Dime museums were institutions that were popular at the end of the 19th century in the United States. Designed as centers for entertainment and moral education for the working class (lowbrow), the museums were distinctly different from upper-middle-class' cultural events (highbrow). In urban centers like New York City and Chicago, where many immigrants settled, dime museums were popular and cheap entertainment.
Dime Museums were one of the lowest rungs on the showbiz ladder, sometimes not much more than a storefront with a mix of sideshow acts, macabre curios, and freaks. But it was where a hungry performer could always find work, and Harry Houdini would return to Dime Museums so many times that he earned the nickname, "Dime Museum Harry." The social trend reached its peak during the Progressive era (ca. 1890–1920).
KOHL & MIDDLETON'S DIME MUSEUMS
Reminiscences of George Middleton as told to, and written by, his wife.
In coming down from the northwest in 1882, C.E. Kohl and I decided there was an opening in Chicago for a dime museum, so we formed a co-partnership and I went on to Chicago to look up a location, which I found at 150 West Madison Street, just east of Halsted. It was an instantaneous success, and we kept in operation a great many years.
The next year we opened one at 150 S. Clark Street, near Madison (now 10 South Clark Street), and at 150, 152 and 154 W. Madison, opposite Union street, which were also very successful.
During the 1893 Chicago World's Fair we opened another one at 294 State Street, which was also a success. We also established them in Milwaukee, Cincinnati, Louisville, St. Paul, Minneapolis, and Cleveland. All except Cleveland paid handsomely, which was our only failure in the dime museum business.
It was a strange business, and for a few years the dime was something new for the price of admission to a place of amusement. Thousands and thousands of people would pass along and say, "Oh, let's go in for fun;" but as years went by those same people became critics and would not spend their dime nor their time unless the show was considered worth it.
The dime museum business, with its curiosities, its stage performance and its music, led to the continuous vaudeville of the theatres; then came the ten, twenty and thirty cent performance, the people all the time demanding better shows, for which they were willing to pay, until finally it has reached the high class vaudeville of today, in which higher salaries are paid than in any other class of amusement, excepting grand opera.
So what does this enterprising duo have to do with the World's Columbian Exposition? The Fair and the popular Midway closed at the end of October. But, the men just didn't want to see it end! So, by November 12th they had put together a gigantic show reproducing the "Old Midway," just in case there was anyone left in Chicago who had not visited the original. Rrrrrright here on our stage! The Columbian Exposition!
Compiled by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D.