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Hidden From History will be on view in the Louisiana Division/City Archives, third floor, Main Library, 219 Loyola Avenue, from October 7, 2008. The online version will remain available here indefinitely.

The exhibit was curated by Emily Epstein Landau and funded in part by the Sexuality Research Fellowship Program (1999), a program of the Social Science Research Council, with funding from the Ford Foundation.

Dr. Landau received her doctorate from Yale University in 2005. Her dissertation, "Spectacular Wickedness": New Orleans, Prostitution, and the Politics of Sex, 1897-1917, is a history of Storyville, the famous red-light district. She will be teaching New Orleans history this Spring, as a visiting lecturer at the University of Maryland, College Park. She lives in Washington, DC.

The exhibit was mounted by staff members of the Louisiana Division/City Archives. The online version was designed by Irene Wainwright.

10/07/2008 -- IW

This exhibit focuses on people who worked and lived in New Orleans beyond the view of tourists and business interests, who eked out an existence on the margins of respectability, who struggled to survive in the urban jungle.

The last third of the nineteenth century brought momentous changes to American culture and society. The population nearly doubled, and for the first time America became more urban than rural. The growing cities were emblems of American progress and technological ascendancy, but they also generated fear. Indeed, the turn-of-the-century city harbored fear, creating a focal point for myriad anxieties afflicting late-nineteenth-century Americans. Cities, with their anonymity, their lack of community, their immigrants, their poor, their unmoored, their dark and dirty corners, threatened to dismantle the moral order even as they promised to advance prosperity and progress.

New Orleans is one of the country’s oldest cities. Indeed, New Orleans was a city before it was American! In the 1890s, hoping to attract tourists and capital to the ailing city, business leaders drew on the city’s long history to boost New Orleans as the city of “Old Romance and New Opportunity.” Celebrated for its cosmopolitan diversity, its international exoticism, and its metropolitan sophistication; yet infamous, too, for moral lassitude, prostitution, and political corruption, New Orleans has always embodied the contrasts and contradictions of urban life. Known as “the city that care forgot,” imagined (and promoted) as a seductress on the banks of the Mississippi, New Orleans has long been associated with a lack of consequences, a care-free kind of freedom. But for people who lived and worked in New Orleans, people who served the pleasure economy, people who toiled for the sugar, rice, tobacco, and other export markets, and for people who were unable to work at all, the city was not so indulgent, not so forgiving.

This exhibit illustrates through photographs and documents the interface between authority and poor people in turn-of-the-century New Orleans. Some of the city's poor turned to petty crime or prostitution, while others got by selling cakes and sandwiches in their neighborhoods. Some struggled desperately with alcoholism and paranoid delusions. Others went insane on account of extreme worry or family troubles. One man was committed to the insane asylum for mania caused by love—or at least that is what the ledger book records. The stories presented here, though fragmented and incomplete, highlight the struggles of people on the margins of society and belie the image of New Orleans as a city of care-free good times.

The people grouped here may have had nothing in common except that their lives intersected with the municipality at least once. This exhibit brings them together in part to show how the city classified them. The documents and photographs here are therefore not representative of those New Orleanians who lived their lives quietly and within the law; they are necessarily skewed toward those who erred or strayed, who got caught or got in trouble, or, conversely, those who actively sought assistance from the city. New Orleans did not have much to offer the truly needy in the last years of the nineteenth century or the first years of the twentieth. Maintaining order was, however, paramount, and for this purpose the city had several choices; among them were the city jail, the Charity Hospital, the insane asylum, the poor house, and sometimes even exile. The city’s various institutions produced records, and so, this exhibit also showcases the collections at the New Orleans Public Library. In the City Archives of the Louisiana Division, one may find traces of people who did not leave their own written accounts or legacies, but who touched the system at some point in their lives and so had their names recorded. Some even had their pictures taken. This exhibit offers a glimpse into the lives of some of those anonymous urban dwellers, those unknown New Orleanians.


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Hidden From History title | Online Exhibits | Louisiana Division/City Archives

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