THE MINMIEL SHOWS which were so popular in the 1840's and 1850's were something far more than an amusing act incorporated in the program of a variety bill or occasionally presented at Barnum's Museum. They were a unique form of entertainment, thoroughly American in their inspiration, whose appeal was universal. The gay, rollicking walk-arounds, the sad, sweet notes of the sentimental ballads, the grotesque exaggerations and tall stories, the incessant cross-fire of shrewd jokes, were so native to the soil that the democracy crowded to hear them. The minstrels won instant popularity in New England, spread throughout the Middle West, and went to California with the gold-rush. Every city had several bands of black-faced comedians. Road companies playing in local halls or under canvas toured back and forth throughout the country. The most eminent in comedy or tragedy toiled with but slight reward, mourned an English actor, while "fantazias upon the bones, or banjo, have called forth the plaudits of admiring thousands."
Minstrelsy made its formal bow before an unsuspecting public when Dan Emmett "novel, grotesque, original and surpassingly melodious Ethiopian band, entitled the Virginia Minstrels", opened at the Chatham Theatre, in New York, early in 1843. But it had had predecessors. The most popular (for the first black-face performer on the American stage is not known) was the Jim Crow act of the comedian Thomas D. Rice. From the first time it was given (the records variously stating it was at Louisville, Cincinnati, and Pittsburgh about 1829) thunderous applause greeted the shuffling steps danced to the plaintive little song:
Wheel about, turn about, Do jis so, An' ebery time I wheel about I jump Jim Crow.
It was as popular in New York and Boston as in the cities of the Mississippi Valley; it was a success in London. Joseph Jefferson was introduced to the stage by way of Jim Crow. Rice brought him on, aged four, in a bag and dumped him on the floor:
Ladies and gentlemen, I'd have for you to know, I'se got a little darky here To jump Jim Crow.
The vogue for this act had prepared the way for the real minstrel shows. Their success, one magazine declared, was "unparalleled by any popular exhibition that has ever been offered in New York." Barnum early jumped aboard the bandwagon with his own Ethiopian Serenaders, but the most famous minstrel band was Christy's. Established at Mechanics Hall in New York in 1846, it gave its "unique and chaste" performance almost nightly for a period of ten years, drawing crowds which were always enthusiastic over the performers' tuneful songs, clever dancing, and engaging humor. At one time there were some ten minstrel shows playing simultaneously in New York; Boston had several companies; and Cincinnati was the minstrelsy center of the West. The Kentucky Minstrels, Bryant's Minstrels, the Nightingale Serenaders, the Washington Utopians, the Sable Brothers, Ordway's Aeolians. . . . Throughout the country -- traveling "a world of belated railway trains, steamboat explosions and collisions, and runaway stage horses" -- these blackface comedians sang and danced.
From the moment the interlocutor gave his stentorian command, "Gentlemen, be seated," and the end-men, resplendent in gaudy full-dress suits, wide white collars setting off their heavily blackened faces, took their places, happy audiences sank back to revel in a show whose spontaneity removed it far from the artificialities of so much of the contemporary theatre. Mistah Tambo and Mistah Bones spoke the language of the people -- for all their exaggerated dialect. Their jokes, timely and topical, were meant to be understood and laughed at by the man in the street. When they sang, it was a song all the world knew and could sing. Delighted audiences stamped and cheered when the minstrels swung into "The Essence of Old Virginnv" or "Old Dan Tucker":
Old Dan Tucker was a fine old man, Washed his face in a frying pan, Combed his hair with a wagon wheel, Died with the toothache in his heel.
There were many other favorites: "Stop dat Knockin' at My Door," "Dandy Jim of Caroline," "Hard Times Come Again No More," "Big Sunflower," "Root, Hog, or Die":
I'se de happiest darkee on de top ob de earth, I get fat as possum in de time ob de dearth, Like pig in a tater patch, dar let me lie, Way down in old Virginny, where it's Root, hog, or die. . . .