The newest addition to the collection of CDVs of little people sideshow performers – Admiral Dot, age thirteen.
I would take his age, height and weight in this photo with a grain of salt – the producers of these CDVs were prone to mis-statement, exaggeration and even outright lies about the subject’s physical traits as part of the sideshow hype. Fat men and women were often described as sometimes a hundred plus pounds bigger than they were. “Giants” were often endowed with an additional six or seven inches in height. In this case, I’ve managed to wangle a series of Admiral Dot at three different ages- 13, 14 and 18. In the span of five years he’s gained an inch (not unbelievable) and only five pounds.
Admiral Dot was born Leopold Kahn in San Francisco. He had two brothers, also little people, who also went on to become sideshow performers – Major Atom and General Pin. He began his career working for P.T. Barnum, but went on to perform with other companies of little people, married another little person, Lottie Swartood, and have two children before dying from the Spanish Flu during the 1918 epidemic at the age of 59. While I do have images of Major Atom, I have yet to come across one of General Pin – he must not have had the career his two siblings did.
Here is my CDV of Major Atom. Can you see a family resemblance?
I’ve been having the hardest time figuring out what these two gentlemen’s occupation is. They are wielding a trowel and a tin bucket, and staring into the bucket with a great degree of fascination. But they look too clean and too well-dressed for most manual labor occupations that would use a trowel and bucket – bakers, painters, plasterers, gardeners… when showing their profession, they’re usually a little less polished than these two. I’m going with plasterers as that’s a relatively high-earning trade, so maybe they could afford to get cleaned up before going in for their portraits.
I scanned this out of its octagonal Union case to make it easier to see the details. The case is in remarkably fine original condition, with no major cracks or chips.
The two men together could certainly in some people’s minds qualify this as a “gay interest” image, but I’m going to definitely disqualify this as it’s very obviously first and foremost a professional association. The dressing alike is a very 19th century thing within a trade, whereas dressing alike to show one’s sexual relationship to another is very much a late 20th early 21st century thing.
It’s been a very long time since I collected any additional CDVs. Perhaps a year or more. So I was overdue. Here is another one of my circus freaks (I’m using the period appropriate term for them, no disrespect meant to any little people who might find the term offensive): Admiral Dot, a contemporary and colleague of Tom Thumb. This is my third CDV of Admiral Dot, but the first one to have the photographer identified on the verso. The other two were from negatives sold to E & HT Anthony who then reproduced them with their own stamp, no other credit supplied.
I’m really starting to think of these circus performer CDVs as a subspecies of occupational image – they’re showing the performers in their stage attire, doing what they do to get paid. It’s not exactly the same thing as a cobbler with a leather apron, some awls and a shoe, or a cooper with a hammer, metal hoops and barrel staves, but nonetheless, they are enacting for the camera that which they do professionally.
Another addition to my collection – a pair of so-called pinheads who were part of the circus freak circuit in the United States during the 1870s. These two gentlemen are at the present time unknown to me. I’ll do some research and see if their identity can be determined. While I love collecting images of circus freaks (or even just anonymous vernacular images) from the famous photographers of the era, I think the obscure, little-known or unknown photographers in small American towns are just as cool if not cooler, because they truly represent a slice of American culture, largely vanished today. I like the unpolished-ness of the image – two men sitting on a bench of some sort, covered with a rug or blanket. The posing is straightforward and unsophisticated, yet it does have a certain aesthetic sensitivity that makes it appealing.
Pinheads suffer from Microcephaly – a genetically-influenced condition where their brain cavity does not grow at a normal rate and their head ends up being abnormally small. They usually suffer from mental retardation and may also have motor dysfunction and seizures. They were a popular sideshow attraction and often were portrayed as “the missing link” between man and ape, and in the case of Zip the Pinhead (perhaps the most famous pinhead of all, although it is debatable that he was a true microcephalic – he displayed normal or near-normal intelligence and did not suffer seizures or motor dysfunction), he would come out on stage in a cage like an animal and make shrieks and howls. Zip had a 67-year career in the circus and sideshow entertaining, dying in 1926 at or about the age of 80.
Here’s a cute photo of a teenage boy in a toreador suit, taken in Mexico City, August 20, 1949. The photographer’s stamp on the back of the print specifies the exact date, which is inordinately helpful. I just wish I could read his name, though – the script on the front AND the typeface used for his name on the back makes it impossible for me to decipher the exact spelling of his last name. Translation of the stamp:
A Photographer Whom You Can Recommend
Bolivar 57, Tel: 12.38.84
20 August 1949
I don’t know that this boy would actually have been a toreador – he could well have been playing dress-up for the camera. But I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and say he’s legit. Google Mapping the studio address, in all likelihood this was a very posh studio in the center of Mexico City, not far from the historic district (I found THREE addresses with the same street number around the city, but the street views of the other two showed nothing that looked like commercial enterprise ever happening there). If anyone out there in cyberland knows who this photographer was, I’d greatly appreciate letting me know the exact spelling of his name and any biographical data about him. Ditto for the identity of the subject – if he was in fact a toreador, someone out there somewhere knows who he is.
I cropped out some of the card the image is mounted on because it would be wasting space on the screen to show nothing of value, and left enough to show the texture and pattern of the card decoration. It’s truly a vintage piece of the period. The stamp I converted to black and white so I could tweak the contrast in Photoshop and make it easier to read.
Aah- the wonders of google. I was trying to figure out the photographers name, and did some google searching, and came up with Carlos Ysunza as a name. Additionally, there is a currently practicing commercial photographer in Mexico City by that same name. I’ll email him and find out if he is the son of the Carlos who took this photo.
This appears to be a 1903 Winton touring car. In doing some image searching, I came across a photo of the 1903 Winton that was driven by Horatio Nelson Jackson that seems to be very similar, with the exception of this being a four seater and Jackson’s being a two-seater. Would that this were a photo of Jackson’s car before he set out on his famous cross-country drive. In 1903 it took him 64 days to cross the US, including numerous breakdowns and delays from having to winch the car out of mud holes and over rocky terrain. His trek proved it could be done. By 1919, when Dwight Eisenhower did it with a military convoy of heavy trucks, it had been reduced to 29 days (average speed less than 6mph, and including 6 days of rest with no travel attempted).
With the chauffeur in the front seat, I guess you could consider this an occupational photo. Regardless, an awesome piece of early automotive history. Note the license plate with the number 1211. Could you imagine driving from Washington DC to San Francisco, a distance of some 3000 miles, in a car like this?
Here’s another fun one – really quite bizarre, actually when you think about it. The sitter is posing with a corsage in one hand, a fishing rod in the other, wearing formal attire, standing next to a table with silver candlesticks, that looks like it might be an altar. In a photographers’ studio. Was he on vacation? A hobbyist fisherman? It’s certainly not an occupational because this is definitely a gentleman of leisure, not a working fisherman. And what’s with the corsage?
In keeping with my recent backmark/blind stamp post, I like this one a lot, as it tries to connect portrait photography with painting, or at least bridge the gap. There are quite a few in a similar vein, a definite response to the notion that photography was merely a mechanical, technical operation and not a true fine art.
Circassian beauties is a phrase used to refer to an idealized image of the women of the Circassian people of the Northern Caucasus. A fairly extensive literary history suggests that Circassian women were thought to be unusually beautiful, spirited, and elegant, and as such were desirable as concubines. This reputation dates back to the later Middle Ages, when the Circassian coast was frequented by Italian traders from Genoa, and the founder of the Medici dynasty, Cosimo I de Medici, had a well-known affair with a Circassian slave girl. During the Ottoman Empire. Circassian women living as slaves in the Sultan’s Imperial Harem started to build their reputation as extremely beautiful and genteel, which then became a common trope in Western Orientalism.
As a result of this reputation, in Europe and America Circassians were regularly characterised as the ideal of feminine beauty in poetry, novels, and art. Cosmetic products were advertised, from the 18th century on, using the word “Circassian” in the title, or claiming that the product was based on substances used by the women of Circassia.
In the 1860s the showman P. T. Barnum exhibited women whom he claimed were Circassian beauties. They wore a distinctive Afro-like hair style, which had no precedent in earlier portrayals of Circassians, but which was soon copied by other female performers, who became known as “moss haired girls”. These were typically presented as victims of sexual enslavement among the Turks, who had escaped from the harem to achieve freedom in America.
The combination of the popular issues of slavery, the Orient, racial ideology, and sexual titillation gave the reports of Circassian women sufficient notoriety at the time that the circus leader P. T. Barnum decided to capitalize on this interest. He displayed a “Circassian Beauty” at his American Museum in 1865. Barnum’s Circassian beauties were young women with tall, teased hairstyles, rather like the Afro style of the 1970s. Actual Circassian hairstyles bore no resemblance to Barnum’s fantasy. Barnum’s first “Circassian” was marketed under the name “Zalumma Agra” and was exhibited at his American Museum in New York from 1864. Barnum had written to John Greenwood, his agent in Europe, asking him to purchase a beautiful Circassian girl to exhibit, or at least to hire a girl who could “pass for” one. However, it seems that “Zalumma Agra” was probably a local girl hired by the show, as were later “Circassians”.Barnum also produced a booklet about another of his Circassians, Zoe Meleke, who was portrayed as an ideally beautiful and refined woman who had escaped a life of sexual slavery.
The portrayal of a white woman as a rescued slave at the time of the American Civil War played on the racial connotations of slavery at the time. It has been argued that the distinctive hairstyle affiliates the side-show Circassian with African identity, and thus,
resonates oddly yet resoundingly with the rest of her identifying significations: her racial purity, her sexual enslavement, her position as colonial subject; her beauty. The Circassian blended elements of white Victorian True Womanhood with traits of the enslaved African American woman in one curiosity.
The trend spread, with supposedly Circassian women featured in dime museums and travelling medicine shows, sometimes known as “Moss-haired girls”. They were typically identified by the distinctive hairstyle, which was held in place by the use of beer. They also often performed in pseudo-oriental costume. Many postcards of Circassians also circulated. Though Barnum’s original women were portrayed as proud and genteel, later images of Circassians often emphasised erotic poses and revealing costumes. As the original fad faded, the “Circassians” started to add to their appeal by performing traditional circus tricks such as sword swallowing.
I had been hunting for a CDV of the Circassian Beauty for a while, and then found two images of “Circassian Beauties” on CDV recently. The one is fascinating because she’s obviously just a teenager. The other is an adult woman. I have seen other CDVs of Barnum’s Circassian, although I’ve seen a different name associated with her – Zenobia. It’s highly likely that there was more than one associated with Barnum’s Museum and later the traveling circus. I find the showman mentality of Barnum and his contemporaries utterly fascinating that they would have no qualms about not only faking someone supposedly from the Ottoman Empire, but that they would indulge in the exploitation of the specific mores and fears of their time that they did – enslaved white women as concubines of “the Oriental” was only one step removed from the notion of white women being sexually used by black men, especially in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War. And that Barnum would try to buy an actual Circassian woman speaks volumes to his mindset – while he would display her as liberated from slavery, in fact, he would acquire her as if she were still property.
I’d love if anyone out there knows anything about the sticker on the back of the second card – thematically it could be contemporary to the card, but it could also be as recent as the 1930s.
I thought it would be fun to review my loose tintypes. These are only the ones I’ve previously posted to the blog, not the entire collection. They run the range from tiny gemtype size (the one of Mr. Phillips in the top hat) to quarter-plate size (almost 5×7). They span a time period from the 1860s to the 1920s. Assembled they present a fascinating if incomplete snapshot of daily life in Victorian America. Showing everything from affectionate friends to unconventional family groups to people on vacation to working people with the tools of their trades, they portray a slice of life otherwise undocumented in literature or historical narrative. This is one of the great joys of collecting images like this – not just the traditional studio portraits, but the images that express meaning and personality beyond a marker that someone existed.
A tintype of two men boxing, for your consideration.
I’m attracted to this image by virtue of the slight motion blur captured in their pose – their hands and faces are a little soft from the 1+ second exposure. I suppose this could theoretically be an occupational tintype in that they may be boxers, although they’re rather formally dressed for athletes. I suspect this is just another case of two friends having a lark in the photographers’ studio. There’s probably a lost backstory to the picture – perhaps an inside joke about friends or siblings who were always fighting? Or perhaps it was a photographers’ study.