Never conclude that you have seen and heard everything. I’d never heard of Thomas Dilward (1840-87) until quite recently — and he’s the remarkable sort of person you’d figure everybody, let alone someone who writes about this sort of stuff every day — would already know about.
Dilward was an African American little person, measuring between 2 and 3 feet in height, who sang, danced and clowned in American minstrel shows**. Hailing from Brooklyn, he debuted with the company of George Christy (stepson of E.P. Christy) in 1853. Over his career, Dilward had many professional billings, including “African Dwarf Tommy”, the “African Tom Thumb” (after the most famous little person of the day, Charles Stratton), and “Japanese Tommy”, the latter perhaps to ameliorate response to his presence in minstrel shows, which at the time were cast with white people in blackface. Decades later, all-black minstrel companies would be common (and Dilward would perform with some of them), but in the early years there were only white ones, and only Dilward and William Henry Lane a.k.a. “Master Juba” are known to have crossed the color line. In Lane’s case the exception had been made because he was reputed to be the best dancer in the country. In Dilward’s case, it was naturally because he was a little person, and that was his selling point. After his engagement with Christy, Dilward performed with Bryant’s Minstrels, as well as Wood’s, Kelly and Leon’s and the Morris Brothers’.
As if all this were not remarkable enough, according to the 1877 edition of Bartlett’s Book of Americanisms, Dilward is the man who gave the world the slang adjective “hunky-dory”, meaning “okay, just fine!” I find this doubly fascination because about a half century later, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson coined the term “copasetic” — which means the very same thing.
**Obligatory Disclaimer: It is the official position of this blog that Caucasians-in-Blackface is NEVER okay. It was bad then, and it’s bad now. We occasionally show images depicting the practice, or refer to it in our writing, because it is necessary to tell the story of American show business, which like the history of humanity, is a mix of good and bad.
For more on performing little people please check out Rose’s Royal Midgets and Other Little People in Vaudeville.
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