by Neil Parsons

The years between the 1880s and the 1910s saw an explosion of, and a revolution in, popular recreation and entertainment on both sides of the Atlantic—circus, theatre, music, dance, and mechanized carnivals or funfairs. Entertainment became big business with brash new styles of presentation that can be called ‘show-biz’, or carnival culture, or even the Barnum Perplex. In Britain a 1913 estimate put the number of people employed in the entertainment industry at 700,000.1

Rising incomes and the spread of basic education among the lower classes opened up new mass markets in Britain from the 1870s, and in North America from the 1890s.Pubs and bars were opened longer hours to sell beer and liquor, and competed with new temperance tea-rooms for light meals. Smoking of cigarettes became widespread, and variants of ‘football’ led the way in opening stadiums for spectator sports. New mass market newspapers carried sensational stories and new cartoon-strips, popularized new ‘crazes’ and celebrities, and advertised patented children’s toys such as teddy-bears and kewpie-dolls, as well as the new hobbies of stamp-collecting, amateur photography, and motoring. 

The growth of mass entertainment marks a long-term shift towards domination of the economy ‘by patterns of consumption and leisure’.Innovations came increasingly from the United States, and consolidated their hold on the West during the Great War when Europe turned from leisure to destruction. Hollywood, Tin Pan Alley, and the Ford Motor Company all rose to power in the later 1910s, and were associated with glitz and speed—though Mrs Alec Tweedie’s America as I Saw It(1913) observed that the fast pace of American life was a delusion: Americans were slow to actually do things, rather than claim to have done them.2 

 Many scholars see the deliberate vulgarity of popular entertainment as the manipulation of the masses for the profit of the few—expressing petty-bourgeois values rather than truly proletarian ideas. The fun in ‘funfair’ stood for managed amusement celebrating materialism and extravagance.John Kasson remarks of Coney Island: ‘Beneath the air of liberation, its pressures were profoundly conformist, its means fundamentally manipulative.’ James B. Twitchell sees ‘vulgar’ modern culture as ‘formulaic’ and mass-produced, with moral standards determined only by ‘the bottom line’ of profit.3 


Human curiosities were transformed into ‘freaks’ largely by Phineas Taylor Barnum (1810-91)—le roi du puff,the king of bunkum. Barnum had bought the run-down American Museum on Broadway in downtown New York in 1841, and had turned it into a must-see with noisy music, Punch & Judy shows, and displays of curiosities. Many of the exhibits were fakes, but the museum assumed an educational aura by ‘scientific’ talks and ‘refined amusements and moral dramas’ in its lecture theatre. 

 Barnum cashed in on the mid-century craze for popular knowledge, which spread to lower middle-class and ‘respectable’ working class families—boosting the Victorian values of thrift, domesticity, and temperance, while offering glimpses of exotic and dangerous worlds beyond. Hence Barnum’s fascination with ‘freaks of nature’, and his growing interest from the 1860s in assembling an ethnological collection of living human beings.

 Barnum seems to have coined the term ‘sideshows’ as early as 1858, referring to the tent and wagon booths of independent entertainers that traditionally stuck to big traveling shows like little fish around a whale. From 1871 when Barnum and W. Cameron Coup put their Great Moral Show or Great Traveling World’s Fair on the road, they charged these sideshows with a rental fee.  The sideshows included South Sea ‘cannibals’ from Fiji, native Americans and Circassian women, as well as acrobats and magicians.4

 In April 1874 Barnum and Coup launched their annual circus season for the first time under a shed in an old beer-garden at Madison Square Park, New York City. The opening pageant or spectacular(the ‘spec’), grandly titled the Congress of Nations, included a thousand performers and hundreds of horses, llamas, camels, and ostriches. Two circus rings were placed inside the hippodrome (oval race-track), so that the size of the audience could be expanded to see two acts performing simultaneously—under the watchful eye of a ringmaster, while the band played on. The circus then toured the eastern part of the United States by railroad. 

 The annual visit of the circus, and its parade of brightly painted wagons drawn by carthorses down main street from the railroad station, and the rapid erection of tents for three performances (matinée, afternoon, and evening), became an eagerly awaited seasonal institution in Eastern cities and larger towns. For Barnum and Coup it was a capital-intensive operation in equipment and expenses, but it was also extremely profitable in sopping up the leisure expenditure of so many places in one summer season.

 In 1880, P.T. Barnum amalgamated with James A. Bailey’s circus to form Barnum & Bailey’s Circus—The Greatest Show on Earth. In Barnum style, every year there had to be some great new added attraction to pull in the punters. By 1882-83 the circus boasted three rings under an enormous green ‘big top’, capable of seating up to 14,000 people. Posters for each show were pasted up on fences and walls in a seventy five-mile radius to bring in the crowds by pre-arranged excursion trains. Bailey, the everyday manager of the circus, combined all the sideshow acts together in one long sideshow tent (or ‘small top’)—with a separate stage for each act, under the control of guides and barkers who in museum educational tradition were called ‘lecturers’.  

 Barnum & Bailey’s Grand Ethnological Congress in the long sideshow tent mixed human ‘freaks’ with wild animals. It periodically featured a Senegalese native village on loan from France, where such villages were a feature of international expositions celebrating French colonialism. (The idea seems to have originated in 1874 with the German menagerie firm of Carl Hagenbeck, which brought in a display of Scandinavian Samé or Lapp villagers living with their reindeer. Völkerschauen, or traveling race-exhibits, remained a feature of German entertainment through to the Nazi period.)5

 Barnum & Bailey’s three-ring circus toured Europe with its sideshow between 1897 and 1902—leaving the North American market to Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show (which by 1899 advertised the addition of ‘Strange people from our new possessions’), and to rival railroad circuses such as that of the Ringling brothers.

 Circus was already on the decline in England, and audiences did not take to ‘freaks’ in the sideshows. Barnum & Bailey’s press agent, Tod Hamilton, therefore staged a phony revolt of the ‘freaks’ for the press on January 6th, 1898, striking not for more pay but for more respect. The ‘revolt’ was settled by the suggestion of the Dean of Westminster Abbey that the circus revert to the Renaissance term of ‘prodigies’. Back in the U.S. in 1903 the publicity stunt was repeated: the ‘freaks’ were said to have formed their own union, the Sunday Order for the Protective Order of Prodigies (a re-juggling of the initials for SPOOF). The spoof union story was revived in 1907—and periodically thereafter—with the sideshow’s glass-eater ‘chewing on the plan’ and the ‘armless wonder’ writing it down.6


The keyword in the development of mass-audience show business was Spectacle. The spectacle was a simulated event on a large scale, a pageant of extravagance designed to bamboozle a mass audience into spending their money for more. The circus spectacle or ‘spec’ went back to Philip Astley’s circus of the late eighteenth century, with equestrian acts, reenactments of recent battles, and grand parades of animals and performers through the streets of London.  But it was the Chicago World’s Fair (Columbian Exposition) of 1893 that was the ‘purest expression’ of the new mass entertainment. Before his death in 1891, Barnum had told the organizers: “Make it the greatest show on earth—greater than my own Great Moral Show if you can.”  The fair had leisure and pleasure at its very core, and introduced new concepts to showbiz including the Midway, the Ferris-wheel, the ballyhoo, and hoochy-coochy. 

 The Midway Plaisance for commercial entertainment proved to be a bigger draw than the whitewashed official pavilions known as White City.  It was ‘a colossal sideshow with restaurants, shops, exhibits, and theaters extending down a huge corridor, six hundred feet wide and a mile long’: 

 …a hurly burly of exotic attractions: [fake] mosques and pagodas, Viennese streets and Turkish bazaars, South Sea islands, Irish and German castles, and [American] Indian tepees…Egyptian swordsmen and jugglers, Dahomean drummers, Sudanese sheiks, Javanese carpenters, Hungarian gypsies, Eskimos, Chinese, Laplanders, Swedes, Syrians, Samoans, Sioux…the Streets of Cairo, the Algerian village, the Persian Palace of Eros. 

 Ballyhoo, soon abbreviated to ‘bally’, was first applied at Chicago to a barker’s opening patter and the free flash appearance of artists on the platform facing the midway, before the performance for paying customers commenced inside a sideshow. It is said to have originated as the loud call of a Lebanese showman in the Oriental Village, summoning his dancing girls out of their tent with the cry dellahoun!,dialect Arabic for “come out!”.  Dellahounsounded like the old nautical slang word ‘ballyhoo’. Hoochy-coochy (variously spelt) was applied in 1893 to the sideshow dance of a local Chicago woman dubbing herself ‘Little Egypt’, real name Catherine Devine. She delighted audiences by exposing her midriff for a belly-dance or danse du ventre—‘an ancient harem dance of bondage’ featuring ‘lascivious contorting of the abdominal muscles’.7

 Up to 1893, the United States had been even more in thrall than Great Britain to the Victorian puritanism of ‘genteel reformers’.  Chicago’s Midway Plaisance marked the turn of the tide to the Philistinism of the nouveau riche—roughly corresponding to the Naughty Nineties in Britain.Taking its inspiration from Chicago, New York’s seaside resort at Coney Island transformed itself into the world’s leading amusement park and the epitome of vulgarity. It was already the home of the ‘hot dog’—a boiled sausage eaten inside a bread roll with mild mustard, so named either because it looked like a dachshund or because no one was sure of its ingredients. (One joker set up a fake machine at Coney Island, taking in poodles at one end and spouting out sausages at the other.) 

 Coney Island was opened to working-class day-trippers by electric trolley-cars on rails from New York city. Two new amusement parks, Sea-Lion Park and Steeplechase Park, were opened in 1895-97. In 1902 Sea-Lion Park was converted into Luna Park, which inspired the construction of its great rival at Coney Island, called Dreamland, opened in 1904.

 Coney Island in effect declared a moral holiday for all who entered its gates. Against the values of thrift, sobriety, industry, and ambition, it encouraged mindless extravagance, gaiety, abandon, revelry…a new mass culture no longer deferential to genteel tastes and values…a Feast of Fools for an urban-industrial society.8

 The Chicago Midway and Coney Island gave rise to a worldwide industry of ‘open air entertainment’: mechanized amusement parks (especially at the seaside), and traveling funfairs or carnival shows, designed ‘to entertain rather than to uplift.’Even the name Luna Park was adopted by amusement parks in Paris and Berlin, and in countries ranging from Australia and the British Isles to South Africa and Zimbabwe.


 ‘Variety’ entertainment became the buzzword in popular musical theatre by 1910, but never entirely replaced the terms music-hall in Britain or vaudeville in America. Variety embraced more speciality acts (including comic sketches and monologues, acrobatics, animal acts, and celebrity or ‘freak’ turns) than the old music-hall formula of continuous song and dance.  Variety theatre was also more respectable and akin to ‘legitimate’ theatre, with the audience sitting in serried rows of tip-up seats. 14

 Big theatre chains emerged—notably those of Australian-born Irishman Oswald Stoll and Manchester-born Scotsman Edward Moss in Great Britain, and Boston-based A.B. Keith and his successor E.F. Albee in the United States. They pushed for ‘family entertainment’ and the elimination of vulgarity in their ‘palaces of variety’. In the U.S. overt sexuality with scantily dressed cooch-dancers was relegated to burlesquetheatres—so named because they were previously devoted to ‘burlesquing’ or parodying upper-class drama.

 Performers, who might appear on stage at more than one of the syndicate’s theatres in one night (speeding back and forth between ‘turns’ in horse-drawn broughams or motor-gigs) also began to unionize. In Britain the Grand Order of Water Rats, a mutual society for established players, gave way to the Variety Artistes’ Federation (V.A.F.) in 1906—forged into a more representative trade union by the 1907 ‘music hall war’ with managers over pay and conditions. In America, the White Rats, an offshoot of the Water Rats, also in 1907 turned itself into a specialist union for vaudevillians.9 

 The historian Willson Disher calls the years between 1910 and 1912 the years of real revolution in London entertainment—because of the import of ragtime music and dance from America, theatrical revues from France, and classical ballet from Russia. Aficionados of the old style music-hall regard 1911-12 as its death throes. Variety theatres were placed under the same censorship as ‘legitimate’ theatres by the Lord Chamberlain (scripts had to be cleared twenty-one days in advance). 

 Alcoholic drinks were now completely banned in auditoriums licensed for music, and the first Royal Variety Performance before the king and queen wrested variety entertainment away from true working people to middle-class ‘decent people’. Fifty artists were summoned to appear before George V and his wife Mary at the Palace Theatre in London’s Cambridge Circus in July 1912. Queen Mary, normally stern and disapproving, laughed heartily at Harry Tate, whose ‘Motoring’ sketch consisted of an automobile collapsing around him, to the sound of paper bags bursting offstage—an act that was later to become a standard routine for circus clowns. But she was offended by the sight of a woman, Vesta Tilley, impersonating a boy and singing ‘After the ball is over…’

 However, even variety entertainment could still be regarded as subversive. Addressing students of Cambridge University in 1912, the imperial administrator Lord Selborne deplored music-hall songs ‘abusing the word Empire’. The singer-comediennes Vesta Tilley and Marie Lloyd ‘held the line against saintliness’ with sexually suggestive humor. (Marie Lloyd sang ‘A little of what you fancy does you good…’)  There was also a new threat on the horizon in 1912-13—multi-reel movie dramas or ‘photo-plays’ that originated in France and Italy, and thereafter spread to America and Britain. Photo-plays were giving rise to cinemas or movie theatres, which took both audiences and artists increasingly away from variety entertainment.10  


There were plenty of new dances to new music in the decade and a half after 1900, and Franz Taibosh was both an innovative and a clever imitative solo dancer, athletically combining traditional styles with the very latest ‘craze’. New music was being spread by the proliferation of sound recordings on disc. Emil Berliner’s gramophone with a flat record disc had competed with Thomas Edison’s phonographwith a rotating record cylinder, until Edison capitulated and began to manufacture gramophones (though continuing to call them phonographs). From 1906 onwards, the acoustical horn was bent and buried under the turntable. More durable record discs came with improved types of shellac (natural thermoplastic).The mass market for gramophone records grew apace; in 1912 a reader advertised a personal collection of sixty-one records for sale in Kimberley’s Diamond Fields Advertiser.

 ‘Ragtime’ piano music was new music that perfectly fitted into thethree and a half minute duration of the 78 r.p.m. shellac disc. The roots of ragtime can be traced from the ‘Mississippi Rag’ of 1897, through Jelly Roll Morton and Scott Joplin, until ‘ragtime became a national fad, in a watered-down, ricky-ticky form suitable for mass audiences.’ Irving Berlin’s ‘Alexander’s Ragtime Band’, ‘Everybody’s Doing It’, and ‘Oh, You Beautiful Doll’ hit New York’s Broadway in 1911. Ragtime arrived as the latest ‘craze’ in London’s West End in 1912. In the words of the London theatrical newspaper The Era, in June that year: ‘Rag-time is now an established vogue in this country. The public cottoned [on] to it instantaneously.’ The ragtime epidemic quickly spread to the European continent and the colonies. The American comedy duo Barnes and West were introducing its ‘terpsichorean movements previously known and unseen’ on stage in Kimberley, South Africa on the very night in April 1912 that theTitanic sank—its band registered as third-class passengers by the White Star line in order to get around the Workmen’s Compensation Act. People in both Austria and Australia were described as ‘ragtime mad’ by the end of that year.11  

 The scandalous Argentine tango, a rhythmic brothel dance of rapidly moving couples pressed together, came via Paris to London, where it wassoon codified for competitions and demonstrated on stage before ladies drinking afternoon tea. Other new dances in the years just before the Great War included the aeroplane waltz, the bunny hug and bunny hop, the gaby glide, the grizzly bear, the hesitation waltz, the lame duck, the maxixe, the Pavlova gavotte, the regimental two-step, rumba, toddle, and turkey trot. 

 The dance craze reached its peak with the early 1914 whirlwind European tour by American-born Irene Castle and her British-born husband Vernon Castle. They introduced the foxtrot dance with moves based on ‘a very old negro step’ called ‘Get over, Sal.’ The leader of the Castles’ all-black American dance-band, James Reese Europe, wrote the original foxtrot music, which he derived from W.C. Handy’s 1912 record hit ‘Memphis Blues’—itself slowed-down ragtime. Irving Berlin also wrote a new tune for the Castles, ‘Show us how to do the foxtrot’. Jim Europe was to earn his place in jazz history when he returned to the continent that shared his name in 1917, as leader of the U.S. army band that first brought real jazz to Europe.

 ‘Is dancing harmful?’ was discussed by the Good Templars of Beaconsfield in Kimberley, South Africa, at their October 1911 meeting. In England, church sources were dismissive of the ‘negro dances now cultivated in London…come from various savage or heathen tribes.’ In Aberdeen, Scotland, a Free Church minister condemned all dancing as ‘just flings and springs, and skirls and twirls, and most unseemingly close-bosomed whirlings.’12 


The years of revolution in Western popular entertainment were also the years of European and American imperialism and the scramble for and conquest of Africa. The image of Africa was of a continent ripe for reformation—wild animals to be exterminated, lush greenery and powerful rivers to be harnessed, natives to be converted to labor, and white settlers to be planted. Ethnological show business in circus sideshows also evoked nostalgia for a supposed Old Africa that was being lost, consisting of jungle pygmies and desert bushmen, while new music and dance played on more deep-seated fears of ‘civilized’ people succumbing to primitive rhythms. 


1. Delgado (1981: 102-103); Ogden (1993: 17-18, 72 & 100)

2. McKechnie (post-1931: 209-210)

3. Hobson (1901); Kasson (1978); Twitchell (1992); Hilliar (1918: 907 & 913); Ogden (1993)

4. OED-2(1989), vol. xv, 432; Pfening (1985: 17); Toole-Scott (1962: 244), entry 8741; Broome & Jackamos (1995: 7)

5. Davis (2002); Adams (1997)

6.Weightmann (1992: 137); Burke (1941: 133); Disher (1938: 98); Mander & Mitchenson (1974: 170); 

7.Brasmer (1997); Gallop (2001); Croft-Cooke & Cotes (1976: 53-64); Ogden (1993: 30-35 & 241-42); Adams (1997: 161, 182 & 224)

8. Kasson (1978); McCulloch (1957/2000); Weinstein (1982)

9. Birkby (1948: 86, 94-95 & 100); Billboard, 23 Aug.1919, 44; Weightmann (1992: 75-76); The Era, 22 June 1912, 34; Mander & Mitchenson (1974: 159); Slide (1994: 554-55); Gilbert (1963: 387-88)  

10. DFA, 24 July 1912, 7b-c & 29 July, 8c; Slide (1994: 500-01); Stedman-Jones (1982: 114-16); Russell (1987: 86); Dulles (1952: 295)

11. Waterman (1959: 43-57); Disher 1938, 98; The Era, 22 June 1912, 21; Mander & Mitchenson (1974: 148 & 170): The Era, 6 Nov. 1912, 11;DFA, 13 April 1912, 7b; 16 April, 7g; 17 April, 5; Table Talk(Melbourne), 19 Dec. 1912, 24; New Encyclopaedia Britannica1974, 27, 618-36

12. Badger (1995: 110-17); Savagliano (1995: 128-29); Kimberley Evening Star, Sat. 11 Oct. 1911, 16c; The Friend(Bloemfontein), Thurs. 4 Oct. 1913, 15e

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