The "freak show" that persists today in common memory is the squalid carnival affair of the 1930s and later, full of obvious fakery and cheap sensation. The side show of the great travelling circuses of the 19th century was a different affair. The exhibits were understood as wonders -- like the natural wonders displayed in "museums of curiosities" in the early 19th century, where bottled foetuses with extraordinary anomalies were shown next to stuffed armadillos and huge crystals. They expressed the marvelous variety and possibility in creation. To go and see human oddities was without moral ambiguity: more commonplace than but not different from a trip to the asylum to marvel at the strange and educational range of behaviors.
The advertising campaigns for P.T. Barnum's travelling museum were among the first national advertising campaigns. With their brilliant posters and inflated claims, they made images of certain kinds of "freaks" and certain ways of understanding them universal in society. The exhibits were of many types, from fire-eaters to tattooed ladies, but always included people with physical abnormalities.
How did the physically different people who were exhibited in such shows respond? How were they affected by the categories they were placed in?
They were often not granted ordinary human status, but they were not despised. They were often exploited, but they were usually well cared for since they had an economic value. Many of them earned money to build lives for themselves away from exhibition. Some of them, including Tom Thumb -- Charles Stratton -- and Lavinia Warren, and the Siamese twins Chang and Eng, were honored with superstar status, meeting and impressing "the crowned heads of Europe" as the publicity phrase always ran. Both Tom Thumb and the Siamese Twins married. Chang and Eng took up farming. Tom Thumb in his splendid uniform was photographed by Matthew Brady.
Often, the "exhibit" participated in the exhibition. Robert Bogdan, our advisor, describes in his book The Freak Show: Presenting Human Oddities For Amusement And Profit how those with physical differences worked with promoters to emphasize their differences rather than disguise it. Some collaborated with publicists on their biographies, which were full of marvels, narrations of exotic origin and strange adventures, and which often pointed out a moral about struggle and triumph over adversity.
Part of the entertainment for viewers of "freaks" and "wonders" was the discovery that people so different could also be so "normal" - the midgets were happily married, etc. What audiences loved to see was the physically different person doing simple normal activities-- the armless wonders who signed autographs with their toes, made tea and served it. The triumph lay in the normality.
At the same time as people with physical differences were being exhibited for profit, the body was becoming an object of scientific study with new rigor and new classificatory tools. Anomalies and difference were studied, classified, and named. "Marvels" and "wonders" could be presented as scientific discoveries: the viewing of freaks, it was advertised, could be an educational experience. Publicity for side-show exhibits emphasized their scientific interest by including measurements and scientific-sounding language.
In the last quarter of the 19th century, Darwinian concepts about evolutionary biology became widely and loosely used in popular culture. In the side show, the dog-boys and wild men, who had formerly been described as "missing links" between animals and human beings in a Great Chain of Being, were now labelled as vestigial stages in the evolutionary progress from lowest forms of life to highest; or they were "throwbacks", atavisms of earlier and more "primitive" stages of life.
A hierarchical ordering of life from lower animals to lower human races and types to higher races had been accepted from time immemorial. After Darwin these hierarchies were incorporated into evolutionary biology, and acquired the authority of science. At the Worlds Fairs of the later 19th century, the ethnographic exhibits showing "primitives" -- pygmy villages, Fiji Islanders, etc. -- were located on the midway as well as in the side shows.
By 1900, doctors and medical professionals began to identify the physical differences exhibited by people in side shows as medical conditions that needed fixing, the "freak show" ceased to be respectable. Physically abnormal people were Nature's mistakes, blurred or malformed expressions of what it is to be human. The intimate encounter with physical difference in the sideshow had always had something quasi-erotic and unsettling in it. Medicalization made it shameful -- nice people don't go to be entertained by diseased bodies.
But the advertising images and rhetoric of the freak-show operators remained in the popular imagination. Decades of carny sideshows taught that physical difference was comic (midgets and dwarves) or loathsome (the skin conditions of the dog-boys and elephant-men) or eerie (the Aztec Princesses and Siamese Twins) but it always marked the person as irremediably, inescapably other.The freak show in its final decline (1920--1940) cast an air of squalor and nightmarish exclusion over people with disabilities, and their otherness became a common metaphor for social alienation. In the photographs Diane Arbus made in the 1960s of midgets and transsexuals we can perceive the otherness of those with physical difference deliberately employed as metaphors of alienation from the normal and the ordinary.