Thursday, August 23, 2012

A Metamorphic View of Jefferson Davis


by E.M. Sanchez-Saavedra

A  fascinating subgroup of 19th century political satirical paper items involved the use of metamorphic visual effects. In the years before animated cartoons, ingenious artists and photographers used a variety of tricks to achieve images that could be manipulated by the viewer to produce different pictures. These ranged from layered formats, such as pictures divided into strips revealing one picture when seen from the left and another when the viewer shifted to the right. Sliding paper inserts could be sandwiched  between two sheets of paper to make a portrait smile or frown. Cards fitting into a stereoscopic viewer could contain two slightly different pictures of reciprocating motion. Alternately opening and shutting the right and left eyes produced a crude animated effect. More elaborate effects were achieved by various mechanical means.

(See: Robert Taft, Photography and the American Scene; A Social History, 1839-1889, New York: Dover Publications reprint, 1964: 220.)

The simplest metamorphic picture was one in which the viewer merely turned the image upside down. During the American Civil War a number of these topsy-turvys were produced to lampoon various controversial figures, chiefly Jefferson Davis (1808-89) the first and only president of the Southern Confederacy.

[3] Jefferson Davis Metamorphic Topsy-Turvy.
Around 1850, an unknown American printer invented the “patriotic envelope” featuring a bold symbol in one or two colors on the left side of an ordinary envelope. Gradually, political and social satire appeared on these small ephemeral productions, similar to the crude humor of the “comic valentines” and “comic almanacs” which shared display space in stationers’ windows. In 1861, fueled by the insanely patriotic frenzy that gripped both the Northern and Southern populations, many enterprising publishers and stationers produced thousands of cheap paper items with patriotic and/or satirical motifs. Sets of writing paper and matching envelopes seem to have been among the most popular, judging by the enormous quantity of surviving examples. The images ran the spectrum from tiny, crude black-and-white vignettes to elaborate multicolor prints that took up the entire first page of the letter sheet. Many designs were adapted from comic papers such as Punch or The John-Donkey.

[4-5] The John-Donkey, January 1, 1848.
A classic metamorphic image, copyrighted by E. Rogers and published by S.C. Upham of Philadelphia in 1861, is entitled “Jeff. Davis going to War / Jeff. Returning from War An [Ass]” It occupies the top half of a lightly-ruled letter sheet and is printed sideways in blue ink. When folded and viewed one way, we see a warlike face with huge mustaches and an odd asiatic headgear. Rotated 180 degrees, the mustaches become ears, the cap  becomes a muzzle, and the face is that of a mournful jackass.


Samuel Curtis Upham (1819-85), a forty-niner, operated a stationery, drug and toiletries shop. He is best known as a prolific counterfeiter of Confederate paper money, producing millions of dollars in a scheme to destabilize the already shaky C.S. finances. These were sold as “Mementos of the Rebellion,” but they flooded the Confederate States with worthless currency – or at least more worthless than the genuine article. He also marketed facsimiles of Confederate postage stamps.

(See: George S. Cuhaj, (ed.), Arlie Slabaugh, Confederate States Paper Money. Civil War Currency from the South, 11th Edition, Iola, WI: Krause Publications, 2008: 108-116, and George B. Tremmel, Counterfeit Confederate Currency, History, Rarity and Values, Whitman Publishing Co., 2007.)
Much of Upham’s printing was possibly done by his neighbor, publisher James Magee.

[7] Upham Counterfeit Confederate Note.
The shadowy Edward Rogers of 132 S. 3rd Street, who created and copyrighted the Davis cartoon, is credited with a sketch of Japan’s ambassadors arriving in Philadelphia, printed in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper in June 1860. He seems to have been a free-lance artist/engraver. In 1859, he was referred to as “an enterprising young artist, rapidly rising in his profession.” (Edwin T. Freedley, Philadelphia and its Manufactures, 1859.) Rogers was still at work as an engraver in 1889.

[8] Upham Envelope.
Upham purchased his cut of the topsy-turvy Jeff. Davis, had stationery printed from it and began advertising “The Jeff. Davis Letter Sheet” on June 30, 1861. These sold for $1 per 100 and $8 per 1,000. Matching envelopes cost 50 cents per 100 and $4 per 1,000. Upham’s ad stated that:
“Should you wish to engage in the sale of them, which I advise you to do, as I know by experience that they will sell rapidly, please address all correspondence to S.C. Upham, 310 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia.
[9-11] Anti-Davis Envelopes.
N.B. Having purchased the above copyright, I alone have the power of appointing agents. Anyone selling without my authority will be prosecuted.”
[12] Upham Circular, 1862.
Other printers quickly stole the design, however. Upham later employed it to advertise “Upham’s Cream Soda” in his drugstore. Like the infamous Dr. Tumblety, Upham also formulated and sold a “pimple banisher” and other quack nostrums.
[13] Samuel Curtis Upham.
Although to modern sensibilities, the Davis topsy-turvy is a feeble jape at best, it was popular enough to warrant a more elaborate hand-colored lithographic version in 1864, published by Edmund Burke Kellogg and Elijah Chapman Kellogg of Hartford, Connecticut, and their co-publishers Carlos L. Golden and Thomas J. Sammons of Chicago, Illinois, and George Whiting in New York.


The end with ‘War’ shows ‘Jeff. Rampant.’ and has the verses: “With lion heart and frantic mien, / The warrior seeks the battle scene, / To risk his precious blood and fight / For glory and his vaunted right.” When turned around, ‘Peace’ shows “Jeff. Subdued.” and has the lines: “But when he hears the cannon roar, / And views the dying in his gore, / His courage fails and then, alas! / He homeward travels like an ass.”  Four vignettes of Civil War battle scenes were added to the corners of ‘War’ and four bucolic scenes to ‘Peace.’


In the 1880s, the image inspired C.A. Jackson & Co., a Petersburg, Virginia tobacco company, to issue a similar one adapted to the marketing of chewing tobacco. Their card was printed by “Donaldson Brothers, Five Points. N.Y.” This time around, the ass is the first view:


“I was a most consummate ass, / For nothing human could I pass. / I got a chew of ‘Jackson’s Best.’ / Invert this card and know the rest.” When turned around, we see a placid face with the verses: “My worthy friend, if ever you / Should want a really first class chew. / Use Jackson’s Best, or you will be / An ass, like I was formerly.”

[16] Jefferson Davis, 1862.
Jefferson Davis, like his counterpart Abraham Lincoln, was born on the Kentucky frontier. After attending Jefferson College, Mississippi, Transylvania University and West Point Military Academy, Davis served on the Wisconsin frontier under Zachary Taylor in the Black Hawk War of 1832. (Abraham Lincoln was a captain of volunteers in the same conflict.) He left the army in 1835, married Taylor’s daughter Sarah, and became a planter in Mississippi. His 19-year-old bride died three months after the wedding. Plagued by depression and chronic ill health, Davis gradually took an interest in politics and eventually became a force in the Democratic Party. In 1845 he married Varina Banks Howell, who would bear him six children. He raised the volunteer Mississippi Rifles and served with distinction in the Mexican-American War of 1846-48. He became a U.S. senator in 1847 and Secretary of War in 1853 under President Franklin Pierce. He reentered the Senate in 1857, and was a staunch Union man, in opposition to the rabid secessionists who were trying to split the nation. However, he upheld the right of states to secede from the Union if they chose. This philosophy put his principles to the ultimate test and his loyalty to his home state trumped his Union sentiments. When Mississippi adopted an ordinance of secession in January 1861, Davis was the leader of the state delegation. He resigned his seat in the U.S. Senate and cast his lot with the Confederacy.

[17] New York Illustrated News, April 23, 1853.
Although he would have preferred to serve his state as a military officer, the Confederate Constitutional Convention chose him as provisional president of the breakaway nation. After Virginia seceded, Davis moved the seat of government from remote Montgomery, Alabama, to Richmond, Virginia, close to the principal rail lines and Atlantic seaports.

[18-19] Jeff Davis cell at Ft. Monroe, Virginia.
Davis’ authoritarian personality and hot temper were not improved by his many physical ailments and he may not have been the best man for the job. His vice-president, Alexander H. Stephens, a semi-invalid, retired to his home and left Davis to micro-manage the executive branch alone. After leading ‘The Lost Cause’ for four tragic years, Davis and his government fled Richmond as Grant’s army threatened Richmond. He was captured by Union troops in Georgia and imprisoned at Fort Monroe, near Hampton, Virginia. Prominent Americans signed his bail bond, including Horace Greeley and Gerrit Smith (of the ‘Secret Six’ who had backed abolitionist John Brown in 1859!) and he was released from confinement in the dank stone casemate, overlooking the fort’s stagnant moat. He never stood trial for treason and retired to a literary and historical career. He died in 1889 in New Orleans.

[20] ‘In Memoriam’ Lithograph.
Although the patriotic envelope’s heyday came and went during the Civil War, they were produced in greater or lesser quantities in 1898, 1917 and 1941, reflecting wartime sentiments reminiscent of 1861.

[21] Civil War Patriotic Paper and Envelope.

[22] Confederate Patriotic Envelope.
[23] C.S. Patriotic Envelope.
[24] Harper’s Weekly, February 2, 1861.
[27] McClure’s Magazine, November 1906, Vol. 28, No. 1.


  1. Apparently you are unaware of three very credible sources for the story Jeff Davis was in a dress -- or at least three separate female garments -- and acted cowardly during his capture.

    1) His wife's letter. She wrote the Blairs an 18 page letter about their flight from Richmond, most of it about their capture. She takes the blame for the "dressing gown" and two other female garments, saying she "pleaded with him" to put them on. Very likely, however, she did not ask him to wear the disguises. Her letter also shows his cowardly actions.

    2) The Union soldiers reports. The soldiers that captured Davis gave very detailed reports, which though they mention the dress, and are very clear that he wore a dress, did not mention that at length. His WIFE wrote about his garments for pages, but they just mentioned the dress, pretty much matter of factly. Importanly, her letter echos their reports substantially.

    3) A Confederate soldier apology. A soldier in Davis own entourage, who was allowed to leave the capture site, later wrote a one page, simple apology, where he all but admitted Davis was in female attire, and said that it was probably his wife's idea. And he showed that Davis ran in the disguise as bullets were flying. Davis said he never ran a single foot, that he just stood by his tent, protecting his children. He did not such thing, he ran away, in a dress.

    SO it was NOT just a newspaper thing at all.

  2. Mrs.Davis account is here >

  3. E. M. Sanchez-Saavedra writes >

    Whatever the truth, the "Davis in Dress" story created the type of media frenzy matched by "Prince Harry Nude Pix" and other scandals. Bunches of cartoons and cartes-de-visite capitalized on the incident. Considering that he was on the run without his usual wardrobe in cool
    weather -- he was, after all, a chronically-ill man -- any layers his wife could provide were probably welcome. Also, he was in real danger of being lynched ("We'll Hang Jeff Davis to a Sour Apple Tree," etc.)