Barnum’s Park City: A Bit of France in Bridgeport?
There’s an opportunity here while working from home—a few more quiet moments to “mine” P. T. Barnum’s letters in the immense (750+-page) volume compiled while he was on tour with “General Tom Thumb” in France. (We have it online now, if you’d like to peruse! http://hdl.handle.net/11134/60002:185)
Many of the letters were written to the Editors of the New York Atlas newspaper to be published in their Sunday paper. They are full of descriptions—and opinions—about the scenery, the cuisine, the cleanliness of hotels (or lack thereof), French art and history, and whatever else caught Barnum’s attention. Today, as Bridgeport springs to life with golden swaths of daffodils in bloom, and tulips soon to follow, the words in one of these letters leapt off the page in a new way, revealing that Barnum’s vision for the Park City (Bridgeport) was influenced by his travels in France.
Barnum adopted Bridgeport as his home town in 1847, and thereafter had a great deal to do with its development. His vision was broad: not just to bring manufacturing to the young city, but also to ensure that its citizens had clean water, a hospital, and attractive outdoor spaces—parks—where they could enjoy leisure time and “re-create”. This last part seems especially relevant today, when so many people are heading to parks and nature preserves to escape “the four walls” that have become all too familiar over the last few weeks. The outdoors, especially at this time of year, is salve for the soul as well as offering healthful air and sunshine.
Barnum thought the same. Here’s what he wrote while in France in 1845:
Promenades are formed around the town upon the line of the former ramparts; indeed in every town in France however small there are Public Walks, shaded with trees, and forming the most delightful Promenades. Stone benches usually line the walks at intervals, and every attention seems to be shown to the health and enjoyment of the people, a feature worthy of imitation in the towns of America. Some distinguished individuals have said that Regents and Hyde Park are the lungs of London. In building and improving our towns and cities in America, the “lungs” should never be forgotten. They may be the means of annihilating disease and producing worlds of happiness.
There are many institutions and peculiarities in France which are not only highly commendable, but are worthy of imitation in America, whose duty it should be to imitate all the good and reject all the bad of the world. The Abattoir, or slaughter house, always in the outskirts; the public Cemeteries, always removed beyond the walls; the public Museums of Natural History and paintings, found in every large town, and the public libraries and reading rooms, arranged in convenient apartments with salaried librarians, common in all French provincial towns, these are examples worthy of imitation by the most delightful free and happy country on the face of the globe —- the United States of America.
While we can’t know exactly what P. T. Barnum would have said in the face of this pandemic, we do know he cared about building a city that supported people’s health and well-being. Parks are one of Barnum’s legacies to Bridgeport. During this holiday weekend, wherever you live, I hope you are (safely) able to go out for walk in a park, drinking in sunshine and fresh air while practicing social distancing of course. And whatever your faith, may your holiday celebrations embrace compassion for all of humanity during these difficult times.
Barnum Museum Curator