10 Medical Conditions Once Found in Sideshows

General Tom Thumb and his wife Lavinia Warren are pictured here in 1863. Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Throughout history dwarves were kept in bondage and often treated as pets in royal courts [source: Adelson]. But the treatment of dwarves in sideshows pointed to another kind of troubling trend that occurred in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Dwarfism was medicalized and showcased as a kind of unfortunate disability [source: Adelson]. This coincided with the freak shows and sideshows that were becoming increasingly popular. And make no bones about it — dwarves were wildly popular acts. General Tom Thumb (whose real name was Charles Stratton) and his wife Lavinia Warren were so feted in mid-19th century America that breathless coverage followed their wedding, and they received an audience with Abraham Lincoln at the White House [source: Pednaud].

But keep in mind that part of the appeal of dwarf acts was often how "regular" they appeared: Tom Thumb and Warren, for example, toured with an infant posing as their child, even though it was simply a different baby in every city. It wasn't much of an act, but it was a way of displaying dwarfism as spectacle.

Author's Note: 10 Medical Conditions Once Found in Sideshows

It's hard not to read about some of the sideshow performers on our list and resent anyone who tried to take advantage of them. But let's remember that there are contemporary sideshows that work to present a wide range of disabilities and empowerment to the public. Check out some of the cooler acts here.

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