An excerpt from
Buffalo Bill in Bologna
The Americanization of the World, 1869-1922
Robert W. Rydell and Rob Kroes
Buffalo Bill’s Wild West in Europe
In 1886, William Cody received an offer that seemed too good to be true. Thanks to the skill of his manager, Nate Salsbury, Buffalo Bill received an invitation from the organizers of London’s American Exhibition to perform as part of their show in the Earls Court exhibition complex. To be honest, the English promoters of the American Exhibition were desperate. They had sought to capitalize on growing interest in the United States in England by organizing an event in 1886 that would be sponsored by British royalty and the U.S. government, including President Cleveland himself. Initially, they had some success gaining support from prominent individuals on both sides of the Atlantic but overreached when they began listing supporters, like the president and the Prince of Wales, without their consent. With supporters falling by the wayside and with the British government insisting that the American Exhibition not compete with the government-sponsored 1886 Colonial and India Exposition, the exhibition’s organizers decided to postpone their event for a year. As they scrambled to keep their plans afloat, the show’s promoters, while on a trip to Washington, D.C., had the good luck to cross paths with Salsbury. This master impresario, who had first encouraged Cody to shift his attention from the stage to outdoor entertainment, was as interested in lining up a European tour for Buffalo Bill’s show as a way of giving it greater legitimacy in the eyes of the American public as the promoters of the American Exhibition were interested in reclaiming credibility in the eyes of the British public for their shaky enterprise. Over dinner and drinks, they struck a deal that gave the Wild West star billing in the American Exhibition. The results were simply incredible. Not since P. T. Barnum had paraded General Tom Thumb around the sitting rooms of British aristocracy had there been a comparable American production in England.
The scale of Cody’s undertaking amazed the press on both shores of the Atlantic. When the show’s company boarded the State of Nebraska steamship for London, its entourage included “83 saloon passengers, 38 steerage passengers, 97 Indians, 180 horses, 18 buffalo, 10 elk, 5 Texan steers, 4 donkeys, and 2 deer.” As the ship steamed across the ocean, Major John Burke (one of the show’s managers) and an advance party plastered London with posters and drummed up anticipation in the press. As one London newspaper described the scene:
I may walk it, or bus it, or hansom it: still
Despite a recent hoof-and-mouth outbreak, British officials turned a blind eye to the government’s quarantine regulations and, after the ship docked at Gravesend, allowed the troupe to board three trains and head immediately to the arena that was part of the twenty-three-acre American Exhibition site that would serve as the staging ground for the show.
Several weeks prior to the show’s opening, Buffalo Bill’s encampment became a veritable Mecca for England’s upper crust. Among the many notables to visit the site was the former prime minister, William Gladstone, who toured the grounds in the company of the American consul general and, amidst great fanfare, met the Indian chief Red Shirt. Over lunch, Gladstone lifted a glass to the future of Anglo-American relations. Then, on May 5, just four days before the show opened to the public, the Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VII and a notable rake, accepted an invitation from Cody to bring his wife and daughters to attend a special preview of the Wild West performance. Afterwards, he met all of the performers, including Annie Oakley, who, in an episode widely reported in the press, ignored proper etiquette and shook hands with the Princess of Wales, whom she later described as “wonderful little girl.” Neither the prince nor princess took offense; to the contrary, the prince made a point of telling his mother, Queen Victoria, about the performance and urged her to attend one. With remarkable speed, proper arrangements were made for a command performance of the Wild West on May 11, and, for the first time since her husband’s death a quarter of a century before, Queen Victoria appeared in person at a public performance.
Her attendance at the Wild West show was news everywhere in the English-speaking world, and the fact that she made her appearance in the context of the celebrations that marked the Jubilee Year of her reign only added more weight to the occasion. And what an occasion it was. When the show began and a rider entered the arena carrying the American flag, Queen Victoria stood and bowed. The rest of the audience followed suit, while British soldiers and officers saluted. As Cody described the moment
All present were constrained to feel that here was an outward and visible sign of the extinction of that mutual prejudice, amounting sometimes almost to race hatred, that had severed two nations from the times of Washington and George the Third to the present day. We felt that the hatchet was buried at last and the Wild West had been at the funeral.
Over the course of the next century, it would become fairly routine practice for American mass cultural exports to serve as weapons for accomplishing specific U.S. foreign policy objectives. In the Victorian era, this use of mass culture was still being nurtured and the Wild West was one of the key incubators.
That the Wild West also held enormous potential for domestic politics was equally clear, especially when Queen Victoria asked for another command performance of the Wild West show on the eve of her Jubilee Day festivities. For this occasion, the kings of Belgium, Greece, Saxony, and Denmark, as well as an assortment of Europe’s princes and princesses, including the future German kaiser William II, joined England’s royal family to take in the Wild West performance and show their subjects that they too could delight in ordinary pleasures. The highlight of the show came when several monarchs, including the Prince of Wales and the kings of Denmark, Greece, Belgium, and Saxony, hopped aboard the Deadwood Stage with Buffalo Bill in the driver’s seat and rode around the arena while the assembled Indians engaged in a mock attack.. As they left the stagecoach, the prince, renowned for his love of poker, which American diplomats had introduced to English aristocracy only a decade before, supposedly said to Cody: “Colonel, you never held four kings like these.” To this, Cody retorted: “I’ve held four kings, but four kings and the Prince of Wales makes a royal flush such as no man has ever held before.” In another version of Cody’s reply, Buffalo Bill allegedly said that he held “four kings and a royal joker.” Whatever the truth, in both accounts it is the leveling effects of American mass entertainment that shine through the repartee.
During the Wild West’s run at the American Exhibition, Cody’s managers rarely missed a beat. They organized twice-a-day performances that played to crowds that averaged around 30,000. This meant that, since the grandstand could seat about 20,000, the show played to standing-room only crowds who thrilled to the performances based on “The Drama of Civilization” and to the stage effects, which included sweeping painted backdrops of the American West illuminated by electricity. They also kept careful track of the distinguished guests who visited the show and published their portraits around Buffalo Bill to serve as endorsements of the production. By the time the American Exhibition closed in October 1887, well over a million people had witnessed Buffalo Bill’s performances, making him every bit as popular in London as Benjamin Franklin had been in Paris a century earlier.
Capitalizing on their triumph in London, Burke and Salsbury shrewdly extended the Wild West’s tour of England by booking twice-a-day performances in the industrial cities of Birmingham and Manchester, where Cody’s crew devised spectacular special effects in the form of cyclones and prairie fires and even featured a six-day race between two cowboys riding horses and two bicyclists. When the cowboys won, it seemed additional evidence of the vitality and virility of the American frontier as represented in Wild West show.
By all accounts, Cody’s tour of England was a smashing triumph. It was so successful that, before the troupe returned to the United States, the show’s managers had laid plans for a return engagement—this time to the European continent. In April 1889, Cody’s Wild West headed for Paris and the 1889 Paris Universal Exposition. For this engagement, Cody refashioned the show to include, among other novelties, the Cowboy Band playing the French national anthem and several performers dressed as fur trappers, who represented the French influence in Canada. But the essential message of the show remained unchanged: in the United States white, Anglo-Saxon “civilization” had tamed “savagery,” rendering “savages” a source of amusement, ethnographic study, and inspiration for a shared racial consciousness among whites that held the potential for blurring class distinctions.
Cody’s commanding reputation, inflated by his advance team’s publicity blitz, triggered an overwhelming response. More than 10,000 people, including French president Sadi Carnot, turned out for the opening performance. On almost a daily basis, French newspapers were filled with accounts of the Wild West and its performers, especially the American Indians, who attracted attention wherever they went, especially when they climbed the Eiffel Tower. Touching the Indians became a popular sport among young French couples, who, newspapers reported, thought such contact would assure fertility! Some children were inspired by the show as well; they set up their own wild west encampment in the Bois de Boulogne. And Rosa Bonheur, the famous French artist, went so far in her adulation of Cody as to paint several portraits of Buffalo Bill and to ask for (and receive) the head of Buffalo Bill’s horse for her studio after the animal died. Throughout the summer, as Buffalo Bill memorabilia vied with exposition souvenirs as popular keepsakes, there was good reason to believe that the main event in town was not the fair, but the Wild West. Never immodest, Cody got caught up in the adulation he received and, in a show of bravado, if not bad taste, tried to present the French president with a special gift—a nine-foot-tall lamp, topped off with a preserved bison head and a scarlet red lampshade. When President Carnot politely declined the gift, there was reason to believe that, for all of the synergy associated with “Americanization,” it was sometimes possible for Europeans to just say no.
From Paris, the Wild West traveled to southern France and Spain. Then, in early 1890, Cody’s show traveled across Italy with performances in major cities, including Rome, where Pope Leo XIII singled out the performers for a special blessing. In Bologna, the Wild West played for eight days, made a huge profit, and left the Bolognese with stirring impressions of the American West, and vivid memories of congested streets and oversold arenas. In Bologna and elsewhere, Wild West concessionaires introduced audiences to popcorn, giving them a lasting taste of American mass culture.
After blazing a trail across Italy, Cody’s show headed north to Germany, where it was refashioned into an imperial circus billed as “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World.” The show expanded to include representatives of foreign troops, including Arabian and Syrian horsemen. By the time Cody returned to England for another command performance for Queen Victoria, his show had earned a reputation on both sides of the Atlantic for its “authentic” representation of the American West and for inspiring dreams of freedom in European societies that seemed locked into class-based social hierarchies.
European Responses to the Wild West Show
Looking at European responses to American mass culture, whether in its early forms like Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show touring Europe, or in later forms like Hollywood movies, or advertisements for American consumer products, they have always been of two kinds. Some have been on the level of articulate reflection producing a repertoire of critical views; others have consisted of selective appropriation, redirecting the impact of American cultural exports, sometimes Europeanizing them as well.
To take the example of Buffalo Bill in Europe, we need to answer two questions. First, at the level of articulate, specific responses, the question is what did Europeans choose to read in what they saw? What did they make of it? Did they enjoy it as pure entertainment, a display of American exoticism? Were they impressed by the Wild West’s showmanship, its mastery of a form of popular entertainment? And, if so, did they recognize a typical American flair in it, far surpassing anything they had seen so far? Or was it rather a matter of affiliation with a historical narrative of conquest and imperial expansion that they could meaningfully relate to the world they lived in? The intention of Buffalo Bill’s staging was certainly to make the story of the American West merge with the story of European expansion at a time when European colonization reached the far frontiers of its own empires. European audiences may have been aware of this larger connection and may have seen the show as confirming views of Western superiority and the White Man’s civilizing mission. Yet, when we conceive of response in terms of reception and appropriation, we need to take a longer view. We need to ask ourselves to what extent the Wild West intersected with ideas about the American West that had already been formed by earlier carriers of imagery, in novels by the likes of Franois René de Châteaubriand and James Fenimore Cooper, through journalism, travelogues, immigrant letters, or visual materials such as paintings, drawings, prints, and photographs. In fact, the European fantasy of the American West had already spawned its own popular authors like Balduin Mollhausen and Karl May in Germany, Gustave Aymard in France, and Mayne Reid in England. The American West had already been appropriated and made to serve as a projection screen for European fantasies, for instance of White-Indian male bonding in a setting reminiscent of German dreams of pristine nature, as in May’s romances, or in the guise of a quasi-anthropological exoticism, as in Aymard’s stories. To put it in slightly different terms, the Wild West made a splash in a pond already filled with images of the American West.
Equally important to remember is that Europe was never just one homogeneous setting for the reception of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show as an accomplished form of American mass culture. Each European country had at the time its own specific history in fictionalizing the American West. For instance, among European countries, Germany offers the clearest case of a long-time infatuation with the American Indian. This may have had to do with a romantic, if not nostalgic, affiliation with peoples threatened by the onward march of civilization, an affiliation that had the marks of a projection of feelings of loss of cultural bearings prevalent in a Germany undergoing rapid modernization itself. As Hans Rudolf Rieder, translator and editor of Buffalo Child Long Lance’s book Longlance: A Selfportrait of the Last Indian (Langspeer: Eine Selbstdarstellung des letzten Indianers), would put it in 1929: “The Indian is closer to the German than to any other European. This may be due to our stronger leaning for that which is close to nature.” Karl May, the single most important molder of German views of the American Indian, viewed the Native Americans as being essentially good. Their great advantage over white people consisted in the ability to understand nature and harmonize with it. As Heribert von Feilitzsch puts it: May “captured in this portrayal the sentiment of Germans living in a rapidly industrializing country. The traditional German attraction to nature and romanticism increased in a world which seemed to evolve into an increasingly sterile and cold environment. In May’s novels the reader could identify with the Native American who also faced the destruction of his living space, and for similar reasons: ruthless materialism.” In 1876, the year of the Battle of the Little Big Horn, May himself wrote this passage in his Geografische Predigten (Geographical Sermons): “the site of that desperate fight in which the Indian lets fly his last arrow against the exponent of a bloodthirsty and reckless ‘civilization.’…At the beginning of the 19th century the ‘Redskin’ was still master of the vast plains…But then came the ‘Paleface,’ the White man, drove the ‘Red brother’ from his hunting grounds …but traditions will weave their golden gleam around the vanished warrior of the savanna, and the memory of the mortal sin committed against the brother will continue to live in the song of the poet.”
Exotic and intriguing the Indians may have been to Europeans. Yet, at the same time, there was the sense that, here on display, reenacting their historical defeat at the hands of whites, were literally the last of the Mohicans, the representatives of a vanishing race. Such, white Europeans and Americans agreed, was the course of history. This tragic dimension may have actually heightened interest Buffalo Bill’s Indians as living representatives of a different race. Much of the European press gave equal if not more space to the Indian living quarters, with their tipis pitched on the show’s grounds, than to the historical drama that made up the Wild West show. As one Italian newspaper put it: “their eyes are good and proud, they have the gentleness of a dying race.” Yet, their image as bloodthirsty savages, well established in Europe at the time, also permeated much of the press reports. It was further disseminated by European equivalents of American dime novels and pulp magazines with names like Buffalo Bill, the Wild West Hero. The show did nothing to alter these impressions, with its central drama always portraying the Indians as savage aggressors who were eventually defeated by Buffalo Bill and other such heroes.
Infatuation with the Indian, though, was not the only romance that engaged Europeans. Before Buffalo Bill appeared in Europe, Europeans had also become fascinated by the cowboy. The appeal of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West lay as much in the heroism of the pioneer and frontiersman—tales that Cody restaged through his performers’ stunning mastery of everything having to do with horses. As a result of the Wild West, the two romances became interlinked, and children growing up in Europe would play Cowboys and Indians for generations to come.
Buffalo Bill, then, clearly encountered in Europe a world already alive with images of the American West. While Cody may have been more catching than others in his showmanship, in other words more “American,” it is important to ask, did European audiences noticed this difference? Or was the Wild West just another touring show, turning the American West into a pageant, only better than rival shows? As it turns out, there were clear moments in the European response that spoke of an awareness of the Americanness of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West. Billed in 1883 as “America’s National Entertainment,” the Wild West show captured what was fresh and original—what was least bound by tradition and imitative of European models—in American life. Mark Twain certainly sensed this when he wrote to Buffalo Bill after seeing the Wild West show in 1886 before its first European visit: “It is often said on the other side of the water that none of the exhibitions which we send to England are purely and distinctively American. If you take the Wild West show over there you can remove that reproach.”
But, as historian John Sears has pointed out in a perceptive essay, as much as the show may have succeeded in embodying the “wildness” of the West, the show was as much a display of the products of nineteenth-century industrial civilization as it was of the savage life of the frontier. The key to the whole affair was not the wild men and animals, the Indians, the frontier types, the bucking broncos and buffalo, but the revolver and the repeating rifles, two of the most innovative products of nineteenth-century industrial civilization in the United States. They were products of what Americans proudly—and Europeans admiringly and enviously—had come to call the “American System of Manufactures,” whereby machine tools had made it increasingly possible to produce precise, interchangeable parts. Both types of firearms, as used in the show, were seen as mediators between a world of increasing technological precision and the freewheeling life of the frontier. The heart of the show was a display of shooting which ritualized the practical and symbolic role of guns in American culture. In Europe, for a number of historical reasons, the gun had never become a significant symbol in popular culture and folklore.
Two of the most famous firearms produced by the technological revolution in America were the Colt revolver, invented by Samuel Colt in 1835, and the Winchester repeating rifle. They were the principal weapons used by Buffalo Bill, Annie Oakley, Johnny Baker, and the other sharpshooters in the Wild West show. Without such rapid firing and accurate weapons, neither the Wild West show nor the conquest of the West, which the show reenacted, would have been possible. As one program for the Wild West explained: “The bullet is a kind of pioneer of civilization. Although its mission is often deadly, it is useful and necessary. Without the bullet, America would not be a great, free, united, and powerful country.”
The exhibitions of shooting were not the only way in which the Wild West showed off American know-how. The methods of publicizing the show by blanketing cities with posters also captured international interest. The production of the show was itself a demonstration of the rapidly evolving technologies of printing, the reproduction of images, and advertising. As Cuban nationalist and poet José Mart explained to readers of several Spanish-language newspapers: “‘BUFFALO BILL’ we read printed in large colored letters on every corner, wooden fence, sign post, dead end wall in New York. Sandwich-men—that is what they are called—walk along the streets, stuffed between two large boards which fall front and back, and sway as does the untroubled fellow who carries them, while the crowds laugh and read the bright letters shining in the sun: ‘The Great Buffalo Bill.’” Effective posters preceded the show as it traveled about Europe. Moreover, the way the show was moved from place to place provided part of its cultural message, of its “Americanness.” In its first ten years the show committed about half of its performances to European audiences. As time went on there were, in the logic of touring, fewer long stays at major centers and more short stands. The resulting logistical problems were solved with such skill that during the extensive German tours, according to Annie Oakley:
We never moved without at least forty officers of the Prussian Guard standing all about with notebooks, taking down every detail of the performance. They made minute notes on how we pitched camp—the exact number of men needed, every man’s position, how long it took, how we boarded the trains and packed the horses and broke camp; every rope and bundle and kit was inspected and mapped.
The secret for efficient loading, which may have been invented by the Wild West show, was to link railroad flatcars together with planks so that the wagons would come off in a continuous line, already in parade order for passing through the center of town en route to the fair grounds. Clearly, what struck the German military as worth copying was an example of American organizational and logistical acumen.
But not always was the perception of the show’s Americanness this positive. Given the popularity of Buffalo Bill’s show in Germany, a great demand remained for equivalent events. Thus two famous men in the evolution of German mass culture, Carl Hagenbeck and Hans Stosch-Sarrasani, took their cues from the American example. Carl Hagenbeck, who founded the Stellingen Zoological Garden near Hamburg in 1907, not only displayed animals but human beings as well. His Völkerschaustellungen (exhibitions of peoples) were also ethnologically oriented as previous such shows in Germany had been. In the summer of 1910 he had an entire Indian agency set up at his zoo, in which a group of Sioux Indians under Chief Spotted Weasel could be observed by the visitors. The exhibition included a program that was similar to Buffalo Bill’s, with Indian attacks on a log cabin and on a stagecoach, and horse stealing thrown in for good measure. In 1912, circus director Sarrasani refused to inaugurate his Circus-Theater in Dresden without exotic Indians, so he contracted a group of twenty-two Sioux from the Pine Ridge reservation to perform. Since 1901 Sarrasani had built an impressive company whose outstanding artistic achievements were given utmost effect by unconventional ideas, and which made best use of modern advertising. As a man of practical life, he was always keen on professional competence. Until about 1932, seven issues of Sarrasani were published, documenting the work of his circus and expressing the intentions of Stosch-Sarrasani. As one issue put it, with characteristic modesty: “What Bayreuth is for the lover of operas, Sarrasani is for the enthusiast of the circus.” As Rudolf Conrad tells it, Sarrasani’s attempts to give a certain image to his company were, of course, accompanied by polemics against everything questioning his claim to exclusiveness, even though he adopted and imitated some of his competitors’ ideas. With respect to the Wild West, Sarrasani wished to draw a clear line between the American show and what he himself offered the public:
The Americans who had then moved across Europe, sucking in the golden money, were no models, were almost repelling. With their system of three stages they bluffed the German need for quality and beauty. As soon as the bluff is over, the American department store system, the method of wholesale junk is rejected by the Germans…The old Colonel Cody, himself a fighter in the last Indian wars, had formed around himself a body guard of subjugated redskins, they followed him to Europe and they disappeared with him. In his horse operas they had remained almost unnoticed.
There is more than a little pique and jalousie de métier in this statement. Yet the choice of words is telling. Sarrasani is out to point to the inherent Americanness of Buffalo Bill and other features of American life coming to Europe, only, as Sarrasani says, to be rejected after a while. Ironically, though, while trying to call the Americans’ bluff, he missed one crucial ingredient. The Americans may have bluffed their way across Europe, but they certainly satisfied a German, and more generally European, need for authenticity. The “Wild West fever” caused by Buffalo Bill’s show in Europe had centrally to do with the show’s claim to represent “the real thing” that people in Europe had read about and dreamed about for years. The Wild West show was fast, exciting entertainment that competed with the big circuses that emerged at about the same time in the United States and a little later in Europe as well, but offered something the circuses did not: authenticity. As the Liverpool Mercury put it in 1891, it is “a piece of the Wild West bodily transported to our midst …It is not a show in the ordinary acceptance of the term, because the actors are each and all real characters—men who have figured not on the stage, but in real life.” As a reporter from Dortmund, Germany, described the emotions, desires, and yearnings kindled by the show:
What would we have given in our childhood days, when we pored over [Gabriel] Ferry’s “Coureur de Bois” with glowing cheeks, to witness the romantic Indian figures in reality. Now that we have settled with our childhood dreams, comes this Colonel Cody, called Buffalo Bill, and floods us with all that we once so desired…This show is truly an experience.
Here was an experience of the real thing, of living history that had just passed. These are critical words when it comes to exploring the appeal of forms of American mass culture. No sales pitch has more powerfully drawn publics around the world toward forms of American mass culture than the claim of authenticity. It was a lesson that others would learn and apply in the not so distant future. For instance, Coca-Cola would be advertised as being “the real thing.” Levi’s jeans would for many years be advertised as being “the original Levi’s,” an American original. This is exactly what Buffalo Bill had promised as well by bringing real Indians, real buffaloes, real cowboys, and the West as it really was or had been, to Europe. Like their American counterparts, Europeans, for the most part, fell for this ploy. They loved it and never sat back to call Buffalo Bill’s bluff in that respect. Today, a wild west theme park outside of Munich attracts over one million visitors a year, and a dozen other wild west attractions stretch from Spain to Scandinavia.