PTB Letters (#45) Pancakes & Short Cakes & Oysters

Pancakes & Short Cakes & Oysters

Intense homesickness is difficult to cope with, especially when it persists over a long period of time and leads to physical ailments.  P. T. Barnum’s letters from abroad to his closest friends and relatives tell us that he suffered a great deal from homesickness, even while intensely busy with work.  Throughout the year of Tom Thumb’s tour of France in 1845, Barnum was often on his own in his capacity as the “advance man” to get venues booked and performances scheduled in various towns and cities.   Added to the stress of making business arrangements with strangers whom he often distrusted, he was learning a new language and new customs on the fly, eating unfamiliar foods, and frequently having to travel at night in a cramped and uncomfortable public coach as he went from town to town.

All this took a serious toll on Barnum, though he never waivered in his dedication to promoting his business interests both at the American Museum and in Europe.  Although “staying busy” is often recommended as an antidote to homesickness, meaningful personal engagement with others is more effective than “busy-ness” and Barnum had little of that while on tour.  Responding to a letter from his wife, Charity, at home in Bridgeport, Barnum seems to lash out at her in his November 30th letter in a way that indicates how painfully he was experiencing homesickness.  He wrote,

I was most happy to get your letter of Oct 26th, though I am sorry to see you writing so much about your loneliness.  If you are lonely what do you think of me?  I suffer much more from that cause than you possibly can & I trust in God that it will not long continue so—but I guess it must till spring—for there’s no fun in crossing the Atlantic in the winter—however, we may take a sailing vessel perhaps after New Years.

Though Charity felt lonely and wanted her husband home again, she was not suffering from homesickness, which can render feelings of loneliness on a different order of magnitude, and cause serious mental and physical distress.  Barnum was dismissive of her attempt to entice him home by mentioning favorite foods—and perhaps he even felt the reminder was a bit unkind.

The pancakes & short cakes & oysters are first rate I know, but my dear Charity such temptations are not necessary to make me feel anxious to get home, for there was never a man more lonesome & homesick poor devil on earth then I am—still I persevere & live in hope, and sacrifice my present happiness, in the belief that by so doing I shall secure an Independence and enhance the happiness of my family and friends.

Traditional English pancakes are very thin and flat, as they are not made with a leavening agent like baking powder. Even though baking powder was invented in England, it was to gain more popularity in America as an ingredient in pancake batter, resulting in thicker, lighter and fluffier pancakes. Whether the pancakes Charity mentioned were “American style” is uncertain since baking powder was only introduced in the 1840s. (Wikimedia Commons)

Mindful that his eldest daughter Caroline was far from home attending boarding school in Washington, D.C., and perhaps also feeling pangs of homesickness, Barnum asked Charity to,

Write to Caroline & give her my love.  You had better send her the [Republican] Farmer every week, or some other paper—it will be a relief to her to thus get news from home every week.  I hope that somebody writes to her as often as once a week.  That is necessary not only to keep her mind easy, but also to learn her how to correspond.  I hope that her mistress is a prudent good woman & will take every possible care of her.

According to psychologists and psychiatrists, homesickness can be experienced in different ways, but generally it falls into one of two categories: anxiety or grief.   Based on the clues in Barnum’s letters, I would argue that his was the former, and may have caused the very painful stomach symptoms to which he often referred and for which he had sought advice from French physicians.  In late October he had written Hitchcock that the “French medical rascals say I have ‘fire in my stomach’ and therefore must not feed it by smoking, or drinking wine, or tasting vinegar.”  Stomach ulcers, nausea, vomiting, and loss of appetite are among the physical symptoms that persistent homesickness can lead to, as the body responds to excessive mental stress.  Barnum also mentioned his loss of weight several times, including in his November 29th letter to Fordyce Hitchcock, warning, “Tell your wife to be prepared for a grand surprise one of these days [my return]–& not to faint if she sees me only the shadow of my former self—mere skin and bone.”

Initially Barnum expressed fear that he might die from his stomach ailment, although on other occasions he mentioned to correspondents that his condition was not dangerous.  In the November 30th letter to his wife Barnum reported, “My health is very good” but he did not say the same to others, only that it was improving.  Certainly he did not want to give Charity, who was disposed to uneasiness, further cause to worry.

Oysters, 1862, by Edouard Manet (1832-1883). Unlike today, oysters were a commonly consumed food in past centuries. That Charity mentioned oysters in conjunction with pancakes might suggest Barnum liked fried oysters. According to a popular American cookbook of the 1840s, oysters to be fried were dipped in a pancake batter to which had been added nutmeg, mace, pepper, and finely grated breadcrumbs. (Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art)

Barnum also learned from Charity that five-year-old Helen had given up thinking about him, an anecdote she may have shared to drive home her frustration with her husband’s absence.  Though it might have stung a bit at first, the story elicited a fatherly response:  “Dear little Helen—so she thinks I am so far off—[that] there’s no use to think of me—well I hope I shall get nearer one of these days.”  At the end of the letter, he added a short note for Helen, whom the family fondly called “pojjy.”

My dear little Helen

                                           I want to see you very much for mother writes me that you are a very good girl and go to school and learn your book very fast.  I am very glad to hear this for I wish you to beat General Tom Thumb in learning—and I guess you will, but he learns pretty fast and is a very cunning little fellow.  He says he wants to see you very much and that he will not fight with you (as usual) when he sees you.  I hope you grow faster than he does—for we weighed him to day and he dont weigh quite so much as he did the first day he left Bridgeport.  But he has grown very cunning since that time & so have you.  What shall I bring home for you?  Tell Mother & she will write me.  Good Bye my dear pojjy—from your father  P. T. Barnum

On the flip side, Charity had good reason to be fretful about her husband’s absence overseas and his inability to commit to a date when he would return.  Charity was well along in her pregnancy at that point, nearing the end of six months, and no doubt she wondered if Barnum would be with her when the happy event took place.  (Baby Pauline would be born March 1, 1846, less than two years after the death of their daughter Frances.)  However, there is no indication that Barnum had even been told a baby was on the way, either by Charity or anyone intimate with family who might have made mention of the fact.  Barnum’s comment, “I am glad you found the museum looking so well,” is curious because Charity so infrequently left the house, and during the Victorian era it was generally not considered appropriate for a pregnant lady to be out in public—at least not when her condition was visible.  (Still, a lot could be disguised under the capes and full skirts in fashion then!)  Perhaps Charity had stopped in New York City on her return from taking Caroline to the boarding school in Washington.

No more is said in the letter about buying or building a house in Bridgeport, a topic that had been batted back and forth in late summer and early fall.  Barnum closed his letter by asking Charity to “write by every Steamer,” give his love to all their friends, and “Kiss dear little Helen for me.”

The next day, December 1st, Barnum would start on his journey to England, while Gen. Tom Thumb and his entourage remained in Paris, to follow him in ten to twelve days.  For many reasons Barnum was anxious to get back to England, perhaps chief among them believing that his health would return to normal with a diet of the more familiar British foods.  The agonizing feelings of homesickness, going hand in hand with his health problems, might also be diminished, and Barnum was craving the company of friends.  To that end he seems to have had another personal reason for wanting to be in London, hinted at in his letter to Mr. Fillingham in London.  He hoped the show business agent would find it “highly necessary” that he, Barnum, return to London quickly to sign the engagements for Tom Thumb’s performances.  “You understand!” he noted to friend “Fill.”  This would provide Barnum a legitimate excuse to go to England sooner rather than later, and if partner Sherwood Stratton questioned his motives for the trip as he had done in October, Barnum could mollify him with proof of need.

Reflecting back on two of Barnum’s letters (Nov. 1st and Nov. 10th) to London friends Mr. and Mrs. Collins, he had hinted then of his special concern for and desire to see an unnamed guest at their home, a person who had been unwell and who was learning to speak English.  This guest may be the person to whom Barnum penned the following brief note on November 29th, 1845.

My good friend

              I leave here on Monday evening next and shall see you on Wednesday next if nothing happens.  I recd your letters this morning for which I am much obliged.  As I shall soon have the pleasure of talking with you there is no need of my writing much to day.  So farewell
with best wishes & hoping to visit you
all in good health & spirits
next wednesday 

The content may not seem remarkable, but the large (i.e., enthusiastic) flourish under the last two words is striking, along with the absence of his signature.  I don’t think we can count on discovering who this person was, since Barnum would have no need to write them once he was in London.  It is apparent that he wanted to be discreet and use no name in correspondence with or about this person.  Whether he feared that someone might infer an inappropriate relationship and then “talk” seems likely; we of course don’t know what the nature of the relationship was.  If the person was female, as I suspect based on Barnum’s solicitude, Barnum surely would not have wanted Charity to learn of her, as even a friendship with a woman would have raised suspicion and caused hurt and anger—a recipe for disaster while Charity was already feeling abandoned by her husband.

I imagine we will have a lot to keep up with when Barnum and company are all back in England again.  I expect Barnum will tackle business with renewed energy and purpose, his spirits buoyed by enjoying the company of other showmen, good friends, and dinners of the roast beef he craved.  Homesickness will probably fade to some degree.  At least while staying put in London, he may also find more time to write to Charity and their daughters, and other family members; I hope he soon learns that he is to be the father of another child and will fix on a date for sailing to America!

Adrienne Saint-Pierre
Barnum Museum Curator