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Decades later, current headlines echo controversies addressed in Morris Ernst collection

Through a generous grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, a team of archivists and student interns has been working to organize and catalog the papers of attorney Morris Leopold Ernst since September 2009. The collection is now open for research, and a finding aid is available online.

Morris Leopold Ernst (1888–1976), who earned his law degree 100 years ago, may not yet be a household name, but his legal career has had a lasting impact on American society. Ernst dealt primarily with civil liberties cases in a variety of areas, including censorship, obscenity, and first amendment rights. In addition to his busy legal career, he was a prolific writer, authoring more than 30 books and hundreds of articles, essays, and short works on legal topics and other social issues like big business and divorce.

Ernst is probably best known for his work in literary censorship cases. His influential fights include the defense of Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness, Arthur Schnitzler’s Casanova’s Homecoming, and most famously, James Joyce’s Ulysses.

Though the majority of Ernst’s work took place in the early and mid-twentieth century, as our team of archivists sifted through his papers and processed the collection, we couldn’t help noticing how timely the collection seemed. Over and over again the subjects we read about in Ernst’s archive were echoed by stories in the recent news.

The case United States v. One Book Entitled Ulysses by James Joyce, which Ernst and his colleagues carefully orchestrated, won Ernst much fame and set a precedent for arguing and trying “objectionable” literature. Banned in the United States for more than a decade before Ernst won the case in 1933, Joyce’s masterpiece has had to overcome other more recent hurdles. In 2010 the work was in the news when Apple tried to censor a graphic novel version by Rob Berry and Josh Levitas. Before allowing the Ulysses comic to appear as an electronic book for the iPad, Apple requested that the illustrators remove all nudity from their images. Apple eventually rescinded its demand and allowed the original illustrations to appear.

In the 1930s, Ernst was also a prominent figure in the early birth control movement defending the Birth Control Federation of America and the Clinical Research Bureau, predecessors of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. As these organizations printed and distributed educational materials on reproduction and contraception, they were charged with obscenity. In cases such as United States v. One Package of Japanese Pessaries, Ernst exonerated the movement’s leaders from indecency and in so doing, helped promote women’s rights and the freedom of choice. Contraception and women’s rights have continued to be newsworthy topics.

Ernst was also well known for his work with labor unions, famously defending first amendment rights in Hague, Mayor, et al. v. Committee for Industrial Organization et al. This conflict arose in the 1930s when Jersey City, N.J. mayor Frank Hague tried to suppress many of the Committee for Industrial Organization’s (CIO) activities and decreed by city ordinance that laborers could not assemble in public. The case was appealed to the Supreme Court where the workers’ rights were upheld. Though Ernst won that case in 1939, politicians and labor unions have often been at odds with each other. For example, beginning in February 2011 headlines were populated with reports about Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s attempts to curtail union bargaining rights. The AFL-CIO represented workers in these disagreements as well.

Ernst published his book Too Big in 1940, one of the many books he wrote. The title is echoed by the phrase “too big to fail,” with which we all are familiar, as it has been frequently used in the media since the market crash in 2008. Monopolies and the danger of big business were of real concern to Ernst, and he wrote about it not only in that volume, but in numerous magazine articles.

Censorship, birth control, labor unions, and monopolies were only a few of Ernst’s many interests. As a tireless worker he involved himself in many other issues, such as reducing postage rates for books and promoting literacy around the world. His papers provide insight into his legal practice and writing career and could also provide a new perspective on issues in contemporary society.

 

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Collection showcases hand-colored tintypes in period frames

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The Stanley Burns tintype collection is a remarkable and rare assemblage of unusually large, hand-colored, American tintypes in period frames. With more than 130 items, this is one of the largest collections of its kind.

Portraiture in America has a long tradition. In the colonial era, painted portraits provided a historical record of prominent figures, while miniatures and silhouettes provided more intimate records of family members. As the middle classes prospered in the early nineteenth century, painted portraiture flourished. With the invention of the daguerreotype in 1839, the face of portraiture started to change. The daguerreotype required one- to three-minute exposures, which were hard for people to hold, but as other photographic mediums were developed, such as ambrotypes and tintypes, photography began to replace painting as the standard technique for portraits.

Tintypes, like daguerreotypes, are one-of-a-kind photographs. There is no negative, as the image is exposed directly onto the substrate. The word “tintype” is, in fact, a misnomer, as iron, not tin, was used as the substrate. The tintype process was faster, cheaper, and produced a more accurate depiction than a painting, which led to its rise in popularity, especially with the middle and working classes. The necessary equipment and chemistry were portable and thus allowed photographers to travel, providing access to people in rural areas and to Civil War soldiers.

The Burns collection consists almost entirely of portraits, many of which are of individuals, including paired sets of husbands and wives. Additionally there are family portraits, some of which are “composite” images where the photographer reproduced earlier portraits of individuals into one group portrait, a method often used to include deceased family members. There are also many portraits of children, including post-mortem photographs of infants. Portraits of African-Americans and people in trade uniforms exemplify how photography helped democratize art by making it accessible to lower and working class citizens.

The tintypes in this collection are all painted, either with oil paints or watercolor. Some are painted heavily in a folk-art style while others have only minimal colorization. Tintypes were not usually painted, but doing so placed them within the tradition of painted portraiture and thus closer to being fine art. Painting them also made up for the poor contrast of tintypes and could make them appear more life-like. Most commonly, tintypes measured about two by three inches and were housed in paper display folders, but the ones in this collection measure six by eight inches or larger and are displayed in elaborate frames, another practice that helped raise the status of the photograph to fine art.

The frames in the collection are of equal importance to the photographs, and they represent a variety of styles—from the plain to the elaborate—and date from 1840 to 1910. Renaissance revival and federal revival styles are simple and elegant; rococo revival frames include scrollwork and flower motifs. Many frames in the collection are Eastlake style, named for the nineteenth-century British architect and tastemaker Charles Eastlake. These consist of ebonized or marbleized wood with incised geometric patterns. Aesthetic style frames, also well represented in this collection, are distinguished by the clarity of their molded designs with motifs inspired by nature. The collection also includes frames in tramp art and rustic styles, which are more simply decorated, carved-wood designs. The range of styles from simple wood constructions to elaborate gilt moldings reveal the social status of each photograph and, by extension, the subjects.

Sisters with Blond Hair. Unidentified photographer. Ca. 1875. Oil on tintype. Eastlake style frame.
Sisters with Blond Hair. Unidentified photographer. Ca. 1875. Oil on tintype. Eastlake style frame.