Found Circus Photographs: Forgotten in the Mitten Interview

Forgotten in the Mitten is an online shop filled with “forgotten or discarded” items, based in Michigan, USA – nicknamed the ‘Mitten State’ after the shape created on mapping its outline. Everything, including found photographs, oddities, and antiques, is handpicked by treasure-collector and shop-owner, Erica, who joins Generally Gothic to discuss her obsession with the circus.

Browsing the digital shelves of Forgotten in the Mitten, every item appears weighty with history begging to be explored. On the process of collecting these “treasures”, Erica explains:
“I only sell things that have an effect on me in some way. Is it scary? I will take it. Weird and uncomfortable? I love it. Books that have handwritten notes and paper or other memorabilia tucked inside. Photos you can tell someone carried and treasured for years. Everything I sell and personally collect has a story that I feel touched by.

“This is my most prized circus photo! Which is funny because I have no idea who the clown and performer are…” | © Forgotten in the Mitten, via Instagram

“Sometimes I feel pulled to grab something I normally wouldn’t. I think objects that people use daily or really cherish collect energy. When people pass away and leave these objects behind, they’re leaving little pieces of themselves. When we take guardianship of these items we are really honoring and loving their previous owners.”

Amongst cabinet cards of fading figures, the circus appears with punctuated regularity – a colourful book, a signed postcard, black and white photographs, paper ephemera. Whilst clearly drawn to them herself, Erica admits that she “always lose[s] several followers after each circus post” on Instagram, theorising that “people are uncomfortable with the dark underbelly of the circus.”

“1940 Real Photo Circus Lion Eating Meat” | © Forgotten in the Mitten, via Etsy

This is the space into which the gothic creeps. In the suspense and melodrama, in the exploitation, and child labour, the poverty, and animal cruelty. In the American gothicism of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. In the contrast between the beauty in the ring and the beast behind the curtain. The carnivalesque, the grotesque body, the subversive… all of this culminates in the communal, transitory, phantasmagorical spectacle that is the circus.

Allowing that “we can certainly see the marriage of the two, especially [in] shows like American Horror Story”, Erica doesn’t necessarily agree that the circus can otherwise be read as gothic. She acknowledges that the history of the bigtop is often sombre, but encouragingly explains that “the community of people who collect circus memorabilia also see another side. It’s that side we choose to focus on.”

“Rare! P.T. Barnum’s Own Words” | © Forgotten in the Mitten, via Etsy

Constructing a colourful image of the circus’ positive impact, Erica continues:
“The circus provided shelter, food, and family to people who otherwise, would not have been able to survive. The circus was an escape from the hard lives people were living. For one night they could lose themselves in the glitz, glamour, and shocking horrors of the sideshow. People need entertainment and reasons to celebrate. The circus gave them that and the people who were touched by that magic never forgot it! There are generations of family that have lived and died in the circus because it was their whole world.”

Whilst passionately honouring the magic created by persevering circus artists, Erica states that “many circus collectors also feel strongly that history should be preserved and the lessons learned remembered,” revealing that her work is, in essence, historical conservation.

“Freddie Esele, Armless Wonder” | © Forgotten in the Mitten, via Etsy

In order to do each hand-selected item justice, this historical conservation is dependent upon research, which Erica finds to be the most interesting thing about collecting items from the circus world.

“I’m always amazed by the strength and bravery of the performers. I especially l[o]ved learning about the European circuses and covered wagon travels of early circuses. They lived hard lives! It’s crazy to imagine it. I have also really enjoyed reading about the work contortionists did to get their bodies so flexible. It’s startling!”

“Maxine Rowson, a beautiful circus woman from my personal collection.” | © Forgotten in the Mitten, via Instagram

Sometimes, well-known characters like Freddie Esele appear, but there are others, like Maxine Rowson, on whom nothing but a potential census record match is otherwise documented. Positioning these lost performers in the spotlight once again, epitomises Forgotten in the Mitten’s focus upon celebration and memorialisation.

Confessing that Forgotten in the Mitten was born out of a personal interest in collecting circus photographs, potential customers are lucky that Erica is willing to part with anything! “The circus is so dear to my heart [, i]t’s hard for me to let those things go! The items that make it to the shop get there only because I have similar things in my collection already.”

“Linus, an Oregon long-haired wild wonder horse” | © Forgotten in the Mitten

It is unsurprising, then, that her most prized possessions are numerous and not for sale. Erica does share items from her personal collection on Instagram, and in a Generally Gothic exclusive, reveals a little more about her top two private items, and her favourite currently for sale.

“The first is Linus, an Oregon long-haired wild wonder horse.” According to Erica’s research, Linus was born in 1884, son to the first long-haired ‘wild wonder’ captured, Oregon Beauty, and a Clydesdale named Oregon Queen. With a record-breaking 14 feet-long mane, Linus was owned by The Eaton Brothers travelling circus, based in Maine. Famous for his beauty, he died young at the age of 10, sometime after his son, Linus II, was born.
“Unfortunately the Oregon long-haired wonder horses are no more. The breed has been extinct for quite some time.”

“A carte de visite of Ann E. Leak” | © Forgotten in the Mitten

“The second is a carte de visite of Ann E. Leak who was born without arms,” and expected to soon die, on the 23rd of December, 1839. Much to her doctors’ surprise she survived, leading a usual life, learning to “braid her hair, knit, and sew,” as well as her two-handed contemporaries.
“She was highly educated and it wasn’t until after the civil war, when money was tight, that she began to exhibit herself. The [carte de visite] I have was sold as a souvenir and she has autographed it using her feet. I admire her so much; such a brave and capable woman!”

And from the Forgotten in the Mitten inventory, Erica’s favourite is a photo postcard of Capt. Joe Maloney, ‘World’s Greatest Half-Man High Diver!’. The little known, record holding high diver worked the carnival circuit and, Erica believes, may have lost his arm and leg serving in WW1. “I had never heard of him before I found this postcard. I always love a good surprise like that!”

“The High Diving Half-Man” | © Forgotten in the Mitten, via Etsy

Erica describes her collection as “unusual things. Early circus memorabilia, rare bottles, strange knick knacks. When it comes to photos I feel drawn to people born with handicaps, amputees, tuberculosis patients, spooky snapshots. Those photos pull me in because the people worked so much harder than most. They were so judged. I see them as super humans! I have always rooted for the underdog. Many of them get framed and hung on the wall. I have antique and vintage photo albums full of photos as well. My walls also display prosthetic arms, a last rites box, Victorian portraits, taxidermy, ribbons, dresses, mirrors, composition and felt dolls to name a few.”

It all sounds at least generally gothic to me… but what do you think? Is there room for the gothic upon the circus train? Are Erica’s collections too sympathetic to be gothic? The comment section is listening…

For the duration of June, The Circus of Horrors is here at Generally Gothic, and all things beneath the big top will be scrutinised under a gothic lens.
Keep reading with Sawdust & Sequins: The Art of the Circus, and Strange Worlds: The Vision of Angela Carter.

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