Friday, January 14, 2022

Time-worn broadside suggests Windham might have been venue for performance of Uncle Tom's Cabin

By Walter Lunt

Among the hundreds of artifacts and historical treasures stored and preserved at Windham’s historical society museum is a tattered theater poster, known as a broadside, promoting an upcoming performance of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the 19th century antislavery stage play based on a 19th century novel – widely believed to have been responsible for increased tensions between the American North and the South, and ultimately the Civil War.

Some of the Windham Historical
Society's most valued treasures result
from the demolition of old buildings.
This is an old poster, or broadside, 
advertising a performance of 'Uncle
Tom's Cabin' found as Windham's
old North Windham Post Office was
being torn down over 40 years ago.
The stage play was believed to have
been held over 100 years ago.
The book, written before the war by Maine author Harriet Beecher Stowe, tells the tragic story of Southern plantation slaves, slave families and their masters.

The ancient placard was uncovered more than 40 years ago from an inside wall in the old North Windham Post Office as it was being torn down. As often happens, historic treasures are donated to the Windham Historical Society for further research and safekeeping.

Much of the elaborate print on the approximately 30 by 18-inch placard, although faded with time, can be read easily: “A monster dramatic company…Superb male and female brass band and orchestra…Majestic revival of the famous, moral and picturesque drama…(performed) under a mammoth Pavilion Opera House…Admission 35 cents adults, 25 cents children”

It is known that traveling shows of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, frequently referred to as “Tom Shows,” were wildly popular from their creation in the 1850s through to the early 20th century.

By 1870 there were 49 touring companies performing different versions of the story, many taking liberties with the original chronicle; some being minstrel shows. With the expansion of railroads, the performances could be held in more rural areas, often under massive tent pavilions.

Many of the shows featured extravagant scenery, fabricating Southern plantations, cotton fields, even bloodhounds giving chase to escaping slaves (low-budget productions used barking actors in the wings). Band concerts featuring popular and classical music were often held on principal streets during the day preceding the Tom Show at night.

Stowe published Uncle Tom’s Cabin in book form in 1852; it severely criticized slavery and was described as “immortal to Americans as the Declaration of Independence” and “a moral battle cry for freedom.” The two-volume set quickly became a nationwide best seller. Stowe told her publisher she had “painted a word picture of slavery.”

It would seem entirely possible that the performance advertised on the Windham Post Office broadside was held somewhere in the town of Windham, probably in the late 1800s or early 1900s. Evidence for this is suggested by an expansive study and review of the Uncle Tom’s Cabin phenomenon, titled “Uncle Tom’s Cabin and American Culture (2006),” the University of Virginia’s Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities wrote, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin…(had) a long and notable career, and there is hardly a hamlet in New England (that) at one time or other had the famous play.”

Although withered and frayed and likely over 100 years old, the broadside survives time at the Windham Historical Society’s brick museum at Windham Center. <