PTB Letters (#44) The Old American is Bound to Do Wonders Yet

The Old American is Bound to Do Wonders Yet

At the end of November 1845, nearing both the end of General Tom Thumb’s tour of France and the close of his second year abroad, P. T. Barnum’s wide-ranging ambitions seem tamped down a bit, at least in so far as his communication to his American Museum manager Fordyce Hitchcock tells us.  While it can probably never be said that Barnum was “content” with things as they stood in business matters, he seemed at this time to be relatively so as concerned the museum, and was anxious to pull back from the speculations he had suggested to Hitchcock in previous letters.  Perhaps this was due to his homesickness and ambiguous state of health as well as the uncertainty of making another large “pile of tin” for a second time in England.  Even in Paris going before King Louis-Philippe, had only gained them “lots of glory—but we don’t make any money,” as he admitted to Hitchcock.

Alternatively, perhaps Barnum was now so confident that the museum was flourishing under Hitchcock’s meticulous management, with support from the capable Professor Swift and Mon. Guillaudeu, he thought better of risking money in other ventures.  (That is, for the time being.)

Though Barnum had repeatedly given Hitchcock the go-ahead to make major purchases—and even investments in stock—he also never sounded entirely committed to any one or another of his proposed ideas, leaving Hitchcock to interpret the “do as you think best” instruction.  But Barnum’s November 29th letter to his trusted manager now informed him of a more certain view on such matters.

As for Seaman and any other Showman or show business, I have one more general order to give viz.:

If you have not already bought his museum do not buy it nor any other—for the following reasons.

1st  Money will always buy curiosities, when we want them, and

2nd  My health is such that I do not wish to engage in any more business at present, nor to have any more business upon my mind, than I now have.  If you have already bought, never mind, we’ll do the best we can—but if you have not—its better that at present I stick to the Old American solely.  If hereafter I return home safe and recover my health fully, it will then be time enough to engage in other museums.

As for the Philadelphia Museum if I had it now, it would bother my soul out, & I guess if I want I can buy it hereafter.

Even the idea of preparing a museum booklet no longer had the same luster, for Barnum advised, “Never mind about the Guide Book or Catalogue unless you think that they or it can be made to pay.  It will be time enough for it or them when I get home.”

Another factor that likely influenced Barnum’s feelings at the time was news he had recently received from his uncle, Alanson Taylor, which caused him to reflect on the many risks of show business.  Though managing to keep his “cloth trade” afloat, Taylor was not successful in acquiring a half interest in [Rubens] Peale’s Baltimore Museum, which he had attempted on his own even while Barnum was thinking about purchasing the museum outright for his uncle.  Barnum was quite relieved by the news, and replied in his letter of November 24th,

. . . that I am not very sorry that you have failed in it, for I could never have felt reconciled to your having that scamp of a Peale for a partner.  I only hope that you are safely back in your mercantile business again, and that you will have patience to continue in it till something really more successful offers.

The letter suggests that Taylor, having lost in his pursuit of the Baltimore opportunity had subsequently thought about opening a museum in Providence, Rhode Island.  Concerning that  gamble, Barnum expressed a quite definite opinion.

. . . I cannot forget that even $1500 (which you think your present business will realize [per year]) is by no means a bad business—that is it much better than the average of mankind are earning and that it is infinitely better than to risque [risk] capital in a very uncertain enterprise which I think opening a museum at Providence would be.  I would not take a museum in Providence [as] a gift and be compelled to provide amusement for the public for five years.  The show business is the best in the world when successful but when a bad location, a want of spirit in the inhabitants, a want of numbers in the inhabitants, their proximity to other cities where better entertainments are given, a lack of strangers passing through & stopping in the place, or any other fatal cause prevents its success, a show is the poorest, most harassing and most unprofitable business that can be engaged in.

In penning these words to his uncle, Barnum may have convinced himself to stay focused on his own very successful museum.  He applauded Hitchcock, telling him,

You are really astonishing me with our fall business.  It is indeed glorious & as you have such really good attractions I hope it will pay pretty well even after New Years. However as the bad weather comes on you must look out about expences being too high.  Work in all of Swifts attractions which you can & thus save laying out too much for other performers.

Barnum was also very enthusiastic about the novel ideas his employees had thought up to make the American Museum even more of a focal point in its Lower Manhattan location, close to the City Hall park.

That’s a capital idea of you & Swift, fixing the Drummond light with reflector on top of Museum.  If you can get it so that a man in the Park can read a newspaper—let the thing be well started in the newspapers and it will [ring?] all over the Union & every visitor to the city will go & see it & then enter the Museum.  The Old American is bound to do wonders yet–& I shall not be surprized if one of these days we make it clear $40,000 per annum!  That’s another grand idea—the big sign to light up at night—I hope it will show the Am [American] Museum in strong bold letters.

Broadway, New York, South from the Park, 1846, by Nathaniel Currier. This view includes Barnum’s American Museum. Among the rooftop elements there is a tall thin pole supporting a cylindrical oblong; a different print shows the pole extending a few feet above it. Is this the Drummond light and reflector? I found it in only two images of the museum, both from the early period of Barnum’s ownership. (Courtesy of the New York Public Library)


Hitchcock and Swifts’ brainstorms sound like an early version of Douglas Leigh’s lighting genius in the 1930s, creating an unforgettable nighttime identity for Times Square!  Drummond lights utilized a flame of two gasses (oxygen and hydrogen) directed at a cylinder of calcium oxide (quicklime) to create a brilliant white light.  Scottish civil engineer Thomas Drummond was seeking to use this type of light for night surveying and to improve beacons in lighthouses, but “limelight” found many other uses, including lighting theatre stages, and outdoor events.  (The first outdoor public event lit by Drummond lighting took place in 1836 in England.)  Hitchcock and Swift’s idea was a “brilliant” way to promote the museum in more ways than one as the American Museum quickly became known for the rooftop illumination.

In this way and others, Barnum put the museum’s rooftop to profitable use.  It served as additional space for attractions such as the “aerial garden,” and more importantly as a way to draw attention to the museum from the street with an exceptionally large American flag and smaller colorful flags mounted around the edge.  As we see in this letter, the roof would soon be showcasing a new technology which was also an attractive novelty, free to all who came to Broadway.  In his autobiography (p.132), Barnum claimed that his “powerful Drummond lights” were “the first ever seen in New York, and they made people talk, and so advertise my Museum.”

Broadway from the Park, ca. 1830, drawn by J. H. Dakin, engraved by Barnard & Dick. The marble building was completed in 1810 and became Scudder’s American Museum, but by the time Barnum became the proprietor in late 1841 there were no statues along the roofline. He hoped to have statues made in France. (Wikimedia Commons)

On the subject of rooftop views, you may recall from a previous blog post that Barnum mentioned his plan to place statues near the edge of the roof—this idea probably preceded the parade of flags—and had repeatedly asked for the measurement of the building so that he could commission statues proportioned to appear life sized from the ground.  Once again he posed the question to Hitchcock in this letter, noting, “When you send me the height of the Museum I’ll have some full length statues prepared for the top.”  Since I could not find evidence of statues in any images of Barnum’s museum, nor were they described as being among the improvements and renovations in the 1850 booklet, Barnum’s American Museum Illustrated, I did not think that plan was carried out.  However, this week I came across a print from about 1830, showing the American Museum at the time it was operated by John Scudder, Jr., and it shows statues around the roofline.  Was it a true depiction?  They were not in place when Barnum became the proprietor in December of 1841, but perhaps they had been sold off, or were carved of wood (like cigar store figures) and had eventually decayed in New York weather.  In any case, the earlier print gives us an idea of what Barnum was hoping to do.

Far less costly than shipping statues from Europe was re-supplying Mon. Guillaudeu, the museum’s naturalist and taxidermist, with more glass animal eyes, and this time the addition of eyes for wax figures.  The latter would become a main feature at the museum and include likenesses of both famous and infamous individuals, and tableaux designed to provide moral and religious instruction.

“I shall ship some birds eyes, wax figure eyes & c tomorrow . . . [and] I enclose [the] bill of Birds & Beasts eyes—the wax figure eyes cost 3 francs per pair—but they are worth 5 or 6 francs, per pair.  I shall also ship the Dictionary (French) tomorrow & [a] box containing a portion of my other porcelain left here by mistake.  No duties I expect to be paid for eyes.”

Despite the unusually cautious tone of Barnum’s letter, there was the inevitable new idea to share with Hitchcock.

I have considerable of an idea of opening a Picture Gallery in N. Y.  and allowing Museum Visitors to visit it for half price (12 ½ cents).  It seems to me that a good picture gallery will pay well there—but I dont know—what do you think?

Barnum had already gone so far as to commission copies of two large, dramatic paintings while he was in France.  (See blog post of September 18, 2020, relating Barnum’s intention to ask Mon. Guillaudeu’s nephew, an art student in Lyon, to make copies of paintings.)  When Barnum decided to leave Lyon for a trip to London, he tasked Mr. Sherman with meeting young Hyacinthe Chevalier to inquire about copies. But whether it was Guillaudeu’s nephew or another artist who painted them is unknown.  Whomever it was, Barnum informed Hitchcock,

I am getting two magnificent paintings copied here–& shall probably at first put them in the museum.  Their size is about 10 feet square.  One represents the Deluge—the other Cain & his family after the Murder of Abel.  The originals are in the Louvre and cost 50,000 francs each—I pay 1000 francs for each copy and they are to be so exact that an ordinary person cant tell the difference.  They are magnificent.  In order to encourage the fine arts the king allows any painting to be copied, & thus the finest paintings, and best subjects in the world can be copied at a low figure compared with the original & I’m half inclined to think that such a collection of pictures as could thus be got for $5000 would pay remarkably well but perhaps not—what say you?  Talk with some of the editors & other persons of intelligence & then give me your & their opinion about it, if you please.

I expect we will see a return to Barnum’s high-spirited enthusiasm once he gets to England, with letters liberally spiced with more business venture ideas (and investment risks).  Although Barnum told Hitchcock his health had improved, it seems he was still not feeling 100%.  But he was confident that a change from French to English cuisine would be restorative, noting, “ My health is much better & I trust when I get hold of the Porter & Roast Beef of England it will be all right again.”  Clearly this was the comfort food he was craving!

Adrienne Saint-Pierre
Barnum Museum Curator