Dime Museums & Sideshows - A Brief History

For as long as humanity has existed, there has been the desire to collect,
especially to collect the strange, the unusual, the bizarre and the exotic.
This drive led to the Cabinets of Wonder--collections of exotic objects gathered
by wealthy and often eccentric Europeans prior to the 19th Century. These personal collections
were the spiritual ancestors of the ultimate collections: the dime museums.

Though simply called museums in their early form, the idea of a collection of objects
which the public would pay to see spread quickly in early 19th Century America.
And by the mid-1800s, the idea had become so popular with the American public that
entrepreneurial geniuses like P. T. Barnum became millionaires through the exhibition
of vast collections of man-made and natural curiosities. Eventually, capitalizing on the public's need
for entertainment of all types, museums came to house not only unique collections of objects;
they also housed the first family-oriented performance spaces, menageries, and, in fact,
nearly every type of entertainment available in 19th Century America. And all for only one dime.

Throughout the last days of the 19th Century and bulk of the 20th, carnivals roamed the American
countryside as the circuses - the competition to the carnivals - had roamed the land since the late 1700s.
In the days up to World War II, the carnivals were mostly shows - called the back end as that was
the location of the shows on the typical carnival lot - with a ride or two thrown in among
the concessions and games. The carnival shows grew from several traditions:

" The dime museums made famous by Barnum and the Peale family,
with their fame in exhibiting the "wonders of nature, the works of man"

" The traveling circuses, which showed that mobile entertainment could tap
the resources of the exploding of population of a growing America"

" The world's fairs, particularly the Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago,
where the grand Midway Plaisance and its multitude of amusements is credited
with demonstrating to showmen that a gathering of their kind could make big money"

Even after the Second World War, when the writing was on the wall for the decline of the shows,
there were still grand and glorious days for the back end, and there were still classic shows
on the road into the '60s and early '70s.

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