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The Library of Congress > Teachers > Classroom Materials > Collection Connections > The American Variety Stage

[Detail] Harry Houdini performs the great milk can escape. 1908.

U.S. History

The multimedia American Variety Stage, 1870-1920 collection relates to a wide range of themes in the history of the United States. The playscripts, sound recordings, motion pictures, and theater playbills reflect the growth of European immigrant populations in America and recount their assimilation experiences. The playscripts take up issues of labor, mass production, and mass consumption in the late 19th century. The collection touches on issues including women's rights and women's roles, urban culture, and, of course, popular entertainment. With guidance, students can use the materials in the collection to explore issues of discrimination, nativism, and racism in the U.S. during this time.

1) People from around the globe arrived on the shores of the United States between 1870 and 1920. The playscripts in this collection tell the stories of groups immigrating to the U.S. during this period. Using humor, the scripts describe immigrant experiences. In many of the playscripts, English words are written to reflect the accented speech of new arrivals.

Search on immigrant and immigration for scripts poking fun at the acculturation and assimilation process for different people coming to America. Also search on specific ethnic groups, such as Russian or Irish.

For example, search on immigrant to find scripts such as The Russian Emigrants.

Ve came to this country by steerage,

All ve did vass to sleep und to eat.

Ve didn't have much conversation,

'Cause we both got our brains in our feet.

Ve vant to give dancing mit pictures,

'Cause dancing iss good for the health.

The main thing ve vant iss a picture

Of how we can dance into wealth.

The Russian Emigrants, 1914, p. 7, (image 10)

2) Labor, mass production, and mass consumption can be explored by searching on work, industry, and labor. The Subject Index of American Variety Stage, 1870-1920 lists many different types of occupations from blacksmiths to clergy, newspaper reporters to actors and actresses. Students can search for descriptions of many types of workers and their jobs.

For example, by searching on salesman, students will find The Travelling Salesman. In it, the salesman describes his lifestyle as well as the industrial landscape of the cities that he frequents.

From Philadelphia, I went over to Pittsburgh, that's like getting out of bed and going into the cellar - to see why the furnace is smoking. Pittsburgh is the one black spot on the escutcheon of Pennsylvania. The soft coal smoke is so thick in Pittsburgh, that during a shower it rains ink, and the people wear McIntosh blotters.

The Travelling Salesman, 1913, p. 2, (image 4)

3) The collection covers 1870-1920, a period marked by activity concerning women's rights, especially suffrage. Search on women's rights, suffrage, and femininism to find items representing the views of the day, both pro- and anti-suffrage, as well as stereotypes of feminists.

Searching on suffrage, for example, will reveal text such as Laura E. Burt's original woman's rights stump speech.

Sixteenthly and last, be courageous - be brave and Oh!
girls we shall force the tyrant man to give us our rights,
including the right to play base ball--Then women will know
they are in the right field.

Laura E. Burt's original woman's rights stump speech, 1888, (image 5)

4) Many items in the collection illustrate urban life, especially the stereotypes of the country bumpkin and the city slicker. Search on urban vs. rural life and rural stereotypes to find these playscripts. In the Title List for Sound Recordings scroll to find The Arkansas Traveler, a classic comedy sketch that focuses on these stereotypes. (Visit the American Memory Viewer Information page if you need assistance listening to these recordings.)

 WAV format (10982K)
The Arkansas Traveler, Title List for Variety Stage Sound Recordings

5) American Variety Stage, 1870-1920 is an excellent resource for examples of popular culture. The 61 motion pictures in this collection record acts that audience members of the day saw. Browse the Title List for Motion Pictures, which is grouped by genre, to see a cross-section of the types of acts found in vaudeville and variety stage shows, such as comic sketches and dance.

Students can also explore the life of a legendary entertainer, Harry Houdini. The Houdini collection within American Variety Stage contains photographs and personal memorabilia of this popular magician's life and work.

Search on Houdini and Houdini films to find items from Houdini's career, including this film poster.

6) Stereotypes abound in American Variety Stage, 1870-1920. Items in the collection can be used as a gateway for discussion of discrimination, racism, and stereotypes.

Students can observe stereotyping in the language of the playscripts. Students will note that many scripts are written in the vernacular. They can also observe visual stereotyping in the motion pictures within the collection. For example, students might review A Wake in "Hell's Kitchen", and then identify which group is being stereotyped (the Irish). (Visit the American Memory Viewer Information page if you need assistance viewing these films.)