Freakshow posters


  • Intro

    Exhibitions of live human curiosities had appeared in travelling fairs, circuses and taverns in England since the 1600s. These included so-called giants, dwarves, fat people, the very thin, conjoined twins and even people from countries outside of Britain, who were perceived as 'exotic'.  Freak shows were a particularly popular form of entertainment during the Victorian period, when people from all classes flocked to gawp at 'unusual' examples of human life. These posters from the 1870s show the kinds of acts that were on offer.


    Novelty acts relied a great deal on shock, therefore performers were not revealed in the flesh to audiences until money had changed hands. Titillating publicity was crucial, as the people described in these adverts often bore little resemblance to what lay behind the curtain or turnstile. Exaggerated and stylised illustrations lent age to dwarf acts, stature to giants, and plausibility to mermaids and bear boys. The advertisers of these shows aroused the curiosity of the audience by overplaying, often entirely inventing, 'true life' stories.


    The audio extract here is from the journal Living London in 1902.


    Shelfmark: Evan 201, 2682, 295.

  • Video

  • Audio

    Can't play the file above? Listen to the audio clip here

  • Transcript

    Audio transcript

    Read from G.R. Sims, Living London, 1902.


    Throughout the summer, living skeletons, midget families, and suchlike celebrities, tour about in caravans and are to be viewed in tents at county fairs; but winter drives them into London, and the big provincial cities. Here their showmen sometimes hire untenanted shops at low rentals, 'til they are re-let, and run shows on their own account. Oftener they are glad to get engagements for successive weeks at regular showplaces, such as the two at Islington; those in Whitechapel, in Kilburn; in Deptford; or in Caning Town. Whereof, you may pay your penny and be entertained over the shooting gallery at Islington by a pair of oriental jugglers in one room, and in the other, by a gentleman and his wife who are tattooed from necks to heels with ingenious designs in half the colours of the rainbow.

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