Minstrel shows were American entertainment, consisting of comedy, variety acts, music, singing and dancing. These shows were, most often, but not always performed by white people in blackface.
After the American Civil War blacks also took part and also appeared in black face.
Minstrel shows portrayed and lampooned blacks in stereotypical and often disparaging ways, as lazy buffoons, open to running con games, taking advantage of weaker people and superstitious. And with the bad as usual there was some good as it finally gave blacks an outlet to showcase dancing and singing.
Minstrel shows started with brief burlesques and comic acts as early as 1830 and became a recognized type of theatre show by the next decade. By 1900 the shows were by in large replaced by vaudeville. Though some elements like the black face carried over to vaudeville.
Amateur performances continued until mid 60s in high schools, colleges, fraternities, and local theaters. As blacks began to score more social victories and overt racism became less pronounced the last of these shows died.
Minstrel shows had three parts
This consisted of dance team that also exchanged jokes and sang songs in addition to dancing.
This consisted of a variety of entertainments deemed to be popular by the local producer. These entertainments were often done in local Black vernacular English. In addition women's rights was often lampooned. And the typical woman was represented as being bossing and shrewish or "on the rag," so to speak.
The final act was a musical number; usually it was full of slapstick. It could also be a parody of a popular play, again full of slapstick.
Minstrel shows remained just one of many forms of entertainment till the late 1830s, when a recession hit the economy. These shows were inexpensive and were able to continue on while the costlier shows, such as operas, circuses, theatrical drama and coffee house readings, were closed due to high production costs and salary demands.
By the mid 1840s performers in these "higher classes" of shows that died during the depression seeking theatrical work, came "down" a level and begin their own minstrel shows, thus insuring the stability of the art form.
It was around 1850 when minstrel shows went from being merely exaggerated in their racial dealings, to being outright mean.
Northerners were pressing for abolition but most knew nothing about how slaves actually lived. Escaped slaves were providing mixed clues as for everyone one that was treated inhumanely another was treated just.
Depending on your viewpoint some shows treated African Americans as happy-go-lucky cheerful and simple and always eager to dance and sing to please their masters. Others showed African Americans as habitually abused and beaten, with nothing but cruelty. Still others showed African Americans to be sly and cunning, always on the look out to sexually abuse white women and con anyone even their own race if he was weaker.
Since even in free society, whites and blacks lived separately, even those not racist, because they lived only among whites, never got true pictures.
Either way the message was clear, African Americans are happy with their lot or deserved what they got.
Women's rights supporters were the other group maliciously lampooned in the minstrel shows. Typical of minstrel humour was slapstick and play on jokes like:
The difference between a schoolmaster and an engineer is that one trains the mind and the other minds the train.
During and after the American Civil War minstrel shows turned decidedly Northern as the South lost battles. The shows concentrated less on race and more on sadness. This added sadness began the decline of the minstrel show. After all people come to be entertained not to think about serious issues or celebrate battle deaths.
By 1870 PT Barnum had once again put circuses, operas and musical theatre on an equal footing with minstrel shows. This took in the North and North East and Midwest so minstrel shows went deeper South and to the West to find an audience. As the catered to Southern audiences the racial emphasis was again brought back. But also added were girls in, form fitting clothing as well as female impersonators.
Because the south was overly rural, indeed New Orleans was the only large southern city; minstrel shows went to portray cities as wicked and evil. They portrayed Southerners as moral and concerned with religion and reuniting mothers with injured sons from the civil war. This while northerners were made to corrupt, vile, sinful and blacks the mere puppets of whites.
This political view point proved to be the death nail in minstrel shows that were dead for the most part by 1890. People wanted entertainment not an opinion, and vaudeville was providing more and better entertainers doing just that.
Although much is made of the racial element few find it ironic that blacks, who were not even considered to be citizens of the United States, (after the Dred Scott Decision - given back citizenship by the 14th Amendment) would be the focal point for the entertainment of basically a white Christian nation, seems to be lost for the most part.