The minstrel show, which reached the height of popularity
during 1850-70,1 caricatured
a variety of ethnic types, including Germans, Irish, and
blacks, but each ethnic group's popularity varied over
the 1800s. During the 1840s the Irish were the favorite target,
at least in the north, "principally because the Irish were
a rapidly growing cheap labor force that drive wages down,
but also because they were Catholics, who natives feared
were Papal agents sent to corrupt the American democratic
experiment."2 The typical
minstrel show Irishman was a heavy-drinking brawler with
a brogue accent, but by the 1850s more agreeable representations
appeared, perhaps in part because of the popularity of romantic
Irish songs.3 During
the 1870s minstrel show entertainers Edward Harrigan and
Tony Hart teamed up to portray Irish ethnic life in New York
City: "the team won unprecedented success by weaving an
intricate web of ethnic life and conflict with the Irish
at the center and blacks, Germans, and Italians intertwined
around them."4 The Irish
continued to be portrayed in varying manners, usually enforcing
stereotypes. For example, one vaudeville act set in Hell's Kitchen showed drinking
during an Irish wake.5
Observer Douglas Dilbert
noted that Irish acts predominated vaudeville as well, including
one favorite of stag audiences during the 1870s-80s, "The
Roving Irish Gents."6 But
these were generally one act among several, because vaudeville
had a kind of diversity of its own making. At Tony Pastor's 14th Street theater on October 24, 1881, eight acts
A Ella Wesner, who sang English music hall numbers with
monologue interpolations. . . . the Leland Sisters in a duet;
a singer of musical absurdities, Dan Collier; an Irish comic
act consisting of songs, dances and 'bumps,' or hard
falls, in which Mack sank a hatchet into Ferguson's skull,
protected by a trick wig; Lillie Western's performances
on concertina, banjo and xylophone successively and an acrobatic
pantomime act in which Frank McNisk performed splits, rollovers
and vaults with a chair, table and a broom."
By 1896 there were seven vaudeville theaters in New York
City, and by 1910, 31 populated the Big Apple.7 In
1897 Around the World with the Yellow Kid featured Ireland (February 14),
showing readers plenty of green frocks, a snake strangling
a man, and large crowd fighting in the background. The Irish
had not beat the stereotypes that classified them yet.
1 Barth, Gunther. City People: The Rise of Modern City Culture in Nineteenth-Century America . New York: Oxford University Press, 1980.
2 Toll, Robert C. Blacking Up: The Minstrel Show in Nineteenth-Century America. London/Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 1974. 175.
3 Toll 176.
4 Toll 177.
4 "A Wake in "Hell's Kitchen." United States: American Mutoscope and Biograph Company, [1900?]. Library of Congress American Memory Web Site. 12 Jan. 2003 <http://memory.loc.gov>.
5 Gilbert, Douglas. American Vaudeville: Its Life and Times. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1968 (1st ed. 1940). 62. "Irish
acts predominated, blackface ran a close second, and Dutch,
or German, dialect made an important third."
6 Barth 211.