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Mummies in Nineteenth Century America: Ancient Egyptians as Artifacts

Mummies in Nineteenth Century America: Ancient Egyptians as Artifacts

By S.J. Wolfe and Robert Singerman. Pp. xi + 292, figs. 63. McFarland & Company, Jefferson, N.C. 2009. $35. ISBN 978-0-7864-3941-6 (paper).

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Wolfe’s fascination with mummies stems from an early childhood encounter with a mummiform coffin at the George Walter Vincent Smith Art Museum. Her lifelong immersion in things Egyptian, and especially in the lore (and lure) of mummies, inspired the 20-year-long research project that culminated in Mummies in Nineteenth Century America: Ancient Egyptians as Artifacts. Wolfe is a senior cataloguer and serials specialist at the American Antiquarian Society. Her collaborator, Singerman, a retired bibliographer, specializes in anthropology, linguistics, and Jewish studies.

The book recounts how Egyptian mummies got to America in the 19th century and what happened to them after they arrived. Much attention is paid to newspaper articles, editorials, and other first-person accounts “to demonstrate how mummies were perceived by the public who viewed them” (3). Each chapter concentrates on a particular theme. Chapter 1 gives an extended account of how Padihershef, one of the first Egyptian mummies to come to America and probably the first to arrive complete with its coffin, was received, studied, and displayed on tour in 1823. Subsequent chapters describe public attitudes and intellectual responses, scientific interest, commercial exploitation, and the rough treatment and indignities to which mummies were often subjected. The book details myriad ways in which mummies were marketed and displayed as public curiosities. The ethnological and scientific racial theories that sprang up around mummies are mentioned only in passing, but interested readers are directed to additional reading about these topics in a well-stocked appendix.

French enthusiasm for Egyptian mummies can be traced to Napoleon’s Egyptian campaigns (1798–1799), which were accompanied by artists, scientists, and other scholars. The resulting publication between 1809 and 1829 of Description de lÉgypte was a catalyst for international curiosity about mummies and other aspects of ancient Egyptian culture. The earliest mummies to disembark in America attracted flocks of people whenever and wherever they were exhibited, infusing poetry, stirring philosophical reflections, and engendering an interest in the “physical evidences of ancient history” (54). In the 19th century, “mummies were news, and reports of them circulated wildly and widely” (242).

Advertising for mummy exhibitions often rose to exaggerated levels, and exhibitors commonly inflated the interest of artifacts on display. As Wolfe notes, “proclaiming an object to be ‘royal’ or of other high rank could only enhance its attractiveness to the general public who did not often get the chance to view such an exalted personage, whether alive or dead” (38–9). For 19th-century Americans, mummies often “evoked thoughts of religious history and were perceived as ... tangible links to persons and events mentioned in the Bible” (94). A Chicago candy store in 1886 attracted customers by displaying a mummy touted as “Pharaoh’s daughter who discovered Moses in the bulrushes” (71).

Nearly everyone who viewed a mummy was curious to see what was hidden beneath the linen wraps. In some instances, unwrapping “was a ‘parlor amusement,’ done at someone’s home.... Other times it was a medical or scientific study, performed before an audience, which could have included both lay and professional people” (132). At one such public demonstration in 1850, “a fine resinous dust was raised, which set many of the audience to sneezing” (150).

Some journalists (and letter writers) deplored the exploitation of ancient Egyptians, proposing penalties for those who “violate the sanctuary of the dead” (41). Other commentators drew sententious lessons from mummy exhibitions. A moralist in the 1820s reflected as follows: “Look again at this ancient remnant of mortality [once the] residence of an immortal soul. What is it now? A senseless lump of clay; and such, in a short period, reader, shall we be. What folly then to waste a whole life in pampering and decorating a body that must shortly return to dust?” (57). Spectators with some smattering of knowledge about ancient Egyptian beliefs wondered where the soul went after the body was estranged from Egypt. But death, as others realized, was the same for everyone, “no matter from what epoch he or she had come” (172).

Much of the mummy collecting associated with 19th-century mummymania involved shameless ransacking of tombs. The well-known exhibitor, Belzoni, for example, was “a former circus strong-man turned inventor, who had gone [to Egypt] to sell a water wheel contraption [and] returned with mummies and artifacts which had been looted, and in some cases ... blown out ... by explosives” (51).

Bizarre products came from mummies, or parts thereof. Such commodities included “Mummy,” ground mummies molded into pills for medicinal use (175); “mummy brown” paint (176); and cheap fuel for locomotives. Mark Twain reported in his 1869 travelogue The Innocents Abroad (Hartford, Conn.) that mummies were burned like coal to produce steam on the rail line from Cairo to Alexandria (176–77). Entrepreneurs imported mummy rags to make paper in the United States. Paper mogul Isaac Augustus Stanwood, for example, had trouble obtaining enough domestic rags during the Civil War until he hit upon the idea of bringing over shiploads of linen-wrapped Egyptian mummies. His machinery macerated linen bandages and papyrus fillers. From the resulting slurry, Stanwood produced coarse brown sheets “sold to shopkeepers, grocers, and butchers, who used [them] for wrapping paper” (189).

The book’s irresistible illustrations include photographs of mummies and their coffins and reproductions of woodcuts, newspaper ads, title pages, and posters. Long poems, leaflets, and press reports are often quoted in their entirety, and some readers will find it convenient to read them selectively. Their verbatim inclusion is nevertheless a gift for future scholars interested in 19th-century showmanship and the history of popular visual culture. The vast scope of research is suggested by the detailed notes, thorough bibliography, and useful appendices, including a “Catalogue of Pre-1901 References to Mummies in America Not Mentioned in the Text,” “Suggestions for Further Reading,” and “Notes on the Coffins of the First Mummies Brought to America.” Mummies in Nineteenth Century America is a tour de force, incorporating a wealth of revealing first-hand accounts and other documents that illuminate a significant but underexplored topic. It promises to serve as an indispensable resource for years to come.

Jeffrey Mifflin
Archives and Special Collections
Massachusetts General Hospital
Boston, Massachusetts 02114

Book Review of Mummies in Nineteenth Century America: Ancient Egyptians as Artifacts, by S.J. Wolfe and Robert Singerman

Reviewed by Jeffrey Mifflin

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 116, No. 4 (October 2012)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1164.Mifflin


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