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Lusus Naturae, Folklore, and DIsplay in the Nineteenth Century in the United States

  • Author(s): Verderano Reynoso, Lena Lydia;
  • Advisor(s): Lindow, John;
  • et al.

Exhibitions of lusus naturae were at the height of popularity during the nineteenth century in the United States and reveal how popular culture reflects emerging themes in folklore. This study takes an interdisciplinary approach by examining these exhibitions as a process, where an interdependent relationship based on the knowledge of familiar folk narratives is formed between the latent performer (seller), the pitchman (lecturer), the performer (display), and the audience. The presentation, marketing, and reception of these entertaining and unusual exhibitions are analogous to various forms of folklore, and therefore function in the same manner as folklore.

The interaction and experience with these living motifs are defined as motif ostension. Motif ostension evoked whole stories from fragments of information given to the audience directly or indirectly, allowing the audience to employ their own unique knowledge to add context to the narrative. The interest in these displays permeated through gender, age, and social classes in early America, allowing these displays to use folklore to negotiate a plethora of newly emerging issues under the guise of entertainment and education. The use of motif ostension was an integral form of social expression during the nineteenth century; it pushed the boundaries of folklore, and showed how folklore could be at the root of one of the most popular and influential forms of entertainment in the history of the United States.

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