PTB Letters (#64) Talented and Poetical Puffing

Talented and Poetical Puffing

This week’s blog shares more of the assorted news and gossipy tidbits contained in P. T. Barnum’s March 1st, 1846, letter to his American Museum manager, and also captures follow-ups added to the letter two days later.  As an aside, pertaining to updates, a diligent blog reader was intrigued by last week’s story of the guano-mummified remains and did some research; she found and shared a short article published in a South Carolina newspaper on April 1st, 1846, describing a “second” such body found on Ichaboe Island.  It seems more likely those were the remains Barnum saw and was offered, not those of Christopher Delano.

So, let’s pick up again starting with “Human Resource issues” and move on to more news regarding attractions.  Fordyce Hitchcock must have told Barnum of some concerns with employees at the museum, even his top people like “Professor” Swift and Emile Guillaudeu, plus a troubling situation that had come up with a female employee who may have been a performer.

Barnum had met Swift in England in 1844 or early 1845 and hired him to go to the American Museum to devise the set-up for the new, “cutting edge” projection equipment he had purchased in London.  This was to be a featured attraction in the museum’s lecture hall (theater).  Emile Guillaudeu, on the other hand, was a long-time fixture at the museum, having served as the naturalist and taxidermist since the early years, when it was owned by John Scudder.  Guillaudeu saw to it that the innumerable displays of animals, both stuffed and living, were properly arranged or managed, and periodically “refreshed.”  Barnum’s European travels included purchases of specimens such as bird skins and animal hides for Guillaudeu to mount, but the latest one Barnum was sending him was unusual.

Display of Animals
View of the displays of animals in the American Museum, for which the museum’s naturalist and taxidermist Mon. Guillaudeu was responsible. From Barnum’s American Museum Illustrated, the 1850 guide book to the museum. (Library of Congress)

Monsieur Guillaudeu’s next taxidermy assignment would undoubtedly prove to be something of a challenge: Barnum had a vision for a specific pose.  The smallest of the small ponies that pulled Gen. Tom Thumb’s coach had died, and it was both a “favorite” and very small, which Barnum felt they should capitalize on.  So he decided to have the pony’s hide preserved and then send it to New York on board the ship Agnes.  Barnum had mentioned the death of the pony to at least a couple of other correspondents, but to Hitchcock the news was in the context of his instructions for mounting the pony skin and how to promote the finished figure.  Keep in mind that taxidermy was not yet a sophisticated art.  Poses were not convincingly natural, and whether Guillaudeu succeeded in creating the illusion of motion would be interesting to know.  Barnum explained what he wanted to Hitchcock, writing,

In [the] same vessel is a box containing the skin of the pony which belonged to General Tom Thumb and was presented by the Queen of Englandof course!  Let Guilledeau [Guillaudeu] mount it in fine style, carrying a fine head & tail, curved neck & c.  Let the feet be so placed as to represent him moving with dignity & speed, & then make a noise about it.  It is very small & Guilledeau must be careful & not swell it out.  Keep the body small & slim—as it was in life—for it was corn-fed–& not a pussgut.

Barnum’s double underlining of the phrase about the pony being a gift from the Queen (“of course!”) suggests this was to be the official story but wasn’t actually true.  (In 1844 Gen. Tom Thumb had coveted an especially small and lovely pony that belonged to the Queen; his droll hints that he would very much like this gift were not understood by her and thus fell flat.)  The next year, when Barnum returned to England from France, he advertised that he wished to buy a very small pony.  Perhaps this was the same pony who died.

As far as Swift’s work, months earlier Barnum had expressed some impatience, wondering what the devil was taking the man so long to get the lanterns and projection screen set up so that his latest investment, “Dissolving Views,” could be “puffed” in the newspapers and attract visitors.  Barnum had seen a variety of new inventions of that sort at the Royal Polytechnic Institute in London, and he was anxious to be the first or among the first to show them in America.  His museum’s theater space could be adapted for these educational entertainments as well as continue to serve its traditional purpose with speakers, singers, and “moral” plays.  Swift finally got things operational and the dissolving views had proven to be a draw, but he apparently ran into problems with something called a megascope—which was not an item Barnum had sent from London—and Hitchcock reported Swift’s conclusion that it was a failure.  (A megascope was similar to a magic lantern but projected greatly magnified images.)  In addition, there was something amiss with the Physioscope.  Barnum replied to Hitchcock with frustration,

Curse the megascope—so it is a failure hey?  I believe old Laudner [or Landner?] got us into that.  For my part I never saw one & know nothing about it.  The Physioscope is more funny & laughable than anything you have, if properly managed, and it is all d—d nonsense for Swift to give it up.  He must manage it, for it is wonderfully good.

Before sending off the letter he investigated Swift’s complaint about the Physioscope and explained what he had learned in the March 3rd addition to the letter.

I have inquired at the Polytechnic about the Physioscope, and they say it is always very hot, but not hot enough to scorch any body, and that by trying once or twice a man can stand it easy enough.  So dont let it fail again—for depend on it—it is the most laughable thing you have got.  I have written you before that the focus will not reach so far as that to dissolving views—and therefore that you must have a separate curtain a few feet nearer the audience than the other.

This description certainly points to yet another source of danger in the old theaters: overheated equipment.  But Barnum was emphatic about continuing with it, and he was also determined that Swift—and Guillaudeu—should earn their keep.  He advised Hitchcock, “You must not be afraid to prick up Swift & Guillaude [Guillaudeu], for as you say they are very slow, and they get well paid & should learn to move faster.”  Nevertheless Barnum knew it was better to keep the now more experienced Swift on board (and he had already written to a couple of potential replacements in England to say their services would not be needed).  He thus recommended to his manager, “You had better hire Swift for another 6 months or year—and if he declines to engage then it is time you knew it so that I could send you another man.”

Since the dissolving views had been successful, Barnum planned to get more glass slides for the Chromotrope, the “magic lantern” used to show them.  A set of religious views he had previously purchased hadn’t worked as well as hoped since the inscriptions could not be made visible on the screen.  Glitches duly noted, Barnum wrote,

I will attend to getting new views or slides for the Chromotrope.  I’ll call on Child’s tomorrow.  I’ll be careful hereafter to get none but good views.

So Guillaudeu and Swift now had their assignments ahead of them, but a serious and upsetting situation had occurred with another employee, a Mrs. Ronabeck.  It sounds as if her husband abused her, perhaps beat her, and had taken off with her possessions.  Barnum refers to a Bill, which suggests she was a performer at the museum, but perhaps because Mrs. Ronaback was married, her earnings had gone to her husband, and when he left she had no money nor costumes to continue performing.  Or perhaps the husband had been employed at the museum, and left her stranded when he took off.  These are simply guesses, of course, since we don’t know what Hitchcock told Barnum.  Barnum suggested handling the situation this way, writing his manager,

I cannot see what benefit a Bill would be to Mrs Ronaback.  There can be little or no danger of that brute of a husband returning & if he should, he could not force her to live with him.  I think that $75 or $100 would be wasted when a tenth part of it would do her much more good if laid out for food & raiment.  I am quite willing you should help her reasonably for me, when she is in need, but I cannot consent to expend such a sum as is necessary for obtaining her a divorce, till I see more real necessity for it, & so you must tell her for me.

On the subject of costumes, Barnum let Hitchcock know that he had had a wardrobe of Scottish Highlander outfits made for the “fat children” who would be coming to America, and that a large promotional banner was currently being made.  He had also hired a man to teach the brothers how to do a question-and-answer act that would astound audiences, and allow the boys to be performers rather than mere human exhibits.

I have clothed up my “fat children” in Glasgow, at a cost of about $100—have got a painting making which will cost $50 but it is a big one, 12 or 14 feet square, and to be in fine style, representing them before the Queen.  I have them also nearly perfect in Mrs Harrington’s secret of the “Mysterious Lady” and shall probably ship them for N. Y. about 1st April.  I have them for one year—privilge [sic] of two at one pound per week & all expences of themselves & mother & two other little children.  They’ll do pretty well.

Though in previous letters Barnum had expressed empathy regarding the plight of the fatherless family and their need for income, his remark that he would “probably ship them for N. Y. about 1st of April” hardly seems to acknowledge their humanity.  Yet his plan to train them as performers was an opportunity they could not have realized on their own, since the mother and children were virtually destitute.   This plan would not only benefit his bottom line, but perhaps awaken the boys’ potential and make them proud of learning, unlikely outcomes in their present situation where they were simply gawked at due to their size.  As it turned out, the “Scottish Highland boys,” Charles and Alexander Stuart (or Stewart), did achieve a fair degree of fame in America.

Among Barnum’s new educational attractions for the museum were models, such as the one of Venice that he had sent with instructions on how best to present and interpret it.  Now he added, “It wants talented & poetical puffing . . . and a man who can explain the whole—the canals the Gondolas, the Bridge of Sighs—the Doge’s Palace & c & c.”  Barnum also described another kind of historical model that he had purchased and arranged to send from Scotland.

View of Stirling Castle, one of Scotland’s top tourist attractions, as it was also in Barnum’s day. The castle’s origins go back to the 12th century but the oldest surviving portion dates to 1381. (Wikimedia Commons, courtesy of Julien Scavini)

Barnum had visited Stirling Castle, an ancient structure dating to the 12th century and located about 26 miles northeast of Glasgow.  The imposing grey stone fortress is described today as one of the largest and most important castles in Scotland, significant both for its history and architecture.  Barnum had been impressed by the “Stirling Heads” he saw there; these were 39-inch diameter (1 meter), carved oak rondels dating to the mid-1500s, and had originally adorned the ceiling of the King’s Chamber—until the ceiling collapsed in 1777.  The carvings were portraits, not purely decorative elements.  Most but not all of the “heads” survived the fall, but they were not put back up.  No longer on the ceiling, their accessibility allowed for plaster copies to be made.  Barnum related the story of his new purchase, a set of “faux oak” casts, to Hitchcock:

When in Scotland the other day I bought some large plaster of Paris casts taken from the ancient Oak carvings in Stirling Castle.  They are painted to represent Oak, and appear very curious.  They represent portraits of Robert Bruce & other  Scotch Heroes.  They cost some $20 or $25.  They are round & about 2 feet in diameter.  They will look very ancient & be effective—hung up about the museum.  They should have a coat of varnish before being hung up.  They are already shipped to you from Scotland (Glasgow) but I don’t yet know the name of the vessel.

Concerned about their safe transport and handling, he noted,

They are in two casks, and the very greatest care must be taken in getting them out of the ship & to the museum or they will be broken.  If one or more are broken perhaps you can have the pieces put together and get another cast taken from them in N.Y. and painted, like the others in imitation of oak.  The name of each is on the back.  If they arrive in good order you can stir up the Scotch & English a little with them.

Carved Oak Medallion
Photo of one of the very large, carved oak medallions from the 16th century, originally installed on a ceiling of Stirling Castle in Scotland. Traces of paint found on the “Stirling Heads” indicated they were colorful in centuries past, but when Barnum saw them the paint was long gone. (Wikimedia Commons, courtesy of Kim Traynor)

Barnum saw the casts as another way to bring European history and culture to Americans much as he did when he commissioned copies of masterworks in the Louvre.  He recognized that playing this heritage card would attract people of Anglo-European ancestry to his museum.  Since few people could travel to see distant historic sites and artwork, his goal was to bring that history to them–along with the entertainments and amusements he was known for!

Adrienne Saint-Pierre
Barnum Museum Curator

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