I have tended to concentrate on how the physical shape of Liverpool has changed over the years. Social changes are often a bit more subtle to capture on film. In today’s case, however, there is no room for any ambiguity. The carte de visite (probably 1880s) proclaims ‘the most wonderful child ever exhibited’. On the reverse: The INFANT JUMBO is only six years of Age, Weighs 206lbs!! Height 4ft5in! Circumference of bare Chest 50 inches!! and the rest of his body in proportion. Exhibited for the first time at Reynold’s Exhibition, facing St George’s Hall, Lime Street, Liverpool.
Reynold’s Exhibition was an early example of the American ‘dime museums’, where everything and anything was exhibited under the banner of education and entertainment including, displays of the body beautiful or grotesque, painted panoramic scenes, fasting men and fat women and magic and illusion tricks. Reynold’s was one of the most long-standing and prominent venues in the North of England. The original waxworks exhibition opened in 1858 and initially the attractions were based on the model presented by Tussauds in London. However, over the decades the main focus of the entertainments on offer became very different, comprising of live entertainment shows and their particular specialisation, freaks of nature. Despite the popularity of the waxworks, Reynolds continued to change and refresh the type of attractions on display perhaps in order to compete with the range and variety of attractions presented by rival concerns in Lime Street. The inclusion of live entertainment alongside anatomical models, waxworks and the chamber of horrors was bringing to the British spectating public the type of entertainments first promoted by Barnum in the ten in one dime show or museum. Opening hours in Reynolds followed this pattern of all day entertainments with patrons being admitted at 10am until 10pm. Cost of admission started at threepence with the price increasing to sixpence if one wanted to enjoy the entertainments that were shown twice a day (3pm and 8pm). Acts comprised of the performing fleas, the Norwegian Giant and Tiny Tim, and a vocal and instrumental recital by Miss Beatrice Vaughan, as well as a mystic magical entertainment by Major Devono. Children who were employed for entertainment purposes at this time included the Infant Jumbo, the ‘most wonderful child ever exhibited’, who at the age of six weighed over 205 lbs. By the late 1880s and early 1890s it appears that the show side of the exhibition was the means by which the exhibitors could constantly refresh the attractions on view. The use of novelties and freaks to entertain and educate the public was a continuation of a side-show tradition taken directly from the fairgrounds and shop-shows and marketed by Barnum to a higher level than previous attained, freak shows as presented by Barnum were not on the edges of society or part of illegitimate theatre practices but firmly within the mainstream and appealed to a family audience.
By 1894 live entertainment appears to be a mainstay of the attractions on offer. Princess Paulina, the Living Doll makes her first appearance at the exhibition, later modelled into a waxwork effigy in the historical waxworks hall. Ethnographic attractions also became a feature of the exhibition with both the Aztecs and the Circassisan Brothers thrilling audiences in October 1894. Reynold’s Waxworks Exhibition opened its doors from 1858 to 1922 and provided the people of Liverpool with a range of shows and attractions all within one fixed venue. Catering for a largely working class audience, it maintained its position as an arena for spectacular and entertainment for over seven decades all for the price of a sixpence. Incorporating waxworks, live performances, freak show exhibits and the latest technological wonders of the age, it contents may have been largely British in character but the exhibition was both inspired and presented through American showmanship and exhibition practices. (Taken from the National Fairground Archive).
Today, the idea of exhibiting an obese six year old to a paying audience is almost beyond comprehension. We may not like how the physical fabric of the city has sometimes changed but in the case of the exhibiting of so-called ‘freaks’, I doubt there is anyone who would call it entertainment.