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Dithering about Writing about the Circus

For several months–in fact, ever since I finished my Masters thesis–I’ve been doing research and preparing to write an article about the relevance of circus grift to the study of U.S. History writ large.  I’ve read numerous books, taken pages and pages of notes, and have constructed (in my head) what I think is a powerful argument.  It’s centered around two men who were at the center of the circus workings in Peru, Indiana, and who were perhaps responsible for that town’s very survival.

The inspiration for this work is the fact that circus history, as far as it goes, does not like to acknowledge the aspect of grift.  Perhaps sure-thing gamblers who cheated farmers and high-rollers from coast to coast in order to keep their circuses afloat (as well as fund banks, interurban lines, etc.) sullies the kid-friendly and harmless reputation that the circus obtained after World War II.  Perhaps, as is usually the case, the circus history fraternity prefers to perpetuate the innocuous side of the circus because that’s the circus that they remember.  These men (they are invariably men) are not historians.

9D - 1928-1929 Concessions - Pete Mardo photo

Hagenbeck-Wallace concessions men, ca. 1928.  Pete Mardo photo.  I’d count my change if I were you.

Grift should not be hidden from the historical record, but highlighted.  This aspect of the circus is what makes circuses relevant to  history.  From Reconstruction to the Great Depression, grift, graft, gambling, and swindles were ubiquitous cultural practices for small-time entrepreneurs and fat cat politicians alike.  There is a clear and direct line from Ben E. Wallace to Warren G. Harding.  Looking at the big picture, circus grift was just one of the countless ways that city bosses profited from the exploitation of citizens.  It was routine and expected.  Gambling was also prevalent in America’s other favorite diversion, baseball.  The 1919 World Series fix is a well-known and studied occurrence.  To me, the proliferation of these swindlers, their reign, and ultimately their evolution into advertisers, salesmen, and self-help experts is the story of modern U. S. history after the Civil War.

But I do not know how to proceed.  I guess the problem is that I don’t know who my audience is.  I don’t know where to submit such a paper, thus I can’t tell just what kind of paper it should be.  It makes a huge difference.  Should I try to shake things up over at the Circus Historical Society’s journal Bandwagon?  Should I try to relate it to more modern times and tailor it to the Midwest Popular Culture Association?  What about focusing on the Peru aspect for the Indiana Historical Society’s publication Traces?  How would that be received?  I just don’t know how to write it.  That’s led to continuing research, and at this point, I think I could write a book.  At least I have enough material for a book.  But wouldn’t that be skipping a crucial step of being published in a journal?

Speaking of the IHS, in November I was hired there as a collections assistant in reference services.  It’s a great place, and a good job for me right now, although I know that I’m capable of much more than my current responsibilities require of me.  I’d like to work more directly with the collection like I did as a volunteer there.  Still, I get to work on exhibits and am gaining all sorts of experiences just working in an office/library/historical society.  And I’ve technically been published on the blog over there, so that counts, right?


Reflections on researching the American circus

Perhaps you still imagine a circus to be solely a place of spangles and tinsel and gold and lace; of blaring bands and funny clowns; of beautiful equestriennes and sleek, graceful “rosinbacks”; of swirling, fairylike aerialists, and shimmering beauty everywhere?  That’s only the veneer!  A circus is a fighting machine of grueling work, of long, hard hours which begin in the grey of dawn and do not cease until the last torch has been extinguished down at the railroad yards late at night; a thing which fights constantly for its very life against the demons of adversity, of accident, of fire and flood and storm; a great, primitive, determined organization that meets defeat every day, yet will not recognize it; that faces disaster time and again during its season, and yet refuses to countenance it; a place where death stalks for those who paint the bright hues of that veneer which is shown to the public,–a driving, dogged, almost desperate thing which forces its way forward, through the sheer grit and determination of the men and women who can laugh in the face of fatigue, bodily discomfort, and sometimes in the leering features of Death itself!  That’s a circus!

This quote from the 1923 book Under the Big Top by Courtney Riley Cooper, while demonstrating its own form of romanticism, describes part of what makes the early twentieth century circus so fascinating to me.  The “great, primitive, determined organization” that balanced along the ever-shrinking fringes of society while using cutting-edge corporate techniques of organization formed a complex dichotomy representative of American society at that time.  While most circus antiquarians focus on the managers and performers under canvas, it is the laborers and confidence men associated with the shows that draw me in.

Hobos and other migrant laborers, along with experienced bosses (and hordes of local boys eager for free passes) made up the labor force that made the traveling railroad circus possible.  I anticipate that the hunt for the cultural ins and outs of these folks will be a lifelong interest of mine.  That’s fortunate, since recollections from this slice of society are hard to come by.  Many were illiterate and left no written evidence, and most probably never thought of their time on the circus as worthy of preserving.  Circus work was but one of the many temporary jobs taken on their way to a harvest somewhere or a factory job in the city.  The memoirs of hobos Jim Tully (Beggars of Life [1924]) and Jack Black (You Can’t Win [1927]), both republished by anarchist publishers AK Press, are currently at the top of my to-read list.  I’m similarly optimistic about Frank Tobias Higbie’s book Indispensable Outcasts: Hobo Workers and Community in the American Midwest, 1880-1930 (2003).  The thought that I’ve already written my Master’s thesis, partially on circus labor, without ever thinking of, letalone consulting any literature on hobos seems cause for embarrassment now.  Google books tells me that Tully mentions the circus specifically, and I look forward to the interpretive possibilities advanced by Higbie.  I am particularly interested in possible hobo involvement in the IWW, since Joe McKennon states that many circus workers were wobblies in his book, Horse Dung Trail.

Another book that has recently pushed me deeper into my circus analysis is Karen Halttunen’s Confidence Men and Painted Women: A Study of Middle-Class Culture in America, 1830-1870 (1982).  This book, particularly the chapters about middle class fears of the sly and well-dressed confidence men in an increasingly urbanized nation, lend another seemingly vital aspect to the work I’ve already done.  Unfortunately I came across this book too late to obtain it and use it in my thesis.  Confidence Men describes the way in which these tricksters had to remain mobile and had no permanent homes, no families.  In other words, it describes the circus without specifically mentioning it.  The book also explains how nineteenth century fears eventually gave way to the acceptance and even promotion of dishonesty and hypocrisy in business.  Halttunen’s interpretation therefore forms the perfect preface to the study of my favorite research subjects, Benjamin Wallace and Jerry Mugivan–two grifters who made fortunes in the circus business by applying long-established swindling practices to a large-scale corporate enterprise.

Admittedly, I’ve done very little archival research for this project.  I imagine most historians always wish that they could do more.  Most of my primary source material for my thesis came from Billboard or the Sutherland papers that were sent to me.  I very much look forward to doing more archival digging on these subjects and the possibilities that await me.


Review: “Showman: The Life and Music of Perry George Lowery” by Clifford Edward Watkins (University Press of Mississippi/Jackson), 2003

“By this time the United States had experienced a generous exposure to jazz and blues in the somewhat indecorous context of the sideshow annex.” (203)

“P. G. Lowery was idolized by his contemporary musicians, and there is ample evidence that the ‘Lowery school’ was a primary factor in the development of modern African American popular music and jazz.” (207)

“Phonograph records have long been the major jumping-off point for blues and jazz scholarship.  The fact that Lowery and his band made no recordings has had a profound effect on the place he has been accorded in American music history.” (207)

These quotes from the book Ragged But Right: Black Traveling Shows, “Coon Songs,” and the Dark Pathway to Blues and Jazz by Lynn Abbott and Doug Seroff (2007) intrigued me enough to seek out further reading about P.G. Lowery–sideshow bandmaster and supposed key architect of jazz.  I was pleasantly surprised to find that a biography had been written in 2003, and I wasted little time ordering the book.  Lowery was a fixture in circus sideshows for over forty years, and I had hope that the book would contain some intriguing insights into the culture of both circus/vaudeville workers and black America in the 1920s and ’30s.

However, by the end of the book’s first chapter, a familiar disappointment began to creep into my subconscious.  Like so many other published works related to the circus, Showman is but a superficial glance off the surface of a subject of unfathomable depth.  Since I’ve voiced many of these gripes in a past review, I will try to keep this brief.

The author mentions that Lowery was a part of a “turn away from minstrelsy,” (63) and that he produced an unexpectedly sophisticated and respectable entertainment suitable for the mixed offerings of the vaudeville stage.  Here an in-depth look at the minstrel tradition in the United States as well as a discussion of the rise of vaudeville in the early twentieth century would seem appropriate, if not essential.  Even a cursory look at David Nasaw’s Going Out: The Rise and Fall of Public Amusements (1999) could provide some context.  Similarly, the particulars of circus sideshow bands and their significance is barely hinted at.  Lowery’s innovations, whatever they might have been, remain obscure.

Similarly, the American Federation of Musicians union trouble in the late 1930s is entirely overlooked.  Surely Lowery experienced this upheaval towards the end of his career.  It would seem necessary to discuss events that had such far-reaching implications to his profession, particularly in a book which mentions those that do not, such as blowdowns and illnesses.  In a particularly awkward passage, the author seems to suggest that the Great Depression was over by 1940.  Even though the Depression’s effects on the entertainment industry are not previously a part of Watkins’ narrative, he writes, “People were becoming more likely to spend money for entertainment as they moved further away from the Great Depression of a decade ago, and the show did well during the 1940 season” (125).

The book’s sloppiness is further evidenced by the author’s inconsistency when referring to the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus.  Though publications often confused the title, particularly in the early days of the combine, the fact remains that the show was never “Wallace-Hagenbeck,” or any other of the jumbled permutations used in the book.  Benjamin Wallace deliberately placed Hagenbeck’s name before his own due to the reputation that it brought.  This may seem like a small point that only circus buffs would bother with, but the author should at the very least choose a title and use it consistently instead of flip-flopping.

The book’s merit is that it effectively demonstrates the dual life of a circus employee, working on the circus during the summer months and finding alternative venues for the winter.  But from my perspective, Showman is fundamentally only half of a book.  It is a consolidation of many years of primary source material (specifically one source: The Indianapolis Freeman) on an admittedly important subject, but with no interpretation from secondary sources.  What does it mean?  Why is Lowery important?  How was the world different when his career ended?  Readers can only speculate.


“Oral History Review” Reading Reflection

“How Edgar Tolson Made It: Oral Sources and Folk Art’s Success” by Julia S. Ardery.  The Oral History Review, Vol. 23, No. 2 (Winter, 1996), pp. 1-18.

In the 1970s, “twentieth century folk and outsider art” emerged as the most recent movement to shake up the avant-garde art world.  In this article, Julia Ardery explains the vital role that recorded interviews with the artists played in the movement’s “development and accreditation.”  She highlights Edgar Tolson, a Campton, Kentucky man who took up whittling after suffering a debilitating stroke at the age of 53.  Tolson would eventually become a darling of the art world, whose sculptures sold for thousands of dollars apiece in the 1990s.

How does this happen?  According to Ardery, regional arts organizations, drunk on the flowing teat of the National Endowment for the Arts, used folk art to “project a non-elitist vision of the arts and to boost local pride.”  By the late ’70s, however, critical discussions of folk art began appearing in art journals.  Since very few galleries displayed it, art collectors began to journey into the hinterland to seek out folk art and its creators.  In Tolson’s case, it was AmeriCorps who brought his work into the mainstream lime light.  VISTA workers collecting examples of folk crafts took some of Tolson’s handiwork to the Smithsonian.  Tolson himself was eventually invited to be a part of the Smithsonian’s Festival of American Folklife, where he demonstrated his craft on the Capitol Mall.  Folk artists like Tolson were “living proof that the nation’s vernacular arts traditions had survived industrialization and mass production.”

In general, these folk artists were not invited to Washington to represent a presumably “lost culture”, but they were often interviewed by venturesome art collectors.  Ardery notes that interviewing “has functioned as folklore’s primary means both for documenting cultural practices and for establishing their ‘folkness,’ their place within a tradition.”  Exposing the power of objects to tell a story, collectors Werner and Karen Guntersheimer explained, “We’re interested in their stories….We love it when we can find something where there is some sort of a narrative around the person or the object that intrigues us.”   In time, Ardery writes, “Oral history became part of the collecting experience.”  In a way, the interview provided authentication for the collector.  Another collector stated rather coldly, “It’s much more fun for me to collect living artists when I can meet them and decide whether I think they’re truly naive or primitive.”

In researching Tolson, who passed away in 1984, Ardery conducted interviews with his surviving family and art world contacts to supplement existing recordings done by collectors from 1971 to 1982.  She relates an interesting pattern of Tolson’s changing attitudes about his work over that time.  Whereas he initially described his carvings as something that was “always in me,” but that “I never would fool with it till I got knocked out of work”, in later interviews he describes them as “a lost art, gone.”  In conducting her own interviews, Ardery found that some narrators were only willing to share their true assessments of Tolson’s work after the recorder had been turned off.  “Edgar’s things were ugly!” one declared.  On the record, however, she believes that the recorded interview, especially on the subject of art, “tends especially toward drama and celebration rather than apathy and indifference.”

In the case of this particular article, the word “history” as included in “oral history” is largely incidental.  There is never any mention of the recordings being archived, and the author routinely lumps “oral histories” together with any recorded conversation as sources of equal merit.  Nor is the end goal (as muddled as it seems to be), to write any sort of history.  In this article the recordings seem merely to be a component of the art piece–as testament to the artist’s ignorance of established methods of aesthetic or critique.  The interviews Ardery conducted seem to have been a product of her own curiosity about Tolson, and she used them much in the same way that a journalist would in researching a local human interest story.

However, in the sense that oral histories and the oral tradition have “cultivated a field of folk art appreciation”, I can relate.  Richard Cándida Smith wrote that oral histories can “inject history back into an artist’s career and, more importantly, inject the career back into a broader understanding of history.”  During my time at the Pacific Northwest College of Art in Portland, Oregon, Morgan Walker led a class on the History of Printmaking in which he spun fascinating anecdotes about the lives of the artists whose work we were studying.  That was when I began to see works of art, and indeed all artifacts of material culture, as history.  I realized that the artworks I had been conditioned to think of as entries in a particular category or genre were also artifacts of a human life.  The oral tradition can have a powerful effect on how we see the world around us.  The rise of folk art is but one unique example of that.


If These Walls Could Talk Redux (Oral History in Museums)

A year ago, I was assigned a chapter from the 2011 book Letting Go:  Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World about an interactive exhibit at the Minnesota History Center called “Open House”.  You can read my original blog entry about the reading here.  Since the exhibit utilizes oral history interviews in a raw, yet creative way, the reading was assigned again this semester for the Introduction to Oral History course.  As much as I would like to claim otherwise, my original post was by no means exhaustive, so this could be considered a reflective redux to that entry.  In addition, this time around the assigned reading was accompanied by an essay by Anna Green about an exhibit in New Zealand which also used raw clips of oral history interviews to construct a museum exhibit.

In both cases, the exhibit creators have proven that even in a direct playback format, oral history interviews can be effective and engaging artifacts in their own right.  The New Zealand project was built from two hundred student-conducted interviews with the inhabitants of Frankton Junction, a large railway community.  The interviews were then edited and spliced together based on discussions of childhood, youth, women, and men in the community.  Each of the six sections was given a total of about ten minutes’ playing time:  already a daunting expectation of museum visitors.  Complicating the aspect of time limitations was the inherently difficult decisions about whose voices to include:  splitting a hair into “representativeness” on the desirable side and “stereotyping” on the side to be avoided.  As with any museum exhibit, all-inclusiveness is not possible, nor is it the desired outcome.  In this case, I think that any shortcomings in the clips can actually be beneficial to exhibit curators, prompting visitors to want to participate in order to add experiences which they might feel the exhibit lacks.  As Benjamin Filene wrote about the Open House exhibit, visitors suddenly “recognize that they themselves had something to say.”  Unfortunately, this exhibit doesn’t seem to have capitalized on that opportunity.  A guestbook near the exhibit’s exit recorded the thoughts and experiences of visitors, but this being a limited student project that may have already overrun its projected time frame, none of these memories were ever committed to tape.  As Green points out, the project even as it was exceeded the human resources normally available to museums.  Perhaps public history classes should guest-curate museum exhibits more regularly.  What say you, Louisville?


Parkland Oral History Project, Take One.

For my Introduction to Oral History course this semester, we are working on the first phase of a project intended to shed some light on the experiences and memories of West End residents–particularly in regards to the events of May 1968 in the Parkland neighborhood.  Civil unrest was building, and on May 29, at the corner of 28th and Greenwood, a rally protesting the reinstatement of a white police officer who had needlessly beaten a black man, Mr. Manfred Reid, burst into a riot.

The first phase of the project is to record the memories of men and women who had grown up in the neighborhood, and who were there that day.  In order to assemble an accurate and balanced history of the day’s events for the historical record, we are conducting interviews with Parkland residents, most of whom have never been asked to contribute to the story of that day.

My first interview for the project was with Mrs. Beverly Jones, who grew up South of the Parkland neighborhood in an area which was then commonly referred to as “Little Africa”.  Her husband Donald sat close by and intermittently contributed his perspective.  As this wasn’t my first rodeo, I expected some improvement in my interview style from the ones I conducted during my internship at the Science Center.  However, the old nerves turned jittery and jangly as I waited on the Jones’ doormat, and I struggled to speak clearly and calmly.  Fearing that I would miss some vital piece of information, I began the recording almost immediately upon being seated at the Jones’ kitchen counter.  Luckily, my narrators were obliging and understanding, and were thankfully disposed to enlightening this hobbledehoy historian who grew up in some of the whitest places in America.  Mrs. Jones was a delight, and had a lot of wisdom and strong feelings to impart.  She expressed a sense of helplessness though, and felt that the positive efforts going on in Louisville’s West End weren’t reaching the right people.  I assured her that by contributing to our project, along with her simple everyday influence, she was helping the eventual revitalization of the neighborhood.  I only hope that my small part was done well enough to someday be helpful, too.


More exhibit work

A second full-length display case for years held a mid-century hair curling gizmo along with a seated mannequin in a striking sharkskin dress.  My task was to create a new technology display which would meet the Next Generation Science Standards.  While the new standards are meant to stimulate creative problem solving and scientific investigation, the exhibits I started building during my internship and continued this past summer demonstrated what inventors and engineers had already accomplished using these techniques.  I was free to explore the collection and use whatever I found to achieve that end.

On one hand, the opportunity to access such a collection and create displays that would be seen by thousands was enormously gratifying.  It isn’t a chance I took lightly, and I don’t think that many in my position as a public history student can say they’ve had a similar experience.  On the other hand, I had very little guidance in the process.  Once written, my text required the approval of the Science Center’s Director of Education & Experience.  She was also always willing to offer ideas on exhibits if I got stuck.  My immediate supervisor would also answer specific questions if it came to that, but in general, I was isolated in the collections department during the hours I spent at work.  This meant that I, too was challenged to come up with creative solutions and use whatever materials I could find in the abandoned department.

Eventually I decided to compare traditional phonograph technology with its most advanced and relatively unknown variation, the Capacitance Electronic Disc, which is a playback-only video system developed by RCA in the late 1970s.  CEDs are basically phonograph technology pushed to the extreme.  A single 12-inch disc holds an average-length movie, though it does need to be turned over halfway through.  This technology failed to catch on because although it was priced similarly to VCRs, CED systems did not allow home users to record from television like VCRs did.  Because of this, they have become a technological oddity.  Although the Science Center has a permanent moratorium on collections acquisitions, a CED system along with several discs were accepted last winter.

I chose a child’s turntable from the 1950s with a 45 rpm single (which would be displayed with an appropriately-attired child-sized mannequin) to compare to the CED player, which was released in 1981.

The best part of the process was choosing clothing.  I especially enjoyed the search for the perfect 1980s T-shirt for my proud CED owner.  Suffice it to say, it was a much different experience than dressing the c1905 mannequin from my previous post.  Here are some photos from the process…

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As much as I liked the rainbow shirt, I ultimately decided to swap it for something distinctly local–a WLRS T-shirt, which I discovered was a local rock station located nearby in the 800 building.  I was also able to locate some late-70s ankle socks.  The children’s clothing from the ’50s in the collection was sparse, and though I don’t think it screams mid-century, this red dress was the best I could find.  I admit that it took me a few tries before I understood how it was supposed to go on.

The exhibit explains how phonograph technology works, and compares the length of the groove on a 45 with that of the CED.  Here are some shots of the finished exhibit, front and back…

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On the black stand (which was built for me so speedily by the operations department and I covered with black felt) is a magnifier showing what a phonograph cartridge looks like, with arrows pointing out the styluses (styli?).

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The arrows were crafted very carefully out of little foil star stickers.

Admittedly, certain things about the exhibit are not ideal.  The felt draped over the CED’s stand and the way the text is mounted onto it is rather clumsy and unprofessional.  If I’d had my druthers I would have had another plinth for the CED player.

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The shirt was too long, but that was no problem; I just did what she would have done- tied a side knot.

This exhibit was a “learning-on-the-job” type experience.  Overall I am happy with it and proud of how it turned out.  It represents a surprising amount of research, trial and error, and planning.  Though I now feel that a one-man curatorial team is not sufficient, it taught me a lot about what I am capable of.