Sub-series D: Minstrel Shows
Scope and Contents
Subseries D of the Amherst College Dramatic Activities Collection consists of 0.5 linear feet of material related to minstrel shows at Amherst College from 1870-1939 (bulk, 1882-1906). The majority of the materials are playbills, programs, and advertisements for minstrel shows put on by Amherst College students but there are also some other materials like tickets, newspaper clippings, and photographs. Many of the shows were performed at Amherst College, but several shows were also performed in the surrounding area in the town of Amherst and the town of Northampton. There is also a small amount of material (newspaper clippings) from minstrel shows staged at Amherst College by the Amherst College Buildings and Grounds Department.
- Creation: 1826-2012
- Chi Phi (Organization)
- Delta Kappa Epsilon (Organization)
- Psi Upsilon Fraternity (Organization)
- Alpha Delta Phi (Organization)
- Beta Theta Pi (Organization)
Conditions Governing Access
There is no restriction on access to Subseries D Minstrel Shows for research use. Particularly fragile items may be restricted for preservation purposes.
Conditions Governing Use
Requests for permission to publish material from Subseries D. Minstrel Shows should be directed to the Archives and Special Collections. It is the responsibility of the researcher to identify and satisfy the holders of all copyrights.
Minstrelsy was an form of popular entertainment that is often considered one of the first distinctly American theatrical forms. Minstrelsy in its most recognizable form largely began in the late 1820s and early 1830s with the performances of Thomas Dartmouth “Daddy” Rice, whose created the wildly successful song-and-dance number “Jump Jim Crow”. By the mid-nineteenth century, minstrel shows almost exclusively referred to shows with white performers in blackface, and relied heavily on racist stereotypes. As minstrelsy developed and rose in popularity, the stereotyped caricatures were crucial role in solidifying pre-existing racist notions and in creating new ones.
Minstrelsy peaked in popularity in the 1840s, and by this time most minstrel shows generally followed a three act format. The first act would often begin singing and dancing meant to crudely parody the street performances of black Americans. The rest of the first act would usually consist of jokes and banter between the “interlocutor” and the “endmen”. The endmen (blackface performers at the end of the semicircle) were often the stock characters “Bones” and “Tambo”. The interlocutor was meant to be intelligent and clever as a sharp contrast to the endmen. The second act of the show was called the olio, and was variety acts that took place in front of the curtains while others prepared for the third section of the show. This section would often include a “stump speech”, where a performer in blackface would deliver a nonsensical speech in dialect on any number of topics. The third act of the show was a skit. These skits served as representions of pre-abolition life or parodied “high culture” like Shakespeare of operas.
In the postbellum North, minstrel shows often reflected the specific anxieties of white Northerners. The skits often demeaned black Americans by portraying them as unfit to integrate into American society. As a result, a popular stock character in the Postbellum North was an urban, black dandy who was frequently gaudily dressed. Other Northern anxieties were also lampooned in minstrel shows, like women’s rights, issues of class, and the “white slavery” in factories as the North industrialized.
Although blackface minstrelsy was likely one of the most widely successful forms of entertainment in the nineteenth century, during the beginning of the twentieth century its popularity was declining. However, the legacy of still minstrel shows persists throughout popular culture. Features of minstrel shows seeped into other forms of entertainment and the minstrel show was a central precursor to other forms like vaudeville, burlesque, and stand-up comedy.
From the Collection: 48 Linear feet (125 boxes)
Language of Materials
Subseries D. of the Amherst College Dramatic Activities Collection consists of production ephemera from minstrel shows produced by Amherst College students from 1870-1914, as well newspaper clippings from two minstrel shows produced in the 1930’s by the Amherst College Buildings and Grounds Department. The materials are mostly programs, playbills, and advertisements but there are a smaller number of photographs, tickets, and newspaper clippings.
This series is organized by production and then chronologically by production date. Many of the productions were staged by Amherst College fraternities under assumed troupe names. Where possible, folder titles reflect the stage name as well as the actual name of the groups performing.