On June 5, 1851, Uncle Tom’s Cabin; or, Life Among the Lowly began to appear in serial form in the Washington National Era, an abolitionist weekly. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s anti-slavery story was published in forty installments over the next ten months. For her story Mrs. Stowe was paid $300.
In matters of art there is but one rule, to paint and to move. And where shall we find conditions more complete, types more vivid, situations more touching, more original, than in Uncle Tom?
Although the National Era had a limited circulation, its audience increased as reader after reader passed their copies along to one another. In March 1852, a Boston publisher decided to issue Uncle Tom’s Cabin External as a book and it became an instant best seller. Three hundred thousand copies were sold the first year, and about two million copies were sold worldwide by 1857. For a three-month period Stowe reportedly received $10,000 in royalties. Across the nation people discussed the novel and debated the most pressing sociopolitical issue dramatized in its narrative—slavery.
Because Uncle Tom’s Cabin so polarized the abolitionist and anti-abolitionist debate, some claim that it is one of the causes of the Civil War. Indeed, when President Lincoln received its author, Harriet Beecher Stowe, at the White House in 1862, legend has it he exclaimed, “So this is the little lady who made this big war?”
For some sixty-five years after its debut, Uncle Tom’s Cabin was frequently presented on stage. According to the article “Negro on the American Stage External,” as late as 1913 there were “about four Uncle Tom’s Cabin Companies en tour, and at least two of them…doing a good business.” By the late 1800s, however, productions often caricatured Stowe’s more carefully depicted literary figures. While at first white actors usually played all the parts (rendering characters such as the slaves Uncle Tom, Eliza, and Little Eva in blackface), some productions starred African-American actors and singers.
A black actor, Sam Lucas (for whom the song “Uncle Tom’s Gwine to Stay External” was written) first played the title role on film in 1914. By 1927, at least seven silent film versions of Uncle Tom’s Cabin had been made. More recently, The King and I — a Broadway play, movie, and animated feature film — contains a stylized version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin within its own story. Over time Uncle Tom’s Cabin has been translated into at least twenty-three languages.
This poster publicized Harmount’s production of Uncle Tom’s Cabin at the Wilmington, Ohio, Opera House. Harmount’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin Company, based in Williamsport, Ohio, was a theatrical road show company which operated from 1903-29.
This title card, used in theater lobbies to advertise the film, is from a rare issue of a thirty-minute silent film version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin originally released by Vitagraph Studio in 1910. Directed by J. Stuart Blackton, a noted director of the period, this version featured Maurice Costello, Clara Kimball Young, and Norma Talmadge, all of whom became major stars.
- The harsh Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, was one of the factors that impelled Harriet Beecher Stowe to write Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The above bust image of Anthony Burns, whose trial under the Act touched off riots and protests by abolitionists and citizens of Boston in 1854, was drawn from a daguerreotype. The print depicts scenes from his life.
- Read Documentary History of Slavery in the United States from the collection African American Perspectives, 1818-1907 for a concise review of slavery in the U.S. between 1774 and 1850, when the Fugitive Slave Act was passed.
- Search the Digital Collections on the term Uncle Tom’s Cabin to find a wide variety of material concerning the book, subsequent theatrical adaptations, and related music. See, for example, the musical pieces “Eliza’s Flight External,” published in 1852 and “Eva to Her Papa External.”
- Search on the term Harriet Beecher Stowe in Cornell University Library Making of America Collection External to find material written by and concerning Mrs. Stowe. Among these items is a review of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, entitled “Uncle Tom in England” from the London Times of Friday, September 3, 1852.
- Between 1852 and the Civil War, Uncle Tom’s Cabin evoked at least twenty-five proslavery (“anti-Tom”) External novels. Search on the term slavery in First-Person Narratives of the American South External to reveal many non-fiction accounts of slavery. Tupelo External, by John Hill Aughey, describes the plight of abolitionists living in the South at the time of secession while quoting a Southern perspective on slavery.
- Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936 to 1938 contains more than 2,300 first-person accounts of slavery and 500 black-and-white photographs of former slaves. Read the Introduction to the WPA Slave Narratives to learn the background of this ambitious effort of the Federal Writers’ Project of the Works Progress Administration. Also choose images, photographed to accompany many of the narratives, from the Subject Index.
- Search on the term Uncle Tom in America Singing: Nineteenth-Century Song Sheets to find song sheets based on the drama of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” at the National Theater, N.Y.
- Search on the names Jenny Lind and Mark Twain in Today in History to learn more about two contemporaries and admirers of Harriet Beecher Stowe. Search the archive on the term Walden to learn about another American literary classic which addressed a social conundrum.
- From Slavery to Freedom: The African-American Pamphlet Collection, 1824-1909 presents 396 pamphlets published from 1824 through 1909 by African-American authors and others who wrote about slavery, African colonization, Emancipation, Reconstruction, and related topics. Search the Subject Index to find a wide variety of materials including personal accounts, orations, reports, and speeches.