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Ronald G. Becker Collection of Charles Eisenmann Photographs

An inventory of the collection at Syracuse University


Finding aid created by: -
Date: ca. 1998



Biographical History

About Charles Eisenmann

Charles Eisenmann was an American photographer. His work, which dates from the Victorian-era "Gilded Age" (1870-1890), focused almost exclusively on the "freaks" of the circuses, sideshows, and living museums of New York's Bowery area. The subject matter was profitable enough to provide a living for both Eisenmann and Frank Wendt, his successor in the business.

Eisenmann was born in Germany in 1850 and emigrated to the United States some time before 1870, settling in New York City. At an early age, Eisenmann established a photography studio in the Bowery. A lower class area that was the hub of popular entertainment, the Bowery was known for its cheap photographic galleries and dime museums. Here Eisenmann discovered his clientele. Dime museums were modeled on P.T. Barnum's American Museum on Broadway which exhibited various human "curiosities" as well as many unusual and questionable "scientific" exhibits. Similar in many respects to the circus sideshows, these museums featured human "freaks" who displayed their odd physiognomies and performed before gawking visitors. To help these performers market themselves, Eisenmann and his successor Frank Wendt supplied them with small photographs that they could sell or distribute to publicists. Precisely why Eisenmann was drawn to and focused on this peculiar clientele is not known, though there was evidently money to be made.

Among Eisenmann's subjects were the famous as well as obscure. They included the "father" of the sideshow, P. T. Barnum, and performers like General Tom Thumb, Jo Jo the Dog-faced Boy, the Wild Men of Borneo, Annie Jones the Bearded Lady, and the Skeleton Man. He also photographed Siamese twins, giants, dwarfs, armless and legless "wonders," albinos, tattoo artists, and even abnormal animals, such as two-headed cows. While many of these "freaks" were genuine, many were not, having been created out of the imagination and costuming talents of sideshow managers.

Eisenmann's career in New York began to decline around 1890, and in 1899 he relocated to Plainfield, New Jersey. Wendt joined Eisenmann during this period, at first becoming his business partner, and then son-in-law. Around this same time the warm-toned albumen print process began to disappear, and to be replaced by the cooler silver gelatin process. The change in process did not favor Eisenmann's techniques. Wendt furthermore lacked Eisenmann's technical skill, resulting in a noticeable drop in the quality of their output by the end of the century.

The images have figured in research on disability studies, dwarfism, microcephaly, albinism, tattooing, "human zoos," obesity, medical history and health, and the culture of amusement in late 19th-century America. Recent publications that have reproduced images in the Becker Collection include the International Center of Photography exhibit "Foreign Body: Photographs and the Prelude to Genetic Modification" (New York, 2002), Charles Martin's White African-American Body (Rutgers University Press, 2002), and Margot Mifflin's Bodies of Subversion: Women and Tattoos (Juno Books, 1997; rev. 2001). A selection of Eisenmann's photos were published in Michael Mitchell's Monsters: Human Freaks in America's Gilded Age: The Photographs of Chas Eisenmann (1979, reissued 2002). Images from the Becker Collection have also been incorporated into Web sites such as the Disability History Museum. A simple Internet search for "Eisenmann photographs" will demonstrate how extensive public interest in his work and unusual genre have become

About the Photographs

The most common method of photography during the 1870s and 1880s was the wet plate albumen process. Albumen prints are characterized by a warm sepia tone that distinguish them from later silver gelatin prints. Eisenmann's images a re noted for particularly being sharp, clear, and well-posed.

The most common formats were cartes de visite and and cabinet cards. These consisted of an albumen print mounted on stiff board with advertising notices printed on the back. Cartes de visites were most popular from about 1860 until 1885, when they began to be replaced by the larger cabinet cards. Both cartes de visites and cabinet cards could be mass produced, were easily affordable, and could be conveniently collected into albums or shared or traded with friends. The advantages of these popular formats helped Eisenmann establish his peculiar niche in the early decades of commercial photography.

The verso of many of Eisenmann's photographs contained his characteristic tagline, "extra inducements to the theatrical profession," which reflected the emphasis he placed on his primary clientele. In addition to photographing his own subjects, Eisenmann also printed negatives shot by other photographers for publications like the New York Clipper. This "copy work" increased later in his career and was commonly performed by his successor, Wendt.


Scope and Contents of the Collection

The Ronald G. Becker Collection of Charles Eisenmann Photographs includes the work of Eisenmann, Frank Wendt, and others who specialized in creating and marketing photographs of circus sideshow and dime museum performers in New York City during the latter part of the 19th century. It also contains photographs and memorabilia collected by Ronald Becker.

The first four series (Charles Eisenmann photographs, Charles Eisenmann cabinet cards, Charles Eisenmann family photographs, and Charles Eisenmann unidentified photographs) contain photographs and cabinet cards taken or produced by Charles Eisenmann and are self-explanatory. Frank Wendt photographs contains similar photographs taken by Eisenmann's successor, Frank Wendt.

The last two series contain photographs and other material collected by Ronald G. Becker. The Ronald G. Becker collection of miscellaneous circus freak photographs contains photographs of human abnormalities similar to those in the Eisenmann and Wendt series, some of the same individuals. The Ronald G. Becker collection of sideshow memorabilia contains an assortment of correspondence, souvenirs, and printed material including advertisements, booklets, broadsides, clippings, letters, newspapers, pins, postcards, posters, tickets, and more. Among them are a few copies of P.T. Barnum's Greatest Show on Earth Newspaper and some prints by Currier and Ives.


Arrangement of the Collection

Each photograph has a unique identifying number. The inventory below lists them in numeric order by this reference number, with the series divisions noted, although as the reader will notice, the photographs themselves are not always physically in that order.


Other Related Finding Aids

A detailed inventory of the photographs, including photographer, description, subjects, date, medium(s), condition and size, is available in Excel format.


Restrictions

Access Restrictions:

The majority of our archival and manuscript collections are housed offsite and require advanced notice for retrieval. Researchers are encouraged to contact us in advance concerning the collection material they wish to access for their research.

Use Restrictions:

Written permission must be obtained from SCRC and all relevant rights holders before publishing quotations, excerpts or images from any materials in this collection.


Related Material

The complete collection of images was digitized in 2004 and is accessible as a digital collection via SCRC Online, our digital portal.

An 1865-1868 run of The New York Clipper (forerunner of Billboard Magazine) has been cataloged separately but is shelved with the collection.


Subject Headings

Persons

Barnum, P. T. (Phineas Taylor), 1810-1891.
Becker, Ronald G.
Eisenmann, Charles, 1850-
Jojo the dog faced boy.
Thumb, Tom, 1838-1883.
Wendt, Frank.

Corporate Bodies

P.T. Barnum (Firm)

Associated Titles

New York clipper.

Subjects

Abnormalities, Human -- Photographs.
Advertising, Circus.
Amusement parks -- Photographs.
Animals -- Abnormalities -- Photographs.
Broadsides -- 19th century.
Cabinet photographs.
Carte de visite photographs.
Circus -- Collectibles.
Circus animals -- Photographs.
Circus performers -- United States -- Photographs.
Conjoined twins -- Portraits.
Deformities, Artificial -- Photographs.
Dwarfs -- Portraits.
Freak shows -- Photographs.
Giants -- Portraits.
Photography of the grotesque -- United States.
Portrait photography.
Posters -- 19th century.
Printed ephemera.

Genres and Forms

Advertising fliers.
Albumen prints.
Broadsides.
Cabinet photographs.
Cartes-de-visite.
Clippings (information artifacts)
Ephemera.
Gelatin silver prints.
Notes.
Pamphlets.
Photographs.
Posters.
Salted paper prints.

Occupations

Photographers.

Administrative Information

Preferred Citation

Preferred citation for this material is as follows:

Ronald G. Becker collection of Charles Eisenmann photographs,
Special Collections Research Center,
Syracuse University Libraries

Acquisition Information

Gift of Ronald G. Becker, 1985.

Item 392a, purchase, 2012.


Table of Contents

Charles Eisenmann photographs

Charles Eisenmann cabinet cards

Miscellaneous portraits

Charles Eisenmann unidentified photographs

Frank Wendt photographs

Ronald G. Becker collection of miscellaneous circus freak photographs

Ronald G. Becker collection of sideshow memorabilia


Inventory

Note on alternate formats:

The complete collection of images was digitized in 2004 and is accessible as a digital collection via SCRC Online, our digital portal.