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Wild, Weird, and Wonderful

After watching seasons one and two of HBO’s excellent series Carnivale on DVD, I wanted to learn more about carnivals and circuses in the early 20th century, so I picked up four different books on the subject. Here is my report.

Mark Sloan’s Wild Weird and Wonderful, The American Circus 1901-1927 is my favorite book of the bunch. This is a large coffee-table book containing a collection of amazing photographs taken by F.W. Glasier, a commercial portrait photographer who photographed all the circuses that came through northern Massachusetts for the first third of the twentieth century. Glasier is not a well known photographer, and his photographs do not appear to be available online.

Opening this book made my jaw drop. There are two-page spreads that show panoramic views of huge circuses unloading from trains, with endless queues of elephants. Incredible portraits of animal handlers, troops of period clowns, freaks and coochie girls. The photographs are printed large enough that you can just get lost in them, and there is an amazing amount of period detail lurking in the corners.

A.W. Stencell’s Seeing is Believing, America’s Sideshows is the second standout book in the group. The author of this book is a 40 year veteran of the carnival and circus business. He writes about the lost art of sideshows, the entertainments which once were the mainstay of the midway, but which gradually supplanted by thrill rides in the latter half of the twentieth century.

The book is generously illustrated, telling and illustrating the origins and development of all different kinds of shows, from ten-in-ones, to faked devil fish, animal shows, peep shows, torture shows, crime shows, motorcycle stunts, monkey races, minstrel shows, and pickled punks, to name just a few.

Stencell omits the Coochie and Burlesque shows, which he covers in his other book Girl Show: Into the Canvas World of Bump and Grind, which sounds excellent as well.

Janet M. Davis’s The Circus Age, Culture & Society Under the American Big Top is, as it’s title and publisher (the University of North Carolina) would suggest, a more academic look at the influence of the American Circuses on popular culture. There are not too many illustrations, but the text is well researched and thoughtful, covering such issues and class and gender.

Francine Hornberger, the author of Carny Folk, The World’s Weirdest Sideshow Acts reveals in the introduction that she was inspired to research the subject after watching HBO’s Carnivale (just as I was). The book is a compendium of performers, mostly famous freaks, such as Johnny Eck and Cheng and Eng Bunker. It is cheaply printed, and the illustrations did not reproduce particularly well. Much of this information is available elsewhere, in similar books.

UPDATE: Lily pointed me to some very cool photos by Mark Ellen Mark, of Indian, Mexican and Vietnamese circuses (Circi?)

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