John Bull & Uncle Sam - Four Centuries of British-American Relations

Decorative ImageThe pattern of early American imitation and absorption of British models and the gradual reversal of the process to a more reciprocal interrelationship also manifested itself in popular culture. After independence Americans continued to import British sports and games, transforming them in some instances -- for example, turning rugby into football. British popular music maintained its ascendancy, as did British theater, particularly evident in the many performances of Shakespeare's plays and Gilbert and Sullivan's operettas. The circus was another nineteenth-century British import that enjoyed enormous popularity in America.

By the mid nineteenth century, American inventions such as minstrel shows and, after the Civil War, wild west shows gained a foothold in Britain. These entertainments paved the way for the popularity after World War I of American popular music -- jazz and the blues -- and of American motion pictures. American influence in areas of mass popular entertainment increased after World War II and led some observers, who also noted the influx of many features of American consumerism -- such as fast food, supermarkets, and household appliances -- to comment, sometimes negatively, on the "Americanization" of Britain.

In the 1950s, American rock and roll music was imitated by British groups, who then refined it and, in the view of some, improved it. In the 1960s, they exported their version to the United States with such success that American commentators spoke of a "British invasion," led by groups including the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Along with the music came British fashions, such as the miniskirt, longer hairstyles for men, and the "Twiggy" look.

At the end of the twentieth century, British performers continued to be much in evidence on the American stage and screen. British programs are hits on American public television. American interest in British celebrities, including the Royal Family, remains high. Meanwhile, most British towns have McDonald's and Pizza Huts as well as American-style traffic jams. Mutual imitation and innovation, most conspicuously in music, continues at a dizzying pace.

Cricket And Baseball

Although there are resemblances between cricket and baseball, historians of sport have contended that the national pastime of the United Stated did not evolve from cricket. In 1859 Harper's Weekly published images of the two games being played on the same day in Hoboken, New Jersey. An American cricket team is shown playing a British one.

A British-American Golf Match

British and American women's teams battle it out at Sunnydale, England, in the 1920s. At the top is Glenna Collett (b. 1903), the American captain; her British counterpart, Molly Gourlay (b. 1898), is at the bottom. The British team won the match, 81/2 to 6 1/2.

Origins of Baseball

The origins of baseball are obscure; it is often assumed that the national pastime of the United States evolved from the English children's game of rounders or "four-old-cat." Here, however, is an image of a game that contains the elements of baseball and is called by that name, published in an English children's magazine of 1760.

A Pretty Little Pocket-Book, intended for the Amusement of Little Master Tommy, and Pretty Miss Polly. . . . London: J. Newbery, 1760. Early Printed Collections, The British Library (211)

Boxing

Boxing was another English sport imported by Americans. Squared off here are the American champion, Tom Molineaux (1784-1818), a freed slave and one of America's first black athletic heroes, and the English champion, Tom Cribb (1781-1848). The two fought forty rounds in December 1810 in East Grinstead, England. Molineaux is generally considered to have won the match, but he was beaten by Cribb in a rematch the next year.

Pierce Egan. "The Second Contest Between Cribb and Molineux, September 28, 1811." Boxiana; or Sketches of Ancient and Modern Pugilism, . . . London: G. Smeeton, 1812, p. 412. Early Printed Collections, The British Library (214)

American Football

American football, though derived from English rugby football, had developed into a separate game by 1880. Like rugby in England, the game was first played in private schools such as Phillips Exeter and Andover Academy, as this poster shows.

"Exeter vs. Andover Football Match, November 7, 1903." D.C.: U. Potomac Press, 1903. Poster. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (215)

Rugby

Rugby football was invented at Rugby School, England, in 1823, and became widely popular in English public (i.e. private) schools. American football evolved from rugby after the American Civil War. This story describes a rugby football match between fictitious rival schools, Parkhurst and Craven, in which the "Old Boy" Adams scores a last minute "touch-down" to secure victory for Parkhurst.

The Boy's Own Paper, [London], No. 1, Vol. 1, January 18, 1879. Modern Collections, British Library (215A)

Horse Racing

Horse racing was one of the earliest sports taken by English settlers to America. Winner of the first Derby Stakes run at Epsom, England, in 1780, Diomed was sold by his owner to Virginia for fifty guineas in 1798. Though twenty-one years old, Diomed lived another ten years and founded a dynasty that included Sir Archy, American Eclipse, Boston, and Lexington -- the greatest American sire of the nineteenth century.

"Diomed." The Sporting Magazine, or Monthly Calendar of the Transactions of the Turf, the Chace, . . . for October, 1792, p. 44. London: Printed for the Proprietors and Sold by J. Wheble. Early Printed Collections, The British Library (213)

British Tune, American Words

A particular favorite nineteenth-century song was "Home Sweet Home." The tune was written by an English-man Henry Bishop (1786-1855), who "in his day enjoyed a commanding reputation as the guardian of the best traditions of English song." The song with its present words by American John Howard Payne first appeared in the opera Clari or The Maid of Milan, produced on May 8, 1823, in London.

Henry Bishop. "Home Sweet Home". Words by John Henry Payne. Philadelphia: J. G. Klemm, n.d. Sheet music cover. Music Division, Library of Congress (219)

British Song in America

In the early nineteenth century many of the most popular songs in America were British imports, among them "Woodman! Spare That Tree." The tune was written in 1837 by the English composer and singer, Henry Russell (1812 -1900), during a temporary residence in the United States, where he was organist and choirmaster of the First Presbyterian Church in Rochester, New York.

Henry Russell and George P. Morris. "Woodman! Spare that Tree." New York: Firth and Hall, 1837. Sheet music cover. Music Division, Library of Congress (220)

British Actress Triumphs in America

At age 15 Ann Brunton (1769-1808) became a principal tragic actress at London's Convent Garden Theatre. In 1796 she came to America, where she was for a dozen years a leading actress under her married name, Mrs. Merry. Shakespeare's Juliet was considered her best role. Her professional triumphs were balanced by personal sorrow; she was twice widowed and died in childbirth at 40.

Portraits of Anne Merry. Merry's Manuscript. Page 2, [ca. 1830s] Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (220A)

An American Actor in Britain

In the years before the American Civil War, American actors began winning their laurels on the British stage. A protégé of the great English Shakespearean Edmund Kean (1787-1833), American Ira Aldridge (ca.1805-1867) played MacBeth and King Lear in England, but his most famous role was Othello. In the 1850s Aldridge was lionized on the European continent. Here he is depicted as Aaron in Titus Andronicus during a performance at the Britannia Theatre in Hoxton, England, in 1852.

Macready as Macbeth

English actor William Charles Macready (1793-1873) made three visits to America, the first in 1826. He was well known for his thorough emotional identification with each character he played. "I cannot act Macbeth without being Macbeth," he once said.

"Mr. Macready as Macbeth." Engraving by Thomas Sherratt from the original painting by Tracey. London: John Tallis & Company, [between 1860 and 1880]. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (223)

Forrest as Macbeth

The first American-born tragedian to achieve stardom, Edwin Forrest (1806-1872) dominated the American stage for more than thirty years. Tall and handsome, he had an expressive and powerful voice. Critics made comparisons with Niagara Falls and storms at sea to describe his physical and emotional powers during dramatic scenes.

Forrest as Macbeth, [between 1840 and 1870]. Copyprint. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (224)

The Astor Place Riot

A riot at the Astor Place Theater, New York City, May 10, 1849, resulted in 23 dead and at least 100 hospitalized. The riot was caused by the professional rivalry, with strong nationalistic overtones, between two of the leading actors of the day, Edwin Forrest (1806-1872) and William Charles Macready (1793 -1873). Forrest appealed to the "common man," so extolled in Jacksonian America, while the Englishman Macready, had a strong following among America's elite. Forrest's fans stormed the Astor Place Theater during an appearance by Macready, resulting in mayhem and bloodshed that was contained with difficulty by cavalry and militia units.

"Riot at the Astor-Place Opera-House, New York." Illustrated London News, June 2, 1849, p. 369. Woodcut. enlarged version (380K) General Collections, Library of Congress (225)

Poster For The Mikado

Gilbert and Sullivan opened a production of The Mikado in the United States in March 1885. In order to prevent American copyright violations, the two had opened the first production of The Pirates of Penzance in New York, rather than London, in 1880. Despite Gilbert and Sullivan's efforts to duplicate their success in controlling unauthorized productions of Pirates, The Mikado was widely pirated in the United States.

The Mikado. Chicago: John B. Jeffery, ca. 1885. Poster. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (228)

British Celebrities Making
Profits in America

This print parodies the Greek myth of the voyage of Jason and the Argonauts seeking the golden fleece. The modern argonauts are British creators -- writers, librettists, and actors including Matthew Arnold (1822-1888), Henry Irving (1838-1905), Lillie Langtry (1853-1929) and W.S. Gilbert (1836-1911). Although complaining of being robbed of their copyrights in the United States, they are represented as having profited extravagantly from American audiences, the real victims of the "fleecing."

Oliver Herford. The Modern Argonauts with Their Golden "Fleece," March 11, 1886. India ink over pencil. Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress (226)

The Circus

The modern circus is considered to have been "invented" by the Englishman, Philip Astley (1742-1814). Another Englishman, famous equestrian John Bill Ricketts (d. ca. 1803), introduced the Astley-style circus to the United States in 1792. Numerous British circuses toured American cities, including Thomas Taplin Cooke's Olympic Circus, which he brought to the United States, 1836-1840. After the circus was destroyed by a fire in Baltimore, Cooke returned to Edinburgh and started a new one in 1840, advertised here.

"Cooke's Circus." Edinburgh: James Brydon, 1840. Poster. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (221)

A Combined British-American Circus

In 1871 celebrated American showman and promoter Phineas T. Barnum (1810-1891) established a circus. Ten years later Barnum joined with James T. Bailey (1847-1906) to create the most famous of all American circuses. Shown here is an 1879 advertisement for a joint appearance of Barnum's Circus and three British shows.

Scottish Golfers

Golf was another British game exported to the United States, where it became popular by the end of the nineteenth century. Golf did not evolve into a distinctly separate American game; the rules were copied from those used at St. Andrews, Scotland. Above is a group of Scottish professionals, ready for action at a tournament at Leith Links, May 17, 1867.

American Movies in Britain

American movies, which arrived in Britain in the 1920s with American popular music, dominated British theaters after World War II. These two American movies were popular with British audiences in 1949. Note the British Board of Film Censors' stamp of approval on the lower left of the Betty Grable poster.

1 of 2

Gershwin in London

George Gershwin's (1898-1937) musical, Primrose, was produced and performed in London in 1924; the show never played in the United States. "Berkeley Square," is one of the songs from the show.

George Gershwin. Musical score for "Berkeley Square" in Primrose, London, 1924. Music Division, Library of Congress (235)

Reproduced by Permission of Warner Bros. Publications U.S. Inc. GERSHWIN®, GEORGE GERSHWIN®, and IRA GERSHWIN® are trademarks of Gershwin Enterprises. All Rights Reserved. Used by Permission.

Some Popular Performers

Although the dominance of American rock and roll music was the most conspicuous feature of the British pop culture scene in the years after World War II, the long tradition of British performers thriving in the United States continued both before and after war as did the favorable reception of their American counterparts in Britain.

Jelly Roll Morton's "London Blues"

"London Blues" was dedicated to the British capital by one of the giants of the blues genre, Jelly Roll Morton (1885-1941).

Jelly Roll Morton. Music score for "London Blues." Chicago: Melrose Brothers, 1923. Music Division, Library of Congress (236A)

Invasion of American Popular Music

After World War I, American popular music -- blues, jazz, and Tin Pan Alley songs -- swept Britain, much as British music invaded the United States in the 1960s. American songs such as "Chicago" and "Manhattan" were consistently among the most popular tunes in Britain in the 1920s.

1 of 2

  • Fred Fisher. "Chicago." New York: Fred Fisher Inc., 1922. Sheet music cover. Music Division, Library of Congress (232)

  • Lorenz Hart and Richard Rodgers. "Manhattan." New York: Edward B. Marks Music Co., 1925. Sheet music cover. Garrick Gareties Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (233)

The "Americanization" of The British Consumer

A conspicuous feature of the "Americanization of Britain," said to have occurred in the years following World War II, was what might be called "consumerism." American products and business methods, designed to simplify the tasks and daily routines of a society of mass consumers, infiltrated many areas of British life. American-style supermarkets, restaurants, coin-operated laundries, as well as American gadgets, customs, and foods took root in British society and became as inescapable as American popular music and movies.

American Themes in British Advertising

To promote a housing development in the town of Washington in northeast England, British advertisers use one of the oldest of American myths -- George Washington cutting down the cherry tree.

"I cannot tell a lie. . . ." Punch, July 7, 1976, opposite p. 30. General Collections, Library of Congress (294)

American Invasion of British Kitchens

According to this magazine story, American-style kitchens and labor-saving devices for the home were revolutionizing the domestic life of British women in the early 1960s. One result was the decline by two thirds from pre-World War II levels of the number of British families employing servants.

"British Kitchens Are Going American." U.S. News and World Report, May 2, 1960, pp. 104-105. Page 2, Bound Magazine. General Collections, Library of Congress (246)

The "Americanization" of London

Commenting on the proliferation of American skyscrapers and other innovations in London, the author remarks that "there seems little doubt that the resistance that London has always maintained against the importation of American ideas has noticeably weakened." The cartoon at the lower right calls attention to the inroads of American nylons, cereals and drive-in banking.

"Are the British Being Americanized?" Saturday Review, October 17, 1959, pp. 14-15. Page 2, Bound Magazine. General Collections, Library of Congress (247)

Beer in Cans

In this article the noted observer of Anglo-American relations, Alistair Cooke (b. 1908), humorously describes the crumbling British resistance to the American innovation of drinking beer in tin cans, a practice initially denounced in Britain as another example of "the absolute barbarity of the Americans." British pubs have been traditionally served draught beer from kegs.

Alistair Cooke. "Beer in Tins." The Listener, November 3, 1966, pp. 644-645. Page 2, Bound magazine. General Collections, Library of Congress (248)

More examples of the "Americanization" of Britain

The photographs above, all taken in 1959, furnish more examples of the post-World War phenomenon called the "Americanization" of Britain: an American-style supermarket advertising plum pudding (251); an American-style self service laundromat, operated by the Bendix Corporation, in Queensway, London (252); a British woman having a hamburger at Wimpy's, a British chain of American-style fast food restaurants (250); and two British men in a pub, the Old Bull and Bush, Hampstead, London, drinking beer (Ind Coope) from tins cans (249). All photographs are by Brian Seed, Black Star Agency for U. S. News and World Report. Prints and Photographs Division. Library of Congress.

1 of 4

  • Brian Seed. British women in a supermarket, 1959. Copyprint. Look Magazine Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (251) © Brian Seed, 1959. Used with permission.

  • Brian Seed. Laundromats in Britain, 1959. Copyprint. Look Magazine Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (252) © Brian Seed, 1959. Used with permission.

  • Brian Seed. British woman eating fast-food hamburgers, 1959. Copyprint. Look Magazine Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (250) © Brian Seed, 1959. Used with permission.

  • Brian Seed. British men drinking beer from cans, 1959. Copyprint. Look Magazine Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (249) © Brian Seed, 1959. Used with permission.

Rock And Roll Music

In the 1950s American rock and roll music dominated the British popular music scene more completely than jazz and the blues had done in the 1920s. The first rock and roll tunes to make a major impact in Britain were Bill Haley's (1925-1981) "Shake, Rattle and Roll" and "Rock Around the Clock," both released in 1954. Other pop singers and groups who quickly obtained wide popularity and inspired numerous British imitators were Little Richard (b.1932), Chuck Berry (b. 1926), Jerry Lee Lewis (b. 1935), Buddy Holly (1936-1959) and the Crickets, the Everly Brother (Don, b.1937; Phil, b.1939), and Elvis Presley (1935-1977). The influence of American music is shown by British teenagers dancing on the "rock 'n' roll railroad car," a youth club run by the Reverend John Oates, who played the bass in his clerical robes.

Swinging Britain

The Beatles and other British rock groups helped create in the 1960s a milieu that emphasized youth, exuberance, and innovation not only in music but in fashion. Young Americans found British fashions as appealing as the music crossing the ocean. American publications carried advertisements that promoted British products or American products that fit the cool image. The "London Look" was epitomized by the most famous British model of the era, "Twiggy" (Leslie Hornsby, b. 1949). Along with fashion, British television shows such as The Avengers and James Bond films furthered the "Swinging Britain" image.

"The London Look"

Here are a group of images that illustrate the "London Look," the hot fashion style of the mid-1960s. Young London, number 242, shows British fashions and at the right the influential designer, Mary Quant (b. 1934), popularizer of the mini-skirt, and other members of the London fashion community; number 282 shows the most famous British model of the era, Twiggy (Leslie Hornsby, b. 1949), "the 17 year old Cockney sprig," modelling British fashions in New York "on the first leg of a six week working tour of the U.S.;" number 283 shows various venues of mod British fashion, including the shrine, Carnaby Street; on the wall, above, are advertisement in American magazines, numbers 284 A, B and C, promoting the "London Look."

1 of 3

British Music After The 1960s

British performers continued to be popular in American beyond the 1960s. Shown in the graphic panel above are several groups that became or continued to be popular in the 1970s. More recently, raves have illustrated the rapidity with which events and innovations in popular culture now pass between Britain and America. Originating in the 1980s (probably in Britain), the rave is an extended dance, dominated by a disc jockey. Participation in which gives devotees what they claim to be an almost religious sense of community. An authority has called the rave an example of "technoshamanism."

The British Invasion

American rock and roll music inspired a host of British imitators but no British group made an impression on the American market until the advent of the Beatles at the end of 1963. The Beatles' popularity in the United States was phenomenal; in March 1964 they achieved the unprecedented feat of having the top five singles on the nation's charts. Their success in the American market emboldened other British groups like the Rolling Stones to test the trans-Atlantic waters. The success of the Beatles and their compatriots prompted American disc jockeys to coin the phrase "the British Invasion." When the post-1960s decades produced new forms of pop music -- punk, rave, etc., -- the reciprocal borrowing and assimilation of American and British pop musical culture had become so thorough that it became difficult to determine national origin.

"Here Come The Beatles"

This publicity material was released by Capitol Records just prior to the Beatles first American tour in February, 1964. Capitol notes the remarkable sales of the Beatles' first American single, "I Want to Hold Your Hand," and of the group's LP, Meet the Beatles.

1 of 2

The Rolling Stones

One of the most successful British groups following the Beatles into the esteem of American rock fans was the Rolling Stones in whose music critics detected "a more defiant spirit, expressed in snarling vocals [and] raucous guitars."

Randy Tuten. "The Rolling Stones." San Francisco: Tea Lautrec Litho, ca. 1969. Poster. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (244) Courtesy of Bill Graham Presents, Inc. ©B.G.P. 1969

British Model Twiggy

British model Twiggy (Leslie Hornsby, b. 1949) epitomized the "London look" that swept the United States in the 1960s. Twiggy's short hair style and super-short miniskirts were widely imitated. Her first American visit in April 1965 was captured in this Newsweek article.

"Twiggy: Click! Click!" Newsweek, April 10, 1967, pp. 62-63. Page 2, General Collections, Library of Congress (282)

Record Album Covers

Below are record album covers of American rock musicians who were popular in Britain in the 1950s and 1960s as well as those of British groups popular in the United States in the 1960s and 1970s. In the 1950s British rock groups tended to imitate American groups and re-record their most popular songs, a trend that was in some instances reversed in the 1960s, when American groups copied British songs, especially those by the Beatles. A striking example of the recycling of music by British and American groups is the song, "The House of the Rising Sun." Recorded early in this century in Appalachia by the American folklorist, Alan Lomax, "The House of the Rising Sun" was a staple in the repertoire of American singers such as Leadbelly (Hudie Ledbetter [1888-1949]), Josh White (1915-1969), Roy Acuff (1903-1992) and Woody Guthrie (1912-1967). The record album covers, above, show the song migrating from Bob Dylan (b.1941) in 1962 to the British group the Animals in 1964 and to the American group, The Supremes in the same year. It was also recorded by British performers Lonnie Donegan and Marianne Faithful.

1 of 14

British Fashions for Young Americans

In an introduction to a 1965 article on British fashion, Seventeen, the leading magazine for teenage girls, explored various aspects of the craze for anything British, including music, hairstyles, and London night clubs.

"Young London." Seventeen, March 1965, pp. 108-109. General Collections, Library of Congress (242)

Americans and the "Royals"

One of the striking features of American mass popular culture in the period after World War II is the widespread fascination with the British royal family. A foretaste of this phenomenon occurred in the fall of 1860, when the first member of the British royal family ever to visit the United States, Albert Edward, Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII, 1841-1910), created a sensation in New York City. About 300,000 people, one half of the city's population, turned out to see the prince ride through town; so many of members of the city's high society crashed a ball given in his honor on October 12, 1860, that the dance floor collapsed.

The fortunes of Edward VIII (1894-1972) were followed closely in the United States, especially because of the turmoil resulting from his abdication, December 11, 1936, to marry a divorced American, Wallis Simpson of Baltimore. Queen Elizabeth II has made state visits to the United States for two major historic events, the 1957 celebrations of 350th anniversary of the founding of the first successful English colony at Jamestown and the 1976 Bicentennial. More recently, Americans have followed the lives of others in the royal family, especially the queen's eldest son, Prince Charles, and his late wife, Princess Diana.

1 of 3

Back to top