The case of the fallen mummy

Like the ghosts and jack-o-lanterns we see everywhere this time of year, mummies have become an icon of Halloween.  Although mummies make their appearance alongside the werewolves, vampires, zombies, and Frankensteins in all of the Scooby-doo cartoons, they are rarely the members of the monster community that captivate the imaginations of the modern viewer.  Mummies are typically depicted as being slow, clumsy, and less-exciting versions of zombies.

Mummies were not always the second-class monsters that we think of today.  During the late nineteenth and early twentieth century mummies were the monsters that captivated the minds of authors, artists, musicians, scholars, fashion designers, and homemakers. The interest in Egypt can be seen in every aspect of American culture: the Washington Monument in DC, Louisa May Alcott’s Lost in a Pyramid, or the Mummy’s Curse, or  in the daily news.  Hundreds of articles can be found in Chronicling America and Historic Oregon Newspapers that provides a little more insight into this misunderstood monster.  In the April 22, 1906 Sunday Oregonian, George Ade described his travels in Egypt, where he encountered a young American student of Egyptology who had some experience with mummy trafficking.

According to Ade’s acquaintance, mummy prices varied greatly depending on the state of preservation, the status of the individual who was mummified, and the quality of decoration on the casket.  A Ramesses or Ptolemy would be sold for upwards of $1,000, while the mummies of more modest grandeur would be sold for $60-$125.  Ade’s friend offered to sell him a mummy who was “probably a tourist,” for the bargain price of $7.50.

If you wanted to see a mummy, but lacked the  funds to travel all the way to Egypt, you could visit the Lewis and Clark 1905 Exposition in Portland, Oregon.  There were several mummies on display at the World’s Fair, but it was the “Rockafeller mummy” that seemed to attract the crowds for its uncanny resemblance to the famous oil magnate, John D. Rockafeller.

If the thought of having a real mummy in your living room was a bit too gruesome, there were other ways to bring the fashionable mummy craze into your home.  Several newspapers, including the Saint Paul Globe, ran articles on the scarcity of mummies and the effect on the art world.

Mummies were popping up everywhere and rather than making people jump and exclaim “Jinkies!” they were regarded as a sign of sophistication.  Literature and operas written in Europe and the United States increased the popularity and fascination of the mummy.  Richard Carle and Robert Hood Bower’s 1904 Broadway musical, The Maid and the Mummy, was equally as praised for the music and the acting as it was the costumes.  The mummy was so successful at capturing the imaginations of the general public that its influences could be found in popular fashion.  The November 22, 1908 Washington Times ran this full-page article, which advises ladies not to “tilt a disdainful nose and look offended” if she is referred to as a mummy, but rather “smile with a conscious superiority and accept it as a compliment.”

The demand for mummies was so high that it was difficult for suppliers to fill their orders with the genuine item.  Several articles, like this one from the September 30, 1906 Los Angeles Herald Sunday Supplement, warns of the fraudulent mummies being manufactured and sold to Americans seeking genuine Egyptian antiquities.

Like all celebrities, the mummy fell from stardom and has faded into the collection of monsters roaming the streets on Halloween night in search of treats.  Perhaps it is time for a revival of interest?  Find more exciting Halloween stories in the news at Chronicling America!

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