Thursday, June 4th, 2015...10:15 am

Freaks, Geeks, and Strange Girls

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This post is part of an ongoing series featuring items from the newly acquired Julio Mario Santo Domingo Collection.


Whether you think of sideshow banners as art or advertisement there is no denying their “wow” factor.  Freaks, geeks & strange girls : sideshow banners of the Great American Midway is an anthology of perspectives on the history of the sideshow including its social aspects with accompanying sideshow banner art.  cov1_0001Many might argue that perhaps it isn’t the most positive side of humanity that we did (and still do) pay money to see representations of the grotesque or as society would put it bluntly- freaks.  You might be tempted to think that people in a sideshow were exploited and abused and certainly some probably were, but you can also look at it as a time that the marginalized were able to embrace themselves and become self-sufficient when many were locked away from the world.

What if you were born with no arms and still wanted to be able to earn a living during this time?  Let’s look at the example of Martha The Armless Wonder.  cov1_0004Martha Morris was a featured attraction at Coney Island, as well as the traveling Freak City Show of the 1920s.  She would write with her feet and type with her toes to demonstrate her amazing dexterity.  She was also in the 1932 film Freaks which was highly controversial and a financial failure.  Some critics believed it exploited the people featured in the film who were real stars of sideshows but did it exploit Martha?  According to her family Martha loved the movies and was presumably proud to be in a film.  It does raise an interesting question about where is the line between exploitation and empowerment?  To learn more about the people that worked in sideshows you might be interested in American sideshow : an encyclopedia of history’s most wondrous and curiously strange performers by Marc Hartzman. 

Freaks, geeks & strange girls : sideshow banners of the Great American Midway. Randy Johnson, Jim Secreto, Teddy Varndell ; contributions from Glen C. Davies [and others].  Honolulu, Hawaii : Hardy Marks Publications, ©1995 can be found in Widener Library.


Thanks to Alison Harris, Santo Domingo Project Manager, for contributing this post.

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