The Secret has Cost Me Much Trouble
The “Happy Family” of birds and beasts was among P. T. Barnum’s most popular and long-running exhibitions at the American Museum in New York. Though the assembled collection of animals was a mix of prey and predators, large and small, the public was amazed by their apparent harmony, altogether in one cage. The exhibition was so well known that “Happy Family” became a kind of short-hand to describe situations in which enemies forced together managed to cooperate or maintain some level of peace. Even as august a body as President Abraham Lincoln’s Cabinet was facetiously referred to as The Happy Family due to the intense rivalries and vehement disagreements among that powerful group of men.
Barnum’s letter of January 25th, 1846, to his museum manager Fordyce Hitchcock proudly reveals what he learned in England about developing and maintaining a Happy Family exhibition. His goal was to replicate the traveling exhibition of John Austin, an Englishman who for years had successfully trained and shown a fantastic variety of mammals and birds living together, to the wonder of his audiences. Though “mortal enemies” by nature, the animals seemed docile and did not harm or kill one another.* Barnum had either seen Austin’s displays—Austin usually exhibited near the Waterloo and Southwark Bridges in London—or had heard enough intriguing reports to pique his interest in the attraction. He confided to Hitchcock,
. . . I have learned a secret, which you must entrust only to Guilledeau [Mon. Guillaudeu, the museum’s naturalist and taxidermist] or some other one person, bound to secrecy, & then by going carefully to work, an outlay of $100 to $150 will bring us thousands. You remember the “happy family” of birds beasts & c. all in one cage, which you have a picture of & of which I have long ago written you.
While Barnum boldly proclaimed he had “. . . learned the secret of getting up such a family, and it is just nothing at all,” the information he presented Hitchcock was probably more optimistic than realistic in terms of the time, skill, and patience required. Ultimately Barnum did have to hire a full-time keeper for his Happy Family exhibition. And he was determined to make the investment pay off, noting, “The secret has cost me much trouble & some money [but] I hope to make a good dodge of it, by sending them about the country one of these days.”
His “reveal” of the secret began by offering Hitchcock guidance on constructing the cage, but later in the letter considered that Hitchcock or Guillaudeu would be wise to decide where it was to be placed before having the cage built. In that way, it could be made to fit the space, and lined with zinc or tin. Better done once to specifications than making it any size and then having to alter it, he reasoned. He also had an idea of where it should go, and advised,
Before beginning to “create” your happy family, it might be better for you to make up your minds where the cage should be placed in the museum. (It would be better to put it up high at the east end of Cosmorama Room where the reflector now is, and generally to keep the window in the roof of the museum open, to let off the smell, for however clean you may keep them, there will always be a little smell about them.)
According to the 1850 Illustrated Catalogue and Guide Book to Barnum’s American Museum, the Happy Family was located in the upper story of the building in the “Seventh Saloon,” in Case No. 884. Barnum recommended that the cage should be made by
. . . [Getting] a wood box or case say 4 feet high, 2 or 3 feet deep & 4 or 6 feet long. Line it all with tin or zinc, so that rats cannot gnaw [it] out, and let the front be a wire grating, coarse enough for people to look through, but fine enough to keep your animals from escaping. . . . Of course have cross bars & c. for the birds to rest on . . . .
Once this was accomplished, his instructions for creating the Happy Family were offered much like a recipe:
1st Put into the cage a couple of cats. Feed them well 4 times a day, at regular hours, with good food, and after 3 days they will feel at home. Then put in to the cage 3 or 4 rats—ten to one the cats do not touch them at all; still it is best to keep up a watch first few days and if the cats attempt to touch the rats, punish them slightly, and for greater safety it is well to take out the cats for the 2 first nights—feed rats and cats at the same time, 4 times a day—after 3 more days introduce a guinea pig or two, also a hen and rooster, then every 2 or 3 days add a bird or animal, no matter what, for by this time a feeling of clanship, and self-dependence is established, and will continue, so that whatever bird or animal is afterwards introduced, no other animal will attempt to touch it, or if it should, all the rest will pounce upon him and take the part of the new comer. In 2 or 3 weeks you thus have a “happy family,” and the more different birds & animals you introduce the better—say doves, hawks, parrots, owls, squirrels, rabbits, fox, peacock & c & c & c & c & c
Barnum also offered a few tips, though it turned out his forewarning not to include a monkey went unheeded. He wrote,
It is better not to introduce a monkey, for they are mischievous devils always pulling out the feathers of the birds & c. If you introduce one he should always be taken out of the cage at night, also the fox.
He also noted that key to the success was “always [to] have them fed regularly, and not over fed—let their food be good, and always have the utmost regard be paid to cleanliness.” Barnum was so confident that a Happy Family could be properly assembled in a short time, he advised making another for Alanson Taylor’s Baltimore Museum just as soon as the American Museum had promoted theirs and had visitors flocking to see it. He main concern, it seems, was that the method remain a guarded secret—even his close friend in Boston, showman Moses Kimball, was not to be let in on it. Barnum particularly cautioned Hitchcock,
Let your experiments in getting up the family be strictly private—don’t let Davidson understand it—and when you have made up a decent collection, then come out & advertise it strong, as having been engaged by me in England—that it will remain a short time only & c. and as it is so truly new in America, and withal so astonishing, it must make thousands, and get puffs from the whole press. Let it be generally understood that the manner of taming animals & birds of such contrary natures, is a great secret, possessed only by the person who accompanied them from England—and make just as much noise as possible out of it. When you get the thing under full blast, then commence another for Taylor—to be charged to Balt[imore] Mus. & so go ahead.
Although Barnum ordered that the exhibition not be brought out “till it is perfect, that is to say till the inmates of the care are thoroughly reconciled, which will be almost immediately,” he noted that it need not start off with a large assortment of animals. “You can continually keep adding to it,” he advised. In fact, he recommended writing to Moses Kimball and “other persons in town & country to have them pick up for you live owls, hawks, & c. . . . and of course you can easily pick up doves, parrots, chickens, rats, mice, cats, a little dog, and squirrels.” In acquiring the owls and hawks, however, Hitchcock should be certain that neither Kimball nor anyone else learned what they were intended for. He also suggested other animals that would add interest to the mix but, like monkeys, had their drawbacks.
A raccoon is a good animal to introduce, but he must be taken out at night—a weasel is also good, but such devils must be taken out at night–the public however must suppose that they always rest together night & day. When you once get the ice broke, they are domesticated and all are as docile as lambs, and make a very curious & extraordinary exhibition.
With enthusiasm and confidence Barnum noted that,
[John] Austin (the original happy family man) has made a heap of money by it—has been before the Queen & cut quite a figure here. Guilledeau [Guillaudeu] & you can cut quite as much of one in [the] Am. Museum so go ahead.
Unsurprisingly, the “heap of money” Austin earned was exaggerated, or temporary at best; he had to support himself as a carpenter, and did exhibiting of his Happy Family on the side. Whether the American Museum staff achieved the level of success Barnum anticipated is not clear; his DIY approach might have worked initially but then failed, needing the attention of a person skilled with live animals. No mention of the Happy Family exhibition is made in the museum’s 1849 guide book, Sights and Wonders of New York, but the catalogue and guide book for the following year describes it as “a miscellaneous collection of beasts and birds (upwards of sixty in number) . . . contentedly playing and frolicking together, without injury or discord.” Among the sixty animals were 8 doves, 4 owls, 10 rats, 2 cats, 2 dogs, 1 hawk, 3 rabbits, 1 rooster, 8 guinea pigs, 1 raccoon, 2 cavas, 1 Cuba rat, 3 anteaters, 7 monkeys, 2 woodchucks, 1 opossum, 1 armadillo, and others unspecified.
In Barnum’s January 1846 letter he instructed Hitchcock to advertise the Happy Family as an attraction he had engaged in England, although the content of the letter makes it plain this was not true, and to an astute visitor, the presence of a raccoon would raise suspicion about the veracity of that claim. In his autobiographies, Barnum says he purchased the attraction in Coventry, England, in the summer of 1844, and described it as a collection of 200 birds and animals for which he paid $2500, and that he hired the proprietor to accompany it to America. (Read here on page 238.) My guess is the purchase occurred later, as there are other examples in the autobiographies in which Barnum’s retelling of events does not align with the dates and sequences documented by letters.
Like most attractions, the novelty and popularity of Barnum’s Happy Family exhibit peaked and then waned over time; by 1867 when Samuel Clemens (“Mark Twain”) saw the exhibition in Barnum’s second American Museum, he was decidedly unimpressed, and even revolted by the behavior of the monkeys, who dominated the group. He observed they had pulled the fur and feathers from other animals, stole the food, and were boxing the rabbits’ ears. He also noted that the alpha monkey had bitten off half the tail of his companion, who could no longer use it to hold itself in place or swing about—proof that Barnum’s original advice about “mischievous” monkeys was correct. Whether characterized as playful, mischievous or vengeful, monkeys required special management to co-exist with other species. In Clemens’s view, the other animals were being bullied and pestered by the monkeys and were anything but happy; they were subjugated, not content.
One might argue that Happy Family creatures were, at least, well-fed. However, knowing what we do today about the care of animals—not only their physical needs, but their behaviors and emotional well-being—can make it distressing to think of cages filled with animals who were incompatible in nature. John Austin and his mentee Henry Mayhew were exceptional for their time period in having great empathy for all kinds of mammals and birds, training them by first learning their habits through careful observation. But the vast majority of people would not have thought this way, and copy-cat Happy Family exhibits—of which there were others in London—were undoubtedly conceived only as short-term money-makers with little concern for the animals’ well-being.
Barnum’s attitude toward animals is hard to pinpoint but seems to fall in between. He obviously intended for the Happy Family exhibit to be a draw for his museum, but he also appears to have had some degree of sensitivity in emphasizing the importance of good food, cleanliness, and the monitoring or nighttime isolation of species that were less “trustworthy” around prey. These were necessary investments to its success, of course, but I would guess that his attention to matters of care was probably above the norm for that time period. As is the case with many of the attractions and marketing techniques Barnum is remembered for, the Happy Family exhibit was not his own invention but one that he transformed into a particularly memorable entertainment.
*Read more here and here about the original Happy Family exhibits of John Austin and the young man he mentored, Henry Mayhew, in the words of Mayhew (1851) in London Labour and the London Poor, Volume 3, Chapter VI. (Tufts Digital Library)
Barnum Museum Curator