The Beginnings of Iranistan
P.T. Barnum’s European tour with his protégé Gen. Tom Thumb stretched across three years (1844-1846), a long time to be away from home in an age when travel was often arduous, and mail could take weeks or even months to reach the recipient. For several months, Barnum’s wife Charity and their young daughters, Caroline and Helen, were with him, but by July of 1845, when the letters in our copybook begin, it is evident that Charity and the two girls had returned, as Barnum mentions to some of his correspondents how homesick and lonely he was feeling.
Among this first group of letters I’ve been perusing (roughly the first hundred pages) there is one to Charity and another to Helen, who was just five years old. Barnum’s August 13th, 1845 letter to Charity suggests he had timed it to reach her soon after her arrival home. He expresses concern that he not heard from her, adding that when he reached Bordeaux in a few days, “I hope to get a letter from you announcing your safe arrival, and the good health of our little family. God grant that this may be the fact. It seems an age since I have seen or heard from you.” He related to Charity that although the countryside around Rochefort was delightful, he could only enjoy it “if I could always feel assured that you are all well and happy, but in this state of loneliness and uncertainty, I am miserable.”
Charity, Caroline, and Helen had in fact returned home safely. Barnum’s letter clues us in to his expectation that they would be in Bridgeport at this time rather than New York City (it was the height of summer), as he suggests to Charity that she could mail letters to him directly from Bridgeport rather than sending them into the City first. Where, exactly, they were staying in Bridgeport at that time we don’t know; their future grand home in Bridgeport, Iranistan, was just in the early planning stage. And that’s the main topic of Barnum’s letter.
Barnum’s homesickness coincided with and perhaps fueled his desire to begin building a country home for his family. We who enjoy history feel certain twinges of excitement when we stumble upon the first mention of something that we know will later become important, and here in this letter we have such an example. If not the very first articulation of Barnum’s plan for his famed “oriental villa” in Bridgeport, it is certainly among the first; we can easily imagine this letter as a follow-up to conversations he and Charity had in England together. The letter reveals Barnum’s ideas for the lavish property he envisioned—and which he could now afford with his new wealth. (Around this time—September 1st—Barnum wrote to a business correspondent that his American Museum earned him a net profit of $25,000 a year, and that his tour in England cleared 25,000 pounds sterling in 13 months.) The letter to Charity even included a simple sketch of a half-circle driveway with gates at the entrance and exit, and the explanation, “I want plenty of trees about the house—not too many—with two large gates in front for a carriage to enter one, and making a turn of a half-moon like this [and] go out at the other.”
Although Barnum does not mention anything about the architectural style—and perhaps this had already been decided upon—he was firm in his requirements for the landscaping, outbuildings, water quality, and sanitary conveniences:
I want a nice smooth lawn to extend around the whole house—then at a little distance back I want a flower & fruit garden & hot house, then clear at the back of that I want the vegetable garden. If convenient I would like a fish pond not far off—but I am not particular about that, as I can arrange that afterwards. I want another entrance, leading to the barn & carriage house which must stand at some distance away from the house.
Above all things we must have good water, and if you have a house built, let it possess every possible convenience. Don’t fail to have one or two apartments for baths – a nursery—a nice light apartment for my library & writing & c. I would have one water closet in the house perhaps—if not, let the path leading to it be covered over. It should not stand in the garden, I think.
The mention of planning for a water closet (toilet) in the house is fairly unusual at this time, but apparently some of the “posh” hotels in New York, Boston, and other major cities did have wc’s and bathtubs in the 1840s. And it is possible that Barnum became familiar with this convenience staying at the fancier hotels while in London. Only the very wealthiest people could afford to have indoor plumbing, in the form of a gravity-fed system, installed in their homes in the early- to mid-19th century. For middle-class Americans, indoor plumbing didn’t become affordable until the latter decades of the century, and for a vast number of people, flush toilets in the home were not the norm even in the early 1900s. Thus Barnum’s determination to have apartments for baths, and possibly a water closet in the house, was rather novel in 1845. But it wasn’t a pipe dream—pardon the pun—as the completed Iranistan property did include a water tower that supplied the house.
At the time of this letter, land had not been chosen, and though Barnum refers to building a home in Bridgeport, the 17-acre parcel he actually did purchase was in Fairfield near the west boundary of Bridgeport, in an area later to be annexed by Bridgeport. (Today a portion of property is the site of Klein Memorial Auditorium on Fairfield Avenue.) On the one hand Barnum seemed anxious for Charity to get things rolling in acquiring property and finding a builder so he would not have the bother upon his return, but he also cautioned her in a way that could have discouraged her from proceeding on her own:
You had better not decide positively on buying a place till I have learned all the particulars of price from you, the quantity of land & c. I half think the house had better be made of brick or stone & that a builder in New York had better be employed. Perhaps Mr. Olmsted could advise about it & perhaps uncle Alanson could give you some ideas regarding it. At all events be careful that what you do is well done, and that you do not get cheated. I half wish to have it finished this winter, for I hate above all things to be bothered with it on my return, still if your health is not good—or if you do not feel inclined to be bothered with it, you can let it all rest till I come home . . . .
Undeterred, though pregnant with her fourth child, Charity did find a suitable location for their future home, and Barnum returned to purchase the land the following spring. There are no surviving photographic images of the Iranistan home or property that we know of. It is likely that daguerreotype images were made—daguerreotypes were the predecessors to print photography—since the illustrations and prints of Iranistan created for publicity and decorative purposes needed an accurate source. (In fact, a print showing the ruins of Iranistan after it burned in December of 1857 is titled with the note that the scene was copied from a daguerreotype.) But the silver-coated surface of a daguerreotype plate is quite delicate and easily damaged, in addition to which Barnum suffered many fire losses in his life, so it is not too surprising that any daguerreotypes have been lost to time.
At the Barnum Museum, we are fortunate to have the next best thing in terms of accurate depictions of Iranistan, a pair of watercolor drawings that were likely commissioned by Barnum himself, since they were passed down through his descendants. In addition to showing the magnificent home—which resembled a portion of the Royal Pavilion in Brighton, England—the watercolors show us the landscaping, outbuildings, and half-moon driveway Barnum had wished for. In one watercolor you can see a tall brick structure topped with an onion dome, which I assume is the water tower. You can see that image close-up by viewing it in our online digital collection, where you can also browse the various prints of Iranistan, and see the one architectural feature that was saved from the home. It’s a treat to see these “with new eyes,” now having read Barnum’s own words about his vision for Iranistan.
Barnum Museum Curator