Show Boat and Popular Theater, 1900s

On the Water - Exhibition Theme: Songs & Stories

Life along the Mississippi River inspired one of the greatest American musicals, Show Boat. The plot follows a family of performers who travel up and down the river on the Cotton Blossom Floating Theater. But much of the story’s drama lies in the daily lives and complex racial relations of people along the river. “Ol’ Man River” and other songs from Show Boat are American classics and poignant reminders of how rivers wind their way through people’s lives as well as the American landscape.

The Floating Palace, 1888

The Floating Palace consisted of a museum of oddities, a menagerie, an aquarium, and a showboat. The “Great Moral Show” slogan on the side of the boat reflected the role of showboats as family destinations. Advertisements emphasized “clean” shows and a refined atmosphere.

Courtesy of Manuscripts Department, Tulane University Libraries


“Ol’ Man River” Sheet Music, 1927

The musical Show Boat premiered in 1927 at the National Theater in Washington, D.C. This sheet music is for the song about one of the play’s main characters—the river itself.


Bryant’s New Showboat

Built at Point Pleasant, Illinois, 1918

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Sternwheel Steam Towboat Valley Belle

Built at Harmar, Ohio, 1883

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Bryant’s New Showboat and the Valley Belle

Bryant’s New Showboat, launched in 1918, could seat almost 700 people. Its stage was home to dozens of plays like Hamlet, Little Nell of the Ozarks, and even the antics of a trained bucking mule named January. A steam packet turned towboat, the Valley Belle pushed the Bryants and their boat up and down the Kanawha, Ohio, Monongahela, Illinois, and Mississippi Rivers. They brought entertainment to mining towns and farming communities along the way until the end of the great showboat era.