PTB Letters (#58) A Good Education is Better than Riches

A Good Education is Better than Riches

It’s time to check in again on the Barnum family circle after several weeks of topics pertaining to business concerns.  In contrast to the exceptionally long letters Barnum sent his uncle and museum manager, those he wrote to his daughters and wife while he was traveling in Europe are of ordinary length, though amply filled with interesting information.  This week we will explore a letter to Caroline, the Barnums’ twelve-year-old daughter who had been sent to a boarding school in Washington, D.C., and a letter to Barnum’s wife Charity at home in Bridgeport, Connecticut, with a note to five-year-old Helen.  Both letters were written on January 26, 1846, in Dundee, Scotland.  Reading them was all the more delightful when I realized that young Charles Stratton (“Gen. Tom Thumb”) was right there with Barnum as he was writing these letters, piping up with his own messages for Caroline and Helen as familiarly as if he was their sibling.

Barnum’s priority for daughter Caroline was that she should attend a school where learning the French language would be immersive, requiring that she speak French most of the day.  To that end, she left Bridgeport in the autumn of 1845 to attend the boarding school that had been chosen for her, meeting her father’s requirements for the subjects she would study.  She had been at the school no more than four months when Barnum received a letter from her composed in French.  He must have beamed with pride as he read it, for he made a point of telling several others about his daughter’s accomplishment.  To Caroline he replied,

I received your letter of the 17th inst. with great pleasure; first because it told me of your good health and your industry at your studies, and second because the writing, or orthography and composition are excellent, and if it was written without any assistance as I trust it was, I am quite proud of your improvement in those branches of study.  I hope you will continue to apply yourself closely to your studies and if so you will soon have a good education, which is more valuable than gold and which will always be to you a source of true happiness.  If as you say you are obliged to speak French all day except an hour at recess, I am not afraid but that you will soon acquire the language.

Though doing well in her studies, Caroline had been quite homesick.  Barnum knew this but his previous letter to her did not ring with the sympathetic tone one would expect from a parent.  He thought occasional trips home to Connecticut would make it worse and she should just stick it out—a bit of tough love.  Ironically, he himself had been feeling tortured by homesickness while in France, and even upon returning to the United Kingdom, it had not abated entirely.  Confiding to his daughter, he told her, “I am very homesick—but must grin and bear it, hoping that it will all be for the best.”  This was probably phrased to offer advice to her as well, though he now had reason to believe she was adjusting.

Barnum had learned that his half-brother Philo had also decided to send his daughter to school in Washington (not clear if she went to the same school) and surely Caroline would be happier having her cousin there.  He remarked to Charity, “I give him & his wife great credit for having sent Minerva away to school.  A good education is better than riches and much easier kept.”

Barnum’s concept of a good education was a combination of traditional and progressive ideas about female education.   He wanted Caroline to study the usual subjects—though noted they should be chosen for their appropriateness for girls—for example, botany and biology over other branches of science like chemistry.  On the other hand, he expressed an enlightened view that a young woman’s education should include an understanding of government.  Since Caroline was attending school in the nation’s Capitol, he wanted her to avail herself of the chance to witness democracy in action, and perhaps Caroline herself expressed the wish to see Congress.  Barnum seemed animated by the opportunity when he wrote her,

I suppose Congress was hardly open during the Holidays, and therefore that you lost your treat.  Tell the mistress I would like her to let you go one day and see the proceedings in Congress—if possible get some person who knows the members to go at the same time and point out the principal characters—by that means you have the chance of seeing all the first men of the nation, and perhaps of hearing some of the speak.

Print entitled The United States Senate, A.D. 1850, drawn by Peter F. Rothermel and engraved by Robert Whitechurch, circa 1855. Henry Clay, “the Great Compromiser,” is shown in the center. Among the visitors in the gallery above are a few young ladies. Barnum wanted his own daughter to have this opportunity while she was at boarding school in Washington, D.C. (Wikimedia Commons)

Between the two letters, one to Charity and one to Caroline, it is interesting to see what Barnum told one and not the other.  For instance, Barnum informed Charity that his health was excellent and did not even imply he was feeling homesick, nor—wisely—did he mention his sleepless nights worrying about her, fearing she might not survive the birth of their fourth child.  As far as we know, Caroline had no idea that she would soon become sister to another sibling; her father did not even hint at it.  Silence on matters of childbirth was not unusual in that time period, and in this case may have been meant to shield the child from anxiety about her mother, and because so many infants did not survive their first few weeks.  The Barnums had lost their two-year-old in March of 1844, so the fear of another loss was palpable; Caroline was close to eleven when her youngest sister died, old enough to have understood and felt grief.

On a much happier note, Barnum did tell both Charity and Caroline about his recent splurge, purchasing a variety of papier mâché items ranging from furniture to an inkstand.  (Papier mâché is a malleable mixture of shredded paper and glue (or flour and water) and this pulp hardens after being formed into the desired shape and let to dry.)  These items would have been finished in black lacquer decorated with gold and polychrome colors, and highlighted with inlays of mother of pearl or abalone shell.  The iridescent materials gave a beautiful luster and exotic appearance.  He described the purchase to Charity, telling her,

I bought 200 dollars worth of fancy articles the other day in Glasgow for our house—when we have one.  They are all in Papier Mache, and very elegant.  I sent them to Liverpool to Mr Lyon where they will remain till I go home.  They consist of 2 work tables, 1 Card Table, 1 Work box, 1 pair of pole fire screens with stands to match, 1 Chess table inlaid with pearl, 1 Chinese Table, another fire screen, 2 portfolios [to hold prints], 1 pair hand screens & several other things including of course 1 inkstand!  “A fool and his money are soon parted.”

Papier mâché side chair
Papier mâché side chair, probably British, circa 1830-60, made of wood and papier mâché with gilded and painted black lacquer, and mother of pearl inlays. Barnum purchased a variety of papier mâché items of furniture while in Glasgow. (Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Robert Lehman Collection, 1975)

Considering Caroline’s youth, Barnum shared with her a surprising amount of detail about his museum business, including his new partnership with Uncle Alanson Taylor, and his purchase of Peale’s collection in New York with the idea of showing it in New Orleans.  He also noted, “I have engaged a couple of very handsome fat children to go to the Museums in America next April,” and offered the news that, “General’s new play has been translated into English with many improvements and we expect to have him play it in London before we go to America.”

Aware that Charity was extremely anxious to have him home again, Barnum gave two reasons for his delay until spring, though other correspondence suggested he expected his return might be later, in early summer.  His retelling of business affairs focused on the European tour rather than the Stateside prospects he shared with Caroline.  The perspective he related to Charity on earning money abroad suggests he had been criticized at home for his success with the American Museum.

The last time we were in London (a few weeks ago) hundreds were unable to get in, although we had the large Egyptian Hall, and a fine haul we made of it—I want one more dig at them, then I’ll be satisfied.  I had rather make the money in England than in America, for all the money made out of John Bull and carried to America is so much capital added to our country—and nobody can say that I am living on the money of my neighbors.  It would be so unpleasant and even dangerous to cross the broad Atlantic at this season that I cannot bear the thought of it.  I must wait till the Spring—and in the mean time I hope to be busily and profitably engaged.

The General Tom Thumb tour in Europe had had its highs and lows but Barnum, ever the optimist, felt they would do well to make a serious go of it touring through the UK once again.  Charles, or “General,” as Barnum called him, was probably unaware of his mentor’s conflicting desires to be at home yet continue building his financial success.  Though a very precocious child, Charles was still a mischievous young boy, and while Barnum was penning his letters to Charity and Caroline, it seems he was interrupted by Charles time and again.  Barnum told his daughter, “He is now stealing my tea while I am writing,” then added,

General sends his love and a kiss and says he will come to Washington and see you if he can.  He says “certainment oui” [certainly yes] he’ll talk French to you when he gets home.

Likewise, Barnum amused Helen by telling her, “The General sends his little love and declared he would like to kiss you—and if he would not, I know who would.  Who do you guess?”  Barnum revealed their daily jesting over Helen’s innocent silliness:

General & me have lots of fun about you almost every day.  Today I told him the Red Riding Hood story just as you used to tell it to me–& I told him how you kept school on the Great Western, and I was your scholar, and you whipped me when I was a bad boy, and you called me Taylor—then you called “Recess” and before I could get out, I heard you tinkling the little bell ring-a-ding, ding-ding-ding for the boys to come in, so I could not get out at all.  General laughed and said you served me right.

Barnum also had a funny story to share with Charity, connected to the marketing ploy that claimed Gen. Tom Thumb to be six years older than he actually was.  Born on January 4th, 1838, Charles turned eight in 1846 and due to his recent birthday, his parents thought he needed to be reminded of his advertised age in case someone asked.  Barnum told his wife,

The little General continues “first rate.”  He talks French like a book, and he grows cunning every day.  His parents told him the other day that it was his birth day—that he was fourteen—“well” says General “then I am old enough to go a courting, so, father, I shall go off to the Theatre to night alone.”  “But what do you want to go to the theatre for?” asked his mother.  “Oh to go on a spree, and go home with a gal,” replied the little General!

“Paisley” shawl, probably made in Scotland, circa 1840-60. Barnum purchased a fashionable shawl like this in Glasgow to present as a gift. Weavers in several Scottish cities, especially in Paisley, produced shawls imitating the costly hand-woven Kashmir shawls made in India. The distinctive Persian “buta” shapes patterning the Indian shawls came to be known as a “paisley” designs in the Western world. (Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection)

Finally, there are intriguing comments about gifts for Mrs. Brettell.  The Brettells were among Barnum’s London friends and in December the husband had printed the playbook for Hop o’ My Thumb.  (This was the “improved” translation of Le Petit Poucet that Barnum had asked Albert R. Smith to write for Charles.)  While in Scotland, Barnum had purchased an expensive gift for Brettell’s wife—a highly coveted fashion accessory of the time period, and he mentioned it to Charity. “I bought her a five pound (£5) Paisley shawl the other day in Glasgow which I shall present [to her] when I go to London.”  His next remark is puzzling: “I hope you will not fail to have a fine and good Rocking Chair sent to Mrs. Brettell.”  That does not sound like an easy item to select and ship, and it is curious as to why one would choose to send the gift of a rocking chair to someone in England!

Adrienne Saint-Pierre
Barnum Museum Curator

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