Archive | Variety/minstrelsy/music hall RSS feed for this section

The Aussie ‘Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay’

14 Mar

The first Australian performance of the song-and-dance act, ‘Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay’, was in a burlesque at the Melbourne Opera House  (a venue in Bourke Street which later became the Tivoli) in mid-May 1892.

The artiste who performed it was the London ingénue, Alice Leamar, later to become famous for her racy music-hall number, ‘And Her Golden Hair Was Hanging Down Her Back’. Since Lottie Collins was planning to set off to America, Leamar had come to Oz in her stead with a company from George Edwardes’ London Gaiety Theatre.

The lyrics given for Leamar’s Australian performances of ‘Ta ra ra’ include a sixth verse which I have not come across elsewhere. They were published in the Australian Melodist, a songbook series containing the words of the latest theatrical songs. I include these lyrics in full below for the ‘Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay’ fans out there.

The lyrics for ‘Ta-ra-ra’ give a vivid sense of how the verses set up the exultant gibberish of the chorus, allowing the song to jump happily between a knowing parody of demureness and a dervish of petticoats and limbs. In its characteristically cheeky prose, the Sydney Bulletin described Leamar’s performance of the chorus thus: ‘partly that of a spider getting enthusiastically off a hot stove and partly that of the native kangaroo… trying to break a record over a series of fences, and singing as she goes’.

A smart and stylish girl you see,
Belle of good society;
Not too strict, but rather free,
Yet as right as right can be!
Never forward, never bold,
Not too hot and not too cold,
But the very thing, I’m told,
That in your arms you’d like to hold!


I’m not extravagantly shy,
And when a nice young man is nigh
For his heart I have a try,
And faint away with tearful cry!
When the good young man, in haste,
Will support me round the waist;
I don’t come to, while thus embraced,
Till of my lips he steals a taste!

I’m a timid flower of innocence,
Pa says that I have no sense,
I’m one eternal big expense,
But men say that I’m just immense!
Ere my verses I conclude,
I’d like it known and understood,
Though free as air, I’m never rude –
I’m not bad, and not too good!

You should see me out with pa,
Prim, and most particular;
The young men say, ‘Ah, there you are!’
And pa says ‘That’s peculiar!’
‘It’s like their cheek!’, I say, and
Off again with pa I go-
He’s quite satisfied – although,
When his back’s turned – well, you know –

I’m a quiet girl, although
To skating rinks I sometimes go –
There is no harm in that, you know,
It gives a modest girl a show;
For when with giddiness you reel,
You hardly have the time to squeal,
When round your waist an arm will steal –
I say, girls, don’t it make you feel –

When in a train I chance to be,
It’s odd how men will sit next to me;
It cannot be my fault, you see,
If they presume to make too free.
I cannot tell the reason why,
I never make the least reply
But, ‘Oh, you should not!’, and ‘Oh, fie!’
Yet when the tunnels come – oh, my!

I feel I am so prim and staid
That on the shelf I may be laid;
It’s very hard, for I’m afraid
I’m not cut out for an old maid.
Still mother tells me not to fret,
I’ve heaps of time to marry yet,
And when I’m someone’s little pet
I won’t be bashful then – you bet!


Argus (Melbourne), 16 May 1892, 6.

Australian Melodist, no. 20 (Melbourne: n.d.), 6-8.

Bulletin (Sydney), 17 September 1892, 8

On Alice Leamar: Roy Busby, British Music Hall: An Illustrated Who’s Who From 1850 To The Present Day (London, 1976), 100.

More on Dan Leno’s ‘Queen of My Heart’

21 Apr


Last year I wrote a post about Dan Leno’s act ‘Queen of My Heart’, in which he played a bashed wife in a parody of romantic song. Really, the post was about the whole genre of songs concerning domestic violence and masculine anger towards women which I had encountered in acts performed on the 1880-90s Australian variety stage.

The post, perhaps provocatively entitled ‘Clownish Misogyny’, attracted a number of comments by Leno aficionados. They objected to his act being singled out in this way. It was wrong, they said, to make Leno the poster-boy for music-hall songs about misogyny. Most of his repertoire was about men making fun of themselves, and when he played women it was with a pathos and a knowingness underlying the comic shtick which gave them an emotional complexity of their own.

I was amazed, given this exchange, to find Tony Lidington performing ‘Queen of My Heart’ in his performance, Dan Leno: The King’s Jester (reviewed in my last post). Having seen it, I can see that in many ways those commenting on the post were right. That song, at least, is more a painfully matter-of-fact commentary on the reality lived by battered women than a humorous attack upon them. And yes, it portrays the ‘heroine’ getting ready to give back as good as she got later in the night.

The joke, then, is on romantic sentimentality far more than the woman herself in the song. But still, there is something highly uncomfortable about it from this retrospective vantage. The notion that a woman being bashed about might be presented in comic mode in any sense is uncomfortable, however much of a pathetic undercurrent the performance possessed.

As Lidington presents it in Dan Leno, songs about the underside of lower working-class married life were a feature of Leno’s early routines in the London halls, as indeed they were of others’ routines at the time. Leno was steered away from this subject matter by the managers of the halls once he went big towards the end of the 1880s, however, when the business was aiming aggressively at a wider-than-working-class clientele.

‘Queen of My Heart’ may not have been representative of Leno’s entire oeuvre, then, but it was characteristic of a certain genre among his performances early in his music-hall career. The recordings he later made did not cover this period of his performing life,  and so do not capture the tenor of those early songs.

Note: The above image is a picture of Leno as a panto dame by Stanley Cock, and was sourced from the About Postcards blog.

Irving Sayles: The black American who became an Australasian vaudeville star

9 Feb

With his walking cane, fat cigar, muscular frame, and suave extroversion, the African-American ex-pat and vaudeville star, Irving Sayles, was often to be seen in the streets of turn-of-the-century Australasia’s largest cities and towns. Born in Quincy, Illinois, he first came to the Antipodes in 1888 as an end-man with the Hicks Sawyer Minstrels, the rest of whom were also African American. He was just sixteen at the time. And like most black American performers who toured these southern lands in the 1870-80s, he stayed for good once his tour was done.

On stage with his other accomplished colleagues in Australia and New Zealand, Irving Sayles immediately made a splash. He was fine singer, and his dancing was something to behold. ‘Irving Sayles was also an acrobat’, as one of his colleagues would later remember: his back somersaults were a speciality. Such was his athleticism that Sayles would also work up a reputation as a sprint runner during the 1890s, entering in well-publicised Australian competitions every now and then. And on top of that, he was hilarious. As New Zealand’s Evening Post put it in 1888: ‘Funny is not the word to adequately describe what Sayles is. If he looks at the audience they roar at him’.


Sayles and his fellow end-man, Charles Pope, introduced coon songs to the Antipodes during their season with the Hicks Sawyer Minstrels. When Sayles sang syncopated numbers like ‘The Coon Dat Had De Razor’, performing it with the sassy exuberance that this number required, Australasian audiences sat up directly and started to tap their toes. By 1900, however, coon songs had lost their early edginess: they were no longer about swaggering black men wielding razors with a hectic facility. By this time, Sayles’ songs on the Australian Tivoli circuit, the Dix Gaiety circuit in New Zealand, and for other sundry performing companies, were more often about ‘the silber moon [sic], the stolen chicken, and the girl with the goo goo eyes’ , harking back to older minstrel fare.

It is a striking circumstance that the few African American companies who came to Australasia in the late-nineteenth century decided not to go back to the US. According to Richard Waterhouse, the overwhelming majority of the performers for the McAdoo Fisk Jubilee Singers, the  Corbyn Georgia Minstrels, the Hicks Sawyer Minstrels and the Georgia Minstrels made Australia their home. Many of these performers became fixtures on Australasian stages, spending time in New Zealand cities as well as Australian ones.

It is not that Australasians weren’t racist, of course: there are plenty of patronising references to Sayles in the press on account of his blackness. The Evening Post’s declaration that the ‘smile on his genuine dark face resembles the entrance to a coal-pit, it is so extensive’, captures the tone of this commentary. So does the Sydney Theatre’s description of his ‘natural animal spirits’, and its breezy assurance that white cornerman ‘can never fill the bill like the full-blooded coon’.

Sayles seems to have worked hard to joke about his colour on stage. He even made implied slurs on Aboriginal Australians in order to forge a rapport with his overwhelmingly white audiences. On at least one occasion, he told Sydney audiences that he had a wife at a camp out La Perouse way (a Sydney site where large numbers of Indigenous Australians lived) so that they might laugh with him about how funny that idea was, hahahha. But still, the fact that he mixed with Tivoli performers socially and lived it up with fellow gamblers at race-tracks makes it clear that  black American stars enjoyed a certain exceptional status in Australasia that they could not have enjoyed in the country of their birth. Sayles himself modelled a swank street-cred around these colonial cities, ‘walk[ing] the earth with the air of a coon who has a mortgage on the Universe’ – and he made a good living from the stage. He married Edith Carter at the age of 25 in Melbourne, a white English-born woman.

Irving Sayles is said to have ‘dropped dead’ in Christchurch on 8 February 1914, aged 42, while in Gloucester-Street ‘joking with some friends’. Witnesses watched him reel and fall suddenly in the street outside the Dominion Hotel where he was staying. Afterwards, his death was confirmed as an embolism of the coronary artery. Sayles had been in New Zealand, as he often was at that time, performing for the Brennan-Fuller vaudeville company. Following his death, the Australasian papers carried plenty of obituaries to this popular ‘coloured comedian’.


Evening Post (NZ), 27 October 1888.

Theatre (Sydney), 1 July 1909, p 15.

Charles Norman, When Vaudeville Was King: A Soft Shoe Stroll Down Forget-Me-Not Lane (Sydney: Spectrum, 1984), 9-10.

Richard Waterhouse, From Minstrel Show to Vaudeville: The Australian Popular Stage, 1788-1914 (Sydney: University of New South Wales Press, 1990).

On Sayles’ sprinting escapades, see: West Australian, 29 November 1897 and 18 March 1898, available via the National Library of Australia’s beta database.

On Sayles’ death, see: Evening Post (New Zealand), 9 February 1914; Grey River Argus (also NZ), 10 February 1914; a copy of his death certificate at the Nugrape Records website

A biography of Sayles (with rather gushing references about the extent that he felt accepted in Australia, is available here at the hat theatre archive.

The above image is from a fabulous post on coon songs and ragtime on the community blog Meta Filter.

White Australia and Sonny Clay’s Colored Idea

9 Sep


Sonny Clay

In January 1928, a jazz band called Sonny Clay’s Colored Idea arrived from America on Australian shores. All thirty-five band members were African American, and all were accomplished performers. (Sonny Clay had played with Jelly Roll Morton and Kid Ory in California, and the band was joined by the singer Ivie Anderson, later to record with Duke Ellington). Before leaving Los Angeles, they had recorded a special number entitled ‘Australian Stomp’, and as they headed for Sydney’s glitzy Tivoli Theatre they no doubt expected their ‘potent, overproof brand of syncopation’ to heat up the already sweltering temperatures among the summer crowds. How wrong they were.

As it turned out, not even Frank Sinatra would have an Australian tour more ill-fated than Sonny Clay’s Colored Idea. For a start, though the band members were constantly pursued by local women, audiences didn’t swoon to ‘Australian Stomp’ or their rendition of ‘St Louis Blues’. The Tivoli crowds evidently had a different idea of what passed for jazz than those in California and New Orleans.

More significantly, the band was dogged by the authorities from almost the moment it arrived. After decamping from Sydney to Melbourne, its members were asked several times to leave their hotels for rowdy behaviour. Some of the band removed to a flat in East Melbourne, and shortly afterwards were subject to a raid by police. Six white women were discovered in the arms of Colored Idea members, each of them tipsy and undressed. Five of these girls were promptly arrested for vagrancy (the sixth escaped out the window). The next day the headlines were what you’d expect – except that the journalists were confused about the occupation of the band’s members: ‘Nude Girls in Melbourne flat orgy; Negro comedians as partners; raid by police’.

The piece de resistance of the Colored Idea’s Australian tour came when they were deported at the end of March 1928. In the preceding months, a nationalist resentment had been simmering in Australia over the fact that a local military band had been refused the right to play in the States. This resentment had led some to object to the fact that an American jazz band was currently playing top Australian venues. Add to this racist anxieties about ‘coloured’ men and their obvious success with Anglo Australian girls – and add, too, sundry jitters about the diabolical jazz – and one has a sense of how the story played out. As one Australian politician put it in parliament: ‘Does the Minister not think that in the interests of White Australia and moral decency, permits to such persons should be refused?’

After the rough departure of Sonny Clay’s Colored Idea, individual African American performers would make the trip to the Antipodes to play in  the jazz and vaudeville scenes. According to jazz historian Andrew Bisset, however (from whose work this story is taken), an African American band led by a black musician would not be seen again in Australia until 1954.


Andrew Bisset, Black Roots White Flowers: A History of Jazz in Australia (Sydney and Auckland: Golden Press, 1979), 43-46.

The wonderfully elegant image above comes from the Red Hot Jazz website, which also has a brief bio of Sonny Clay.

Reflecting the Audience: Review Notes

5 Sep

In Reflecting the Audience: London Theatregoing, 1840-1880, Jim Davis and Victor Emiljanow attack the idea that only the great unwashed went to the theatre in the Victorian East End.

This is obviously something of a crusade for them. After all, a barrage of snobbishly exoticised accounts of the East End theatre were produced by West End critics from the mid-Victorian era. Most implied that the only people who went to such places were fish-reeking thieves and prostitutes – people who spent their whole time throwing things at the stage or at other people in the auditorium. This incenses Davis and Emiljanow (and rightly so), especially since so many later historians have accepted the fascinated revulsion or outright dismissiveness of affluent critics towards audiences of eastside theatres.

To counter these prejudices, Reflecting the Audience presents detailed census data and evidence from local newspapers to show that the neighbourhoods in which East End theatres were located had a considerable amount of social diversity in the mid-Victorian years. Skilled tradespeople and successful retailers went to theatres such as the Britannia and the Pavilion. So did respectable people from further afield (for example, from London’s north). Davis and Emiljanow also suggest that even those audience members who fit the description of the ‘great unwashed’ were largely orderly during East End performances. The idea that they just went along to be unruly is incorrect.

All of this is important to hear. Having just listened to a few presentations on Victorian theatregoing at the British Association of Victorian Studies conference, in which East End theatres didn’t rate a mention, and those speaking still felt the need to argue for the need for theatre historians to take melodrama seriously, what Reflecting the Audience has to say obviously needs to be said. But the constant insistence that East End theatres are worthy of serious historical attention becomes over-emphatic and repetitive after a while. I would have preferred if Davis and Emiljanow had spent more time simply demonstrating the character of East End theatregoing and its significance in local neighbourhoods, rather than feeling that they had to make a special pleading for it. And I was also unsettled by their implication that East End theatres are worthy of theatrical scholarship because they attracted respectable or orderly people, not just prostitutes and thieves. There is more than a whiff of a Victorian social reform agenda about this. It’s as if they are saying ‘look, these people are more like us than we realised, and thus deserving of our notice’. Wouldn’t they be deserving of attention anyway?

Dark pathways at the Brisbane Ecca

15 Aug

 Sideshow Alley, Brisbane Ecca, c.1940 (State Library of Queensland)

Sideshow alley, Brisbane Ecca, c. 1940 (State Library of Queensland)

As I wrote in my last post, Lynn Abbott and Doug Seroff have recently written a book on the black bands which played coon songs, jazz and the blues in circus sideshows down south in early twentieth-century America.

This week in Brisbane the ‘Ecca’ is showing: the Brisbane Exhibition, such an institution that the schools give their kiddie two days off to go see it. Flicking through a copy of Showtime: A History of the Brisbane Exhibition (UQP, 2008), I was interested to see the above photograph. It shows that in the 1940s, a waxworks tent in the Ecca sideshow alley advertised its wares with a wax model of a black American playing a banjo, entitled ‘The Singing Coon’.

There isn’t any evidence that black American bands ever played the sideshows of Australian events like the Ecca – not to my knowledge, anyway. (There were bands playing coon songs in the tent-shows of Australian bushranger/American Wild West Show impresario, E I Cole, in Brisbane at the turn of the twentieth century, although they would have been white Australians doing ragtime: obviously not at all the same thing). But this Queenslandish echo of those sideshow bands across the Pacific is intriguing, nonetheless…


Lynn Abbott and Doug Seroff, Ragged But Right: Black Traveling Shows, ‘Coon Songs’ , and the Dark Pathways to the Blues and Jazz (University of Mississippi Press, 2007).

Joanne Scott and Ross Laurie, Showtime: A History of the Brisbane Exhibition (St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2008), p 88.

Ragged But Right: A Book Review

15 Aug


Lynn Abbott and Doug Seroff, Ragged But Right: Black Traveling Shows, ‘Coon Songs’, and the Dark Pathways to Blues and Jazz (University of Mississippi Press, 2007).

The landmark histories of American minstrelsy which appeared in the 1990s were all concerned with the blackface minstrel show in the first half of the nineteenth century. The histories of Eric Lott, David Roediger, and W T Lhamon Jr focused on densely urban locations in America’s north, most notably New York in the 1820-40s, when minstrelsy first became popular. They placed the minstrel show in the context of the rapid growth and industrialisation of northern American cities, of bourgeois efforts to create a compliant workforce, and the racial tensions caused by the ‘slavery question’ and the influx of free blacks from the south.

For Lott and Roediger, the minstrel show was essentially about white northern workingmen’s desires. It was about their desire on the one hand to wield anti-authoritarian humour against employers and the middle classes, and on the other to assert their superiority over non-white peoples. This argument has set the terms of discussion about American minstrelsy ever since. Later historians such as Dale Cottrell, William Mahar and Lhamon Jr have all argued that minstrelsy wasn’t only about white imperatives – indeed, in some circumstances, they claim, it could actually upset racist assumptions. But even though these historians tried to cavil with Roediger and Lott’s conclusions, they were still largely discussing minstrelsy on their terms.

Lynn Abbott and Douglas Seroff’s new book, Ragged but Right, quite stunningly shifts the terms of this debate. It presents almost a mirror image of the setting in Lott’s Love and Theft, introducing us to African-American minstrel performers in the rural south during the first half of the twentieth century. Drawing on accounts in the contemporary black press, they tell us about African-American bands who played ‘coon songs’ and jazz in circus sideshows (having been banned on account of their colour from playing under the big top). They also tell us about the minstrel shows performed in tents by African-American companies throughout the south. Emerging around 1900, these shows maintained the three-part structure of early-nineteenth century minstrelsy. They began with a tambo-and-bones singing-and-comedy routine and usually ended with a musical farce-comedy. But they also incorporated ragtime, blues, jazz music and new dance styles into their repertories.

The all-black blackface minstrel shows of the twentieth century attracted white audiences. Indeed, sometimes they played in towns which banned blacks, no doubt a harrowing and bizarre experience (‘we have been in anti Negro towns …where coloured people have not been seen for seventeen years’, reported one band member in 1901). But they also acquired a loyal following of black Americans. They fostered the growth of the blues and ‘coon shouting’ singing styles among rural southern black communities. And they realised the potential for minstrel comedy to work against white racist stereotypes – a potential which Cottrell and others tried to argue (unsuccessfully, in my view) was partially realised in nineteenth-century white men-in-blackface shows. The black comedians in early twentieth-century tented shows ‘gradually transformed the ancient stereotypes of “Ethiopian minstrelsy” into vehicles for the development of racially self-referential humor’, Abbott and Seroff tell us, as well as for ‘the advancement of modern African American popular music’ (p. 211).

I have to say that I found Ragged But Right a difficult book to read. It is not that the language is difficult – it’s just there is such a mass of information, presented via absurdly long and ramshackle chapters, that it is hard to take in. (Similar criticisms were made about Abbott and Seroff’s previous work, Out of Sight: The Rise of African American Popular Music, 1889-1895, and it doesn’t appear that they took these enough on board).  But nonetheless, this work is the result of an extraordinary research endeavour, and its implications for understandings of minstrelsy are surely profound. Not just that: anyone interested in the development of the blues, of African American popular culture, and indeed for a view of American culture not focused on the urbanised north, should get their hands on Ragged But Right.

On film history (& why I shouldn’t yawn)

23 Jul

I must admit I’ve never really been interested old films, or film history. People could talk about Alfred Hitchcock or Bette Davis or Metropolis or The Third Man, and it would draw barely a flicker of interest. Not long ago, I started reading around the edges of the massive scholarship on film’s relation with melodrama (drawn by an interest in melodrama), and mostly I’ve been unmoved or even vaguely annoyed by its references to films I’ve never seen, and to the stills of characters fixed in a rictus of desire or fear or shock (like the one below) which appear in so much of this work.

Still from The Cat and the Canary (1927), from filmwolf’s flickr photos.

Very recently, however, I’ve realised that I simply can’t be interested in late 19th and early 20th century theatre without finding out about the development of film in the same period. When I was in Mitchell Library the other week, I was reading newspaper reports of all the suburban vaudeville-cum-picture houses opening up in 1910s Australia: Harry Clay’s Newtown Bridge Theatre (now the eyesore known as The Hub across from Newtown Station in Sydney) being a suggestive example. I’ve also been reading Robert Allen’s account of the way second-tier vaudeville managers became successful in American cities in the first decade of the 20th century by creating hybrid vaudeville/film shows in less-than-swank venues. So the people attracted to these shows were seeing Keystone comedy reels as well as comic acts and acrobats, and it’s useless to cordon off the one from the other and say (as I have until now) that film isn’t my thing.

On top of that: last night I was listening to Ira Sachs talk about Married LIfe, a film set in the 1940s which he directed and co-wrote and is just hitting Australian cinemas now. He had such an acute sense of cinematic history, such an articulate, coolly impassioned sense of the place of his film in it, that it made me rue something of my ignorance.

Raw images at the back of Newtown Bridge Theatre, c. 1931

2 Jul

At Mitchell Library this week, I’ve come across a collection of photographs from the late 1920s and 1930s in inner-Sydney and Newtown. The photos were taken by Anthony Swinburne, a man with an evident hankering for the raw life of inner-urban yards and industrial kerbsides, and for the life of the stage.

The people Swinburne depicts are all cafe staff and vaudeville actors, hauled before the lens on a break and snapped in a slapdash moment before rushing back to work. The theatrical world he photographs is a far cry from the glitzy images of Gaiety Theatres, Ziegfeld girls and Keith vaudeville stars that you find in the promo-shots and posters and gushing memoirs of the 1920s. They show women in ill-fitting bloomers and bathing caps standing against a brick wall with the gritty asphalt and warehouses of Newtown visible to one side. Or men in rumpled shirts against a fence with broken palings, and some girl in a spangly leotard, arms upraised in a revue-dancer’s pose, the ragged grass of a back-lot behind her.

Swinburne’s pictures have been taken on some kind of little Kodak or Box Brownie camera. They’re small, badly reproduced, often blurred or half-obscured by shadow. I wish it wasn’t so expensive to order them from the library: I want their smudged impressionistic pathos to mull over, having something of their graininess and down-at-heelness in mind as I read of accounts of ‘sparkling’ Tivoli actors and gleaming-legged revue girls.


Anthony Swinburne, photographs. Mitchell Library, Sydney, Pic. Acc. 4836

The Circassian Beauty

15 Apr

Fears of “white slavery” were rife in England during the 1880s, when William Stead published his sensational revelations of white girls captured and forced into Continental brothels in the pages of his Pall Mall Gazette. Any of the Londonites reading his “Maiden Tribute” series could not only glut their interest in stories of English roses trafficked into sex-slavery – they could also go to any circus sideshow and see for themselves a “Circassian beauty” said to have escaped sexual servitude in Turkey.

Circassian beauty in England, image from Sideshow World.

Any freak show worth its salt in the 1880s included a Circassian Beauty. She was invariably a pale-skinned young woman kitted out like a hippie from the 1970s: puffy silk pants, sheer-flowing coats, and most importantly, a nimbus of frizzy, Afro-style darkish hair. Usually these women had names beginning with ‘Z’: Zana Zanobia, Zoe Meleke, Zula Zeleka, Zalumma Agra, Zoberdie Luti. Often they would seat themselves cross-legged on stage, holding a water-pipe, and looking demurely at the audience as the pitchman presented them as the purest example available of the Caucasian race. Once! (he would say), once this beauty had lived in the Caucasus, that region on the shores of the Black Sea which formed the cradle of all white peoples. She had been crooooooo-elly stolen from her home during a Turkish raid, and afterwards sold in the white slave markets of Constantinople as the member of a harem to an evil Turk. Beautiful as she was, she had been kept veiled from the rest of the world, and made to do her harem-owner’s bidding before being dramatically rescued.

Zoe Zolena, image from Sideshow World.

The Circassian beauties were of course a hoax. Zoe Meleke, who appeared on the P T Barnum circuit in the States, was American-born. According to the circus press agent Dexter Fellows in the 1930s, one of the most famous Circassians – ‘Zuleika, The Circassian Sultana’ – was an Irish immigrant from Jersey City. Women tricking themselves up as these beauties would create the trademark “mossy hair” by using beer as shampoo and an artful use of the comb. The only real requisite was pale skin and a certain round-faced vacant beauty – that and a willingness to be gawped at by rubes pruriently imagining her in congress with a Turkish overlord. The whole phenomenon says a great deal about the voyeuristic fantasies that accompanied notions of the Orient and cross-racial sexual encounters in this period of British New Imperialism and eugenic theories across the West.

PS For the Carnivale fans out there, Adrienne Barbeau’s character Ruthie (above) is surely based loosely on the image of the Circassian beauty. Her hair is almost frizzy, her clothes redolent of the Turkish harem, and her snake-dancing act has just the right amount of sexual titillation to make a commentary on the 1880s craze. Indeed, according to this blog post (although it does not indicate what its source was), Circassian beauties turned to snake-dancing or charming once they started losing their novelty.


Robert Bogdan, Freak Show: Presenting Human Oddities for Amusement and Profit (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1988), 235-40.

Judith Walkowitz, City of Dreadful Delight: Narratives of Sexual Danger in Late-Victorian London (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), 81-134 (on W T Stead’s “Maiden Tribute” series).

For more images, see the Circassian Beauty archive.