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From Wild West to West End: ‘Buffalo Bill’ Scrapbook and Performances of Frontier Manhood

Stevie Watson, a PhD student in English and American Studies at the University of Manchester, writes about our ‘Buffalo Bill’ Scrapbook, English MS 1393:

‘Buffalo Bill’s’ arrival in London in the spring of 1887 was preceded by a period of enormous anticipation. Newspapers from London to Teesside had been writing about the Wild West for almost a year; a new 20,000 capacity arena had been erected in Earl’s Court, replete with plains scenery and a tent village for the performers; and as bookstores prominently displayed Fenimore Cooper’s novels, newsagents stocked up on ‘Buffalo Bill’ cabinet cards ready for eager collectors.

Page of Buffalo Bill Scrapbook, English MS 1393.

Among them were the Hipkins family, whose admiration of the show resulted in the production of a rare and underutilised piece of Wild West history: the ‘Buffalo Bill Scrapbook’. Covering the show’s 1887, 1892, and 1903 UK tours, the scrapbook comprises a vast amount of primary material, including show programmes, promotional photographs¸ newspaper clippings, postcards, a calendar, and even personal correspondence from Wild West performers. I became aware of the scrapbook following a talk by one of the John Rylands Special Collections Librarians about using archival material in our MA dissertation research. From it, I developed a thesis that asked how we can read ‘Buffalo Bill’s’ performance of frontier masculinity in a transatlantic context.

Pen and ink drawing of ‘Buffalo Bill’ and a Native American, by John A. Hipkins, 1903, inscribed by William F. (‘Buffalo Bill’) Cody. From Buffalo Bill Scrapbook, English MS 1393.

The scrapbook is enormous, but for me there were two main highlights. The first is a pen and ink drawing by John A. Hipkins, Edith’s father, which portrays ‘Buffalo Bill’ atop his horse, Old Charlie, meeting Red Shirt, a Native American who appeared in the show. The drawing contains many of the costumes and props that the Wild West used to promote itself (including the famous Deadwood coach!), but it also provides clues about Cody’s self-presentation: he has autographed it, and then another hand has inscribed, ‘Cody was pleased with this drawing!’

The second is a pair of photographs taken of ‘Buffalo Bill’ at Carl Vandyk’s studio at 37 Buckingham Palace Road, London. One depicts him perched on a rock, adorned in fringed buckskin, framed by foliage and animal hide, rifle in hand. In the other, he stands straight, wearing a tailored double-breasted coat, with one arm folded behind his back and his other hand resting on a polished cane. I am fascinated by the discrepancy between the two images, and wrote at some length about how ‘Buffalo Bill’ mediated between these two very different styles of masculinity as he moved between the Wild West arena and the gentlemen’s clubs of London.

The scrapbook is, as Dr Gareth Lloyd wrote in his 2013 blog post, a ‘hidden treasure’ of the John Rylands Library, useful to anyone interested in American history and culture, or transatlantic leisure and entertainment. I was extremely grateful for the opportunity to use it for my research.

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