22nd January 2013 – Carolee Klimchock, Humor Hung Like a Horse: Coachmen and Coaches as Satirical Sites for Discussions of Class and Power in the Gilded Age

The PSWG blog this week presents a curated series of responses to Carolee Klimchock’s paper ‘Humor Hung Like a Horse: Coachmen and Coaches as Satirical Sites for Discussions of Class and Power in the Gilded Age’. Carolee has selected for us a group of objects of performance around which her research is crystallizing. By ‘objects of performance’ we mean things which embody, depict, surrogate, reflect, describe or resonate with a performance in the past and which constitute the focus of our critical attention. They could be films, audio recordings, clothes, anecdotes, buildings, gestures and so on- in short, objects by which we know the presence- or disappearance- of a performance. In this case Carolee has chosen a set of photographs and anecdotes.

You are welcome to extend the conversation.


“An Ill Matched Coachman”

“A Philadelphia lady is in deep distress concerning her coachman. She returned from a drive in very dejected spirits the other day and explained the cause to a friend by saying:–“I sent clear to South Carolina to get a man to match my brougham. He was a real olive green, and I was delighted all summer. Why, you don’t know how many congratulations I received on my taste at the City Troop races! But now the cold weather comes he turns that nasty grey. The wretch, I believe he knew he would.”—

(New York Herald, 1885)


“In selecting his coachman, a man should be as careful as in the purchase of a horse…If he is young and good-looking he will elope with his employer’s daughter.”

Chicago Daily Tribune, 1900.


“Matrimony is becoming a more stable institution, judging from the numerous coachmen elopements.”

The World, 1888


3 thoughts on “22nd January 2013 – Carolee Klimchock, Humor Hung Like a Horse: Coachmen and Coaches as Satirical Sites for Discussions of Class and Power in the Gilded Age

  1. Both the 40-year phenomenon of women running away with their coachmen and the cultural processing of that phenomenon through humor are really engaging sites of inquiry, and Carolee’s talk provided a fantastic introduction to a world I know almost nothing about.

    Listening as an African Americanist, I was immediately drawn to the black coachmen who appeared in newspaper headlines and in images of coachman, but who seemed (and Carolee confirmed) absent from coachman jokes, at least explicitly. It isn’t hard to speculate as to why—one supposes the addition of miscegenation to a scandal of class crossing rendered the affair decidedly unfunny. Moreover, the era of the coachman affair coincided with the height of lynchings. While lynchings were very often not about miscegenation, a powerful mythology of threatened “social equality” accompanied them.

    So in light of women running away with coachman with a frequency that became comic—and the imagined threat of racial mixing ever lurking in the white imagination—what would it mean for a white family to install or keep a black coachman? Further—and it was John’s comments about the coachman’s grace and finery that put me in mind of this—what did it mean, in the era in which Zip Coon inhabited the minstrel stage, for the black coachman to appear in grace and finery whist occupying the coachman’s (sexy) position? Was he rendered absurd? Did families hope that their women could not be attracted to a Negro coachman, and would therefore be more insulated? Or did it hint at a liberal take on race? Were black coachmen more common or popular in the North or South? Given their prominence in inaugural photographs, I wonder whether black coachman acquired iconographic significance at certain events? And what of the coachman’s own agency in self-presentation—was the coachman’s position coveted by black men, and why?

    This is perhaps rather tangential to the great work Carolee has done so far, but suggests great opportunity for future work around performative aspects of the coachman affairs indebted to Carolee’s framing.

  2. *** Posted on behalf of Mary Isbell, University of Connecticut ***

    As was the case for Tina, Carolee’s rich talk on representations of coachman scandals prompted many questions for me about the history of coachmen. And indeed, Tina’s questions are important ones to consider in terms of the overall project (I particularly like her question, “did it hint at a liberal take on race?” and her fantastic suggestion for testing such a query: “Were black coachmen more common or popular in the North or South?). To add to the list of questions, I am curious when such elopements emerged as an issue. The presentation focused on the Gilded Age, but I’m curious about the long history of eloping with one’s driver…was this the first iteration of such scandals or can we see them in earlier periods and/or in other locations? To the primary questions Carolee was pursuing in her presentation—how to approach the puns and the renderings—I would suggest that they might be productively approached in terms of genre. Of course, it goes without saying that not all humor functions in the same way (of the three delightful jokes included above…the first functions quite differently from the latter two), and so one might approach the renderings (I recall Carolee thinking of one as “absurd”) as situated this or that way on a continuum of generic modes. The relationship of the pun to extended vaudevillian routines that Joe mentioned seems extremely productive here—and examples of more avant-garde cultural commentary might prove useful in situating the renderings within genres circulating in the period. When attempting to determine how these jokes provide insight into anxieties (or flippancy) about class, in other words, I think they should be approached as one of many perspectives.    

  3. I thought Carolee’s talk was fascinating, primarily because the materials it brought to light were so deeply divided. This post is about the divisions between puns, photographs and classes in the Gilden Age.

    Consider how in each of the above ‘jokes’ the coachman and his lover are summarily negated as subjectivities by subsumption into the speaker’s self-satisfied word play. In the first a coachman is belittled and subsumed into a bourgeois lady’s whimsy for colored livery and in the second a coachman is belittled and subsumed by a bourgeois gentleman’s comparison of him to two other things he self-regardingly believes to own- his daughter and his horse. Drollery, belittlement, whimsy and self-satisfied punning are all ways of ‘making light’ in which certain members of the coach-owning classes of the Gilded Age and or readers who fancied themselves to be thus, attempted to negate perceived social inferiors.

    In light of the above photography is a revolutionary medium. This is because it represents ‘a negotiated contract between portrayer and portrayed’ (Richard Powell, Cutting a Figure) which emerges from the medium’s indexicality. Look at the sepia photograph, for example, in the middle on the top row. The coachman is positioned by the camera to occupy his rank and employment and thereby has his social significance assigned to him by the lens. His gaze on the camera seems to acknowledge and bow to this convention that he be photographed and made to stand in for his class. But whilst lending his uniformed aspect to the camera his hands and body remain disposed to the black horses, restraining them with automatic grace. Note that his top-hatted face and livery are in focus- but his hands and the horses whose bridles he holds are at work, moving and therefore blurred. With the alacrity of skill and experience the coachman is both still and in motion at once. To hold such a classical position is grace. It is this disposition of skill, facility and calm that, to my eye, transforms the livery of both man and horse into a personal adornment which, precisely because its gracefulness could only be produced under lower class conditions, was erotically charged to middle and upper class observers.

    Equally the whip of the black coachman at top left is, if you zoom in, quivering and blurred. That photographic sleight puts the subject in possession of a potentiality oppressed in the race- and class-stratified world outside of the image. Tina mentioned lynchings- if you’ve seen Django Unchained you’ll remember the early scene when he rides into the town to the astonishment of the people on a horse and rides straight past a dangling noose with his unlynched head not in it- this rider also stands by a noose-shaped ring with his head not in it. That makes the sheer act of standing in livery with a whip iconographically powerful.

    Tina asked whether the black coachman ‘acquired iconographic significance at certain events’ and I think that in the certain event of the camera that is exactly what happened. The jokes have no iconographic significance for the coachman because they merely represent the mediocre self-aggrandisement of the Gilded Age middlebrow. On that point I would want to insist- that any reading of those jokes has to respond to their flagrantly classist manner. No doubt the photographs are framed to some extent by classist techniques of manipulation- and knowing more of their provenance would help clarify that- but nonetheless, subjectivity in the photographs makes itself visible as irresistibly as a coach horse chomping at the bit.

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