Circassian Beauties – Beauty, Bondage and Barnum

Victorian people were fascinated by Circassian Beauties. 

From the middle ages, Circassian women were considered the most beautiful in the world.

Their North Caucasus homeland stretches along the Caucasian mountain range at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, bounded by Russia and the Middle East.

For the notion of Circassian Beauties, we can partly thank Cosimo de’Medici, who had an illegitimate son with a Circassian slave.

The pseudo-science of Johann Friedrich Blumenbach further fuelled the idea of Circassian beauty.

His infatuation with a skull saddled Circassians with a reputation as “the purest and most beautiful whites”.

And it’s why every year millions of people around the world still describe themselves as being ‘White Caucasian’.

Blue-Eyed Cats

A painting by Abdülmecit II of the Ottoman Empire depicting his own Circassian imperial consort

Circassian women were renowned as high-status slaves, particularly in the Ottoman Empire.

Their reputation for being extremely beautiful and elegant became a trope in Western Orientalism

Voltaire describes Circassian women at a harem:

These maidens are very honorably and virtuously instructed how to fondle and caress men; are taught dances of a very polite and effeminate kind; and how to heighten by the most voluptuous artifices the pleasures of their disdainful masters for whom they are designed.

Circassians were famous for having “rosy pale” or “translucent white skin”.

While most had fair or dark blonde and red hair combined with greyish-blue or green eyes, many also paired very dark hair with very light complexions.

Their harem rivals envied Circassians for their “whiteness”, damning them as part of the “hateful race of blue-eyed cats.”

 

Circassian Beauties and Lotions

Beauty product advertisements, from the 18th century on, used the lure “Circassian” in the title.

“Circassian Lotion” was sold in 1806 for the skin, at fifty cents the bottle.

A snip, if it did all it claimed!

“A sovereign remedy for surfeits, scorching from the heat of the sun, freckles, blights from cold and chills of winter, scorbutic, pimples or eruptions of the face and skin, however violent or disfigured, animalcula generated under the cuticle or outer skin, prickley heat, shingles, ring worms, redness of the nose and chin, obstinate cutaneous diseases, and for every impurity or unnatural appearance with which the skin may be affected; to be used as a common wash for clearing and improving the complexion, and in a superior degree to preserve, soften, cleanse and beautify the skin”.

The Circassian figure was much admired.

In the late 18th century, Western European couturiers claimed that

“the Circassian Corset is the only one which displays, without indelicacy, the shape of the bosom to the greatest possible advantage; gives a width to the chest which is equally conducive to health and elegance of appearance.”

Moss-haired Girls

 

B.T. Barnum saw the profit in this idea of gorgeous, languorous slave-girls from an exotic land.

In a letter of May 1864, Barnum authorized his agent, John Greenwood Jr., to spend up to $5,000 in gold each (a huge sum in that day) for two Circassian beauties.

When Greenwood failed to slip into Istanbul slave markets, Barnum signed up Catholic Irish girls from Lower Manhattan to perform as “Circassian Beauties”.

There were a few job requirements:

The woman must be pretty, or even beautiful, by Victorian standards.

She would wear exotic clothing, generally more revealing than that worn by European and American woman of that era.

She might display striking jewelry and other ornaments, such as strings of pearls or richly embroidered clothes.

Must have a name with Z in it like Zalumma Agra, Zuruby Hannum, Azela Pacha, Zribeda, and Zoledod.

Big hair.

 

Entirely Barnum’s invention (along with the Z names), the “big hair” was a huge mass of hair, washed in beer and egg-whites and teased to a fake afro.

It was done up “in a great mass, like the boll of a ripened dandelion,” one journalist wrote, and was large enough to “just about fit a bushel basket.”

“The hair may have been an effort to suggest blackness … a nod to popular conceptions of African female sexuality,” wrote Charles King, an expert of the Caucasus at Georgetown University.

The trend spread, with supposedly Circassian women featured in dime museums and traveling medicine shows, sometimes known as “Moss-haired girls”.

When the original fad dimmed, they introduced traditional circus acts, like sword swallowing.

Circassian Day of Mourning

Circasian Day of Mourning

All this fantasizing about Circassian Beauties didn’t stop the Russians from wiping out most of their race.

In 1864, The Circassian people suffered a genocide you probably haven’t heard of.

Those who survived the 101-year long Russo-Circassian war were exiled from their own country.

Most of these died while being transported to Ottoman lands.

So many died at sea many Circassians didn’t eat fish for years in memory of their loved ones.

Today 90% of people of Circassian descent now live in other countries rather than their homeland.

 

Every May 21st is Circassian Day of Mourning.

Siobhan is a freelance writer, research addict and lover of twisted history. If you like horrible but amazing history, check out her website www.interesly.com or Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/interesly. Or you can reach her through www.siobhanoshea.com.