The Barrison Sisters

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Cats perched below skirts.

The Barrison Sisters of 1890s vaudeville were a group of struggling New York actresses who found fame (and infamy) when they figured out that sex sells. Hyped as the “Wickedest Girls in the World,” the sibling act is seen in the above classic photo performing its notorious “Cat Dance,” in which the sisters hiked their skirts at the climax to reveal a live kitten that was perched by contraption between their legs. Their lasciviousness was not appreciated by the puritans at the New York Times, which reviewed a Barrison performance in the October 6, 1896 edition. An excerpt:

“The irreverent Barrison sisters, who were once of this country, and who have returned to it, preceded by a foreign-gained reputation for wickedness, public and private, began an eight weeks’ engagement in Koster & Bial’s Music Hall last night. The house was filled, and this means that the top-tier boxes, to see whence one must almost hang over the rail, were as crowded as those nearer the floor.

‘The five Barrisons,’ as a fluffy-haired quintet of the sisters are separated from Lona, the most heralded of all, begin their performance by living up to the stories of their doings that have come from across the water, but the frankly suggestive first song they sing is in the ratio of virtue to vice, when compared to the doings of Lona, who occupies the stage alone, preceding them by two numbers.

Vulgar is a word that may be applied to her performance; perhaps some of those in last night’s audience have by this time found a stronger word. She appears on stage in the attire of a fop, and, depriving a large part of her meaning, as she sings in French, she disrobes, appearing in tights. The story she tells is of the life of a rake.

She departs, only to appear again in a second, riding astride a handsome white horse, which prances around the stage. Bringing it is to a standstill in the centre of the stage, she sings, again in French, and lets the audience know by her action of her exhilaration and her love for the steed.

‘It’s the most audacious piece of deviltry and abandonment I ever saw offered to a New-York public,’ declared an old theatre-goer, as he was leaving the theatre.”