Wednesday, June 2nd, 2010...9:41 am

The American Minstrel Show Collection

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Christy Minstrels Playbill, bMS Thr 556 (321)[Thanks to Senior Manuscript Cataloger Bonnie Salt for contributing this post]

A large and historically important collection of American minstrelsy materials has just been cataloged for the Harvard Theatre Collection and the finding aid is now available on OASIS: American Minstrel Show Collection (MS Thr 556)

Thomas Rice as Jim Crow, bMS Thr 556 (156)

The collection includes playbills, photographs, prints, clippings and other materials documenting the minstrel show, a type of what is now considered a racially controversial 19th-century form of American entertainment. The shows consisted of skits, variety acts, dancing, and music, primarily performed by white men in “blackface,” but especially after the Civil War also included blacks and females. Minstrel performances depicted black people typically in negative stereotypes, providing a representation to the white audience of the “typical black” person, often represented by the naïve, devil-may-care southern plantation slave or Jim Crow. The character of Jim Crow or Zip Coon was depicted by one of the early minstrels, Thomas Dartmouth Rice

Portrait of Thomas Rice, bMS Thr 556 (155)

Christy Minstrels Playbill, bMS Thr 556 (321) Minstrelsy grew from the 1830’s period of mostly solo performers, into the “classic age” of blackface minstrelsy (ca. 1840-1870) when traveling troupes were common such as The Virginia Minstrels, Christy’s Minstrels, and hundreds of others. By the 1890s most troupes had turned from classic minstrelsy to burlesque, but the tunes composed for the minstrel shows had already greatly influenced American popular music, and the stereotypes depicted had played a powerful role in shaping racist assumptions about black people.

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