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1920s "Tutmania" and its Enduring Echoes

Howard Carter and an unidentified Egyptian man examine the inner coffin of Tutankhamun, 1922.

In November 1922, when newspaper editors heard that an intact tomb full of glittering treasure had been found in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings, they knew straight away the story was going to be massive. It was a once-in-a-lifetime event, with as much interest worldwide as there would be 47 years later when man first walked on the moon.

Excitement mounted with each new tidbit of information emerging from Egypt, and some prescient entrepreneurs managed to jump on the bandwagon early and produce Egyptian-style cookie tins and face powder compacts in time for Christmas a month later. Tutmania was well and truly born. But what was it about the discovery of the tomb that fired the collective imagination?

The world’s obsession with Ancient Egypt goes back to Roman times, with pyramid-shaped tombs becoming popular after Augustus conquered Egypt in 31BC and tales of Cleopatra’s feminine wiles intrigued the citizens of Rome. There was a resurgence of interest after Napoleon invaded in 1798 and his archaeologists looted the Valley of the Kings, bringing back the Rosetta Stone, amongst many other artefacts. But the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb unleashed a tidal wave of Egyptomania unlike any that had gone before, whipped up by photographs of the treasures making their way back to news desks.

In Britain, the story was originally told as one of British triumph, with Howard Carter and his aristocratic sponsor, Lord Carnarvon, hailed as national heroes. Carnarvon was invited to Buckingham Palace with his daughter Lady Evelyn Herbert to regale King George and Queen Mary with all they had witnessed in the tomb. The fact that Egypt had renounced its status as a British protectorate earlier in the year, and was now an independent nation, did not stop them from assuming that a significant proportion of the treasure would end up in Britain. Four years after the horrors of war, it was a wonderful boost to national spirits.

The story took a darker turn in April 1923 when Lord Carnarvon died in a Cairo hotel room from complications from an infected mosquito bite. Sherlock Holmes author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was among those who warned of the dangers of a curse descending on any who disturbed the pharaoh’s resting place. It wasn’t a new concept; there had been many stories of curses on Egyptian tombs, including Louisa May Alcott’s 1869 tale “Lost in a Pyramid: the Mummy’s Curse”. In the early 20s, it gave journalists something new to write about and they sensationalized the deaths of anyone who had been associated with the tomb.

Mummies were fascinating because, unlike skeletons, they were recognisably dead human beings. You could walk into a museum and stand alongside the body of someone who had died thousands of years ago. According to the Ancient Egyptians, the dead passed to another world, and that’s why their tombs were filled with everything they would need for the afterlife. The thought was appealing to the thousands who were mourning loved ones killed in the war or the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918–19. Spiritualism flourished, and in this climate it didn’t seem far-fetched that an ancient tomb could be cursed.

As Howard Carter’s work progressed, and an autopsy was performed on the body in the tomb, they found that the king had only been around nineteen when he died, and foul play was suspected when a head wound was diagnosed. It all seemed to play into the curse story.

The appeal of Tutmania was spiritual, but it was also intensely visual. In the early 20th century, a fascination with oriental exoticism had infiltrated art and design styles, and the bright gold and geometric patterns of Egyptian hieroglyphics seemed a natural progression. They were soon being used as a print on fabrics for furniture and clothing, and on wallpaper. The elegant symbols in hieroglyphics, such as the phoenix wings, were translated into the style of architecture that we now call Art Deco, as well as the design of aircraft, cars, and refrigerators.

Tutankhamun also invaded the fashion scene. Flappers adopted headbands featuring striking cobras, kohl eyeliner, and snake bracelets that wound up the arm. Cartier made Egyptian-style jewellery; Helena Rubinstein made the Valaze Egyptian Mask; and the bob haircut was heavily influenced by Ancient Egyptian styles.

Tutmania seeped into popular culture with the 1923 song “Old King Tut”, a stage magician who called himself “Carter the Great”, and the iconic 1932 horror film The Mummy, written by a journalist who had covered the discovery of the tomb. President Herbert Hoover even called his pet dog King Tut!

The newly independent Egyptian nation managed to hang onto their Tutankhamun antiquities, which was a source of great national pride. They allowed some to leave the country for touring exhibitions in the 1960s, the 1970s, and in several shows during the 21st century, attracting millions to see the spectacle – most recently 1.42 million attended an exhibition in Paris in 2019. Coinciding with each show came a revival of Tutmania, with t-shirts, themed candy, and even Batman villains inspired by Howard Carter’s discovery.

Tutankhamun was a relatively insignificant Egyptian king, who ruled for only ten years and did not leave an heir, but he died at a high point in the artistry of the ancient culture, and that explains the sheer magnificence of his tomb. A combination of circumstances meant it had lain undiscovered for over three thousand years when Carter came along. And that’s why Tutankhamun is the one Egyptian king everyone can name today, and the only one who has a ‘mania’ named after him.