Making Modernism

Contract for World’s Fair Turkish Dancer, 1893

These manuscript documents represent an employment agreement, contract, and letter of recommendation for 12-year-old Christina Olson, who was engaged as a Turkish dancer on the Midway Plaisance at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition.  The agreement was made between Miss Olson’s mother, Augusta Olson, and Pierre Antonius & Co., representatives of the Midway’s Turkish Theater.  The documents concern the suitability of Christina Olson to become a dancer at the Turkish Theater, which operated on the Midway for the six-month duration of the Fair. The managers of the theater asked that Miss Olson begin rehearsing “in the imitation of the Turkish dance and customs which are requested of her and to try her best to imitate it as soon as possible,” even “just to imitate the Turkish dance or a kind of it in a commendable manner.”  To do this, Miss Olson was offered a salary of $20 per week, to be increased to $25 per week “as soon as the dance improves.”

Miss Olson’s employment sheds interesting light on the significance of the Midway Plaisance which offered, for the amusement of fairgoers, a hodge-podge collection of peoples from the many cultural locations not represented in the main fairgrounds, or “White City”-- called such because of the blazing white buildings where many of the Fair’s most important exhibits were housed.  Just as those buildings offered only the appearance of imposing neoclassical architecture (being in reality not made of stone but of steel framing covered with staff, a white, plaster-like substance made of  plaster of Paris and hemp), Christina Olson was neither Turkish, nor a dancer.  Called upon to provide only a seeming cultural authenticity on the stage of the Turkish theater, however, Miss Olson comported herself well in duping the fairgoing public:  at the Fair’s close, she obtained a letter of recommendation from Pierre Antonius & Co., attesting that she had “studied the Turkish and Oriental dance,” that she had “proved to be very clever and diligent in her service,” and that she had achieved “a recommendable degree of dance worthy of approval by all the Turks.”

-Cyraina Johnson-Roullier, University of Notre Dame

Link to the finding aid for this collection

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