Audiences, Evolution, and Class

Looking back from today, it is hard to overestimate the impact that evolutionary theory had on every discipline.  In his wonderful American Abyss: Savagery and Civilization in the Age of Industry, Daniel Bender says that evolution was a “public science in America,” one that permeated discussions of science, health, immigration, fiscal policy, race, as well as art, labor, fashion, fitness — you name it, writers and commentators invoked the language of advancement, progress, and natural selection.  To me, what makes looking at evolution in the period fun is its ubiquity: it pops up in almost every discussion of the time.

A classic example is “Lost in Wonder” from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated from April 1st, 1876 about spectators at the Centennial Exhibition

Lost in Wonder

Here, the gentleman on the left gestures authoritatively to the exhibit, while the other figures, neck craned, mouths open, and hands in their pockets, ignorantly gape at the display.  Whatever is on view, it must be interesting, as a sign, restraining bar, and Centennial guard are keeping people at a distance. The informed, discoursing spectator demonstrates his power not only over the knowledge on display, but over the poor spectators, who can only respond with wonder.

(Joy Kasson also discusses this image in Marble Queens and Captives: Women in Nineteenth-Century American Sculpture: 38-9. Kasson also observes that they are coded as poor. She notes one man who seems to be carrying everything he owns in a valise).

A more offbeat, but consistent example is in the work of artist and popular ethnographer George Catlin, best known right now as having painted a piece that Johnny Depp used as his inspiration for Tonto in the summer failbuster The Lone Ranger.  Catlin’s treatise Shut Your Mouth and Save Your Life diagnosed civilization’s ills to segments of the population who had acquired the unnatural habit of mouth breathing.  In particular, Catlin, like many of this time, equate bad habits with class, and here he is out to reform working class children.  At one point, he uses a working class audience watching a Punch and Judy show, mouths agape with glee, as a key example.
Shut Your Mouth

Tracing everything to mouth breathing may seem quixotic at best, but the book was enormously popular, and Catlin was well respected. By 1875, it had already gone into six editions and would be reprinted regularly into the 1890s.

For more sources, see my work-in-progress Omeka site: Visualizing Evolution

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