Sometime in the middle of the twentieth century, the freak show was relegated to the disreputable fringes of American entertainment. But in the Victorian era, freak shows were as proper as fancy wallpaper, and freak performers were big-time stars.
In fact, performers such as Cheng and Eng, the original Siamese twins; Zip the Pinhead; and, of course, the “biggest” of them all, General Tom Thumb were the original American celebrities. They achieved this widespread fame the way all celebrities do: through the media.
The new printing technology of the nineteenth century was the engine of Victorian culture. After the Civil War, a flood of cheap newspapers, magazines, and printed ephemera streamed through the hands of the American public. Widely circulated texts and images saturated the collective imagination, creating a shared popular culture for the masses.
A myriad of technological innovations came together to produce this phenomenon, not least being the development of technology that made large-scale photographic reproduction possible.
Who is Mathew B. Brady?
The Civil War was the first war to be photographically documented. Credit for this goes to a photographer named Mathew B. Brady, who is considered to be the first photojournalist.
His portraits of slaves, and especially slave children, helped build a groundswell of support for abolition. The Civil War images you remember from your history textbooks were more than likely produced by Mathew Brady’s studio.
During his lifetime, though, Brady was even more renowned for his portraits of freaks than for his Civil War photographs. His first portrait studio was located just across the street from P.T. Barnum’s American Museum in New York City.
Along with his popular museum of curiosities, Barnum invented the modern freak show in the 1840s. His performers were the originals for the stock types that came to make up freak shows all across America, and all of his performers sat to have portraits made in Brady’s studio. The entire visual record we have of Barnum’s original freaks was his work.
The albumen print, a new photographic process invented in France in the 1850s, allowed for the cheap production of several photographs from a single negative. Mounting the thin photographic paper on a 2.5″ x 4″ sturdy backing, photographers produced cartes de visité.
The Carte de Visité
The carte de visité, or visiting card, was originally a small, glossy card with your name engraved on it that you would leave on a social visit.
By the 1860s, the new photo printing technology allowed people to leave visiting cards with their portraits. Soon the exchange of cartes became one of the many technology-driven crazes of Victorian culture.
Cartes de visité were the original social media; people posed with the trappings of their professions or hobbies in order to construct particular images for themselves.
Brady later developed a new form, which he called the imperial cartes de visité, later called the cabinet card, a portrait mounted on a 4.5” x 6.5” back. These reached their height of popularity in the 1880s and 1890s.
The family albums that became fixtures in Victorian parlors would contain portraits of family members and friends, as well as famous figures such as prominent statesmen, military men, and freaks.
The Gilded Age of Freak Photography
Freak performers had their portraits printed by the thousands to sell at their shows. They became a major source of revenue for both the performers and the photographers.
Freak portraiture was an art form unto itself. Performers posed with backdrops and props that helped construct their celebrity images, and all kinds of tricks were employed to accentuate their abnormalities.
The largest single order Brady received was of the famous dwarves Tom Thumb and Lavinia Warren Bump for their marriage, that event being a media sensation on the level of a royal wedding.
Lavinia herself was said to be the most photographed woman in the world. She had her portraits printed fifty thousand at a time.
Gilded Age photographers across America made their entire livings producing the portraits that the thousands of performing freaks sold at shows and used to market themselves.
By the 1870s and 80s, the most noted freak photographer was Charles Eisenmenn; every famous freak in the country sat in his Bowery studio for his or her official portrait.
In combination with the technology of printing and photography, the organized freak show created modern celebrity culture. Through the technology of the Internet and digital photography, the cartes de visité is now the selfie, and all of us can court fame with our own private freak shows.
Philip B. Kunhardt Jr., Philip B. Kunhardt III and Peter W. Kunhardt. “For An American Who Loved Freaks.” The New York Times, August 20, 1995.
“A Brief History of the Carte de Visite.” The American Museum of Photography, 2004. (http://www.photographymuseum.com/histsw.htm)
Bogdan, Robert. Freak Show: Presenting Human Oddities for Amusement and Profit.
“Mathew Brady.” Civil War Trust. (www.civilwar.org)