Plenty of Fun in “Bridgepork”
In honor of Father’s Day on June 21st, this week’s exploration of P. T. Barnum’s letters from France will focus on several that enlighten us about his role as a father of daughters, and as a father-figure to his protégé Charles Stratton, better known to the world as “Gen. Tom Thumb.”
Before we begin with the letters, I’d like to spotlight a beautiful portrait of the Barnum daughters which is in the Barnum Museum’s collection, and was a gift from his descendants. Interestingly, it is by far the “Most Viewed” item in our online digital collection—and we’re happy, if surprised, that a painting has been so very popular. The portrait is quite a large oil painting by Frederick R. Spencer and is dated 1847, just two years after the letters we are perusing. It shows three of the four Barnum girls—Caroline, the eldest at age 14, Helen, the second daughter at age 7, and Pauline, the toddler, the fourth daughter, born March 1, 1846. (Charity was pregnant with Pauline at the time of the letters we are reading.) Sadly, daughter #3, Frances Irene, had passed away on April 11, 1844, just shy of her second birthday. When that tragedy struck, Barnum was in England just beginning his European tour with Gen. Tom Thumb, and his sorrow was undoubtedly compounded by his absence from home at such a difficult time, unable to comfort his wife and two daughters.
So it was with amplified concern that in August of 1845, Barnum learned of five-year-old Helen’s illness—whooping cough—soon after she and her mother and sister Caroline had returned home from Europe. At great length, Barnum confessed to Charity his deep fear that they might lose Helen, and told her that if that happened, “. . . the world would have but few attractions for me, and I should but little regret to be called to that world where there is no death, and where the parental heart strings are not to be broken by the loss of near and dear children.”
Fortunately, Helen pulled through. Only a few days before the worrisome news, Barnum had written a letter to his little daughter for her mother to read aloud to her. His tender note is quite delightful with its description of toys and stories and the fun they would enjoy together upon his return. Teasing Helen about her childish interpretation of “Bridgeport,” Barnum wrote that he hoped she was well and was having “plenty of fun in Bridgepork.”
Always concerned with his children’s education, Barnum both encouraged and set a goal for Helen, telling her, “I suppose that you are learning your book very fast, and that when I come home you will read to me.” And he wanted her to understand that “fun” was a reward for good behavior:
. . . tell [your friends] we will have great times when I come home. We will play and romp, and run and walk, and ride and do all sorts of things, but you know this is on condition that you are a good girl as I am sure you will be, and go to school, and mind your mother always, and go to sunday school (and not run away) and take your medicine good when you are sick. If you do all these things, then wont we have lots of pleasure when I come home?
The apparently spirited Helen must have shown her opinion of attending Sunday School! She was nonetheless a very lucky little girl, indulged with special toys while the family was together in Europe. Her father assured her, “I shall not forget your carriage & ponies, and your beautiful doll which you left at Mrs. Lamsons, and maybe I shall bring you something else very nice which you dont think about.” That Barnum was a loving father is evident in his enthusiasm for a favorite shared pastime. He promised Helen he would have new stories for her: “. . . you know what nice stories I shall tell you. I am getting a great many new stories made up, and as I have nobody to tell them to I must save them all for you . . . . I want to see you very much.”
Presumably Caroline, who was seven years older than her sister, had outgrown her father’s stories—though wouldn’t we like to hear them now! Indeed, Caroline was at an age where her formal education was of primary concern to her father, who was anxious that she attend a top-notch school and focus on subjects he felt suitable for female education—and learn them in French. We will explore Barnum’s views on this in a future blog.
In the spirit of fun with our Father’s Day theme, let’s turn to Barnum’s role as a father figure to Charles Stratton, who was seven years old—a precocious seven—at the time these letters were written. Charles’s own parents had little education, and according to Barnum’s accounts, they lacked any degree of sophistication or morsel of interest in learning about the world, even while on the European tour. Barnum must have seen the need to support Charles intellectually and emotionally in ways his parents lacked, while also indulging his mischievousness, referring to him playfully as “the little rogue [who] is a sure card wherever he goes.” Short snippets in the letters indicate the two had a happy relationship, peppered with good-natured bantering. Writing to an unnamed correspondent, Barnum asks him to pass along a message:
Tell the General he owes me 20 francs. My hat has all fell to pieces, he kicked it so hard at Vincennes – so he has got to pay for another — & he must not pay me in old buttons neither.
A delightful addition to the letters in the copybook is a page of little drawings presumably made by Charles. The page includes the outlines of two tiny (right) hands, a man with an oversized head and buttoned jacket, and a couple of less distinct sketches. The sketch of the man, with his head of curly hair and prominent nose in profile, may even be a portrait of Barnum! (Take a look—you can zoom in on the sketch by using the link above—and let us know what you think: firstname.lastname@example.org). And I’ll continue to be on the lookout for tidbits about Barnum’s fatherly relationship with Charles as I go through the letters.
Barnum Museum Curator