Extra Exertions in Dull Times
This week we will have a look on both sides of the Atlantic, zooming in on London to see how General Tom Thumb’s December 1845 performances fared, and on New York City, where American Museum manager Fordyce Hitchcock had received another of Barnum’s very long letters detailing his ideas for the coming winter season. Since Barnum invariably told Hitchcock, after providing lengthy “instructions,” that the decision to implement his ideas or not was entirely up to him, I find myself imagining Hitchcock rolling his eyes each time he opened a letter from Barnum (i.e., “What will it be this time?”). Few people are as driven and energetic and bold as P. T. Barnum, and that’s what makes him so fascinating. That said, the copybook letters reveal his cautious side as well.
Barnum’s plan for a short run of performances in London meant he had to hustle to make the most of their thirteen days, and especially so when he discovered that the theatre business had become sluggish. He tried out several advertising and promotion methods (see March 25, 2021, blog Bills and Boardmen), including incentive tickets. After finishing in London on the evening of December 27th, a long day’s journey brought the entourage to their next destination, Newcastle upon Tyne, on the far northeast coast of England. Undoubtedly Barnum used the travel time to think more about strategies and ideas for his museum in New York. Though only in Newcastle for two days, he found time to finish up his long letter to Hitchcock and also write to his showman friend in Boston, Moses Kimball, before heading to Edinburgh, Scotland, on New Year’s Eve.
He provided an update to Hitchcock on December 30th, 1845, noting,
We have arrived thus far [Newcastle upon Tyne] on our way to Scotland & shall be off for Edinburgh tomorrow morning. We did tolerable well in London, though the General lost 3 days by a cold, just as we had got the steam up.
Barnum had advertised in advance of Gen. Tom Thumb’s arrival from Paris so that the public would be primed to purchase their tickets right away. Knowing that certain days and times might not draw a full house, Barnum experimented by offering incentive tickets–admitting two at half price—copying a strategy he had learned in France. As he explained to Hitchcock,
In France the Theatres adopt the following plan during the dull season of the year, and whether it could be safely & beneficially adopted by you in the dull winter times, is something which you must judge & not try it if you think that it would be an injury on the long run. It is the issuing of Tickets of Favor, which entitle the bearer to enter the Theatre on given days (such days as the manager supposes it would be a poor house) by paying half price.
Barnum noted that the last two days of their time in London grossed £230 (or $1150), which he was not displeased with, though he said it was only “a trifle over [their] expences” and hoped they would soon “begin to lay up once more.” He related to Moses Kimball that, “many persons went away unable to get in” during the two final days, which suggests they would have made a greater profit riding the wave of success had they been able to stay longer. Barnum must have thought the Tickets of Favor contributed to their success, yet he seems to have talked himself out of employing a similar tactic for the American Museum even as he explained his plan to Hitchcock. He cautioned,
. . . [Tickets of Favor] must be used very judiciously. For instance, they must be always placed in the hands of persons of respectability, so that no loafer will get hold of them & sell them about the door, and the very chance of such a thing might be an insufferable objection to it.
He went on to list the conditions under which the ticket plan could reasonably be implemented, such as “chiefly [giving them] away in Brooklyn, and at a good distance away from the museum in the city of N.Y.” and never giving more than four to any one person “lest they might be thrown away & afterwards sold at our museum door.” Barnum also stressed the importance of perceived value: “They must always be given in such a way as to have the person receiving them look upon them as a particular favor & thus not cheapen the museum in their eyes.”
Re-thinking all he had just written to Hitchcock, he concluded,
After all I don’t believe the plan will answer for a permanent institution like ours, for it strikes me that if a person once gets such a ticket for half price, he or she would always remember it, and never pay full price again—and there are other obvious objections [to] it—so on the whole I think unfavorably of adopting it—yet you can think of it for yourself & do as you please . . .
Barnum was contemplating the winter season ahead with its few tourists, and the resulting drop in ticket sales at the museum. But after weighing the pros and cons of incentive tickets he decided, “I guess we had better stick to our old price & plans, and depend on custom in dull times only by extra exertions & when there are no strangers in town, try to exhibit such novelties as will please citizens.
The novelties he had in mind for the locals included his newly acquired “religious views” (among the subjects of April 9, 2021’s blog, A Desire to Save the Souls of Men), and “a fine model of the city of Venice” that he had seen for sale in London and was trying to purchase. Admitting that he had “offered £50 for it the other day & the man laughed at me,” he planned to try £80 though the seller asked £100. If he was successful he would have it shipped to New York at once, and suggested to Hitchcock, “. . . you can fix it up to tickle citizens in the winter time. Venice with its canals & gondolas, its bridge of sighs & c & c is very celebrated . . .” Mindful of keeping the museum’s costs down, he added,
. . . it will be such a kind of a thing as can be cracked up, and as it will not be drawing wages, it will be just the thing for dull times. Probably Angelo, or a hundred other persons whom you can find in N. Y. who know Venice can give you all the explanations, so that you can then give them to some other person whom you can engage to explain the model at certain hours in the day & evening.
Barnum was also keen on featuring a “Chinese Collection” at the American Museum, and began considering how to expand their current display. He informed Hitchcock that a Chinese robe for the museum had been included in a box of harness being sent to circus man Avery Smith by “Mr. Fillingham” of London (an agent whom Barnum referred to as “Fill” in a previous letter), and advised him,
I have sent in the same box, the Chinese Robe of the Emperor of China, elegantly embroidered with the order of the Dragon & c. You may not perhaps make much of a feature of it, still it will make a line in the bill & you must put it in one of our cases so as not to let it get soiled more than it is already. It will help a little towards making up our Chinese Collection, which by the way you had better try to extend by sending to China if you can by the steward to some ship sailing there. I think [Moses] Kimball might send out by some ship from Salem [Mass.] and get a lot of figures for us like those in the Boston collection, if they dont cost too much. Think of it and do as you like.
Afterwards Barnum wrote to Kimball, telling him, “I have been talking seriously with the present proprietor of the Chinese Collection in London about bringing it to America—but find it would cost too much.” Undaunted, Barnum turned to his showman friend in Boston instead.
Cant you get for you, or me or both of us, some Captain or Steward of a ship sailing to China, to buy a lot of Chinese Curiosities & bring them over at a fair price. I would like much to have say $3000 worth, taking the most striking subjects, that could be selected from the Collection now in Boston. Will you try to find a proper man, perhaps a merchant engaged in the India trade, & let him look over that Collection with you, & then order articles such as you name enough to amount to from $2500 to $4000. If you can find such a man that can be depended on as honorable—I’ll take it as a favor for you to give him the order for me & the money shall be forthcoming at any moment.
He closed the letter with the reminder, “Please not forget this (as you did the Revolutionary Pictures!) and I’ll feel bound to do as much or more for you.” In fact Barnum was already working on returning the favor. He had succeeded in his goal of dining with the popular author and playwright Albert Smith while in London, even taking a room at a location that would facilitate a last-minute arrangement to have dinner together. Triumphantly he told Kimball, “I dined with Albert Smith twice last week. He is a devil of a clever writer.” Explaining his purpose, he went on,
He has just been dramatizing [Charles] Dicken’s [sic] new story of the cricket on the hearth, and I tried to buy for you the manuscript copy; (£5 or £10) would have bought it, & nothing if you did not play it, & make it available, but unfortunately he had [the] same day sold the right of printing it to some printer, and as it would be all over London by the 26th Dec—you could not have an exclusive copy. But Smith said it gave him a new wrinkle & that the next thing he wrote he would be happy to furnish you. By the way does Ryan supply you with new plays—or does anybody else? If not I’ll get another man to attend to anything of the kind which you desire—if you’ll tell what it is.
Though unable to acquire the manuscript, Barnum was determined to get a copy of the new play for Kimball, and wrote to Smith himself, asking him to please “send forthwith a copy of your play Crickett on the hearth, by Post to Messrs Willmer & Smith Publishers Liverpool, & charge all expences to me.” Willmer & Smith would send it out immediately by steamer if received by Friday that week. Barnum also directed Smith to write on the cover,
Moses Kimball Esq
from the author
Even as his letters are filled with business matters, Barnum did not neglect to express his concern for others. We learned from a previous letter that friends in London had entrusted him to help get their son to America, in part to break off an “undesirable” love relationship, and the parents had depended upon Barnum’s kindness and connections to help their son adjust and find employment at his trade, making saddles. Barnum followed up with Hitchcock a few weeks after the young man’s arrival, letting him know that,
If that young Englishman (the saddler) whom I gave a letter to you should be ill, or unfortunate & want money, you must let him have a reasonable amount say not exceeding some $50 or $60 and by letting me know it his parents will pay me. I hope he has found work.
And, not forgetting that his pregnant wife Charity had been feeling very lonely and would benefit from company, Barnum added in a postscript, “Should you or your wife or brother happen to be in Bridgeport hereafter I hope you will call on my wife—I am sure she would take it as a great kindness, and I certainly should. B.”
Barnum Museum Curator