Unclad Actresses

10:50 AM

In 1890, in one of Omaha’s first art galleries, a painting was attacked. The gallery? The Lininger, started by civic leader George W. Lininger, whose collection wound up largely at the Joslyn. The painting? “The Return of Spring” by William-Adolphe Bouguereau, which was an image of an unclad woman surrounded by naked putti – those fat little babies with angel wings. They fly about the woman like amorous butterflies, but for a few that lounge on the ground like opium addicts. The attacker, C.J. Warpinton (referred to in the World-Herald as “a Crazy Censor”) was apparent incensed by the sheer angelic sensuality of the image that he bashed a chair against it, tearing the canvas.

Someone attacked the painting again in 1976. Apparently it is something of Omaha’s answer to Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ,” although, to my jaded eyes, it just seems like a bunch of fat babies flying around a classical representation of a naked woman. And, even when it was attacked, locals seemed puzzled. A columnist for the World-Herald who called himself “The Gleaner’s Sheaf” complained in January of 1891 that this was wasted effort.

“If some female Warpinton would start out to annihilate all objects tending to destroy the virtue of the sterner sex, it would be more in accordance with the fitness of things,” the columnist wrote. “[I]t is to be hoped, too, that she would not begin with an $18,000 picture, which had not a trace of the voluptuous or sensual in it, and was exhibited to a generally respectable audience who went to see works of art, and recognized the fact that art had no higher subject to portray than God’s last and greatest physical creation, the human body.”

The Glener’s Sheaf had a recommendation for what a female might instead turn her attention to, were she to want to root out real lewdness, and I mention it because it gives us a sense that in the Victorian era, actresses loomed heavily in the erotic imagination:

“[S]he might pounce first upon those very pictures in saloons which the male Warpinton seems to think was all right. And then she would annihilate those cherished collections of which young men are so fond, containing the figures of actresses in every variety of dress – or lack of dress, and follow it up with the demolition of the flaming theater placards , which are equally suggestive and lewd.”


Our scolding columnist is, of course, referring to suggestive images, and also pornography: The nude photographs and paintings that hung above bars, the collections of scandalous images of female performers in suggestive and somewhat unclad poses, and the signs that hung outside performing venues that seemed to promise licentiousness to be found inside the venue. According to this author, such images could be found everywhere:

“She would go down into the pockets of young men and examine the rivets of their knives, or the hidden mechanisms of their scarf pins, or watch charms, or rings, and away would go more of the vile pictures.” The author makes it sounds as though the typical Omaha young male of 1891 was a sort of pornographic stage magician, with erotic pictures stuffed where a sleight-of-hand artist would tuck a bouquet of flowers, a songbird, a rabbit, and some flash paper. In fact, in May of 1893, the Omaha Bee reported on exactly this sort of young man: Frankie Parks, who was arrested for carrying “a quantity of obscene photographs,” as well as a concealed weapon. Specifically, a “long dirk,” which had they not clarified was a weapon might have generated quite a bit of confusion among the paper’s readership.

Worse, an 1895 article in the World-Herald discusses the discouraging fact that some young men, enamored with certain actresses, would have tattooed onto their bodies suggestive images of the actresses, which proved to be a problem later when they prepared to marry.

I would like to take a moment to distinguish between highbrow theater, where presumably these sorts of lewd images didn’t exist, and the lowbrow offerings of saloon-dancehalls and the like, which, as we have discovered, were often fronts for prostitution. I am sure the performers who appeared at Boyd’s Music Hall would not have been pleased to find themselves on the same blog as the performers who appeared at the Park Theater, and would be reading my blog with a scowled visage. But, then, the moralists of the era didn’t care much to make that sort of distinction. As far as they were concerned, both the highbrow and lowbrow venues sold vice to the public.

I have found a stern lecture from a nearby neighbor, Reverend G.C. Rankin of Kansas City, who railed against the breaking of the Sabbath by attendees of the “Sunday night play house” in January of 1891. “It is not for the benefit and accommodation of the better class of people that the Sunday night theater opens its doors,” he warned in the pages of the Kansas City Times. “… And when the promiscuous mass of pure and impure humanity if gotten together before the footlights of the Sunday night playhouse, instead of being elevated they are left on a lower plane of self-respect than when they assembled. All of them seek lower depths of degradation and shame from that which has been suggested to them by the exhibitions and associations of the occasion.”

In fairness to Reverend Rankin, that does sound like a pretty good evening of theater. And what are these “exhibitions” of which Rankin speaks? According to him, the theaters post “lewd pictures in the faces of our people.” We’ve heard about this now in Kansas City and in Omaha, and it’s probably fair to ask what sorts of pictures these were? In all likelihood, modern audiences would find these images inoffensive, but it is possible to see a large selection of Victorian theater posters online, and they do seem to favor women with exposed legs and shoulders, sometimes being menaced by a man who seems about to beat them, and sometimes posing brazenly in what looks like circus costumes. In 1886, the World-Herald complained of “glaring advertisements of shows and displayed photographs of actresses in suggestive deshabille.”

Obviously, this isn’t the sort of pornography that one could apparently find in every young lad’s snuff case, but, to the ministers and moralists, it wasn’t much better either.


There were, to be sure, a lot of actresses in the Victorian era who posed for actual pornography. There is a much-cited scholarly article called “The Actress in Victorian Pornography” which discussed, in part, how common it was to find stage actresses in pornographic images, and just how many of these images explicitly referenced the fact of theater and the stage. There was a child actresses named Isa Bowman, who originated the stage role of Alice in Wonderland, was friends with Lewis Carrol, wrote a book about him, and also, by the way, married the marvelously named pornographer George Reginald Bacchus, and he created an erotic fictionalized memoir based on her life called “The Confessions of Nemesis Hunt.” Obviously, her experiences are not typical, but they do illustrate that the line between legitimate theater and the pornographic underworld was thinner than we might expect.

It’s hard to know how much of this went on in Omaha. There has been pornographic photography in the Gate City since at least 1890, when a woman named Rosa King, who the World-Herald referred to as a “dissolute citizen of the third ward,” went to Council Bluffs and “had a photographer make a number of tin types of her in a state of attire which has not been seen in vogue since the time of Eden.” She was arrested for circulating lewd photographs, which she was circulating to her admirers, presumably to hide in their boot heel or secret away in a secret compartment behind their umbrella handle.

In 1894, we find another Iowan photographer snapping these sorts of images, and I will offer his name without comment: Oscar Seaman. The photographer had apparently set up quite a successful mail-order business, and was sending his photographs throughout the country when the cops got him. “The pictures are described as obscene and degrading in the extreme,” the Bee informs us, and while we don’t know if any of the models were from Omaha, we can probably safely assume that at least a few were from Council Bluffs, because, well, it’s Council Bluffs.


I have one more story to tell about this subject, although it is not set here. The story takes place in Hollywood, at the palatial estate of Harold Lloyd. The silent film comic was a native of Burchard, Nebraska, and got his start as a performer at the Burwood theater here in Omaha, as I mentioned. Lloyd was preposterously successful as a film actor, grossing more than Charlie Chaplin, and his estate, Greenacres, was massive.

Perhaps remembering his youth in Omaha, when, presumably, he secreted photos of semi-clad actresses under his straw hat, Lloyd like to use this estate to snap photographs of naked actresses, some of them in 3D. His photography was often featured in men’s magazines, and a collection of his 3D images was released a few years ago, called “Harold Lloyd's Hollywood Nudes in 3D!” His models included pinup queen Bettie Page, cult film legend Tura Satana, and burlesque performer Dixie Evans. Apparently he kept all the images in his photo studio in his house, but where’s the fun in that?

Men are supposed to stash photos of unclad actresses on their person. That’s the Omaha way.

About the author

Max Sparber is a playwright and historian who lives in Omaha, Nebraska.