Currier and Ives Lithograph

IN another Currier and Ives poster a group of individuals, presumably a family, curiously study the "What Is It?" exhibit. Since Barnum never used the word "Negro" in his advertisements for "What Is It?" the exhibit was not overtly political. As a result the exhibit created a safe space for public discourse, and it also allowed for an educational experience for the whole family. The text reads in part, "It was found in Africa, in a perfectly nude state and with two others captured…At first it ran on all fours and was with difficulty that learned to stand as nearly erect as here represented. It is of the opinion of most scientific men that he is a connecting link between the WILD NATIVE AFRICAN AND THE ORANG OUTANG." Similar to other "What Is It?" advertisements the language presents the exhibit in the exotic mode. The staring citizens emphasize the idea that viewing "What Is It" will provide an educational experience for the whole family. This advertisement also infantilizes "What Is It?" stressing, "He is playful as a kitten and everyway pleasing interesting and amusing." Furthermore, the lithograph establishes the inequality that exists between the museum patrons and "What Is It?" through the depiction of physical difference. "What Is It?" appears hunched over, supporting himself with a stick whereas the onlookers stand in the "normal" upright position. Rosemarie Garland Thomson writes, "The nineteenth century freakshow was a cultural ritual that dramatized the era's physical and social hierarchy by spotlighting bodily stigmata that could be choreographed as an absolute contrast to "normal" American embodiment and authenticated corporeal truth."4

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