carte de visite, 4 x 2.5 inches, circa 1870
Circassian beauties, or “Moss-haired Girls” as they were sometimes known,
reflect a curious legacy of racial stereotyping and sexual titillation.
Racial theories of the mid 19th century held that the people living in
the Circassian mountains near the Black Sea were examples of the “purest
stock” of the Caucasian race. Legend had it that the Circassians produced
the world’s most beautiful white women, who were consequently in great demand
for the harems of Turkish sultans.
Acting on this myth in 1864, Barnum sent one of his agents to Constantinople
to purchase one of these beautiful ladies in the slave market. Though Barnum
claimed his agent, dressed in full Turkish costume, had there seen a large
number of beautiful Circassian girls and women, for one reason or another
he failed to return with one. Not to be denied his harem slave, Barnum hired
a frizzy-haired local woman, put her in a Turkish costume and dubbed her
Zalumma Agra, Star of the East. Zalumma’s story was a mixture of pseudo-science,
folklore, and erotic suggestion about harem life.
The Circassian beauty was an instant success, soon to be followed by
a succession of ‘imported’ beauties with an enigmatic letter Z figuring
prominently in all their names. All of these women were local girls, most
of whom were encouraged to wash their hair in beer and then tease it out
for that exotic Circassian ‘do.
When the public began to lose interest in this tale, Circassian beauties
were frequently cast in the role of snake charmers in order to try and milk
a bit more erotic appeal out of the act.
The sitter for this portrait may be the woman Barnum billed as Zobeide
Luti, but I cannot be absolutely certain.
All Images and Text © James G. Mundie 2003 - 2010