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COLLECTION Identifier: MS Thr 648

Burns M. Kattenberg collection on contortion and other papers


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.


  • 1890-1976

Language of Materials

Collection materials are in English, a few in French and German.

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.


18 linear feet (37 boxes)
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)).

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:
  1. I. Male and female contortionists
  2. II. "Matted" male contortionists
  3. III. "Matted" female contortionists
  4. IV. Special files for female contortionists
  5. V. Special files for male contortionists
  6. VI. Miscellaneous contortion material, "left-overs"
  7. A. Additional letters to Kattenberg
  8. B. Additional special files on contortionists
  9. C. Subject files concerning contortion
  10. D. Printed material on contortion
  11. E. Other material on contortion
  12. F. Portfolio-sized contortion material
  13. VII. Burns M. Kattenberg personal papers
  14. A. Compositions by Kattenberg
  15. B. Biographical miscellany of Kattenberg
  16. C. Photographs of Kattenberg
  17. D. Non-contortion theater material
  18. VIII. Contorition costumes and equipment
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...

Physical Location

Harvard Depository

Immediate Source of Acquisition

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

Related Materials

See also:
  1. NYPL Performing Arts Library: Letters from Aileen Stanley to Burns Kattenberg (T-Mss 2000-021). Aileen Stanley was a vaudeville singer with whom Kattenberg corresponded for most of his life.
  2. Burns Kattenberg Collection in the Print Department of Special Collections at the Boston Public Library. Includes approximately 19,000 postcards depicting Boston architecture and New England views.

General note

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

Processing Information

Processed by: Bonnie B. Salt

Original paper finding aid retained in curatorial file.
Link to catalog
Kattenberg, Burns M., 1901-1974, collector. Burns M. Kattenberg collection on contortion and other papers, 1890-1976: Guide.
Houghton Library, Harvard College Library
Description rules

Repository Details

Part of the Houghton Library Repository

Houghton Library is Harvard College's principal repository for rare books and manuscripts, literary and performing arts archives, and more. The library's holdings of primary source material are managed by an expert staff and shared with scholars, students and the public in the reading room.

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