Piling up the tin! Barnum and Tom Thumb earn a fortune in France
Last week I began delving into a treasure trove of letters by P. T. Barnum, all written while he was traveling in France in 1845 and 1846, and I discovered how French towns influenced Barnum’s vision for young American cities like Bridgeport (Blogpost April 11th). These letters are contained in a copy book, a bound volume of translucent pages specially treated so that the writer could create “carbon copies” of his letters or notes, preserving them neatly within the book covers. A group of three short letters caught my eye this week because they shed light on the business of Barnum’s touring of Charles Stratton, a little person performer better known as “General Tom Thumb.” The following draws on a small sample of the innumerable business letters in the copybook—as always, we invite you to peruse the volume online.
Barnum served as the advance man, often mentioning that role in his letters. To “My dear friend Brewster” he wrote that he was “continually a few days in advance of the company, making arrangements & stirring up the excitement!” Meanwhile he had written to Charles’s father with terse instructions for the next engagements. (Charles was, after all, just a seven-year-old child and although Barnum was very fond of the boy, not so much the father.) In the letter, Barnum informs Mr. Stratton that his son was to perform twice each day at the theater in Angers, at 2 and 7 o’clock, and that a letter with explicit instructions would await them at the hotel there. Barnum advised him how to exchange his silver for French banknotes, and told him of the arrangements made for the rental of a piano for their three-day stop. Apparently writing in haste, Barnum added that he would be traveling all night from Angers in a “diligence”—the French version of a stagecoach—to reach Tours the next day. Barnum would then make the arrangements for Tom Thumb’s next performance venue.
While in Tours, Barnum took up his pen to write to friends Brewster and Risley, letting them know of the runaway success of “General Tom Pouce” (French for thumb) during his 3 ½ months in Paris. Barnum wrote, “The General has nearly killed the people in this part of the country, he has hit them so hard.” Risley himself had apparently reaped his own financial success in America, as Barnum congratulates him on “piling up the tin.”
Meanwhile, Barnum and the Strattons were happily raking in their own fortune on the European tour, about which Barnum boasted to Risley, “[General Tom Thumb] has not done hitting them yet, but we have all got as much money as we want and shall go home next summer. I told you in London I would quit when I had made $50,000. In a couple of months more, it will reach over $100,000, and I am not quite satisfied yet, but am almost.”
This time period marks the early years of Barnum’s meteoric rise to fame and fortune, which began in 1842 with his American Museum in New York City, and took off with a three-year tour of Great Britain, Brussels, France, and Spain. On that tour, “General Tom Thumb” was introduced to royalty and heads of state, as well as thousands of ordinary people. Soon enough Barnum would make another fortune with the Jenny Lind concert tour in North America. By the end of P. T. Barnum’s life in 1891, $100,000 represented just a fraction of his wealth!
Barnum Museum Curator