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Cain in the canefields

by on October 8, 2009

Genesis 4:3 And in process of time it came to pass, that Cain brought of the fruit of the ground an offering unto the Lord.

Wood E 25(10) The beginning, progress, and end of man

Wood E 25(10) The beginning, progress, and end of man

A curious case of a strong image from within the ballad genre highlights the strength of the visual tradition of broadside ballad printing even up to 1840, beyond the point when a wealth of new types of illustrated print had begun to appear in such publications as the Penny Magazine. The old ballad woodcuts look crude beside the wood engravings which had become standard fare in newspapers. But towards the middle of the 19th century there reappeared on some cheap printed songs an image whose earliest survival, on a ballad in Anthony Wood’s collection in the Bodleian Library, is from the 1650s [Bodleian Wood E 25(10)]. The 1650s broadside, entitled The beginning, progress, and end of man, was unusual enough in itself. It was a primitive pop-up book, in which images were transformed by turning the folds of the paper first up, then down. Adam becomes Eve, who turns into a mermaid; Cain’s offering is shown, then Abel’s, and then one brother murdering the other in a jealous rage.

Harding B 25(392) Coffee and tea

Harding B 25(392) Coffee and tea

It is the picture of Cain making his offering that was printed – probably from a later copy of the woodcut — two centuries later. It turns up on two ballads published in the 1830s or 1840s. One of these, Coffee and Tea, [Bodleian Harding B 25(392)] is shown here.
Did the 19th-century printer know or care about the bible iconography and the old-fashioned look of the woodcut? At this time, printers all around Britain were able to get hold of stereotyped images used in advertising and package labels. Tea, coffee, and tobacco labels might be illustrated with pictures of Chinese or Native American scenes, and these often came in handy for illustrating songs about far-off places, One song, entitled “Old King Coffee or the Ashanti War”, printed by H. Disley circa 1873, shows an American Indian on a quay, smoking his pipe as barrels are loaded onto a ship. It seems to have been taken from advertising or packaging for tobacco. The Indian with a feathered head-dress is made to stand in for the Asantehene (king of the Ashanti), Kofi Karikari.

Firth c.16(149) Old King Coffee, or the Ashantee war

Firth c.16(149) Old King Coffee, or the Ashantee war

Similar images would have been available to W. and T. Fordyce in the 1830s. Their choice of Cain, and this old picture, looks more deliberate when we know this. Antiquarian interest in ballads was well established even fifty years before this, and some printers deliberately marketed their broadsides as “old ballads”. Reprinting an old picture was certainly a way to give a distinctively antique look to the page.
Then again, the half-naked figure engaged in labor in an exotic agricultural setting, together with the allusion to hot drinks sweetened with sugar, suggests one reading highly relevant to the 1830s, the decade of West Indian slave emancipation, and to the 1840s, the decade of free trade in sugar. The deliberate use of the old woodcut of Cain manages to be both topical, in its suggestion of slave labour in the canefields, and traditional, linking the bawdy song Coffee and tea to the English broadside tradition.
– Alexandra Franklin

To search these and other ballads, see :Bodleian Broadside Ballads

From → Ballads, Ephemera

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