Human Curiosities: Circassian Beauties by Mathew Brady Studio From the 19th Century

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The Frederick Hill Meserve Collection comprises more than five thousand Civil War-era portrait negatives from the Mathew Brady photography studio in New York City. The collection, which the National Portrait Gallery acquired in 1981, includes portraits of generals, politicians, diplomats, painters, and performers. It also contains depictions of “Human Curiosities” at P. T. Barnum’s American Museum in New York City, that, although highly exploitative, help to document the historical representations of disability in the United States.

Among the “Human Curiosities” in P. T. Barnum’s American Museum was a supposed escapee from an Ottoman harem, a figure marketed as both the pinnacle of white beauty and an exoticised other. Betsy Golden Kellem investigates the complex of racial and cultural stereotypes that made the Circassian beauty such a sideshow spectacle.
Circassian beauties is a phrase used to refer to an idealized image of the women of the Circassian people of the Northern Caucasus. A fairly extensive literary history suggests that Circassian women were thought to be unusually beautiful, spirited, and elegant, and as such were desirable as concubines. This reputation dates back to the later Middle Ages, when the Circassian coast was frequented by Italian traders from Genoa, and the founder of the Medici dynasty, Cosimo I de Medici, had a well-known affair with a Circassian slave girl. During the Ottoman Empire. Circassian women living as slaves in the Sultan’s Imperial Harem started to build their reputation as extremely beautiful and genteel, which then became a common trope in Western Orientalism.
As a result of this reputation, in Europe and America Circassians were regularly characterised as the ideal of feminine beauty in poetry, novels, and art. Cosmetic products were advertised, from the 18th century on, using the word “Circassian” in the title, or claiming that the product was based on substances used by the women of Circassia.
In the 1860s the showman P. T. Barnum exhibited women whom he claimed were Circassian beauties. They wore a distinctive Afro-like hair style, which had no precedent in earlier portrayals of Circassians, but which was soon copied by other female performers, who became known as “moss haired girls”. These were typically presented as victims of sexual enslavement among the Turks, who had escaped from the harem to achieve freedom in America.
The combination of the popular issues of slavery, the Orient, racial ideology, and sexual titillation gave the reports of Circassian women sufficient notoriety at the time that the circus leader P. T. Barnum decided to capitalize on this interest. He displayed a “Circassian Beauty” at his American Museum in 1865. Barnum’s Circassian beauties were young women with tall, teased hairstyles, rather like the Afro style of the 1970s. Actual Circassian hairstyles bore no resemblance to Barnum’s fantasy. Barnum’s first “Circassian” was marketed under the name “Zalumma Agra” and was exhibited at his American Museum in New York from 1864. Barnum had written to John Greenwood, his agent in Europe, asking him to purchase a beautiful Circassian girl to exhibit, or at least to hire a girl who could “pass for” one. However, it seems that “Zalumma Agra” was probably a local girl hired by the show, as were later “Circassians”.Barnum also produced a booklet about another of his Circassians, Zoe Meleke, who was portrayed as an ideally beautiful and refined woman who had escaped a life of sexual slavery.
The portrayal of a white woman as a rescued slave at the time of the American Civil War played on the racial connotations of slavery at the time. It has been argued that the distinctive hairstyle affiliates the side-show Circassian with African identity, and thus, resonates oddly yet resoundingly with the rest of her identifying significations: her racial purity, her sexual enslavement, her position as colonial subject; her beauty. The Circassian blended elements of white Victorian True Womanhood with traits of the enslaved African American woman in one curiosity.
The trend spread, with supposedly Circassian women featured in dime museums and travelling medicine shows, sometimes known as “Moss-haired girls”. They were typically identified by the distinctive hairstyle, which was held in place by the use of beer. They also often performed in pseudo-oriental costume. Many postcards of Circassians also circulated. Though Barnum’s original women were portrayed as proud and genteel, later images of Circassians often emphasised erotic poses and revealing costumes. As the original fad faded, the “Circassians” started to add to their appeal by performing traditional circus tricks such as sword swallowing.
Today, the question of race as performance has further crossed the permeable barrier between the stage and the outside world — the Circassian woman, after all, relied not only on prevalent bias but on the suspension of disbelief that was P. T. Barnum’s stock-in-trade. More recent controversies over assumed racial identity, from Rachel Dolezal to Jessica Krug, Hache Carrillo, and Andrea Smith, have been carried out in the public sphere, where there is no ticket booth or stage curtain to signal a space of malleable truth, and where repercussions touch more than an audience or performer. Circassian beauties may seem like a distant relic of the Barnum era, their popularity only hinted at from the quiet of a cabinet card or carte-de-visite photograph today, but, in demonstrating the pitfalls of reducing any experience to a performed stereotype, they still contribute to our ongoing dialogue around race, community, and identity.

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