An Array of Museums

An Array of Museums

Last week we found P. T. Barnum feverishly writing to correspondents in America on New Year’s Day in 1846, revealing tantalizing news of potential museum acquisitions as well as a plaguing legal matter dating back to his days as a partner in a dry goods business. Now, catching up with him through his letters of January 5th and 20th—an unusually long gap between letters—we are getting a more detailed picture of the triumphs and aggravations pertaining to his business in America.   Barnum was now writing from the town of Dunfermline, Scotland, just a few miles from Edinburgh where he had spent the first five days of January, followed by a week in Glasgow, a city about 40 miles southwest of Dunfermline.

Dunfermline Palace
Dunfermline Palace, drawn by W. Brown and engraved by W. Miller, mid-1800s. Dunfermline in Fife, Scotland, is an ancient town, and depictions of its “romantic ruins” such as the palace, abbey, and medieval gates attracted visitors like Barnum. (Wikimedia Commons)

As always, Barnum was juggling more than would seem humanly possible for his time period, but he did recognize his limits.  And so his letter of January 20th to the owner and curator of the Chinese Collection in London explained his decision to decline a partnership offer, one he himself had sought out months earlier.  William B. Langdon, Esquire, was the man to whom he wrote.

Could I have foreseen the most distant probability of such a disposition of my affairs in America, I certainly should not have spoken to you so encouragingly about joining you, for if there is one thing in the world that I detest above all others it is quibbling, and talking upon business matters merely for talk’s sake.  To prevent you thinking me a quibbler, I [give] you the reasons why my mind, or rather my determination, is changed in regard to the Chinese Collection.

It certainly was not the concept of exhibiting a Chinese Collection that had become less desirable to Barnum, for in a recent letter to Moses Kimball, his showman friend in Boston, he had asked for help in acquiring suitable items directly from China.  Ships from the Boston-Salem area of Massachusetts regularly sailed to the Far East, and Barnum wanted to obtain Chinese items of special interest (curiosities) and/or value and beauty to feature in his museum such as were then being displayed at the Chinese Collection in downtown Boston (1845-1847).  Such exhibitions had become popular, apparently inspired by Quaker merchant Nathan Dunn’s exceptional Chinese Collection, first exhibited in Philadelphia in 1838 in a portion of Peale’s Museum building and then sent to England in 1842.  Langdon must have acquired it after Dunn’s death in 1844 and was looking for a partner to invest in the purchase.  Barnum’s letters to Hitchcock in mid-September and mid-October of 1845 also refer to a Chinese Collection in New York City that was about to open, wondering if it would help or hurt business at the American Museum.  Barnum himself would later lease and then buy a collection, exhibiting it at 539 Broadway.

Cover of a guidebook for the Chinese Museum in Boston, 1845
Cover of a guidebook for the Chinese Museum in Boston, 1845. Barnum would later use this booklet with his own revisions and additions to promote the collection he was exhibiting at Barnum’s Chinese Museum in New York. (Wikimedia Commons)

As Barnum explained to Langdon, “. . . since I saw you last, circumstances have transpired in America which would render it not only inexpedient but almost impossible to engage in the Chinese Collection or any other business.”  He went on to describe what had occurred, telling him, “. . . my American letters now lying before me (and which I only recd this morning) inform me that my agent [Fordyce Hitchcock] in New York has just succeeded in carrying out a design which I have long desired to accomplish.”  That desire was “to become the proprietor of the different Museums in New York, Philadelphia & Baltimore.”  The news had come as a surprise, Barnum said, because “so many impediments appeared to be in the way that I had little hope of accomplishing that desire at present . . . ”—and then it all changed.

It appears that American Museum manager Fordyce Hitchcock was an adroit dealmaker for his boss, for Barnum noted, “There is a strong probability . . . I now own a museum each in New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore & N. Orleans, and surely in all except the latter city.”  Obviously still digesting the stunning news, he explained to Langdon the reason New Orleans might soon be added to his holdings.

. . . my agent having before purchased for me the contents of Peale’s Museum in New York, was about to establish it in Philadelphia unless the proprietors of the present Philadelphia Museum, fearing opposition from me, would sell at a fair price.  As the Steamer left [with his letter], a negotiation was going on between the Philadelphia proprietors & my agent & he felt certain that in ten days at farthest I should be the proprietor of that museum also, and in that event, he should send my “Peale Collection” to New Orleans and there also have a museum opened for me!

With all these major acquisitions afloat, Barnum had neither money available nor the “bandwidth” to engage in a partnership with Langdon as well.

Most of my funds are firmly locked in Bonds & Mortgage security in America, and as most of the Bonds have several years to run I could not realize a large sum without probably selling my securities at a sacrifice.  The few thousands of dollars uninvested in America, with a few more thousands which I have here, I had wished to invest with you . . . .  [but] it must . . . be quite obvious to you that I have not only strong calls for all of my loose capital, but that I have got at least quite as much business on my hands and mind as any man can do justice to.

Apologetically he added, “[I am] sincerely regretting that I cannot join in your enterprize & [hope] that you may find the right kind of person to join you.”  Barnum was not being disingenuous for it appears that he and the Strattons (“Gen. Tom Thumb” and his parents) along with the boy’s tutor, Mr. Sherman, had socialized with Langdon in London, probably the year they arrived, in 1844.  Barnum sent their kind regards, and hoped they would have the opportunity to meet again when Gen. Tom Thumb’s entourage returned to London.

That same year, 1844, proprietor Langdon published a Descriptive Catalogue of the Chinese Collection, which he was exhibiting at St. George’s Place in Hyde Park Corner.  A look at the 150+-page Catalogue made me think it might have inspired Barnum’s idea to produce a guidebook to his American Museum, something he brought up in letters to Hitchcock and his promoter Stewart.  Langdon’s exhibition would certainly have appealed to Barnum, whose own museum displayed a great range of objects, art, inventions, natural history specimens, and tableaux with wax figures.

The Chinese Collection comprised ten thousand artifacts, ranging from the harvesting implements and clothing of humble farmers and boatmen to the exquisite and richly embroidered silks and other objects owned by the elite.  Many of the cases displayed life-sized costumed figures in settings that showed their occupations or activities, such as a shoemaker at work and a wealthy gentleman carried in a sedan by servants, or settings such as a silk mercer’s shop.  The author notes that the Chinese-made figures are “modelled out of a peculiar species of clay” suited to the purpose, and despite accurately representing living individuals, are characterized by a “sameness of feature and expression.”  The catalogue describes various Chinese inventions, and even devotes 1-1/2 pages to the preparation and use of opium to explain the pipes displayed.  Explanations of the elaborate dinner and tea ceremonies merited longer entries in the catalogue.  Smaller cases displayed dozens of Chinese bird specimens and shells, and the products of craftsmen such as silversmiths.  All kinds of ships were depicted in the form of perfectly proportioned models, and at least one junk was entirely carved in ivory.

In closing his letter, Barnum wished Langdon the best, telling him, “I trust & believe your ‘Last Display of the Feast of Lanterns’ will draw great crowds during the season, which is now commencing.”  Barnum turned to composing a more difficult letter; this was to John V. Beam, Esquire, in regard to the judgment Barnum found himself facing.  A lawyer by name of Brooks had informed him that Beam’s partner, or former partner, L. Lyon, claimed Barnum and his former partner Horace Fairchild still owed them money.  The amount was not trivial—$772.50—and Fairchild was now dead.  Barnum had long since paid the amount Beam had agreed to accept from him in small installments, but had no receipts to prove it.  He had relied on Beam to “make such endorsements on Mr Lyon’s letter as should fully & plainly show that neither him nor you had any farther claim on me.”  Whether Beam had done so, and whether Fairchild, whom Barnum described as a rascal, had ever paid his portion of the debt seems uncertain.   Barnum pleaded with Beam, a man whom he believed to be honorable,

[I hope] you will take the necessary steps to see the matter righted, and not have Mr. Lyon or any other person pretending to hold a claim against me which I have once paid according to agreement with you, and to your satisfaction.  I lost much money, some character, and much valuable time by that Fairchild who is now in his grave.  I have paid money to you when I scarce knew where to find my next shilling for bread—but it’s not necessary to enter at this time into farther details.  L. Lyon & myself are not the very best of friends & I should prefer to never hear farther from him.  We have once or twice had hard words together, and if I again am forced into very close contact, either in person or in law—I think that neither of us will very soon forget it.

Aside from that troubling issue, Barnum was largely back in his element after the tedious months spent in France.  Gen. Tom Thumb’s return tour of the U.K. had started off fairly well, and as he told Langdon, “We are doing a capital business through Scotland.”  Barnum was also thriving again on generating ways to promote and present his newly purchased novelties and attractions.

Suddenly finding he would have the opportunity to rotate them among several museums must have stimulated pride in his ingrained “Yankee” thrift and hard-bargaining habits.  For example, the “religious views” he had purchased for the American Museum could subsequently be sent to the Baltimore Museum where his Uncle Alanson Taylor would be working, albeit with Barnum’s “man” managing things.  Since these Dissolving Views would be presented as a show, they needed a good narrator, as Barnum had advised Hitchcock to find.  Now, poking fun at Uncle Alanson’s strong views on religion and his outspokenness, Barnum quipped, “[if] Taylor is going it under good auspices in Baltimore, I expect the Religious Views will tell there when you have done with them [in New York]–& Taylor can lecture on them!

Barnum also contacted “Friend Tyler” again in London about the purchase of the large model of Venice.  This time he increased his lowball (rejected) offer from £50 to £70, and then to £75, to cover getting it on board a ship to New York.  Barnum also asked that Tyler include the trestle supports as well as any iron railings, glasses, lighting and appurtenances, making sure it was packed so as not to get damaged, and to “have the goodness to write my agent a letter . . . giving him every possible information about the size & shape of model—the manner of putting it up & c.”  Further, any descriptions of the model and any of the “puffs” or advertising that Tyler had done should be sent along for Hitchcock to see.  All in all, Barnum boldly asked for the “deluxe” package at £25 less than the asking price of £100 though he had assured Hitchcock it was worth more.

Exciting times ahead as we (and Barnum) await news of the potential addition of New Orleans to the roster, and also learn how Uncle Alanson is faring with the Baltimore Museum.  And let’s not forget to give Hitchcock credit for pulling off these acquisitions in Barnum’s absence!

Adrienne Saint-Pierre
Barnum Museum Curator

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