Circassian beauties, or “Moss-haired girls” as they were sometimes known, reflect a curious legacy of racial stereotyping and sexual titillation. Racial theories of the mid 19th century held that the people living in the Circassian mountains near the Black Sea were examples of the “purest stock” of the Caucasian race. Legend had it that the Circassians produced the world’s most beautiful white women, who were consequently in great demand for the harems of Turkish sultans.
The long shadow of slavery can also be discerned in this hybrid depiction. American audiences were both intrigued and horrified, given their false association of slavery with Africans, by the fact that Circassian women were among the most sought-after concubines in the Sultan’s harem – hence the need to make them appear somewhat African. “Both African slaves and Circassian slaves were subject to sexual exploitation … and this is the point of contact that played so powerfully on white Americans’ imagination,” wrote philosophy professor Gregory Fried.
Acting on this myth in 1864, P.T. Barnum sent one of his agents to Constantinople to purchase one of these beautiful ladies in the slave market. Though Barnum claimed his agent, dressed in full Turkish costume, had there seen a large number of beautiful Circassian girls and women, for one reason or another he failed to return with one. Not to be denied his harem slave, Barnum hired a frizzy-haired local woman, put her in a Turkish costume and dubbed her Zalumma Agra, Star of the East. Zalumma’s story was a mixture of pseudo-science, folklore, and erotic suggestion about harem life.
The Circassian beauty was an instant success, soon to be followed by a succession of ‘imported’ beauties with an enigmatic letter Z figuring prominently in all their names. All of these women were local girls, most of whom were encouraged to wash their hair in beer and then tease it out for that exotic Circassian ‘do.
When the public began to lose interest in this tale, Circassian beauties were frequently cast in the role of snake charmers in order to try and milk a bit more erotic appeal out of the act.