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History Of The Sideshow

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Sideshow 101


Roll up, Roll up...

Sideshows have been around in various forms for a very long time, here you'll find a super simple summary of how the modern day sideshow came to be...

All the classic Sideshow acts (bed of nails, blockhead, pin cushion etc) date  back over 2000 years to ancient Egypt, Imperial China and India. The Fakir acts were not used for entertainment then but were used as 'special powers' to show devotion or God-like status gaining influence with Emperors and Rulers.

These then developed into Street Acts made to astonish and entertain, as the world was explored and discovered the acts began to appear in Europe. The street performers were drawn to Fairs as they ensured masses of people to get large audiences. This was also the introduction to Freakshows including sights such as Siamese Twins, bearded ladies and midgets.

However at the end of the Victorian era freakshows fell out of fashion in the UK, but America embraced the world of bizarre and most British sideshow performers and freaks moved abroad. Museums in America were places of entertainment such as Barnham's American Museum where you could see unusual sideshow acts everyday.


The success of the museums led the financially driven travelling circuses to copy to idea. They set a tent up to beside the ticket booth and main circus tent which contained sideshow acts. This is where the name Sideshow came from... it was literally a show to the side of the main events. A trip to the circus was a full day out so the audience were encouraged to part with extra money to watch the sideshow spectacles.


This then led to expositions and shows such as the 10-in-One show and tented shows which created the main part of American Carnivals. Unfortunately the modernisation and increasing popularity in fairground mechanical rides led to the decline of live entertainment at carnivals. 


Nowadays the acts of the sideshow still fascinate audiences despite being thousands of years old, but maybe that is part of the mystery. There is still at least one travelling Sideshows in Europe, the famous sideshows at Venice Beach and original sideshow revivals in the UK but the art of sideshow and specialist performers is much rarer to see today.  

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