PTB Letters (#48) Bills and Boardmen

Bills and Boardmen

We last left P. T. Barnum in London, having recently arrived there from Paris, and he was diligently working to get a firm schedule in place so that when Gen. Tom Thumb arrived in mid-December, he could begin performing right away.  Despite “the General’s” extraordinary rise to fame when he came to London in 1844 at the tender age of six, the same level of acclaim was not guaranteed a year later and Barnum was having to hustle to make a go of things.  Exhibiting at Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly was the closest thing to “a bird in the hand”—assurance that delighted visitors would tell their friends and spread the word—but he still needed to publicize the levees they would hold there throughout the day, while also trying to book his protégé in a theatre for late evening performances.  Finding the theatre business in London had gone soft, Barnum was shaping a plan that would have the entourage leave the city shortly after Christmas, go to New Castle for two days of performances, and then on to Edinburgh, Scotland, for New Year’s.  In the meantime, Barnum would strive to do the very best he could during their twelve days in London, and he set to work on the advertising and promotion strategies.

Barnum’s early December letters in the 1845-1846 copybook reveal the range of methods he would use to attract the public to see “The American Man in Miniature,” as Gen. Tom Thumb was billed.  Some are the same we saw him use in France—printing up “bills” (hand bills and small poster-size advertising) and parading the miniature coach and ponies on the streets, but he also added other means to ensure no opportunity was missed.  Discovering there were such things as “advertising vans” piqued my interest!

You may recall that as young Charles (Gen. Tom Thumb) was traveling throughout France, Barnum occasionally wrote to his father, Sherwood Stratton, or another member of the entourage, reminding them not to forget the “cuts” (wood cuts) used to make engraved prints. As they moved from place to place, these needed to be picked up from printers and brought to the next town where they would be used to create the next set of handbills.  Thus, they supplied both the “art” and text (Barnum’s copybook contains sample texts) and paid a printer to put it together.  Now, in a letter dated December 8th, 1845, we learn that an extra large “cut” had been made, one that Barnum particularly wanted to use in England.  Trying to ensure the forgetful Stratton did not leave it behind, Barnum wrote him, “Don’t fail to bring that Big Equipage Cut, and also one of the Big Bills as a model” and emphasized at the end of his letter, “Don’t forget anything.”

London Street Watercolor
This 1835 watercolor, A London Street Scene, by John O. Parry, depicts a common sight—overlapping layers of large “bills” (posters) pasted to a brick wall, impossibly competing for attention. Among the posters are some that advertise theatres such as the Adelphi, where Barnum hoped to have Gen. Tom Thumb perform. (Wikimedia Commons; from the collection of Alfred Dunhill)

The placement of print advertising took several forms, with newspaper ads, and bills pasted onto exterior walls or public posting places being the most obvious.  Barnum also told Stratton he would have ads put on vans, which he intended to rent from a fellow named Peel.   Barnum wrote to his printer in London, a Mr. Francis, to let him know of his plan and what he wished to have made for that purpose.

I can probably have some of the vans on Monday next which are now used by the Cattle Show.  At all events I shall have similar vans, with both ends covered, the driver going on foot—and in that case I think therefore you had better print a large bill for one end of the van as follows.

General Tom Thumb

25 Inches High

Weighs only

15 Pounds.

He has not increased an inch in height

Nor an ounce in weight since he was 7 months old

On the other end we will put the smaller bills and Cuts size of life.  You may print 100 of those large ones for the end of the vans, for I can use the balance of them in the Country.  I think that perhaps you had better add the following to the mammoth Bill for side of the vans.  “Admission 1 shilling—Children under 12 years Half Price”

Send some of each kind of bills to Peel tuesday night or very early wednesday morning.  Peel furnishes 2 vans. I shall expect to get out my Boardmen early wednesday morning.

The mention of “Cuts [the] size of life” is intriguing, as this suggests there was a woodcut image of Charles at or nearly 25 inches tall, though the reference to “life size” might be stretching the truth.  A two-foot woodcut seems exceptional—and wouldn’t you love to see it?!  The “mammoth Bills” meant for the sides of the vans would likely have been made up of several sheets of paper assembled to the desired size.  Rotary printing presses that used continuous rolls of paper had only recently been invented—in the U.S.—in 1843.

This rare handbill printed on tissue-thin paper advertised Barnum’s “Man in Miniature” to an American audience, incorporating language similar to that Barnum used for his English handbills as well as a “cut” (woodcut) of the miniature equipage. Undated, the handbill is calculated to be from 1848 and advertises Tom Thumb as age 16 and three inches taller than in 1845, but still only 15 pounds. (Collection of the Barnum Museum)

The next day, December 9th, Barnum penned a message to Mr. Peel letting him know, “Mr Francis will send . . . the Bills for the van tomorrow (Wednesday) morning at 7 or 8 oclock.”  He went on to explain,

[Francis] could not put the coat of arms in the body of the large Bill so you must arrange something on each side of the van over the top on which to paste the Coat of Arms.

One van should be all day tomorrow near this place in the vicinity of the Smithfield Cattle Show [and] the other can go about the town in various parts, and after tomorrow let the vans be at the Egyptian Hall every morning at 9 oclock & get their orders from my agent Mr Clarke for their route.

Barnum was also planning to hire boardmen to walk around in areas where people would see the sandwich board ads; probably some of the “large Bills” were put to that purpose.   As Charles was scheduled to be at Egyptian Hall every day from December 15th through the 27th, Barnum would presumably have his boardmen walking in the Piccadilly area.  Both the vans and boardmen would be on the streets five days in advance, thus able to spark anticipation and word of mouth advertising that could attract substantial audiences from the very first day.  Charles would have a heavy schedule, holding levees from 11 to 1, 3 to 5, and 7 to 9 each day, plus Barnum hoped to book him for eight late evening performances at the Surry Theatre.  He wrote to Mr. Nash, presumably the manager of the Surry, on December 7th to say,

I should be happy to arrange with you for him to give his performances at the Surrey from 9 to 10 oclock on the nights of the 15th 16th 17th 18th 19  20th 22d & 23d Dec.  His little Equipage with four ponies would promenade the streets in your vicinity a half of each day, and also appear on the stage in the evening.

Should this suggestion be entertained favorably, please drop me a line to the above address and I will call on you tomorrow (Monday) evening at any hour you name.

Since the location of the Surrey Theatre on Blackfriars Road in Southwark is not close to Piccadilly, one wonders how Charles could possibly make it there in time for a 9 pm performance and if he would simply skip the last levee of the day at Egyptian Hall.  Perhaps Barnum’s plan to have the miniature equipage driving around in the vicinity of the Surrey during the day, convenient to going on stage at night, was meant to “buy time” until Charles could arrive, but that’s still a stretch.

Barnum used several approaches in the language of his advertising.  In some cases the message was framed as the last chance to see the General before he departed for America.  In other examples, his achievement of having met European Royalty was emphasized with a solid list of the Kings, Queens, Emperor, Queen mother, Royal Families and Nobility he had entertained, and the promise of his appearing in the “New French Court Dress” worn at the palace of St. Cloud as proof.  Should that not be sufficient incentive, the ad also announced, “The magnificent Presents received from the first Crowned Heads in the world will be exhibited.”

One ad claimed that over 1,500,000 people had seen the General in the last two years, another bumped the total to 2,000,000—but who was counting, right?  (A handbill from the previous year, November 1844, claims a mere 300,000.)  In almost every example, Charles’s physical attributes of 25 inches (63.5 cm) in height and 15 pounds (6.8 kg) in weight are touted as the same since he was an infant of seven months, and give his current age as 14—in reality he was just shy of his eighth birthday.  Barnum was fond of telling his correspondents, “You will find . . . he has much improved in vivacity and intelligence [but] he has not increased a hair in height or weight since he first came to England.” Though Charles’s tiny stature made him a curiosity to people, he was also a performer who, under tutelage, developed costumed character roles to present at the levees.  These included impersonations of Napoleon in full military dress, a Scottish Highlander in his traditional tartan, a “Citizen” wearing an appropriately dignified suit, and modeling Greek statues in various classical poses while clad in a white “leotard” outfit.  Regular admission to see all this cost one shilling, and children under 12 paid half price, or sixpence.

Half-price and complimentary tickets would also be part of the strategy to draw audiences to Egyptian Hall, so Barnum contacted a printer right away to place an order for special tickets.  Some would “Admit Two” without charge, another version entitled the Bearer and companions to enter for sixpence each regardless of age, and a third version admitted just two people at sixpence each.

With Charles’s last day at Egyptian Hall scheduled for December 27th, the entourage had only one day to travel to New Castle, located on the far northeast coast of England about 280 miles (450 km) from London, and get settled before his performances on the 29th and 30th.  After that they’d be on the road heading to Edinburgh to arrive on New Year’s Day; a week’s stay was planned there.  Although no other definite arrangements for a UK tour are mentioned in this group of letters, Barnum sounded confident when he advised Sherwood Stratton, “We’ll do pretty well in London & get through Scotland & Ireland before cold weather presents.”

Adrienne Saint-Pierre
Barnum Museum Curator

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