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Tom show

Tom show is a general term for any play or musical based (often only loosely) on the 1852 novel Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe. The novel attempts to depict the harsh reality of slavery. Due to the weak copyright laws at the time, a number of unauthorized plays based on the novel were staged for decades, many of them mocking the novel's strong characters and social message, and leading to the pejorative term "Uncle Tom".

Even though Uncle Tom's Cabin was the best-selling novel of the 19th century, far more Americans of that time saw the story in a stage play or musical than read the book. Some of these shows were essentially minstrel shows that utilized caricatures and stereotypes of black people, and thus inverting the intent of the novel. "Tom shows" were popular in the United States from the 1850s through the early 1900s.

Stage plays based on Uncle Tom's Cabin—"Tom shows"—began to appear while the story itself was still being serialized. These plays varied tremendously in their politics—some faithfully reflected Stowe's sentimentalized antislavery politics, while others were more moderate, or even pro-slavery. A number of the productions also featured songs by Stephen Foster, including "My Old Kentucky Home," "Old Folks at Home," and "Massa's in the Cold Ground."

Stowe herself never authorized dramatization of her work, because of her puritanical distrust of drama (although she did eventually go to see George Aiken's version, and, according to Francis Underwood, was "delighted" by Caroline Howard's portrayal of Topsy). Asa Hutchinson of the Hutchinson Family Singers, whose antislavery politics closely matched those of Stowe tried and failed to get her permission to stage an official version; her refusal left the field clear for any number of adaptations, some launched for (various) political reasons and others as simply commercial theatrical ventures.

  • A 1903 version of Uncle Tom's Cabin, which was one of the earliest "full-length" movies (although "full-length" at that time meant between 10 and 14 minutes). This film, directed by Edwin S. Porter, used white actors in blackface in the major roles and black performers only as extras. This version was similar to many of the "Tom Shows" of earlier decades and featured a large number of black stereotypes (such as having the slaves dance in almost any context, including at a slave auction).
  • Another film version from 1903 was directed by Siegmund Lubin and starred Lubin as Simon Legree. While no copies of Lubin's film still exist, according to accounts the movie was similar to Porter's version and reused the sets and costumes from a "Tom Show."


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