The Circassian Beauty Archive

A young woman with pale, smooth skin and dark, frizzy hair encircling her head is seated formally in exotic dress near what seems to be Middle Eastern furniture and sculpture. Zalumma Agra, "Star of the East," was (at least according to Barnum) rescued from the slave markets of Constantinople. She was said to be the daughter of a prince from the mountainous region of the Black Sea--the purported birthplace of the Caucasian race. As the "purest" type of white person, Circassian women were said to be the most beautiful on earth, prized by Turkish sultans for their harems. Surprisingly proficient in English, and mysteriously deficient in her knowledge of "Circassia," Zalumma Agra was nonetheless a highly popular attraction at the American Museum. "Circassian Beauties" became a mainstay of dime museums and side shows until the end of the nineteenth century, attracting white audiences fascinated by the "exotic East" and preoccupied by issues of race.

There are 5 matching records. Displaying matches 1 through 5 .


Circassian Girl and Prize Old Man, Detail
This sketch probably dates from the late 1890s, when Homer was caring for his elderly and eccentric father, Winslow Homer, Sr. The artist caricatured his father's mane of long hair by comparing it to the famously wild hairstyle of the "Circassian" women exhibited in circus sideshows and dime museums. The informal sketch suggests the degree to which, after nearly a half century of exhibition, the image of the "Circassian" women was familiar in American culture.
Exhibit: Circassian Beauty.
Museum Room: Picture Gallery.
Document Type: Image.


Circassian Beauty, Carte de Visite
This carte de visite photo of a "Circassian" woman might have been sold as a souvenir to a dime museum or circus sideshow visitor, where "Circassian" women were regularly exhibited during the decades following the Civil War. Exhibitors frequently spun tales of "white slavery," harems, and rescue around the "Circassian" women to enthrall audiences.
Exhibit: Circassian Beauty.
Museum Room: Picture Gallery.
Document Type: Website.


"Horrible Traffic in Circassian Women—Infanticide in Turkey," New York Daily Times, August 6, 1856
In the early 1860s, after Russian conquest of their region of the Caucasus, nearly half a million Circassians migrated to Turkey. Many Circassian women, prized for their beauty, were sold into slavery. This article, which originally appeared in a London newspaper, describes this slave economy in detail, including the speculation that the unwanted children of African slaves and Turkish masters were disposed of by infanticide. This report from another slaveholding society would likely have interested Americans, then embroiled in their own deepening rifts over race and the enslavement of African Americans. Barnum capitalized on this interest and began exhibiting a “Circassian Beauty” at the American Museum in 1865. By the 1870s and 1880s, Circassian women were popular attractions at dime museums and traveling medicine shows.
Exhibit: Circassian Beauty.
Museum Room: Picture Gallery.
Document Type: Text.


Letter from P. T. Barnum to John Greenwood, 1864
P. T. Barnum wrote this letter to his employee John Greenwood during Greenwood’s 1864 trip to Cyprus in search of “a beautiful Circassian girl.” Barnum’s instructions to Greenwood reflect the showman’s careful attention to the smallest details in his manipulation of public perception. Barnum emphasized the elements that would make his newest “human curiosity” appear exotic, regardless of her actual origins. In 1865 Barnum exhibited Zalumma Agra, the “Star of the East,” in the American Museum, promoting her as “the purest example of the white race.”
Exhibit: Circassian Beauty.
Museum Room: Picture Gallery.
Document Type: Text.


Zalumma Agra Portrait
Barnum put his first Circassian Beauty, Zalumma Agra (Star of the East) on display in 1865 and promoted her as an example of racial purity. As in many of his exhibits, Barnum publicized Zalumma Agra's story and mixed scientific theories of the origins of the Caucasian race with titillating suggestions of harem life and a heroic rescue from certain slavery. More likely Barnum hired a local actress to play the part of a Circassian woman and Zalumma Agra was followed a series of such performers.
Exhibit: Circassian Beauty.
Museum Room: Picture Gallery.
Document Type: Image.