the medicine show – part 1

October 6, 2010
filed under: History

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. 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!

Traveling Medicine Show

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,136. Stay tuned for more, coming every day this week!

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5 Responses to “the medicine show – part 1”

  1. Pendark says:

    Hmmm..this is very interesting. I hadn’t really gotten the reference, but one of the patrons of my little show said that it reminded her of a “Medicine show”. The more I think on it, I suppose the style I perform in is closer to this style than a “sideshow”.

  2. Noel says:

    Well get ready for a whole lot more Medicine Show trivia. It’s all coming this week.

  3. Angel says:

    What exactly is the difference between burlesque, vaudeville, and minstrel routines?
    And What are “Quaker” healers?

  4. Noel says:

    Ok this is a very brief overview, and obviously entire books have been written about each, but this should help clarify:
    Burlesque- In contemporary times, this refers to the art of tease, and usually involves performers gradually stripping off clothing
    Vaudeville- Entertainment popular around the the turn of the century (1880-1930) that was presented in a variety show format. It was eclectic and could include a wide range of activities including singing, dancing, magic, comedy, etc.
    Minstrel Show- Singing, dancing, comedy, etc. by either black performers or people in blackface makeup
    Quaker Healer- Quakers are a religious sect, similar to the Amish and Mennonite, who apparently use to use sensational performances to demonstrate healing powers (I’d never heard of this before reading about it at

  5. Angel says:

    Wow ok, I had no clue, so great and thank you!

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