What is a Showboat?

Mary McMahon

A showboat is a watercraft designed as a floating theater. Showboats plied the inland waters of the American South and Midwest for over a century between the early 1800s and mid 1900s before fading out. Interest in showboats was revived in the late 20th century, and several companies now offer showboat tours along the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, where the original showboats brought entertainment to communities of all sizes. Some of these tours are in the form of cruises, while others involve boats which are docked for the duration of the show.

The first showboat was built in Pittsburgh.
The first showboat was built in Pittsburgh.

The first showboat was built in Pittsburgh in 1831, and used to carry a floating theater troupe which performed a variety of plays. Melodramas proved perennially popular, but showboats also featured vaudeville and other styles of theater, and a few had circuses instead of theatrical performances. On a showboat, cast members could reach communities which might not otherwise be able to experience theatrical performances, and residents of small towns often turned out in force to see shows when a showboat reached their shores.

Modern showboats are elaborate Victorian confections in the form of two story paddlewheel steamboats which are usually amply decorated with scrollwork and gilding. Historically, showboats were actually more like barges, pulled by tugboats rather than being powered by their own steam engines. The boat would have included room for a stage, accommodations for the crew and cast, and storage for costumes, props, and other necessary equipment. Troupes usually had a repertory of performances they could offer, including plays which they had performed for years.

This form of entertainment declined during the Civil War as North and South were too busy battling each other to take time for traveling theatrical performances. Traveling on a showboat would also have been dangerous as forces vied for control of the rivers. In the late 1860s, however, showboats were revived, and they flourished well through the 1940s, when the Goldenrod, the last original showboat, was finally put to rest.

Companies which cater to tourists have reinvigorated the showboat tradition. Many travelers in the American South are very interested in Southern history, and traveling on a showboat offers people an opportunity to experience a venerable tradition which even inspired its own slang term, “showboating,” to refer to people who present themselves as flamboyantly and ostentatiously as possible to get others to pay attention. The 1927 musical Showboat also referenced this theatrical tradition, and cemented the image of a paddlewheel steamer in the public mind.

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Discussion Comments


A showboat must have been a pretty lucrative business back in the day. I think a lot of us forget, but traveling wasn't always as fast as it is now. I imagine that a theater troupe traveling the regular way probably couldn't go very quickly. Then they would have to construct their set in every town they stopped in.

A showboat solves both of these problems. The set is already constructed on the boat, and travel is taken care of. Whoever thought this idea up was a genius!


@KaBoom - If you are interested in going on a showboat, there is one in Branson, Missouri called the Showboat Belle. I have some relatives that live in Missouri, and from what they tell me, it's pretty cool.

The Belle does shows for lunch and dinner, so you have a few options if you want to see a show. They also do comedy shows in addition to traditional plays!

I think Branson is worth the visit anyway. I remember going to the amusement park as a kid, and it was a lot of fun. Throw in a show on the showboat and you've got yourself a vacation!


I've heard the term "showboating" a lot, but I never realized a showboat was an actual thing. Personally, I think showboating itself is kind of lame, but I would love to go on an actual showboat and see a play. It would be like taking a little cruise and going to the theater all at once! Sounds like fun to me.

I can totally see why these aren't as popular anymore though. I don't think people really go to see live theater as much now as they did in the 1860s. A modern showboat would have to compete with television and movie theaters for consumers' attention.

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