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MS Thr 648

Kattenberg, Burns M., 1901-1974, collector. Burns M. Kattenberg collection on contortion and other papers, 1890-1976: Guide.

Houghton Library, Harvard Library, Harvard University


Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138 USA

© President and Fellows of Harvard College

Descriptive Summary

Location: Harvard Depository
Call No.: MS Thr 648
Repository: Houghton Library, Harvard Library, Harvard University
Creator: Kattenberg, Burns M., 1901-1974, collector.
Title: Burns M. Kattenberg collection on contortion and other papers
Date(s): 1890-1976
Quantity: 18 linear feet (37 boxes)
Language of materials: Collection materials are in English, a few in French and German.
Abstract: Collection of letters, photographs, clippings and other materials concerning the performance of contortion. Also includes some personal papers of American collector Burns Kattenberg and other theater related ephemera.

Immediate Source of Acquisition:

No accession number. Bequest of Burns M. Kattenberg, 199 Massachusetts Avenue, Boston, Massachusetts 02115; received: 1974 April 23.

Processing Information:

Processed by: Bonnie B. Salt
Original paper finding aid retained in curatorial file.

Conditions Governing Access:

There are no restrictions on physical access to this material.
This collection is not housed at the Houghton Library but is shelved offsite at the Harvard Depository. Retrieval requires advance notice. Readers should check with Houghton Public Services staff to determine what material is offsite and retrieval policies and times.

Preferred Citation for Publication:

Burns M. Kattenberg Collection on Contortion and Other Papers, 1890-1976 (MS Thr 648). Harvard Theatre Collection, Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Related Materials

See also:

Biographical / Historical

Contortion is a form of physical display involving dramatic bending and flexing of the human body. It is often part of acrobatics and circus acts.
Burns M. Kattenberg (1901 September 20 - 1974 April) was born in Minnesota and later became a collector of contortion materials and other theater related items. He was not a contortionist himself, but a fan, and he worked as a hotel manager, wrote a number of plays, and worked and performed in the theater for a short time in his younger years.
The Burns Kattenberg collection is reputed to be the world's largest collection of material related to contortionist performance.


Arranged into the following series: The collection arrived already highly organized by Kattenberg and his arrangement has mostly been retained. The original index to the collection was compiled in the repository in 1976 [see curatorial file for the original paper index]. Kattenberg organized his material in folders which were grouped in alphabetical order by performer. Additional folders dealing wth specific subject matter on contortion were not arranged and were placed at the end of the performer folders. He grouped the collection into the following series: (1) male and female contortionists; (2) "matted" male contortionists; (3) "matted" female contortionists; (4) special files for female contortionists; (5) special files for male contortionists; and (6) miscellaneous contortion material, i.e. yoga, anatomy, tights, unsorted photos or data, research notes on Kattenberg's proposed book, and manuscript letters, sketches, notes, etc...

Scope and Contents

Collection on the history of contortion, including letters to Kattenberg and some third party letters, autograph manuscripts, cabinet photographs, clippings, drawings, manuscript notes, manuscript theatrical route books, negatives, negative stats (copies), photographs, photomechanical prints, playbills, posters, printed materials, programs, subject files, a tintype, and other materials. Pertains primarily to performers of circus related contortion acts (bulk is early to mid-twentieth century) but includes a few amateurs. Letters to Burns M. Kattenberg are from contortionists, and others, describing their lives and providing reminiscences about performers, and also includes letters from other collectors of contortion material. Contortion materials collected are about Americans as well as foreign performers. Also includes contortion costumes and equipment.
Kattenberg's personal papers include compositions of the plays he wrote, drafts of articles and a book on contortion, as well as programs and playbills associated with the plays and productions he directed, acted in, was on stage crew, etc... There are extensive studio portrait photographs of him throughout his life, and some publicity photographs depicting him with his contortion collection materials. At the end is a small collection of materials he saved pertaining to the theater, that do not concern contortion.
Includes an incomplete run of the serial Acrobatics: official journal of the Association of Acrobats (see item (860)). Also includes 2 volumes of the serial publication: The strand magazine. An illustrated monthly. Edited by George Newnes. London: Volume XI, 1896 January to June and Volume XIV, 1897 July to December (see item (869)).


This collection is shelved offsite at the Harvard Depository. See access restrictions below for additional information.

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