Yet another in my collection of circus freaks from the late 19th Century. In this scan of the card I’ve deliberately tweaked the scan of the back of the card to make the imprinting more readable. You’ve got to love the fact that their ages were left blank, to be penciled in, but their height and weight were printed. It makes me very suspicious of all three figures – Victorian-era circuses were known for intentionally over/under-stating data to make their particular freaks seem all the more extreme as a draw to customers. “Barnum’s fat man weighed 325 lbs! Ours weighs 450!” when in reality Barnum’s fat man was 275 and theirs just breaks 280. Ditto for giants – many of the circus giants were described as being somewhere between seven and eight feet, when in fact they were a bit north of 6’6″. It would have been hard for the average Victorian to gauge, as they often were paired on stage with little people, and the average height in 1870 was around five feet six inches, as opposed to five feet 10 today, so someone standing six feet nine would have looked even taller. Tom Thumb’s height bounced around in official descriptions of the time as well, frequently knocking three to six inches off his actual height (at his passing at age 45, he was 3 feet 4 inches tall).
Frank Wendt was the successor to Charles Eisenmann, taking over Eisenmann’s studio in 1893 upon his death, and running it in New York City until 1898, when he moved to New Jersey. Wendt is best known for photographing circus freaks, but he also worked with the general theatrical trade and more mainstream portrait customers as well. For more information about Wendt, check out Frank Wendt Photographs: The Wondrous World of Frank Wendt
Another addition to the collection of 19th century “freaks”. This one is totally anonymous – no label of who the subject is, or blind stamp on the verso from the photographer. But it’s clearly an original image from the overall quality – not a copy made from someone else’s CDV or stereo view, which makes it a little surprising to see. Oftentimes when photographers were stealing images of another photographer to reprint and sell, they would leave the back of the carte blank so if the copyright holder tried to track them down it would be much harder, and provide them with a degree of plausible deniability “I was merely selling these on consignment – I didn’t illegally copy them! And by the way, I don’t know who it was that sold me the copies…I think he said his name was Smith… yeah, that’s the ticket”. The subject looks familiar to me but I’m not sure – I bet he can be identified though. He’s quite handsome, bordering on just unusually short, and very well proportioned, unlike some of the circus freak little people performers of the day.
When I had previously posted this image, I stated that I didn’t know the identities of everyone, especially the little person on the right, although I had seen him before somewhere. Well, troll Ebay long enough and another image will show up. He’s Colonel Small. The other little man is Commodore Foote. I’m not certain of the identity of the little woman in the middle, but all three were Barnum performers.
I’m feeling a little bit like doing a review of the little people in my collection, so here goes nothing:
Here is a CDV of Suzie Reed, another one of Barnum’s Little People. The image is by Brady, even though the backmark just says E. & H.T. Anthony. The image is documented in the Meserve Collection, which was a collection of Brady images assembled by Frederick Hill Meserve that ended up being one of the largest repositories of Brady’s work not held in a museum. Another notable hallmark is the “reaper” clock, which made a regular if infrequent appearance (there are some 60 known images by Brady featuring the clock, but more may exist in the negatives as the clock may have been cropped out of the final prints). There’s a great article about the clock online – Bob Frishman’s Story of the Brady ‘Reaper’ Clock.
I’ve had a devil of a time trying to decipher the photographer’s name on the back – the best I can tell is it’s either H.B. Gerncore or H.L. Ger-something-something. In any case, it’s a beautiful photo of a strikingly proportionate little person. I’m frankly not even entirely sure he’s a little person and not just a pre-teen in a well-tailored suit. But the top hat and tails make it more likely he’s an adult sideshow or circus performer.
Here’s yet another photo of Tom Thumb and company, this time in the outfits they wore to meet Napoleon III. Also an Anthony print, with the facsimile signatures on the back. Again no attribution of the photographer, so while it is possible it’s a Brady, it’s likely not. Notice the hand-coloring of the women’s garlands and the men’s watch chains.
Here’s a CDV of Tom Thumb and Lavinia Warren, in middle age. This is an E&HT Anthony CDV, with the facsimile dedication on the verso. The studio that took the photo is unknown, as it is not credited. It is possible that it is a Brady image, as Anthony owned the Brady negatives in later years, but it is also very possible that it is by someone else who sold the negative to Anthony, or was commissioned by Tom Thumb and/or P.T. Barnum to take the photo.
This image is NOT Tom Thumb and Lavinia Warren. The little man on the left may be Commodore Nutt, but the woman is definitely not Lavinia Warren OR her sister Minnie, and the little man on the right is definitely not Tom Thumb either. I have seen his image before on other CDVs where it is just him, but I don’t have one of them and I can’t recall the name either. He’s a big name in the 19th century little people sideshow circuit, but I’m drawing a blank (if memory serves, I’ve seen his solo CDVs sell for upwards of $150 each). This CDV is in overall outstanding condition, pinholes at the top of the card mount excepted – the albumen print still looks new.
These were bought as a pair, and were owned by the same individual in the past – it is the same handwriting on the verso that identifies the little people as Tom Thumb and Lavinia Warren (correctly on the one card, wrongly on the other).
Here are the Thumbs, Commodore Nutt and Minnie Warren in the outfits they wore when presented to Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. Given that the image was produced by E&HT Anthony, in all likelihood it was taken by Mathew Brady in New York upon their return to the US after meeting the Queen. The verso contains the usual “Compliments of …” facsimile signatures of the four subjects. This probably was commissioned by P.T. Barnum to sell at his American Museum.
Here’s another Tom Thumb, this time by C.D. Fredricks. Proof positive that even when at home in New York, Tom Thumb was photographer agnostic, but still selective – if not posing for Brady, he was still going to the best names in town to get his photos done.
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.
My latest CDV of a circus sideshow midget. What was it with the circus and fake military ranks or titles? Major Houghton, Admiral Dot, Major Atom (although there’s a wee (pardon the pun) bit of irony in that one), Commodore Nutt, General Tom Thumb, Baron Littlefinger and Count Rosebud and just to name a few. Even when folks weren’t given fake titles, they often got dressed up in military-esque uniforms, like my photo of Landon Middlecoff, or some of the other giants I’ve seen.