Illustration of a fairground Freak Show
Museum no. S.1-2009
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London
This 19th century engraving features a fairground showman enticing an audience to a freak show, pointing at one of the painted canvas advertisements. Before the technology for printing large coloured posters was developed, images painted on cloth or wood panels were great publicity, but couldn’t be mass-produced. They may also have been used to advertise attractions or performances before printing was invented. Freak shows were a popular feature of fairgrounds and circuses in the 19th century. 'Exhibits' would include people who could perform unusual physical feats, such as contortionists, or people with unusual physical appearance such as conjoined twins, dwarves, or unusually hairy people. Even people from other continents were exhibited, and fascinated those who didn't travel abroad, and didn't know what other races looked like. Exotic or unusual animals were popular exhibits too, such as a horse who could apparently count, or 'Learned Pigs' who were said to be able to read and write.