08 November 2013

Dime museums

The term "dime museum" is new to me, and it was chance that brought it to my notice - having printed on the reverse of some used paper, I looked to see what was on the back - it was an artwork (artist not named) entitled "Austin & Stone", with a couple of banners in the background, on one of which was printed Austin & Stone's Museum.

Museum is currently my hot topic, and quick research found that this museum was a freak show, "the best known and most successful museum in America" - with branches in Paris and London - the London branch being a stone's throw from where I'm sitting typing: 112 Elthorne Road, Hernsey [sic] Rise.

Hmm, more than a stone's throw away, more like a 15-minute walk ... and not Hornsey Rise, either, though there's an Elthorne Park there, and the road originally ran almost that far. The Birkbeck Tavern would have been nearby, at 119 (it's now residential). Also on Elthorne Road, and of related interest, is the Islington Education Artefects Library, with over 50,000 objects to loan to schools.

Back to the dime museum though - these were popular in the US at the end of the 19th century, and were centres of entertainment and moral education for the working class. "Variety, comedy, drama; freaks, curios, illusions" it says on the banner-head of the museum's programme, and also "music, aquaria, aviary". A cabinet of curiosities, in effect, sensationally served, all for only 10 cents admission.

A re-created dime museum, the American Dime Museum, closed down in 2007 after only eight years of existence in a tumbledown storefront in Baltimore. The original American Museum was founded by P T Barnum in 1841 - it was "edutainment," and it was successful. The dime museums that sprouted up in the its wake thrived on sensationalism and showcased a vast array of curiosities and oddities -- some of them real, many of them little more than products of a taxidermist’s fanciful imagination and bucket of left-over parts. By 1865, when the American Museum burned down, dime museums were a fixture of circuses and traveling carnivals. 

"From a history of the dime museums to a history of the creation and manufacture of the items in the museums, The American dime Museums proves to be a hands-on, first-person style record of populist history. Even though most of the dime museum oddities were proven to be fakes and forgeries, [the director of the American Dime Museum] still regards them as worthwhile pieces of history, both as an example of the types of things Americans wanted to believe maybe existed, as well as examples of genuine folk art." says an article written about the last day of the museum's existence. Another article is here, and the items up for auction are here.

But it too arose from its grave, being recreated in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, "with Living and Preserved Specimens of both the Natural and UnNatural World we live in. Featuring an Exclusive Menagerie of Infant Animals of North America, Pexcho's American Dime Museum in 2011 now contains Wonders and Curiosities that cannot be found anywhere else on the Planet Earth.
"What began with "Curiosity Cabinets" in wealthy homes in the late 19th century has now evolved into a Living Document and Testament to a nearly forgotten past and a hopeful future, where "normal" is the oddity. Peter Excho has revived and rebooted the American Dime Museum for the next generation of Doubters, Gawkers and Non-Believers, preserving and displaying Truly Wonderful, Exotic, Rare and Fantastic Anomalies that occur and exist around us still to this day." says wikipedia.

Here's an interesting historical note, from a review of a book on the topic published in 1997: " The roots of the dime museum's mixture of education and amusement lie in America's first museums of the late 18th century. Without endowments, early museums, such as Charles Willson Peale's American museum in Philadelphia, frequently included entertainment to draw more people in to see the collections of scientific displays and listen to lectures on natural history and art. These early museums gave way to alternate institutions: the endowed museum as a site of scientific learning (such as the Smithsonian, founded in 1841) and the dime museum, a commercial venue of entertainments with only half-hearted (and often deliberately deceptive) educational ideals."

According to that book, "dime museum pioneers such as Barnum shaped a novel institution in American popular entertainment: a collection of diverse entertainments under one roof that was accessible to families of diverse classes."

Dime museums were immersed in the social issues of the second half of the nineteenth century. The plays in their theaters frequently advocated moral reforms, such as temperance, and museum exhibits, such as Barnum's "half-man-half-monkey" displays, were linked with scientific questions of the day, namely new theories of evolution.

Competition from vaudeville and film led to the decline of the dime museum. Its traces linger, the author (Andrea Stulman Dennett) contends, in the talk show and the tattoo parlour.

Another type of American museum of the time is typified by the Eden MuseĆ©. It was patterned after European waxworks, like Madame Tussaud's, and also offered a "winter garden" with refreshments and an orchestra and, in the evening, exotic dancers, lady fencers, conjurers, illusionists, even motion pictures.  
The Eden MuseƩ, New York, in 1900; the building was demolished in 1915 (via)
An account of what might have been a visit to Austin & Stone's museum, led by Professor Hutchings, who worked at the museum from 1881 till his death in 1911, is here. It includes a sampling of the unfortunate freaks and collected curiosities.
The chance find that started the research

1 comment:

Plum Cox said...

What an interesting subject - thanks for sharing! I'll be coming back to this page with my DD later, who has just been reading a children's book that included a freak show....!