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"What Shall We Do Today, My Dear?": Popular Entertainment in Victorian America

S.J. Wolfe

Senior Cataloguer and Serials Specialist, American Antiquarian Society

Perhaps the best known Victorian amusements are concerts, musical shows and various types of theatrical entertainments. However, these ubiquitous diversions were but a few of the venues through which people sought and procured pleasure in the United States during the 19th century. During this period residents could rely on a veritable buffet of popular pastimes designed to amuse, instruct and dazzle their audiences.

Lectures were offered on a variety of subjects, from the humorous to the sublime. Some of these lectures revolved around, or included panoramas, stereopticon shows and paintings.Talks about Yellowstone and Niagara Falls illustrated the natural wonders of America for people who did not have the time or means to travel. Disasters were a common theme, running the gamut from "The conflagration of Moscow," which toured in 1837, to the "spectacle of an Arctic voyage with storm and shipwreck at sea." Onlookers could experience the awe and terror almost as if they had seen it first hand.Shows about distant places were always a draw, especially views of the Holy Land and ancient sites such as "The ruins of Pompeii and Athens." Many were geared towards families and offered insights into foreign cultures and lands, including Africa, India, Japan, Ireland and China.

The Civil War, both during and after the conflict, was a rich source of historical and political material for lecturers. "La Rue's great war show" offered a "life-moving mechanical exhibition of the War for the Union."William Arnold Greene offered readings from "the literature of the war. Comic, pathetic and patriotic." And Pearson's Grand Historic Mirror of the American War offered a nationalistic and descriptive lecture, starting from the city of Charleston to the last battle reported.

Lectures on health, disease and various types of medicinal cures were also popular; there were even talks limited to men or women on the illnesses of their specific sexes. For adults only were the talks on sexuality, marriage and the moral behavior of men and women.Lectures on religion, aid for charitable ventures and temperance also drew attention. More scientifically inclined listeners attended talks on geology, astronomy and natural history as well as demonstrations of such inventions as laughing gas, the beautiful glass steam engine and Hughes's and Edison's sound microphones.

Demonstrations of mnemonic feats and stage shows by ventriloquists, prestidigitators, ethnic dancers, glass-blowers and puppeteers were geared towards amusing families. Tableaux, or scenic exhibitions of famous people and events, were enjoyed by audiences of all ages. These included such illuminating subjects as Cleopatra, the Spirit of Prayer, Socrates in Prison, the Birth of Venus, Emperor Napoleon Crossing the Alps, a Storm in the Black Sea, the Sportsman and His Dogs and the "world renowned allegory of Pilgrim's Progress," featuring views of Bunyan Dreaming, The Slough of Despond and Mercy Fainting at the Wicket Gate. Chase & Bartholomew's grand historical "mechanised mirrors" or, Animated Mimic World boasted that it contained 7,000 moving figures!

Agricultural and horticultural fairs featured judged exhibitions of cattle, swine, poultry, pigeons, canaries, horses and ploughing matches. Displays of domestic manufacture included everything from baking and canning to needlework and other types of handicrafts. Fairs were also good sources of information about new improvements and inventions in agriculture. Charitable fairs and lectures raised money for worthy causes.

Sporting events were always popular. In towns near lakes, many college and civilian regattas were staged. Other well-liked events included walking races, velocipede shows, firemen's musters, horse-racing, shooting exhibitions, polo matches, and of course, baseball games.

Aerial visual delights ran the gamut from fireworks displays to balloon ascensions, one of which featured handbills which were thrown out of the basket during a Fourth-of-July celebration. Tight and slack-rope walkers were made popular because of the exploits of the French high-wire artiste Blondin.

Curiosities and wonders were almost always part and parcel of the circuses and menageries but on occasion were exhibited on their own. Promoters anticipated that two-headed girls, Tom Thumb (who had married a "local girl," Lavinia Warren), sea serpents, a wild gorilla, and savage Indians from the Plains would certain to draw crowds. Many of these types of entertainment have been superseded by the inventions of radio, television, motion pictures and computers. Entertainment has changed from being a wide-ranging social event to something more personal and private. It is now more likely to be sought within the home, instead of out in the world among the company and crowds of one's neighbors.

Students and scholars can browse more than 500 advertisements for popular entertainments held in New England and other American locations in American Broadsides and Ephemera, Series 1. This Web-based collection of materials found at the American Antiquarian Society provides a rich resource of information about Victorian America, highlighting the interests and social venues for entertainment outside of the home. It is a doorway through which the researcher can examine popular entertainment in American society across all social strata during the much of the 19th century.

S.J. Wolfe is author (with Robert Singerman) of Mummies in Nineteenth Century America: Ancient Egyptians as Artifacts (McFarland, 2009). Wolfe is a senior cataloger and serials specialist at the American Antiquarian Society. Over the past 20 years, she has been lecturing on ancient Egyptian culture and presenting mummy research at conferences such as the Society for the History of Authorship, Reading and Publishing and New England Historical Association. Her articles published previously in The Readex Report include "A Few More of these Egyptian Carcasses" (2010), "'What Shall We Do Today, My Dear?'"--Popular Entertainment in Victorian America" (2007), and "Jackasses, Dogs and Dead Chickens: Vignettes of the Civil War Revealed in Ephemera" (2006).

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