On June 5, 1851, Uncle Tom’s Cabin; or, Life Among the Lowly began to appear in serial form in The National Era, an abolitionist weekly published in Washington, D.C. 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 “The 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.