Friday, January 31, 2014

Dishcover Minstrel Troupe

Most people forget, or never knew, just how prevalent minstrel shows were in the not-too-distant past.  We have a strong 19th-century theater collection with playbills for black face comic performances as opening acts to "serious" theater. We also have dozens of examples of scripts and sheet music for minstrel shows. More disturbing are programs for local amateur performances.

But even we were surprised to find this one: evidence of a minstrel show performance in the Antarctic on August 6, 1902. This program, printed on Ross Island during Robert Falcon Scott's Discovery Expedition, describes an evening of entertainment put on by members of the crew. The "Dishcover Minstrel Troupe" performed seventeen songs and, according to the South Polar Times (the monthly newspaper produced during the expedition to ward off boredom), was interspersed throughout with minstrel dialect jokes.

These programs always shake you a little, but for some reason it is even more unnerving to see a black face show being performed in the Antarctic. The only representation of humanity on the continent at the time, and they are doing what?

We are still cataloging the program, but you can ask for it at the desk. You can see the report in the South Polar Times, by asking for Stef G850 1901 .D7 Vol 1 (page 23 of the August 1902 issue).

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Obey the Summons of the Conch

Several years ago we published a blog entry on the tradition of horning at Dartmouth. In response, one of our readers remarked that students at Dartmouth back in the late eighteenth century were paid to "blow a conch shell to mark the beginning and ending of classes in place of a bell," and suggested that the charges to students' accounts for horning instead might be payments given for their service. That idea piqued our curiosity enough to inspire a deeper exploration of the archives. Here’s what we found.

The first discovery was that we still have the original conch shell from those days and it’s fully functional! The second was that, according to Dartmouth Traditions by William Carroll Hill, 1902, Native American students were assigned the task of sounding the horn three times a day for approximately five minutes to call everyone for twice-daily prayers and 11 am recitations. Anecdotally, every college student at the time was charged thirty-three cents for the service.

With this admittedly shaky evidence in hand, we reviewed the student accounts ledger from the 1770s and found that there were no universal charges of thirty-three cents per student. Instead, there are several charges of varying amounts to select individuals for their "part in blowing the horn." This leads us to believe the original hypothesis about penalties for horning, but it does raise fresh questions about the details of the arrangement with the Native American student population, among others.

Regardless, by William Carroll Hill's time, the sounding of the conch shell had achieved such a reputation among Dartmouth students that a song about it, "The Old Conch Shell," was included in Dartmouth Songs, a collection of college tunes compiled by Edwin Osgood Grover, '94, and musically edited by Addison Fletcher Andrews, '78. All of these materials are available for viewing at Rauner, using the following call numbers:

Conch shell: Uncat Realia 117
Student Accounts Ledger B: DA-2, Box 1746
Dartmouth Traditions: Reference LD1438 .H6
Dartmouth Songs: Alumni G918d