he artistic inspiration for this Vanity Fair cartoon is a well-known
lithograph first produced in 1848 by James and Eliphalet Brown to advertise Frank Chan Frau’s popular play "New York As It Is." There are slightly different versions of the lithograph, which is entitled "Jack, A Negro and Dancer for Eels" or simply "Dancing for Eels." The lithograph is based on an earlier folk drawing called "Dancing for Eels, 1820 Catharine Market."
Catharine’s Fish Market was located at the Catharine Street boardwalk by New York Harbor in a working-class area of New York City. The original drawing is based on a time when slaves from New Jersey were sent to Manhattan to sell their masters’ produce at the "Bear Market." (Because New Jersey’s emancipation law was implemented gradually, the state still had some slaves circa 1820.) The slaves were then joined at Catharine Market by free blacks from the city. If they were unable to win money at gambling, the black men would literally dance for the eels or fish sold at Catharine Market. Such a sight was typical of the theatrical nature of street culture in 19th-century New York City.
In this Vanity Fair cartoon Stephen Douglas, the leading candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, assumes the role of the dancing black man. The artist moves the market from Catharine Street to Charleston, South Carolina, the site of the first 1860 Democratic National Convention. As Douglas performs, he is surrounded by major Democratic politicians dressed in various working-class attire. They are (clockwise) President James Buchanan (1), former president Franklin Pierce (2), former Virginia Governor Henry Wise (5), Senator Robert M. T. Hunter (4), and Senator Jefferson Davis (3). Hunter, a challenger to Douglas for the nomination, is depicted as a slave woman with a basket of eels on her head.
Source consulted: W. T. Lhamon Jr., Raising Cain: Blackface Performance from Jim Crow to Hip Hop (Cambridge University Press, 1998).