Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The Freedman's Bureau

This image, drawn by Thomas Worth and printed and produced by Currier and Ives in 1868 creates a conundrum for me. I have mentioned in previous posts that I believe those of the nineteenth century had a much different sense of humor that we do today. I think that this is some play on the word "bureau," being that a chest of drawers is prominent in the image and the word bureau is in the title. It does not strike me as humorous, but maybe it was in 1868.

The freedman in the picture stands before his open and battered "bureau" while tying his cravat and peering into a broken mirror as his reflected image in the looking glass gazes back. The mirror is propped on a foot stool and held up by a bottle of some type. On the wall a fiddle and bow hang beside a window with cracked panes. Nearby a picture of what looks to be Abraham Lincoln stared on in the same direction as the main subject of the work. The freedman's modest existence is indicated by patches on the seat and knees of his trousers. A chair with a broken back serves as his coat and hat rack. His simple bed sits beneath a stairway exterior with cracked plaster above.

Was Thomas Worth trying to show that the Freedmen's Bureau was assisting a formerly enslaved man make his way up the civic and socioeconomic ladder? Or, was Worth expressing what he saw as a hopeless situation in attempting to make citizens from former slaves? Viewing some of Worth's other racist caricatures one has to consider that the latter may be more correct than the former. What do you think?

Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

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