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Victorian Popular Culture

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Consultant Editors:

  • Peter Otto, University of Melbourne
  • Vanessa Toulmin, University of Sheffield
  • Ann Featherstone, University of Manchester
  • John Plunkett, University of Exeter
  • Phil Wickham, Bill Douglas Cinema Museum

Source Libraries:

  • The Harry Price Library of Magical Literature
  • The Malcolm Morley Theatre Library at Senate House, University of London
  • The Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, Austin, Texas
  • The National Fairground Archive, University of Sheffield
  • Chetham’s Library, Manchester
  • The Vauxhall Gardens Collection, Lambeth Archives
  • The May Moore Duprez Archive
  • The National Archives (UK)
  • The Bill Douglas Cinema Museum, University of Exeter
  • The British Film Institute

Nature of the Material:

The project consists of a wide range of primary source material, mostly digitised in colour, dating from the 18th century to the 1930s. There is an emphasis on visual sources and rare printed material. All printed material is full-text searchable, and visual or manuscript material has been keyword indexed.

Document types include:

  • Rare books
  • Moving images
  • Periodicals
  • Playbills and handbills
  • Posters
  • Prints
  • Scrapbooks
  • Photographs
  • Programmes
  • Pamphlets
  • Ephemera such as ticket stubs, postcards, newspaper cuttings
  • Songbooks

Scope of the Collection:

The Victorian Popular Culture portal is an essential resource for the study of popular entertainment in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This innovative portal is comprised of four separate sections, available to purchase individually and fully cross-searchable:

  • 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.

The resource includes a number of useful secondary sources to support teaching and research, including:

  • Interactive chronology
  • Biographies of key artists and notable figures
  • Glossary
  • Visual gallery for teaching and presentations
  • Contextual essays by our Consultant Editors
  • Links to external web sources to promote further research

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.

Material is drawn from two sources:

Rare printed sources from the Harry Price Library of Magical Literature at Senate House, University of London

Harry Price (1888-1948) devoted much of his life to exploring (and often debunking) ‘supernatural’ phenomena and his unique library covers areas such as:

  • Stage magic and conjuring
  • Levitation, escapology and illusion
  • Card tricks and parlour magic
  • Animal magnetism, mesmerism and hypnosis
  • Psychic phenomena and parapsychology
  • Séances, spirit writing and ghost hunting

The works of the foremost magicians, mediums, and psychical researchers are represented, as well as biographies, reports, pamphlets and rare journals such as The Sphinx, Light, Borderland and The Zoist.

The History of Magic Scrapbooks from the Houdini Collection with related material from the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center

Harry Houdini (1874-1926) became a legend in his own lifetime, rising from vaudeville to world acclaim. In addition to his skills as a magician and an escapologist, he also spent much of his life exploring spiritual phenomena and exposing fraudsters. His archive contains a number of beautiful and fascinating scrapbooks, packed with details concerning the stagecraft of performers such as Houdini, 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 original colour posters advertising a variety of acts.

Some of the key figures covered by Spiritualism, Sensation and Magic are:

  • John Henry Anderson
  • The Davenport Brothers
  • Andrew Jackson Davis
  • David Devant
  • Will Goldston
  • Alexander Herrmann
  • Professor Hoffmann
  • Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin
  • Harry Houdini
  • John Neville Maskelyne
  • Franz Anton Mesmer
  • William Stainton Moses
  • Harry Price
  • Chung Ling Soo (William Ellsworth Robinson)
  • Rudi Schneider


This section focuses on the world of travelling entertainment, which brought spectacle to vast audiences across Britain, America 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.

Sources are drawn from the following collections:

The National Fairground Archive, University of Sheffield

The National Fairground Archive (NFA) is a unique collection of photographic, printed and manuscript material covering all aspects of the culture of travelling showpeople, their organisation as a community, their social history and everyday life; and the artefacts and machinery of fairgrounds. Material covers the history of both UK and US fairgrounds, circuses and travelling entertainments.

Subjects covered include:

  • Circuses, clowns and animals
  • World’s Fairs
  • Barnum and Bailey
  • Freaks and oddities
  • Fairs, including Nottingham Goose Fair and Bartholomew Fair
  • Fairground rides, including the extremely rare collections of fairground manufacturers Orton and Spooner

W.H Crain Barnum & Bailey Circus Collection and Joe E Ward Circus Collection from the Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas

This material is drawn from the great performing arts collections at the HRC. The Joe E. Ward Circus Collection was assembled by Joe Ward, long time clown with the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey circuses. It contains nineteenth- and twentieth-century circus memorabilia, including rare books, photographs, letters, programs, route books, costumes, and props from his career. Additional sixteenth- through nineteenth-century materials provide a substantial history of the circus.

The W. H. Crain Barnum & Bailey Circus Collection spans the years 1805 to 1902 and consists of correspondence and legal documents concerning P. T. Barnum, James A. Bailey, and Joseph T. McCaddon and their business dealings. Notably present are business letters from Barnum, legal documents, manuscript calculations, and endorsed bank checks written during Barnum and Bailey's partnership agreement. Much of the information in this collection relates to Bailey and includes biographical notes and clippings, correspondence, various legal and financial documents concerning his property and estate, and other ventures, such as his purchase of Cooper's share of Forepaugh's Show, 1890-1892.

Highlights include:

  • Dime Museum cabinet cards, depicting circus and carnival sideshow performers
  • ‘Freaks’ including Tom Thumb and Chang and Eng
  • Wild West productions including Buffalo Bill’s show
  • Posters for PT Barnum, Buffalo Bill, Adam Forepaugh, Ringling Brothers and many others
  • Photographs and ephemera about aerialists, animal acts, contortionists, clowns, tightrope walkers and many others

The National Archives (UK)

From TNA we include a fantastic selection of unique photographs relating to the Victorian circus and freakshow, providing a visual record of aerial artistes, strong men, freaks and oddities, as well as many other performing curiosities.


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 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.

Material is drawn from the following sources:

The National Fairground Archive, University of Sheffield

We have digitised a wide range of relevant materials from the NFA, including posters, playbills, ephemera and rare books, all in full colour. The selection covers a wide range of subjects, including:

  • Optical illusions and the magic lantern
  • Exhibitions
  • Madame Tussaud’s Waxwork Museum
  • Thomas Cook and other railway excursions
  • The Hudson Collection of early Sheffield playbills
  • Regional music hall and variety posters, including a unique collection over 300 posters from the Argyle Theatre, Birkenhead

The Malcolm Morley Theatre Library, Senate House, University of London

The collection of actor-manager and stage director, Malcolm Morley (1890-1966) contains material devoted to all aspects of theatre, with a particular emphasis on English and American theatre and drama. From this collection we include a wide-ranging selection of the rarest books and periodicals relating to stagecraft, theatre arts and performance of all kinds. We also include hundreds of play texts from the scarce popular series ‘Dicks’ Standard Plays’.

The Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas

From the HRC’s renowned Performing Arts Division, we include material from three excellent collections relating to the theatre and popular entertainment:

The Pantomime Collection traces the history of the British pantomime, from its roots in the 18th century harlequinade through to the early twentieth century. The material included here consists predominantly of printed scripts, programs, and souvenir programs for numerous pantomimes different pantomime, allowing fruitful comparative research into the evolution of the genre.

The Theatre Buildings Collection is an unusual and fascinating visual collection of illustrations, engravings and plans of 19th theatres – many now pulled down – in America and Europe.

Finally, from the Prints Collection we include a selection of prints, illustrations and engravings from the 18th and 19th century relating to the theatre and popular entertainment, providing visual representations of waxworks, masked processions, fairs, and mummers, as well as illustrations of specific theatrical productions.

The Vauxhall Gardens Collection, Lambeth Archive

This collection provides a detailed picture of one of the world’s most famous pleasure gardens, from its heyday in the late 18th century to its eventual demise in 1859. The material includes volumes of history of the gardens from the 19th century; playbills and advertisements; press cuttings; pamphlets and bills of fare. There is a wealth of information on many different entertainments, from musical performances, dances, theatre, circus acts and ballooning to fireworks and spectacular re-enactments.

The May Moore Duprez Archive

May Moore was an American music hall star who topped international bills with her ‘Jolly Little Dutch Girl’ act. Her archive, privately owned, is a fabulous collection of ephemera and printed materials that tells the story of the music hall from the artist’s perspective. In addition, her extensive collections of playbills, programmes and magazines will be of interest to any researcher studying British and American music hall. Amongst her collection, readers will find material on renowned music halls and performance venues around the world, as well as runs of such well-known magazines as the Performer; Play-Pictorial; the Theatre Magazine and the Stage Souvenir.


Moving Pictures, Optical Entertainments and the Advent of Cinema is the final addition to our Victorian Popular Culture portal. It has a broad appeal for all those interested in the history of leisure and entertainment, film and the study of popular media.

The project consists of a wide range of primary source material, mostly digitised in colour, dating from the 18th century to the 1930s. There is an emphasis on visual sources, objects and rare printed material. All printed material is full-text searchable, and visual or manuscript material has been keyword indexed.

Document types include:

  • Objects
  • Games and toys
  • Ephemera
  • Rare books
  • Periodicals
  • Playbills and handbills
  • Posters
  • Prints
  • Photographs
  • Programmes
  • Pamphlets

Scope of the Collection:

Moving Pictures, Optical Entertainments and the Advent of Cinema explores the cultural history of optical entertainments from the 18th century to the early 20th century, illuminating the rich cultural and scientific history from which cinema was born. From shadow puppets to dioramas, and from zoetropes to Hollywood, the long and varied evolution of visual entertainments is represented through objects, ephemera and printed works.

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.

The project benefits from innovative digital technologies which will bring to life the trickery and magic of many of the optical illusions and toys included here.

Key Feature:

Original Archive Footage from the British Film Institute (BFI)

In a prestigious collaboration between the BFI and Adam Matthew Group, we include video clips of original archive footage from the earliest days of cinema. Our editorial team have worked with the BFI to select a range of different types of footage, allowing users to see the kinds of uses that film was employed for in the earliest days of its invention. This exciting addition is supported by a rich range of printed works and objects relating to cinema and pre-cinema history.

Subjects covered include:

  • Optical Illusions, including kaleidoscopes, metamorphic images and anamorphosis.
  • Panoramas and Dioramas, with programs, souvenirs, toy panoramas and protean views.
  • Magic Lantern Shows and Lectures, including projectors, slides, handbills and posters for performances, and lecture notes.
  • Moving Picture toys and techniques, such as the phenakistoscope, the zoetrope, flick books, and the work of early pioneers such as Eadweard Muybridge.
  • Peep Shows and Stereoscopes, including material on street entertainers and Raree Shows, peep eggs, parlour entertainments, and telescopic views.
  • Early Cinema, covering pioneers such as Edison and the Lumieré Brothers; early presentations in fairgrounds and music halls; the establishment of picturehouses and the emergence of film industries in Hollywood, Britain and Europe; the early stars of the ‘silver screen’, and the studios that made them.