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Birth of An Industry: Blackface Minstrelsy and the Rise of American Animation

Nicholas Sammond, Author

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Minstrel as Costume

Blackface minstrels performances drew large audiences in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and the costumes that minstrels wore were a significant part of the attraction. Just as the performances were outsized—involving acrobatic dancing, rapid-fire wordplay, indefinite speech, and exuberant singing and dancing–so were the costumes, the makeup, and accessories.

Makeup was also important for blackface minstrels, and none more so than the "burnt cork" that blackened the faces of white and black actors alike. Some actors black their faces with burnt cork, as in this clip from the Spike Lee movie Bamboozled (2001). Other actors used greasepaint, which they could either make or buy from theatrical supply catalogs.

In addition to blacking up, actors would sometimes apply lipstick or rouge on and around their lips to make their mouths appear larger and more voracious. To make their eyes appear larger, they would not apply blacking around them.

As the catalogue advertisement above makes clear, a "wooly" wig was also a key component of the minstrel's costume, and could be purchased from theatrical supply catalogs. Minstrels who performed as women would sometimes used wigs that simulated straightened and curled hair.

Just as the vaudeville performers that followed them did, blackface minstrels used costumes in order to signal their character.

Jim Crow wore loose fitting and shabby clothing, making it easier for him to perform his "eccentric" dance.

Zip Coon was a Northern dandy, and his clothing signaled his pretensions.

Long Tail Blue was also a dandy.

Tambo and Bones were the "endmen," named after the instruments they played, the tambourine and bones. Appearing in the large chorus numbers, they dressed like the other chorus members, wearing ill-fitting and outsized costumes which suggested a confused sense of style.

The Interlocutor usually appeared in the middle of the chorus and was dressed similarly to Tambo and Bones. Especially if he were white, his clothes tended to fit better, and to signal his higher status.

You can see variations on these costumes, and on the makeup styles portrayed here, in these cartoons:

Mickey's Mellerdrammer (1934)

The Minstrel Show (1932)

Bosko the Talk-Ink Kid (1929)
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