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Weird and Wonderful

The Dime Museum in America

Andrea Dennett

Publication Year: 1997

Dioramas and panoramas, freaks and magicians, waxworks and menageries, obscure relics and stuffed animals--a dazzling assortment of curiosities attracted the gaze of the nineteenth-century spectator at the dime museum. This distinctly American phenomenon was unprecedented in both the diversity of its amusements and in its democratic appeal, with audiences traversing the boundaries of ethnicity, gender, and class. Andrea Stulman Dennett's Weird and Wonderful: The Dime Museum in America recaptures this ephemeral and scarcely documented institution of American culture from the margins of history.

Weird and Wonderful chronicles the evolution of the dime museum from its eighteenth-century inception as a "cabinet of curiosities" to its death at the hands of new amusement technologies in the early twentieth century. From big theaters which accommodated audiences of three thousand to meager converted storefronts exhibiting petrified wood and living anomalies, this study vividly reanimates the array of museums, exhibits, and performances that make up this entertainment institution. Tracing the scattered legacy of the dime museum from vaudeville theater to Ripley's museum to the talk show spectacles of today, Dennett makes a significant contribution to the history of American popular entertainment.

Published by: NYU Press


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Title Page

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Copyright Page

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pp. vii-viii


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pp. ix-x

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Preface and Acknowledgments

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pp. xi-xiv

The dime museum has been nearly forgotten, but during its heyday in the latter half of the nineteenth century, it was as popular an institution in the United States as the movies are today. Phineas Taylor Barnum made the dime museum a fixture of the American cultural landscape. Although he is...

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1. The Origins of the Dime Museum, 1782-1840

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pp. 1-22

The earliest museums in this country, unlike dime museums, were created in the spirit of the Enlightenment and were meant to be centers of scientific study.1 Private collections—often called "cabinets of wonders and curiosities"— were generally owned by wealthy citizens or by organizations such...

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2. Barnum and the Museum Revolution, 1841-1870

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pp. 23-40

Phineas Taylor Barnum was the quintessential showman; by organizing individual amusements and placing them within the confines of a single environment, he afforded hours of pleasure to those with little in their pocketbooks. Barnum adopted the early nineteenth-century concept of the...

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3. The Peak Years: From the Civil War to 1900

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pp. 41-65

To lure patrons who otherwise would not partake in such "popular" amusements, managers promoted the educational value of their dime museums. For those citizens who yearned for middle-class status, rational amusements were a symbol of respectability. There is no doubt that while...

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4. Freaks and Platform Performers

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pp. 66-85

One feature that distinguished most dime museums from genuine historical or art museums was live performance. In addition to providing melodramas, strolling musicians, and lecturers, most museums exhibited an array of freaks, who were displayed on platforms, either together or throughout the...

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5. Lecture Room Entertainments

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pp. 86-105

The lecture rooms in dime museums varied not only in size but also in quality and in the nature of the theatrical experiences they offered. Some rooms seated a thousand, were lavishly decorated, and mounted full-scale dramatic productions; others consisted of a small platform and perhaps a...

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6. Waxworks and Film

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pp. 106-123

Between 1840 and 1900 a mass market in imagery developed in the United States. Owning paintings and etchings during the eighteenth century had been a sign of status and affluence. By the mid-nineteenth century, however, because of advances in printing techniques, color lithographs...

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7. The Dime Museum Reconfigured for a New Century

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pp. 124-143

In the middle of the nineteenth century, entertainment promoters in several American cities had organized permanent displays of paintings, artifacts, waxworks, freak shows, and variety artists, thereby creating a new form of amusement center—the dime museum. With their combination of...

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pp. 144-148

Although it might be easier to remember Phineas Taylor Barnum as a circus man, we should not neglect the tremendous contribution he made to the entertainment industry with his dime museum concept. In a city where there was no zoo or aquarium or even a museum of natural history...

Appendix A. Chronology

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pp. 149-150

Appendix B. Dime Museums

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pp. 151-154


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pp. 155-178

Selected Bibliography

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pp. 179-192


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pp. 193-199

About the Author

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pp. 200-201

E-ISBN-13: 9780814744215
E-ISBN-10: 0814744214
Print-ISBN-13: 9780814718865
Print-ISBN-10: 0814718868

Page Count: 456
Publication Year: 1997

OCLC Number: 859686171
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Weird and Wonderful

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Subject Headings

  • Museums -- United States -- History.
  • Dime museums -- United States -- History.
  • Curiosities and wonders -- Museums -- United States -- History.
  • Eccentrics and eccentricities -- Museums -- United States -- History.
  • Popular culture -- United States -- History.
  • Barnum, P. T. -- (Phineas Taylor), -- 1810-1891.
  • Barnum's American Museum.
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