Feature of the week : American Burlesque


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Welcome to the first in a series of blogs highlighting interesting and unique objects we come across in the Ryerson University Archives & Special Collections. There’s a lot of amazing objects in our stacks, and here are just a few….

AMERICAN BURLESQUE PHOTOGRAPHS IN SPECIAL COLLECTIONS.

Special Collections number : 2008.001.1637

The Lorne Shields Historical Photograph Collection was donated to Special Collections in 2007 and includes many albums, professional portraits and amateur snaps as well as an interesting series of Cigarette Cards and Cabinet Cards featuring popular American Burlesque performers from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Not the famous Gypsy Rose Lee, but just as sassy! Special Collections number : 2008.001.1650

In America, Burlesque began as a bawdy form of theatrical entertainment, popular from the 1870s to the 1920s, that borrowed from the British Music Hall format of combining comic skits and musical performances, but evolved into a risqué variety show focusing on dirty jokes and (most familiar) sexy women.  As it was considered unseemly at the time for “decent” women to perform in the theatre, even the most serious of female thespians could find a home performing in the suggestive, and often ill-reputed Burlesque shows where the performers were mainly female and the audience was mainly working class.

These actresses could gain quite a following from the general public however, and their comings and goings (and divorces and affairs) were often reported in the daily papers.  Seeing the potential gain, Cigarette cards and collectible photographs featuring the women in seductive poses (is that an exposed ankle? Gasp!) were produced by enterprising photographers.

Special Collections number: 2008.001.1634

Following are some of the stars of the bygone days of Burlesque found in the Lorne Shields Historical Photograph Collection. To see more, check out the Special Collections Flickr account (see right) or visit us on the Library’s 4th floor.

For more information on Burlesque and the American theatre, check out these book resources in the Library:

“No legs, no jokes, no chance” : a history of the American musical theater / Sheldon Patinkin. http://catalogue.library.ryerson.ca/record=b1817103~S0

A chronology of American musical theater / Richard C. Norton. http://catalogue.library.ryerson.ca/record=b1695595~S0

The American musical : history and development / Peter H. Riddle. http://catalogue.library.ryerson.ca/record=b1672071~S0