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Southern Cultures 12.3 (2006) iv, 1-5

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Figure 1
John Sledge and Sheila Hagler's "Lacy Charm in Old Mobile: The Historic Cast Iron of Alabama's First City" shows how Victorian Mobilians—and residents of the city years later—fell in love with cast iron's decorative possibilities. The Richards House (1860), Mobile, Alabama, photographed by Sheila Hagler.
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Aside from moonlight and magnolias, there can't be many things more stereotypically southern than frilly ornamental ironwork veiling the balconies around some timeless antebellum square. In truth, only a few places in the South are famous for such vistas—Charleston, New Orleans, and Mobile come immediately to mind—but these iconic cities are so famous as epitomes of antebellum charm that exotic features of their landscapes can somehow seem more typical of the region than reality itself. Lacy antique grillwork might be nonexistent in your county or mine, but if you do see one of those ornate filigrees framed around a live oak limb, preferably one laden with Spanish moss, you know you're in the South.

John Sledge and Sheila Hagler share a portrait of historic cast iron décor from Mobile, Alabama, taken from their new book, An Ornament to the City: Old Mobile Ironwork (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2006). It's impossible to argue with their subject. With a moment's thought, we all know that the mansions and public buildings adorned by Mobile's iron tracery were monuments to the planters and cotton factors of antebellum elite. We also know who could and who could not enjoy the public parks with their gently splashing fountains. When all is said and done, however, these ugly realities inevitably fade. The lacy metal itself is just too beautiful, whether seen up close in delicate detail or admired from across the square. Soft and delicate in appearance, rigid and obdurate in the face of time, it's easy to see why ornamental iron became such a powerful symbol or a stereotype for the beauty and mystery we may want to believe about the South.

Stereotypes are powerful themes in southern culture. Whether framing the balconies of Mobile or a mental image of white robes and crinolines, stereotypes seem to be essential to our thinking about the place, and that's true whether we are southerners or not. If we didn't know that by instinct, Larry Griffin has taken the trouble to prove it to us in a careful exploration of southern opinion polls, especially the Southern Focus Polls conducted by the Odum Institute for Research in the Social Sciences at UNC-CH in the 1990s.

Griffin picks up on an idea first voiced by John Reed, retired UNC-CH sociologist and founder of Southern Cultures. What is it that makes people think of themselves [End Page 1] as southerners? It isn't just birth, because some people become adopted southerners and some born Dixie-ites renounce the place. Nor is it residence, because some people who live in the South—white and black—don't think of themselves as southern. So what is it?

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Figure 2
Michael M. Cohen looks at the interplay of race and drug use in the South in "Jim Crow's Drug War: Race, Coca Cola, and the Southern Origins of Drug Prohibition." Patent medicines used to promise cures for just about every ailment. Advertisement from Michael M. Cohen's collection.

A key part of the answer, Griffin finds, depends on stereotypes. If you think the South is a warm and friendly place to live, for example, and you think of yourself as a warm and friendly person, and if you are born or live in the South, then you are much more likely to think of yourself as a southerner than someone who does not believe those things. It sounds simple when you put it that way, but it also confirms something profound. Regional identity is something intimate and powerful. It gets deep down into your personality and stays there, so that what kind of...


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