Read & Reflect, Then Do as You Please

Read & Reflect, Then Do as You Please

Over the past few months of reading Barnum’s letters in his 1845-1846 copybook, I have been surprised to find relatively few to Charity, his wife.  Though it is clear that Barnum missed his wife and daughters very much while he was in France, correspondence thus far suggests a marital relationship that was often out of sync, compounded by Charity’s chronic health problems.  He was a man of boundless energy, while she suffered from inertia, or so it seemed from Barnum’s viewpoint.   That said, we may know more than Barnum did at this time about Charity’s condition: she was pregnant with a daughter who would be born March 1, 1846, and thus could have been feeling quite tired.

In autumn of 1844, Charity and daughters Caroline, age 12, and Helen, age 5, had made the journey across the Atlantic to join Barnum in England, where they spent several months together there, as well as in Brussels and Paris, before returning to America.  Our volume of letters begins in July, after Barnum and Gen. Tom Thumb’s entourage left Paris to begin their “countryside” tour, so at that point Barnum was on his own again.   Allowing for the weeks that Charity and the girls would have spent on the return voyage, Barnum picked up his pen to write to his wife on August 13th,  feeling a bit piqued that he had not heard from her of their safe arrival.  In fact all his correspondence home contain a “why-don’t-you-write-me?” refrain that suggests Charity was not inclined to write regularly, let alone as frequently as Barnum wished.  More than ten weeks later, while on a brief trip to London, Barnum wrote to say, “I am very sorry that your letter to me of the 12th Sept was not plainly directed, otherwise I should have got it sooner.  It was 38 days in getting to Paris.”  He also hinted that it was her fault due to inadequate instructions, and advised in future that she “pay the postage for Steamer price & try to continue to have your letters come by Steamer.”

Three previous blogs (May 29, June 12, and July 31, 2020) have focused on Barnum’s family letters and this week we will follow-up on some of the “story threads” that have been left loose.  Returning for a moment to an August 13th letter, we learned that Barnum and Charity had discussed purchasing property in Bridgeport, Connecticut—with Barnum even sketching his idea for a half-circle driveway flanked by gates and describing the landscaping and outbuildings he wanted.   Along the way we have also discovered how very determined Barnum was that his eldest daughter receive a top-notch education, something he had not had.  Further, he was adamant that she be enrolled in a boarding school that would afford the best opportunities to attain fluency in French, as well as complete a rigorous course of studies appropriate for a young lady—meaning weighted toward literature and history more than sciences.  Not hearing from Charity for weeks, Barnum surmised that she was not making Caroline’s education her highest priority, and so he asked his uncle, Alanson Taylor, to intercede and make decisions.  By then it was October and he felt justified in his concern on this matter, while also bearing the strain of constant worry about little Helen’s health.

Regarding the last two topics, we can easily settle them with the October 25th letter, in which a reassured Barnum responded to Charity,

I am much relieved to hear that you & Helen are both better.  God grant it may continue.  I am also rejoiced to hear that Caroline is well situated in school.  When you write give her my love and say that I do hope she has good sense enough to see the great importance of her improving this particular period of her life and devoting it to the acquirement of knowledge.

As far as purchasing property, the saga continues without conclusion, though we do know that eventually seventeen acres were purchased and the magnificent “oriental villa” called Iranistan was built.  But that’s our own crystal ball.  At the time of these letters, the outcome was quite uncertain.  Barnum had previously chided Charity for not providing complete and comparable information about two properties she was considering.  Now, six weeks later, Barnum’s “guidance” to her is full of mixed messages—i.e., go ahead if you wish but I prefer that you don’t, and by the way, I don’t trust your judgment when it comes to the price.  One can only imagine how Charity felt about her husband’s obvious lack of confidence in her.  But, to be fair, the majority of married men in this time period would never even have considered allowing their wives to engage in real estate transactions, so perhaps Barnum was more advanced than most husbands in that regard.  He cautioned her,

As for buying that house in Bridgeport I really hope that before this time you have got over the buying fever, and do not desire to purchase till I return for its my opinion we should both regret it if I laid out 14000 dollars for a place on Golden Hill.  I think I could urge many good reasons for not buying, but for your remaining tranquil & satisfied in the same old house till I get home, but I have not time to write those reasons and therefore I shall not do it.  I can only repeat that I think it is best not to buy now, but after all you may do as you think best about it and I’ll agree not to find fault.

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This unused check for P. T. Barnum’s account at Bridgeport Bank dates to 1849, just four years after the copybook letters. His checks were “personalized” with an image of the home he and Charity had recently built on Fairfield Avenue. (Collection of the Barnum Museum)

While echoing reassurance that he’d accept her decision, “ . . . if you think it will not be much against our own interests for you to wait till I get home, I prefer it, but if you think otherwise you must go ahead and I will not blame you afterwards,” he also added,

I give it as my private opinion that you don’t know whether the real value of the place is 6000—or 14000 dollars & if you buy it I expect to find that you are cheated to the tune of at least 4 or 5000 dollars—still if you choose to wish it I repeat I authorize you to do so & will not grumble.

He continued with instructions on the need for insurance, and making absolutely certain that the title to the property was clear.   Barnum concluded his “discussion” with rather pointed and belittling remarks,

If you buy & get cheated it will serve me right & learn me never to trust you to make big purchases again.  You can buy dresses & c first rate for if you get sick of them (as you often do) you make the merchants take them back but that cat wont jump in this case—so if you buy, you must remember there is no backing out afterwards—we shall be stuck for life.  There that’s all I have got to say about the house—read & reflect, then do as you please and I will be satisfied.

Consulting our crystal ball once again, we know that Barnum himself would go on to make serious financial blunders, and the most consequential one in terms of his family’s well-being occurred just a few years ahead, in the 1850s.  That episode—protracted as it was—humbled him as he came to realize his poor decision was largely caused by a lack of due diligence, as well as hubris.  But that’s later; for now we are still left hanging about the property purchase, especially as Barnum had written in September, “I am by no means sure that we had better have a house in Connecticut at all,” and on another occasion had expressed unhappiness about the behavior of his Bridgeport relatives and whether it would thus be preferable to consider Staten Island, Harlem, Jersey, or “some place up the North-River.”

Another decision with financial consequences that neither Barnum nor Charity had predicted concerned the beautiful dinnerware, gilt silver tea service, and other luxury items they had purchased at an estate auction in Paris.  The Things Inside Case No. 8 (September 4, 2020 blog) discusses some of those pieces, and as we learned in a letter to Fordyce Hitchcock, Barnum’s museum manager, Hitchcock was having to wrangle the payment of hefty import duties on the crates of magnificent objects Barnum had shipped home.  In his October 25th letter, Barnum mentioned the situation to Charity, telling her, “We missed it very much that we did not use our porcelain & stuff once in Paris, as then it would have cost no duty—as it is Hitchcock had to pay nearly 600 dollars duty.”

An aside, for what it’s worth:  Comparing “worth” gets very complicated when the desired comparison spans a long period of time.  There isn’t a simple formula that provides a definitive answer as to today’s equivalent of the $600 duty Barnum owed in 1845.  If we were looking at Year 1900 or later, we could plug the number into a comparison model of household expenditures data that utilizes the Value of the Consumer Bundle, and that would probably give us the best point of reference.  But there is no such data for households pre-1900 because the “consumer bundle” would be so very different (apples to oranges).  So if we just compare purchasing power between 1845 and today using the Consumer Price Index (CPI), the relative value of $600 is $20,900 in today’s dollars.  Even though the CPI may not be the ideal tool for our purpose, it does indicate that Barnum had owed an astonishing amount.  (If you want to explore the topic of relative worth and methods of comparison in greater depth, go to MeasuringWorth.com )

Moving on to a different topic in that letter, it seems that Barnum may not have pleased Charity in the way he thought his actions should.  He refers to getting her name in the newspaper, which most likely was through one of his “foreign correspondent” letters to the New York Atlas, a Sunday paper.  He thought she should be delighted, but knowing of Charity’s retiring nature, one can imagine that deed backfiring.  He teased her,

You ought to thank me (if you dont) for putting your name in the paper.  It is not every person that can get their names there, and you know a person generally likes to see their name in print!  However you promise to pay me for it.  I am much obliged—I know you ought to pay for the privilege & will accept anything you please to offer and if you are liberal perhaps I’ll put your name in again.

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Detail from a portrait of the Barnum daughters, showing Helen at a slightly older age, 7 or 8 years old. The triple portrait is by Frederick R. Spencer. (Collection of the Barnum Museum)

With November on the horizon, Barnum’s worries about Helen’s health pepper his letters to Charity.  On October 12th, he wrote, “I am continually in a state of alarm on [Helen’s] account, especially as the cold weather approaches.”  Then on the 25th he counseled, “Don’t think of sending Helen out of the house to school this winter.”  In addition to the health concerns, Barnum genuinely missed Helen.  In a consoling tone he wrote Charity,

You talk of being lonesome—my dear how can you be lonesome when you have our dear little pet Helen to amuse you.  I should never be lonesome with her, but I am excessively so without you or either of our dear children.”

Barnum was indeed smitten with his little girl, and knowing it would be many long months before he would see her again, he closed his letter with “599876 kisses for dear little Helen” and the advice to his wife, “You must try to keep [yourself] warm and comfortable, and keep sufficient help . . . .”  Alas, he did not leave it at that.  Once again sounding vexed, he let Charity know of his great disappointment that letters from home were so infrequent: “Give my love to all our friends—I am sorry that none of them nor you have got spirit enough to write me—but such it seems is the case.”

Adrienne Saint-Pierre
Barnum Museum Curator