American Minstrelsy

American Minstrelsy, which began 1820 ca. and flourished 1840-1870 was, in the late 19th century, the dominant popular art form in America, including the North. Today the history of this performance style is often exclusively associated with the idea of whites perpetuating and exaggerating unflattering stereotypes of southern blacks through performance caricature in blackface. While this is a large component of American Minstrelsy, especially in its early years, in truth this cultural phenomenon was much more complex than meets the eye, drawing influence from and influencing clowning (many circuses in the early 1800s included blackface clowns), theater, dance, vaudeville and drag. Minstrel shows also often served as an outlet for the working classes to lampoon authority figures and the upper classes in general.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, African Americans also began performing in blackface, and performances were attended by both black and white audience members. Even shows with African American casts and songwriters continued to employ the use of unflattering stereotypes prominently used in shows performed by white troupes, which drew criticism from African American intellectuals and leaders like Frederick Douglass.

In our collection we have a copy of the booklet How to Stage a Minstrel Show, which details the production of a three part minstrel show with advice that includes selection of talent, make up, and staging. Additionally options for all-male, or male and female groups and blackface or whiteface are presented. Those with a performance background will recognize that much of the advice in this booklet pertains to the production of any show.