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Victorian Popular Culture

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"This is a wonderful resource that provides a wealth of material dealing with past popular media experiences, and is valuable for research and teaching purposes. During a time when the inter- and transdisciplinary are important tools of analysis, the Victorian Popular Culture Portal offers an assorted tapestry of examples that encourage the discovery and examination of the rich connections that exist between past and present forms of popular media".

Professor Angela Ndalianis

Head of Screen Studies, University of Melbourne

The Victorian Popular Culture Portal is comprised of four separate sections that can be purchased individually:

  • Spiritualism, Sensation and Magic
  • Circuses, Sideshows and Freaks
  • Music Hall, Theatre and Popular Entertainment
  • Moving Pictures, Optical Entertainments and the Advent of Cinema

This is a resource that both students and researchers will love. Taking its cue from the source material, Victorian Popular Culture welcome readers into the darkened halls, small backrooms and travelling venues that hosted everything from spectacular shows and bawdy burlesque, to magic and spiritualist séances.

Victorian Popular Culture contains a wide range of source material relating to popular entertainment in America, Britain and Europe in the period from 1779 to 1930, and shows how interconnected these worlds were.

Material in the portal is selected from a variety of world-renowned archives and libraries, including:

  • The marvellous holdings of the National Fairground Archive, University of Sheffield
  • Various collections from the Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas, including the W.H Crain Barnum & Bailey Circus Collection and Joe E Ward Circus Collection; the Harry Houdini Scrapbooks; the Pantomime Collection and selections from their Prints Collection
  • Two remarkable Special Collections from Senate House Library, University of London: the Harry Price Library of Magical Literature and the Malcolm Morley Theatre Library
  • The Vauxhall Gardens Collection from Lambeth Archives
  • Playbill collections from Chetham’s Library, Manchester – the oldest public library in the English-speaking world
  • The May Moore Duprez Archive
  • The National Archives (UK)
  • The Bill Douglas Cinema Museum, University of Exeter

Spiritualism, Sensation and Magic

This section explores the relationship between the popularity of Victorian magic shows and conjuring tricks and the emergence of séances and psychic phenomena in Britain and America.

The Harry Price Library of Magical Literature at Senate House, University of London, is one of the world’s great collections on magic. This unique library contains the works of the foremost magicians, mediums and psychical researchers, as well as biographies, reports, pamphlets and rare journals such as The Sphinx, Light, Borderland and The Zoist.

Harry Houdini also spent much of his life exploring spiritual phenomena and exposing fraudsters. From his archive at the Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas, we include a number of his fascinating scrapbooks, packed with details concerning the stagecraft of performers such as Houdin, Maskelyne and Dr Merlin, as well as providing insights into his disputes with Arthur Conan Doyle and leading spiritualists. There are also numerous photographs and over 100 magnificent posters.

Circuses, Sideshows and Freaks

This section focuses on the world of travelling entertainment, which brought spectacle to vast audiences across Britain, American and Europe in the 19th and early 20th century. From big tops to carnivals, fairgrounds and dime museums, it covers the history of popular shows and exhibitions from both audience and professional perspectives.

The material is strongly visual in focus, featuring hundreds of posters, postcards, photographs, cabinet cards and illustrations. There are also handbills, pamphlets, manuscripts, printed ephemera and memorabilia. Rare books, children’s literature and memoirs of celebrity showpeople complete the wide-ranging selection. The entire section has been captured in glorious colour, allowing users to appreciate the full impact of Victorian advertising design and poster art.

Music Hall, Theatre and Popular Entertainment

The Victorian and Edwardian periods were a golden era for variety, vaudeville and theatre. The era also played host to a vast range of other public entertainments and spectacles, from the educational to the decidedly decadent.

This third section of Victorian Popular Culture features material on music halls; theatre (legitimate and illegitimate); pantomime; pleasure gardens; exhibitions; scientific institutions, and visual delights such as magic lanterns shows and dioramas.

Material has been selected for its rarity and unavailability elsewhere, and covers Britain and America. British material emphasises venues outside London such as Bristol, Birkenhead, Manchester and Glasgow.

We include rare books; periodicals aimed at industry and fans; hundreds of titles from the scarce popular series ‘Dicks’ Standard Plays’; posters and playbills; visual ephemera; and the marvellous archives of May Moore Duprez, the American music hall star who topped international bills with her ‘Jolly Little Dutch Girl’ act.

Moving Pictures, Optical Entertainments and the Advent of Cinema

Moving Pictures, Optical Entertainments and the Advent of Cinema provides thorough coverage of Victorian and Edwardian visual entertainments, early optics, magic lantern shows, panoramas, dioramas, early photography, and early motion pictures. Objects, ephemera, books and journals allow a broad range of approaches to teaching and research.

The source material is drawn from the outstanding collections of the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum. Based at the University of Exeter, the Museum is recognised as a world-class archival collection, and the UK’s largest research centre for the history of international cinema and pre-cinema.