Vaudeville = Fabulous Public History

Collection homepage for "American Variety Stage: Vaudeville and Popular Entertainment, 1870-1920"
I stumbled across this website about 6 months ago when I was looking for information on the history of the entertainment industry. I find myself going back to it every now and then and just wandering around, there are so many great media pieces to stumble upon. The Library of Congress (LoC) created what is now their “American Memory” collection in the early 1990’s (1990-1994 as they experimented with digitizing their collections). It involves sound recording, prints, scripts, photos and moving images– what they call “the nations memory.” This collection is huge, over 9 million individual pieces kind of huge. For this project, I specifically looked at “American Variety and Stage: Vaudeville and Popular Entertainment, 1870-1920.”
Harry Houdini to the left of Theodore Roosevelt.

As someone who believes that the evolution of entertainment and show business mirrors the evolution of American culture and values, this project was made for me. Although I’d like to think the LoC had the foresight and desire to spend all that time for just me, I’m sure their intended audience was much broader. They wanted to make these resources available to the American public, and anyone who was interested in the subject- both scholars and the layperson alike. I think accessibility is a direct result of their learning objectives: open the door for a better understanding of the history of show business and show how entertainment during this period tried to deal with hot topics (race, gender, ethnic stereotypes). Secondarily, it puts history in the users hands (or at their mouse) and to shows what American society one did during their leisure time.

Richard Nixon and Elvis Presley in the Oval Office.

I enjoy this collection not only because of the subject matter, but because you can listen to .wav clips of some really fun old recordings. They highlight a handful of recordings from Vaudeville-era performers demonstrating comedy routines, music and poetry readings in styles that were popular at the time. For anyone who is interested in cultural history of Gilded Age to the Roaring Twenties will easily find a way to amuse themselves with this particular collection. I found this photograph of Houdini and Teddy Roosevelt together and couldn’t help but also think of the Nixon/Elvis picture taken decades later. Rock stars of their given generations! Losing yourself in rabbit holes is about the extent of the interaction of this particular site, though. There wasn’t much public feedback into the design that I could tell, but there are links to show how to use the collection, ask questions, etc., so it seems like the LoC welcomes interaction in that way.

This is a public history project that, with some scaling, could really highlight aspects of Idaho history. Digitizing collections is a time consuming process, but the end result is a product that the public can use in quite a few different ways. While it isn’t as sexy as some other public history projects out there, it is a project that’s easy to maneuver. If I was to use this as a template, I would be sure to add a little more interpretation. There are essays that, if they are read, are full of good information, but I would guess most people wouldn’t be interested in reading that much. Paragraphs that give a good explanation  for those who want something short, while fostering interest and telling where to find more information if they are interested would be much more useful.  What I like most about this site is that it presents history as more than a timeline or regurgitated facts. The collection can offer a new way to think about what was going on in society at a certian time and act as a completly different kind of primary source. 


“American Memory” from the Library of Congress,

“American Variety Stage: Vaudeville and Popular Entertainment, 1870-1920,”

Photograph of Theordore Roosevelt and Harry Houdini, Library of Congress,

Photograph of Richard Nixon and Elvis Presley, National Archives,

4 thoughts on “Vaudeville = Fabulous Public History”

  1. What a fascinating project! I think your vision of running with this idea and applying it toward Idaho entertainment history is really fantastic idea. I agree that what is happening in the entertainment world certainly reflected larger societal issues. While our two projects couldn’t be more different, I do think they are able to shed light on history in a new and innovative way–specifically on shedding light on a completely different time frame. Thanks for sharing, Sarah!

  2. I really love this project, and I have already bookmarked it. A project like this is great because it seems limitless in what you could do with it. I have a special interest in the evolution of popular music, and I believe that almost everything that’s happened in the world is tied to or reflected in the pop cultural aspects (literature, film, entertainment, music, etc.) The other great thing about projects like these is their ability to draw in audiences and readers. Entertainment and pop culture are things that everyone can relate to, and those topics are usually a good hook that you can use to start a discussion before diving into deeper issues. Thanks!

  3. I also want to add that I like the idea of using something like this to focus on Idaho’s entertainment history. Between the movie posters at the ISHS Archives, the Fettuccine Forums – “The Idaho Songbag” and “Hollywood North,” and the surge of interest in Nell Shipman’s work, it seems that the demand might just be there for something like that!

  4. I do too! I’ve been toying with the idea of how to highlight Idaho’s history with the entertainment industry for a while now. I can’t wait to see what it finally gels into, a public history website is an idea that I’ve been contemplating, in addition to articles and exhibits… All these ideas within this scope– I want to tackle them all!! So many projects, so little time :)

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