The exhibition of freaks, monstrosities or marvels of nature were essential components of travelling exhibitions in Europe and America throughout the Victorian period. What was saleable as far as the freak was concerned was, of course, physical difference, in a form that was both marketable and palatable. The showman was an essential component and it was the relationship between the presenter and the exhibit that produced the freak show.
There, our ancestors could ogle people afflicted with skin conditions, deformities and eccentricities, and sometimes people who just happened to be from another culture that the west found weird. There were some standards that one could find at a freak show — the tall man or sometimes woman, the fat lady, the dwarf, the bearded lady who very suspiciously looked like a man in drag — and then there were the specialties, unique to various circuses, and the more famous the circus, the more special the freaks. But every circus, no matter how small, had its freaks, and the public could take home cabinet cards, professionally taken photos of the freaks to display in their homes.
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A freak show is an exhibition of biological rarities, referred to in popular culture as "freaks of nature". Typical features would be physically unusual humanssuch as those uncommonly large or small, those with both male and female secondary sexual characteristicsthose with extraordinary diseases and conditions, and others with performances expected to be shocking to viewers. Heavily tattooed or pierced people have sometimes been seen in freak shows, more common in modern times as a side show act as have attention-getting physical performers such as fire-eating and sword-swallowing acts.
Exhibitions of live human curiosities had appeared in travelling fairs, circuses and taverns in England since the s. These included so-called giants, dwarves, fat people, the very thin, conjoined twins and even people from exotic climes. Freak shows were a particularly popular form of entertainment during the Victorian period, when people from all classes flocked to gawp at 'unusual' examples of human life. These posters from the s show the kinds of acts that were on offer.