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Edward W. Clay has long been an intriguing figure for those who study the history of America’s color-line, frequently remembered as the originator of an enduring visual vocabulary of race and inequality. Clay’s print series “Life in Philadelphia” circulated widely through print shops from Philadelphia and New York to Baltimore and New Orleans. It spawned a parallel series titled “Life in New York.” Clay’s images adorned sheet music and were mass produced in miniatures. In London, they were incorporated into book illustrations and sold in elaborated color editions. In France, Clay’s images even made their way into refined circles as they were incorporated into fine wallpaper. While these forms were ephemeral, their appeal was not. Even at the end of the nineteenth century, commentators noted encounters with Clay’s images in prominent public venues.

Clay’s ideas about race were quickly taken up by others. A countless number of nineteenth century engravers, lithographers, cartoonists, and illustrators adopted Clay’s visual strategies to transform what began as a local look at black life in Philadelphia into a national taxonomy of race. His ideas, ones that interwove social, political, and corporeal commentary on blackness, dominated American visual culture’s contribution to national debates over race and power.

Vernet, Carle (1758–1836)
“La Boutique de Delpech.” 
Paris: Delpech, 1818 
Facsimile of: lithograph, 22.6 x 29.9 cm. 
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston 


Vernet, a foundational figure in French caricature, suggested how Parisians may have encountered prints in this image of François-Séraphin Delpech’s shop.

Daily National Journal 
[Newspaper advertisement for P. Thompson.] 
Washington, D.C.: November 2, 1828 
54 x 37 cm. 
William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan


An Atlantic world visual culture is represented by this advertisement of Washington D.C. print seller P. Thompson. “Life in Philadelphia” appears along with Clay’s series “Lessons in Dancing,” French genre prints, fashion plates, “Cruikshank’s Illustrations,” various ethnic caricatures, London city views and “sporting prints.”

Edward Williams Clay (1799-1857) 
“Mr. T. Rice as The Original Jim Crow.” 
New York: E. Riley, ca. 1830s 
Lithograph sheet music, 31.5 x 24 cm. 
Lester S. Levy Collection of Sheet Music, Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University


Clay had a direct hand in constructing minstrelsy stock images, such as this depiction of the character “Jim Crow.”

William Summers 
“Life in Philadelphia. ‘How you like de new fashion shirt, Miss Florinda?…’” 
London: Harrison Isaacs, ca. 1831 
Aquatint, hand colored, 38 x 28 cm. 
William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan 


Clay’s exchange between “Miss Florinda” and her activist friend, first published in Philadelphia, is reinterpreted here by a London publisher for British audiences and export to America

[Scenes from Life in Philadelphia] 
Wood engraving 
In: The New Comic Annual: illustrated with one hundred highly humorous cuts. London: Hurst, Chance, and Co., 1835. 
William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan 


This comic narrative, written around Clay’s images, is an example of how “Life in Philadelphia” expanded across visual culture through copies and derivations.

Zuber et Cie, from Jean-Julien Deltil (1791-1863) 
“Vues d’Amérique du Nord” [fragment from New York scene.] 
Rixheim, France: ca. 1900 
Block printed wallpaper, 42 x 47 cm. 
Note: from blocks cut in 1834. 
John Nicholas Brown Center, Brown University


Deltil collected prints and other artifacts in the United States, including Clay’s “Life in Philadelphia” series, before producing mural-like wallpaper scenes for Paris’s Zuber et Cie. “Miss Minta” and her dance partner are inserted into this scene of the New York harbor.