A History of Side Show Exhibitions and Acts

by Professor Vanessa Toulmin - National Fairground Archive

Photo: Scottish Samsons


Shows as the term showman implies were one of the main forms of attraction within the field of popular entertainment in the Victorian era. Shows could be found on the fairground arena, within a travelling or fixed circus, in a show of optical and scientific wonder at permanent halls or on the high street. Everything and anything was exhibited under the banner of education and entertainment including, displays of the body beautiful or grotesque, painted panoramic scenes, fasting men and fat women and magic and illusion tricks. A range of venues were utilised to present side show attractions and performers over its long and varied history. Travelling fairs and show booths were the mainstay of the side show attraction for many hundreds of years but enterprising showmen and their acts also appeared in museums of curiosities, drawing rooms, and royal palaces.

Museums of Curiosity and Dime Museums

Although Dime museums have largely became associated with American type entertainments, when Reynolds's Waxwork Exhibition opened its doors in Liverpool in 1858 it was drawing in some part on a tradition that had flourished in different forms in Europe since the eighteen century. The displaying of largely exotic and fantastic objects was prior to the nineteenth century largely within Wunder-Kabinets or Cabinets of Curiosities. The presentation of objects for both educational and entertainment purposes lay at the heart of both the nineteenth century museums and also their illegitimate relation, the museum of curiosity. However, the combination of entertainment and education that was presented by the nineteenth century showmen like Albert Reynolds created a new form of urban entertainment that prospered both in the United States and the United Kingdom which became known as the Dime Museum. These places of wonder have been seen as an American institution, with the dime museum being an essential part of urban thoroughfares in America in the nineteenth century.

Barnum's American Museum

The most famous of these venues was of course P.T. Barnum's American Museum, which until its destruction by fire in 1865 was one of the foremost centres of entertainment in New York. The American Museum was an institution that exhibited natural history specimens, oddities, paintings, wax figures, amusements, and memorabilia. Although marginally successfully as a dime Museum it did not receive national fame or prosperity until it was taken over by P. T. Barnum, the great American showman. It was situated from 1841 to 1865, at the corner of Broadway and Ann Street in New York City and became one of the foremost visitor attractions in New York. Posing as both an educational and entertainment establishment, the five-storey building hosted a variety of different attractions, including natural history in its menageries, aquarium, side-shows, waxworks and theatrical plays. The main principal of the museum was that for a fixed price admission, visitors viewed an ever-revolving series of "attractions" including Tom Thumb and other famous side show novelties promoted by Barnum. The American Museum attempted to combine venue. After paying the fixed admission price, the spectator could view either be entertained through performance with a range of novelty or variety acts available or through simply viewing the waxworks or the freak show exhibit. Attractions such as these flourished largely in large urban centres as they required an endless flow of new customers.

British Dime Museums or Panopticans

Despite the success and fame of Barnum's museum in New York, miscellaneous objects gathered together in one building where also very popular in London at the time of Barnum's American Museum, with the Egyptian Hall, the Royal Polytechnic and many other places venues presenting all types of attractions. Novelty museums and panoptican type shows existed in most major British cities, under a variety of names. Ranging from the larger scale production of the Britannia in Glasgow to smaller but just as varied double sized shop fronts such as Tom Norman's New Exhibition in Croydon. From the 1860s onwards the new exhibition halls used as a model for their attractions Barnum's American Museum, in particular the display of live curiosities alongside waxworks, menageries and variety performers. The essential backdrop to these venues was the permanent waxwork exhibition that combined with an ever changing flow of live entertainments and the latest wonders of the age such as the cinematograph, presented an up to date array of attractions for the visitor. In the new and expanding recreational environment of the great regional cities such as Liverpool and Glasgow, the emergence of new novelty museums such as panopticans and waxwork shows was in response to a larger urban populace. The population of Liverpool in line with other major Northern cities at the time had expanded throughout the nineteenth century and this new populace required a greater range of entertainments to amuse themselves in. Drawing on both the cabinet of curiosity and waxwork model as presented by the British showmen but heavily influenced by the American model as popularised by P.T Barnum, these venues ranged from small shop-fronted arcades with a long term lease, to larger purpose built venues incorporating displays combining both the educational and the sensational. Jack Headley's Franco-British Exhibition in Bolton for example, presented Miss X's fasting lady, John Chambers the armless wonder alongside waxworks, automatic machines and mutoscope machines. The Britannia and Grand Panoptican in Glasgow, offered their attractions rather like a row of shops on an urban thoroughfare or a line of shows on a fairground but within a confined fixed venue. After paying the fixed admission price, the spectator could either be entertained through performance with a range of novelty or variety acts available or through simply viewing the waxworks or the freak show exhibit. Attractions such as these flourished largely in large urban centres as they required an endless flow of new customers.

Reynolds Waxworks Museum

One of the most long-standing and prominent venues in the North of England was Reynold's Waxworks and Exhibition situated in the Lime Street area in Liverpool. The original waxworks exhibition opened in 1858 and initially the attractions were based on the model presented by Tussauds in London. However, over the decades the main focus of the entertainments on offer became very different to those presented by Madame Tussaud namely live entertainment shows and their particular specialisation, freaks of nature. Despite the popularity of the waxworks, Reynolds continued to change and refresh the type of attractions on display perhaps in order to compete with the range and variety of attractions presented by rival concerns in Lime Street. The inclusion of live entertainment alongside anatomical models, waxworks and the chamber of horrors was bringing to the British spectating public the type of entertainments first promoted by Barnum in the ten in one dime show or museum. Opening hours in Reynolds followed this pattern of all day entertainments with patrons being admitted at 10am until 10pm. Cost of admission started at threepence with the price increasing to sixpence if one wanted to enjoy the entertainments that were shown twice a day (3pm and 8pm). Acts comprised of the performing fleas, the Norwegian Giant and Tiny Tim, and a vocal and instrumental recital by Miss Beatrice Vaughan, as well as a mystic magical entertainment by Major Devono. Children who were employed for entertainment purposes at this time included the Infant Jumbo, the 'most wonderful child ever exhibited', who at the age of six weighed over 205 lbs. By the late 1880s and early 1890s it appears that the show side of the exhibition was the means by which the exhibitors could constantly refresh the attractions on view. The use of novelties and freaks to entertain and educate the public was a continuation of a side-show tradition taken directly from the fairgrounds and shop-shows and marketed by Barnum to a higher level than previous attained, freak shows as presented by Barnum were not on the edges of society or part of illegitimate theatre practices but firmly within the mainstream and appealed to a family audience.

By 1894 live entertainment appears to be a mainstay of the attractions on offer. Princess Paulina, the Living Doll makes her first appearance at the exhibition, would be later modelled into a waxwork effigy in the historical waxworks hall. Ethnographic attractions also became a feature of the exhibition with both the Aztecs and the Circassisan Brothers thrilling audiences in October 1894. Reynold's Waxworks Exhibition opened its doors from 1858 to 1922 and provided the people of Liverpool with a range of shows and attractions all within one fixed venue. Catering for a largely working class audience, it maintained its position as an arena for spectacular and entertainment for over seven decades all for the price of a sixpence. Incorporating waxworks, live performances, freak show exhibits and the latest technological wonders of the age, it contents may have been largely British in character but the exhibition was both inspired and presented through American showmanship and exhibition practices

Famous Side Show Performers

Side show performers appeared in a number of venues ranging from the afore mentioned side shows on the fairground, variety stages and of course the Dime Museums. Within all of these venues the most popular attractions were performers with extraordinary talents, who could do supposedly normal things despite their disabilities, with differences ranging from the colour of their skin, a particular disability or an unusual specialisation. These acts were either rooted in reality as in the A famous example of this Siamese twins, so called because of Chang and Eng, the original twins were born in Siam in 1811 and brought to America in 1829. Midgets were frequently advertised as being much older than they actually were. Hirsute or bearded attractions would range from Jo Jo the Dog Faced Boy and the famous fake show Hairy Mary from Borneo, which was in reality a monkey.

Hirsute faced ladies were a common feature in the nineteenth century and famous names included Leonine the Lion Faced Lady, Alice Bounds the Bear Lady and Annie Jones who appeared with Barnum and Bailey's Circus. Other nineteenth century exhibits included Patrick O'Brien the Irish Giant, a regular act at St Bartholomew's Fair and Sam Taylor the Ilkeston Giant. Examples of physical extremities included The Fat Boy of Peckham, the Infant Jumbo and Sacco-Homann the famous fasting man. Indeed such was the popularity of fat women shows that five alone could be found at Hull Fair, the largest travelling fair in the United Kingdom in the 1890s.

The presentation of human oddities in the Victorian era changed dramatically with P.T. Barnum and his famous attraction Tom Thumb. When Barnum arrived in England in 1844 the British showmen were amazed that Barnum was hoping to attract so much money for simply exhibiting a dwarf. However, Barnum created a novelty act that would become one of the greatest attractions of the Victorian Era. Charles Stratton - or Tom Thumb - was eleven years old when first exhibited by Barnum in 1843. Barnum changed his nationality from American to English, he changed his age from four to eleven years old, and his name from Charles Stratton to General Tom Thumb. When he left the States for his European tour he became an instant attraction and was presented to Queen Victoria on three separate occasions.

Dwarf and midget exhibitors such as Major Mite, Harold Pyott (the English Tom Thumb) and Anita the Living Doll, followed in the example of Charles Stratton and became highly successful sideshow novelties. The effect of Barnum on the English showmen and the public was immense and freak exhibits were found in a range of exhibitions including shop fronts, penny gaffs, music halls and travelling fairs. Side show or freak show performers appeared at a variety of venues depending on the time of the year and their prominence as an attraction. Illusion acts were also a staple of the side-shows with attractions such as the Headless Lady, the Girl in a Goldfish Bowl and the Living Half Lady reintroduced by John Gresham in the 1950s back to the fairground.

Side Shows on the Fairground

Living novelty acts and variety entertainments continued to appear on both the theatrical halls and the travelling exhibitions in the United Kingdom for most of the twentieth century. However, it is on the fairground side-shows that they appear to be particularly associated with until the late 1960s. Stars such Tommy Twinkle Toes Jacobsen the armless wonder was a headline attraction on variety hall and travelling shows and Hal Denver the son of Tom Norman appeared with his knife throwing act on the Ed Sullivan Show in America and on Hull Fair. Side shows were a major feature of all travelling fairs in the United Kingdom well until the 1960s and a wide range of novelties, acts and performers would form part of the shows.

The shows on the fairground included W. H. Stewart's National Sporting Club featuring boxers from England and America, the Pindar's family with a circus and a menagerie, John Collin's new Show Boat Theatre, Jack Parry's wonder show featuring Big Chief Red Snake, the Shufflebottom Wild West shows, Arthur Steven's Talk of the Town and Glamourama! Charlie Birch's Water Circus. Tippler White's selection of novelty attractions including the bullet ridden car of Al Capone and formed part of a groups of showmen such as the Chadwick's, Patterson's, the Wheatley's and Professor Testo with his flea circus, all who would be associated with fairground side shows for many years to come. By the 1950s the shows had changed yet again and despite the nostalgia displayed by the World's Fair reporter in 1955 for a bygone age which had disappeared over forty years ago, the show row was still immensely popular:

"The shows in the seemingly endless line in the West section of the Festival again offer a huge variety of unusual attractions, but many of the older generation look on with a sense of regret. They will probably reflect that shows lost much of their fascination with the disappearance of ghost shows, living pictures, waxworks, and menageries whose entrances were resplendent with gilt, mirror and brasswork ... Times may have changed but the "oddities section still remains good fun and the barkers still remind the milling crowds "you'll remember it all your life."

The show rows at many of our great historical fairs are now dominated by trailer mounted triple decker ghost trains, fun houses and crazy mirror shows. Ron Taylor' the last of the Boxing Booth showmen died two years ago and brought to an end a long tradition of boxing proprietors such as Len Johnson, Jack Gage and the Stewart family who had been associated with fairs over the century. Over the past hundred years many famous showmen have attended the fairs and festivities, bringing entertainment and trickery to many generations. In recognition of the skill, imagination and showmanship, I will finish with W. K. Burford's tribute to the shows published in the showman's newspaper The World's Fair in the 1950s:

So there are tricks in all trades
Except in yours and mine
And even showmen, sometimes
Come rather near the line

We paid to see a marvel-
A cherry-coloured cat;
Whatever else we passed by
We thought we must see that.

The thing was quite a "take-in,"
We claimed our money back;
But we were then reminded
Cherries are sometimes "black."