PT Barnum’s Circassian Beauty: Zuruly Hannum in 1870s CDV

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We sold this item at auction for $239
 in April, 2022.

This original CDV (carte-de-visite) image of a “Circassian Beauty” dates to the 1870’s. It is a wonderful studio portrait of 16-year-old Zuruly Hannum, a teenaged girl who appeared at P.T. Barnum’s Museum in New York.

Billed in an 1866 newspaper as “A most beautiful specimen of the ‘Circassian race,’ having been ransomed at a great expense while on her way to a Turkish market,” Hannum poses here wearing her ethnic costume. She wears her hair in the very distinctively wild style worn by Circassian women of the day.

“Circassian Beauties” in the 19th Century

A “Circassian Beauty” is a stereotype from the 19th century depicting women from the Circassian region in the northern Caucasus Mountains. This stereotype was popularized in the context of exotic beauty standards and entertainment, often featured in shows and advertisements.

Circassian women were showcased in exhibits during the decades following the Civil War. Notably, exhibitors like P.T. Barnum often narrated stories of white slavery, harems, and rescues of these women to captivate sideshow audiences.

The word “Circassian” is also linked to racial classification. The Caucasus Mountains inspired the term “Caucasian” in 18th-century human racial categorization.

P.T. Barnum’s “Circassian Beauty” Exhibit

In the early 1860s, after Russian conquest of their region of the Caucasus, nearly half a million Circassians migrated to Turkey. Many Circassian women, prized for their beauty, were sold into slavery.

P.T. Barnum capitalized on this interest and began exhibiting a “Circassian Beauty” at the American Museum in 1865. By the 1870s and 1880s, Circassian women were popular attractions at dime museums and traveling medicine shows.

Photographed by Ray Nias

This antique photo of Zuruly Hannum was photographed by Ray Nias (Sparta, Wisconsin). Nias was one of the earliest to set up shop in the American mid-west around the 1860’s. Other photographers of the period, such as James Birney Sabin, apprenticed under Nias.

The reverse side of CDV lists Hannum’s name, age and ‘Circassian Girl’ handwritten in pencil. Handwritten notations on the backs of such images can be incredibly helpful in valuing and identifying antique photographs.

If you’re interested in selling antique circus or sideshow photographs or memorabilia at auction with us, check out our antique photography consignment page for more information.

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