PTB Letters (#62) A Great Country for Wealth and Grandeur

A Great Country for Wealth and Grandeur

Last week we left Barnum in a state of great anxiety as he tried to work out a settlement to compensate the people who’d been injured at the theatre in Airdrie, Scotland.   The unfortunate accident had heaped yet another worry on his plate; while profits had been good at the start of the Scottish tour in the eastern cities and towns, they had plummeted at the last few venues, and Barnum was increasingly concerned about the play for Gen. Tom Thumb that he had commissioned.  He still did not have a print copy in hand, and the boy needed to learn his lines prior to his arrival in London.  In addition, Barnum was in very low spirits worrying about his wife, who was due to deliver their fourth child.

Late February of 1846 found Barnum and the entourage heading south toward England, and by March 1st Barnum had reached London while “the General” (Charles Stratton) and his people headed to Cambridge.  Barnum expected they would join him in a week as he had booked Charles at London’s famed Egyptian Hall for morning, afternoon, and evening levees beginning March 9th.  These would surely be popular and make up for their marginal profits in the Glasgow area.

Barnum considered Mr. and Mrs. Brettell of London to be particularly close friends, and had taken the trouble to purchase handsome gifts for them while in Scotland.  Brettell was a printer, but he also took care of other tasks for Barnum.  In addition to printing handbills and booklets and preparing newspaper advertisements to promote Gen. Tom Thumb, he dealt with Barnum’s mail, providing him with a consistent address and forwarding mail to him while he was on tour.  He also dealt with some financial tasks, such as ensuring that Mrs. Swift, wife of Englishman “Professor Swift” whom Barnum employed at his museum in New York, received her husband’s salary.   So the brief letter Barnum wrote to Brettell from Paisley on February 21st bears a surprisingly curt tone.  Barnum had already communicated with him on January 20th to say he was “anxiously awaiting the proofs of the new play,” but a month later he still did not have the proofs, at least not for the second act.  His annoyance is palpable as he bluntly remarked,

It is really too bad that the General does not get the new play.  It will be many pounds out of our pocket if he dont learn it before arriving in London.  We are in Penrith 24th
Kendel 25th [and] Rugby 26th.
I shall call on you the 27th.

Three days later, uncertain if that letter would resolve the issue, Barnum wrote to Albert Smith, the man he had commissioned to re-write Le Petit Poucet.  “My dear Smith” he began,

We have never yet recd a line of the [second] act from Mr Brettell.  I shall be in town within the next seven days & will call on you with the l’argent [money]—I shall probably arrive on friday of this week. 

Adding a note of humor in a postscript, he teased, “General says he is a thousand ‘bricks’ & begs you to remember it.”

By Thursday evening, February 26th, Barnum had received the play from Brettell and wrote to thank him.  He also included the text for a newspaper advertisement with instructions that the (many) words with triple underlines should be typeset in uppercase letters.  Barnum made three tries at composing his ad; presumably the last was the one sent, despite its numerous cross-outs and insertions.  As usual, the ad emphasized that the General would be returning to America shortly, but goes further by saying that he would then “relinquish his public exhibitions.” His size being 25 inches and weight 15 pounds, he was claimed to be “smaller than any infant that ever walked alone, and . . . one third the weight of any dwarf ever seen in England.”  Much of the ad space lists the various royals whom he had appeared before (and the number of times) followed by the assertion that more than two million persons had seen Gen. Tom Thumb in the last two years.  His “extraordinary Performances and New Costumes” as well as the “Magnificent Presents” given by Her Majesty could be seen at his levees, held from 11 to 1, 3 to 5, and 7 to 9 o’clock each day, with the admission at one shilling and children under 10 half price.  At the end, Barnum squiggled a pointing hand to indicate that a manicule (aka, “printer’s fist”) should be inserted followed by the announcement that “The General’s Miniature Equipage will promenade the streets daily.”

Barnum told Brettell he would be in London on Friday and despite the short notice, would like him to have “20 slips” ready.  “I shall call about 1 or 2, o’clock.”

Aware of the competition, Barnum’s ad compared Gen. Tom Thumb to other little people (dwarfs) shown in England. This London newspaper ad from 1846 presents a challenge issued by “Field Marshal Tom Thumb” to “Gen. Tom Thumb,” and suggests that the two Tom Thumbs were exhibiting at Egyptian Hall simultaneously. Note that the English Tom Thumb also portrayed Napoleon, and played that role in a series of “Waterloo Tableaux.” (Image in Public Domain, courtesy of Wellcome Collection, London.)

Barnum also wrote to his friend Mr. Collins in London, asking if he might stay at the Collins’s home until he could find a suitable apartment near Egyptian Hall. He did not wish to inconvenience them in any way, especially not Mrs. Collins.  Noting that it would be no trouble to put the portmanteau he’d left there in a cab and find a hotel, he would happily do so “if your lady should think that [my staying] would be causing her any annoyance or trouble.”  Doubtless she would be pleased to see Barnum, who had been trying to find employment for her son, recently arrived in America and trained as a saddlemaker.  Barnum’s letter to Collins also made a brief reference to the accident in Airdrie, suggesting Collins already knew of it, perhaps from a newspaper.  Barnum commented only that, “We have hardly got over our fight yet, from the breaking down of the floor at Airdrie.”

The next letter is a long one written to Fordyce Hitchcock on March 1st, but rather than reporting on the UK tour, Barnum had a lot to say about his business concerns stateside, so we will pick that up next week.  However, the letter also expresses Barnum’s deep personal fear regarding his wife Charity, and as it turned out he was writing this on the very day their daughter Pauline was born—so we should certainly give some attention to this important matter.  “[Family],” he told Hitchcock, “is truly the most noble purpose that money can be devoted to . . . money thus extended is well laid out.”  To Hitchcock’s empathetic ear he wrote,

Yes, I long since heard of the death of my wife’s sister, and that fact added to the numbers of other cases of death from child-birth this year, is what makes me more than usually uneasy regarding the safety of my wife.  Oh my dear friend, you cannot conceive (and yet you surely can) the terrible doubts & fears that suspense gives a man who is so far from his home as I am at the time of my wife’s confinement.  I cannot bear to think of it.

Barnum then turned to answering a letter from family friend Mrs. Henry Barnum (apparently her husband was not a close relative to Barnum).  He was grateful to her for writing him from Bridgeport, sharing news of his wife and daughter Helen, since Charity herself did not often write to him.  His letter to “My good friend Mrs B.” was also penned on Pauline’s birthdate though he would not know of her safe arrival for some time.  He wrote with glowing words to thank Mrs. B. for corresponding, and added,

I am glad to hear that you call on Charity (that sounds more sociable & I prefer to hear it from the lips of friends) and I trust in God that ere you receive this she will be safe and comfortable.  If she is spared this time no earthly inducement would ever tempt me to be away from her again under similar circumstances.  It is shameful & cruel of me, and I am daily getting severely punished for it—for the thought of the subject almost drives me mad.

Barnum changed the subject to food to distract himself and pretend to be annoyed with “Mrs. B.” for mentioning his favorite dish.  He chided her,

Oh! You cant think how you hurt my feelings in your last letter.  You made me almost rave with impatience mingled with despair.  Would you know the subject which gave me all this grief and suffering?  It is comprised in two syllables—oysters.  I am sure it was well meant in you, but believe me, “it was the unkindest cut of all” as Shakespeare says, or as he does not say—I have forgotten which.

Christmas Pudding
The traditional English plum pudding is a very dense and hearty food, made with an abundance of dried fruits, hence its nickname “figgy pudding.” (“Plum” originally meant any type of dried fruit.) Its form was like a ball since the heavy batter was put in a pudding cloth, tied up and twice boiled, then hung up to ripen its flavors. Brandy helped preserve it. Ceramic molds later replaced the cloth method of preparation, giving it a flatter base and round top. (Wikimedia Commons, courtesy of James E. Petts)

Barnum continued at length to describe the misery of being taunted with the thought of oysters, and assured her he could not wait to “set foot in Old America once more” to enjoy the oysters again.  His commentary on English food is far from positive, starting with the remark that if Charity had given her “a touch of English plumb pudding” and the taste was not to her liking, it would at least give her “an exalted notion of our own Yankee puddings, for truth to say the cookery of England is miserable compared to that of America.”  He elaborated,

I would rather have one dish of Yankee chicken-pot-pie than all the dishes ever cooked in this Kingdom.  Here they dont know what pot-pie is—the fools dont even know what coldslaw is, and would as soon think of eating brickbats and paving stones as of cutting raw cabbage into vinegar and eating it.  In regard to cookery the English are two centuries behind the age—and at least one in regard to dress.

Barnum also shared with Mrs. B. the story of the accident in Airdrie, and even enclosed a news clipping.  As he reported the incident to her, “hundreds” fell through the collapsed floor, but only 41 were injured, a few of them suffering broken bones.

It was a perfect miracle that none were killed, and a greater one that we all escaped unhurt & especially the General.  However, I herewith enclose you an a/c [account] of it & beg you will hand it to friend Pomeroy for publication, with my best compliments.

As always, Barnum saw an opportunity for promotion even with the mixed news that people had been injured though Gen. Tom Thumb had escaped unhurt.  Concluding his letter to Mrs. B., Barnum told her that in a week’s time they would open in London, where they expected to remain for two months.  He explained,

It is now the height of the London season, the town is full of “nobbys” with their splendid Equipages & I guess I would like [to] go a sight seeing with you here for about a fortnight.  You would be a leetle astonished & no mistake.  This is a great country for wealth and grandeur—but ours is the country for simplicity of government and the real happiness of the people.  God Bless America, and God Bless you all.

Adrienne Saint-Pierre
Barnum Museum Curator

Now more than ever, the Barnum Museum needs your help!  Please consider making a donation to help support our educational programs!

Donate to the Barnum Museum!

Become a Barnum Museum YouTube Subscriber and be the first to see all our new episodes!

Subscribe to our new YouTube Channel