This reputation dates back to the Ottoman Empire when Circassian women living in the Sultan's Harem started to build their reputation as extremely beautiful and genteel. As a result of this reputation, American showman P. T. Barnum exhibited women whom he claimed were Circassian beauties.
"The Circassians are poor, and their daughters are beautiful, and indeed it is in them they chiefly trade. They furnish with those beauties the seraglios of the Turkish Sultan, of the Persian Sophy, and of all of those who are wealthy enough to purchase and maintain such precious merchandise. These maidens are very honorably and virtuously instructed how to fondle and caress men; are taught dances of a very polite and effeminate kind; and how to heighten by the most voluptuous artifices the pleasures of their disdainful masters for whom they are designed." Letter XI, On Inoculation.
Their beauty is also mentioned in Henry Fielding's Tom Jones, in which Fielding remarked, "How contemptible would the brightest Circassian beauty, drest in all the jewels of the Indies, appear to my eyes!
The legend of Circassian women was also repeated by Gustav Hugo, who wrote that "Even beauty is more likely to be found in a Circassian slave girl than in a beggar girl", referring to the fact that even a slave has some security and safety, but a "free" beggar has none. Hugo's comment was later condemned by Karl Marx in The Philosophical Manifesto of the Historical School of Law on the grounds that it excused slavery. Mark Twain reported in The Innocents Abroad that "Circassian and Georgian girls are still sold in Constantinople by their parents, but not publicly.
In 1802 “The Balm of Mecca” was marketed as being used by Circassians: “This delicate as well as fragrant composition has been long celebrated as the summit of cosmetics by all the Circassian and Georgian women in the seraglio of the Grand Sultan.” Endorsement by Lady Mary Wortley Montague. Very helpful “for removing those sebacious [sic] impurities so noxious to beauty.” “Any lady must be as great an Infidel as the Grand Sultan himself, who, after receiving such authority can doubt that her skin will become as superlatively smooth, soft, white and delicate, as that of the lovely Fatima, whatever may have been its feel or its appearance before. What fair one but must yield implicit faith, when she has the honour of the Countess De --- fairly pledged, that all sepacious [sic] impurities will be at once removed by this wonder-working nostrum. And above all, who but must long for an article, from the seraglio of the Grand Turk, which produces a near resemblance to the Georgian and Circassian beauties?”
"Circassian Lotion," was sold in 1806 for the skin, at fifty cents the bottle. “A sovereign remedy for surfeits, scorching from the heat of the sun, freckles, blights from cold and chills of winter, scorbutic, pimples or eruptions of the face and skin, however violent or disfigured, animalcula generated under the cuticle or outer skin, prickley heat, shingles, ring worms, redness of the nose and chin, obstinate cutaneous diseases, and for every impurity or unnatural appearance with which the skin may be affected; to be used as a common wash for clearing and improving the complexion, and in a superior degree to preserve, soften, cleanse and beautify the skin.” Sold in bottles, with printed directions, at four shillings each (by appointment) at William L. Simers’ Medical Store, No. 98 Cherry Street, near New Slip.
"Circassian Eye-Water" was marketed as "a sovereign remedy for all diseases of the eyes
In the mid nineteenth century "Circassian hair dye" was marketed to create a rich dark lustrous effect.
In 1856 The New York Daily Times reported that a consequence of the Russian conquest of the Caucasus was an excess of beautiful Circassian women on the Constantinople slave market, and that this was causing prices of slaves in general to plummet. The report drew on the existing idea that the region was the source of the purest Caucasian stock, producing the most beautiful white women.
The combination of the popular issues of slavery, the Orient, racial ideology and sexual titillation gave this report some notoriety at the time. Circus leader P. T. Barnum capitalized on this interest, displaying a "Circassian Beauty" at his American Museum in 1865. Barnum's Circassian beauties were young women with tall, teased hairstyles, rather like the Afro style of the 1970s. Actual Circassian hairstyles bore no resemblance to Barnum's fantasy. Barnum's first "Circassian" was marketed under the name " Zalumma Agra" and was exhibited at his American Museum in New York from 1864. Barnum had written to John Greenwood, his agent in Europe, asking him to purchase a beautiful Circassian girl to exhibit, or at least to hire a girl who could "pass for" one. However, it seems that "Zalumma Agra" was probably a local girl hired by the show, as were later "Circassians".
The trend spread, with supposedly Circassian women featured in dime museums and travelling medicine shows, sometimes known as "Moss-haired girls". As the original fad faded, the "Circassians" started to add to their appeal by performing traditional circus tricks such as sword swallowing.