Hard Feelings about “Soft Soap”

Hard Feelings about “Soft Soap”

Over the last few weeks our blog stories have centered on P. T. Barnum’s “stateside” connections and activities, as he directed his American Museum from afar and corresponded with family members in Connecticut.  With the focus on Barnum’s letters to America, I have been feeling out of the loop with the Tom Thumb tour, now drawing toward the end of their performances in France.  So this week we’ll return to France via letters from Barnum to Sherwood Stratton, written between late October and early November of 1845.  Unfortunately that relationship was strained and rather contentious, although Barnum had tried to keep things on an even keel.  Fair warning: prepare for angry words, though off-set by interesting comments on advertising!

Charles S. Stratton with his father
Cased daguerreotype of five-year-old Charles S. Stratton with his father, 1843. Collection of the Barnum Museum

Stratton, as you may recall, was the father of seven-year-old Charles Stratton, known as General Tom Thumb; he and his wife Cynthia accompanied their son on the three-year European tour, which commenced in January of 1844, only a year after Charles’s launch in New York City had brought incredible success.  As we learn in the correspondence, Mr. Stratton had advanced from the salary arrangement he’d had at the American Museum to a business partnership with Barnum.  The Strattons’ fortunes soon skyrocketed with young Charles’s highly profitable tour through the British Isles and non-stop engagements in London.  There is little doubt this venture whet Sherwood Stratton’s appetite for money-making, although he did not possess the intellect, experience, and wherewithal that Barnum did.  From Barnum’s point of view, Stratton could be a difficult and unreasonable person who often tried his patience.  The letters suggest he coped with it by trying to keep him in good humor—jokingly addressing him as “Major Stratton”—while also providing direction and advice, yet acknowledging his freedom to make decisions.

The purpose of most letters was to give Stratton the information he would need about hotels, meals, theatres, halls, printers, the posting of broadsides, local rules and customs, and so forth.  Barnum, being a week to ten days ahead of the entourage, was scouting opportunities, making arrangements, and negotiating tax and profit percentages.  The latest letters also contain advice about selling most or all of their vehicles (carriages and wagons) before leaving Lyon and heading to Paris.  Barnum sought advice before making his recommendations, but left it up to Stratton, in consultation with Mr. Sherman, to determine the best plan of action.  At times he may have steeled himself to trust Stratton’s judgement, though with the distance between them, he had little choice in many matters.  One thing Barnum was firm about, however: that their itinerary performing in the French country towns should be cut short since little-to-no profit was to be made.  Parisians, on the other hand, would be liberal, if the tour’s previous success in that city was any indication.  From Paris they would return to London for the Christmas season—and perhaps stay longer—far more certain of making money.

Sherwood Stratton
Detail showing Sherwood Stratton, 1843. Collection of the Barnum Museum

That Stratton had been suspicious about Barnum’s quick trip to London in late October clearly rankled Barnum, who had gone with a dual purpose, partly on Museum business, and partly to make arrangements for Tom Thumb’s exhibition at Egyptian Hall and Christmas pantomime performances.  In a November 3rd letter Barnum responded to Stratton’s, in which he had claimed that Barnum was “soft soaping” him—in other words, persuading him to do things through flattery, while not being transparent about serving his own interests.  Indignant at the accusation, as well as Stratton’s seemingly sarcastic—or mean-spirited—comments about his “trembling” writing hand, Barnum fired off a three-page letter.  He called it a discourse or “sermon” on soft soaping, and stated, “I am in earnest in what I am now going to write—so I expect you will find no soft soap in this sermon.”

Dividing the discourse into three headings: “What reason have I for wishing to soft soap you?”; “Did I ever soft soap you?”; and lastly, “The reason why you think I have used soft soap,” Barnum proceeded to explain why a person would want to soft soap another, and that he could see no reason why he would have wished to deceive or take advantage of Stratton to further his own interests.

. . . as a proof of this, I hereby agree to start with you all bag and baggage in the first ship for New York after we have finished in Paris, if you and your wife prefer it.  So you have only to say the word—thus you see that if we stay in England Ireland & Scotland it will be as much to accommodate you as me.

Barnum’s good-faith offer cleverly turned the tables on Stratton, who would surely want to benefit from the engagements Barnum had arranged in London, and likely wish to make even more money with another tour of the British Isles.  Consulting his copybook to reread his recent communications to Stratton, Barnum was perplexed as to what Stratton might have construed as an attempt at “soft soap.”

Perhaps you think there was soft soap in what I said about starting a museum with you in America. To prove that I was in earnest I am ready to sign writings with you to that effect the first day we meet.  I dont care one sou [small French coin] either way whether we do it or not—I am sure you would not do it unless you expected to make money by it, no [nor] wouldn’t I.  So there was no soft soap under that head.

Barnum then went on to substantiate his claim that he had never “soft soaped” Stratton, firmly stating,

I believe I have always fulfilled my promises to you, and that I have never held our hopes of success which you have not fully realized. When we began together last year—I did not promise what you should make, but I told you that I believed you would be worth $20,000 at the end of the year.  Was I mistaken in my belief?  And do you think you would have had more money now, than you have now got, if you had not arranged with me?

Incensed by Stratton’s accusation, he further retorted, “. . . I insist that no man ever dealt more honorably with another than I have with you—I never worked so hard nor so faithfully for myself alone, as I have for our firm, and therefore I confess that I do not like the suspicion that I am using deception with you—for that is the same thing as to suspect me of using soft soap.”  He went on to say why he thought Stratton suspected him:

I believe that you are jealous of my paying any attention to my business on the other side of the Atlantic and that you fear that I do so at your expense.  Now if I had remained in Lyons or Paris till this time of course my expences of board would have been paid by the firm—but I recd a letter from Hitchcock saying that [Professor] Swift was going to leave and therefore I wanted another man—and something new for the holidays, and I sent to London and got them & shipped them off—but all expences of travel board & c were paid out of my own pocket, so that you was a gainer rather than a loser by the business.

Reminding Stratton about the financial arrangements they had had before embarking on the European tour, Barnum emphasized:

You must remember that when I was exhibiting Tom Thumb on my own account, I was then also the owner of the Museum, and that even then I found time to come to Paris and buy things for my museum, and I found time to engage other things and do other business for my museum, and that I did these things without neglecting the exhibition of Tom Thumb.  You ought not therefore to expect me to attend more closely to the business now, than I did when I was exhibiting him on my own book.  In both cases I did and do all that I knew how to do to help the success of his exhibition . . . .

Barnum had also concluded there might be another reason for Stratton’s accusation of “soft soaping,” and that was in regard to his having taken on the tour’s advertising.  This had become necessary, so Barnum felt, while they were in France, but he assured Stratton that advertising was a task he disliked and that he would much prefer to hire someone better than himself to do it once they returned to England.  He explained that,

. . . long before I knew you—I knew that advertising when it was well done was the hardest and most unthankful portion of the business, and therefore [in France] I hated to try it, and first tried the experiment of having Sherman go ahead.  Finding that he could not do it well, and that we could not get a person to do it well—I concluded much against my will to do it, and I have done it as well as I could—many times no doubt I have missed it but it has been through an ignorance of the language and the country and the rascality of its inhabitants, for in all cases I have tried to do it as well as I knew how.  And when a man does his best he does not like to be suspected of soft soap—at least I do not.

His last point to Stratton in regard to advertising and how their partnership roles should continue was thus,

If we exhibit in England it will not be difficult to find a man to advertise, and to prove to you that I dont crave the job, I propose that if we exhibit there, each of us shall do the same portion of the business that we used to do before we came to France, and that we hire a man to advertise as we did then—for truth to say I can find no fun in advertising and I would not continue to do it for an extra salary of 1000 dollars per month—nor I will not if it is possible to find a competent person to do it.

Barnum’s aversion may come as a surprise since today many people think of Barnum as the master of promotion and advertising.  Perhaps the key to understanding his perspective is in his comment that it was both hard to do well and thankless, and that there were others more knowledgeable and adept than himself when it came to advertising.  Hiring people with a high level of competence was his strategy.  Jumping ahead to the future when the Greatest Show on Earth was attracting and astonishing crowds like no other, we know that Barnum had found an advertising genius—like no other—in Richard F. “Tody” Hamilton.  According to biographer Joe Dobrow, Hamilton was said to have generated two million words of promotional copy a year and memorized (and created) more adjectives than anyone else of his time.  That’s certainly the place to look for “soft soap.”  As Barnum concluded the end of his sermon to Stratton, “Amen.”

Adrienne Saint-Pierre
Barnum Museum Curator