SHOWBOATS, also called floating theaters, floating operas, or boat-shows, were theaters on boats that brought entertainment primarily to small towns along the inland waterways of the midwestern and southern United States, chiefly along the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers. The showboat era lasted from 1831 to the 1940s, with a pause during the Civil War. Their heyday was the early twentieth century.
The original showboats were family owned and ventured to small, isolated river frontier locations. Family showboats were modest crafts of simple construction with seating for between one hundred and three hundred people. They did not carry passengers or transport goods, only culture and entertainment. Eventually, enormous floating theaters, with up to fourteen hundred seats, competed with the smaller family ventures.
The Chapman family from England launched the first showboat in 1831 in Pittsburgh. The Chapman boat floated with the current down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, tying up for one-night performances at river landings where there might be a viable audience. The nine person
Chapman family served as the entire cast and crew. Admission to the show, although preferred in coins, was also accepted in the form of foodstuffs from the small river bottom farms.
Resembling a garage on a barge, the Chapman boat was one hundred feet wide and sixteen feet long. Performances included August von Kotzebue's The Stranger, William Shakespeare's Hamlet and The Taming of the Shrew, and the fairy tale "Cinderella." Popular songs were also frequent features. The Chapmans were successful in their venture and by 1836 were able to upgrade their operation to a small steamboat.
Other floating theaters soon followed the Chapman boat onto the waterways, as did circus boats featuring animal acts in addition to plays. The largest of these was the Floating Circus Palace of Gilbert R. Spaulding and Charles J. Rogers, built in 1851, which featured an impressive equestrian exhibition.
However, by the mid-nineteenth century the popularity of showboats had begun to diminish and with the Civil War they disappeared from the crowded waterways, which were disputed territories during the War. Showboats were revived beginning in 1878 with the building of the New Sensation and the use of steamer tows and the beckoning sound of calliopes increased their territory and audience.
Early in the showboat era, comedies, back-to-nature plays, circuses, freak shows, and vaudeville acts were popular. After the Civil War minstrel shows and maudlin, nostalgic songs prevailed. During the Gilded Age and Progressive Era the melodrama proved to be the most successful style of showboat entertainment.
In the early twentieth century better roads, automobiles, and motion pictures provided river towns with other forms of entertainment. To compete with land entertainment, and one another, the boats and shows became larger, more lavish, and heavily advertised. The big boats featured musical comedy and full-length dramas as well as extravagant costumes. The most famous boats of this era were the Grand Floating Palace, the Sunny South, and the Goldenrod. Known as the Big Three, they belonged to W. R. Markle of Ohio. In the 1930s showboats changed their programs to burlesque in order to attract a new and more sophisticated, less family oriented audience, but ultimately high operating costs, a disappearing river frontier, and changing audience tastes brought the
showboat era to an end by the early 1940s. The Goldenrod, the last known showboat to be on the water, was tied permanently at St. Louis in 1943. Jerome Kern's 1927 musical, Show Boat (made into film versions in 1929, 1936, and 1951), dramatized the type of entertainment that showboats provided and depicted the lives of the showboat families and entertainers.
Bryant, Betty. Here Comes the Showboat! Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1994
Graham, Philip. Showboats: The History of an American Institution. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1951.
show·boat / ˈshōˌbōt/ • n. a river steamboat on which theatrical performances are given. ∎ inf. a show-off; an exhibitionist. • v. [intr.] inf. show off: [as adj.] (showboating) a lot of showboating politicians. DERIVATIVES: show·boat·er n.
showboat: In the early 19th cent. entertainment was brought by boat to the pioneers that settled along the western rivers (especially the Mississippi and Ohio) of the United States. At first companies only traveled by boat, performing on land. Later the boats themselves, first paddle boats and finally steamboats, were equipped with stages. Docking near a town, they would herald their arrival with trumpets and flags. The companies presented popular melodramas, with vaudeville performances, called olios, between the acts; by day, the boats often served as museums. With the coming of the Civil War, their popularity dwindled. Edna Ferber's novel Show Boat is an interesting description of the life of its people.
See historical study by P. Graham (1951, repr. 1970).