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Weird and Wonderful: The Dime Museum in America

Copyright Date: 1997
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 214
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  • Book Info
    Weird and Wonderful
    Book Description:

    Dioramas and panoramas, freaks and magicians, waxworks and menageries, obscure relics and stuffed animals--a dazzling assortment of curiosities attracted the gaze of the nineteenth-century spectator at the dime museum. This distinctly American phenomenon was unprecedented in both the diversity of its amusements and in its democratic appeal, with audiences traversing the boundaries of ethnicity, gender, and class. Andrea Stulman Dennett's Weird and Wonderful: The Dime Museum in America recaptures this ephemeral and scarcely documented institution of American culture from the margins of history. Weird and Wonderful chronicles the evolution of the dime museum from its eighteenth-century inception as a "cabinet of curiosities" to its death at the hands of new amusement technologies in the early twentieth century. From big theaters which accommodated audiences of three thousand to meager converted storefronts exhibiting petrified wood and living anomalies, this study vividly reanimates the array of museums, exhibits, and performances that make up this entertainment institution. Tracing the scattered legacy of the dime museum from vaudeville theater to Ripley's museum to the talk show spectacles of today, Dennett makes a significant contribution to the history of American popular entertainment.

    eISBN: 978-0-8147-4421-5
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Preface and Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  5. 1. The Origins of the Dime Museum, 1782–1840
    (pp. 1-22)

    The earliest museums in this country, unlike dime museums, were created in the spirit of the Enlightenment and were meant to be centers of scientific study.¹ Private collections—often called “cabinets of wonders and curiosities”— were generally owned by wealthy citizens or by organizations such as libraries or so-called philosophical societies.² Most of the objects in these cabinets were labeled and displayed according to the Linnaean system of classification, which related each object to another in the so-called great chain of being.³ Cabinets also included paintings and books, and many functioned as libraries.

    Postrevolutionary America, however, was not a wealthy...

  6. 2. Barnum and the Museum Revolution, 1841–1870
    (pp. 23-40)

    Phineas Taylor Barnum was the quintessential showman; by organizing individual amusements and placing them within the confines of a single environment, he afforded hours of pleasure to those with little in their pocketbooks. Barnum adopted the early nineteenth-century concept of the proprietary museum and transformed it into the dime museum.

    Some might argue that Barnum’s American Museum functioned chiefly as a place of popular education—his natural history exhibits were illuminating and his guidebooks informative. By virtue of his years of collecting artifacts and his global searches for novel freaks, Barnum did assemble spectacular geological, ornithological, zoological, and ethnographic displays....

  7. 3. The Peak Years: From the Civil War to 1900
    (pp. 41-65)

    To lure patrons who otherwise would not partake in such “popular” amusements, managers promoted the educational value of their dime museums. For those citizens who yearned for middle-class status, rational amusements were a symbol of respectability. There is no doubt that while the quest for greater profit margins obscured the accuracy of much of the education peddled by entertainment entrepreneurs, the veneer of sophistication sold tickets; immigrants wanted to learn about American culture, while the middle class wanted to be associated with refined amusements. Although dark or subversive exhibits appeared in many museums, most having to do with freak shows,...

  8. 4. Freaks and Platform Performers
    (pp. 66-85)

    One feature that distinguished most dime museums from genuine historical or art museums was live performance. In addition to providing melodramas, strolling musicians, and lecturers, most museums exhibited an array of freaks, who were displayed on platforms, either together or throughout the various curio halls. To be considered fit for exhibition as a museum oddity, a person did not have to be taller or shorter than average or fatter or thinner or even deformed. Many other criteria came into play.

    In general, five classes of human anomalies were displayed in dime museums: natural freaks, who were born with physical or...

  9. 5. Lecture Room Entertainments
    (pp. 86-105)

    The lecture rooms in dime museums varied not only in size but also in quality and in the nature of the theatrical experiences they offered. Some rooms seated a thousand, were lavishly decorated, and mounted full-scale dramatic productions; others consisted of a small platform and perhaps a few rows of seats, were hardly embellished at all, and presented programs no better than the tawdry variety bills of the concert saloons. But canny selection and constant change were the major operating principles of the dime museum business and the strategies with which most proprietors enticed patrons back to their museums again...

  10. 6. Waxworks and Film
    (pp. 106-123)

    Between 1840 and 1900 a mass market in imagery developed in the United States. Owning paintings and etchings during the eighteenth century had been a sign of status and affluence. By the mid-nineteenth century, however, because of advances in printing techniques, color lithographs decorated the walls of even the most humble parlors. The Western world was becoming a densely visual environment, and the ubiquity of images contributed greatly to the dissemination of knowledge and the average person’s perception of the world. Newspapers not only documented but illustrated current events, billboards provided alluring images of goods for sale, and the art...

  11. 7. The Dime Museum Reconfigured for a New Century
    (pp. 124-143)

    In the middle of the nineteenth century, entertainment promoters in several American cities had organized permanent displays of paintings, artifacts, waxworks, freak shows, and variety artists, thereby creating a new form of amusement center—the dime museum. With their combination of exhibits and live performances presented side by side in huge, ornate buildings, these urban places had become the embodiment of modernity. For those first learning about the wonders of the world, they were emporiums of weird and wonderful curiosities, comprehensible and unthreatening testimonials to society’s progress in civilization, technology, and science. The dime museums were extremely democratic, and while...

  12. Epilogue
    (pp. 144-148)

    Although it might be easier to remember Phineas Taylor Barnum as a circus man, we should not neglect the tremendous contribution he made to the entertainment industry with his dime museum concept. In a city where there was no zoo or aquarium or even a museum of natural history, Barnum’s American Museum presented New York families, regardless of income or nationality, a safe place to enjoy a multitude of entertainments. His genius was his “knack of knowing what the public wanted.”¹ Much of the museum’s success resulted from its ability to attract women and children. Barnum’s matinees were devised specifically...

  13. Appendix A. Chronology
    (pp. 149-150)
  14. Appendix B. Dime Museums
    (pp. 151-154)
  15. Notes
    (pp. 155-178)
  16. Selected Bibliography
    (pp. 179-192)
  17. Index
    (pp. 193-199)
  18. About the Author
    (pp. 200-200)
  19. Back Matter
    (pp. 201-201)