The Visual Pedagogy of Reform: Picturing White Slavery in America

Saturday, January 3, 2015: 8:30 AM
Gramercy Suite B (New York Hilton)
Amy K. Lippert, University of Chicago
Since the late-eighteenth efforts of the transatlantic abolitionist movement, reformers have employed mass-reproducible imagery as a vital tool for bringing attention to their cause, and presenting its moral urgency as unavoidable and irrefutable. These images did not simply illustrate the text; they amplified it, provided evidence (or the appearance of evidence) for reformers’ claims, the urgent nature of the problem they sought to rectify, and conveyed implicit messages about sex and vice that were still taboo. Yet these images were in themselves intentionally shocking to contemporary society—they pushed the boundaries of decorum, while reinforcing the moral standards that labeled the illustrated actions or aberrations as sinful, insupportable, and inhumane.

By the early twentieth century, reformers had developed increasingly sophisticated methodology for the deployment of their visual materials. They benefitted from technological advances, such as the halftone that enabled the printing of photographic images alongside pamphlet or book text, but their advancements went to the nature and presentation of the messages these activists sought to convey in visual form. Male and female vice reformers produced a particularly complex, somewhat contradictory primer for readers. Reformist tracts taught their audiences-cum-readers how to see in the modern world: they served as self-conscious primers for the duplicities of the city and its thriving vice industry. In their many cultural productions, activists warned the public that sin and degradation transcended class boundaries, and even thrived under the cloak of urban luxury and respectability—a direct result of the wealth its “syndicate” allegedly extracted after buying-and-selling young (white) women for profit. Yet the legislators, criminal prosecutors, and other outspoken critics who waged their war against “the traffic in women” simultaneously relied on storied visual codes of propriety when putting forward their own public images and personae, relying on readers to trust them, if not their own eyes.

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