Silver-haired girls and seventy-year-old triplets, chronic invalids and cross-dressing women -- portraits of these wondrous women appeared in early American print culture for readers to study or simply to gawk at. Unlike well-known women writers, missionaries, and wives of statesmen, a diverse set of women gained celebrity primarily through their bodies and physical appearances. Some were remarkable for their size, others for their transgressions of female norms, and still others for their illnesses, disabilities, or longevity. These portraits, published between 1771 and 1859, appear in works as varied as almanacs, journals of phrenology, and ethnographic histories. Whether the publications were intended to educate or entertain, the portraits today provide us with a lens through which we can better understand historical constructions of the female body.
By Hilary Malson, intern from Haverford College’s John B. Hurford ’60 Humanities Center in summer 2010, in collaboration with Edith Mulhern.
Booth, Alison. How to Make It as a Woman: Collective Biographical History from Victoria to the Present (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004).
Thomson, Rosemarie Garland. Freakery: Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body (New York: New York University Press, 1996).
Young, Andrew F. Masquerade: The Life and Times of Deborah Sampson, Continental Soldier (New York: Knopf, 2004).