minstrels. Playbills, 1873. Harvard Theatre Collection, Harvard University.

The term was circulating for some time among minstrels.  In 1860 George Christy and his troupe were playing at Niblo’s Saloon in New York.  Their advertisement in the New York Clipper (March 31, 1860) extolled Christy's star power:  ... profound study and truthful portraitures of the peculiarities of Ethiopian Character have placed him on the topmost round of the Ladder of Fame. Closely associated with the art of painting – in Christy's ad portraiture is paired with the notion of study - “profound study” - as might be said of ethnology. 

 

Pretty Waiter Girls:  An ambivalent designation for young women who held employment in the concert saloons (near the performance spaces). These employees plied overpriced drinks in exchange for the right to solicit clients. There was an indistinct line drawn between the pretty waiter girls and (older) professional prostitutes. The pretty waiter girls accompanied their clients to the client's quarters. The prostitutes entertained their clients in brothels.  This demarcation between the venues for the sex act was one element underlying legal policies aimed at controlling public and private spaces in the city. The relatively permissive attitude toward the pretty waiter girls was eroded by the Sabbath prohibitions against public amusements.  By the early 1860s the New York concert halls (typically associated with blackface performance) were the focus of raids and legal prosecutions.

Uncertainty about the pretty waiter girls extended well beyond their relative innocence. The New York Clipper ran a candid report of a cross-dressing male who was only unmasked after six months in "disguise."  "A Gay Deceiver," April 15, 1865.

It appears that the pretty waiter girls have increased in New York, notwithstanding the anti-concert saloon law and the efforts of the police. The exact number of pretty waiter girls employed in New York is 1,191, at 223 houses, which are visited by 29,950 persons, who spend there $31,562 per week. The police seem to have more accurate information about the pretty waiter girls than they have of any other class of sinners.  Brooklyn Daily Eagle,  January 5, 1866.

 

 

Profession:  The “Profession” was aspirational, for individual minstrels as well as minstrelsy.   Tied to “Profession” are a host of words all drawn from the world of business.  The minstrel troupes are often called “companies,” or less frequently, “firms.” The troupes are owned by “proprietors,” who employ a variety of individuals, whose positions include “agent,” or “business manager,” or “treasurer.” The work is described as an “engagement.” 

 

Protean: The assuming of different shapes; of or relating to Proteus, a mythological, shape-shifting, marine deity, son of Oceanus and Tethys. From a review of The Cotton Company's first performance in Ming's Opera House in Helena: Cotton is the same old Ben; conscientious and meritorious, and the same hard worker of twenty years ago.  His little Idalene is veritably a chip off the old block, a protean artist of more than ordinary merit; a rising star in the theatrical firmament.  Helena Journal, May 1, 1889.