22/03/2020

THE VICTORIANS LOVED A FREAK SHOW...



The trade in human disability as a form of entertainment has been around for centuries, with physical 'curiosities' being displayed in circuses or travelling fairs. However, during the nineteenth century, such exhibits became so popular that permanent venues were set up. London had the Egyptian Hall. In New York there was P T Barnum's American Museum. 

The Victorians did love a freak show, and although today we may view such things as being sordid and exploitative, some of the performers were more than happy to be involved. Ironically enough, the 'protection' of the stage offered security and peace, whereas the real outside world could be a hostile and cruel environment. The acts could make good money too. By the late 1890’s some of the most successful could earn £20 a week – the equivalent of what would be well over £1000 today.





Most productions would depend on the skill of the manager or showman to draw in the paying crowds. Printed advertisements would help to stir up curiosity, although when witnessed in the flesh the wonders they proclaimed may well have led to disappointment.



The mermaid in this poster would actually have been created by the arts of the taxidermist. Rather than seeing a lovely woman, the audience would most probably be faced with the stuffed head of a monkey fixed to the body of a fish. 




Indeed there was quite a craze in the displays of these Feejee Mermaids, more of which you can discover in a precious blog post. You'll also find this monstrous freak being featured in the V V's Victorian gothic novel,  Elijah's Mermaid.



There were some acts that became so famous they needed little promotion. Chang and Eng were the Siamese twins linked at the chest by a thick band of skin.



Midgets were always a draw, sometimes appearing in groups or ‘troops’ in which they would dance and sing, or else perform as acrobats. One of the most famed of the little men was the American General Tom Thumb who travelled with P T Barnum’s show and who proved to be so popular he was invited to meet Queen Victoria.




Barnum and Tom Thumb



Miss Rosina was a favourite too. Appearing all over Europe, she was often welcomed into aristocratic and royal homes. Despite having no hands or fingers she managed to crotchet by using her feet, and was said to produce fine paintings by holding a brush between her lips.






For a wonderfully detailed view of this world the VV recommends John Woolf's The Wonders.





Below are more posters for freak shows which form part of a collection now held at the British Library.






















21 comments:

  1. Reminds me of that brilliant TV show on at the moment - "Beauty and the Beast" - the disfigured people the "beasts" of the title alludes to would doubtless have been put in Freak Shows like these years ago.... we've come a long way but did it take waaaaay too long?

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  2. I agree Debs - though you only have to flick through a lot of the free channels on tv these days to find modern day equivalents.

    Thanks for the comment, as always!

    Essie

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  3. It is amazing how quickly social conscious has changed regarding the disabled (here in the U.S. it is only in the 1980's when the disabled were given special parking and other public accomodations), who had, for most of history been deemed "freakish." Imagine taking our fellow hoi polloi from days past who visited such affairs, and plopping them into our world today ~ boy, what a transition that would be.

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  4. There is some great Freak Show ephemera down the road from the British Library at the Wellcome Library too!

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  5. I really must go there again, very soon.

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  6. I don't agree with freak shows

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  7. hate freak shows!

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  8. This is so twisted! It's wonderful in macabre way. We're currently putting together a piece in which we re-enact the Victorian Freakshow's of old with a slight twist as we are injecting Frankenstein's Monster into the mix. This has been a wonderful read and will add to our already flowing ideas!

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  9. This is really uncomfortable. Except for the camp tattooed Greek, who seems to have no genitals. He's just peculiar.

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  10. it is a bit weird but they are just the same as us no different on the inside

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  11. As a child in the 70s I had a book called "Very Special People" it was I think American and was bought from a jumble sale for me by my grandad. I mislaid it a long time ago and have been desperate to find another copy to no avail. It recounted the lives of many famous "freaks" such as Chang and Eng,the Tocci Twins,Robert Wadlow, Raddica and Doodica(I could go on ) and since then I have continued to be fascinated by the subject.

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    1. You should have just checked amazon:
      http://www.amazon.co.uk/Very-Special-People-Struggles-Triumphs/dp/0907934005/ref=cm_cmu_pg__header

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  12. This is just AWFUL. how dare they try to make fun of these poor people. SHAME ON THEM.

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    1. I've always been fascinated by that culture. For a lot of those people it was the only place for them to make a living on their own. It was also the safest place for them; they were someone else's pay check and safety in numbers. The more famous ones made a killing. And then for the most part they were treated ok because whoever was in charge didn't want the money makers to leave for another show. I'm not saying it wasn't flawed, but at the time and in that situation I think there were probably worse things the "freaks" could have been subjected to.

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    2. I've always been fascinated by that culture. For a lot of those people it was the only place for them to make a living on their own. It was also the safest place for them; they were someone else's pay check and safety in numbers. The more famous ones made a killing. And then for the most part they were treated ok because whoever was in charge didn't want the money makers to leave for another show. I'm not saying it wasn't flawed, but at the time and in that situation I think there were probably worse things the "freaks" could have been subjected to.

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    3. I've always been fascinated by that culture. For a lot of those people it was the only place for them to make a living on their own. It was also the safest place for them; they were someone else's pay check and safety in numbers. The more famous ones made a killing. And then for the most part they were treated ok because whoever was in charge didn't want the money makers to leave for another show. I'm not saying it wasn't flawed, but at the time and in that situation I think there were probably worse things the "freaks" could have been subjected to.

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    4. Of course, in those days I, as an epileptic, would have been confined to a lunatic asylum for life and never spoken of by my family again if they had stuck to the norm of those days. Things change eventually for the better thank goodness, slowly, but it is just as well I wasn't born back then.

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    5. This happened to my great grandmother. She was epileptic, but she had a brain tumour. They did not realise until she had died. So sad.

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  13. I like the idea of them living together, safely surrounded by the theatre. Outsiders, sticking together. Great post Essie.

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