This week, I would like to direct our focus to the history of the medicine show. The medicine show bears a number of similarities to the traditional sideshow, and indeed the acceptable acts for these two entertainment genres often overlap. Folkstreams.net has a fantastic overview of the medicine show, and I would like to present a few passages from their site. This information is a little dense, so I have broken it up and will be revealing a new bit each day. Enjoy!
From the beginning, variety acts were a part of medicine shows. Most street workers introduced a few sleight-of-hand tricks, a comic monologue, or some banjo solos between their pitches: the Kickapoo shows of the ‘80’s and ‘90’s alternated vaudeville and circus acts with their war dances and mock powwows; even the professionally pious “Quaker” healers leavened their sermons with clog dances and minstrel routines.
After the turn of the century, the character of the medicine show began to change. Vaudeville dominated popular entertainment in cities and towns, and in rural areas medicine show companies began to place more emphasis on vaudeville acts and less on exotic atmosphere and costumes. The old-fashioned Indian, Oriental, and Quaker shows gradually became vaudeville performances interrupted by medicine lectures and sales. The 20th century medicine shows, however, were not simply small-time vaudeville with pauses for commercial messages. They developed their own unique brand of variety out of a curious mixture of vaudeville, burlesque, dime museum material, and the minstrel show.
A standard middle-sized medicine show company of the teens and early ‘20’s might include a lecturer-manager, a sketch team (both of whom also worked singly), a song and dance man, a pianist, and a blackface comedian. Others added a contortionist, a trapeze performer, a magician, or juggler. In 1920, Dr. Heber Becker advertised for a typical vaudeville company:
Blackface Singing, Dancing Comedians; must play banjo and guitar. Lady Performer; must sing and dance. Lady to handle and take care of snakes. One good Sketch Team. All people must work in acts and sign contract for season’s work.
Excerpt from http://www.folkstreams.net/context,136. Stay tuned for more, coming every day this week!