Fairground and science : Showmen as science popularisers

19th century funfairs were « effervescent laboratories » where entertainment met discoveries. Despite what one could initially think, showmen played a leading, active and modernistic role in popularising science and technics to the masses.

On the verge of the 19th century, the fair was both entertaining with its colourful and animated images, dioramas, freaks and phenomena and commercial with the Santon and religious images trade.

Throughout the 19th century the amusement fair grew to offer new fairground attractions every year: Velocipede carousels, steam-powered merry-go-rounds, caterpillar rides as well as haunted houses, train rides and rally tracks.

At the Belle Epoque, fairgrounds appeared as a condensed version of the world. The masses, especially the most humble part of the population, gathered to discover the latest scientific wonders. Science was displayed everywhere: on posters for “Cabinets of curiosities, behind the glass cabinets of anatomical wax museums, on painted panoramas and across the showfronts of mechanical theatres.

Fairground amusements from the 19th and beginning of the 20th century allied an educational purpose and a taste for marvels to entertain while enlightening. They offered showy and spectacular insights to mathematics, natural science and human sciences.

Regarding mathematics, the probability theory only appeared at the beginning of the 18th century through the works of Montmort (1708), Bernouilli (1713) and De Moivre (The Doctrine of chances, 1718).

Probability became an autonomous branch of mathematic studies, diversifying their field of application. It is at this time that insurances theory and lotteries also appeared.

Although their approach was certainly not highly rigorous and mathematical, showmen used the probability theory to create and present their lottery games. They arranged their lottery wheels in order to define and modify the winning chances according to their need of the number of players.

Throughout the 19th century, the street science scholars in physics, chemistry and astronomy turned the boulevards into real science classes. They displayed amusing experiments that drove the public into indescribable delights. On fairgrounds, those physicists-demonstrators, scientists-illusionists or engineers-mechanics, called themselves Professors. They presented all the modern applications of sciences, especially those allowing magical effects: electricity, magnetism, optical science, air attributes and invisible inks.

On the other hand, fairs sometimes were at the origin of science progress, as exemplified with the invention of the telescope. In 1608, in Middleburg, Netherlands, Haus Lipperwey, a Dutch showman presented the crowd with a new magical object: an optical device, with two lenses end-to-end that distorted the reality and created bewitching effects. According to the legend, Galileo, seized the misleading object that was decried by his fellow scientist, and transformed it into a scientific observation device – the first refracting telescope – to prove them wrong.

In terms of zoology and botany, the fairground displays and representations of animals and plants were more concerned by showing rather than explaining. Yet it enabled to introduce the masses with exotic flora and fauna (lions, elephants…). Fairground zoos spread in the 19th century, following the funfair tradition of bear tamers under the same impulsion than world’s fairs and colonial exhibitions. The fairs offered living models to painters specialised in animal portraits. It also enabled the scholars from the Museum of Natural History and Jardin du Roy to scientifically study those specimens, allowing for instance Buffon to study orangutans.

Regarding Medicine, the apparition in the middle of the 19th century of anatomical museum on fairgrounds correlates the great medical progresses brought by Louis Pasteur and the hygiene-related campaigns. The “professors” and catalogues of these “museums” claimed an educational purpose. Through a so called scientific and moralizing speech they praised the benefits of health over the devastating effects of an unbalanced lifestyle.

These museums were divided into various sections, focusing on general anatomy, embryology, obstetric, surgery, phrenology, tetralogy, and anatomic pathologies (the latter presented venereal diseases in a room reserved for adults only). The anatomical wax figures were originally produced by specialized companies for medical studies before being commercialized and used by showmen in a rerouted function to satisfy the public’s taste for the monstrous and bizarre. Thus, the Paris school of Medecine official sculptor Jules Talrich (1826-1904) created his own anatomical wax museum on the Grands Boulevards and also provided others such the Doctor Spitzner’s museum and the Grand Panopticum de l’Univers which operated until 1958.

Healers and tooth pullers also followed the fairs to offer elixirs, balms and ointments with their own secret recipes.

In the field of human sciences, geography was in the spotlight. This infatuation was due to the expansion of colonial empires and the numerous science expeditions in the 19th century to explore the earth. Explorers and travelers became the popular heroes of their time. Their achievements were narrated in all the newspapers, gazettes, magazines and inspired many adventure novels. Showmen made the most of this enthusiasm for travel and exploration by recreating landscapes and sceneries of these unknown lands on their fairground attractions.

Thus, by the end of the 19th century, funfairs offered and immobile voyage all across the world. The visitors were invited on an imaginary journey through animated sets, cycloramas, dioramas and panoramas depicting the north pole, deserts, jungles, famous cities like Venice as well as the great engineering works the remodeled the face of the earth.

By presenting foreign lifestyles that were then considered as “primitive” on fairgrounds, showmen also employed ethnography. Funfairs offered a wide range of representations of foreign civilizations from the ethnographic museums with a certain educational and scientific approach ( including the ethnographic wax figures of Jules Talrich ) to trivial exhibitions with an entertainment purpose only.


Criminology and crime history – being halfway between history and sociology – has always attracted the crowd. People came to see crime scenes or witness criminals being pilloried. Before the French Revolution, the executioners even took advantages of this morbid interest by exhibiting the bodies in fairground stalls, giving them the idea to turn these temporary “shows” into permanent displays. Hence, in 1771 the very first permanent wax museum opened in Paris, boulevard du Temple, presenting wax models of popular criminals. Criminality became the main theme of all these bizarre “cabinets of curiosities”.

At the end of the 19th century, these exhibitions joined fairgrounds as traveling museum such as the Grand Panopticum de l’Univers that displayed around 1925 the wax depictions of the Bonnot gang.

Finally, if showmen contributed to the popularisation of technical innovations (phonograph, X-rays, hot-air balloons, automobiles, airplanes…) they also innovated themselves by creating specific steam engines, scaffoldings and actuators. Showmen set the safety and reliability standards that were later applied at a large scale within the industry.


This is an excerpt from a pluri-displinary article written by a group of scholars (from L’Université Paris XI – Orsay, le Centre d’ethnologie française, le CNRS-Musée national des arts et traditions populaires et l’Université Denis Diderot)

Authors :

Daniel RAICHVARG, Groupe d’histoire et de diffusion des sciences, Université Paris XI, Orsay — Zeev GOURARIER, Centre d’ethnologie française, CNRS-Musée national des arts et traditions populaires, (MNATP), Paris — Alain MONESTIER, conservateur au MNATP — Jean-Luc VERLEY, professeur de mathématiques, Université Denis Diderot.

Published on 31.03.17