Disability Studies Quarterly
Summer 2005, Volume 25, No. 3
Copyright 2005 by the Society
for Disability Studies

Midget Cities:
Utopia, Utopianism, and the Vor-schein of the 'Freak' Show

Richard Howells
Institute of Communication Studies
University of Leeds
Leeds, LS2 9JT, UK
E-mail: r.p.howells@leeds.ac.uk

Michael M. Chemers, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Dramatic Literature
335 Purnell Center for the Arts
Carnegie Mellon University
Pittsburgh, PA 15213
E-mail: chemers@andrew.cmu.edu


In the early half of the 20th century, World's Fairs sprang up periodically across the United States. One corollary to these colossal exhibitions was the emergence of the phenomenon of "Midget Cities," sites connected to the Fairs where professional performers of short stature would gather to work, and live, in communities constructed to be miniature representations of "normal" scale buildings. This article is an historical account of the three largest Midget Cities of the United States of the 20th century. We then proceed with a theoretical analysis of both our specific case-studies and of the freak show in general, guided by the German Utopian thinker Ernst Bloch. Along the way we consider the advantages of Midget Cities to their residents and performers, together with the utility (or lack thereof) of recovering the occult history of the "freak show" to disabled people in general. We conclude by contemplating the usefulness of a Utopian analysis of "freakery" to the community, inclusive of but not limited to, both disability and its study.

Keywords: midget cities, freak shows, Ernst Bloch, Utopianism

Freak shows and Utopia are seldom considered in the same breath — but that is precisely what we propose to do here. Even taken separately, there are those who still contend that neither topic is appropriate for scholarly analysis: Utopias are for dreamers and freak shows either offensive or (at best) trivial. Yet the central motivation for Disability Studies, as articulated by Paul Longmore in his collection Why I Burned My Book (2003), ought to be the improvement of the material realities of disabled individuals; the Utopian qualities of this mission have been recognized recently in the writings of Lennard J. Davis and other senior scholars of the discipline. With the freak show, Disability Studies confronts an issue which, like it or not, has been a strident and historical feature of both American and European popular culture. Here, we proudly follow Robert Warshow, that pioneer of the intellectual pursuit of the vernacular, who declared: "I take all that nonsense seriously" (1962, p. 28). So do we.

Davis has proposed what he describes as a "dismodernist" approach that quite explicitly "proposes a utopian way of rethinking the body and identity" (2002, p. 5). It is possible to identify three parts of Davis' argument which we can usefully combine with our own examination of midget cities in history and Utopianism in theory. First, Davis reminds us of the important differences between impairment and disability: the first of these is a physical fact, the second of them turns impairment "into a negative by creating barriers to access" (p. 12). In the case of people of short stature the case is still more clearly seen: Being a "midget" is not even intrinsically an impairment at all. It only becomes a disability in a world scaled exclusively to the needs of the (presumed) majority. Within the narrowly-defined confines of a "Midget City," then, people of short stature are no longer disabled. Indeed, as we shall see, it was the visiting "Gullivers" who are rendered ironically disabled in Liliputia and her descendants.

Second, Davis contends that disability is an issue for everyone, and not just disabled people. In his essay "People with Disability are You," Davis works toward "the idea that 'them' is actually 'us'" (p. 4). It is not simply that anyone can become disabled (he uses the example of Christopher Reeve who was suddenly transformed from Superman to quadriplegic). It is even more significant that "the dismodern era ushers in the concept that difference is what all of us have in common" (p. 26). So, our analysis of the Midget Cities is not specifically about freak shows, people of small stature or even disabled people as a whole. Rather, it uses specific (and, we believe, interesting) examples as a jumping-off point for the consideration of something that not only could but already does affect everyone.

Finally, Davis argues that disability study is a very good way to begin thinking about oppression in general and should not therefore serve simply as the final destination of a narrow branch of social study. He explains:

Disability studies can provide a critique of and a politics to discuss how all groups, based on physical traits or markings, are selected for disablement by a larger system of regulation and signification. So it is paradoxically the most marginalized group — people with disabilities–who can provide the broadest way of understanding contemporary systems of oppression (2002, p. 29).

Indeed, the relevance radiates still wider when Davis ponders the possibility that, "we are all disabled by injustice and oppression of various kinds" (p. 32). It is in the context of these three points that we wish to bring a Utopianist analysis to the study of the Midget Cities.


On May 19, 1906, some 100,000 people reportedly patronized the grand reopening of the Dreamland theme park at Coney Island under the direction of Samuel Gumpertz, following his tremendous success managing variety entertainments at the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair. World's Fairs, colossal displays of industry and commerce held on grounds specifically constructed for that purpose, were convened in various Western metropolises throughout the latter half of the 19th century and throughout the 20th century as well. The first such international exhibition had been London's Crystal Palace Exhibition in 1851, and a simulacrum had been attempted in New York City in 1853. Despite the capable guidance of P. T. Barnum, the New York Crystal Palace "Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations" was doomed to fail (see Bogdan 1988, pp. 47-54). In his memoirs, Barnum describes the event as "following quite too closely on its London prototype, and [I] assured the projectors that I could see in it nothing but certain loss" (Barnum 1855, p. 386). The event site was too far, Barnum thought, from the center of the city, and had been managed badly; Robert Bogdan has further suggested that the fair struggled because of its failure to integrate professional freak performers (1988). The major American World's Fairs that were to follow, including the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition and the phenomenally successful 1904 St. Louis Exposition, did include freaks, as well as dramatic and variety amusements.

Dreamland's Liliputia, however, was markedly different than the traditional "dinkeyville" freak exhibition booths that, along with the cheap attractions of the variety amusement twilight world that had profitably attached itself to the World's Fairs; disreputable, vaguely criminal enterprises creating lurid, rickety mazes of shops and performance booths alongside the main attractions in Philadelphia and St. Louis. Liliputia was an attraction in its own right, modeled on the fictional land of tiny folk from Jonathan Swift's popular 1796 satirical novel Gulliver's Travels.

Liliputia was modeled, more or less, after a "Bavarian Village" of around the 15th century, although the designers clearly strove more for romance than historical accuracy. In keeping with the general theme of the World's Fairs, Dreamland featured various "ethnic" villages representing "authentic" reconstructions of foreign settlements. The central building of Liliputia, "Katzenjammer Castle," does certainly resemble a medieval German castle, favoring close-grouped turrets, an abundance of decorative machicolations, picturesque dormers, half-timbered gables, a barbican-style entry, labyrinthine side-streets, and arched doors, containing a plethora of shops, nooks, and apartments. All of this was constructed at half-size, to create an organic-seeming atmosphere for the residents. The result was a fairy-tale sort of atmosphere, a strange, dark miniature city placed weirdly among the incongruously tacky souvenir stands, caricature artist booths, Ferris wheel, and the brightly Romanesque, alabaster galleries and promenades that dominated the other zones of the park (see "Views of Coney Island," p. 19; also "History of Coney Island," pp. 24-6). In the World's Fairs in Philadelphia and St. Louis, performers with anormate bodies or behaviors, broadly classified as "freaks," had been quite literally marginalized; confined to the edges of the fairgrounds. At Coney Island, ever the home of the freak, Liliputia was given prime, central real estate, with particularly choice beach access, and became one of the most talked-about attractions in the country.

Liliputia contained a circus, a firehouse with a half-sized fire engine pulled by miniature horses, a live band, a military garrison, areas for "surf bathing," and saddle pony riding and miniature automobile rides for children. But the central attractions were the residents of this performance community. For the seven years of its operation until it was destroyed by fire in 1911, Liliputia was the home and workplace of some 300 persons of short stature of that broad type that was then commonly referred to as "midgets." "Midget" was a descriptor used frequently to identify persons exhibiting growth-hormone deficiencies than persons, generally referred to as "dwarfs," whose stature was the result of various forms of skeletal dysplasia. In the words of a study, commissioned by the U.S. Eugenics Records Office, of a 1933 Midget City in Chicago:

It may be of interest at this time to distinguish between the terms 'midget' and 'dwarf,' not in any technical sense, but in the sense used by the midgets and dwarfs themselves in the theatrical business. The small people — that is, the well-proportioned, only little in size — like to call themselves midgets and resent being called dwarfs. A midget will point to an achondroplastic dwarf and explain, that is if one gets into his confidence, that 'I am a midget, well-proportioned, normal person, only small in body; while the word dwarf is applied only to fellows like that,' pointing to an achondroplastic...("Fifty-Three Midgets," 1933).

Modernly, of course, we balk at this facile reduction of more than 100 types of dwarfism to these two broad and ultimately meaningless categories. It is interesting to note, however, that the distinction between the terms "dwarf" and "midget" seems less important to the Eugenics Office field agent who compiled data on the performers of the 1933 Chicago Midget City (see below) than it was to the performers themselves. Certainly it was well-established in the traditions of 19th-century theatre that performers whose dwarfism was related to hormonal anomalies, with their child-like appearance, were considered more aesthetically pleasing, therefore more profitable to feature, and by extension more valuable to the troupe and able to command a higher salary than those who exhibited skeletal dysplasia (a notable exception being the celebrated Broadway star Hervio Nano, creator of the popular "Gnome Fly" role of the mid-19th century). Carnival anecdotes of the period, notably Daniel Mannix's Step Right Up, are fond of relating tales of conflict between the manufactured boundaries of these artificial freak hierarchies, which for all their supposed detachment from "normal" society employ all the familiar techniques for stigmatization; racism, classism, and the sort of micro-ableism the officer describes above (I may be strange, but I'm not as strange as that fellow), as well as, in other circumstances, reverse micro-ableism (I wish I was as strange as that fellow). In any case, neither term was widely considered to be offensive in 1904, or even 1933, but both terms have since taken on unpleasant connotations, and advocacy groups actively discourage their use.

The 300 performers gathered to Liliputia in 1904 were in the main professionals who had appeared at World's Fairs and carnivals across the United States. At Liliputia, they became shopkeepers, street vendors, lifeguards, and performers of drama, music, and dance. The fire brigade would perform staged "false alarms," rushing through the city with a diminutive wagon pulled by miniature ponies. Fire was a great worry in turn-of-the-century America, and as Coney Island was the so-called "America In Miniature," Dreamland daily staged a colossal production of a heroic fire rescue of a building loaded with pyrotechnic special-effects; Liliputia's fire was a replica of Dreamland's; a miniature of a miniature. Meanwhile, soldiers performed Guard Mount and a Dress Parade. Particularly tall men were employed to guide visitors through the city, and a giant actor would re-enact Gulliver's adventures among the Liliputians. After business hours, the city ceased to be a performance venue and became, however artificially and temporarily, just another Coney Island beach community, like the Jewish and Italian immigrant neighborhoods surrounding it.

Featured among the 300 at the 1904 debut was one of the most famous actresses of her day, the Countess Magri, née Mercy Lavinia Warren Bump but known throughout the world as Mrs. General Tom Thumb. Lavinia had married the renowned actor and singer Charles Sherwood Stratton (better known as "Gen. Tom Thumb") in an 1865 wedding so celebrated by the elite of New York City that it knocked news of the Civil War off the front page of the New York Times for three days. The Thumbs had met the Lincolns before their European honeymoon, where they hobnobbed with such luminaries as Napoleon III at Compeigne. During their marriage, the Thumbs were devoted and inseparable, and performed in traditional melodrama and vaudeville-style "levees" all over the world, as far off as Japan and Thailand, and were widely held to be among the most recognized Americans of the 19th century (see Fitzsimons 1970, Saxon 1989; Chemers 2001).

Stratton had died of "apoplexy," most likely congestive heart failure, in 1881, following his inability to recover from shock after a narrow escape from a catastrophic hotel fire. Lavinia was remarried on April 6, Easter Monday of 1885, to Italian actor, musician, and bon-vivant Count Primo Magri, and began to tour with the Count and his brother, the Baron Ernesto Magri (the brothers, both men of short stature, had been granted papal titles). The Count, known for his flashing temper and his disdain for United States theatre culture, may have been piggybacking on Lavinia's renown and professional acumen (she and Stratton had been successful entertainment entrepreneurs), but Lavinia too had fallen on a hard patch in her own career. Stratton had squandered his fortune on horses, yachts, and cigars, and left Lavinia with little to live on, and Lavinia had experienced further reversals. In 1892, in particular, she was the object of a lawsuit levied against her for default on payment for a Denver museum. Lavinia maintained throughout her life, however, that she felt it a civic and artistic duty to continue to perform, writing in her memoirs: "When asked if I don't get tired of this public life, I am wont to answer that in a sense I belong to the public. The appearing before audiences has been my life. I've hardly known any other" (Magri 1979, p. 172).

Whatever her motivation, Lavinia and her ennobled husband and brother-in-law helped Gumpertz to inaugurate Liliputia in June of 1904. The Countess and her entourage arrived in Hoboken, New Jersey, on the steamship Rotterdam, reportedly out of Budapest, in a highly-publicized event on May 11 of that year. Gumpertz had let out that Lavinia had been on a mission to a colony of midgets in Budapest, and had retrieved some 64 persons who were theatrically frightened by the sight of tall buildings, and, according to reports, hid in nooks and crannies all over the ship and had to be cajoled out, according to a New York Times report. Such childish behavior was a stereotype of midgets at the time, and it is likely that Gumpertz capitalized on the popular prejudice when staging such publicity events as the Rotterdam's arrival; whether Lavinia had actually tapped a colony of Eastern European midgets is not known, but records from the U.S. Eugenics Office show quite a large sampling of performers of German, Bohemian, Russian, and Ashkenazy Jewish descent at Liliputia, as well as African and Asian, and a similar range at the later 1933 Chicago Midget City.

The original Midget City was destroyed, with the rest of Dreamland, in a fire in 1911, but its success spawned a host of imitators. A "Midget Village" appeared as part of the Century of Progress International Exposition of Chicago in 1933, like Dreamland's built to half scale and nestled among a cluster of "foreign villages." In addition to a large outdoor stage and auditorium which featured continuous daily performances, the City had a grocery, butcher, millinery, shoe repair shop, jail, bakery, pharmacist, beauty parlor, cigar store, and a filling station, all operated entirely by the persons of short stature who resided permanently on the site. This venue was so successful that by 1934 it had quadrupled in size and was rechristened "Midget City," and featured, according to the Exposition's newsletter, Progress:

a municipal building, a mayor, a city council, a police department, a department of public works, a church, a newspaper, a school, and everything to give evidence that it has matured from a young village into a healthy, enterprising city bustling with activity (p. 1).

Records regarding this event are quite extensive, because the show was targeted by the U. S. Eugenics Office and the performers were repeatedly mined by agents of that office for genealogical information (these Eugenics Office records are currently in the custody of the American Philosophical Society).

The architects of the Chicago Midget Village were showmen Stanley R. Graham and Nate Eagle, and they reproduced their success at San Diego's Balboa Park, for the California Pacific International Exposition of 1935. The California incarnation housed some hundred performers and featured a new addition to the Midget City tradition: a "Midget Farm," with miniature livestock, capable of producing miniature corn and grain in scaled-down fields. This event headlined Eleanor Stubitz, an acclaimed impersonator of Mae West. The village closed down in 1936, to be replaced by a "Mickey Mouse Circus," featuring both midgets and full-sized elephants (Amero, 2005).

The San Diego Midget Farm was the last of the grand-scale incarnations of these small-scale performance phenomena, but the concept of a "Midget Village" persists in the United States' collective imagination in the form of an urban legend. Articles dated as late as 2001 describe a community of pariahs of short stature living in self-imposed isolation in a community on Mt. Soledad, near La Jolla, ostensibly constructed in 1939 by the cast of Munchkins wealthy from the filming of the MGM blockbuster The Wizard of Oz. No evidence of such a community, however, can be traced to any credible source, and in 2003, San Diego University journalism student Kenneth Smith reported in the Daily Aztec that he went in search of this mythical community, and found nothing apart from two smallish and oddly-designed houses.

Eugenics, Ergonomics, and Exploitation

What to make of such evidence of scaled-down cities designed for, operated by, and populated entirely by persons of short stature? In what way does the existence, ephemeral as it may have been, of these cities complicate the understanding of freakery or the status of little people in America in the early half of the 20th century? What lessons does the examination of such evidence suggest for the new century?

As we begin to consider the polymorphous and polyamorous concept of Utopia, it is important to foreground one critical fact of the Midget Cities; they were designed primarily to be commercial performance venues, exploiting the general public's curiosity about persons of short stature in the most profitable way possible. The fairy-tale architecture and references to Gulliver's Travels were all part of this highly-calculated design, and the half-scale accommodations and apartments were intended to enhance that aesthetic quality and its attendant ability to part Americans from their paychecks. We cannot reasonably list the manufacturing of a safe haven for the benefit of little people as a primary motivator for Gumpertz and his associates and imitators.

Nevertheless, it may be possible here to separate intent from outcome. In 1996, the Little People of America association published its "Position statement on genetic discoveries in dwarfism," which asserted as part of its justification of its resistance to genetic testing designed to eugenically remove dwarfism from the human gene pool, that the majority of the problems faced by persons of short stature are "environmental" rather than medical; that is, that the difficulties of existing as a short-statured person in America tend to generate far more significantly from issues of access to public spaces, utility of tools and furnishings, and psychosocial traumas resulting from existence in a world at best indifferent to one's needs, than from medical problems associated with dwarfism. The benefits of ergonomically-designed environments for persons of short-stature are, of course, well documented, and the creation, then, of a space for housing a community of short-statured persons comfortably, for whatever motive, is in and of itself a remarkable marker of one moment when the normative social milieu was, if only momentarily, not indifferent. Whatever the intent, the purely material outcome of Liliputia benefited a community of 300 short-statured persons, providing them with therapeutic accommodations, employment, and an in-group in which size, however artificially and temporarily, didn't matter.

As for the opinions of the residents themselves, we have unfortunately been able to produce very scant evidence in support of any conclusion. The Countess Magri's illuminating and beautiful memoirs were penned prior to her professional engagement with Gumpertz, and make no mention of Coney Island's reinvention of itself. The eugenicist who visited Chicago in 1933 may claim to have "gotten into the confidence" of one of the performers, but testimonials from freak professionals, especially when dealing with normate outsiders from the press, the academy, and particularly the medical professions, are notoriously difficult to fathom entirely. In the archived documents, the field operatives of the U.S. Office of Eugenics report that the performers were hostile to questioning, indeed attributing this reticence obliquely to a carnival culture united against outsiders, even while it remained deeply fractionalized along race and class lines. It may be worth considering the response that even the most amiable person might have, however, when forced by his or her employer to answer very intimate questions about background, parentage, and medical history from a total stranger claiming to be a doctor.

Are these observations enough to locate Liliputia, if not its smaller, shorter-lived descendants, within the broad category of social utopias that seemed to crop up in the United States throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, like those of the Shakers, Oneida, or New Harmony? We can reasonably conclude at least that Liliputia was an unprecedented establishment of a full-time performance community, which was profitable and therapeutic for its willing inhabitants, and thus provided them, however unintentionally, with a certain level of agency and self-determination.

The Utopia(n) in Miniature

In our introduction, we said that we would consider to what extent midget cities were not only Utopias but also Utopian. This may seem to be (at best) a fine distinction, so it is important clearly to state here what we mean by the two categories.

When we speak of a Utopia, we typically mean an ideal community. The term, of course, is taken Thomas More's celebrated work of 1516. Here he wrote of an imaginary island with what he proposed as an ideal political system. The workings of Utopia were described in some considerable detail, and included a generous welfare state and a 6-hour working day. It could be read as a radical alternative to the social and economic realities of Tudor England: More evaded (for a while) the royal wrath by protesting that it was simply a work of fancy. Since then, the term Utopia has come to stand for all ideal communities (actual, attempted, or imagined), typically in reaction to life as it is more widely lived.

Our analysis so far has considered Liliputia and other Midget Cities from this traditional perspective: To what extent, in other words, did these places offer small people ideal alternatives to life in the outside world —a world fitted to the needs of the "regular sized" majority? That was the substance of our previous section, in which we thought about this from the midgets' perspective. That, in turn, involved assessing not only the physical advantages of a community scaled to size but, even more-so, looking at the way in which these particular "freaks" could be argued to have turned the tables on the majority. Instead of simply being exploited themselves, they were actively able to exploit their "freakishness" to their own financial advantage. Ultimately, they were able to create their own world in which the little people formed the majority and in which, consequently, it was the giant-sized outsiders who became the figures of fun (or even outright hostility).

What we propose to do now is to extend our discussion from these specific "Utopias" to Utopianism in general. This will, in turn, change the point of view from the inhabitants themselves to the lessons that can be far more widely learned from the case of the midget cities. To do this, we will enlist the support of one of our most challenging Utopian thinkers, the German critical theorist Ernst Bloch.

For Bloch (1885-1977), Utopia was neither a place nor even a particular set of rules. Rather, it was a state of mind in which the stimulus for and the prospect of a better life in the future could be found waiting in the art, literature, and popular culture of the past. In this way, Bloch radically expands both the notion of and sources for Utopia. His scope is almost dazzlingly wide, and ranges from the general and the metaphysical to the specific and the everyday —including the freak show, to which we will shortly return.

Ernst Bloch's intellectual life began and continued through one of the most exciting periods of German thought. He studied in Munich, Würtzburg, Berlin, and Heidelberg (here under Weber), and developed a friendship with Georg Lukács. His first book, Spirit of Utopia, was first published in 1918 before being expanded and substantially revised in 1923. Here, it was duly noticed by a number of German intellectuals including the schoolboy T.W. Adorno. According to Herbert Marcuse, Spirit of Utopia "has influenced at least my generation, and has shown how realistic utopian concepts can be, how close to action, how close to practice" (Marcuse 1969, p. 20). Bloch's Heritage of Our Times followed in 1935, and his considerable output eventually included works such as The Utopian Function of Art and Literature and The Spirit of Utopia, both of which were first published in English after his death —indicating the growing scholarly interest in this important (but admittedly difficult) thinker.

For our purposes, the key point about Bloch is his conviction that art and culture, including popular culture, showed the path to a better future for everyone; a future without exploitation or humiliation. It lit the way to Utopia.

It is important to stress that these artistic and popular cultural forms were not knowingly filled with deliberate or structured visions of Utopia. Rather, Bloch believed that the "preserved meanings" of Utopian texts were unwittingly placed there by way of an "overshoot" beyond the conscious intent of the author(s). The results could nevertheless be "wishful landscapes" which showed the world not as it was but as it ought to be. These landscapes could be created or set in the past, but the Utopian visions they contained could be used to inspire and to illuminate a better future. The term Bloch used for this was vor-schein (anticipatory illumination). What the writer or artist did was translate these seemingly abstract ideas into forms that people could see, read or understand (Zipes, 1988, pp. xi-xlii). As Bloch put it, "the tendency and latency of that which has not yet become... needs its activator" (1935).

Bloch's investigation of the wishful landscapes of art, literature and popular culture reaches its apogee in his three-volume masterpiece The Principle of Hope (1995). This is notoriously complex -- a work that combines both theory and examples to form something of an encyclopedia of vor-schein and the wishful image. The examples run from medieval painting to fairy tales, stamp collecting, the circus, the fairground, and (yes) the freak show.

It is in the first volume of The Principle of Hope that Bloch turns his attention to these typically neglected topics. He begins by noting that booths and side-show attractions of the fair-ground seem not to be home-grown but "borne on the South Seas" from "extraordinary foreign parts" and "distant lands" (Bloch, 1935, p. 363). More than that, they have a studied (albeit unsuccessful) exoticism:

tattooed with pale-green or bloodthirsty red pictures... The generator drives the orchestration with a foreign, fat, inhuman, breathless-lethargic sound, sometimes it is connected with a girl of wax dancing next to the entrance screwed to the floor (Bloch, 1995, p. 363).

Bloch has no doubt that such attractions are both: "vulgar and a complete swindle," but adds, more tantalizingly, that it is also a world that reveals the secrets of the "born deformity" (1995, p. 363).

Initially, Bloch's tawdry, "dinkeyville" freak exhibition booths seem a long way from the Midget Cities of Dreamland and the World's Fairs. These were, as we have seen, major attractions on both a national and international scale. Bloch was certainly aware that although the fair was still: "a colourfully rough fantasy, in Americanized cities it is increasingly infiltrated by loudspeakers, technologized fun-establishments" (1995, p. 363). This was precisely what was happening in Chicago and Coney Island. Yet no matter how sophisticated the technology became: "The wishful land of medieval South Seas, so to speak, has remained" (1995, p. 363).

In our examples, we have seen how the exotic whiff of "distant lands" was similarly and deliberately imported to add to the human spectacle. We note the highly-publicized arrival of Coney Island's "Liliputian" midgets by ship from Budapest in 1904. The real origin of the performers was less clear, however, and the apparent reluctance of the midgets to be coaxed out from the ship may not have been altogether genuine. And while Eastern Europe was not, admittedly, the South Seas, the overall parallel with the Blochian scenario remains striking. Again, we see the exoticism of: "distant lands" (1995, p. 363). The fact that the eventual home for the (alleged) Hungarians was styled upon a "Bavarian village" complete with fantasy castle makes geographical nonsense, but underlines, again, the call of the show-people to the popular cultural sense of the exotic. Here again, as in Bloch's archetypal example: "Extraordinary foreignness is repeatedly joined by that of the fairytale, even the Gothic novel" (1995, p. 363).

Bloch's rhetorical fairground world was still less credible, however: "At nine o'clock this evening, at the very hour at which she died, Professor Mystos will call an Egyptian mummy back to life" (1995, p. 363). We suspect that the mummy was just about as legitimate as the "professor." On the other hand, there is no suggestion that there was bare-faced fakery involved in either Liliputia or Midget City. These were all genuinely small people. But once again we see the clear, more general connection with the Midget Cities when Bloch declares:

Freakish people and their art put themselves on display, in pure side-chapels of abnormality. The sword-swallower and the fire-eater, the man with the untearable tongue and the iron skull, the snake-charmer and the living aquarium. Dusky Turks, pumpkin-men, giant women are there: 'nature was so lavish with the substance of her body that at the time when she blossomed to her highest perfection she attained a mass of four hundred pounds' (1995, p. 363).

The parallel is two—fold. First, and most obviously, we see the "pumpkin men and giant women" who are to be marveled at for their unusual size. But more tellingly, Bloch states that these "freakish people... put themselves on display" (my emphasis) (1995, p. 363). This reminds us that in Bloch's imaginary sideshow, just as with the real Liliputia and Midget Cities, this was not simply a case of direct and involuntary exploitation of the small people by standard-sized showmen. In both cases, the small people were the agents (in the sociological and theatrical senses!) and entrepreneurs, exploiting their own "abnormality," as well as their marketable mainstream entertainment talents, in order to make a living out of (side) show business.

What clearly differs from Bloch's "side-chapels of abnormality" is the physical environment of Luliputia and the subsequent Midget Cities. In stark contrast to the sordid booths that he described, the midget cities were ergonomically tailored to the stature of the residents. Chicago's Midget Village, we remember, expanded fourfold to become Midget City, filled with amenities and entirely operated by its inhabitants. Similarly, Liliputia became just another Coney Island community once the tourists had left.

This is not to contend, of course, that these midget cities were teleologically intended as ideal communities for short people. Clearly, there prime intent was to serve as visitor attractions. First and foremost, they were indeed "freak shows" in which the ergonomic advantages to the residents were (possibly unintended) consequences of the guiding entrepreneurial urge. But although the main aim may not have been to create the ideal community, the subsequent advantages to the residents were nevertheless real.

What, then, is the usefulness of Bloch here? We have seen that the freak shows he so eloquently described in The Principle of Hope display both similarities and differences in comparison with the Coney Island and Word's Fair midget cities. His aim, though, was not to evaluate the pros and cons of any particular social system. To his detractors, it is a significant shortcoming that Bloch at no stage offers specific, practical recipe for the construction of Utopia. What he does seek to provide, though, is not Utopia but Utopianism: a constructive way of searching the art, literature and popular culture of the past and present in order to seek the wishful ingredients for a better world in the future. He may himself provide a colorful compendium of examples from sometimes wondrous and unexpected places, but his ultimate aim is to encourage us to look for ourselves for the vor-schein of a Utopian society that is yet to come. So, although in The Principle of Hope he talks of a specific and (from our perspective) partially recognizable type of fairground attraction, the idea is to apply his thinking to our own choice of cultural text —and this is precisely what we have done with the midget cities. And this brings us to our conclusion.


We have never sought to suggest that Utopia is to be found by re-creating the freak shows of Liliputia and the World's Fairs. What we do contend is that we can use the case studies of Liliputia and the other Midget Cities to help the way we think about difference and disability issues in the future. When we first looked, from a contemporary perspective, at what went on in Chicago and Coney Island, we may quite reasonably have been appalled by the exploitation of short people in a freakish spectacle. On subsequent examination, however, we began to see what could be construed as the advantages of these miniature communities to their inhabitants. They were, at least, ergonomically appropriate to a distinguishable minority group, and they provided employment for the residents, and they offered lucrative business opportunities to the people of short stature who established and ran them. More crucially, they demonstrated the possibility of turning what some may see as a handicap into an opportunity: Elegantly, perhaps, the exploitation that first dismayed us shifted in both emphasis and direction. These "freaks" became empowered; they were able to exploit both their own difference and the majority audience while living in a community tailored to their own, and not the majority's, needs.

Again, we are not suggesting that either small people or the majority population would benefit from the replication of Liliputia and Midget City today. What we have done is combine our own historical examination with Bloch's Utopian thinking to help sift through and identify some fragments of our popular cultural past that may help us to think constructively —and even counter-intuitively–about the future.

The academic study of disability has, as Michael Bérubé has argued, itself been "relegated to a sideshow, a freak show" (2002, p. vii). Similarly, the study of Utopia (and especially from a critical theoretical perspective) has been less than central to contemporary sociological discourse. There are signs, however, that this may be beginning to change and that, as we suggested in our introduction, each may benefit from the other.

Neither Bloch nor we suggest that we use the popular culture of the past as a crude template for the future. What we join him in proposing is that we can use historical examples such as freak shows as a prism through which to envision the possibilities of a better future for everyone. Finally, we hope to unleash Utopian speculation on a bigger question still: Is Utopia a place where no one is a freak, where everyone is a freak, where there is no concept of the freak, or in which it really doesn't matter whether you are a freak (or not) at all? These questions, not easily answered, seem poised to shape the future of historical research on freaks, and modern critical methods for interpreting these findings, and ultimately even the Utopian mission of Disability Studies itself.


This paper is the result of a collaboration which began at Carnegie Mellon University, where both authors were visiting fellows of the Center for the Arts in Society in 2003-2004. Chemers is a theatre-specialist researching American freak shows; Howells is a cultural sociologist studying critical theories of Utopia. This combination of their respective researches, they hope, demonstrates the wide applicability of Disability Studies to other scholarly disciplines.


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Copyright (c) 2005 Richard Howells, Michael Chemers

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