Past public attitudes are not always ones we agree with, nor even condone, but I have long argued that it is a mistake to ignore or trash historic artifacts that reflect beliefs we do not agree with. As George Santayana wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” That is, it is crucial for us to learn about our past so that we can try to correct where we have gone wrong. For that reason, even abhorrent historic artifacts should be preserved and studied.
Our modus operandi has always been, that even if I did not agree with what a particular print depicted, we would offer it for sale so that someone interested in it—-hopefully for historic reasons—-could have access to it. On that basis, though I abhor the social implications of the Currier & Ives Darktown prints, I have felt it appropriate to have my shop offer them for sale. I no longer feel that to be the case.
So, what are the Currier & Ives Darktown prints? They are a series of prints which America’s most successful popular printmaker made from the late 1870s into the 1890s, showing supposedly humorous episodes in Darktown, a segregated community of black Americans. Darktown prints showcased a full array of negative stereotypes of the former slaves who moved north after the Civil War. Portrayed as mentally slow, physically grotesque, and morally oblivious, African Americans were shown as comically inept in their attempts to “play-act” at being white.
Horrifyingly, these prints were among the most popular of all Currier & Ives prints, with one image supposedly selling as many as 73,000 copies. Why that was so and what it means are things worth trying to understand, and there have been institutions and scholars who have approached the Darktown series in this way. I think that is important for our understanding of our past and also of our present to look at these issues.
This then raises the question of why I have decided we would no longer sell the Darktown prints. Certainly, to simply sell such a print is not to advocate for its racist message; we have sold them for many years despite the fact that I think what they show is terrible. As it happens, almost all of the Darktown prints we have sold have been to academic institutions or to African American collectors. Still, I now believe we should not be selling them at all.
The current national reexamination of our society’s racial inequities has made me rethink how we should treat these prints. I have come to believe that even if one does not present them as something one believes, racist images like these should not be presented to the public, except in a clearly restricted historic/educational venue. To have images like these out in public-—on display in a shop, at a show or on the internet—-creates a social environment which is detrimental to universal racial equality.
The point is that it is not what you mean by selling the prints, it is what they show and how that adds to the negative experience that African Americans have in our society. This is very similar to the issue of the display of Confederate statues in the South, and as I believe those statues should be taken out of public spaces, so too I believe the Darktown prints should be removed from public display. Every image that is out in public showing how in the past Blacks were thought of as inferior adds to the background noise insidiously whispering that they are not equal today. Their display, even if not meant this way, reminds both Blacks and Whites that in the not too distant past it was the social norm that the latter considered themselves to be superior to the former. This, in effect, becomes part of the systemic message of racial inequality that still permeates our country.
We need to effect many changes to bring about true racial equality in our country, both as a society and as individuals, and I think no longer selling or displaying the Darktown prints is something we can do to help, albeit in a small way. On that basis, we are donating all of our current inventory of Darktown prints to scholarly institutions, taking the images out of the general public environment and relegating them to the vaults of historic institutions. This is surely just a small step toward racial equality, but hopefully it is one of many such small steps our society will now be making.
Describing the geography of the polar region, Mercator wrote to John Dee, an English scholar and mystic, that “In the midst of the four countries [that is islands] is a Whirl-pool...into which there empty the four Indrawing Seas which divide the North. And the water rushes round and descends into the earth just as if one were pouring it through a filter funnel...Except that right under the Pole there lies a bare rock in the midst of the Sea. Its circumference is almost 33 French miles, and it is all of magnetic stone...”
Mercator shows this geography very clearly, with the four islands separated by the rivers and the large magnetic rock sitting on the pole itself, over the whirlpool where the waters descend into the interior of the globe. Other bits of information depicted by Mercator, also taken from the Inventio, include the legend that “pygmies, whose length is four feet” live on the island above Scandinavia, and another legend on the island to its left, stating it is “the best and most salubrious in all the north.”
Obviously, this is mythical geography, though the Inventio Fortunatae may have been based to some extent on first-hand reports by Ivar Bardarson, who was a priest from Greenland who traveled widely in the eastern Canadian Arctic in the early fourteenth century. Whether the story of the waters of the world passing through four rivers and then into the whirlpool was a confused misreading of Bardarson’s reports, or an illusionary creation of the Inventio’s author cannot be known.
With the growing emigration of white Americans from “the States” to the Rocky Mountains and beyond in the 1860s, the Plains Indians found their traditional way of life fading. Not only did the emigrants eat up local resources, and kill many buffaloes, but the U.S. government began a systematic attempt to limit the Native Americans to limited reservations. Frustration led to sporadic Indian raids on emigrant trains and settlements, culminating in a number of “massacres” in the summer of 1864.
One ranch owner, Holon Godfrey, decided to defend his home, located between today’s Sterling and Fort Morgan, as best he could. His ranch included a tower with portholes and he dug a well inside his defenses. In January 1865, Godfrey was raided, supposedly by about 200 Indians, but with the help of a visitor, his wife and children, he was able to repel the attack. As a result, the Indians called Godfrey “Old Wicked,” a name he liked enough to christen his ranch “Fort Wicked.” This secure post, about the only remaining settlement along the Platte River route, became a regular stop for the stage lines.
his maps were some of the most attractive and accurate of the late sixteenth century.
The Theatrum was hugely popular and influential, and Ortelius was made the royal geographer to Phillip II, expanding his atlas with new maps, and in 1579 to include the Parergon, a historic atlas intended to supplement the Theatrum. When he died in 1598, the Theatrum had been published in 25 editions in five editions, with two other languages added after his death. Thus it is not only for his unprecedented achievement in issuing the first modern atlas, but also for his thoughtful and rigorous methodology, that Ortelius belongs amongst the first rank of cartographers.