Robert P. Emlen


Among the many visual images of Shaker life published in the popular press of nineteenth-century America are several small wood engravings picturing two rows of dancing figures. Used in the 1850s to illustrate a popular ditty called “The Celebrated Black Shaker Song,” this scene in twenty-first-century America has become a curious artifact whose original meaning has been obscured with time. The reason for this incongruity becomes apparent when these “Black Shaker” illustrations are examined in the wider context of the visual culture of popular amusements in nineteenth-century America: the figures pictured in these engravings are now recognized as neither black nor Shakers. They are in fact minstrel show actors in blackface makeup parodying Shaker worship as comic performance.

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