Dime museums, a nineteenth century urban American phenomena, were large-scale venues dedicated to the exposition of human curiotisites, or 'freak shows,' under the guise of being an educational bourgeois form of entertainment.
Historical and Political Context
The display of non-normative human bodies, or 'freak shows', have their modern roots in 16th century English fairs. But dime museums, which emerged in the United States in the mid-19th century, are the more immediate remediation of the private museums that emerged after the Revolutionary War. These private museums were operated by individuals hoping to earn a living in the unstable economy by opening their private collections to the public. Unlike most museums, which were based in the ideals of the Enlightenment and did not rely on the income from ticket sales, private museums had to display more sensational artifacts and spectacles to stay competitive.
With the rise of urbanization and industrialization, antebellum America faced major social and economic turmoil. Immigration and alienation aggravated the problems of city life, particularly in New York city, the dime museum capital of the world. "Demographic growth and industrialization destroyed local communities, produced slums, and threatened to change the structure of the nuclear family" (Dennett, 2). As Craton points out, Gramsci and other Marxist theorists explain that "states require a shared, culturally determined matrix of thought and values through which the capitalist power structure gain the consent of those it governs: hegemonic ideas seep into every aspect of human culture to create an intellectual framework that supports the values and power of the dominant class" (6). Thus, in the chaos of mid-19th century New York, the dime museums emerges to fill this void and build a unified mass culture.
Human Curiosities in Victorian America
P.T. Barnum, one of the pioneers in mass culture, opened the American Museum in New York City in 1842. It is perhaps the first and certainly the most emblematic dime museum. Like all dime museums, the American Museum positioned itself as educational, family-friendly entertainment in the hopes of attracting patrons from a wide range of social class. So, in addition to featuring "siamese twins, fat boys, bearded ladies, rubber men, legless wonders and an array of midgets," the American Museum also skeuomorphically housed traditional museum artifacts and produced religious tableax and patriotic displays to cater to the Victorian cultural emphasis on temperance and the capitalist morality of of hard work (Dennett, 26). But dime museums were not only a New York phenomenon. By the late 19th century, dime museums were entertainment staples across the United States.
Building on the work of Foucault, Crary explores the role of the newly developed human sciences in the creation of "'realism' of mass visual culture" in the nineteenth century. The development of statistics and the subsequent "assessment of 'normality' in medicine, psychology and other fields" he says, "became and essential part of the shaping of the individual to the requirements of institutional power in the nineteenth century, and it was through these disciplines that the subject in a sense became visible" (16). Dime museums, which aimed to walk the fine line between science and spectacle, positioned freaks as the subject of the audience's newly developed "subjective vision."
The 'What is It?': Racism and Science
The role of science in Victorian America can be further understood by examining the marketing of exhibitions at dime museums. It is at this time that science begins to enter the realm of the masses and comes to be seen as a sophisticated and necessary venture for the middle class. It is also at this time that teratology, the study of monsters, emerges, focused on classifying rather than understanding natural abnormalities. Barnum's "What is It?," for example, which came out just months after the publication of Darwin's Origin of Species, plays with this notion of scientific classification. The "What is It?," which premired in 1859 was touted as 'the missing link'. This so called 'missing link' was William Henry 'Zip' Johnson, a young African-American man probably afflicted with microcephaly. Freakery, thus "became reasonable and even enlightening when wrapped in Darwinistic rhetoric, which please the sensibilities of the Victorians" (Chemers & Ferris, 69). The "What is It?" and exhibitions of "tribal" people from exotic lands highlights the racism and xenophobia of 19th century America. The spike in immigration and end of slavery forced Americans to grapple with their biases and fears of the other. Dime museum exhibitions provided a public space for this negotiation, and provided mass audiences with the opportunity to confront the other up close yet at a distance.
The Bearded Lady: Gender and Chaos
As Dinnett points out, the subtext of the dime museum freak show was "the fear of a world gone mad" (76). Freak shows blur the lines of what is normal and act as a visual representation of the chaos of a country mired in a civil war, turned upsidedown by indistrialization and a city flooded with the immigrant 'other'. The presence of the 'bearded lady' (a mainstay at Barnum's American Museum and dime museums accross the country) in popular culture "both calls into question the natural basis of gender roles and asserts the importance of these roles to Victorian spectators. Like other forms of bodily exposition, the bearded lady is deeply embroiled in the cultural expectations she defies" (Craton, 122). In this way, freak shows calm fears of chaos by blurring and reaffirming social norms. In this sense, the dime museum is both catoptric and dioptric. Catoptric, because the performers at the freak show obfuscate and reflect back to the observer the chaos of the world in which they live; and dioptric because through the performers, the observer sees the boundaries and restrictions of society.
Freak Shows and Modern Visuality
Dime museums simultaneously produced and were a product of a very specific kind of visuality, a visuality of modernization. "Modernization," says Dennett in her analysis of the freak show, "taught that the unimaginable was possible, and technology made material reality of ideas that had existed only in the real of the imagination" (29). Crary notes that the concept of modernization in visuality is useful only when it "encompasses not only structural changes in political and economic formations but also the immense reorganization of knowledge, languages, networks of spaces and communications, and subjectivity itself" (10). The observer, argues Crary, is central to this process. In this way, the dime museum embodies the "1900 moment" in that the visual experience of the freak show begins to store more than itself in the creation of the American cultural imagination.
The seeing and beeing seen of dime museums can also be interpreted using Flusser's essay on masks. The person, argues Flusser, is a "nodal intersection in the mutually intersecting social feilds" that is given meaning and becomes visible by the wearing of masks. The design of these masks is inter-subjective, says Flusser. "The 'I' is not only the wearer of a mask but also a designer of masks for others. Thus I 'realize' myself not only whenever I dance in masks, but equally whenever I, together with others, design masks for others" (106). The dime museum then, can be identified as a place where masks are both danced in an designed for others. Victorian Americans realized and affirmed their own masks by collectively designing freak masks for the performers. Simmilarly, the dime museum freak shows can be considered very black boxed in the sense that the 'mask' of the freak entirely conceals the humanity of the performer and the construction of a human curiosity.
Freak Shows and Photography
Photography played an important role in dime museums and several men, most notably Matthew Brady and Charles Eisenmann, made fortunes photographing freaks. Freak carte de visites were sold as sourveneirs, giving the opportunity for patrons to take home and recreate the titillation of freak shows in the privacy of their own home, essentially hacking the dime museum. As Wolf notes in her analysis of the story of Leonitus in Plato's Republic, "the ethical ban on looking and the erotic need to look (scopophilia) are presented as conflicting, but by giving in to his desire to look Leontius is no longer the perpetrator but the victim, no longer the looker but the looked at. In Plato’s tale the corpses arouse the voyeurism of the viewer...and are thus themselves to blame for being looked at. Simmilarly, Dime museum freak shows reversed the blame from looker to looked at and were thus a venue of socially sanctioned scopophilia.
Death of the Dime Museum
Dime museums, as cheap but respectable forms of entertainment, began to fall out of favor and disappear in the early twentieth century with the rise of film and vaudeville. Thus the freak shows were remediated and went to die in more low-brow forms of entertainment, specifically as sideshow acts in carnivals.
- Bogdan, Robert. Freak Show: Presenting human oddities for amusement and profit. University of Chicago Press, 1988.
- Chemers, Michael M. Staging Stigma: A critical examination of the American freak show. Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.
- Crary, Johnathan. Techniques of the Observer: On vision and modernity in the nineteenth century. MIT Press, 1992.
- Craton, Lilian. The VIctorian Freak Show: The significance of disability and physical differences in 19th century fiction. Cambria Press 2009.
- Dennett, Andrea Stulman. Weird and Wonderful: The dime museum in America. New York University Press, 1997.
- Flusser, Vilem. The Shape of Things: A philosophy of design. Reaktion Books Ltd., 1999.
- Stillman, Johnathan. "An American Showman: P.T. Barnum: Promoter of 'freak shows' for all the family". Historian; Autumn 2007; 95; Platinum Periodicals pg. 16.
- Thompson, Rosemary Garland. Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring disability in American culture and literature. Columbia University Press, 1997.