The sideshow banner seen from across the midway was a saturated, larger-than-life advertisement depicting performances or displays in exaggerated grandeur, and it was the very first step in luring a rube to part with his or her money as well as sparking a voyeuristic desire by appealing to the rube’s hunger to see that which was normally forbidden. The sideshow often displayed the beautiful versus the grotesque and other seemingly preternatural performances. However, the sideshow banner line created for the Shelburne Museum’s Circus Day in America exhibition for their 2010 season not only feeds voyeuristic tendencies but also explores the themes of gender and orientation, societal roles or pressures, ritual, and duality. This inherent duality can be seen in many forms within the traditional sideshow whether it is within a single figure such as the ½ Man ½ Woman, the half horse-half serpent body of the Hippocampus, the Bearded Lady, Cheng & Eng or the Gator Girl. Duality can also be seen within two contrasting figures such as between the fat man, Hungry Harry and the Hunger Artist, which can also be seen as two sides of the same coin while also highlighting current societal pressures and roles.

Bannerline Circus Day

Figure 1: Toni-Lee Sangastiano. Commissioned bannerline for Circus Day In America, Shelburne Museum, VT, USA. 2010. 40 ft x 15 ft (12 m x 4.5 m). Photo credits: Andy Duback.

In the ‘Golden Age of the American Circus’ (1870-1950), the circus was the king of all entertainment (Shelburne Museum 2010). Entire towns would stop all activities just to attend the circus. From the moment the trains rolled into to town until the big top was torn down, the arrival of the circus was like an extended holiday. Unfamiliar to our unrelenting digital world, this celebration was the focus of the Circus Day in America exhibition at the Shelburne Museum, in Shelburne, Vermont. Along with the circus, came the sideshow, the seedy underbelly within a sea of family entertainment. The sideshow often offered a glimpse of things the general public might not normally encounter, such as erotica, exotica, animals from afar, hybrid creatures, and human artworks tattooed from head to toe (Johnson, 1996, p. 11). As part of this museum exhibition, I was commissioned by the Shelburne Museum to create a sideshow bannerline for Circus Day in America. What evolved was a combination of a historical tribute to the sideshow and the use of the sideshow banner as a vehicle to explore current issues on identity, gender and sexuality.

Although it has been true that the traditional sideshow banner was meant to seduce, amaze and lure the rube to see what was alive on the inside, the banners in the Circus Day in Americaexhibition created for the Shelburne Museum’s 2010 season allude to a story about perceptions instead of actual performers and oddities. The ‘story’ can best be summed up by a quote from retired Canadian showman Al Stencell.

While street performers could give a show and pass the hat, the showman was careful to keep his attraction out of sight, and only after you paid were you allowed to see it. And so his spiel was his most important tool in getting you inside (Stencell 2002, p. 5).

All the while, the hunger of the rube grew to see what was inside, behind the banners, as the talker on the bally stage smoothly effused seductive words and further enticed a swift departure of money, exchanged for a ticket in order to enter the sideshow. As Thomson (2002) notes, ‘P. T. Barnum, the apotheosis of American entrepreneurship, brought the freak show to its pinnacle in the nineteenth century by capitalizing on America’s hunger for extravagance, knowledge, and mastery, along with its simultaneous quest for self-apprehension’ (p. 58).

Novels and movies have portrayed the grim side of the carnival business, exploiting the freaks and the sideshow end of the business (Stencell, 2002, p. xxi). This essay defines the path of the sideshow bannerline as a vehicle to not only pay tribute to the famous sideshow performers of the past, who were better off than many of their counterparts tucked away in attics, but also to detail the usage of the sideshow banners to highlight current societal perceptions and issues.

The twelve, five by seven feet (1.5 by 2.1 meters) banners and the one, seven by ten feet (2.1 by 3 meters) banner that comprise this exhibit are meant to allow viewers the opportunity for introspection into their own perceptions beyond the bannerline and to look at the sideshow banner as a vehicle for discovering deeper awareness of their own views.

The inspiration for the Hunger Artist banner in this exhibit, and the literal and coincidental connection to the title of the Double Dialogues conference evolved from two separate sources and they are divided by almost a century.

In 1830, a ‘living skeleton’ was featured, as one of the attractions at the St. Bartholomew Fair, in England (Stencell 2002, p.4). These sideshow attractions were often entitled ‘Skeleton Men’ or ‘World’s Thinnest Men’. In Kafka’s short story, The Hunger Artist, published in 1922, he fasted himself to death in a cage at the sideshow. Given the rise of eating disorders today and their disastrous effects on the individual and society as a whole, a gender reversal seemed only too fitting. The painted Hunger Artist banner depicts the subsequent media pressure on women to adhere to a specific standard of beauty. According to a 2008 survey conducted by Mintel, a market-research firm, the most frequently worn size in America is a 14 (Bellafante 2010).

The average American woman is 5’4″ (162 cm) tall and weighs 140 pounds (63 kilos). The average American model is 5’11” (180.3 cm) tall and weighs 117 pounds (53 kilos) (Smolak 1996).

Despite these statistics, the 2010 Spring Preview of V’s Size Issue, which featured covers with Gabourey Sidibe and Dakota Fanning and a range of scantily clad plus-sized models throughout the magazine, sparked not only praise but also sparked a significant amount of controversy from the media and the public. A portion of the public agreed with fashion designer Karl Lagerfield’s dictum, “No one wants to see curvy women” (La Ferla 2010).

This same issue of V, also featured men. Men are also not immune to these societal pressures. You can see the changing ideal for an attractive male reflected on the fashion runways. Guy Trebay (2010), from the NY Times Fashion & Style section, writes that for almost a decade, male models featured on the runways were “boyish” and within the past year, there is a return to the more ‘mature and rugged’ man on the catwalk. The article was aptly named From Boys to Men. What is the ‘ideal beauty’ for both women and men? Who has the power to determine this? According to a 2006 study entitled Body Image, Media and Eating Disorders by Dr. Jennifer L. Derenne and Dr. Eugene V. Beresin, mass media, which includes television, movies, magazines and internet, is so ubiquitous and powerful that it leads directly to increased body dissatisfaction among both men and women (Derenne, Beresin 2006, p. 257).

Rather than depict the true physical results of these societal pressures on women, the visual metaphor of cinching one’s waist to a tiny, ten-inch column was used in the banner created for the museum exhibit. The Hunger Artist’s face in the banner is vaguely reminiscent of Botticelli’sVenus, which also featured an unattainable standard of beauty, while a ghostly skull hovers behind, illuminating her figure and simultaneously forecasting her future fate.

Figure 2: Hunger Artist. 60in x 84in (152cm x 213cm).

Portrayals of healthy women in the media today, although they do exist, do not draw the same amount of media attention or influence as the extremes mentioned above. The unattainable and unreal dominate the media even when we clearly understand that magazine covers are only airbrushed versions of surgically altered and botox-injected ‘icons’. Despite changing ideal body types and the difficulty to achieve those standards, Drs. Derenne and Beresin (2006) claim that we are living in a unique time period because the media has a far more prevalent and powerful presence. Ideal body types for women have historically fluctuated between thin fragility and fertile, physically strong women (Derenne, Beresin 2006, p. 258).

The ‘Strong Man’ was a more common occurrence in the sideshow than a strong woman. The Strong Woman banner from the exhibit was a gender role reversal. The figure in this banner represents the fact that every woman, regardless of age, possesses an inherent beauty and strength. The exaggerated perspective forces the viewer to look up to her while a crowd watches in the distance. One hand breaks the frame not only to help balance the extraordinary weight carried in her opposite hand, but also to lead the viewer to a small silhouette of a female ringmaster or ringmistress. Historically, the male ringmaster is head of the circus and is separate from the sideshow (Kwong 2011). However, in this context, it is a representation of the artist, who happens to be female, and the artist as leader of the creation of this bannerline. The Strong Woman banner is also a call to return to or a wish to create healthy, attainable role models in the media regardless of gender and identity.

Figure 3: Strong Woman. 60in x 84in (152cm x 213cm).

As the obesity epidemic grows in the United States and the American diet threatens the cultural heritage of various diets in several countries (Rosenthal 2008), the scale of this epidemic can be captured in the following two statistics. As Wilson (2010) suggests, ‘One in five Americans still smokes but three in five is obese’.

Obesity was not as prevalent during the beginning of the 20th century in America. More than one-third of adults in the United States and nearly 17 percent of the nation’s children are now obese (NIH 2011). At the sideshow, fat women were a common sight, all with infantile names such as Dolly Dimples or Dainty Dolly. There were also fat men at the sideshow but this banner from the exhibit is meant to contrast with the Hunger Artist and the current unequal standards of beauty between the genders within media and society.

Sideshow acts plumbed the depths of the social psyche and the extant images send us crawling for explanations. What was the “FAT SHOW” really about? What was the magnetism to gargantuan distortion–the physical, visceral, human face and body, or the American obsession with consumption, gratification. (Johnson, 1996, p. 12).

Husky Harry’s pose in this banner, coupled with his smile, represents his shameless pride while the golden chalice and the design of mosaic tile represent excess. Zephyr, the wind god depicted in Botticelli’s paintings, replicated in the mosaic tile mural of the bathtub, blows the overflowing bubbles away from his face. Husky Harry is also a tribute to the last performing fat man named Bruce Snowden.

Husky Harry

Figure 4: Husky Harry. 60in x 84in (152cm x 213cm).

Both the Hunger Artist and Husky Harry represent two extremes. They are at opposite ends of the spectrum in physicality. Together these two banners share a duality, perhaps two sides of the same coin, where food, or the lack there of, becomes more like a ritual either consciously or subconsciously. Frequently, this consumption of food is a solitary act and it is often an act that is meant to fulfill a feast of other needs and desires that can never be truly fulfilled no matter how much is consumed. Inescapable, our media consumption persists.

A series of feasts over a period of weeks would intermittently ensue after a successful village raid for the Jivaro tribe in South America. Although it has been illegal to own human shrunken heads since the 1940s, they were once a common sideshow attraction. Regardless of the authenticity of the shrunken head, they are still coveted by fans of sideshows and curiosity collectors alike and hence the inclusion of the subject in this bannerline. The Jivaro, among others in the world, practiced headhunting. The ritualistic act of preparing the tsantsa or head, whose recipe also involved ‘cooking’ along with many other required steps over a period of days, symbolized possession, domination or a battle trophy (Harner, 1972, p. 187). The eyes and lips were sewn shut. The shrunken head depicted on the banner in this exhibit could be either male or female. Despite the grotesque nature of the act and of the severed head itself to outside cultures, the application of paint aimed to show that there is still beauty and peace in death.

Shrunken Head

Figure 5: Shrunken Head. 60in x 84in (152cm x 213cm).

The garments and facial decorations are loosely based on historical photos of the Jivaros featured in Harner’s book documenting the Jivaro (Harner, 1972, p. 138-139). The background ambiguously resembles a dark, thick jungle or forest, which contrasts with the brightness of the sky and it is also a metaphorical representation of life and death.

Fakir banners, sometimes-named ‘Painproof’, depicted feats of physical endurance, which often, but not always, involved shamanic body rituals. When a variety of objects were inserted into the nasal orifices the figure was called ‘Blockhead’. Otherwise the body was shown in contact with sharp objects, such as a bed of nails, or the body was pierced, such as inserting a metal skewer through the bicep muscle. In all cases, the piercings or sharp objects caused no harm. The ritualistic act depicted in this banner from the exhibit would never be part of the sideshow because it would be impossible to repeat this several times a day without substantial injury and violation of the practice of extensive preparation for the ritual itself. However, one might have seen an altar from this ritual along with photographs of its usage as part of a display of curiosities or in a dime museum.


Figure 6: Fakir. 60in x 84in (152cm x 213cm).

Although this sideshow banner shows only a cropped version of an altar with just a dozen rods, an actual altar, consisting of hundreds of rods and a variety of decorations, may weigh up to 150 pounds. It was traditional to carry a portable altar, Vel Kavadi, during the festival of Thaipusam in Southeast Asia, which celebrates the birthday of the Hindu god Subramaniam, also known as Lord Murugan. This is a devotional practice initiated by a period of fasting and requires extreme physical endurance. A beam of light, coming from above, highlights the figure in this banner and symbolizes his transcendental moment during the ritual (Willford, 2007, p. 59-61).

Along the lines of collected, odd objects often presented in cabinets of curiosities and dime museums, gaffes, an inventive combination of unrelated species by taxidermy and/or other creative methods, into mythical or non-existent creatures, were often touted as ‘real’ at the sideshow. P.T. Barnum’s Fiji Mermaid is one the most famous examples of a gaffe. The hippocampus is another version of a gaffe.

Hippocampus gaffe

Figure 7: Hippocampus. 60in x 84in (152cm x 213cm).

A representation of the mythical creatures worthy enough to pull Poseidon’s chariot, thisHippocampus from this exhibit is half horse and half sea serpent. With the head of a regal stallion, the tranquil, blue eyes, filled with a wisdom that can only come with pulling the chariot of a god, directly engage the gaze of the viewer. The tail extends far into the distance and leads the eye to a loose representation of the Pillars of Hercules. Influenced by the stylistic depiction of water in ukiyo-e prints, splashing waves break the frame and drip onto the ‘REAL’ bullet.

Gator Girl

Figure 8: Gator Girl. 60in x 84in (152cm x 213cm).

Gator Girl shares an aquatic link with Hippocampus as well as sharing the duality of two species within one, except Gator Girl is half alligator and half human. Knee-deep in a blood-red swamp and surrounded by an environment suggestive of another world, the Gator Girl from the exhibit stares intently off into the distance as if she is listening for incoming visitors, wanted or unwanted. Poised with strength and confidence, this Gator Girl is unlike some previous historical banners of gator girls, which depicted submissive women. Her skin is a blend of half alligator, half human. The actual medical condition for this skin disease is ichthyosis, a hereditary skin disease in which the epidermis continuously flakes off in large scales or plates.

Halfman halfwoman

Figure 9: ½ Man ½ Woman. 60in x 84in (152cm x 213cm).

From the combination of two different animal species into one, to a hybrid half-human half-reptile, we approach the inherent duality regarding gender and/or orientation of the ½ Man ½ Woman. ‘Historically, displays involving elements of sex, horror, and strangeness consistently opened the public’s purses’ (Stencell, 2002, p. 4).

The ½ Man ½ Woman banner, often featured in the traditional sideshow, depicts the external manipulation of one side of the human body through clothing, make-up, etc., to portray the opposite gender and an inherent duality of possessing both genders simultaneously.

Whether it is gender and/or orientation, it is now possible to externally transform one’s exterior to reflect the true inner self. Male or female, both sides are presented as attractive in the version of this banner in the exhibit. In specific cases, such as when one is transgendered, it is ultimately the choice of that individual to determine their true gender identity.

The need to classify and categorize gender, human or animal, alive or real, is connected to and challenged by the freak show at the same time.

By highlighting ostensible human anomaly of every sort and combination, P. T. Barnum’s exhibits challenged audiences not only to classify and explain what they saw, but to relate the performance to themselves, to American individual and collective identity. With bearded ladies for example, Barnum and his followers demanded that American audiences resolve this affront to the rigid categories of male and female that their culture imposed. With Eng and Chang, the famous “Siamese” twins, the freak show challenged the boundaries of the individual, asking whether this entity was one person or two (Thomson 2002, p. 58-59).

Bearded Lady

Figure 10: Bearded Lady. 60in x 84in (152cm x 213cm).

The ‘Bearded Lady’ was another common attraction of the traditional sideshow. The Bearded Lady banner represents the duality of male and female features within one person that challenged definitions of sexuality and identity. Such a sexual quandary drew dual emotions of enticement and repulsion towards bearded ladies and their display (Burrows, 2009, p. 4). Medically, the condition is hirsutism or hypertichosis, resulting in what most consider excessive hair. The exhibition banner playfully resembles Little Red Riding Hood or a religious icon such as the Madonna through the pose of the figure, clasped hands in a prayer-like gesture and cloaked head with robes. The Madonna resemblance is further emphasized by the rays of light that burst behind and around the figure, similar to the rays of light seen on saint candles or Byzantine paintings.

In contrast to monotheistic religions, which featured mostly human figures, polytheistic religions with primitive influences celebrated and worshipped animals, such as serpents or cobras, as gods.


Figure 11: Serpentino. 60in x 84in (152cm x 213cm).

The traditional ‘Serpentin-A’, in a gender reversal on the banner in this exhibit, becomesSerpentin-O. In this case, Serpentino stands, crouched yet calm, ready to control and react at a moment’s notice while intently staring into the eyes of a cobra. The jeweled bracelet, jewel-lined hem of the fabric and violet colored fabric all allude to the power of Serpentino. Distant figures bow deeply to Serpentino’s presence.

Pseudo-sexual, banners featuring exotic women posed with giant snakes were often named ‘Serpentina’ or ‘Snake Woman’. Despite the inherent danger alluded to in this banner, the giant python is calm, tranquil and completely under Serpentino’s mesmerizing control.

Siamese Twins Chang and Eng

Figure 12: Cheng & Eng. 60in x 84in (152cm x 213cm).

Fathering twenty-two children, Cheng & Eng, the most famous Siamese twins in the world, were married to two sisters. The Cheng & Eng banner in this exhibit is a tribute to these historically famous performers of the sideshow. Widely successful for over twenty years during the Victorian era, photos of Cheng & Eng show them in the proper attire of the period. Impropriety was not publically tolerated by Victorian society. This Cheng & Eng is bare-footed and wearing flip-flops. The feet break the frame and the footwear, or lack thereof, whimsically revolt against the fashion decorum of the era.

Tom Thumb

Figure 13: Tom Thumb. 60in x 84in (152cm x 213cm).

The Victorian era also featured a variety of other well-known human oddities. Touted as the ‘world’s smallest man,’ Tom Thumb, sometimes referred to as General Tom Thumb, was another historically famous performer. His short stature is further exaggerated in the exhibit banner as he stands upon a spool of thread with a needle as a baton. From the eye of the needle, a thread leads up to a button, which separates the curtains and simultaneously limits movement. Tom Thumb’s clothing alludes to an inaccurate historical military uniform, an amalgamation of a variety of characters played throughout Thumb’s career, while the threaded needle represents control from a higher authority or limited options.

Whether it is curiosity, desire, repulsion or self-affirmation, the presentation of the ‘other’ by the sideshow incites an undeniable appetite in the viewer. This hunger not only manifests itself as a literal craving, as in for food, the possession of specific objects, or an obsession with a particular type of denial or desire; it also represents a metaphorical craving as in a desire for the beautiful versus the grotesque which simultaneously attracts and repulses. This can all be summed up in a quote from Freaks, Geeks & Strange Girls: Sideshow Banners of the Great American Midway, by Lisa Stone and Randy Johnson, the grandson of the famous sideshow banner painter Fred Johnson,

The sideshow is everywhere–in the supermarket, at home, in our bodies and our minds. Witness sensationalized reenactments of incest, rape, whatever, on television shows that offer selections from our pantheon of distorted social constructs, complemented by the corporate freak show of contemporary advertising (Johnson, 1997, p. 13).

This bizarre menagerie presented to us in our daily lives is a force-fed stream. As technology progresses producing new media platforms, this stream will become ever more persistent and pronounced. If we choose to recognize and reflect upon these dualities and similarities instead of mindlessly accepting or ignoring them, we will be able to reverse our own perceptions and free ourselves from playing the role of the rube.


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