A Capital Dodge for Us

A Capital Dodge for Us

This week in our exploration of P. T. Barnum’s copybook letters from 1845, we’ll head back to New York City from France (virtually speaking) to revisit the discussion of a guidebook for visitors.  It seems appropriate for summer!  I found more on the topic in a subsequent letter, though presented with a new angle.  You may recall that the June 26th blog, “They Stared with All the Eyes They Had,” centered on Barnum’s letter to a man named C. D. Stuart, explaining the idea for a catalog of the American Museum’s displays.  Barnum felt Stuart had the skills to write and produce a detailed yet inexpensive booklet that museum goers would purchase and bring home as a souvenir of their visit, and then share with others—a promising strategy to attract more visitors.  After all, the establishment on Broadway had quickly been transformed from “sleepy” to famous under Barnum’s direction, despite it being less than four years since he had become the proprietor.


On September 27th, sixteen days after corresponding with Stuart, Barnum wrote to his trusted manager of the museum, Fordyce Hitchcock.  Among other topics, this letter reveals a new plan for a guidebook, implying that the original idea for a catalog had evolved into something more ambitious.  Although Barnum does not state this explicitly, the plan would require producing two booklets, one that would serve as the aforementioned catalog, and the other as a tourists’ guide to the city.  The latter would, of course, make a particular feature of the American Museum, with an enticing description placed front and center stage—you are now familiar with Barnum’s term for that: “a puff.”  As usual, there is an interesting twist to the plan, which also gives us another avenue to consider: the emergence of the tourist industry in New York City, and the competition among many attractions—Barnum’s museum among them—to get those tourism dollars.

Writing to “My Dear Hitchcock” from Nimes, France, Barnum hurriedly penned, “I have a little more to do to day than any one live man ever accomplished in 24 hours & as this is the last day of the mail for the Boston Steamer—I must write but it will be brief.”  Despite the need for haste, the letter is four pages long.  Near the end, Barnum tells Hitchcock, “If there is not at this moment ‘a guide book of New York’ printed, I think it would be a capital dodge for us to have one got out on our own a/c [account], as a matter of speculation.”  In a minute we’ll address the question of whether such guides already existed; in the meantime, we’ll let Barnum describe his plan in more detail:

Let it be of a size which may be retailed for 12 ½ ct [cents] if possible or at all events not over 25 c—at a profit—let it contain a map of the city and a history of all the sights & amusements of the city—including of course the Croton aqueduct—reservoirs—their history, cost & c.  Let the title be something like this—“Stewart’s Guide to the sights & Amusements of New York with a Map and Engravings—price—I say Stuarts because I am thinking it would be well for us to hire him to write it–& it being ours—you must secure the copy right—say in the name of Moses Y. Beach—or of [Mr.] West of the Atlas—it must not be in our name for the chief object of publishing it, will be to puff the Museum ahead of everything else & at [the] same time have the public suppose it is impartial.  There should be an engraving of the museum & park—also of the reservoirs—Trinity Church & c and the principal hotels, gardens & c would pay if they were puffed in it.  So also would some of the downtown merchants.  Then considerable might be made by inserting advertisements at a big price.

Barnum thought they might succeed in selling 20,000 to 50,000 copies a year, maybe even 100,000.  His plan was to have the booklet for sale in all the hotels, in steamboats, and wherever else visitors to the city would be likely see it.  These were merely “half” the ideas he had for the guidebook, he told Hitchcock; the rest would have to wait for another letter.  As promising as the idea might be, he conceded, “If you don’t think well of it let it drop—if you do—keep dark.”

Thos Hornor Broadway Scene_MetMuesArt
Thomas Honor’s aquatint engraving, Broadway, New York, is a north-facing view of the busy thoroughfare in 1836, with Canal Street in the foreground to the right. The American Museum, with John Scudder, Jr. as proprietor at the time, was located several blocks south of this section of Broadway. (Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Hitchcock was cautioned for two reasons.  If this was the first such guide to the city, Barnum felt it needed to be kept as quiet as possible until it was in print (though it could hardly be secret if they were soliciting ads) so that no one beat him to it.  More importantly it could not be known to anyone other than Hitchcock and Stuart that the museum produced the publication, as Barnum wanted the “puff” about the museum to appear objective.

Here I paused.  Could it be that there was a booklet produced by Barnum’s American Museum that we simply don’t know about because it uses another name as author and copyright-holder?  My curiosity was piqued!  Our Sights and Wonders in New York booklet dates to 1849 and as far as we know it is the earliest surviving example of Barnum’s museum booklets.  Now I wondered if in some other archive there is a “hidden” version dating from 1845 or so, without a catalog of museum displays or fictional tour of the galleries that would be a giveaway as to its authorship.

I investigated early guidebooks and travel books online with several questions in mind. First, were there published guides to New York City at this time? (since Barnum expressed uncertainty); second, if there were, did they include the American Museum and what was said about it?; third, were any booklets titled with the name Stuart (or another name) that matched or resembled the format Barnum had outlined to Hitchcock?

The answer to the first is yes, there were guidebooks specific to New York City just being published at the time Barnum was writing.  For example, A Picture of New York in 1846; with a Short Account of Places in Its Vicinity; designed as a Guide to Citizens and Strangers . . . by Edward Ruggles was copyrighted in 1845. This booklet, with an attached, tissue-thin folding map, was republished every year and appropriately retitled with the new date.  (These maps have not always survived intact.)

From my limited research, it appears that prior to this date most guides were geared to travelers rather than tourists, and therefore they covered larger regions, say, Philadelphia-New Jersey-New York, or, as in this example dating to 1836, The traveller’s guide through the state of New York, Canada, &c : embracing a general description of the city of New-York; the Hudson river guide, and the fashionable tour to the Springs and Niagara falls; with steam-boat, rail-road, and stage routes; acc by John Disturnell.  Because of their different purpose they included transportation schedules, various rate tables, lists of hotels and taverns en route—the bits of information a traveler would need.  However, Disturnell’s guide is more comprehensive than some in that it also provides descriptions of sights in New York City, including the American Museum—which at that time was operated by the son and namesake of its founder, John Scudder.

The answer to my second question is that I did find the American Museum included in the various guides across the fifteen-year span I researched; the presence of a description depended on whether there was a section about “Places of Public Amusement.”  In some cases the descriptive text is exactly the same from one publication to another and sounds more historical than current.  John Doggett, Jr.’s Great Metropolis, or New-York Almanac of 1846 offers a somewhat lengthier description that is more Barnum-styled than others.  Interestingly, the guidebook descriptions do not mention Barnum, though Scudder’s name is included despite his having died years before.  One wonders if Barnum bristled at the absence of his name, though of course these were still early days in his career.  Doggett’s earlier (1844) edition of Metropolis does not include a description of the museum in the text, but does have a full-page advertisement—in which Barnum’s name is prominent.

As far as finding a guidebook with Stuart or Stewart’s name in the title or as author I found none.  Considering the possibility that a name other than Stuart’s was used, I looked at others from the mid- to late 1840s to see whether a “puff” about the museum was the obvious feature, but I did not find any arranged that way.  So, it may remain a mystery whether Barnum’s plan was implemented or not—unless a later letter tells us.  Perhaps Hitchcock knew of Edward Ruggle’s publication coming out—or felt that all-purpose publications like Doggett’s guidebook-almanac were sufficient—and dissuaded Barnum.

Although my quest did not turn up a “disguised” early guidebook from the American Museum, I did gain insight on a question I’d had for a long time: Why does our booklet prominently display the title Sights and Wonders in New York instead of something like, Guide to the American Museum?  It seemed odd, since the pages are entirely devoted to a description of the museum displays and biographies of Gen. Tom Thumb and Barnum.  But now I have caught on.  The title was purposefully chosen, a ploy meant to catch the attention of every visitor to New York, recognizing that not all tourists planned to see Barnum’s museum.  They might, however, be enticed after impulsively purchasing a booklet with a title that seemed to promise a full recounting of the city sights, but instead revealed the wonders of one museum.  My guess is that it was sold in a variety of outlets, much as Barnum had advised Hitchcock, not just at the Museum.

As is the way of research, sleuthing the city guidebooks has led me to a new topic for next week—food!  So do come back for another helping next Friday.

Adrienne Saint-Pierre
Barnum Museum Curator