Imagine being a hairstylist for a traveling circus in the 1930s.
Curious? Then keep reading…
My September 1932 issue of Modern Beauty Shop has a feature article about Mrs. Eva Hill, a member of a family of circus performers and hairdresser for the traveling performers of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus in the 1930s.
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I thought this article would be great to share with you during this Halloween season for a very specific reason… and that reason is the famous 1932 movie Freaks. If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it. It is a dark movie and was very controversial at its time, although tame compared to American Horror Story.
The classic cult film stars actual sideshow performers from circuses at the time. The leading little lady from the sideshow performers in the movie, Daisy Earles, actually worked for Ringling Bros. at the same time Mrs. Hill was styling hair. I hope so much that Hill styled Earles hair for her.
Earles siblings were also working for Ringling Bros. at this time, including her co-star in Freaks, Harry Earles, who is her brother, but plays her love interest in the movie. That must have been awkward. They were called the “Doll Family” in showbiz due to their tiny stature from dwarfism and their natural beauty.
Below, find the entire article about Eva Hill, hairdresser to the circus. I have broken it up into mobile friendly reading pieces, but left nothing out.
And on to a peak inside the beautification of circus performers…
Beauty Under the Big Top
…an interview with Eva Hill hairdresser, Ringling’s circus
by Lillian Matheson
Backstage at the “Greatest Show on Earth”— elephants patiently standing by, awaiting the donning of royal robes and gilded imperial thrones; greyhounds rigged up as tiny reindeer, on their toes ready for the master’s signal; clowns blowing up their air-pumped roly-poly suits; huge-lipped Ubangi savages, certainly the answer to a lipstick manufacturer’s prayers; myriads of costumed women, tight-rope walkers, equestriennes, ballet girls, aerial acrobats, Hindu princesses…hundreds and hundreds of people all in feverish preparations for the shrill whistle of the ringmaster, signal for the “Grand Spectacle” to open.
“Backstage of the circus is much different from backstage at a theater”
Backstage of the circus is much different from backstage at a theater. It is really the back yard and to get there one passes the loud-voiced barkers selling tickets for weird side shows, on through the noisy big tent rapidly filling with excited children with blasé but just as excited parents. Suddenly there is sunshine and one finds oneself in a conglomerate outdoor scene with bits of Africa, India and the Continent in evidence.
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“Of course there is a beauty shop department”
“Of course there is a beauty shop department,” we are informed and on our way we go to the women’s dressing tent in search of Mrs. Eva Hill, hairdresser in charge. Several hundred women performers share this tent. Rows upon rows of little trunks with a bucket of water and a camp chair in front of each meet our eyes. The trunks are open and we note each contains a mirror and make-up material in the top, and space is provided below for costumes. Girls in all stages of nudity and costume-dress are busily “making-up” for the performance.
“all in a trunk, a portable permanent wave machine, a hand dryer, hairpins…”
In on corner of the dressing room, Mrs. Hill maintains her beauty shop…and a novel place it is. With more than 150 stops in a season, most of them one-day, obviously it is necessary for the circus beauty shop to have equipment which can be packed and moved with the greatest efficiency. So here it is— all in a trunk, a portable permanent wave machine, a hand dryer, hairpins, supplies for eyelash and eyebrow dyeing, hennas, hairdyes, creams and lotions for facial treatments, make-up accessories.
“Her brothers and sisters were all ‘circus people,’ she told us”
Mrs. Hill, herself, is an interesting character. Her brothers and sisters were all “circus people,” she told us, and she came into the business 12 years ago as a matter of course. She takes a part in one of the fancy horseback riding acts, and she is married to one of the aerial performers. She studied beauty culture work while on a vacation in the South one winter.
“except that which is done in the wagon dressing rooms of the star performers.”
Between shows, Mrs. Hill is always busy giving shampoos, finger waves, facial treatments and eyebrow and eyelash dyes as well as other beauty work. Most of the work is done in the dressing room tent or out in the “yard” except that which is done in the wagon dressing rooms of the star performers.
“With none of the standard conveniences, such as hot and cold running water”
With none of the standard conveniences, such as hot and cold running water, electric outlets or gas connections for heating irons or dryers in evidence, naturally we were interested to know how Mrs. Hill could give a shampoo or a wave in such surroundings.
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“with a light finger wave lotion and the person sits out in the sunshine until it is dry”
We were told that it was easy. “For a shampoo, for instance, we have several buckets of warm water brought in and I wash the patron’s hair until it is thoroughly clean. I hand dry the hair as much as possible because we have no electricity in the tent, you know. Then I wave the hair with a light finger wave lotion and the person sits out in the sunshine until it is dry. I am very, very busy on a bright sunshiny day, of course, because on dark rainy days it is almost impossible to do any hair work.
“Facial treatments can be given much more easily. We have many reclining camp chairs around here and I stretch my patron out on one of these so she can relax completely and then I give her a thorough treatment.
“Every once in a while in a while we can get hotel accommodations”
“Every once in a while in a while we can get hotel accommodations in a town, if our stop there is long enough to warrant it and then I can dry the hair with my electric hand dryer and give permanent waves with my portable machine. I have given several dozen permanent waves in a season.
“a woman prefers some privacy while her hair is being dyed”
“Hair dyeing and bleaching are two of my most popular services. These, however, I reserve for the cities where we stay at hotels, because the tent does not have the proper light, or enough access to hot water to make those services possible, and naturally, a woman prefers some privacy while her hair is being dyed.”
One of the most popular of her services, says Mrs. Hill, is eyebrow and eyelash dyeing. Many of the circus women are natural blondes, with eyebrows and eyelashes proportionately light, and they particularly appreciate this service which adds so much character to their make-up.
“practically all the beauty work is done in the dressing tent”
In spite of the fact that the circus traveled 8,758 miles between August 6 and August 27 alone this year, practically all the beauty work is done in the dressing tent, either in the morning, or between the afternoon and evening shows.
“in fact I claim the responsibility for most of this short bobbed hair”
Noting the number of actresses with smart short coiffured, we asked Mrs. Hill if she had specialized in haircutting. “Yes’” she replied, “in fact I claim the responsibility for most of this short bobbed hair. A year ago, following the current fashion for longer hair and ringlets, almost every girl in the circus wore her hair at least to her shoulders, or longer.
“I finally persuaded a few of the girls to have their hair cut short”
“At the beginning of this season, I pointed out to them the fact that all the stage and movie stars were having their hair cut short, and that all the news from Europe indicated that women were wearing their hair shorter over there also. With much argument, I finally persuaded a few of the girls to have their hair cut short, and when the others saw how becoming and convenient it was, there was a big demand for my hair-cutting services. Some of the girls in the circus are from Spain and Italy, and they are the Madonna-like type who look best with their dark hair worn long and straight. I usually advise them to keep it that way, but the average girl looks much younger and smarter with her hair worn short and softly waved.”
Thank you for reading! If you would like to read more of my beauty Halloween season posts, try these…