Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Book Review: Mummies in 19th-Century America

Fortrean Times (Christine Quigley)

Mummies in 19th-Century America
Author: SJ Wolfe, with Robert Singerman
Publisher: McFarland, 2009

A intriguing study of a commodity used as display, currency and medicine - and faked using swaddled dead tramps...

What is almost as good as seeing an ancient Egyptian mummy in an American museum? This book. The ransacking of ancient Egypt­ians – and their antiquities – was shameful, but it makes for great reading.

SJ Wolfe, of the American Antiquarian Society, does a remarkable job of cataloguing and describing the importation of the coffins and their contents from the arrival of the first one in 1823.

Mummies captivate us, and they were no less captivating to those in the 19th century who were seeing them for the first time. Then, the venue was not a museum and the exhibit was not appropriately contextualised. Instead, it was the front window of a candy or clothing store in a bid for more business, and the customers it drew were sometimes allowed to touch the mummy.

Mummies were brought over from Egypt to preside over a charity event or to reside in a library. They dramatised the exotic in dime museums, confirmed the pseudo-scientific in phrenology circles, and were the centre of attention at public lectures and private “unrollings”. They were sought by a president (Grover Cleveland) and by the father of a presidential assassin (Junius Brutus Booth).

Wolfe has ferreted out handfuls of period ads, illustrations, and quotes from contemporary magazines and newspapers to show the ways these travellers from the Old World were made to serve in the New World.

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