Story Updates, and Caroline’s Education

Story Updates, and Caroline’s Education

Loyal readers, in case you have wondered whether I am way ahead of you in reading the letters in Barnum’s copybook, I can honestly say I have not been “cheating” and stay just slightly ahead. I am sharing the interesting stories I find “in real time,” so to speak.  This means I do not know the outcome of issues that are discussed in the letters until I come across another letter or two that reveals more.  Of course, we DO know that Barnum did not die in France in 1845 when he wrote that he feared he might have a fatal illness.  Aside from that, I suspect we have all had similar questions along the way, and this week I will offer some updates as well as explore a new topic, a daughter’s education.

I would also like to share a reader’s helpful response to last week’s blog: a link to a French website, Savoirs d’Histoire, that includes a magnificent illustration of 19th century “Ornamental Pastry” or Le Pâtissier Pittoresque.  I had noted Ornamental Pastry as one of the eleven courses offered on the Astor House hotel menu in 1854.  However, I couldn’t quite envision the two intriguing menu choices, Gothic Temple, and Nougat of Flowers, presumed to be food for the eye more than the palette, though edible.  So if you are curious to see fantastic examples of such pastry, do take a look at the print, and you can read the article in English using Google Translate.

Going back to the June 12th, 2020, blog,  A Mountain of Worries, I had wondered how Charity dealt with a rather harsh letter from her husband, written on September 12th, 1845.  Would she reply or remain silent for a while?  And was Barnum’s painful illness, which he described to Fordyce Hitchcock at that same time, truly serious?  Then there was the matter of his eldest daughter’s education, a task among several that Barnum felt Charity was inadequately addressing.  Anticipating there would be further discussion in later letters regarding Caroline’s education, I had decided to hold off sharing that bit until there was more to tell.

Regarding Charity, it seems that she chose the latter course of (in)action, though she may not have been an inveterate letter-writer like her husband in any case.  On September 17th, admittedly before she would have received the scolding September 12th letter, Barnum wrote to her, “I am much grieved & disappointed in getting no letter from you by last steamer.  One from Uncle Alanson however tells me he believes you are all well.”  He had not had news from her since she wrote on August 13th, and thus pleaded, “Please write by each steamer [even] if it is only a single word . . . .”  However, nothing had changed ten days later when Barnum informed Fordyce Hitchcock, manager of the American Museum, that while his correspondence had been received, “I got no letter from my wife which is curious.”  Charity seems to have made her point—or felt too unwell to write.

Detail of a portrait of Charity H. Barnum by Frederick R. Spencer, ca. 1847. Collection of the Barnum Museum.

Regarding Barnum’s illness, a letter to Alanson Taylor, Barnum’s maternal uncle, reveals that he had recovered quickly, just two weeks after the dire statements made to Hitchcock.  Although we still do not know what he was suffering from other than a great deal of pain “seated at the pit of [his] stomach” and causing him to lose weight, the letter to Uncle Alanson on September 27th gives insight on his mental state.  Barnum explained, “I was more scared than hurt when I wrote you about my health in my last letter.  It is now as good as ever.”  Understandably, feeling ill when far from home was worrying, and not helped by a breakneck work schedule involving stagecoach travel most nights.

Now let’s turn to Barnum’s views on a proper education for Caroline, who at age twelve needed to embark upon a more serious and disciplined course of studies.  Barnum himself had had little formal education, and at 15 was working to help support his siblings and widowed mother.  He was bright, observant, and driven, however, and had a knack for math, so he was able to make his way in the world with grit and determination, and by age 34 was launched on a meteoric rise to fame and fortune.  But for a young woman living in that era, having a good education would have been a necessity to “advance” in society and be respected by her peers.

Barnum was therefore adamant that when Charity returned to America in August with Caroline and Helen she should get to work planning Caroline’s schooling.  Writing to Charity from Bordeaux on August 25th he said,

I hope that dear Caroline is well, and that she will attend a good and respectable Boarding school somewhere, where she may receive the best moral and mental instruction.  I dote much on seeing her receive not only a good education, but an education of morality and pure and virtuous principles[;] if I should be disappointed in the last case it would kill me.  I think I could bear the loss but I could not survive the disgrace of my children.  God grant that this trial may be spared me.

I hope that nothing will deter you from having Caroline complete her knowledge of the French language.  She has already acquired the rudiments and a year or so will make her [a] perfect mistress of the language.  But she must go to school if possible where the French language is spoken, and if it is at all possible, let her room-mate be a French girl.  I would even be willing to pay the schooling of a French girl, for the sake of having her always with Caroline to speak that language.  This is very important and by applying to Mr. Guilledeau* at the museum, you could find some respectable French girl to attend school with her.  Caroline might purchase a French geography and Bible, and in fact pursue all her studies in French, and read French books of History, Travels & c.  By this means she might gain general instruction at the same moment that she is learning French.  However economical you may choose to be on other points don’t spare dollars, nor thousands, in procuring the best teachers and books for Caroline’s education.  She is now just the right age to learn.  She has no time to read novels, but she must read history, and travels & c but let them be in French.

Apparently there had been no news of progress on the matter of choosing a boarding school a few weeks later, despite the guidance Barnum had given.  In his September 12th letter Barnum reproached Charity, “My dear why in the world don’t you get her to school?  Don’t you want her to learn anything?  Do get her where she can pursue all her studies & especially continue her French.  My French is improving.”

Detail of a portrait of Barnum’s Daughters, showing Caroline at age 14 looking quite grown-up. This was two years after Barnum’s search for a first-class boarding school where Caroline would learn all her studies in French. Portrait by Frederick R. Spencer, 1847. Collection of the Barnum Museum.

It is abundantly clear that Barnum wanted more than anything for Caroline to be thoroughly conversant in the French language.  Yet regarding the subjects she should study, Barnum had firm views on gender appropriateness.  “She can study a little botany, and astronomy & c,” he advised Charity, “but I do not wish her to devote too much time to such subjects.  A superficial knowledge of such sciences is all that is necessary for a female.”

Writing to his Uncle Alanson a month later, Barnum laid out his objectives, and simultaneously appears to have yanked the decision-making authority away from Charity:

The price of Caroline’s education is no object, if her facilities for learning are any the better for it.  I suppose the only object my wife had in wishing her to go to Philadelphia was the belief that there was a school there where the French was exclusively spoken; if not probably as good schools can be found nearer home.  Of course I desire her to study the more solid branches of History, natural Philosophy, Astronomy, & Arithmetic, but I am so anxious that she should get the French correctly that I had almost concluded it would be better if she could go for one year or more into a purely French school & live with a French family & pursue the above solid branches in the French language.  It is hardly possible to acquire the French correctly except from French persons—however you know much better than I do what studies are most proper for her, & since you have so kindly volunteered in the matter I joyfully accept your services & cheerfully leave the whole directions regarding her studies to you, with only one qualification viz: that she must learn the French.  That language is almost as necessary as the English & every person ought to be able to speak the two languages.

In fact there were at least two “French” schools for young ladies in New York City at this time.  Madame Chegaray’s school, located on Union Place at the corner of Fifteenth, was considered one of the finest schools in the country, though the expense meant only girls of wealthy families could attend.  Madame Canada’s school, another “French” school, was located a few blocks northeast of the American Museum, at 17 Lafayette Place.  Whether the Barnums were considering either of these schools we don’t know—at least not yet.

Since the question of where Caroline would attend a boarding school had not yet been settled despite it being late September, one can understand Barnum’s urgency on the matter.  In view of today’s pandemic-altered world, those of us who are parents or grandparent of school-age children can identify with Barnum’s feelings of concern about getting his child in school again and wanting her to make the most of that precious time to learn.  So, we will stay tuned on this topic and return to it as the letters reveal more of the story; I am hopeful that there will be another from Barnum to Caroline herself—and with a happier tone than his last!

* Mr. Guilledeau, a Frenchman, was the taxidermist for the American Museum.

Adrienne Saint-Pierre
Barnum Museum Curator