In the last few decades, drag culture has grown and expanded in ways that few people expected. With the third season of RuPaul’s Drag Race All Starsrecently concluded and the tenth season of RuPaul’s Drag Race underway, fans throughout the world have begun to pack bars and pubs on Thursday nights in the same way that sport fanatics do.
Ask most people who the oldest drag queen they know is, though, and they’ll probably answer Divine from Pink Flamingos or RuPaul, and maybe someone will mention that Ed Wood dressed as a woman in Glen or Glenda. What many people don’t know is that today’s drag performers have a long cultural tapestry from which to draw inspiration. To help educate drag fans, this list will review ten of the most amazing American drag queens who were born before 1900.
10The Drag Performer Who Had A Song In A Bug’s Life
Born in 1840 as Ebenezer G.B. Holder, Rollin Howard became one of the first drag queens in the United States to have reached a level of national popularity. A dramatic performer, Howard worked drag into his minstrel performances between 1860 and 1870. Minstrel shows were a very popular form of entertainment that involved Caucasians using blackface to portray African American characters.
Before the US Civil War, drag performances in the United States were relatively rare. But after the war, Howard was one of several well-known drag performers, including Francis Leon. (We’ll get back to him.) Howard tended to perform as a wench who was flirtatious, graceful, and elegant.
Today, Howard is best remembered for receiving credit for arranging “Shoo Fly, Don’t Bother Me,” although the exact author of the song is still a subject of some contention, with others crediting T. Brigham Bishop. The song is recognized by many for its use in the 1998 Disney/Pixar film A Bug’s Life. Like many performers, Howard died before his time around the age of 39.
9The Only Leon And His 300 Dresses
Another New Yorker, Francis Leon was born in 1844 and was also became a famous blackface minstrel performer. Trained as a boy soprano, Leon started performing in drag at 14.
Often billed as just “Leon” or “The Only Leon,” he performed a wench character much like Rollins. A centerpiece of his act was “Leon’s 300 dresses,” with some of the dresses worth $400, quite a lot of money for the time. Leon’s act was so popular that by 1873, every major minstrel troupe had Leon imitators. Leon received glowing reviews from the press for his sensitivity and accuracy in performing as a “man woman.”
How Leon spent the end of his life is not known, but the last reference to him was in 1883, when he joined the San Francisco minstrels.