There are so many great comics with women as creators and as protagonists. I have chosen twelve titles (listed in alphabetical order below) that I think are worth checking out no matter what time of the year. Along the way, I have tried to pick a diverse set of tales for you to enjoy. If you’d like, you can read one every month (especially as most of these are series, you’ll have plenty of time to complete the list by next March).
Welcome to Katherine’s bookshelf, and another deep dive into home economics. Steel yourself. Stuffed vegetables, casual sexism, and some very surprising surprises lurk within. It’s exactly what it looks like from the cover: a home economics textbook from 1960.
I’ve got more pictures from the inside of this one, because the production values are quite high, quite 1960s, and quite informative, actually. Let’s start at the beginning, the table of contents:
This book gets bonus postmodern-ironic appreciation points for using the word “attractive” three times in the table of contents alone. The entirety of Unit I can be summarized as “any problems you have in life are because you haven’t tried to fit in with other people hard enough, and you better be able to deal with babies, because that’s your job, now and forever” – which is a sentiment that I find to be really messed up. Unit II continues the concentration on diet and health found in the Boston Cooking School Cook Book and ads some instruction for not giving everybody food poisoning, as well as some updated (1960) advice on a balanced diet: eat a vegetable or fruit once in a while. They’re good for you. Don’t be deceived by the title of Unit III, Part 4 – they mean your budget allotted to you for groceries, basically, although the home decorating advice is hilarious, and there are some neat tips about house cleaning. Then there’s Unit IV: Making Yourself Attractive, which certainly sounds – and is – awful and condescending. Yet… this is the most useful and relevant part of the book. I’m not even kidding. Parts 3 – 6 are actually indispensable for clothes shopping. As it happens, if you take care of and repair your things, you have to buy replacements less often, which means you can afford better quality things, and replace them even less often, resulting in a virtuous cycle of saving money in the long run. That’s why I definitely do darn my socks.
In this vein of pragmatism, and the ultimate point of home economics education, here’s a nifty Google Ngram that tracks the frequency of the phrase “home economics” against the names of a few vitamin deficiency diseases. (I didn’t include scurvy, because it was well-known and discussed in the age of sail, as well as a cure found – fruit – even if they didn’t know why it worked. If I’d kept scurvy in, it would have flooded the results, but there is a bump in the early 1900s, right as vitamins are discovered.) I did, however, include rickets, pellagra, and beriberi, and there is, indeed, a nice boost in frequency right at the same time. In large part, the purpose of home economics was to provide a formal education with the sophistication and authority of logic and science in how to be a housewife, in the hopes that this information – especially about nutrition – would improve public health.
Double stuffed squashes.
One thing I really have taken away from my old cookbooks is that American palates have gotten MUCH more used to spicy foods, even in just the last forty years. Very interesting.
Welcome back, true believers and fellow travelers! I know it’s been a long time but your intrepid author is still on the case, dropping science on those four-color and/or black and white narratives you love so well.
First off, some definitions which will be useful to know for this installment’s conversation:
Canon, in comics, is the official body of stories that are considered to be the “true” history of a fictional character, team, or world.
Continuity is the accumulated history of a character or shared universe that is accepted by the publisher and the community of readers. It is often coherent in the way that a life story seems to be. This means that there may be odd stories or character quirks that exist but are explained or ignored in favor of consistency.
Copyright (defined by the U.S.P.T.O.) is “a form of protection provided by U.S. law to the authors of original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression.”
Legacy characters are ones who take on the identity of a previously established character. Often this is due to the age, disability, or death of the original character.
Reboot (or Continuity Reboot) is when previously established continuity is ignored in part or completely. Some feel that rather than the old continuity being destroyed, the current run simply recounts the tales of an alternate universe version of the same characters (however this interpretation is generally not accepted by the publisher as the new comic is now put forward as the “true” continuity with the older version ceasing to exist).
Rebrand (or Retool)is when a character changes without the rest of the continuity itself changing. It may be as simple as a costume change, more general as a new set of powers, or as complicated as a total change of the character’s identity. There may be no good reason for the change, other than for marketing purposes.
Retcon (or Retroactive Continuity)is the changing of some past event in a comic by a current plot line. It typically involves some kind of alteration or nullification of the previously understood continuity. However, a clever retcon will fit seamlessly with the past continuity though the understanding of events will change.
Let’s look at continuity using the case of everyone’s favorite friendly neighborhood Spider-Man. The character has been either in high school, in college, in the adult world, married, unmarried, a journalist, a billionaire tech innovator, a clone (yes, a clone!), bonded with an alien symbiote, et cetera, all while remaining in copyright and under the control of one publisher, Marvel Comics. Spidey has stayed primarily in his late teens or early 20’s for most of that time, though in August it will have been 60 years since his first appearance (Amazing Fantasy #15). Spider-Man’s many changes are not that unusual for the comic business (for instance, the Barry Allen version of The Flash clocks in at 65 years since his debut, 23 years of which he was canonically dead).
OK, let’s talk about the function of narrative. Narrative is the pithy way to say, “how a story is told,” or “the way in which meaning is conveyed from author/publisher to audience/consumer.” In order to do so, narrative takes many possible pieces of information and compresses them in a way that can be (relatively) easily translated. Typically, there are five elements of narrative: setting, characters, plot, conflict, and result (some would say “resolution” but one possible outcome is just that something happens and nothing is truly wrapped up tidily).
Disjunctures in narrative are where the various issues surrounding continuity arise. These innovations, breaks, or interruptions may eventually be enfolded into the ongoing mythology of a series (oh, wait, there’s Pink Kryptonite, too) or may lead to larger adjustments (so, uh, Thor Odinson isn’t worthy to wield Mjolnir? But Jane Foster is? Ok, let’s roll). Or more drastically, there is no connection between two versions of a character in the same fictional universe (ex: Jack Kirby and Neil Gaiman’s versions of Death*). As well, another creative team may decide that they just need to start from scratch but use a cool name that is too good to pass up (I’m looking at you Kamala Khan). Many times, the characters will be linked in some manner (most common is a passing of the mantle) and so a legacy character is born.
Keep in the back of your mind that copyright often makes this complicated in the case of older comics. This is because once copyright protection expires (or if it was not appropriately established in the first place), a different publisher or creative team can swoop in and do what they want with the character. This sometimes means there are competing versions of the same character at the same time on the market. That’s not a problem when you are enjoying the stories (or collecting) contemporaneously but can make it a nightmare when trying to delve into the history of a long-standing property.
A perfect case in point would be British comic Marvel Man (alternately named Miracleman), made popular in later years by Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman stories. Originally, the title was published from 1954-1963 by L. Miller and Sons, a British producer of comics, magazines, and cheap paperbacks. Mick Anglo, the creator of the character, who left employment with L. Miller and Sons, also published some tales on his own in 1960-1961. L. Miller and Sons went out of business altogether in 1966 and the character languished for almost 20 years.
In 1982, Quality Publications put out a new version of Marvel Man with Alan Moore as writer and Garry Leach (and later Alan Davis) as artist. After two years and complaints from Marvel Comics, the character’s story ended abruptly without being resolved. Quality then licensed the character to two indie publishers in succession, Pacific Comics, who quickly went out of business, and Eclipse Comics. When Eclipse got ahold of the character, they changed the name to Miracleman to avoid legal action by Marvel Comics and hired Neil Gaiman to be the writer.
It gets pretty murky after that because Eclipse went out of business in 1986. Todd McFarland, a popular creator at the time (his most famous creation being Spawn), purchased the rights to the catalog of Pacific Comics in 1996. Neil Gaiman disputed McFarlane’s ownership, contending that as the name had changed and he had crafted a completely different version of the character, he was a co-owner of Miracleman and had not surrendered his interests at the time of Pacific Comic’s sale.
After years of legal action, the original creator, Mick Anglo, was deemed the true owner of the character in 2009. That same year, Marvel Comics purchased the rights from Anglo. Eventually, they released the entire series in an oversized trade paperback edition, retaining the title Miracleman. And finally, just this past year, Marvel decided to bring the character into the mainstream Marvel Comics continuity in their new Timeless series, the trade paperback of which is scheduled to be released this February.
Along the way, the character was distinctly different under each era of publication, though subsequent incarnations did incorporate elements from the previous iterations. The comic has had six publishers, some in the UK and some in the United States. It was its own independent universe for most of its run but now is a part of a larger multiverse. It has been released in multiple sizes, carried different numbering, and two separate names over the years.
As you can see, totally a nightmare but totally worth reading (*ahem* LFPL currently owns volume 1 of the Marvel reprints).
Reboots and rebrands are more controversial. They may well be the thing needed to give a shot in the arm to a flagging character or group. The new direction or new look can also come with new artists or authors, spinning exciting new stories. Sometimes it is a small thing, such as a character with a goofy or outdated costume gets upgraded into a much cooler outfit. But the changes involved often are met with resistance by the regular readers, who have a vested interested in the continuity they have come to know and love.
The modern issue with rebooting is that (in a market that has seen a noticeable downturn in sales for individual issues over the last decade or two) reboots are becoming very common. The reason for this is that — due to collectors’ habits — a new first issue for a title generates a big bump in sales. But the practice also leads to burnout on the part of regular readers and contributes to attrition of those readers over time as they drop titles or even whole publishers.
Despite all that, I do love new takes on old characters, especially a well-done retcon. One in particular that I enjoy is the Captain America storyline, The Winter Soldier, by Ed Brubaker. I don’t want to spoil it for you but I will tell you that this run is the basis for several of the MCU blockbusters that have come out and for The Falcon and Winter Soldiertelevision series.
*Both denizens of the DC universe, Kirby’s Death is known as the Black Racer, who, hilariously, is just a guy using skis to zoom through the air while Gaiman’s Death is the cute GGF (Goth girlfriend) that generations of fanboys have lusted after.
Welcome back to Katherine’s Bookshelf. This one’s fairly straightforward. It’s a cookbook of candy recipes for various holidays. Now, you might think that this half-century old candy book is just as obsolete as math tables for slide rules, but no. Just as trigonometry is still a thing, people still like candy. What makes it special is that this book doesn’t require or even assume the use of specialized equipment. No candy thermometers required. In fact, lots of the recipes don’t even mention a temperature. You’re making fudge from scratch, and you’re on your own.
Nothing but your own prior knowledge, experience, and reading comprehension skill stands between you and a ruined sauce pan. It’s a fine line between delicious candy and carbonized cement, and this book expects you to already know where the line lies.
It’s extremely intimidating. This is not a beginner book. The recipes for candy are like written instructions for performing a triple axel – it assumes you know how to skate. If, however, you already know a thing or two about the chemical and material properties of molten sugar, and you somehow don’t have a candy thermometer, or you want to see how people made candy without them, this is the book for you.
If you find this daunting, there are plenty of fine candy cookbooks at the library, and even some candy histories. Virginia Pasley’s Holiday Candy Cookbook isn’t in our collection, nor would it be. Although the candy is still good sixty years after its publication, the recipes are scary. Maybe someday I’ll get up the courage to brave stirring a pot of sugary napalm for the sake of some fudge. But not anytime soon, probably.
I love it. Everything about this book is great. Look at this stylish cover. You know exactly what it’s about: ATOMS, and THE FUTURE. Check out the spine:
This next paragraph is going to be bibliophile heresy, so you might want to sit down first.
Most of the time, you CAN judge a book by its cover. This is because publisher’s marketing departments exist for a reason. They exist to sell books, and get those books into the hands of the people who will want to pay for them, as quickly as possible. One of their methods is cover design. It’s actually a very rare cover that does a truly terrible job at conveying what the book is about, commercially, in a target audience sense, rather than a plot sense. Imagine a romance novel cover. Imagine a sci-fi space opera book cover. Imagine a teen dystopian fiction book cover. Imagine a shojo manga cover. You can. You know what these books look like, because they’ve all drifted into similar designs, so that someone expecting a romance novel doesn’t get stuck with a dry, navel-gaze-y sci-fi book instead. You know what you want and you know what it looks like. This book looks like pure, uncontaminated optimism and faith in a future that is only going to get better. Through SCIENCE.
If there’s any scientists reading this post, please keep reading and talk to some historians. This epic tragedy of the late 20th Century and the use of scientific cachet for marketing is a piece of the puzzle of why a good chunk of the American public has lost trust in scientific messaging. Throughout the century, there was a whole endless parade of products and innovations sold to the public with the promise of science. A lot of which turned out to be terrible ideas (ironically often discovered to be so with more science): DDT, plastic everything, throw-away culture, tetraethyl lead in the gasoline, eugenics (don’t get me started on the intensely creepy history of beauty pageants), radium suppositories. Not kidding about that last one. There were a few decades there in the early 20th Century when they were putting radium in everything. Including butts. In case you think this was an isolated thing, here’s a completely different brand of radium suppositories. Both of these courtesy of Oak Ridge Health Physics and Instrumentation Museum Online exhibits. Fun!
Yet, every once in a while, I read a very depressing article from scientists wondering why the public has so much skepticism about important issues. There’s a history here, which is part of the problem that I rarely see explored or even acknowledged by scientific publications. Never underestimate cultural memory or the power of marketing, whether to sell a product to the public, or to distract the public from the damage that same product is causing. Look to the tobacco industry for a history lesson in marketing and using scientific authority – or the appearance of it – as a means to shield an industry against the interests of defending public health. This is why academic disciplines need to talk to each other. Go read The Cigarette Century, and learn.
Here’s the punchline: this book, written in 1945 – when atomic energy was a mere possibility on the horizon – is eerily, stunningly accurate. This is in fact a very sober and measured accounting of the possibilities and challenges of using nuclear reactors to generate electricity. Weren’t expecting that, were you? I bet that giddy images of mid-century futuristic flying cars and jetpacks and moon colonies were practically dancing through your head up to this point. NOPE. I was so shocked and impressed by how grounded this book was, and how disciplined its journalism, that it’s one of the few vintage books I own that I have read absolutely cover to cover. In this case, science got it right at the dawn of an age, even in conjecture.
Comics are a medium, one that comes in an many formats. Below is a short guide to the rich variety of these publications.
Album – European comics with larger page size and higher number of pages than comics in the U.S. See Pamphlet
Anime – Animation, for TV or the movies, made in Japan, and for the Japanese market. For more info, see our Manga and Anime FAQ
Animation– A form of film using drawings (and sometimes other techniques) to create the illusion of motion
Asian Comics– Comics are called manga in Japan, manhwa in Korea, or manhua in China. For more info, see our Manga and Anime FAQ
Audio Comics – A form of audio narrative that is structured like a comic when created. Important elements such as action and setting are explained in detail. Sound cues are used to indicate shifts from panel to panel. For people who are not blind, it sounds something like an old-time radio serial
Bande Dessinée (or BD) – French term for Comic Books. They are usually published in the Album format
Bluesies – See Tijuana Bible
Caricature – a drawing style that exaggerates features, particularly of the face, to portray individuals in an easily recognizable manner. Often used in editorial Cartoons
Cartoons (when not animated) – Typically, these are single panel comics of an editorial nature
Chick Tracts – Short Pamphlet with Evangelical Christian themes. This type of comic gained its name from the most prolific publisher of the form, Jack Chick
Comic Art– A form of Sequential Art
Comic Books (or Comics) – The most generally used name for individual issues of comic art; often they are Soft-bound(Comics). See Pamphlet
Comics Strips – Short pieces of comic art to be published in a periodical (such as a newspaper or magazine), most often to be read horizontally
Comics with hand-sewn spines – Comics assembled like a scrapbook
Comics with tête-bêche binding– A rare format for comics wherein two different comics are bound together back to back, each reversed from the other so they share the same spine. Tête-bêche is French for, roughly translated, “head to tail.” These works are sometimes called double books or reversible books
Crossover – The placement of two or more otherwise discrete fictional characters, settings, or universes into the context of a single story. They can arise from legal agreements between the relevant copyright holders, or because of unauthorized efforts by fans. Most of these comics are not part of the canon of any of the original works
Digest-sized (Comics) – Comics which are roughly the size of paperback books
Digital Comics– Comics that are released digitally. They may be Motion Comics or Webcomics
Film Comics – Sometimes known as Cine-Manga or Ani-Manga. Manga works which use illustrations directly found in an Anime rather than original art, and which utilize dialog from that anime
Flipbooks – Comics where each page’s art varies slightly and when flipped creates the illusion of motion
Floppies – See Soft-bound (Comics)
Foldable Comics– Comics that are shaped in some manner (like a work of origami) and are to be read as the shape is unfolded
Fumetti – Italian term for comic books as a whole. Some use this term to designate a specific format using photographs and word balloons (which was very popular in Italy during the 1940’s and 1950’s). In the English speaking world, this specific format is known as the Photonovel
Graphic Adaptations – These are works that use a story from another medium (poetry, movies, or novels are most common) but translate them into a comic format. They may also be called Tie-Ins with relation to a particular current popular work (where they act primarily as advertising for that work)
Graphic Novels – In the purest form, a stand-alone comic of book length with a clear beginning, middle, and end to its story. However, the term is often used interchangeably with Trade Paperback
Hard-bound (Comics) – Publications with a stiff cover (like a book or graphic novel)
Hybrid Comics– Printed comics that are read in tandem with digital content
Illustrated Book – A book with words and pictures but where the story is coherent without the pictures. Contrast with Wordless Comics
Infinite Canvas – A format for comics on a computer wherein the monitor does not replicate the printed page. The screen is seen as a window to a story told in any direction, theoretically ever-expanding. Hyperlinking and touch options may add interactive elements to works
Light Novel – A Japanese publishing format of short stories, liberally interspersed with manga illustrations. Typically, story length is approximately that of a novella in the U.S.
Magazines– Serial pamphlets of a larger size than the average comic book in the U.S., often printed on higher quality paper. See Pamphlet
Manga – Comics made in Japan for the Japanese market. In Japan, titles are published first in magazine format as part of a larger anthology. If successful, an individual manga will be reprinted in a collected edition. There are many genres of manga, catering to a wide variety of audiences. For more info, see our Manga and Anime FAQ
Metacomic – In brief, a metacomic is a comic about a comic. The characters are able to take advantage of the comic’s structure to progress in the storyline. Or – if the characters remain unaware of their fictional status, the story itself comments on those structures, conventions of genre, or fan expectations
Mini-comics– Comics which are not professionally published, often having an unusual size. See Zines
Motion Comics –Digital Comics that combine motion, sound, or interactive elements with pictures and words to tell a story. Some feel that Motion Comics are really just a kind of Animation
Pamphlet – A complete publication of generally less than 80 pages stitched or stapled together and usually having a paper cover. There is no particular size requirement, thus Albums or Comic Books or Magazines fit the category of pamphlet if they are not Hard-bound
Phonebook (Comics) – A term for a certain type of collection of previously published comics that is printed on pulp paper and is very thick (like old-fashioned phonebooks). The style was made popular in the 1980’s by Dave Sim when he collected story arcs of his comic, Cerebus
Photonovels – Comics which use photographs rather than drawings. See Fumetti
Picture Book – A book where words and pictures are used to tell a story but where the pictures are of equal value (or are more dominant) in doing so. Most often picture books are for children
Poetry Comics – Comics that use poetic structure rather than the more typical prose style. The term may also be used for Graphic Adaptations of poetic works
Sequential Art – A term defined by Will Eisner as, “an art form that uses images deployed in sequence for graphic storytelling or to convey information”
Soft-bound (Comics) – Single issues of comics with a floppy spine, often stapled in the middle. They are also sometimes called Floppies
Square-bound (Comics) – Publications printed on flexible cardstock that are bound on the side like a book. Known in the publishing industry as a Trade Paperback
Tankōbon– A Japanese term for a book length, stand-alone comic (similar to how Trade Paperback or Graphic Novel are used in English)
Tebeos– Spanish-language term for comic books. In Spain the term is more specific, used to denote a magazine that contains comics
Tie-Ins– See Graphic Adaptations
Tijuana Bible – Sometimes known as Bluesies. Small-sized pornographic comics, often parodies of mainstream comics, that were published from the 1930’s to the 1950’s
Topper – A smaller comic that runs across and/or around the borders of another comic. This was once a popular technique used in comic strips when the size of comic strips and the space allotted to them in the newspaper was much larger than today
Trade Paperback – A book of previously published issues that originally appeared as individual comics. In common parlance, this is often referred to as a Graphic Novel
Treasury-sized (Comics) – Oversized comic books, approximately the size of an unfolded newspaper page
Typography Comics – Comics which play on the graphic element of words to tell a story. They often have pictures to accompany the words
Webcomics– Comics created for and published on the Internet. They may be limited to what is immediately on the screen, hyperlinked to other information, or use the Infinite Canvas format
Webtoons – A style of Digital Comics that originated in South Korea which takes advantage of the Infinite Canvas and which may include animated or audio elements. They are designed to be best consumed on a phone or tablet
Wordless Comics – Stories told using only pictures. Contrast with Illustrated Book
Zines– D.I.Y. Magazines that combine any number of art styles, particularly self-created comics
Welcome back! Although I have the occasional novel, and a focus on non-fiction, I have a particular weakness for really old and hilariously dated textbooks. Today’s special guest star isn’t outdated in terms of its content – like all math textbooks, the math itself is still perfectly good – it’s outdated in terms of its actual function. The very existence of such a book is made obsolete by digital calculators. Let’s explore!
Behold! This is Standard Mathematical Tables, 16th Edition. It’s about two and a half inches thick, printed on thin thin paper, and it’s crammed with exactly what it says in the title – tables. It was for a high school or college student, as a vital companion for a slide rule. Before there were pocket calculators or calculator apps on the phone in your pocket, there were slide rules. Here’s a nifty video on what a slide rule is, and how to use one (at least for the simple stuff).
Nifty, right? So, to make things faster, you might need a big fat reference book of various functions, worked out to several places, hopefully beyond whatever precision you need. Ultimately, this lovely book is all of the things – in text – that your phone can do in less time than it takes to turn a single page. This particular copy is actually in very nice condition, and I really like seeing all the neat and tidy tables inside. It’s a masterpiece of organization and precision.
Standard Mathematical Tablesmust have been pretty miserable to proof read, though, and check that all of these were actually correct. It went through sixteen different editions, too! I have no idea what they were adding, correcting, or updating, but I hope it was worth it.
When I saw this book for cheap one day, I decided to get it and keep it partially out of respect for the immense effort and expertise that went into making it, but mostly out of amazement for the forgotten calculating technology it represents. After a certain amount of time, this book stopped being merely out of date, and became a piece of history in its own right. But, at least, if I ever get a slide rule, I’ll be prepared.
A wildly obsolete calculating tool like Standard Mathematical Tableswon’t be found in the library’s collection, although our Friends of the Library book sales might offer up some unique finds if you are willing to hunt for them. The story of Standard Mathematical Tablesand its technological eclipse is a reminder that a non-fiction book is sometimes much more than a means of serving up facts.
This time, on a Very Special Episode of Katherine’s Bookshelf, I’ve got a Very Special book for you, and it’s one of my favorites, but not for the reasons you might think.
Cover to cover, this book is basically the history writing equivalent of a fresh cowpat steaming in the crisp autumnal air at dawn. A giant pile of bullplop and a hot mess. In fact, it’s one of the most notorious history non-fiction forgeries of the 20th Century.
Published in 1910 – just two years before the Qing Dynasty would fall, this book about the life and policies of Dowager Empress Cixi claims to be based on the diary of a court official, which just so happened to fall into Backhouse’s hands. Backhouse then went to Bland, who was a journalist at the time, and wrote the book with his assistance. Yes, this is absolutely a work of wild-eyed sensationalism, designed to appeal to what the English-reading audience already believed, and wanted to have reflected back at them.
The first tip-off that the whole thing was a hoax probably should have been that Backhouse was a dude, his co-author Bland was a dude, and the supposed court official was also a dude. (This wasn’t, for example, claiming to be based on letters of a court official’s daughter who was serving in the inner palace, which would have been at least plausible.) There is absolutely no way that any of these biological males ever would have gotten firsthand information of what was going on in the private quarters of the Forbidden City. That’s why there were court eunuchs, whose primary job it was to relay information and orders between the Empress and Dowager Empress’ offices and the court. It’s called the Forbidden City for a reason, not the Everybody Come in and Make Yourselves at Home City.
The most obnoxious part of all this for me is that it’s not like China Under the Empress Dowager by J.O. Bland was the first and only book about the topic available in English at the time. There were at least two previous accounts of Dowager Empress Cixi’s inner court atmosphere. One, published in 1907, was written by Katharine A. Carl, a painter who had made a portrait of her, and the other was a 1909 collection of published letters by the wife of the American Minister to China, Sarah Pike Conger. In 1911, just one year after the publication of China Under the Empress Dowager, a third account was published, this time by one of the ladies of the court, Princess Der Ling. But, of course, all three of these authors were women, which probably impacted their reception by the public. That’s not to say, of course, that these three books are without bias – Sarah Pike Conger and Katharine Carl had their own agenda and racist prejudices, naturally, and Princess Der Ling wanted to defend the Qing Dynasty. Nevertheless, they weren’t made up nearly whole cloth, as Backhouse’s infamous book was. Keeping their inevitable biases in mind, these firsthand accounts can be used to approach the truth, or at least something nearer to it.
Despite these accounts, two of which beat his to publication, and each of which had more direct information, Backhouse’s book was more salacious and conformed better to what his audience wanted to believe. The media echo-chamber is not a problem of the present alone, it’s a problem of human nature, and definitely not unique to the 21st Century and the Internet. Does anyone remember the Maine? William Randolph Hearst? Turn-of-the-century Yellow Journalism? We should. So spare a thought for your information, how you get it, from where and why.
Rather than a collection of books, here’s a pair of books that enrich each other if read together!
Content Warning: contains depictions of animal abuse. (Yes, especially for Black Beauty. Wait, you don’t remember that? Read the unabridged version, they probably cut all the really harrowing bits to make it more palatable for kids.)
Let’s talk about the changing place of animals in society!
Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eatby Hal Herzog is built on the premise that animals that live in close association with humanity are framed by human cultures in terms of three broad categories: pets, vermin, and livestock. Different cultures might construct the categories along different lines, or even apply them to individuals rather than entire species, but the book nevertheless seeks to apply this theoretical framework to all of them in order to better understand the place of animals in the human world. Interesting topic, and the first of two books to bookend this discussion.
Complications and Guinea Pigs
While Herzog’s book is certainly valuable, there’s a lot of nuance in current and historical cultures that complicate things, and for that, let’s talk about the very strange ride guinea pigs have had. Today, in the continental USA, we see them as pets, a popular choice for the classroom, or children. Alternatively, they’re the proverbial lab animals, which isn’t quite the same as a pet or livestock, but isn’t vermin, despite the fact that the other major lab animal, rats, are definitely thought of as pests before pets outside an experimental setting. Guinea pigs as a species already occupy a complex place in our society, and it used to be even weirder.
Historically, and currently, in the cultures of the Andes which created the domestic guinea pig, the animal is a highly regarded food source, called cuy in Peru (cuyes, plural). Okay, so I might have to have to ease you into this if you didn’t know already. You know how there’s the Cattlemen’s Beef Board and Cattlemen’s Beef Association, dedicated to promoting the use of beef in American kitchens? It’s what’s for dinner. They’ve got beef recipes, and information, and function as a means for beef producers to communicate about the state of the industry, as well as make beef look as good as possible to the public. There’s a similar industry and promotional board in Peru, for guinea pigs, and they have a website, too: Cuy Peru. More than worth a click if you can read Spanish, and even if you can’t. Just brace yourself for whole roasted guinea pig, like we do chicken here. (Scroll almost to the bottom for recipes.) So, pet in one culture and livestock in another, simple, right? No. The guinea pig had a long breakout career in Europe as a status symbol, more akin to a fancy watch, designer purse, or car than a pet or even a purse dog.
At the time the Spanish brought guinea pigs back, European cultures had a very different relationship with animals than we do today, mostly because the framework of morality in general was very different. In this context, it didn’t matter whether animals could think and feel, because morality was about sin, and the God-given order. This is how there were pig trials in the middle ages – a killer pig was acting out of this order, and it was up to human ecclesiastical court systems to put it to rights. (If you’re wondering why a pig would kill someone, the answer is that they’re seriously omnivorous, and are absolutely capable of killing and eating people, especially if the person is unconscious or can’t get up under their own power at the time. That’s why it’s such a big deal in The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy falls in the pig pen. At the time, I guess people would have known this. Modern audiences probably don’t have enough experience with farm animals to recognize the danger. Anyway, just go to your search engine of choice and look for “killed and eaten by pigs” for a nicely horrifying roundup of the recent cases.) Animals, in this framework, were there to be used by humanity as we saw fit. This led to a huge amount of horrible animal abuse, society-wide and often formalized. I’m not talking about bullfighting alone, either, more like bull-baiting, bear-baiting, rat-baiting, anything-baiting, organized fights between basically any animal that will fight, goose pulling, cock throwing, and fox tossing, just to list a few.
I chose the fox tossing example above, because this is the time period that saw the rise of the guinea pig in European culture. Arriving from South America with the silver galleons, guinea pigs acquired an association with this trade, and the power and wealth that came from it. Guinea pigs featured in portraits to underline elite status, and guinea pigs also played a starring role in still life paintings, whose purpose was often a visual treatise on the dominance of the expanding European trade empires. Here’s some weird European guinea pig art.
Britain and Horses
Eventually, though, there was a major shift in the calculus of European morality, a key part of which was an equally major re-evaluation of the way in which animals were treated. Beginning in the late 1600’s, and concluding in the mid 1800’s, new measures of morals emerged, focusing on the idea of avoiding doing harm and being compassionate. It was believed that compassion shown to animals mirrored a person’s capacity for compassion to their fellow human beings, and so kindness became a new standard of behavior. The series of prints by Hogarth, The Stages of Cruelty, presents a moral along these new lines, just as the idea began to get popular traction, and here’s a link to the Tate Museum’s online exhibit on the print series so you can examine it in further detail. In a nutshell, the inevitable end result of animal cruelty is that it becomes cruelty to humans, which ends in the murderer’s corpse getting dissected by surgeons in public, as was the practice at the time.
Protip: if you have to propagandize about morals, they’re new and need to be taught.
Although modern ideas of the right way to treat animals come from the Enlightenment and Victorian Sentimentalism, a much more similar place than the earlier medieval framework, there are some key differences. Emerging nationalism also played a vital role, and in the case of Britain, the way in which people should treat horses in particular became a defining cultural touchpoint that persists to this day. In case you were curious, here’s a retrospective on the Great Horsemeat Contamination Scandal of 2013. The book that in large part forged this identity was Black Beauty.
Black Beauty follows the life of the eponymous horse through a series of thoughtless and cruel masters, highlighting the way in which horses were used and abused, and advocating for better treatment by tugging at the readers’ heartstrings rather than laying out a rational argument, in contrast to Hogarth.
Ultimately, filtering down to us from Hogarth’s time, and Anna Sewell‘s, our own cultural sorting scheme for animals settles into the categories outlined by Hal Herzog in Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat. It has only been two and a half centuries, yet we take this understanding for granted.
Available in book, downloadable ebook and audiobook formats.