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The Library of Congress > Teachers > Classroom Materials > Collection Connections > The American Variety Stage

[Detail] Harry Houdini performs the great milk can escape. 1908.

Collection Overview

American Variety Stage, 1870-1920, is a multimedia anthology that showcases popular entertainment forms, especially vaudeville, from 1870 to 1920. The materials include memorabilia documenting the career of Harry Houdini, English- and Yiddish-language playscripts, souvenir playbills and programs, theater posters, motion pictures, and sound recordings. Many items include the bawdy humor and ethnic stereotypes typical of the period.

Special Features

These online exhibits provide context and additional information about this collection.

Historical Eras

These historical era(s) are best represented in the collection although they may not be all-encompassing.

  • Development of the Industrial United States, 1876-1915
  • Emergence of Modern America, 1890-1930

Related Collections and Exhibits

These collections and exhibits contain thematically-related primary and secondary sources. Also browse the Collection Finder for more related material on the American Memory Web site.

Other Resources

Recommended additional sources of information.

There are currently no other resources for this collection

Search Tips

Specific guidance for searching this collection.

Each page of the playscripts and the playbills has been digitized as an image. This means that these items are not full-text searchable. However, the subject terms in the bibliographic records are searchable. Use the Subject Index to give you ideas for search terms and help narrow your search.

There are two categories of playscripts: English-language playscripts and Yiddish-language playscripts. There are no English translations available for the Yiddish-language playscripts. However, the subject headings in the bibliographic records for these playscripts are in English.

The ten sound recordings in American Variety Stage, 1870-1920 are not searchable. You can browse the Title List for Sound Recordings to find information about these items.

Searching this collection is very challenging. Students may be frustrated by the layers they must go through in order to find items relative to their search. Use the different indexes and special presentations to help guide you through the material. For help with searches, go to the American Variety Stage, 1870-1920 Subject Index or Author Index.

For help with general search strategies, see Finding Items in American Memory.

Several items in the collection contain ethnic stereotyping and bawdy humor typical of the period. Teachers may find that when using the collection with students, context-setting conversations about racism, stereotyping, and discrimination in turn-of-the-century America may be necessary.


U.S. History

The multimedia American Variety Stage, 1870-1920 collection relates to a wide range of themes in the history of the United States. The playscripts, sound recordings, motion pictures, and theater playbills reflect the growth of European immigrant populations in America and recount their assimilation experiences. The playscripts take up issues of labor, mass production, and mass consumption in the late 19th century. The collection touches on issues including women's rights and women's roles, urban culture, and, of course, popular entertainment. With guidance, students can use the materials in the collection to explore issues of discrimination, nativism, and racism in the U.S. during this time.

1) People from around the globe arrived on the shores of the United States between 1870 and 1920. The playscripts in this collection tell the stories of groups immigrating to the U.S. during this period. Using humor, the scripts describe immigrant experiences. In many of the playscripts, English words are written to reflect the accented speech of new arrivals.

Search on immigrant and immigration for scripts poking fun at the acculturation and assimilation process for different people coming to America. Also search on specific ethnic groups, such as Russian or Irish.

For example, search on immigrant to find scripts such as The Russian Emigrants.

Ve came to this country by steerage,

All ve did vass to sleep und to eat.

Ve didn't have much conversation,

'Cause we both got our brains in our feet.

Ve vant to give dancing mit pictures,

'Cause dancing iss good for the health.

The main thing ve vant iss a picture

Of how we can dance into wealth.

The Russian Emigrants, 1914, p. 7, (image 10)

2) Labor, mass production, and mass consumption can be explored by searching on work, industry, and labor. The Subject Index of American Variety Stage, 1870-1920 lists many different types of occupations from blacksmiths to clergy, newspaper reporters to actors and actresses. Students can search for descriptions of many types of workers and their jobs.

For example, by searching on salesman, students will find The Travelling Salesman. In it, the salesman describes his lifestyle as well as the industrial landscape of the cities that he frequents.

From Philadelphia, I went over to Pittsburgh, that's like getting out of bed and going into the cellar - to see why the furnace is smoking. Pittsburgh is the one black spot on the escutcheon of Pennsylvania. The soft coal smoke is so thick in Pittsburgh, that during a shower it rains ink, and the people wear McIntosh blotters.

The Travelling Salesman, 1913, p. 2, (image 4)

3) The collection covers 1870-1920, a period marked by activity concerning women's rights, especially suffrage. Search on women's rights, suffrage, and femininism to find items representing the views of the day, both pro- and anti-suffrage, as well as stereotypes of feminists.

Searching on suffrage, for example, will reveal text such as Laura E. Burt's original woman's rights stump speech.

Sixteenthly and last, be courageous - be brave and Oh!
girls we shall force the tyrant man to give us our rights,
including the right to play base ball--Then women will know
they are in the right field.

Laura E. Burt's original woman's rights stump speech, 1888, (image 5)

4) Many items in the collection illustrate urban life, especially the stereotypes of the country bumpkin and the city slicker. Search on urban vs. rural life and rural stereotypes to find these playscripts. In the Title List for Sound Recordings scroll to find The Arkansas Traveler, a classic comedy sketch that focuses on these stereotypes. (Visit the American Memory Viewer Information page if you need assistance listening to these recordings.)

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The Arkansas Traveler, Title List for Variety Stage Sound Recordings

5) American Variety Stage, 1870-1920 is an excellent resource for examples of popular culture. The 61 motion pictures in this collection record acts that audience members of the day saw. Browse the Title List for Motion Pictures, which is grouped by genre, to see a cross-section of the types of acts found in vaudeville and variety stage shows, such as comic sketches and dance.

Students can also explore the life of a legendary entertainer, Harry Houdini. The Houdini collection within American Variety Stage contains photographs and personal memorabilia of this popular magician's life and work.

Search on Houdini and Houdini films to find items from Houdini's career, including this film poster.

6) Stereotypes abound in American Variety Stage, 1870-1920. Items in the collection can be used as a gateway for discussion of discrimination, racism, and stereotypes.

Students can observe stereotyping in the language of the playscripts. Students will note that many scripts are written in the vernacular. They can also observe visual stereotyping in the motion pictures within the collection. For example, students might review A Wake in "Hell's Kitchen", and then identify which group is being stereotyped (the Irish). (Visit the American Memory Viewer Information page if you need assistance viewing these films.)


Critical Thinking

Chronological Thinking

By studying items in this collection, students can begin to explore historical issues of the period from 1870-1920.

1) Students might examine the theater playbills, playscripts, and motion pictures in order to look at how history was presented in theatrical productions. Search on history and tableaux to find items such as Spirit of '76, which shows a living version of the popular painting by Archibald Willard. (Visit the American Memory Viewer Information page if you need assistance viewing these films.)

2) Immigration was a defining event at the turn of the century. Throughout American Variety Stage, 1870-1920, items refer to the different ethnic groups. The collection can help students understand events in the history of immigration. Students can use these playscripts and films as a jumping off point to explore who was coming to the U.S. and when.

Search on Irish, Italian, German, English, and Russian. For example, search on German to find these song lyrics in The Man from Germany.

Immigration in American Memory, a Presentation of the Teachers Page, highlights items in the American Memory collections which tell the story of newcomers to the United States throughout the country's history.

Ven I goes from de beerhouse,
I meet a little lady, don't you know,
She says to me "Hello Hans Pumpernickel"
Come mit and let us go
To a caffe on the Broadway,
Dot is the place where you can blow
De pipe you brought from Schermany
And also your Scherman dough.

Ve vill have some sport,
Ven you follow my advice,
And go vit me
I vill take you all over
Some funny tings you vill see
You will see tings dot vill set you crazy
Tings you can only see in New York
You shall see Sapho ven you have lots of dough
So come on and be a sport.

The Man from Germany, 1900, p. 5, (image 4)

Historical Comprehension

The Brazilians treated me beautifully.
They thought I was the greatest man on
earth. They don't read the newspapers.
Down there I was greeted everywhere by my first
name. You know Theodore -- in Spanish is pronounced --
Toreador -- means -- a bull thrower.
I shall never forget my first night in Brazil.
We camped in a magnificent lemon grove.
It was a superb sight.
There I stood -- surrounded by nothing but lemons --
tears came to my eyes -- I felt as if I was back in the
Republican party again.
I was so disconcerted that I fell down -- and hurt
my leg -- I was rather alarmed -- as I thought I would never
be able to

My Policies, 1915, p. 3, (image 5)

The items in the collection point to historical issues of the day. Using word play and puns, the playscripts refer indirectly to a wide variety of political and social topics. Students can investigate these references to find out more about the period.

For example, by searching on politics students will find the monologue My Policies, performed by an actor playing the part of Theodore Roosevelt. Look for historical references in the text, such as Roosevelt's trip to Brazil and his desire to run again for the presidency.

Historical Analysis and Interpretation

In American Variety Stage, 1870-1920, different values and themes are explored, often in caricature and excess. Most playscripts provide monologue or dialogue, often from characters that are representative of social types - either by ethnicity, social class, or occupation. For example, in the playscript Twenty Minutes at Coffee Dan's, students will find in the cast of characters College Boy, Old Man, and Shop Girl. In the course of the play, Shop Girl and College Boy meet, fall in love, and marry, much to the chagrin of the Old Man, who is College Boy's father. Shop Girl, speaking to the Old Man, defends the marriage:

Shop girl

Let him make his own decision. What right have you to try and separate
us. I may not be a society girl but I'm a good girl. My family, though
poor, are as good as your own. I may not dress as well as your society
ladies, but I have to earn my clothes, and I will have you to know that
clean rags on a good woman is a medal of honor.

Twenty Minutes at Coffee Dan's, 1916, p.8, (image 10)

Search on class distinctions to find this and other playscripts dealing with issues of class and social status.

Historical Research Capabilities

The materials in the collection can help students formulate questions that lead to further research. For example, students can extract clues from the playscripts, such as a topical references, ethnic vocabulary words, or cultural practices, and then investigate these themes in other sources.

For example, advertisements in the playbills contain a wealth of information on material culture of the day. These advertisements can be used as a springboard for further research.

Students can browse the Title List for Theater Playbills and Programs, select a playbill, and view the pages. The playbill for The Supreme Monarch of Conjurors, Herrmann the Great advertises a variety of goods including "The Popular S.C. Corsets." Students might answer questions including, What is a corset? Who used them? Why?


Arts & Humanities

Using the playscripts and sound recordings in American Variety Stage, 1870-1920, students can practice a wide range of reading, language, writing, and listening skills.

Reading Comprehension

Students can use the playscripts to decipher the meaning of sketches peppered with vernacular, malapropisms, puns, and reversals. Search on pun, malapropisms, and language style to find sketches and monologues employing these devices.

For example, search on malapropisms to find The Shmoosers.


(Again in kinder tones) Will you please be so kind to let me have ten dollars for premilitary expenses (poking Abe).


What's that premilitary expenses?


What, you don't know what is it premilitary expenses? Pre- military expenses is the expenses we have before we go into business.


Don't you understand the English Languages? That's not premilitary, that's premillinery.

The Shmoosers, 1914, p.6, (image 7)

Literary Devices

  • Students can study the playscripts to identify instances of alliteration, assonance, and rhyming. Search on poem or browse through the song titles in the Subject Index to find examples.
  • Students can examine the playscripts to pinpoint rhetorical devices deployed comically through irony, hyperbole, and understatement. Search on slang, dialects, monologue, and speech for examples.

Creative Writing

Themes of heroism, love, honor, courage, pathos, and loyalty can be found in the playscripts, often presented through irony or sentimentality. Using this collection, students can practice creative writing by rewriting scripts. Students might write a modern version of a playscript. For example, they might rewrite a "war between men and women" to reflect gender issues of today.

Search on gender relations and marital relations to find playscripts dealing with the roles of men and women in society.


American Variety Stage, 1870-1920 contains a sampling of sound recordings of both music and dialogue. Students can use the recordings of vaudeville routines and dramatic recitations to hone their listening and comprehension skills.

By browsing the Title List for Sound Recordings, students can find items such as Desperate Desmond, a comic monologue recorded in 1915. (Visit the American Memory Viewer Information page if you need assistance listening to these recordings.)

 Desperate Desmond, Title List of Variety Stage Sound Recordings
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