Object of the Month

"A Blushing Debutante": Nathan Appleton's Gender Crossing

Nathan Appleton Photograph

Nathan Appleton

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This carte de visite photograph depicts Harvard undergraduate Nathan Appleton dressed for his part as "Emily" in the farce Grimshaw, Bagshaw & Bradshaw.

Miss N. Appleton Takes the Stage

Within a scrapbook documenting his student years at Harvard, Nathan Appleton (1843-1906) carefully arranged a series of photographs depicting himself and his friends dressed in women’s clothing. In the featured photograph, Appleton sits in a chair, full skirts spread out around him, head bent over a piece of embroidery in his hands. Curls emerge from the lace cap on his head. A basket of knitting sits on the table beside him. This was the costume he wore playing the character of Emily, "a nice young woman in a predicament," in a production of John Maddison Morton’s play Grimshaw, Bagshaw & Bradshaw. The farce was performed at the Hasty Pudding Club’s annual Strawberry Night on 13 June 1862, at which attendees were promised "Galaxies! Of Beauty and Talent!" In the playbill for the evening, Appleton is credited as "Miss N. Appleton ...a blushing debutante."

Gender-Crossing on the 19th Century Stage

Founded in 1770, the Hasty Pudding Club is a social organization at Harvard University with a long tradition of theatricals. In his history of the Club’s theatrical productions, Anthony Calnek observes that crossdressing for the stage was an integral part of Club culture, with a great deal of money put into costumes and some club members specializing in "female impersonation." In an era of homosociality -- where many social clubs, private schools, and institutions of higher education (including Harvard University) were single-sex -- such gender-crossing performances were a regular feature of amateur theatricals.

For some participants, theatrical cross-dressing was a transient passion; for some -- like the acclaimed actress, and native Bostonian Charlotte Cushman (1816-1876) -- it could be the cornerstone of a professional acting career. Cushman became famous for playing male characters, particularly "her great character of Romeo!" first played opposite her sister Susan’s Juliet. For some, these opportunities for playful and professional gender-crossing may have provided a socially-sanctioned way to exist in a liminal space where allowances were made not only around what today we would call gender identity but also around same-sex desire. Cushman, for example, lived openly in romantic relationships with a number of women during her lifetime. For the fans who flocked to her performances, these relationships were accepted as an aspect of her celebrity.

Miss N. Appleton sat before the photographer’s lens long before our present understanding of gender identity -- a sense of oneself as trans, cis, nonbinary, or genderfluid -- began to take shape. A photograph alone cannot tell us how Nathan Appleton felt when he dressed for the stage. We don’t know from this image whether playing the character of Emily resonated within him or whether it altered his self-understanding. Yet historians of gender and sexuality remind us that it is not necessary to know what Appleton thought or felt about his performance to situate images like this in the context of queer history. The gender-crossing performances of Appleton and his clubmates remind us that ambiguities around, and transgressions of, gender norms have long been with us.

Pop-up Exhibition 6-11 June 2019

This year, on 28 June, we mark the anniversary of a now-celebrated rebellion outside of the Stonewall Inn in New York City, where gay and trans­gender youth -- many of them people of color -- resisted arrest during a police raid. The half century of political activism and historical research that followed has brought the lives of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and otherwise queer Americans "out of the closet and into the street" -- helping us to see that non-normative experiences and expressions of gender, sex, and sexuality have existed throughout American history. A special pop-up exhibition at our 1154 Boylston St. location will highlight just a few items from our collection that are relevant to LGBTQ+ history. The exhibit will open Thursday 6 June 2019 and close Tuesday 11 June. Gallery hours are 10:00 AM to 4:00 PM and admission is free.

Further Reading

The Nathan Appleton scrapbooks contain a wealth of material on Appleton’s Harvard career and classmates. The Appleton Family Papers, 1303-1941 also contain information on Nathan Appleton.

Calnek, Anthony. The Hasty Pudding Theatre: A History of Harvard's Hairy-Chested Heroines. The Hasty Pudding Club, 1986.

Garrison, Lloyd McKim. An Illustrated History of the Hasty Pudding Club Theatricals. Cambridge: Hasty Pudding Club, 1897.

The History Project. Improper Bostonians: Lesbian and Gay History from Puritans to Playland. Boston: Beacon Press, 1998.

Merrill, Lisa. When Romeo Was a Woman: Charlotte Cushman and Her Circle of Female Spectators. Univ. of Michigan Press, 1999.

Meyerowitz, Joanna. How Sex Changed: A History of Transsexuality in the United States. New Ed. Harvard Univ. Press, 2004.

Oram, Alison. Her Husband Was a Woman! Women's Gender-Crossing in Modern British Popular Culture. Routledge, 2007.

Shand-Tucci, Douglass. The Crimson Letter: Harvard, Homosexuality, and the Shaping of American Culture. New York: St. Martin’s, 2004.