The history of the Wax Museum

Middle Ages

The idea of making life-size wax figures, wearing real clothes, stems from the funerals of European royalty in the middle ages.

Originally the corpse would be carried, fully dressed, on top of their coffin at royal funerals. However this was unpleasant in hot weather so a wax effigy was used instead. As the “body” was wearing clothes only the head and hands needed wax models. After the funeral these were displayed in the church and became a popular attraction.

Westminster Abbey has recently opened “The Galleries” which are a medieval space high above the Abbey floor. The Galleries tell the story of the Abbey’s thousand-year history and display it’s greatest treasures, including Henry VII effigy head.

“Modelled on Henry VII’s death mask, the king’s effigy head is stunningly lifelike and all that survives of his funeral effigy which was carried on his coffin. There are 21 funeral effigies, from the 14th to early 17th centuries, in the Galleries.”

Wax Museums

There were a number of wax museums around Fleet Street in the 1700’s.

According to wikipedia Mrs Mary was running the ‘Moving Wax Works of the Royal Court of England’ in 1711. This was a museum or exhibition of 140 life-size figures, some apparently with clockwork moving parts. And, according to Exploring London Mrs Salmon and her famous waxworks was one of several such establishments in London. Mrs Salmon’s wax works started in St Martin’s Le Grand in 1711, and was relocated to the north side of Fleet Street where it remained until 1795 when it moved across the road to number 17 Fleet Street.

Meanwhile, in Paris, Philippe Curtius, a physician and waxwork modeller, opened his wax museum as a tourist attraction in 1770. He left his collection of waxworks to his protegé Marie Tussaud, who made death masks of the executed royals during the French Revolution.

In 1835, after 33 years touring Britain with her waxworks, Marie Tussaud established her first permanent exhibition in Baker Street.

By the late 19th century most large cities had some kind of commercial wax museum, but by the late 20th century it had became harder for them to compete with other attractions. Wax museums that are still drawing the crowds are Madame Tussaud’s in London and the Hollywood Wax Museum.

Photograph of the front marquee of the Hollywood Wax Museum in Hollywood CA.
Photograph of the front marquee of the Hollywood Wax Museum in Hollywood CA by Momwriter

Hollywood Wax Museum


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