PTB Letters (#60) Mademoiselle Venus

Mademoiselle Venus

Among the special attractions P. T. Barnum purchased in Europe for his American Museum in New York was a lifelike figure made of wax, but this Parisian model was no ordinary wax figure. Barnum first mentions an interest in acquiring an “Anatomical Venus” when he wrote to his museum manager Fordyce Hitchcock on August 25, 1846, while he was in France, acting as the “advance man” for the Gen. Tom Thumb tour of towns and cities throughout the country.  He related that he hoped to get a “venus” when he returned to Paris.  Creating this specialized type of wax figure required a combination of high-level sculpting skills and thorough knowledge of internal (medial) anatomy, since the purpose was to display realistic models of human organs in situ.  The organs were thus arranged in a cavity within the wax figure’s torso, but for demonstration and teaching purposes each organ could be removed and replaced.  It goes without saying that the purchase of such a complex, multi-layered figure was a considerable investment, and would have to be commissioned.  Whether American audiences would find the exhibition of an anatomical venus morally acceptable or “tasteful” was a risk Barnum was willing to take.

In late October of 1845 Barnum made a quick dash from Lyon to Paris (and then to London), and apparently took the opportunity to see about a venus.  Barely containing his enthusiasm, he reported his triumph to Hitchcock in a letter of November 10th, exclaiming, “I have also nearly engaged an Anatomical Venus—the price was 4500 francs—the man now offers to make it for 2500! to be done in Feb or March!”  He could not resist mentioning it to his showman friend Moses Kimball in a letter the next day, adding a phrase that indicates his awareness that the venus would not be suitable for all audiences: “I have also engaged an anatomical Venus—for a separate room in my museum.”

While in Scotland in January of 1846, Barnum contacted his agent in Paris, Mr. Huet, asking about the status of several projects and giving instructions about others.  Since he anticipated that his venus would be completed soon, he asked Huet to be sure the craters packed her very carefully to prevent damage in the trans-Atlantic shipment.  Barnum’s next letter to Fordyce Hitchcock provides him with unpacking instructions, as well as advice concerning the delicate issues of exhibiting a naked female form.  Barnum’s promotion of his museum’s “moral and wholesome” exhibits and its suitability for women and children could be undermined in short order if any missteps were made with “mademoiselle Venus.”

Barnum began his letter to Hitchcock, by telling him,

I yesterday recd a letter from Paris saying that my “anatomical Venus” would be ready

on the 1st Feby (tomorrow).  I shall therefore write immediately to Messrs Draper & Co Paris, asking them to ship it at once to N.Y.  It will probably go by ship which leaves Havre about the 10th to 16th Feb, and will therefore reach you about 1st of April, or a little before. . . . The figure cost 2500 francs—besides the packing & case which will probably by [be] 100 francs more—also of course besides the expense of shipping . . . “

The venus would cross the ocean in a sailing vessel rather than by steam ship, which Barnum had mentioned previously was a risky proposition in winter.  The issue of the duties imposed by U.S. Customs was one that continually irked Barnum; he was certain he had been significantly overcharged for other items he had sent to New York, and was determined in future to avoid the subjective judgement of authorities, believing they had wrongly applied excessive duties.  He told Hitchcock,

I shall have it directed to Dr Tuttle care of F. Hitchcock  Am. Museum  New York.  I do this in order more surely to avoid paying duty.  First I think you could get it in duty free as a statue, or as an object for the promotion of science and anatomical skill—but a physician may perhaps be more sure of getting it free from duty.

He had other motives in employing this strategy as well.  It was better to have a medical person associated with the venus rather than a showman or museum manager, and a physician would likely be more adept at the actual unpacking and organizing of the parts.  As Barnum explained to Hitchcock,

. . . it must be unpacked with the utmost nicety and care, by Dr Tuttle or some

other medical man, and soft cushions covered over with clean sheets, or something of the sort, must be ready to lay the different parts of the figure upon—for being wax it is liable to broken, and especially liable to get dirty—a thing to be most particularly avoided.  All the different pieces which come apart are mounted with little ribbands [ribbons] to lift them off by, and thus save handling the wax—still these must only be touched by clean hands, and by a person who understands it, a surgeon or physician, or an intelligent student of medicine.

His next instructions concerned how and where the venus should be exhibited, noting to Hitchcock.  “When you once mademoiselle Venus put together and laid upon her back, (the position in which she is exhibited) you can judge whether it is best first to open the exhibition in some small & respectable saloon in Broadway or not.” Furthermore, he continued,

The figure must rest on an elegant couch, made of such a height (say 2 feet) and placed in such a position of the room as will allow as many persons as possible to stand around and see it taken to pieces & explained.  A small stand will stand near the couch on which the exhibitor will lay the pieces as he takes them out. Every portion from the brain to the foot is laid bare & dissected.  A featus [sic] of several months (3, I believe) is contained in it.

Though Barnum had mentioned to Moses Kimball that the venus was to be displayed in his museum, apart from other exhibits in a separate room, he was now thinking it should go to an entirely different location, at least to start off.  As he had learned from a man in England who’d somehow been connected to a venus exhibit, the figure should first be a stand-alone exhibition.  He explained the idea to Hitchcock, writing,

. . . if properly managed I think that one or two months exhibition in a room on Broadway, or elsewhere, would be best, but of that you must judge. . . . If opened first in a room and puffed strong it would be sure to pay well, and would make it all the more popular at the Museum afterwards—I think.

An 18th-century English newspaper clipping announces the exhibition of wax figures from the sale of “Mr. Denoue’s Anatomical Wax-Work.” Using phrasing that sounds like Barnum’s, the ad notes that one of the figures “is the most curious and perfect Anatomical Piece of Art that was ever made of Wax.” Gentlemen were invited to see the figures on any weekday (1 shilling admission), while Ladies were only welcome to visit on Saturdays. (Wikimedia Commons, Courtesy of Bodleian Libraries, John Johnson Collection of Printed Ephemera)

Barnum was inclined to think that his Anatomical Venus would be the first shown in America, and so it was important to promote and present it with the right tone, nothing bawdy or off-color.  The same man in England had strongly advised choosing someone of good character to present the wax figure to the public—that person would be critical to its success, especially in regard to female audiences.  In the first place, the advertising must be such that women would feel confident in the educational legitimacy of the exhibit and want to see it.  But it would be folly to damage that credibility and risk offending women’s sensibilities or embarrass them with a male presenter whose manner was crude, off-hand, or ignorant.  Therefore, Hitchcock must be very particular in hiring just the right person.  Barnum advised,

[in London] many many ladies went to see it, and will in N.Y. [too] but on that a/c it is necessary for it to be advertised that a medical gentleman exhibits and explains the anatomy, and he must be a sedate, respectable looking and intelligent man. Dr Tuttle or Burnes can find you such a man.

Emphasizing this point again later in the letter, he told Hitchcock,

The man [in England] says that its whole success depends upon having the proper person to exhibit it, and that the idea of vulgarity or of exhibiting it for any except a strictly scientific object must never be tolerated.  As an object of science revealing the wonders of the human anatomy, he says no more interesting exhibition can possibly be conceived, and therefore if we stick to its legitimate sphere, it must succeed—but he says if we do not have a medical man, we must have one who most thoroughly appears as such—and the public must believe him to be such.

“Dr Tuttle,” he added, “could learn [teach] all the technical terms necessary to any person in 2 days, so if a medical man costs too much, get another, but let him be genteel, sedate, and intelligent.” Barnum also suggested setting aside special viewing hours for women to protect them from possible embarrassment caused by male visitors or by the reveal of certain parts.  In England, “. . . it was open from 10 to 1 for Gentlemen—from 1 to 3 for ladies, and from 3 to 10 P. M. for gentlemen.”  Barnum advised that when the venus was moved to the American Museum for display,

. . . [it should] be placed in a small neat apartment in the museum , where 12 or 25 cts extra is to be charged, and where it can be exhibited at all hours of the day & evening—and every hour or two—30 minutes must be set apart for ladies—in fact ladies can go in any time when the room is not occupied by men.

In case Hitchcock was wondering just how “accurate” this venus was, Barnum delicately phrased his comment on the matter, noting,

The figure is perfect in all its parts, and therefore a nice silk bandage 2 inches wide is necessary to pass around the body below the navel, and then pass down covering the crotch. This bandage can be so arranged, as to be slightly and carelessly removed, as if by accident or at the request of the company when no females are present.

He expected the chosen space to accommodate no more than thirty people at a time.  This  would enable all present to view the figure and see the demonstration, noting, “. . .  a small neat room that will hold that number, is sufficiently large, for [the venus] can all be taken apart explained and put together in 10 minutes and there fore any quantity of persons who may apply can soon be accommodated.”

And Barnum did expect to have people waiting in line.  The man in England had assured him that their venus “cleared £8000” in just 3 ½ years, a sum that Barnum accurately converted to US $40,000.  Barnum calculated the average to be $60 per day with a 25-cent admission, and the man had told him he’d taken in as much as $300 per day.  Barnum planned to charge 12 or 25 cents on top of his regular 25-cent museum admission, and assuming that many people would come to the museum specifically to see the venus and not otherwise, his profits could rise well above those of the English venus exhibit.

Venerina, an anatomical wax model of a pregnant woman by sculptor Clemente Susini, 1782, displayed in the Museum of Palazzo Poggi, Bologna, Italy. (Wikimedia Commons)

As you’ve been reading this it may have brought to mind the very popular traveling exhibitions of the 1990s and early 2000s called Body World, and Bodies: The Exhibition.  Curiosity about the “inner workings” of our bodies has existed for centuries, and people are no different in that regard today, including in their visceral reactions to realistic models as either breathtaking or revolting.  Barnum, of course, wanted his visitors to be so awe-struck and captivated by the venus that word of mouth would bring people to his museum.  So it is notable that he ordered the figure in Paris and not England, where anatomical wax modeling at that time was not concerned with artistic elegance, and models resembled cadavers.  Though his letters do not say who was making his venus, Parisian wax workshops were becoming highly proficient in the 19th century, and it sounds as if his venus was to be modeled in imitation of the exquisite figures produced by the leading workshops of 18th-century Florence, Italy.  Among the finest of early sculptors of anatomical wax models, Italians Felice Fontana and Clemente Susini were famous for their exceptional artistry, combining expressive beauty and harmonious coloring with realism and accuracy.  I imagine Barnum would have liked nothing better than to have a copy of Susini’s Venerina (“Little Venus”) at his museum, and his plan to bring “Mademoiselle Venus” to America would nicely fill the bill.

Adrienne Saint-Pierre
Barnum Museum Curator

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