This week we will have a lecture on Tuesday, February 28, 2017. Our Thursday class on March 2, 2017 will be dedicated to discussing the recent films and books you have been reading over the last two weeks. For Thursday you should be prepared to discuss the following:

  • Matthew Algeo, Pedestrianism. (Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2014).
  • Joy S. Kasson, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West: Celebrity, Memory, and Popular History (New York:  Hill and Wang, 2000).
  • Either Invasion of the Body Snatchers or The Manchurian Candidate

If you enjoyed Invasion of the Body Snatchers or The Manchurian Candidate, you should consider going to see Jordan Peele’s new movie Get Out. Like any great horror or science fiction film, it is an interesting allegorical take on our current historical moment and uses many cultural touchstones we have discussed in this class ranging from sex slaves, slave auctions, interracial sexuality, depictions of mind control, and conceptions of physical and racial superiority in sports.

Pedestrianism History Gallery

Circus and Freak Show History Gallery 

Recommended Multimedia to Learn More about William F. Cody & Wild West Shows 

Above: Buffalo Bill Wild West Footage (Silent Film) 1908.

Above: Annie Oakley Original Silent Film; Documentary on Buffalo Bill Cody produced by The History Channel; Ghost Dance Silent Film

Recommended Multimedia to Learn More about Circus and Freak Show History 

Above: Historian Peter Onuf talks with historian Jenifer Barclay and actor Mat Fraser about one of the ways some people with disabilities made a living in 19th century America: exhibiting their bodies in sideshows—often known more crudely as “freak shows.”

Above: Historian Ed Ayers talks with historian Amy Louise Wood, whose research into lynching led her to a strange episode in 19th Century history, involving circus elephants, capital punishment, and a new kind of thrill for the masses.

Weekly Assignment 

  1. What are common themes you see in both Pedestrianism and Buffalo Bill’s Wild West: Celebrity, Memory, and Popular History? 
  2. Submit a question you would like to discuss Thursday in class about either book.
Rhae Lynn Barnes is an Assistant Professor of American Cultural History at Princeton University (2018-) and President of the Andrew W. Mellon Society of Fellows in Critical Bibliography. She is the co-founder and C.E.O. of U.S. History Scene and an Executive Advisor to the documentary series "Reconstruction: America After the Civil War" (now streaming PBS, 2019).

13 responses to “History 380: Week 8: Buffalo Bill, Circus, & Freak Shows

  1. A few themes I noticed repeated in both books:
    The success of Pedestrianism as well as the success of Buffalo Bill’s show were both fueled by general surplus of free time in the population. With industrialization in full effect, workers had much more free time to do as they pleased, but there was a huge lack of actual things to do. Both of the activities in the books were exciting, new, and intriguing and so very quickly were absorbed into the public as popular leisure activities.

    Another theme is that this time period was the beginning of individuals or groups starting to become national (or even international) celebrity icons. With so much of the population taking part in the consumption of these entertainment spectacles, the people who were performing quickly became well known. Pedestrianism had its sports stars; Weston, O’Leary, Rowell, and Buffalo Bill’s show had Annie Oakley and the man Cody himself.

    Both books had stories about these activities giving minorities and women more freedom and recognition. Pedestrianism had Dan O’Leary, the Irish immigrant who became one of the world’s most known pedestrians of the time. There was also Frank Hart, the African-American pedestrian who was O’Leary’s protege and who had huge success of his own. Buffalo Bill’s show gave many Indians a life much better than they would have received on their reservations.

    Both Pedestrianism and Buffalo Bill’s Wild West also had very prominent women. Anderson was a very famous pedestrian, as Annie Oakley was a very famous actor in the shows. They, along with the other women involved in the different scenes, smashed many preconceived notions about the abilities of women. These were women dressed in contemporarily scanty clothing, doing impressive feats of athleticism, shooting, etc.

    A last theme I see concurrently in both books is that it seems the popularity of a subject seems to explode right before it fades into obscurity. More specifically, pedestrianism seemed to take off right before the explosion of cars as the new popular mode of transportation. Buffalo Bill’s show also took off as it seemed the western frontier was almost fully conquered. My question is whether this explosion of popularity for a subject soon to be gone comes from nostalgia for the past or from some other source? Also, I would be interested in discussing whether this phenomena has been repeated with any other cultural subjects.

  2. 1. Both books explored the theme of what is to be American in a mixed racial, regional, religious, etc. country. Another theme illuminated in both novels, is the fine line between history and entertainment and how they effect the use of violence and conquest to form the US, what it means to be a hero, and the role of the individual in progressive society. Moving on from baseball, watching people walk was rebranded as America’s pastime because it was something anyone (independent of race, creed, or color) could do. Similarly, there were many times in the Wild West shows in which race, gender, and culture were all blended.

    2. Was the model of The Wild West applied to any other minority groups?

  3. I found the theme of technology very present in both books, taking many forms. Travel advancements lead to international shows, bigger audiences, and a wider following. It enabled the press to gain a large voice, whether through ads, books, or newspapers. The creation of large arenas and social spaces reflects building trends as well as another theme of leisure and family entertainment. Lastly, the theme of celebrity is what made shows so successful and enabled them to gain a devoted, invested following. From this, nationalism and “team” identity seemed to emerge.

    How is the concept of celebrity different or the same? Has there been a change in what people are famous for? Does it have the same function and interaction with media?

  4. The most striking similarity in both Pedestrianism and Buffalo Bill’s Wild West is the rising concept of celebrity. Both Kasson and Algeo outline the cultural significance of celebrity- and the cultural values that depend upon the legendary figures of pedestrianism or the “wild west.” Kasson uses Daniel Boorstein’s definition of celebrity to explain the relatively new concept at the turn of the century. Identified as a person who is “known for his well knowness,” Buffalo Bill- or William Cody- pushed the envelope for what it meant to be famous at the turn of the 19th century (Kasson 6). Cody was as known “for who he was as for any particular deeds” that he accomplished (123) as were many pedestrian athletes. Much like Cody’s narrative of being a “rag to riches hero” and his appeal to the common American identifiers of individualism and entrepreneurship, O’Leary too used relatable cultural narratives such as the tale of the successful immigrant and the American dream to market his own personal athletic identity (Kasson 123, Algeo 80, 97). Both O’Leary and Cody also took advantage of various forms of new media to capitalize on their narratives, and make personal narratives of public interest. From trading cards – a relatively new invention (Algeo 199)- to widespread newspaper publicity, O’Leary’s popularity was widely facilitated by the involvement of print media and new postal and rail transportation technologies that allowed for the spread of sports news (Algeo 77). Even more sensationalized, organizers and promoters of Buffalo Bill’s shows used print media technologies to plaster towns and tempt reporters with sensational images and stories of the show’s dynamicity (Kasson 269).

    Ultimately both Kasson and Algeo’s texts illustrate the powerful relationship between celebrity, popular culture, and national identity. For sportsmen like O’Leary, the walker became tied up in much larger cultural narratives from Irish immigrant’s second class citizenry and national relationships between Ireland and the U.S., and Ireland and Britain. For Buffalo Bill, his fame relied on much larger national nostalgia for chaos of a western wilderness that was rapidly disappearing and largely built in fantasy. While these narratives may have existed beyond and without figureheads, the role of celebrity in imaginative cultural investments is hugely significant.

    Question: Has the nature of celebrity changed since America’s earliest celebrities at the turn of the century? Why or why not?

  5. 1. Something that I thought was interesting and appeared in not only pedestrianism and buffalo bill, but also in some of our other discussions this semester as well, was the notable appearance of Mark Twain. In Pedestrianism Mark Twain spoke out against Anderson and female pedestrians in general for being distasteful and unladylike and in Buffalo Bill Mark Twain is cited as being particularly fond of Buffalo Bill’s shows. I know that this concept isn’t exactly as striking as others could be, but noticing the citations of his opinions in both alluded to me how important the opinions of authors and other respected cultural icons probably was. This led me to believe that Mark Twain and others like him may have had more of an influence on the population and entertainment in general than I would have guessed (Obviously he is a major author and influenced people’s thoughts through his novels, but rather than keeping his influence in that sphere, it seems to have crept into other arenas).

    I also noticed the similarities between the two books and our discussion of circuses/freak shows in class in regards to the rising sensationalism of entertainment, with celebrities and performers expected to compete and continuously outdo both themselves and each other. And in both, the media and those seeking to profit from the competitions/shows/exhibitions played a major role in advertising/promoting the events. A final theme I paid attention to was how travelling to Europe added legitimacy to the performers at home and internationally. In Pedestrianism, when Weston was originally defeated by O’Leary, his first move was to England where he played up the fact that performing in Europe somehow made him more legitimate than competing in America. Subsequently, when O’Leary found immense success as the Astley belt winner, he became a national hero. In Buffalo Bill, when Cody went to England and was recognized by the Queen (and subsequently enjoyed a successful tour abroad) he, too, was identified as a national hero.

    2. While we remember Buffalo Bill, we don’t remember pedestrianism at all. I know in the 1920s we began to see short-term, bizarre competitions like goldfish swallowing and flagpole sitting, but many people also have not heard of these fads. Why have we forgotten these fads, and what other sports/competitions/exhibitions have we forgotten?

  6. 1. Both Pedestrianism and Buffalo Bill’s Wild West both comment on the emerging concept of a separation of those who were “famous” and those who were ordinary and average. This is also connected to P. T. Barnum’s concepts of what it means to be a “celebrity.” Pedestrianism gave way to the first famous athletes, and Buffalo Bill’s Wild West nodded towards the more traditional sense of what a celebrity is–someone who everyone knew and was in advertisements. Also being famous for a certain skill you had that the average person didn’t have was the basis for fame, whereas today people can be famous for arguably anything.

    2. Have modern tabloids stemmed from these original press releases on celebrities? Have news on celebrities always been sort of crude?

  7. 1. One of the common themes found in Pedestrianism and Buffalo Bill’s Wild West: Celebrity, Memory, and Popular History is the emergence of different forms of entertainment after the civil war. In both books we see how society kept itself entertained by the theatrical Wild West shows and the new sport of walking. Another common theme found is the diversity within these new forms of entertainment. The Wild West shows featured different roles for men, women, and other races such as Native Americans. In the sport of walking not just men were the star athletes but women as well like Ada Anderson. Both of these forms of entertainment became international successes here in the United States and over seas due to their leading stars Buffalo Bill and O’Leary who attracted large audiences.

    2. Question: In today’s society it is common for people to become a ‘celebrities’ or internet famous through memes even if they do not have a special talent or skill like the stars from our reading, how has social media played a role in our perception of modern celebrities?

  8. Pedestrianism and Buffalo Bill Cody both caught the attention of the nation by putting on performances that in many ways were extrapolations from the experiences of everyday Americans. Walking, handling animals, even encounters with Native Americans were all everyday aspects of life for many Americans at the time. Yet both types of entertainment pushed these “normal” activities outside of the “normal range” and also put the themes into an artificial setting. Americans weren’t obsessed with watching their neighbors walk to work; they were obsessed with watching athletes walk around a track inside an arena, competing for esteem and prizes. Similarly, Buffalo Bill’s shows were a far cry from everyday farm work, or even the work of real-life “cowboys.”

    How were the experiences of African-American minstrel performers and Native American “wild west” performers similar or different?

  9. 1. A common theme in both Pedestrianism and Buffalo Bills Wild West is the integration of races in action-related entertainment. It shows how women and Native Americans were portrayed as having main roles. Prior to this, men were the only people presented as important in things such as this. Also in walking, white men were not the only ones participating but other races and women as well. Another theme in these books is the emergence of celebrities. Those who were performing the best in walking and the shows became well known to the public and were seen as celebrity figures.

    2. How much did pedestrianism affect the following of baseball during this time?

  10. 1. I am really curious to see the role of women in each of three pieces this week. In Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Becky was present for most of the film, although her character played to the class role of a woman as being 1) physically weak, and 2) the destruction of the man. Going back to the 19th century, women were of course still a subsidiary to the man’s world. On the one hand, much of the presentation of women during the Wild West shows was from their role as spectator. In addition, pedestrianism was seen as extremely controversial for women, some comparing it to “watching the public torture of women.” However, women were still able to play a vibrant part in both pedestrianism and in Buffalo Bill’s shows. In Pedestrianism, there were still rising stars that were women in the sport. Also, Buffalo Bill would utilize women in his shows instead of having men play all the roles. In some ways, it is freeing for the women to be able to make use of her body in a public way, such as being on stage or performing.

    2. How has international celebrity developed since the 19th Century? Is it easier or harder to become known across the world?

  11. 1. An intriguing element of both Pedestrianism and Buffalo Bill’s Wild West was how the “entertainers” (both athletes and celebrity figures) boosted their careers in England. Although perhaps not surprising, it was interesting to read about how both the United States and Europe succumbed to the allure of the concept of a “celebrity.” When Cody brought his show to England to tour and perform for the Queen, his level of fame flourished and he became more revered than ever before. This kind of additional celebrity appeal can also be seen in Pedestrianism, when Weston attempted to revive his career by competing against England’s prominent pedestrian, William Perkins. Similarly, Weston and O’Leary’s famous “rematch” took place in England, despite the fact that they were both recognized as American athletes. Reading about both of these examples led me to think more about the prominence of American athletes in Europe. From my understanding, it seems that our athletes and celebrities tend to stay in the U.S. rather than taking their talents and performances across the pond. The exception to this may be how famous singers and bands have “world tours,” where they often perform in cities across the globe.

    2. Howcome the existence of pedestrianism is not widely known and/or discussed in modern day? People seem to be engaged in the history of baseball, bicycling, and more, but pedestrianism is rarely mentioned. Why is this the case?

  12. 1) The two books are similar in that they both introduce the concept of the “celebrity athlete” long before the sports we watch today were even invented. Today, not many people would come out in droves to watch pedestrianism (except the Olympics) and Buffalo Bill’s Wild West would probably be a lesser draw than it was in the 19th century. I believe part of the reason for the rapid growth of these events was due to the brutality of the Civil War, and public entertainment and sporting events were one of the best ways to forget about those experiences. Furthermore, both pedestrianism and Buffalo Bill’s Wild West shows provided opportunities for colored people that they had never received before. While past forms of entertainment featuring people of color may have set them up as a more humiliating experience, these two events provided a stage on which people of color could actively participate as a respected member of the performance, and in terms of pedestrianism, they were able to even compete with and defeat their white counterparts.

    2) Though baseball wasn’t nearly as popular in the 1870s and 1880s as it would become in the 20th century, I still find it hard to believe that pedestrianism was the main spectator sport of the time. What was the appeal of sports like pedestrianism as opposed to those that are generally thought of as more entertaining, such as boxing or horse racing?

  13. Both texts illustrate how print media served as a driving force to popular pastime. Journalists articulated, sensationalized, and spread pedestrianism and Buffalo Bill’s shows to the masses. Many similar tactics can be seen in modern day mass communications. As technology advances, information can be spread faster. Today’s mode of communication is social media, but back in the late 1800’s, newspapers were the main way to spread information to the public. Both cultural sensations needed the papers to spread, advertise and promote their messages.

    Question: With the popularity of Frank Hart in pedestrianism, was he one of the first well-received athletes of color? Jackie Robinson is often given credit as responsible for breaking color barriers for athletes but I’m curious as to what other athletes of color were gaining popularity, if any at all.

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