Lydia Thompson's contribution to 19th Century Burlesque Theater in America

Burlesque Theater was first introduced in America in the 1840s and quickly gained popularity for its sexually suggestive performances, witty dialogue, and revealing costumes. Burlesque performances originated in London but gained attention in America due to its resemblance to minstrel shows. When Burlesque shows were first established in America, they primarily centered around humorous sketches but later shifted to more elements of strip tease in the early 20th century. Although the shows themselves were not primarily risqué, audiences flocked to theaters in order to observe women portraying their sexuality on stage. To this day, scholars continue to study the impact that these performances had not only on the historical elements of stage performance, but on women’s sexuality as it pertains to the arts. 

To further understand Burlesque theater, Robert G. Allen, author of Horrible Prettiness: Burlesque and American Culture states the following:

“Without question, however, burlesque’s principal legacy as a cultural form was its establishment of patterns of gender representation that forever changed the role of the woman on the American stage and later influenced her role on the screen. The very sight of a female body not covered by the accepted costume of bourgeois respectability forcefully if playfully called attention to the entire question of the “place” of women in American society.”

- Robert G. Allen, Horrible Prettiness: Burlesque and American Culture (Univ. of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 1991), pp. 258-259.

An important historical figure in the Burlesque movement was Lydia Thompson (1838-1908). Lydia, otherwise known as the “queen of Burlesque” was the first woman to wear tights on stage in 19th Century England. Thompson, along with her Burlesque troupe “The British Blondes,” made history in autumn of 1868 when they introduced Victorian Burlesque to New York Theatres. Their first production, “Ixion, or, The Man at the Wheel” shocked audiences in America because the women wore revealing tights and were seen depicting male roles. Additionally, the women wrote and produced this production with no assistance from a male counterpart. This event was pivotal in American theater because it was the first instance that a Victorian Burlesque troupe had attempted to independently perform a theatrical production depicting males. The production was immensely popular and attracted the attention of both men and women across America. In fact, Thompson and her troupe made over $370,000 in their first season in America. 

Thompson’s female driven Burlesque shows in the late 1860’s sparked much debate. Most audience members applauded the women for fighting against the standards set for women during these times. In both England and America, women were pressured to dress modestly and primarily wear only long dresses that wouldn’t draw attention to their figures. These women were going against these societal standards and pushing for a society that allowed women to openly express their sexuality without fear of repercussion. 

However, the women did face backlash for their actions. While most audiences enjoyed the stance against societal pressure on women, the press thought otherwise. Comments in newspaper publications deemed Thompson as a prostitute and claimed that her blonde hair was a wig. Some reporters went so far as to call the women immoral. Wilbur Storey, owner of The Chicago Times, had a significant amount of negative feedback for the women and labeled the women as “low and degrading.” In response, Thompson and her troupe went to Storey’s home and beat him with a horsewhip. The women were charged with assault, however the incident made audiences fall even more in love with the women and their performances. Shows were selling out even quicker and the women were benefiting from the increase in sales. 

In later years when questioned about the Storey incident, Thompson responded, “The persistent and personally vindictive assault in the Times upon my reputation left me only one mode of redress...They were women whom he attacked. It was by women he was castigated… We did what the law would not do for us.” 

Although Burlesque theater still has several negative connotations to its name in present day America, Thompson and her troupe made strides in both theatrical productions and the feminist movement. Their passion to stand up for their sex left audiences with a deeper understanding of the societal pressure that women were facing during this time. 

(The dates referenced in this entry include the start of Thompson’s troupe to Thompson's final performances)

Works Cited:

Allen, R. (n.d.). Horrible Prettiness: Burlesque and American Culture (Cultural Studies of the United States).

Greer, K., Kane, L., Leonard-Rose, M., Morrison, M., Staveski, C., Sigrid Freeburg,  R.,  Bench, H. (2015, October 21). Spectacles of Agency and Desire: The British Blondes and The Media. Retrieved from Accessed 6 October 2020.

Shields, D. (n.d.). Lydia Thompson. Retrieved from Accessed 6 October 2020.

Associated Place(s)

Event date:

circa. The middle of the month Sep 1868 to circa. The end of the month Aug 1904