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Circassian beauties is a phrase used to refer to an idealized image of the women of the Circassian people of the Northern Caucasus. A fairly extensive literary history suggests that Circassian women were thought to be unusually beautiful, spirited, and elegant, and as such were desirable as concubines. This reputation dates back to the later Middle Ages, when the Circassian coast was frequented by Italian traders from Genoa, and the founder of the Medici dynasty, Cosimo I de Medici, had an illegitimate son from a Circassian slave. During the Ottoman Empire, Circassian women living as slaves in the Sultan's Imperial Harem started to build their reputation as extremely beautiful and genteel, which then became a common trope in Western Orientalism.
As a result of this reputation, in Europe and America Circassians were often characterised as ideals of feminine beauty in poetry and art. Cosmetic products were advertised, from the 18th century on, using the word "Circassian" in the title, or claiming that the product was based on substances used by the women of Circassia.
In the 1860s the showman P. T. Barnum exhibited women whom he claimed were Circassian beauties. They wore a distinctive Afro-like hair style, which had no precedent in earlier portrayals of Circassians, but which was soon copied by other female performers, who became known as "moss haired girls". These were typically presented as victims of sexual enslavement among the Turks, who had escaped from the harem to achieve freedom in America.
The Circassians are poor, and their daughters are beautiful, and indeed it is in them they chiefly trade. They furnish with those beauties the seraglio of the Turkish Sultan, of the Persian Sophy, and of all of those who are wealthy enough to purchase and maintain such precious merchandise. These maidens are very honorably and virtuously instructed how to fondle and caress men; are taught dances of a very polite and effeminate kind; and how to heighten by the most voluptuous artifices the pleasures of their disdainful masters for whom they are designed.
– Letter XI, On Inoculation.
Their beauty is mentioned in Henry Fielding's Tom Jones (1749), in which Fielding remarked, "How contemptible would the brightest Circassian beauty, drest in all the jewels of the Indies, appear to my eyes!"
The legend of Circassian women was also repeated by legal theorist Gustav Hugo, who wrote that "Even beauty is more likely to be found in a Circassian slave girl than in a beggar girl", referring to the fact that even a slave has some security and safety, but a "free" beggar has none. Hugo's comment was later condemned by Karl Marx in The Philosophical Manifesto of the Historical School of Law (1842) on the grounds that it excused slavery. Mark Twain reported in The Innocents Abroad (1869) that "Circassian and Georgian girls are still sold in Constantinople by their parents, but not publicly."
An advertisement from 1782 titled "Bloom of Circassia" makes clear that it was by then well established "that the Circassians are the most beautiful Women in the World", but goes on to reveal that they "derive not all their Charms from Nature". They used a concoction supposedly extracted from a vegetable native to Circassia. Knowledge of this "Liquid Bloom" had been brought back by a "well-regarded gentleman" who had traveled and lived in the region. It "instantly gives a Rosy Hue to the Cheeks", a "lively and animated Bloom of Rural Beauty" that would not disappear in perspiration or handkerchiefs.
In 1802 "the Balm of Mecca" was also marketed as being used by Circassians: "This delicate as well as fragrant composition has been long celebrated as the summit of cosmetics by all the Circassian and Georgian women in the seraglio of the Grand Sultan". It claims that the product was endorsed by Lady Mary Wortley Montague who stated that it was very helpful "for removing those sebacious impurities so noxious to beauty". The article continues: "Any lady must be as great an Infidel as the Grand Sultan himself, who, after receiving such authority can doubt that her skin will become as superlatively smooth, soft, white and delicate, as that of the lovely Fatima, whatever may have been its feel or its appearance before. What fair one but must yield implicit faith, when she has the honour of the Countess De --- fairly pledged, that all sepacious [sic] impurities will be at once removed by this wonder-working nostrum. And above all, who but must long for an article, from the seraglio of the Grand Turk, which produces a near resemblance to the Georgian and Circassian beauties?"
"Circassian Lotion" was sold in 1806 for the skin, at fifty cents the bottle. "A sovereign remedy for surfeits, scorching from the heat of the sun, freckles, blights from cold and chills of winter, scorbutic, pimples or eruptions of the face and skin, however violent or disfigured, animalcula generated under the cuticle or outer skin, prickley heat, shingles, ring worms, redness of the nose and chin, obstinate cutaneous diseases, and for every impurity or unnatural appearance with which the skin may be affected; to be used as a common wash for clearing and improving the complexion, and in a superior degree to preserve, soften, cleanse and beautify the skin".
By the early nineteenth century, Circassians were associated with theories of racial hierarchy, which elevated the Caucasus region as the source of the purest examples of the "white race", which was named the Caucasian race after the area by Johann Friedrich Blumenbach. Blumenbach theorised that the Circassians were the closest to God's original model of humanity, and thus "the purest and most beautiful whites were the Circassians". This fuelled the idea of female Circassian beauty.
Circassians are depicted in images of harems at this time through these ideologies of racial hierarchy. John Frederick Lewis's The Harem portrays Circassians as the dominant mistresses of the harem, who look down on other women, as implied in the review of the painting in The Art Journal, which described it as follows,
It represents the interior of a harem at Cairo, wherein is seated in luxurious ease a young Turk, attired in the excess of Moslem fashion. Near him, and reclining upon cushions, are two Circassian women, also dressed in the extremity of Oriental taste... On the right is seen a tall Nubian eunuch, who removes from the shoulders of an Egyptian slave the shawl by which she had been covered, in order to show her to the master of the harem; this figure with her high shoulders and the characteristics of her features, is a most successful national impersonation. The Circassian women look languidly to the Egyptian with an expression of supreme contempt, which is responded to by a sneer on the face of the Nubian eunuch.
Orientalizing paintings of nudes were also sometimes exhibited as "Circassians".
The Circassians became major news during the Caucasian War, in which Russia conquered the North Caucasus, displacing large numbers of Circassians southwards. In 1856 The New York Times published a report entitled "Horrible Traffic in Circassian Women — Infanticide in Turkey", asserting that a consequence of the Russian conquest of the Caucasus was an excess of beautiful Circassian women on the Constantinople slave market, and that this was causing prices of slaves in general to plummet. The story drew on ideas of racial hierarchy, stating that:
the temptation to possess a Circassian girl at such low prices is so great in the minds of the Turks that many who cannot afford to keep several slaves have been sending their blacks to market, in order to make room for a newly-purchased white girl.
The article also claimed that children born to the "inferior" black concubines were being killed. This story drew widespread attention to the area, as did later conflicts.
At the same time writers and illustrators were also creating images depicting the authentic costumes and people of the Caucasus. Francis Davis Millet depicted Circassian women during his 1877 coverage of the Russo-Turkish war, specifying local costume and hairstyle.
The combination of the popular issues of slavery, the Orient, racial ideology, and sexual titillation gave the reports of Circassian women sufficient notoriety at the time that the circus leader P. T. Barnum decided to capitalize on this interest. He displayed a "Circassian Beauty" at his American Museum in 1865. Barnum's Circassian beauties were young women with tall, teased hairstyles, rather like the Afro style of the 1970s. Actual Circassian hairstyles bore no resemblance to Barnum's fantasy. Barnum's first "Circassian" was marketed under the name "Zalumma Agra" and was exhibited at his American Museum in New York from 1864. Barnum had written to John Greenwood, his agent in Europe, asking him to purchase a beautiful Circassian girl to exhibit, or at least to hire a girl who could "pass for" one. However, it seems that "Zalumma Agra" was probably a local girl hired by the show, as were later "Circassians". Barnum also produced a booklet about another of his Circassians, Zoe Meleke, who was portrayed as an ideally beautiful and refined woman who had escaped a life of sexual slavery.
The portrayal of a white woman as a rescued slave at the time of the American Civil War played on the racial connotations of slavery at the time. It has been argued that the distinctive hairstyle affiliates the side-show Circassian with African identity, and thus,
resonates oddly yet resoundingly with the rest of her identifying significations: her racial purity, her sexual enslavement, her position as colonial subject; her beauty. The Circassian blended elements of white Victorian True Womanhood with traits of the enslaved African American woman in one curiosity.
The trend spread, with supposedly Circassian women featured in dime museums and travelling medicine shows, sometimes known as "Moss-haired girls". They were typically identified by the distinctive hairstyle, which was held in place by the use of beer. They also often performed in pseudo-oriental costume. Many postcards of Circassians also circulated. Though Barnum's original women were portrayed as proud and genteel, later images of Circassians often emphasised erotic poses and revealing costumes. As the original fad faded, the "Circassians" started to add to their appeal by performing traditional circus tricks such as sword swallowing.
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