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Even in the days before iPods and movies, Americans and Brits knew how to have fun. An exhibit exploring popular forms of entertainment from England and the United States during the 18th and 19th centuries is currently on display in the John Hay Library.

"Early American and British Popular Amusements" contains pieces from the personal collection of Don B. Wilmeth, professor emeritus of theatre, speech and dance, and from Brown's own special collections.

The exhibit includes hand-colored prints and engravings, playbills, broadsides and many visual representations of the types of amusements that were common in centuries past. These pieces illuminate the popularity of pleasure gardens, performance by child prodigies and even minstrel shows.

One of the earliest pleasure gardens — a kind of predecessor to today's amusement parks — was Vauxhall Gardens in London, founded in 1661 and closed in 1859. Pleasure gardens like Vauxhall typically featured musical entertainment, food and drink, hot air balloon rides and performers like tightrope walkers.

While most of the items on display showed entertainments that everyone could enjoy, such as satirical prints and pantomimes, places like Vauxhall "drew a fairly high- class clientele in the UK," Wilmeth wrote in an e-mail to The Herald.

The exhibit also showcases the many forms of indoor amusements from the early 19th century. Before the invention of the feature film, entertainment ventures included magic lantern exhibits and other devices that created optical illusions. "Early American and British Popular Amusements" features an aquatint by William Henry Payne, called "The Halfpenny Showman" that depicts a classic peepshow.

Another display in the exhibit includes the original 1884 program from an equestrian show, managed by W.F. "Buffalo Bill" Cody. These shows were usually what the performers believed to be recreations of frontier life and later went on to inspire the popular notions of the American Wild West.

Wilmeth wrote that he spent almost six months going through his collection to determine what to put in the exhibit, but the current display only holds one-third of his total collection.

"I just wanted to share them with the Brown community," he wrote. "This represents a large aspect of popular culture that most people know little about — and it was a great reflector of tastes and what was thought to be entertaining at the time."

"Early American and British Popular Amusements" will be exhibited at the John Hay from Sept. 13 – Oct. 28.


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