Pulaski, NY native Ada Briggs started with Barnum and other NY dime museums in the 1870s and her career lasted past the turn of the 20th century. Her marketing niche was that was she not only “fat” but “good-looking”. One newspaper item from the ’80s says she is 520 lbs, 5 feet tall, and as “as beautiful as she is big”. An 1890 ad for World’s Museum in Pittsburg billed her as “The Fat Beauty”. This distinction was apparently enough to lift her to the top of the fat lady game — one newspaper of the time reported that she made 50% more than her portly competitors ($60 a week to their $40). A later reference (1884) has her up to $75 “and “set up for life”. For some perspective, this is a lot more than any clerk or manual laborer of the time was earning. And yet it’s lots LESS than other types of freaks. In the freak hierarchy, fat people earned substantially less than true, born prodigies for reasons of statistics. Little people, giants, and the limbless, etc are much rarer than the grossly corpulent, who can merely eat their way into remarkableness. That’s even truer nowadays. Still, it must be admitted that Ms. Briggs was impressively hefty. In 1885, when she was elected President of a “fat lady convention” in Baltimore, she was up to 536 lbs.
To find out more about the variety arts past and present, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. And don’t miss Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, to be released by Bear Manor Media in 2013.