Martha Ann Honeywell: Art, Performance, and Disability in the Early Republic
Abstract

Abstract:

Martha Ann Honeywell (1786-1856) was a visual artist and performer who traveled across North America and Europe to exhibit her embroidery, waxwork, miniature writing, and paper cutting as well as her atypically-figured body, which lacked arms and hands and had just one foot with three toes. Drawing on over two hundred newspaper advertisements that she published, over one hundred samples of her visual artwork, nearly thirty visitor responses, and one surviving letter, this essay examines Honeywell’s story and the strategies that she used to appeal to consumers and cultivate her business. It argues that she capitalized on new cultural and commercial opportunities in the early republic as well as long-held conceptions of disability in productive ways. Honeywell was a relentless traveler, seeking new markets internationally and in the American West. She also catered to her patrons’ desires for miniatures and silhouettes, which held popular appeal, and utilized advancements in print culture to generate publicity. At the same time, Honeywell’s techniques for attracting clientele were informed by ideas about disability, and congenital physical anomalies in particular, with deep roots in western culture. To accommodate her spectators’ curiosities about her body, she juxtaposed her artistic capacities and physical incapacities in ways that elicited shock and amazement. In addition, to ease visitors’ fears about disability and anxieties about viewing her impairments, she presented familiar and socially acceptable traits that aligned with their expectations of the body, gender, and class. In the end, Honeywell’s mastery of these dual strategies of the spectacular and the conventional—along with the possibilities that the early national marketplace presented—produced what may seem like an unexpected outcome. Rather than condemning, fearing, or deriding her uniqueness, customers proclaimed her to be uniquely American, an exemplary woman and citizen.