Freak Shows in the United States (1840-1940)

The Carte de Visite

"Freaks" are public images manufactured by the disabled people themselves and/or their promoters for the purpose of fame and fortune. As Robert Bogdan notes in his book Freak Show, "How we view people who are different has less to do with what they are physiologically than with who we are culturally. 'Freak' is a way of thinking, of presenting, a set of practices, an institution - not a characteristic of an individual." For example, the dwarf in the photo on this "carte de visite" bills himself as the "only Chinese dwarf."

In 1851 the development of the "set-plate" technique enabled photographers to make many prints from one exposure. Human oddities would have carefully posed photos taken and often order thousands of reproductions. They would sometimes write about themselves on the back of the card bragging about their physical attributes or talents. These "carte de visites" were widely collected by Americans and made quite a bit of money for the "freaks" and the owners of freak shows.

Carte de visite - photo of a dwarf
Carte de visite - reverse side