Cabinet of Curiosities
"Life isn't all beer and skittles,-- but beer and skittles, or something better of the same sort, must form a good part of every Englishman's education"-- Tom Brown's School Days (1857)
Writing on a Saturday evening calls for a pint of beer.
The schoolboy novel series, Tom Brown's School Days euphemized the ideal British life as full of "beer and skittles' (the game not the colorful candy.) W.T. Marchant's 1888 In Praise of Ale, singles out beer and roast beef for making "England what it is." And as the illustration above shows, "beer beer glorious beer" had the power to turn sworn enemies and animals into harmonious and gentlemanly drinking companions. Beyond the nation's subjects (furry or otherwise,) beer culture was engrained in the very geography of England. The legendarily sublime water of Burton-Upon-Trent was the key to the gold standard of pale ales, as memorialized by a local poetaster:
Such ale as this, wherever sought,
Today, "burtonization" refers to the process of altering the chemical composition of water to elicit a desirable hop profile. In addition to geographic, beer was also geopolitical in the nineteenth century, meaning that geography and politics combined to influence national and global policy. While the stories have been largely debunked as a clever marketing trick, the India Pale Ale has been mythologized as the beer of empire. Still, the image of parched colonial administrators for the East India Company soaking through through their dungarees in blazing heat receiving cooling sustenance from an exported ale chock full of British hops (a preservative agent) has since become a touchstone image in beer culture. While this beer story may have been a bust, beverage export was common during the nineteenth century with high alcohol volume "export stouts" making their way across the globe to give lucky recipients a little taste of England. As the Barclay's ad attests, this business of beer trade cemented international relations on a monarchal level.
But what does all this talk of British norms and ideals have to do with freaks?
For every celebration of Mother Brittania's industry and ingenuity that beer took part in lurked its connections to the peculiar: beer was, and continues to be, the terrain of the freaks, curiosities, and wonders that resisted normal attempts at self-fashioning. After all, beer has the power to make dogs and cats dress in cravats and morning coats to become strange not-quite-human proxies. The artistic endeavors in Hogarth's "Beer Street" would suggest that ale's relationship to art was, if not high-brow, then respectably middle-brow. However, beer was also the terrain the pleasure, the circus, the exhibition hall-- a body of performing arts not quite so legitimate in polite eyes. In Sketches By Boz (1832), Charles Dickens called the Greenwich Fair “a sort of spring-rash” and “three days’ fever,”rendering it a dubious affair that was not above employing some stage-managed trickery to dazzle the drinking, partying revelers. Dickens also used beer to "enfreak" fictional members of parliament in "A Parliamentary Sketch." To lampoon the exaggerated differences between British and Irish subjects during the nineteenth century, Dickens postulates that an Irish member of parliament "ate more dinner than three English members put together. He took no wine; drank table beer by the half-gallon." This enthusiastic consumption that would make any competitive eater nervous transforms the MP into a man of prodigious size, perhaps the well-known Irish Giant?
Freakery was a business, and when it was popular the demand for performers was high. Capitalizing off of British and U.S. interests in the East, freak show impresarios hit pay dirt with the "Circassian Beauties." These were women, outfitted in flowing robes and gloriously big hair, who were allegedly kidnapped from Caucasus, a region at the border of Europe and Asia, and sold to Turkish harems as slaves. The women, usually with "exotic" "Z"-names like Zoe, Zulu, Zenobia, Zula, Zeleke, and Zoberdie, struck just the right balance between alien and normal femininities, while also vexing lines of race and ethnicity. But, like most "made freaks," meaning those not born with a physical abnormalities, the dime-a-dozen "Circassian Beauties" were a freak show forgery. And beer abetted their charade. In order to get their hair to epic proportions, the "Circassian Beauties" or "Moss-Haired Girls" would give themselves a liberal shampooing with beer before teasing it out. At first, the ale-connection was a matter of freak show gossip, evasive evidence passed along to cast doubt on the authenticity of exhibits and drum up business. Typical of this kind of evidence, the source remains unnamed, as "one authority reports" that "all of [the Circassian Beauties] were dressed-up local women who were taught to wash their hair in beer, then tease it, for the frizzy look of Circassian exotics" (Joe Nickell, Secrets of the Sideshow.) Earnest speculation later turned into freak show commonplace as James Otis' 1895 Andy's Ward, or, The International Museum gives readers a now-familiar sneak peek of this behind-the-scenes fashioning:
"Beer to soak her head in!" Andy repeated, looking closely at his companion in order to learn if he was in earnest.
What is it about beer that has stuck as part of the "Circassian Beauty" legend after all of this time? On the one hand, the answer is one of practicality: we actually have quotable evidence of this freak show counterfeiting, unlike so many others that have evaporated over time. But also, I'd like to suggest that the beer story is so intriguing is because of beer's status as a symbol of the normal, healthy subject. When applied to the "Circassian Beauty" beer helps to fashion the freak, the bizarre other-- the decidedly un-English or un-American subject.
Freakery and Beer still go hand-in-hand.
Contemporary craft beer culture has tapped into the sideshow aesthetic, giving freakery new afterlife show through some tasty, tasty drinks.
Graphic artist Sarah Bina has designed some mock-ups for a side show-themed four pack that features: Strong Man Stout, Bearded Lady Lager, Fire Eater Wheat, and Wild Gypsy Cider. The Strong Man Stout perhaps a nod to the hearty export stouts of the nineteenth century?
Coney Island Brewing Co. from Brooklyn, NY has taken local inspiration for their line of craft lagers with their beers named after popular freak performers. And, yes, the Human Blockhead is as tough as nails.
The creative lads at Garage Project are drawing out "freak's" connections to curiosity and singularity with their Freakshow Series, a "curious and wild assortment of beer freaks for your enjoyment and drinking pleasure."
Though undoubtedly freakish, this entry is far from a freak of writing, Beer has a been perennial source of creative inspiration for me, that ever-present sideshow winning me over with its wonders and curiosities. And, let's be honest, how else are you going to get a dissertation done?: