Ada Zingara, Sideshow Performer

Tucked into the slots of an antique album filled with photographs of an unidentified family of Kaukauna, Outagamie County, Wisconsin, are several photographs of sideshow performers.1

Ada Zingara photograph, ca. 1890s, Chicago, Illinois; digital image 2013, privately held by Melanie Frick, 2013.

Ada Zingara photograph, ca. 1890s, Chicago, Illinois; digital image 2013, privately held by Melanie Frick, 2013.

The name Ada Zingara is handwritten on the back of this photograph, which features a woman posing in a rather scandalous fashion. Her dress is short, and she stands with one leg elevated on a bench as she pretends to fasten her pointy-toed shoe. Her stockings feature bold zigzags, and her dress is patterned as well. The bodice is trimmed with lace and loose cap sleeves, and the border of her lace-trimmed petticoat is also visible. She wears earrings, and a large, bejeweled crucifix lies at her throat. What is most striking is her hairstyle: Ada’s hair is teased into an Afro.

A search for Ada Zingara informed me that, in the early 1900s, she was a snake charmer. A 1906 sideshow advertisement specified that she had a den of “Five Big Anacondas.”2 However, I wondered why she was not posing with snakes in this picture, which was surely printed for publicity. And why did she have such a dramatic hairstyle?

Further research informed me that the circus great P.T. Barnum began exhibiting women with this hairstyle in the 1865, calling them Circassian Beauties. According to reports of the time, the women of the mountainous region near the Black Sea were particularly beautiful, and were prized by Turkish sultans who kidnapped them for their harems. Barnum capitalized on this sensational story, seeking first to purchase one of these slave girls abroad, and eventually settling for a local girl with teased hair (which was not an accurate Circassian style) who was merely marketed as a Circassian.3 Eventually, as the popularity of the Circassian Beauties waned, the women adopted other acts, including routines as equally alluring snake charmers.4

A close look at her face reveals that Ada Zingara is not very young. There are lines around her eyes, which gaze warmly at the camera. Her lips part in a faint smile, showing her teeth – and a possible missing tooth. Why did Ada turn to sideshows, and what became of her? What was her real name?

What I find especially interesting is the fact that this photograph occupies the very first page of the album – the page usually reserved for an important family member or the primary subject of the album.4 Of course, it’s possible that the photographs were rearranged in the years that this album made its way from its original home to the antique store. Whatever the case, it should be noted that this is not the only photograph of a circus or sideshow performer located in the album. The family of Kaukauna, Wisconsin must have enjoyed these attractions!

Did your ancestors collect photographs of circus or sideshow performers?

1 Unidentified Album of a Kaukauna, Wisconsin Family, ca. 1870-1900; privately held by Melanie Frick, 2013.
2 “Ada Zingara,” The Billboard, 14 April 1906, digital image, Old Fulton Post Cards ( : accessed 27 September 2013).
3 Wikipedia (, “Circassian Beauties,” rev. 18:32, 3 July 2013.
4 Katherine H. Adams and Michael L. Keene, Women of the American Circus, 1880-1940 (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company, 2012), 142; digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 27 September 2013).
5 “’Reading’ A Family Photo Album,” Photo Detective with Maureen A. Taylor, 22 September 2013 ( : accessed 27 September 2013).



5 thoughts on “Ada Zingara, Sideshow Performer

  1. Pingback: Herman and Augusta Rice, “The Most Extraordinary Dwarfs of the Age” | Homestead Genealogical Research

  2. Deja Cheek

    I have a picture of her (Ada Zingara) posing with a snake. Evidentially one of my great granduncles knew her, since she wrote a short poem on the back: “Tis sweet to love/But oh, how bitter/To love a girl/And not to get her/ Oh, Will! Ada Zingara. I’ve always wondered about that lost story.

    1. Melanie Frick Post author

      Deja, wow! That is so interesting! I’d be curious to know where your great granduncle lived, and what time period this may have been? I can’t help but wonder who Ada Zingara really was. Thanks for stopping by and sharing!

  3. sousafy

    Her real name was Harriett O. Shipley:
    (Been making NARs for circus performers, really neat to see a picture of her! I’ve included it in her Wikidata file.)
    There’s a photo of her floating around on Reddit, but I haven’t been able to determine where it came from:
    MNHS has a photo they’ve stated on Facebook could be her, but I dunno. What do you think?

    1. Melanie Frick Post author

      Fantastic to have that information – thank you for sharing! It has been a few years since I tried to search for more information about her and I love knowing her real identity. I’m not certain that’s her in the MNHS photo – it could be, but if so, I would think it would have been taken a number of years before than this photo and the one on Reddit as the woman looks quite a bit younger.


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