I have been obsessed with dime museums lately. I am currently in the process of adapting my previous post on them, Dime Museums and the Exhibitionary Complex, into a full book chapter for an upcoming collection, and my mind has been racing with thoughts. Dime museums are fascinating institutions that lie at the intersections between the museum and the circus. This was the realm of the humbug, where any manner of lie would be told to an adoring public. Wax dummies next to fake taxidermy. At the very heart, where the glitz and glamour of show business crossed with the curatorial, was the freak show. It was from the dime museum’s stage where the cabinets of human curiosities could be seen.
It was popular. Really popular. It was through his dime museum that PT Barnum became a household name. They would peak in popularity between the 1880s and 1890s, suffering a slow decline until their fateful death in the interwar period. But their memory lingers, even to today. My previous post looked to apply museum theory in the form of Tony Bennett to discuss dime museums, and in researching the book chapter, I found myself thinking on another facet of museum studies; Jennifer Tyburczy’s Sex Museums and her declaration that all museums are sex museums.
Dime museums were obsessed with sex. Not always blatantly, this was Victorian America, after all. But sex played a major role in how the freak show was exhibited. Dime museums were highly conservative institutions, concerned with the moral backbone of the nation. Andrea Stulman Dennett, author of Weird and Wonderful: The Dime Museum in America, describes the temperance movement as one origin point for the dime museum, with it offering an alternative to the drunkenness of the saloon (3). Barnum himself was a reformed alcoholic and put on performances of popular temperance plays at his American Museum. By and large, dime museum managers did not seek to rock the boat but instead to play to as wide an audience as possible. Education was not their primary goal either, at least not education in the way we might think today. Instead, it was more of a moral education, not of the scientific world but of what was acceptable in society. Facts merged with fiction to tell the story that managers wanted, one that would not offend but engage the audience, walking the fine line between what is acceptable and what is not.
Robert Bogdan, author of Freak Show: Presenting Human Oddities for Amusement and Profit, notes two main forms of display for freak shows in the 19th Century, the aggrandized and the exotic presentation. Aggrandized presentations play into common Victorian understandings of a middle class life; a husband and wife, children, sat in a living room with the requisite finery of a suit for the man and fancy dress for the woman. This is, of course, always heterosexually coded. The performer was intended to be seen as a prime example of middle class ideal, with just one exception, whatever it was that set them apart. The exotic, meanwhile, was exactly what it sounds like. Exotic presentations played on racist stereotypes and caricatures. These would speak to white supremacist beliefs in the viewer of their superiority over other parts of the world, justifying atrocities like colonial genocides. While both aggrandized and exotic forms were oppositional to each other, it was not unheard of for a performer to transcend styles later in their career, if they were particularly popular.
In her book, Tyburczy argues that all museums are sex museums. Pointing to Bennett and the exhibitionary complex, she stated that museums played a role in defining and disciplining what was seen a sexually normal. Much like for Bennett, display is central to her concept. Through display, museums and other institutions were able to make new and evolving forms of sex and sexuality apparent to the visitors. Through seeing these forms, the visitor was taught to internalize the differences and the limits of what was acceptable. The act of display here is multifaceted, from simply seeing the objects to the performative obfuscation of sex as a way to titillate.
Interestingly, Tyburczy does briefly discuss the dime museum within this perspective. But the discussion is rather limited. Most of the instances used in Sex Museums are around the more explicit forms of sex and sexuality; men going in to be titillated or women being taught the moral failings of their bodies. A section later on in the book also examines the display of Saartje Baartman, the Hottentot Venus. While these are excellent points to make, Baartman is prime for a case study on the intersections between race and sex, there is a lot more subtle displays of sex within the dime museum that is worth unwrapping. Most of Tyburczy’s examples look to the exotic mode, but for this piece, I am going to focus instead on the aggrandized forms, as here is where sex and sexuality shows up in more subtle and fascinating ways.
The marriage was a massive affair. Even during the Civil War, it was front page news. The wedding was attended by all of New York City’s most prominent people. While President Lincoln was not able to be there for the wedding itself, he did host the newlyweds at the White House afterwards. There were many photos taken of the event and sold as mementos. Following their marriage, Barnum announced that Lavinia had given birth. The child would join them on their tour of Europe as well as appear in photos like this one, taken at Matthew Brady’s studio.
The child was not theirs. Lavinia never actually gave birth. Instead, the baby seen in this photograph came from a foundling home in New York, not far from the studio. While on tour, Lavinia remembered years later that they “exhibited English babies in England; French babies in France; and German babies in Germany.” (Bogdan, 157). What was the point of the deception? It is not surprising that Barnum lied about it, but why that lie in particular?
Sex. Sex was at the heart of this display and so many others. The fact the child is there is less important than what the child represents. And what they represented was the ability to not only have sex and consummate a marriage, but also to reproduce. This is how sex finds its way into aggrandized freak show displays. The exotic mode might be more apparent with its overt sexualization, but that acts as a foil to the more “appropriate” outlets of sexuality, in the form of a heterosexual family.
The role of the family and the sexuality that underpins it would even come to tarnish the freak show toward the end of the 19th century when eugenics started to gain popularity. Prior to 1900, the freak show was not seen as distasteful, the display of abnormal bodies was not something that members of the scientific community objected to. Instead, science and freak shows worked in tandem with each other, with museum managers bringing scientists to confirm the veracity of the manager’s claims. Once eugenics started to become popular, this would change. Rather than a curiosity to see, the “proper” way deal with the otherness was to hide it from sight and ensure they got the “help” they needed. Disability and difference were deemed to be detrimental to a proper working society, and so the denizens of the freak show were made into threats. Not just the fake cannibals of the exotic displays but the giants and little people of the aggrandized as well. In the aggrandized form, that threat was made manifest through the display of a family, the unspoken yet visible ability to breed and possibly threaten the moral capacities of the citizens.
This is how the dime museum managed to discipline sex and sexuality in the 19th century. It was not just through the sexually explicit display of bodies but also through the more normative displays as well. The use of families served to police the audience’s view of sexuality, creating a limited view of what was allowed and what was not. By placing the family at the centre of many aggrandized forms of display, the dime museum created an example of what was appropriate. This was too effective, for when public opinion shifted towards social Darwinism, the freak show was suddenly deemed obscene and inappropriate for audiences.
Bogdan, Robert. Freak Show: Presenting Human Oddities for Amusement and Profit. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988.
Dennett, Andrea Stulman. Weird and Wonderful: The Dime Museum in America. New York : New York University Press, 1997.
Tyburczy, Jennifer. Sex Museums: The Politics and Performance of Display. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016.
Trying to bridge the gap between transgender studies and museum studies.