The Rise and Fall of Blackface Minstrelsy in The City of Brotherly Love

Dumont’s Minstrels. Northwest Corner of 9th and Arch Streets, May 7, 1914. (PhillyHistory.org)

A century before one of the last gasps of American blackface minstrelsy played out at the corner of 9th and Arch Streets, Philadelphia lawyer-turned-cartoonist Edward Williams Clay pioneered his art of stoking white ridicule. Clay’s racist “Life in Philadelphia” caricatures targeting  African Americans quickly grew into an international success. And while Clay was adding insult to injustice in Philadelphia, white actor and playwright Thomas D. Rice adopted African-American vernacular speech, song and dance to build audiences in New York. In both cases, and during the very same years, art appropriated, exaggerated,  entertained, and suppressed. Blackface minstrelsy was born.

“Minstrelsy is the one American form of amusement, purely our own,” wrote a proud Frank Dumont in 1899. “It has lived and thrived even though the plantation darkey, who first gave it a character, has departed.” Dumont’s career in minstrelsy before the Civil War culminated by the turn of the century with two off-stage achievements: the  publication of his Witmark Amateur Minstrel Guide and Burnt Cork Encyclopedia, and a massive scrapbook now at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania (.pdf finding aid). Dumont’s troupe then performed at the Eleventh Street Opera House, near Ranstead Street. By 1911, when Dumont’s name had become synonymous with blackface minstrelsy, he relocated to Ninth and Arch.

Dumont learned how to keep his material fresh with monologues, sketches and burlesques adapted to “current fads and follies.” His “Scenes at Wanamaker’s,” “Broad Street Station,” “Atlantic City Storms,” and “The Trolley Car Party” allowed audiences to mock themselves and, with the help of blackface minstrelsy, to mock others.

How, exactly, did Dumont’s Minstrels “black up” for every show? One evening, Dumont allowed a reporter to witness the nightly ritual. A written account made its way into Dumont’s Burnt Cork Encyclopedia (and this photograph made its way into the archives at Temple University):

Make a paste of burnt cork and water and take some, “into your left hand, rub it over the palms as if about to wash your face; then smear it over the features as if applying a cosmetic. Carefully apply it around the eyes and about the lips … when you have applied the cork and left the lips in the natural condition, they will appear red to the audience. Comedians leave a wider, white margin all around the lips. This will give it the appearance of a large mouth, and will look red to the spectator.”

Dumont’s Minstrels in 1917.

Readers of The Burnt Cork Encyclopedia did exactly that and followed Dumont’s stage instructions and scripts for burlesques he shared on the following pages. They became proficient lightening eyebrows with chalk, affixing woolen chin whiskers and finishing off their stage faces with “large brass rimmed spectacles” on their blackened noses.

With the face complete, Dumont continued: “I take a small soft brush…to rub off the particles of cork from my features to prevent them from falling on my white shirt front and white vest …I put on my creamy white shirt… a paper or celluloid collar, a small black tie… my white vest… my swallow-tail coat with a flashy flower or ‘boutonniere’ in its lapel and I resemble a perfect Beau Brummel.… We wear black satin knee pants, black stockings and low cut patent leather shoes. This is very genteel, dressing and in keeping with minstrelsy.”

Also in keeping with the minstrelsy was the nightly ritual of removing the costume, and the burnt cork. “No hard rubbing is necessary. Plenty of lather and a sponge. Then go over the face once more and … rinse your ‘features’ in a bucket of fresh water—if you can get it—and once more you are a Caucasian ready to take up the ‘white man’s burden’…”

Frank Dumont died in 1919, at work in his box office at 9th and Arch. Dumont’s Theater went up for sale in 1928 and burned in 1929. Live blackface minstrelsy on stage in Philadelphia had come to an end, although the screen version, thanks to Hollywood, was only getting started. Philadelphia’s mummer tradition of “blacking up” would continue until 1964, when the courts finally declared that the practice had, after nearly a century and a half, finally run its racist course.

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One Comment

  1. Posted December 5, 2012 at 9:38 am | Permalink

    check out Brown University’s African American Sheet Music collection for Dumont pieces and more : )
    http://library.brown.edu/cds/sheetmusic/afam/
    ~Robin