Her words changed the world.

Uncle Tom's Cabin and American Culture

Today, Hollywood turns bestsellers into movies; in the 19th century, popular books became plays. Even before the final installment of Uncle Tom's Cabin appeared, Stowe was contacted by Asa Hutchinson, the patriarch of the anti-slavery performers, the Hutchinson Family, to collaborate on a dramatization of her novel. Stowe's Congregational upbringing taught her that theater was an immoral waste of time, so she declined, losing her opportunity to help frame how the tale would be told from the stage. Asa Hutchinson honored Stowe's aversion to the theater and did not produce his play. Others were less scrupulous, and the copyright laws of 1852 did not protect works of fiction from being adapted by others.

Dramatization of Uncle Tom's Cabin's for the stage meant shortening and simplifying a complicated story. The characters became caricatures and the story was fused onto blackface minstrel traditions.

Known as "Tom Shows," loosely based on Stowe's story and produced in theaters and traveling shows across the country, these performances frame modern understanding of the novel. "Tom Shows" added extravagant special effects and changed the story. With actors in blackface and simplified plots, racial stereotypes were highlighted. Eliza's escape across the ice added bloodhounds for the stage. Topsy, a tragic child in the book, the product of raising children "like pups," was changed to a slapstick figure. Strong, young Tom aged to a submissive, shuffling old man. Discussions of racism, slavery's impact on families, and reparations vanished, and after the Civil War, so did most references to slavery itself. Professional "Tom Shows" toured annually for nearly 90 years, and versions were filmed for movies and cartoons.

"Tom-Shows" were not the only way others profited from Stowe's ideas. A wide range of products such as wallpaper, silverware, board-games, song sheets, clothing and ceramics featured characters or scenes from Uncle Tom's Cabin. Some of this merchandise reflects the racial attitudes of the day, uncomfortable in the 21st century. Stowe neither endorsed nor profited from the plays or memorabilia. Uncle Tom's Cabin was not the first book to inspire such marketing, but the large number of readers and playgoers created a larger and more enduring demand than earlier works had seen.