This is my favorite cartoon–perhaps my favorite picture–of Susan B. Anthony. She was eighty-five years old when the artist Charles Lewis Barthomolew, or Bart, imagined her charging flat out after a chubby former president of the United States. He captured the vitality for which the public knew her over half a century, and she liked the cartoon enough to keep it in a scrapbook. There’s Uncle Sam in the background shaking with laughter, while Grover Cleveland runs ahead of his hat. To accent the chase, long strides, and speed, Bart dared to expose Miss Anthony’s ankles, though he covered them with spats. On a ceremonial sash, he supplied her name, though most readers of city newspapers in 1905 would recognize her anyway: the center part, hair pulled back over the ears into a loose bun, simple glasses, and chiseled jawline–these were essential elements used for decades by painters, cartoonists, even photographers to present Susan B. Anthony to the public.
Cleveland had written a foolish, condescending article for the Ladies’ Home Journal, imploring women to stay away from clubs and public life and focus instead on making their homes more comfortable. As if Cleveland stuck his hand in a beehive (as another cartoonist imagined the uproar), swarms of women replied. In this, the second of his cartoons about the flap, Bart spotlights the special sting of Susan B. Anthony’s response: alluding to Cleveland’s muddy sexual history and illegitimate child, she told an interviewer that he “is a very poor one to attempt to point out the proper conduct of the women.”
I want to understand the umbrella. Why is it here? There’s no evidence that Miss Anthony carried an umbrella more often than any other 19th century man or woman. Yet it appears in other caricatures of her. She did own an umbrella. Like everyone else who ever owned one, she occasionally left hers behind. We know that because she wrote letters to arrange for its return. Nothing in the drawing indicates bad weather, and the umbrella is tightly furled. This is not a tool for protection against rain. It is a weapon moving toward a target.
Umbrellas became fashionable in England and the U.S. late in the 18th century, and by the time of Anthony’s birth in 1820, they were becoming unisex accessories. In many 19th century cartoons, the symbolic functions of an umbrella don’t seem to be specific to men or to women. Rolled up and secured, an umbrella just became a weapon disguised as an accessory.
Here, in a lithograph by Currier & Ives from 1876, two factions of New York’s Democratic party, differentiated by social class (check out their shoes), kick up dust in New York City. The working stiffs on the left fight with cudgels, a stubby blunderbuss, and what looks like a broken stool. The gentlemen on the right rely on weapons they have at hand–walking sticks, a few dueling pistols, and one umbrella. (Note that the sophisticated Democrat and Susan B. Anthony were schooled in different ways to grip the umbrella.)
John S. Pughe complicates the idea of umbrella as weapon in this cartoon for Puck. He depicts Senator George F. Hoar (his name is inscribed on his bonnet) in the clothes of a woman, immobilized by his skirt and protecting child-sized leaders of Colombia and the Philippines. Pughe refers to a specific contest underway in the Senate. Hoar, Republican of Massachusetts and a well-known opponent of the new American empire, was trying to stop plans for the Panama Canal. His opposition is made feminine, more mothering than manly. His (or is it her?) raised umbrella is impotent: it cannot even reach, let alone endanger, Uncle Sam. In a good example of over explaining, someone added the title “Still Scolding.”
Sometimes an umbrella is just decoration. Artists deploy it to complete a look or ensemble and indicate that a man or woman is out and about in public or ready to enter that wider world. Here, in a cartoon copyrighted in 1909 by Eugene W. Gustin, an artist and art publisher in New York, comedy based on men’s anxieties about allowing women to vote works because of the umbrella. That is, we know, before she reaches the door, that this mother is stepping out with her umbrella hooked over her arm. It is the apron’s antithesis. All the elements of her costume are in place.
In caricatures of newsworthy Englishmen in the London journal Vanity Fair, Leslie Ward, or Spy, dresses these bishops for strolling the city streets and adds their umbrellas.
In another cartoon about squabbles among Democrats, this time in 1894, the artist Charles Jay Taylor renders the losing faction as a tired woman tossed outdoors with her luggage. Unlike the bishops, she is not in control of the impression she makes. As an echo of her own situation, her umbrella lacks power or purpose. Yet the artist thought she needed it for whatever journey awaits her.
Finally, in an early caricature of Susan B. Anthony, “The Woman Who Dared,” artist Theodore Wust gives her a furled umbrella that reinforces and literally supports her provocative pose; it is a prop for a bit of an attitude–a woman who still dares.
This cover appeared ten days before she went on trial in federal court for the crime of voting “without having a lawful right to vote . . . being then and there a person of the female sex.” Around her on a public square a woman serves as a police officer, a man brings home the groceries, and another carries his baby. Behind them, two bands of women are about to meet, one marching for their rights and the other rallying around the slogan, “We favor union–to a Man.” It’s a topsy-turvy world, Wust suspects, and at its center is a monumental woman with an umbrella.
Six years after this cartoon appeared, Susan B. Anthony described it to an audience of activists in St. Louis in 1879. A writer for the Globe-Democrat paraphrased what she said:
she was represented as at least seven feet high, head and feet in proportion, wrapped in the stars and stripes, which came to the top of a very long and very large boot, carrying the proverbial blue cotton umbrella. She would never forget, she said, the casual remark she overheard of a lady who had just heard her lecture: “Why, I had no idea that Miss Anthony was a decent-looking woman.” [Laughter.]
What caught her attention? Her abnormal size, her ankles, and her umbrella. Her clothing comes only to the top of her boot, she recalls. Her umbrella is blue cotton. For a long time, this detail about fabric and color seemed to me unusually fanciful for Susan B. Anthony. Why say that? It turns out she was being literary. The “proverbial blue cotton umbrella” refers to a novella by Eliza Leslie, Henrietta Harrison; Or, The Blue Cotton Umbrella, published in 1838 and “Republished by request” in Godey’s Magazine in 1877. Henrietta Harrison’s uncle loses his silk umbrella, buys a sensible blue cotton one, and resists his niece’s admonition that it “is such an umbrella as no gentleman can possibly carry.” Henrietta’s acceptance of its simplicity tracks the next phase of her education. If Theodore Wust imagined himself placing a silk umbrella beneath Susan B. Anthony’s arm, she swapped it out for blue cotton. The rest of his representation she could accept.
Special thanks to staff at the Prints & Photographs Division who thought to index “umbrella” in images in their care.
Gustin’s 1909 image survives too as a postcard printed in color: https://www.flickr.com/photos/pennstate_harrisburg_archives/8044061632/
On the history of umbrellas, two sites get right to the point: http://www.janeausten.co.uk/18th-century-umbrellas/ http://www.oakthriftumbrellas.com/pages/umbrellas4.htm
You too can read Henrietta Harrison. There are several sources on the web providing free access to the 1838 printing. One book, two stories: Eliza Leslie, Althea Vernon; or, The Embroidered Handkerchief. To which Is Added, Henrietta Harrison; or, The Blue Cotton Umbrella