Birth of an Industry: Blackface Minstrelsy and the Rise of American Animation

Birth of an Industry: Blackface Minstrelsy and the Rise of American Animation

by Nicholas Sammond

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In Birth of an Industry, Nicholas Sammond describes how popular early American cartoon characters were derived from blackface minstrelsy. He charts the industrialization of animation in the early twentieth century, its representation in the cartoons themselves, and how important blackface minstrels were to that performance, standing in for the frustrations of animation workers. Cherished cartoon characters, such as Mickey Mouse and Felix the Cat, were conceived and developed using blackface minstrelsy's visual and performative conventions: these characters are not like minstrels; they are minstrels. They play out the social, cultural, political, and racial anxieties and desires that link race to the laboring body, just as live minstrel show performers did. Carefully examining how early animation helped to naturalize virulent racial formations, Sammond explores how cartoons used laughter and sentimentality to make those stereotypes seem not only less cruel, but actually pleasurable. Although the visible links between cartoon characters and the minstrel stage faded long ago, Sammond shows how important those links are to thinking about animation then and now, and about how cartoons continue to help to illuminate the central place of race in American cultural and social life.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822375784
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 08/27/2015
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 400
Sales rank: 771,779
File size: 8 MB

About the Author

Nicholas Sammond is Associate Professor of Cinema Studies at the University of Toronto. He is the author of Babes in Tomorrowland: Walt Disney and the Making of the American Child, 1930-60, and the editor of Steel Chair to the Head: Essays on Professional Wrestling, both also published by Duke University Press.

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Birth of an Industry

Blackface Minstrelsy and the Rise of American Animation

By Nicholas Sammond

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2015 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-7578-4




Early animators were not artists as much as they were entertainers.

— Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, The Illusion of Life (1981)

In their epic review of animation technique à la Disney, The Illusion of Life, Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, two of Walt Disney Productions' "Nine Old Men," offer a historical snapshot that hints at common assumptions about the relationship between popular art and entertainment, and between high art and animation, in the early twentieth century. The notion that an animator was an artist (or draughtsman) first and an entertainer second (if at all) speaks of a division of labor that was increasingly common when the two men began working for Disney in the early 1930s. It had not been the order of things during animation's beginnings twenty years earlier. Thomas and Johnston were skilled craftsmen, animators who could draw Disney's trademark characters on spec and could faithfully contribute to the company's evolving and distinctive style of "full" animation. Yet they were not entertainers: as workers in a rapidly changing industry, they were aware of American commercial animation's origins on the vaudeville stage and its profound debt to that stage's traditions and conventions, which were based in, borrowed from, and shared the spotlight with vaudeville's antecedent forms: burlesque, variety, and blackface minstrelsy. In the 1930s, Disney was the premier animation house in the United States; in the two decades prior to its rise, though, American commercial animation went from an art form that sometimes incorporated film into live performances to an industrial content supplier for both major and minor Hollywood film studios. In the process of that transformation, the visual and performative tropes of vaudeville and blackface minstrelsy — well known to audiences of the day — gave rise to the basic template for trademark continuing characters such as Felix the Cat, Krazy Kat, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, Mickey Mouse, and Bugs Bunny, with many other versions in between. That audiences today do not immediately recognize Mickey as a blackface minstrel is in part an effect of a widely shared belief that blackface minstrelsy no longer seems to be performed on a regular basis (though it is) and of the social and material changes that gradually remade the figure of the performing animator — the interlocutor to those cartoon minstrels — into that of an animation worker. Understanding the rapid transition from animation as performance to animation as industry requires setting aside a standard depiction of the history of early animation as a succession of favorite and famous texts (i.e., cartoons) and instead thinking of it as the development of a performative tradition into a commodity-based one. Thinking of animation first as performance, and later as industry, opens up a genealogy that traces the movement of animation's central conventions and tropes from the stage to the screen, a movement whose counterpoint is the organization of its creative workforce into increasingly rationalized and systematic divisions of labor — the products of which, strangely, regularly performed the labor that went into their creation.

The career of Winsor "Silas" McCay spanned the rise of the movies, the birth of American animation, and its rationalization as an industry. McCay was the most famous of those early performing animators, and the story of his conception of animation (both the process and its products) as a vaudeville act, his departure from vaudeville, and the relationship between the two is illustrative of those changes. A talented artist, gifted performer, and tireless self-promoter, McCay began working in the 1880s, designing posters for the Barnumesque Sackett & Wiggins Wonderland and Eden Musée. After a few years designing posters and programs for dime museums, circuses, and traveling shows, McCay became a newspaper sketch artist — in part because of his skill at drawing the unusual and grotesque and in part because he could draw incredibly quickly and accurately. By the dawn of the twentieth century he had established himself as a newspaper cartoonist, first through editorial cartoons and then through Sunday cartoon series such as Little Sammy Sneeze (1904–1906), Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend (1904–1911, 1913), and Little Nemo in Slumberland(1905–1914). Of these, Dreams and Nemo were particularly popular, and with them McCay gained acclaim as a master of perspective and of a sort of vernacular proto-surrealism, and this work led him to begin experimenting with the sequential art of animation. Dreams was so popular that it became a stage show and then was interpreted on film in 1906 by Edwin S. Porter. In that same year, McCay began an extremely successful vaudeville career, working as a lightning-sketch artist and developing stage acts that would eventually make use of his animated films Little Nemo (1911), How a Mosquito Operates (1912), and Gertie (1914). In 1914, McCay's new contract with newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst, for whom he worked as a cartoonist, forbade him from performing on vaudeville stages outside New York City. Although McCay's films continued to circulate, this effectively signaled the beginning of the end of a very lucrative and satisfying performing career. McCay returned to the stage briefly in 1927, but by then vaudeville was in sharp decline — in part because of its replacement by movie/performance combination shows and by short-subject films, including cartoons (see chapter 3).

Winsor McCay died in 1934 at the relatively young age of sixty-seven, of heart disease probably hastened by alcohol. Yet he had already stopped producing cartoons in the early 1920s, a few years after he stopped performing animation for live vaudeville audiences. Of his final works, Bug Vaudeville (1921) clearly delineates McCay's sense of his importance to animation, while nodding to the rapid changes to moviegoing and cartooning that, during the late teens and early twenties, made him marginal in an industry he had helped to create. More than a visual epitaph for a fading showman, Bug Vaudeville offers a schematic of that marginalization, a means of reading changes to animation as an art, a craft, and an industry. In its self-reflexivity the cartoon performs a struggle to reconcile the contradictions between those three modes of production: art, craft, industry. Like many of the best cartoons of its age, the film tells a story that is as much about the social and material relations that obtained around its making as it is about the acrobatic Junebugs or butterflies on horseback it features. Like its maker, the cartoon is caught between celebrating an onrushing and tranformative technological modernity and recognizing in that transformation a pending obsolescence.

Even though McCay was only fifty-two when he made it, Bug Vaudeville seems a swan song. An opening title card announces that the short is part of a series made famous by McCay's comic strip Dreams; it is replaced by a picture of the animator himself, staring rather dolefully out at the audience. Superimposed over this is a characteristically brash claim: "The originator and inventor of animated drawing Winsor McCay. This picture is drawn entirely by hand." This announcement not only positions McCay as the creator of an entire type of cinema — a dubious claim, but one not entirely without merit — it also implies that what he does in this and other cartoons is different from what other animators do, the product of craft rather than industry. Truth be told, pretty much all animated films at that time were drawn by hand, albeit not necessarily by a single person. But McCay's claim suggests that somehow the increasingly rationalized animation industry of the late teens had done away with the human touch of the artisan, of which he remained the epitome. This baleful still of McCay also speaks of his departure from the vaudeville stage, as do the title and topic of the film: in this still image, he sits motionless, staring out through, and somewhat obscured by, his bold claim.

The rest of the film is no less somber. A hobo enters the frame and settles down by a tree next to a rustic pond. A title card indicates that a handout of cheesecake he's gotten from an unseen woman has made him sleepy, and he's worried that it will give him queer dreams. Lying down to sleep it off, he immediately dreams that he is seated in the front row of an otherwise empty vaudeville house. (We see him there only from behind and in silhouette, as a head and shoulders and a set of applauding hands.) This now two-dimensional hobo watches a series of specialty acts — acrobats, pugilists, eccentric dancers, and the like — all of whom are bugs or spiders. Except for applauding listlessly at the end of each number, he sits completely still. Likewise, although every one of the numbers is ostensibly incredibly athletic and energetic, each unfolds at a lethargic and monotonous pace, and the expressions on the bug performers are anything but animated.

But the existential emptiness of the piece runs deeper. Each act is bracketed by the opening and closing of curtains, and each time the stage is revealed, its elaborate backgrounds display the easy mastery of perspective and rococo detail for which McCay was famous. Yet the bug performers repeatedly undermine the stability of those backgrounds, which in one moment are clearly drop curtains and in the next seem made up of discrete three-dimensional elements on the stage where the bugs move. That is, the bugs appear to move in and out of the backdrops, actually morphing the spatial relations of the stage as they perform. To put it another way, the spatial dynamics of the stage oscillate between two dimensions and three, as if what appears there could at one moment be merely a drawing and in the next become a thing of substance, inhabiting and helping to constitute the material world.

The last number in the show is titled "The Spider and the Fly." The curtain parts and a huge spider begins to perform a very lazy trapeze act, drifting slowly back and forth from upstage to down and from side to side. No fly appears. The spider continues to swing from side to side, then back and forth. As it swings forward, out over the audience, it descends on the hobo, lifting him up into the air, seemingly intent on eating him. With an intertitled cry of "Oh Mama!" the hobo awakes ... then slowly and silently stands and stares out at the pond. The end.

It would be easy enough to read this twelve-minute film biographically and be done with its contribution to animation hagiography. But juxtaposing the cartoon and its place in the history of American popular culture against the arc of McCay's career allows the film to speak to and for more. By 1921 the meticulous, time-consuming, largely solo-animator animation McCay practiced had been supplanted by a highly rationalized animation industry with a hierarchical division of labor, grueling production schedules, and a high weekly output (see chapter 2). For McCay, though, animation was first and foremost performative. This had certainly been true of his lightning-sketch act, traces of which remain in the live prologues of Little Nemo (1911) and Gertie (1914). Yet performance also lurks in the boastful intertitle at the beginning of Bug Vaudeville in which McCay throws down a gauntlet to other animators, dismissing what they do as somehow inhumanly mechanized. Artisan-performers such as McCay were, like the hobo in Bug Vaudeville, a slowly and quietly dyingbreed. At the same time, vaudeville, while still quite popular, was beginning to give ground to an increasingly powerful movie industry, to which commercial animation was becoming a fully integrated adjunct. Occupying an indeterminate space between house and stage, the hobo is both a member of the audience and McCay's stand-in (he who dreams the characters to life). In this he invokes what Donald Crafton has recently described as "animation performativity," the cocreation of the animate world by the animator, his creations, and the audience watching the performance. The spider, like the other denizens of the bug vaudeville troupe, moves in and out of the indeterminate space of the stage/background; unlike the others, he seems intent on consuming the hobo, absorbing him into an apparently dying form of performance, and of sociality. This short film is elegaic, paying homage to not one but two embattled performative forms: vaudeville generally and hand-drawn, performed animation in particular. For McCay, animation was more than simply a mode of visual narrative; it was an attraction centered around a performing animator who was part artist, part magician, and part raconteur. And vaudeville was more than simply another form of performance; it was a distinctly social entertainment in which performers and audience members sometimes engaged in a lively colloquy that punctured the boundaries between stage and house.

In this light, the film becomes legible as a paean to a dying mode of artisanal production, and to the fading of vaudeville in general. But the strange spatial relations of the piece are as important as its dolorous, lethargic pacing and its sad sparsity. McCay was known as a master of depth of field and spatial relations in both his still and animated work. In Bug Vaudeville, the confusion between the background and the plane of action is unsettling, and it seems unlikely that he would accidentally confuse the two. Whether the cartoon's indeterminate backgrounds are intended or merely strange happenstance, they present a troubled metaphysics, one in which the boundaries between audience and performer are occluded, as well as those between two-dimensional and three-dimensional space. The hobo, the lone human figure at this performance, is acknowledged at the outset as both its creator — it's his dream that produces the performers — and its consumer. Yet he himself is insubstantial: not only do the performers have more volume and substance than he does, they can move freely between the two-dimensional backgrounds and the ostensibly three-dimensional space of the stage, while the hobo is trapped in his seat and in silhouette. More than that, the movements of the performers actually morph the space itself, turning curtains into a stage and vice versa. In the end, the tramp's creation is so powerful that it attempts to absorb him into its lethargic, chthonic realm. He dreams of the vaudeville show that will consume him: in an empty house, it preys on the last live audience member, without whom there is no show. Animation, which McCay conceived of as a performative form, had transformed before his eyes into an industry, one in which the products consumed their producers — in which animators became anonymous workers and the characters, the product, were the stars. When the product consumed its producer, the boundaries between representational realms — the painted drop, the thin sliver of the stage apron, and the "real" world of the house — collapsed. In this short tale lies a history of spatial metaphysics and material relations, of an oscillation between the factory floor and the final product, of the performance of real social change at the level of both content and form.


This history is rather mundane, and very important because of its very plainness. Commercial animation in the United States was first created by a relative few practitioners, and at a very specific historical juncture — when motion pictures were emerging as a dominant form of entertainment. At the same time, in the first two decades of the twentieth century, modes of production (and their attendant social relations) were also undergoing a radical transformation: the industrialization that had begun in the previous century was approaching its apotheosis in regimes of efficiency, management, and regulation that are today often grouped under the sign of "Fordism." Within this rapidly changing social and material landscape, the roots of commercial animation's aesthetics, in tropes so common we scarcely notice them today (such as the convention of putting gloves on characters or of characters speaking directly to the audience), were bound to the interests, tastes, and cultural expectations of those early animators and producers as they navigated this changing social, material, and industrial landscape.


Excerpted from Birth of an Industry by Nicholas Sammond. Copyright © 2015 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Table of Contents

Note on the Companion Website  ix

Acknowledgments  xi

Introduction. Biting the Invisible Hand  1

1. Performance  33

2. Labor  87

3. Space  135

4. Race  203

Conclusion. The "New" Blackface  267

Notes  307

Bibliography  351

Index  365

What People are Saying About This

Regarding Frank Capra: Audience, Celebrity, and American Film Studies - Eric Smoodin

"This is a truly foundational book, explaining how blackface minstrelsy is central to the representational practices, industrial systems, and technologies of animation. The Birth of an Industry analyzes cinema and race through the lenses of labor and aesthetics, and the elegant and scrupulous historiographic practice serves as an example to scholars working in any number of fields. Nicholas Sammond has made an immediate and lasting contribution to our understanding of the peculiar symbiosis of race and cinema, and to its particular relevance to the animated film."

Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class - Eric Lott

"Welcome to an X-ray of Toontown, its Bones showing.  Minstrelsy has sometimes seemed the skeleton in the closet of American animation, its racist tar coons hiding inside our most beloved cartoons—Felix, Mickey, Bugs, Daffy, and a host of others both before and after them.  With sweeping erudition and definitive archival and theoretical diagnoses, Nicholas Sammond shows just how pervasively blackface figurations have formed the backbone of our animated fantasy lives. Modern cartoons don’t merely nod to nineteenth-century blackface performance, Sammond establishes, they constitute its afterlife."

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