Victorian Popular Culture

This innovative portal invites readers into the darkened halls, small backrooms and travelling venues that hosted everything from spectacular shows and bawdy burlesque, to the world of magic and spiritualist séances.

The Victorian Popular Culture portal is an essential resource for the study of popular entertainment in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

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

This resource 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. As well as fascinating primary source material in the form of objects, printed books, ephemera, posters, photographs and playbills, the resource includes a number of tools to support teaching and research.

Modules include:

Module I: Spiritualism, Sensation and Magic

This module 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 late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw an explosion of interest in the occult, and the foundation of a new religious movement, Spiritualism.

Primary sources include those from The Harry Price Library of Magical Literature at Senate House, University of London and the Harry Ransom Centre at the University of Texas. Highlights of these archives are Harry Price’s collection of biographies, reports, pamphlets and Harry Houdini’s scrapbooks, both of which are dedicated to exploring (and often debunking) the supernatural.

Module II: Circuses, Sideshows and Freaks

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

This module contains sources from The National Fairground Archive (NFA) including:  photographic, printed and manuscript material covering all aspects of the culture of travelling show people, their organisation as a community, as well as their social history and everyday life. The W.H Crain Barnum & Bailey Circus Collection and Joe E Ward Circus Collection from the Harry Ransom Centre provide nineteenth- and twentieth-century circus memorabilia, plus the correspondence and legal documents concerning P. T. Barnum, James A. Bailey, and Joseph T. McCaddon and their business dealings.

Module III: Music Hall, Theatre and Popular Entertainment

Module III 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, for example, Bristol, Birkenhead, Manchester and Glasgow. Also included are 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.

Module IV: Moving Pictures, Optical Entertainments and the Advent of Cinema

Module IV 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 offer a broad range of approaches to teaching and research.

The source material is drawn from the outstanding collections of the Bill Douglas Centre for the History of Cinema and Popular Culture and there are a number of original films from the British Film Institute National Archive, which highlight developments in special effects and narrative techniques from the earliest days of cinema.

Key Data

Period Covered

  • 1779 - 1930


  • 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
  • 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
  • Remarkable video clips of original archive footage from the earliest days of cinema, from the renowned archival collections of the BFI National Archive
  • Material from the unique Harry Houdini Collection at the Harry Ransom Center, comprising 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

Source Archives

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

Material Types

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

Editorial Board

  • Bryony Dixon, The British Film Institute National Archive
  • Nadja Durbach, University of Utah
  • Ann Featherstone, University of Manchester
  • Peter Otto, University of Melbourne
  • John Plunkett, University of Exeter
  • Vanessa Toulmin, University of Sheffield
  • Phil Wickham, Bill Douglas Cinema Museum


  • 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
  • American and British circuses, including Barnum and Bailey; Adam Forepaugh; Sells-Floto and Ringling Bros
  • Astley's Amphitheatre
  • Freakshows
  • General Tom Thumb
  • Wild West shows, including Buffalo Bill
  • Dime museums
  • Barnum's American Museum
  • Carnivals
  • Fairgrounds
  • Travelling shows and provincial entertainments
  • Music hall, variety and vaudeville – from business and pleasure perspectives
  • Pantomime
  • Theatre, both legitimate and illegitimate (including periodicals aimed at industry and fans; rare books; and a huge range of the very scarce popular series ‘Dick’s Standard Plays’)
  • Pleasure gardens, including Vauxhall and Ranelagh Gardens and Belle Vue Zoological Gardens, Manchester
  • Public spectacles such as firework displays and ballooning
  • Scientific and ‘educational’ exhibitions, including the Royal Polytechnic Institution, the Royal Panopticon and the Royal Aquarium
  • Visual delights such as magic lantern shows and dioramas
  • Early visual entertainment such as shadow play, optical illusions, metamorphic pictures and protean views
  • Panoramas and dioramas
  • Optical or philosophical toys
  • Peepshows
  • Magic lanterns and image projection
  • Pioneers of cinema: Thomas Alva Edison, the Lumière Brothers, and Eadweard Muybridge
    Early inventions such as the cinematograph, phonograph and zoopraxiscope
  • Emerging film industry
  • The first film stars
  • Original film footage from 1894-1926

Key Features

  • Contextual essays
  • Interactive chronology
  • Biographies and venues glossaries
  • Image gallery that can be personalised for teaching and presentations


Highly recommended. Upper-level undergraduates through faculty/researchers

Adam Matthew Digital conjures up a dynamic digital collection of unique primary sources describing popular entertainment in the US, the UK, and Europe in the period from 1779 to 1930. ......

Victorian Popular Culture, which can be easily used by both novice readers and scholars, offers a very large slice of American and British history and culture

CONTENT Victorian Popular Culture (VPC) is a portal into digitized primary source materials on popular entertainment in North America, Britain, and Europe between 1779 and 1930. Material (most of which ......

Highly recommended. Upper-level undergraduates and above

The relaunch of Adam Matthew Digital's resource of English, British, and European popular entertainment from the 19th and early-20th centuries is as engaging as the material it presents. ......

Invaluable resource to any researcher or teacher

Adam Matthew Digital's resource Victorian Popular Culture 'invit[es] users into the darkened halls, small backrooms, big tops and travelling venues' to enable them to explore the 'spectacular shows ......