News in a Postscript: “My Present Ideas”

Read & Reflect, Then Do as You Please

Last week’s blog, “Read & Reflect,” mainly focused on P. T. Barnum’s October 25, 1845 letter to his wife Charity at home in Bridgeport, Connecticut, while he was traveling in Europe.  Since then, I found a postscript, separated from the letter, that tells us more.  You may recall that one of the major concerns was whether Charity would go ahead and purchase a home she liked, or wait until Barnum returned—which would be a good long time, and according to other letters, not likely before May of 1846, if then.  Barnum was clearly reluctant to allow Charity to make such a major decision without him, though with the span of many weeks between their letters he realized she might already have bought the property!  Such were the days when overseas communication was very slow, leaving the current state of affairs uncertain.

While I had expected this week to move on, exploring more letters from Barnum’s brief trip to London–which provide a delightful heads up on his plans for General Tom Thumb’s return to the city in December–I will postpone that topic and return to state-side “money matters” instead.  The aforementioned postscript was found in the copybook following a long letter to museum manager Fordyce Hitchcock and I had wrongly assumed it belonged to that letter.  It’s important because it provides additional insight on where the Barnums stood at that moment in their lives, wrangling decisions concerning a new chapter of domestic life, and some of it relates to Barnum’s communication with Hitchcock.  So let’s pick up the Bridgeport story again, and then segue to another “update” on Barnum’s proposed museum investments in America.  We will see that Barnum kept Hitchcock very busy managing his financial affairs, both business and personal.

While we know that Barnum and Charity eventually chose to build a house—in fact, a very grand one inspired by the Royal Pavilion in Brighton, England—we don’t know exactly when the idea to build such an extraordinary home arose.  One might assume the seed was planted when Charity was with her husband in England from late 1844 to mid-1845, as they probably had an opportunity to see the palace.  If so, then the current correspondence about the purchase of property would presumably be focused on getting that plan in motion, such as Barnum’s August 13th letter containing a driveway sketch and “wish list.”  Instead, these later letters suggest indecision, though they reveal Charity’s inclination to buy rather than build.  So this tells us that the idea to essentially replicate a portion of the Royal Pavilion was nowhere near “half-baked” in October 1845.  However, from the postscript we learn that Barnum had not given up the idea of building a home, even while telling Charity to go ahead and purchase the $14,000 home if she felt truly compelled to have it.

My present ideas are in favor of buying or building a fine house (not too large) about ¾ of a mile out of Bridgeport or some other town, and get a few acres of land with it, so that we can have plenty of room for our gardens, orchard, pigs, poultry & c, and the whole would not cost half so much as a house with no land, in the middle of the town.  Again, our property would yearly increase in value, as the town extended and reached nearer to our house—and when we had business in town & did not wish to walk we should have horses & vehicles to [the postscript ends here, incomplete, despite additional blank space.]

Clarks 1850 Bpt map
Map of Bridgeport, 1850, published by Collins & Clark, Philadelphia. This detailed map shows every building along with the owner’s name or name of the structure. The Barnums (Charity and daughters) had been living in Bridgeport at least since 1844, but may have been renting while deciding whether to purchase a house or build (or move elsewhere). In 1848 they moved into their newly built home, Iranistan, located west of the Bridgeport border (Division Street), so technically in Fairfield. (Library of Congress)

From this it sounds as if the home Charity wished to purchase was an “in town” property, which she would probably have thought more convenient than one further out.  Again advising his wife on what she should learn before committing to buy the property, Barnum’s postscript suggested,

If you really think seriously of buying that place you ought to know how much the whole yearly taxes are (for I expect they are very high in Bridgeport) and after learning that you could better judge whether it is best to buy it.

Noting that “good water is an indispensable necessary,” something he had also emphasized in a previous letter, he suggested that Charity examine the property as carefully as she would a length of fabric she wished to purchase.

If you was buying a piece of linen for our family, or a piece of calico for yourself, you would critically examine its quality before purchasing—of course you see how much more necessary it is for you [to] thoroughly examine this house in all its parts before buying. . . .  If it has got to be much altered to suit us—don’t buy, for it is better to build than to repair & alter.

As for getting a better price from the seller, Barnum recommended she adopt this strategy:

Detail with star
Detail of map above. Barnum mentioned the names of two sellers whom Charity was considering purchasing property from: “Orrin Sherwood” and seven acres from “Deacon Deforest.” It is hard to read owner names in the denser areas of the map image, but the name W. DeForest is visible on the left hand side, on Division Street where State Street terminates. (There may be other DeForest properties as well.)

After all, if the owner wishes to sell, and if he does not see that you are over anxious about it, you can get his lowest price and after he has named that, say suppose he names $13,000—tell him you give him $11000 and positively no more and ten to one after a weeks reflection he will accept your offer, for he will know that although cash will always buy houseshouses will not always fetch cash.

Perhaps feeling resigned to the idea that Charity would purchase the in-town house—or another—before he returned, he recommended she consider the benefits of also buying some of the furnishings if they were a good fit to the rooms.

If you buy perhaps there may be some furniture which is peculiarly appropriate to the house and which they would sell better [cheaper] for us than to buy elsewhere—especially good carpets fitted to the rooms & c if so of course you’ll buy that also.

Writing on the same day to Fordyce Hitchcock at the American Museum, Barnum included an instruction to provide the funds that Charity might require.

My wife has written me that she wishes to buy a place in Bridgeport, which will cost about $14,000.  I have written that I think it had better not be bought till I get home—still telling her to buy if all things considered she thinks best, and in that case I have told her to consult you about the money matters & learn what payments you could make.  Should she buy I hope you & the person selling can so arrange as to have the payments made I such sums and at such times as shall suit both.

At the same time, potential financial obligations for Barnum’s business loomed large, depending on Hitchcock’s decision about buying Peale’s Museum in New York and/or Peale’s Philadelphia Museum.  And there were complexities in regard to Peale’s Baltimore Museum; Barnum had at one point thought to purchase a half interest for his uncle Alanson Taylor, but then recently learned that Taylor was trying to do that himself.  Thus if Taylor’s investment came to pass, Barnum would need to change another plan he had in mind.  To Hitchcock he wrote,

I am anxious to hear whether you bought the Philadelphia Museum, or whether you have thought best to buy Peale’s or neither.  My uncle Alanson Taylor writes me that he expected to take half of the Baltimore Museum from young Peale.  If he has done this, I am not very anxious for the present to buy the N. Y. Museum for truth to tell one object in instructing you to buy it was that I had a strong idea of building a Museum in Baltimore & running little Peale opposition—a thing which I will not think of if Mr Taylor has an interest in his museum for poor fellow, he has had a hard row to hoe during the last 12 years of his life and I shall be rejoiced if fortune will once more smile on him.

As he had done at least once before, Barnum made an effort to keep Taylor and Hitchcock’s relationship cordial and profitable—he told Hitchcock he had sensed a “sour feeling” between the two.  Regarding both men as dear friends, he wanted to cultivate a “friendly & harmonious” feeling between the three of them, allowing them to “accommodate each other and pull together.”  Explaining the value of such cooperation, he wrote Hitchcock,

Depend on it my dear fellow this course will prove for the ultimate interest of all three of us, whether he [Taylor] now is or is not a partner in the Baltimore Museum.  I have got some “dodges” brewing which will give our several kingdoms (museums) great powers, and it is much to our mutual interest that like great Empires we “cultivate feelings of amity and peace.”

Barnum then went on to express worry that all the potential investments, personal and business, might come to fruition about the same time.  Nevertheless he remained steadfast in assuming the risks and trusting in Hitchcock’s judgement.

If Taylor has got an interest in that museum, and if also my wife wishes to buy that place in Bridgeport & draw on you for funds, I shall not be sorry to learn that you have not bought Peale’s Museum, but d—n it I had had so many minds about that cursed eye sore, that I will not direct regarding it again, but my standing order shall be—buy it or not as you think best & I’ll be satisfied.

Added to all this, Barnum dearly wished to provide $1000 to Oliver Taylor, presumably a family member on his maternal side, who had asked him for a $5000 loan until he could reclaim a debt owed him, or if not so much could be spared, $1000 to allow him to purchase a Bakery.  To Hitchcock Barnum wrote, “Now I am going to do a thing which you will say is foolish but I don’t care—I will do it, for I cant sleep nights till I do it.”  Authorizing him to pay Taylor $500 “at sight” and again three months later, he added, “I can’t be happy if I refuse him and I wont refuse him.”

Though Barnum had previously complained about distant relatives and people unknown to him demanding money, Oliver Taylor’s plight clearly struck a chord.  He told Hitchcock, “He is a high spirited good hearted unfortunate and much abused man [and] he has been once almost as prosperous in life as I am, [but] he is now without a friend on earth except his wife.”  Of the money that he hardly expected would be repaid, Barnum added “. . . God grant it may help him.”  Knowing of Hitchcock’s strict adherence to instructions and inclination to anxiety, Barnum reassured him, “Don’t get frightened at all these drafts on your finances but if you see yourself likely to be cramped let me know it at once & I’ll send you my notes which you must get discounted till we get in funds again.  I have got no money here—bad luck to it—but live in hope.”  We’ll soon find out if the Gen. Tom Thumb tour will once again “pile up the tin” upon their return to Paris, and then on to London.

Adrienne Saint-Pierre
Barnum Museum Curator