Dr Robert Lewis MA [Oxon} MA [Illinois] MA [Michigan] MA PhD [Johns Hopkins]

Lecturer in American History

Department of American and Canadian Studies

Contact details

Arts Building
University of Birmingham
B15 2TT


My field of specialisation is nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century America, and in social and cultural history. As topics in social history, I am particularly interested in immigration and ethnicity, and in race. In culture, my research is in leisure, recreation and entertainment—in play in the private home, and commercial amusements, from the traditional theatre to the circus, vaudeville [music hall], parks and outdoor shows, and manufactured children’s toys. During my career, this has blossomed from a marginal to a mainstream area of scholarly concern, although there are few comprehensive overviews. For general survey teaching, there are many collections of primary sources but often without the editorial introductions or comment necessary for students not familiar with American culture. The challenge in teaching is to retain essential critical engagement with evidence and assist individuals in developing coherent arguments, when discussion seminars are often three times as large as previously


Milford Haven Grammar School 1957-65

Corpus Christi College, Oxford University 1965-68  -  B.A. Modern History

University of Illinois, Chicago, 1968-69 - M.A. American History

University of Michigan, 1968-69 - M.A. American History

The Johns Hopkins University 1971-74 - M.A. American History and Ph.D. American History


I was born in West Wales and educated at Milford Haven Grammar School. After an undergraduate degree in Modern History at Corpus Christi College, Oxford, I pursued graduate study in the United States at the University of Illinois, Chicago, and then transferred with my supervisor John Higham from the University of Michigan to the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. My primary interests were in cultural and intellectual history, and naturally in an interdisciplinary field like American studies. This area has become wonderfully rich in published scholarship and online research collections in the past generation



I have always taught U.S. survey history from the beginnings of colonisation in the seventeenth century to the end of Reagan’s presidency, at Levels C and I. The emphasis in the U.K. is on social and political history, and there has been little opportunity to accent historical cultural studies which is my main interest. Perhaps because all my graduate study was in the U.S., I have also included primary sources as an essential element; it is difficult to evaluate scholarly generalisations without appreciating the evidence upon which they are based. The expansion of the internet in the past decade has made available a wealth of sources in American studies and enriched library provision, especially in research.

At Birmingham, I have taught more advanced courses, mostly in nineteenth-century social and cultural history:

  Barnum’s America: Show Business in Nineteenth-Century America, 1830-1890 [10 credits, Level I]

 American Musicals: Twentieth-Century Show Business (stage and film, 1927-61) [10 credits, Level I]

 Becoming American: New York Jews, 1890-1940 (research methods for Modern History) [20 credits,

Level I]

American Domesticity: Family and Community, 1820-1880 (privacy and gender) [20 credits, Level H]

 American Slavery Debated, 1830-60 (ideas of antislavery and proslavery) [20 credits, Level H]

 American Slavery Debated, 1830-60 (ideas of antislavery and proslavery) [20 credits, Level H]

 American Photography, 1839-1900 (social and cultural themes) [20 credits, Level H]

 Popular Culture in Nineteenth-Century America [20 credits, Level H]

 Popular Culture in Twentieth-Century America [20 credits, Level H]

Performing Female: American Theatre and Culture, 1840-1940 [20 credits, Level H]

I taught survey U.S. history from 1865 to the present in 1987 and 1989 during summer school at the University of California, Davis, where I had the opportunity to experiment with assessment suited to a much wider mix of students than at Birmingham. I have also assessed portfolios of probationary lectures at Birmingham who are enroled in the Postgraduate Certificate in Higher Education.

Postgraduate supervision

I have supervised PhD dissertations on emigration from Shropshire, and from Birmingham, to Canada in the nineteenth- and in the early-twentieth centuries. Currently, I supervised two part-time Ph.D. dissertations, one on John Adams and critical issues in foreign policy in 1798, and the other on songs and Irish-American identity in nineteenth-century New York City.


My major interest has been the broad field of leisure in the American past. My research has mainly been in recreation and leisure, both private and public/commercial. I have edited a forthcoming book of primary sources on popular nineteenth-century theatrical entertainment that explores the major forms—minstrelsy, circus, melodrama, burlesque extravaganzas, wild west shows, summer amusement parks, and vaudeville. It uses extracts from autobiographies, plays and theatre programmes to trace the cultural values of impresarios, showmen and audiences; most of these sources, once popular, now exist only in research collections in the U.S. and have never been reprinted.

Other activities

I had quite extensive experience as a Subject Specialist consultant for the Qualifications and Assurance Agency. I reviewed American Studies programmes in Wales in 1995 and in England in 1997-98, and History programmes in Scotland in 2002 and England in 2003. There were rewarding aspects that taught me much about high standards in university teaching—working as a team in collective decisions, designing degree programmes and course syllabi, and especially enhancing taught provision for students of differing abilities. In 2000, I taught a seminar on westward expansion in the U.S. for the British Institute in Paris for French students taking the aggregation examination.

I served as consultant for a six, half-hour series on Radio 4, “Who Wears the Trousers?” about male-female U.S. radio comedy teams 1920s-50s, broadcast in March-April 2003.


2009. “A Scottish Friend of the Indian: Charles Augustus Murray and George Catlin’s Indian Gallery in London, 1840-44,”in Waldemar Zacharasiewicz and Christian Feest, eds. Native Americans and First Nations: A Transnational Challenge (Paderborn: Ferdinand Schoiningh): 49-62. ISBN 3-506-76863-6 

2008. “Wild American Savages and the Civilized English: Catlin’s Indian Gallery and the Shows of London,” European Journal of American Studies, EJAS 2008-1[Online] [words: 8782 text 2318 notes] EJAS 2008-1[Online] [words: 8782 text 2318 notes]

2007. “New York Vaudeville: Celebrating the City in the Musicals of Comden and Green,” in New York: Cradle of America’s Cultural Plurality, eds. Michal Peprnik and Matthew Sweeney  (Olomouc: Palacky University): 127-39. ISBN: 978-80-244-1843-8

2007. REPRINT “Organized Baseball and American Culture,” in Major Problems in the Early Republic, 1787-1848, eds.  Sean Wilentz and Jonathan H. Earle (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2nd. ed.): 442-450. ISBN-13: (978-0-618-52258-3) Paper ISBN-10: (0-618-52258-1)



2007. REPRINT [Edited] From Traveling Show to Vaudeville: Theatrical Spectacle in America, 1830-1910 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press). Paper 13: (978-0-8018-8748-2) 10: (8018-8748-8)

2004. “Cajun Louisiana: A ‘French’ Borderland in the Twentieth Century,” in Frontiers and Borderlands in U.S. History, eds. Cornelis A. van Minnen and Sylvia L. Hilton (Amsterdam: VU University Press): 143-54.

2003. [Edited] From Traveling Show to Vaudeville: Theatrical Spectacle in America, 1830-1910   (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press). ISBN: 0 8018 7087 9. xii + 384 pp.

2002. “Mirrors With Memories: Photographic Portraits of California Gold Miners,” in Nation On The Move: Mobility in U.S. History, eds. Cornelis A. van Minnen and Sylvia L. Hilton (Amsterdam: VU University Press), 81-94. ISBN: 90 5383 839 2

2002. “Reluctant Emigrants: Welsh Immigration to the United States, 1850-1920,” Groniek Historisch Tijdschrift 156 (June): 341-52. ISSN: 0169-2001.

2002. “Photographing The California Gold Rush,” History Today 52 (3) (March): 11-17. ISSN: 0018-275

2001. Introduction, John Higham, Hanging Together: Unity and Diversity in American Culture, ed. Carl  J. Guarneri (New Haven: Yale University Press), p. 100. ISBN: 0 300 08818 3

2000. “Domestic Theater: Parlor Entertainments as Spectacle, 1840-1880,” in Ceremonies and Spectacles: Performing American Culture, eds. Teresa Alves, Teresa Cid and Heinz Ickstadt (Amsterdam, VU University Press): 48–62. 

1999. “‘Rational Recreation’: Reforming Leisure in Antebellum America,” in Religious and Secular Reform in America: Ideas, Beliefs and Social Change, eds.D. K. Adams and Cornelis A. van Minnen (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press): 121-32.

1996. “The Emergence of Slave Spirituals in the Georgia-South Carolina Low Country,” in Saints and Sinners: Religion, Blues and (D)evil in African-American Music and Literature, ed. Robert Sacré (Liege: Société Liégeoise de Musicologie): 55-84. 

1996. “‘L’Acadie Retrouvée’: The Re-Making of Cajun Identity in Louisiana, 1968-1994,” in Dixie Debates: Perspectives on Southern Cultures, eds. Richard H. King and Helen Taylor (London: Pluto Press): 67-84.

1994. “Les médias francophones de Louisiane,” in Les médias français aux Etats-Unis, eds. Claude-Jean Bertrand and Francis Bordat (Nancy: Presses Universitaires de Nancy): 231-59.

1991. “American Sport History: A Bibliographical Guide,” American Studies International 29 (April):35-59. 

1991. “American Croquet in the 1860s: Playing the Game and Winning,” Journal of Sport History 18 (Winter): 365-86.

1991. “The Return of the American History Textbook,” Over Here 11 (Summer): 83-90.

1989. “Street Culture” (review essay), Journal of American Studies 23 (April): 85-89.

1988. “Tableaux Vivants: Parlor Theatricals in Victorian America,” revue française d’études américaines no. 36 (avril): 280-91.

1987. “Cricket and the Beginnings of Organized Baseball in New York City,” International Journal of the History of Sport 4 (December): 315-332.

1983. “‘Well-Directed Play: Urban Recreation and Progressive Reform,” in Impressions of a Gilded Age: The American fin de siècle,eds. Marc Chenetier and Rob Kroes (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press): 183-202. 

1980. “Seaside Holiday Resorts in the United States and Britain,” Urban History Yearbook 1980 (Leicester: Leicester University Press): 44-52.

1977. “Frontier and Civilization in the Thought of Frederick Law Olmsted,” American Quarterly 29 (Fall): 385-403

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