First-Rate Attractions for the American Museum

First-Rate Attractions for the American Museum

P. T. Barnum was never lacking ideas for attractions to bring to his American Museum in New York, and he was certainly an enthusiastic supporter of a mid-19th century popular phenomena: visual illusions in a variety of forms. References to “dissolving views” (a.k.a. magic lantern shows) and commissioning new views appear fairly regularly in Barnum’s letters to museum manager Fordyce Hitchcock, and he had learned about other intriguing optical instruments at the Royal Polytechnic Institution on Regent Street in London. Barnum was always eager to share ideas and plans with Hitchcock, and between late October and early November of 1845 they constitute a large portion of a three-part letter (pages 269-272, 288-294).  At that time, Barnum had left France to make a quick trip to London, and then returned to Paris, taking a short “breather” from the intensity of his work traveling throughout the country as the advance man for Gen. Tom Thumb’s entourage.  “The General” would not be arriving in Paris for another couple of weeks, and this left Barnum time to plan, time to find people to hire, acquire and ship things he wanted for his museum, and time to write about all this to Hitchcock!

Since Hitchcock was among Barnum’s closest friends, he also relayed bits of personal news, for example, relief that his wife Charity had decided against the purchase of a home in Bridgeport for $14,000, a topic that had bothered him greatly earlier in October (see News in a Postscript blog post, October 23, 2020).  He also said he was feeling better again, and was “forced to be moral” by following the advice of French physicians who described his condition as “fire in the stomach.”  They told him not to “feed” the fire, that he should stop smoking, drink nothing stronger than weak claret wine and water, and avoid vinegar.  Barnum complied, and noted the benefit of no longer smoking: “[I] find my breast much better.”  With those worries now settled, let’s turn to Barnum’s plans for new and enhanced attractions at the museum, starting with his rationale for promoting the “novelties” sent from Europe.  He explained his strategy to Hitchcock thusly:

. . . you must crack them up as being sent over by me.  I was sorry you did not do the same by the Orchestration for it looks then as if we were scouring all Europe in search of novelties, and this has two good effects.
1st It makes the people tickled to think our exertions are so strong to please them &
2nd It frightens away opposition, for persons will say there’s no use to go an opposition against the Museum for they have agents throughout Europe and can pick up 20 novelties to our one.  Now I dont know how the Orchestration gets along, but I think if you had cracked it up as being sent by me from Paris expressly for the Museum it would have had a good effect.  When you have such good attractions as at present & they continue to draw—it is best to keep them & only occasionally add something which gives a chance for a new line in the bill although it may not of itself be much.

Preparing for the holidays when even larger crowds could be attracted to the museum, Barnum told Hitchcock to expect a shipment of new items.  These he would receive by way of showman Moses Kimball in Boston.

Now here’s something for the Holidays.  In the steamer of 19th Nov Moses Kimball will receive a case for you.  It will contain the following articles which I bought at the Polytechnic Institution
1 Physioscope made specially for me same size as that at Polytechnic Institution—
£20.0-0
1 dissolving view of Lyons, with an effect to show the cathedral lighted
1 [ditto] [ditto] of Am Steam Ship Missouri, with effect to show her afterwards on fire
1 [ditto] [ditto] of Canton with moving figures
Your present attractions are first rate & if you add the above for Christmas & N.Y. [New Year’s] the people will be pleased . . . .

Among the first-rate “present attractions” was the orangutan Barnum had mentioned in his September, fearing it might have died due to the climate in New York (see Novelties & Schemes blog post, August 11, 2020).  Barnum concurred with Hitchcock, “Yes indeed the Ourang is a good trick.  Try to have him kept warm & I should say let him be a standing dish at the museum.  He will pay well there as long as he lives & that will not be long I am afraid.”  He then added, “I shall send you the Trumpets so that you can use them right after the Holidays—perhaps before.”  Presumably this refers to the Trumpet Machine mentioned in a postscript to his September 28th letter to Hitchcock: “I have written to Paris about the Trumpeters—but half think I shall not get automaton figures with the Trumpet Machine—for the figures will cost as much or more than the machine—I fear.”

Barnum was also on the hunt for statues while in Europe.  He told Hitchcock, “. . . if possible, I shall look about here for an anatomical Venus—also for statues for [the] top of [the] Museum.  Give me the exact height of museum so that I will know the size necessary for statues.”

Interior of the Regent Street Poly
Interior view of the Royal Polytechnic Institution on Regent Street in London, 1847, drawn by G. F. Sargeant. Founded in 1838, the institute was a place where inventors could refine, showcase, and demonstrate their inventions to members of the public who were curious to learn about applied science and new technologies. Barnum saw a variety of new optical instruments here, and paid to have a Physioscope made for his museum in New York. (Wikimedia Commons)

The “Physioscope” mentioned in the list above was an optical instrument akin to the magic lantern.  According to one source (A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles, edited by J. A. H. Murray and published in 1905), the physioscope was “designed to depict the human face in colossal dimensions upon the screen” and described it as “a modification of the magic lantern.”  The New York Herald included in its September 5, 1845 issue an advertisement for displays at the New York Polytechnic Institute (Lafayette Hall, 595 &597 Broadway).  The ad announced that, “Two entirely new optical instruments, the Proteascope and the Physioscope, will be shown, whose effects have only to be seen to draw crowds of admirers.”  Barnum had to be competitive, even if not always the first to show some new invention, and so he may have put in his order at about that time to the London-based Polytechnical Institution for a customized Physioscope.

To Hitchcock Barnum explained what would likely be required to set up the new Physioscope, a job that would fall to the Englishman, “Professor Swift,” whom Barnum had hired in early 1845. Swift had been brought on to set up the magic lantern equipment and narrate the “dissolving views,” which were the current rage in visual entertainment.  Demonstrating the powers of this new instrument would be added to his duties.  Barnum wrote,

. . . the Physioscope if well managed will tickle the people down to the ground.  Swift must rehearse it first with some good natured laughing person—as much depends on the person shown in it.  It should be an elderly person by rights.  I think the focus of the Physioscope cannot reach so far as that of the views.  At the Polytechnic they are obliged to have the curtain for Physioscope several feet in front of that for views.  I suppose you will have to do the same—In that case the curtain for Physioscope might be over the orchestra & be made to roll up to the ceiling & drop down when needed.

With the magic lantern apparatus already in place, Swift would need to expand or re-arrange his set-ups and management of the optical equipment in the American Museum’s theater.  Barnum was not, however, counting on Swift staying in his job because there had already been a dust-up about his salary, and with Swift’s wife having remained in England, it was possible he’d return in the not too distant future—which might not be such a bad thing.  Barnum had therefore scouted out other prospects for the position and found two likely candidates while in London.  With a plan in place, he told Hitchcock,

Damn that Swift.  I have now written to Brettell to have him keep paying Mrs. Swift [since her husband was still employed].” I found in London a man who fully understands the views and microscope & c—he has shown them at the Polytechnic Institution and is recommended by that Institution.  He is not as refined as Swift, still he can address the public.  He is steady & faithful.  He knows how to make the gaz [gas for the magic lanterns]—in fact everything about all the optical views & instruments, but no other science.  He is however also a good bird & animal stuffer & could help Guilladeau [Mon. Guillaudeu, the museum’s naturalist] when not engaged otherwise.  He stands ready to go to America for $12 & probably for $10 per week—I to pay $50 for his expences to Am.—If you think best I’ll send him.

The $10 or $12 per week was considerably less than the salary Hitchcock had felt forced to pay Swift after he complained that living in New York was more expensive than Barnum had led him to believe.  Barnum was especially annoyed by the three months it had taken Swift to construct the set-up for the dissolving views, time lost before any profits could be realized.  Still, he knew he needed Swift’s expertise, at least for the time being, and had instructed Hitchcock to raise the man’s salary if push came to shove.  Finding that had been done, Barnum told Hitchcock, “You are paying him strong now & he ought to be busy every minute to earn $18 per week.”  Now with a second possible candidate for Swift’s job, Barnum added in his letter,

Another man, a magician from the Adelaide Gallery, will play the Magician & attend to gaz [gas], views & c—he understands it all–& will do all for $10-or $12 per week—He has got an extensive magical apparatus, so henceforth we can have one of these chaps when we want, & I’ll send one at once, if you think best to swap Swift.

Professor Swift may—or may not!—be on his way back to England in the weeks or months ahead, but in the meantime we still have more clues to explore about the exciting attractions to be seen at Barnum’s museum and other New York City venues in the 1840s!

Adrienne Saint-Pierre
Barnum Museum Curator