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This chapter provides a historical framework for the rest of the book by tracing the history of the freak show in Europe and America, focusing on the latter, from antiquity through its decline in the early twentieth century. The chapter develops a theoretical framework that includes a discussion about the viewer’s relationship to the freak show, and how and why we look at unusual bodies. Because this project exists at the intersection of many different areas—including cultural studies, film and media studies, and gender and disability—the chapter outlines the key terms and concepts from each area that are immediately relevant to the book’s argument.

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  1. 1.

    This is an extremely reductive retelling of a rich body of work concerned with disability throughout history. For an incomparably more thorough account, see the chapter “Looking Back” in Studying Disability by DePoy and Gilson , as well as A History of Disability by Henri-Jacques Striker , and even Leslie Fiedler’s “From Theology to Teratology” in Freaks: Myths and Images of the Secret Self.

  2. 2.

    See note 6.

  3. 3.

    Parts of this discussion of Quicksand are excerpted from a previously published article of mine, “The Racial Freak: In and Out of Harlem” (Storytelling: A Critical Journal of Popular Narrative. vol. 12, no. 1 (Summer 2012): 5–14).

  4. 4.

    One of the key differences between the two is, obviously, that the former is on a stage and the latter a member of the social group who is freaking them.

  5. 5.

    Small postcards of freaks. These were collector’s items often distributed at freak shows. See note 6.

  6. 6.

    Cartes de visite do not refer only to portraits of freaks. Derived from the calling cards that were popular in the 1850s, cartes de visite became a sort of “social currency.” These small formal portraits were most often of individuals or couples, or sometimes small families. The portraits were mounted on 2-1/2″ × 4″ sized cards and given to friends and family. This standard format was patented by Parisian photographer André Adolphe Disderi in 1854, who also developed a technique using a sliding plate holder and a camera with four lenses which allowed eight prints to be created with each negative (A Brief History of the Carte de Visite

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Correspondence to Jessica L. Williams .

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Williams, J.L. (2017). A New American Freak Show. In: Media, Performative Identity, and the New American Freak Show. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.

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