A HBC reader tells us, "I am working on a documentary about the artist Bill Traylor, born into slavery in the 1850s. He started drawing drawing when he was in his 80s and homeless on the streets of Montgomery Alabama. He was 'discovered' 40 years after his death and now considered by the art world to be one of the great artists of 20th century America. Very little is known about Traylor the man which means his life has become a source for endless theorizing and speculation. One image that recurs in many of his drawings is that of little people tormenting big people with something that looks like prods which some anthropologists interpret as reflecting African cosmology (the 'little man' representing the soul). While that speculation might be valid, from my research of old court documents, slave-owner diaries and interviews with Traylor grandchildren and great grandchildren it is also known that Traylor had and raised 12 children. If that's the case, I've been wondering if perhaps some of the 'little men' might in fact be children. Which led me to wonder if what looks like prods might in fact be ropes used as home made tethers or harnesses (see lower right side of drawing) which were not uncommon in the late-19th/early-20th century. Obviously, my next step has been to look for evidence to either back up or scuttle my hypothesis. The search for any on-line images of children tethered to their parents in early 20th century America-- let alone African-American children tethered to their parents in 1920's Montgomery, Alabama-- has been daunting to say the least. Earlier this week though, I came upon your fascinating site which provided me with the first indication that some images and information are indeed out there.I could easily be wrong in my speculation re what and who the little figures in Traylor's might be, but I feel that I don't yet have enough information either way. My question, since HBC has clearly done a huge--and brilliant-- job of researching social history through clothing, style and fashion, I'm wondering if you and HBC might be able to guide me in delving deeper in my search for clues. Where do I go from here. Any thoughts and suggestions would be greatly appreciated." [Baron]
This is interesting to HBC as we have very little information on tethering in the 19th century or the prevalence of the practice among the lower social-economic sector. But like so many topics, we are just scratching the surface. And you are really asking about the 19th century. This makes it more difficult because most of the photography were studio portraits and I have never seen a studio portrait with a child harness. We do know, however, that they existed because we see Napoleon's son wearing one. But we do not know how common they were. When ever I see a 19th century image or reference, I add it to the chronology page, but haven;t found much yet.
A factor that that could be helpful to you is social class. As far as we can tell, this was a middle class phenomenon most commonly used by mothers. We have not noticed slave children tethered or poor African-American children, although admittedly our archive is limited.
Gender roles are also relevant. Most telling in your image is that it depicts a man and a women. It certainly looks to me like a child tether. But frankly I doubt if very many men in the 19th century would have walked around with a tethered child. Little children were seen as the responsibility of the wife. My feeling is that it would have been see as demeaning for a man to do this, rather in the same sense of a burly construction worker today walking around one of those tiny lap dogs.
If the little men represented the soul, wouldn't the lady's soul be a female figure?
Baron,Fred. E0mail message, November 12, 2010.
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