PTB Letters (#5) “A Touch of Yankee” Solves a Problem

“A Touch of Yankee” Solves a Problem

Tom Thumb Tour in France
Illustration from P. T. Barnum’s autobiography showing Gen. Tom Thumb’s coach and ponies drawing a crowd in France.

At the end of last week’s blog post we left matters concerning General Tom Thumb’s stop in Bordeaux, France, very much up in the air.  Mr. Barnum was infuriated by the demands of the Hospice Commissioners who expected a far larger percentage of the gross receipts than Barnum felt reasonable.  They were asking much more than he had paid in Paris or any other place for that matter, and moreover, he claimed, it would actually cost “the General” money to perform there if they insisted on their 25 percent and the Theatre getting another 20 percent.  Barnum threatened to bypass Bordeaux and go on to another town—which would mean the Commission losing all income from the taxes Barnum would have paid, even if at a lower rate.  And yet, it didn’t sound like Barnum was ready to give up his plan to wow the Bordelaise—that is, the citizens of Bordeaux, as he referred to them.  There were hints he was working on a plan to best the Commissioners.  So, who triumphed in the end?

As it turns out, we get quite a story!  Barnum had learned a bit of the history of Bordeaux and upon finding out that there was actually a separate town or “commune” within the town of Bordeaux, a solution to his dilemma unfolded.  In a letter dated August 27, 1845, to “My dear Dignan” Barnum explained:

Once upon a time Bordeaux was . . . a little village, and at that time the little village of Vincennes lay only ½ a mile off.  Bordeaux has continued to grow and increase, and at present it not only contains 11,000 souls, but it has also extended its boundaries and its dense population quite beyond Vincennes and completely surrounding it, yet singularly enough ancient Vincennes has preserved her rights & independence, and is at present governed by her own Mayor and Municipal officers, although located almost in the heart of Bordeaux!  The consequence is I have hired a spacious saloon in the commune of Vincennes, arranged with the Hospice of Vincennes to pay it only 10 Francs per day, & as there is no theatre in that commune, I pay not a farthing for theatres, but snap my fingers & laugh at the Theatre & Hospice of Bordeaux, for the saloon in Vincennes is as central as any saloon in Bordeaux proper!  That is strictly speaking a Yankee trick!

Tom Thumb and Blue Carriage
Hand-colored print from about 1845, depicting Gen. Tom Thumb with the miniature equipage that enchanted his admirers and became his personal “brand.” Collection of the Barnum Museum.

Barnum had described the situation to another correspondent, Friend Huet, a few days earlier, noting, “There is a magnificent garden and dancing saloon [in Vincennes], only ¾ mile from the centre of the city.  Thousands of people go there every Sunday, in fact walk past it every day to promenade . . . [and] Omnibusses run there from the centre of the city for 3 sous.”

And confiding to Moses Kimball, a showman friend-competitor in Boston, he wrote, “They are all crazy to see the General & will do so at any price—so to be revenged I have fixed the price of admission at Three Francs each (it usually [outside] of Paris is 2 Francs) and I’ll raise hell here for 10 or 12 days & no mistake.  There’s plenty of money here & I’ll get a good bit of it! — & learn the Hospital directors a lesson they will not soon forget.”  Unable to resist a final boast, he added, “I have given them a touch of Yankee.”

Although conceding that Vincennes might not have been as profitable as Bordeaux, Barnum was amply pleased with the General’s success in Vincennes, and happier still to have “[taught] these clever gentlemen a lesson.”  On September 1st, he wrote to an unnamed correspondent:

Our receipts for the last 2 days exceed 6000, which would have given the Hospice over 600 according to my offer, and indeed over 800 for I doubt not we should have taken a couple of thousand more francs if we had been in Bordeaux.  Whether Independent or not, I never yet allowed a man nor a soulless corporation to swindle & impose on me whenever I could prevent it, at whatever sacrifice—at present I can afford to make a sacrifice even of interest to will, and it has given me more than 10,000 francs worth of pleasure to think of what the feeling of these amiable gentlemen must be to see themselves thus caught in their own toils.

Well-satisfied with his clever trick and the quantity of “Napoleons” (French coins) rolling in, Barnum informs several of his correspondents that the entourage will next travel to Pamplona, Spain, two days’ journey from Bordeaux.  There, Barnum proudly declared, they would meet “her Spanish majesty and court,” adding that the Spanish Consul had intimated to him the Queen’s desire to see the General.  Clearly the tour was turning a profit once again, pure pleasure to the showman.  Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, Barnum’s American Museum in New York City was just three and half years into the business, and our competitive proprietor had to direct the business from afar as well as find new attractions in Europe.  Next week we’ll explore what’s happening on that front!

If you’d like to read the letters in Barnum’s copybook pertaining to the story above, check out pages 93 to 107, as well as a letter on pages 64 – 65.

Adrienne Saint-Pierre,
Barnum Museum Curator