|A regular feature of the nineteenth century circus was the sideshow, which in fact were separate enterprises that were free to make contracts with any number of entertainments, including Odditoriums, carnivals, amusement parks and fairs, as well as the circus. A particularly popular form of this type of travelling business was the 'freak' show, which might showcase midgets, giants, pinheads, fat ladies, strong men, snake charmers and other human oddities. These were considered a perfectly respectable form of family entertainment, and the most famous of them all, P.T. Barnum's 'American Museum', was opposite one of the most prestigious hotels in New York.
Most of these shows featured the charms of a character known as a 'Circassian beauty'. These were presented as members of a pure Caucasian race from the mountainous region of the Black Sea who had been rescued from the slave markets of Constantinople. As supposedly the 'purest' type of white person, Circassians were said to be the most beautiful on earth, much prized by Turkish sultans for their harems.
Invariably dressed in titillating garments resembling underwear, with a generous flavouring of Orientalism, Circassian beauties remained a mainstay of dime museums and side shows until the end of the nineteenth century, attracting white audiences preoccupied with issues of race and gender and fascinated by the 'exotic' East.
In reality, Circassian beauties were simply enterprising American women who had stiffened their hair with beer and adopted a name beginning in 'Z'. Surprisingly proficient in English and mysteriously deficient in their knowledge of the Circassian language, in the end the large availability of potential Circassians ruined them as attractions.
The photographer is Wilkes of West Baltimore Street, Baltimore.
Reverse bears a faint pencilled inscription in a period hand giving the sitter's 'name'.
condition: Fine, with some light stains on the mount.
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