Floating theatres were operating downriver on the Mississippi and Ohio rivers before the Civil War , but the heyday of showboating came after mid-century as steam power allowed them to operate both up and downriver. Steamboats pulled separate boats fitted out as theatres. Eventually, some, including circus boats, became quite elaborate. From the Civil War to 1930, as many as 75 showboats operated on major American rivers. One of the leading showboat owners, Augustus Byron French, managed five showboats (advertising some as "floating palaces") between 1878 and 1901, pioneering the use of marching bands put ashore to attract the local community to the theatre. Another important manager in this period, E. A. Price, developed publicity devices, including calliopes and billboards, to call attention to the arrival of his theatres.
   The showboats featured all manner of amusements, from minstrels and variety acts to dramatic works, including the perennial melodrama Uncle Tom's Cabin. Some operators produced Shakespeare and other prestigious dramas, while others focused on "moral amusements" including lectures. E. E. Eisenbarth's Temple of Amusement was renamed the Cotton Blossom and, under Ralph Emerson's management, it presented Broadway hits and popular melodramas until 1931. Showboats inspired Edna Ferber's novel, Show Boat (1926), and the subsequent Broadway musical, Show Boat (1927), both presenting an epic story set on a Mississippi River showboat from the 1880s to the 1920s. The Great Depression and the arrival of sound motion pictures significantly undermined the survival of the showboat phenomenon, although some operated as late as the 1940s.

The Historical Dictionary of the American Theater. .

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