There is a grittiness to the Victorian era that is often overlooked by movies that just want to
showboat the beautiful blue dresses and pink suits of the time, punctuated by long drawn out
romances of course (looking at you Pride & the Prejudice!).
However, the grittiness is never far from this very thin veneer of the Victorian era. You only need
to look outside of your window after all to encounter the infamous London Fog, the Black Fog
some called it. Or you would only need to walk through a few of the bad areas of town and take
witness to the various atrocities that were the poor houses, pumping out state sponsored
orphans left and right as they were torn from their families by overbearing legal institutions that
sought to punish the guilty poor.
Even in the entertainment world of this era, there is a griminess that is spurred on by our natural
fascination with the morbidity of life and death. Back then, you might take a woman or man out
on a date not to a movie but rather to a freak show, the ultimate activity of visual entertainment
and hilarity for the time.
The freak show concept really began around 1610 with the conjoined twins spectacle. After that,
freak shows (also known as sideshows) became widely popular. By the time the Victorian era
was in full swing, freak shows were traveling en masse around the country entertaining people
with physical mutations and genetic birth defects that plagued the entertainers.
There is one good thing about all of this though, in a society where freaks really had little
opportunity to raise themselves economically, the freak shows provided a route to a somewhat
reasonable level of fame and wealth. In fact, freak shows were so in vogue that the various
Victorian viewers started a new trading card genre – freak cards.
Each card would have a somewhat to super famous freak on it that would travel in the actual
show circuit. Some of these cards would have the freak’s biography and served as a way for
freak show managers and their stable of unfortunate entertainers to make an extra stream of
profit. Freak cards became so popular that owning various freak commodities also became a
real obsession with Victorian fans.
In a sense, the freak shows worked out well for those who were born with these defects that
would have to live their entire lives out as “freaks”. In many cases, because of how the profits
were split at these shows, the freaks would actually make more money than the management
that ran the entire operation making sure everything went off smoothly.
Of course, by the 1950s the freak shows were all but done. A mixture of factors led to this
change of face by the public, one of the two biggest reasonings being that shows were
exploiting the unfortunate biology of their performers. The other biggest reasoning that killed
these strange side shows of fascination came down to the simple entertaining convenience of
the newly made television.
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