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 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.