‘The best remedy ever offered to the public’: Representation and Resistance in the American Medicine Show

Jason Price


Like modern commercial television, nineteenth century medicine showmen provided rural American audiences with ‘free’ professional entertainment in order to sell special remedies and medical treatments. With fierce competition in the medicine show business during this period, proprietors were frequently on the lookout for ways to draw in an audience and to substantiate their medicinal claims. One solution was to develop complex narratives around their goods, which were authenticated by adopting particular identities, like Indians, Quakers or Oriental Fakirs. Quite often these identities were constructed according to binary views, and drew on recognised stereotypes of these ‘others’ held by the public. In this paper, the author examines some of the forms of representation that appeared within medicine shows during this period, and argues that in applying binary representations simultaneously, the medicine show may not have simply validated widespread narrow perceptions of particular social groups, but may have instead created a space where new knowledge about these groups could be articulated. Drawing on theories of representation, radicalisation, and culture, the paper shows that radical potential may have existed in these apparently oppressive performances, which may have offered some level of agency and political autonomy to those being represented.

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Popular Entertainment Studies ISSN 1837-9303