PTB Letters (#54) Going It Like a Rush

Going It Like a Rush

“Going it like a rush,” is the curious expression P. T. Barnum used to describe the success of Gen. Tom Thumb’s performances in England and Scotland when he wrote to his friend in Paris, Dr. Brewster, on January 20th, 1846.  Despite starting the return tour of the U.K. with a cold that kept him off the stage for a few days, the eight-year-old boy soon recovered, and Barnum declared him to be “hearty as a buck.”  Barnum told Brewster of the plan to return to London from Scotland soon, where they would stay until May, before “[dashing] into the provincial towns till July, at which time we propose departing for the land of peace, plenty & steady habits.”  (The latter denotes Connecticut, which is still known by the moniker, The Land of Steady Habits.)

Barnum himself seemed to be feeling fit once again, and was pleased to tell Brewster, “I am enjoying myself bravely this winter, though I should prefer being with my family.”  With the acquisition of two or three museums in America unfolding, thanks to Fordyce Hitchcock’s diligence, he had every incentive to get back in the saddle after coping with debilitating homesickness while in France.

Another January 20th letter that Barnum wrote from Scotland to France, this one to a Mr. Huet, catches us up on the status of several novelties and attractions Barnum had commissioned for the American Museum, including the statues he wanted to install along its roofline.  Concerning the latter, he explained to Huet, “I have before spoken to Mon. Jeanne about some statues to place on the top of my museum.  I want them of such a size as will make them appear [the] size of life from the street.”  He was, however, annoyed that Mon. Jeanne had replied in French, and told Huet,

Monsieur Jeanne has written me the enclosed letter—I wish you would hand it to him and tell him that I cannot fully understand it, and that I would therefore feel obliged if he will write me in English.  He has a person who writes English, and as I have no interpreter now to help me read French I get bothered with a French letter.

In previous letters sent to American Museum manager Hitchcock, Barnum had asked about getting the height of the building from street to roofline in order to calculate the size of the figures.  Though long delayed in answering the question, Hitchcock apparently came through with it, as Barnum relayed the details to Huet:

They will stand 72 English feet high from the sidewalk in the street.   I do not know yet how many I want—but it will be from 10 to 20.  I wish Mon. Jeanne to inquire and let me know the price of these statues.

Barnum asked for cost estimates based on using three different materials.  The first would have the statues “roughly cut” of marble; the second, roughly cut of granite; and the third would have them cast “in some kind of composition which will resist the weather.”  On a practical note, he added, “I think the latter would be very cheap & would perhaps answer my purpose.”

Barnum had already commissioned an anatomical Venus, a lifelike attraction that was simultaneously seductive and repellent, as its purpose was to show realistically modelled organs in the open cavity of a beautiful human female.  (See Trumpets, Venus, and a Young Man Heading to America, December 18, 2020).  In his letter to Huet, Barnum advised, “When the Wax Venus is finished I wish to have her very carefully packed, and sent in the same manner [to Hitchcock], with very great care, as a small thump would spoil the whole of it.”  He also inquired about progress on the panorama painting depicting Napoleon’s Funeral, “Pray do you know whether Mr Lambert is getting along with the Diorama of Napoleon’s funeral?  His address is 14 Rue St Pierre Monmartre.”  Barnum had concluded it was better to commission his own than overpay for one that had already been heavily exhibited and showed a lot of wear.

The panorama painting was sure to be profitable, but as for other paintings, Barnum had decided to backtrack his idea of opening a gallery in New York.  In a November 29th, 1845 letter he had expressed his enthusiasm to Hitchcock for such an endeavor, and was in the process of having master works in French museums copied.  But his trusted manager must have dissuaded him, for Barnum told Huet,

I have heard from America that it will be a bad speculation for me to attempt to form a picture gallery there, especially with copies.  When therefore the artists have finished my pictures, you will please tell them that I want no more, until I have sent those to America on trial.

Making good on those he had already ordered, he wrote,

The 1500 francs which Stratton handed you was to pay to the artists when they have finished the pictures satisfactorily.  When the pictures are finished I wish my friends “Draper & Co” of 30 Rue Hauteville to ship them to New York, directed as usual to “Mr F Hitchcock, American Museum, New York.”

The Deluge (Une Scène de Déluge), by Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy-Trioson, 1806
Barnum commissioned a copy of this painting owned by the Louvre to show in his own museum. See the second handbill illustration (below) in which he described this depiction of “The Last Family” attempting to climb the steep rock to escape the deluge. (Wikimedia Commons)

On the same day, January 20th, Barnum sent a brief note to his friend Brettell, a printer in London, to say, “I am anxiously awaiting the proofs of the new play.”  Barnum had commissioned the popular writer Albert Smith to write a play for Gen. Tom Thumb, and presumably he expected to get it on stage when the entourage returned to London.  Two weeks earlier, he had written Brettell to let him know that “. . . Smith agreed to give you the copy for the new play and have you print it by degrees & forward proofs to me.  I hope he will do so.” Barnum would thus be sending more business to Brettell, who had recently been asked to print up souvenir booklets for Gen. Tom Thumb.  Barnum’s tone was sardonic when he informed Brettell,

I enclose you the book corrected & amended.  Mr. Stratton [Gen. Tom Thumb’s father] has just discovered that in it I am called the guardian of Genl Tom Thumb and he says “By God it shall be took out, or my boy shall never sell a damned book—you might as well say he has got no father and [be] done with it.”  Now if it should be said that he had no father, or at least not much of one, it would not be far out of the way.  But I pray you sink the “Guardian” for truth to tell the father needs one much more than the son.

The topic of the conjoined infants in Paris, whom Barnum had so desperately wanted to exhibit, takes a different turn in the letter to Huet, for he says he has heard nothing about them from Mon. Pinte, a professor turned would-be showman who was employed by him in France.  “But it is no matter,” Barnum admitted, “I am not half so anxious about it as I was.”  (Not long after this, Barnum learned the twins had passed away.)

A likely reason for Barnum’s change in focus was that he was now intensely occupied in planning for the Baltimore Museum, which his uncle Alanson Taylor had just acquired and in which Barnum was to be an equal owner.  They were to share the $9000 cost (collection only, not the building).  He told his uncle,

I believe the investment (if the concern is judiciously managed) to be a capital one, and that this will be at last, the solid foundation on which you will build a fortune.  At all events if any men living can make money there it is us; first because you will personally attend to the affairs, and see that not a penny is lost through trusting the money drawer in dishonest hands, nor not a shilling expended which is not judiciously laid out .  .  . and second because I have facilities for furnishing attractions which no other man possesses, and which first having recd the stamp of approbation from New York papers will go down well in Baltimore.

In the twelve-page letter to Alanson Taylor begun on January 21st, Barnum shares abundant advice and opinions on just about every aspect of running the museum.  However, in this blogpost we’ll focus on the comments pertaining to attractions.  As he advised his uncle,

I think that dissolving views, [the] microscope, and the other optical instruments which are now exhibiting in my [American] museum would always do well with you.  If you think so—say the word & I will get them in London—though by the way if you can find a proper man in America to make the Gas, and exhibit Dissolving Views, perhaps Hitchcock can spare sufficient views, to give you a start & perhaps also lanterns can be bought in N. Y.  You can learn about that & let me know what to do.  I can get a good man in London for about $8.50 per week to go to America & show views, microscope & c and make the gas for the lanterns.  He is also a bird stuffer.  I can also send gratis a good glass blower if you want, which you do if you have not one.

Handbill front side
Handbill advertising Barnum’s Museum in Philadelphia, 1849. Barnum acquired Peale’s (Philadelphia) collection as the basis for his new museum in that city, and added other attractions. Several of those mentioned in his letter to Alanson Taylor are promoted on this bill, including the “Mammoth Brothers” and the “Gipsy Girl” automaton. (Courtesy Florida State University’s Digital Repository)

It is ironic that Barnum, who often advertised the very great expense of the novelties he purchased, admitted to Taylor, “One grand secret of success is to make the most of everything which you provide for the public,” adding,  “It is not the most expensive attractions which pay best—but quite the contrary as a general thing . . . .”  As examples, he mentioned a model of Dublin (similar to the model of Venice he had just acquired), and his “Gypsy Girl,” which was an  automaton.  Barnum offered advice about the latter, noting,

My machinery for the Gypsey[sic] Girl might I think tell to advantage in your museum.  If you thought best not to exhibit it as a fortune teller—merely exhibit it as a mysterious curiosity under the name of the “Invisible Lady.”

He also recommended enlivening the Baltimore Museum’s exterior by copying his successes at the American Museum.

If I recollect right, the top of your museum may be made into a promenade & Garden (a la the American Museum) in summer and by all means, don’t fail to have a good high flag pole, and some big flags, and if you think best—have a larger lantern to put on the flag pole & pull to the top brilliantly illuminated at night like mine.  Indeed I fancy that there are a number of good dodges about the American Museum that can be profitably copied in ours for truth to say I never yet have seen a place of amusement so well calculated to attract the beholders outside, & please those inside, as the American Museum in New York, and it has not begun to be what it shall be if I live & have my health.

Barnum famously employed a band of musicians to play outside on the balconies of his American Museum, but while in Europe he got the idea to replace them with a mechanized music maker.  Though not entirely automatic, he liked the idea that he would only have to pay a boy to operate it instead of paying several musicians.  (See Plans Good and Bad, January 22, 2021.)  But at the time he was writing to his uncle he did not know if his “hunch” that this was a smart investment was correct.  He told Taylor,

I sent a set of mechanical Trumpets to Hitchcock (to take the place of the Band outside the museum)—they are worked by a boy who only has to turn a crank; if they are as good as I believe, a set would do well for the outside of the Baltimore Museum.  You can learn from Hitchcock & let me know.

Handbill reverse side
Reverse side of handbill advertising Barnum’s Museum in Philadelphia, 1849. Two large paintings that Barnum had had copied in France are listed, though not declared to be copies. An artisan glass blower is also listed, a popular attraction Barnum recommended to Alanson Taylor for the Baltimore Museum. (Courtesy Florida State University’s Digital Repository)

Barnum’s enthusiasm continued as he gleefully told Taylor he now had under contract “a couple of remarkably fine and handsome fat children,” brothers whom he would send to New York in April with their mother and two siblings.  He would pay the family $5 per week, for a year, and would also pay for their clothing, food, and laundry, and passages to and from America (in steerage).  Finally, he assured his uncle that, “Any other novelties which I can pick up cheap—I shall be sure to secure, and if they can be hired at a round price to Peale occasionally, that will take so much off from the cost to our museum.”

Next week we’ll explore Barnum’s secrets to success, management advice that he shared liberally with his new partner, Alanson Taylor.

Adrienne Saint-Pierre
Barnum Museum Curator

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