Here is a circa 1920 image, entitled “A Tewa Bowman” by W. Allen Cushman, a noted photographer based in Santa Fe, New Mexico. In keeping with the Edward Curtis tradition of tarting up his models with inauthentic costume bits to make a “better” photograph, Mr. Cushman put a plains Indian headdress on a southwest tribe member. And while the Tewas may have run around in loincloths on occasion (ceremonies or religious rituals), like their neighbors the Navajo and Hopi, they tended to wear shirts and leggings – the sun can be brutal when it’s out, and the cold can be equally so in wintertime – New Mexico is at similar altitude to parts of Colorado, so they get snow at higher elevations.
The image serves as a historic landmark in understanding the evolution of white man’s attitude toward native Americans. For the first several centuries of contact, the primary attitude ranged from indifference to hostility to downright genocide. By the beginnings of the 20th century, a new romanticized view of the ‘noble savage’ was taking hold, along with the growing realization that native peoples were truly dying out and vanishing altogether. In addition to the general romanticization, there is an obvious homoerotic undertone to the image. Note the smooth skin and the taut physique of the model. It’s a form of sublty emasculating the subject, making him at a time both sexually charged and non-threatening. All you’d have to do to turn this into an F. Holland Day photo would be to swap the feather headdress for a turban, and substitute an African model, and bingo.
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.