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The Woman Behind Madame Tussaud’s Wax Figures

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If you’re like the rest of us, you love to visit Madame Tussauds Wax Museums. They’re fun tourist attractions where you can interact with life-size wax statues of your favorite celebrities and icons. You can recreate your favorite film scenes and perform on stage with musicians. From Beyoncé to Leonardo DiCaprio and more, there is always something fun to explore at each Madame Tussauds location.

However, as you have fun with “celebrities” at the wax museums, you might be wondering “who’s Madame Tussaud?” Who is the figure behind the museum’s name? Madame Tussaud was a real person but unfortunately, she had a darker history than most people know.

Her Early Life

Born on December 1, 1761, as Anna Maria Grosholtz, in Strasbourg, France, Tussaud (her married name) was raised by her widowed mother. Her father was killed in the Seven Years’ War just two months before Tussaud was born. When she was six years old, her mother moved them to Bern, Switzerland, to live with a local doctor, Philippe Curtius.

Tussaud always called Curtius her uncle, and he took the young girl under his wing. He was skilled in wax sculpting, which came in handy for making models of the human body. Tussaud studied his craft and she traveled with him wherever he went to build models and open exhibits, including wax figures of Louis XV’s last mistress, Madame du Barry.

Making Wax Sculptures

Curtius taught Tussaud everything she knew about wax sculptures. From a young age, she showed a talent for the technique. In 1777, she created her first wax figure, a model of the French Enlightenment writer Voltaire.

During the French Revolution, Tussaud had a specialty job of making “death masks” of recently deceased soldiers and victims. She was frequently surrounded by death and her wax figures were always incredibly lifelike. She created wax portraits of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Benjamin Franklin, Jean-Paul Marat, and many others.

Tussaud specialized in making wax sculptures of individuals who were executed by the guillotine, including Marie Antoinette, France’s last queen before the end of the Revolution. She also made a death mask of France’s last king, Louis XVI.

Going on Tour  

Tussaud may have made famous wax figures but her personal life was met with many trials. When Curtius died in 1794, he left his collection of wax figures to Tussaud. A year later, she married Francois Tussaud, a civil engineer. They had three children: Joseph, Francois, and a daughter who died shortly after birth.

In 1802, Tussaud was unhappy in her marriage and she ran off to London with her four-year-old son, Joseph. She began presenting her collection of wax figures and she met Paul Philipstal, one of Curtius’ colleagues. Together, they started a traveling cultural show where Tussaud showed off her impressive figures. They toured across Great Britain for 33 years.

Creating a Legacy

After finishing their show, Tussaud opened a permanent exhibit salon on London’s famous Baker Street, appropriately called Tussaud’s Baker Street Gallery. The 5,000-square-foot gallery salon had comfortable seating for guests. Visitors could see wax sculptures of many famous historical figures, including William Burke and William Hare — two known body snatchers. It didn’t take long for Tussaud’s salon to be nicknamed as “Chamber of Horrors.”

Tussaud became a household name in live entertainment. Her salon recreated famous murder scenes and battle scenes of the French Revolution. Her salon was the most popular tourist attraction in England.

After her death on April 16, 1850, more shops and salons started using mannequins to display their newest materials. We can credit Tussaud for inspiring the use of mannequins and wax figures for a practical purpose.

To continue her legacy, Tussaud’s son Francois operated her salon. He was succeeded by his son, Joseph. It became a family business and they helped open other wax museums across the globe. Today, you can visit Madame Tussauds Wax Museums across Europe, the U.S., and Asia. The next time you visit the wax museum, you’ll know Madame Tussaud was a real person and that she would probably be happy you’re having fun with the wax figures.  

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