They Stared with All the Eyes They Had
Have you ever tried to envision a visit to Barnum’s American Museum? I find it is a feat of the imagination to reconcile exterior pictures of the museum with the sheer quantity and variety of artifacts, animals, and activities offered within—supposedly over 600,000 items. And I am guessing that people in mid-19th century America who had not (yet) visited the museum in New York City felt much the same way when they read advertisements. It all sounds—well—unbelievable, which of course was the draw.
Inside the five+-story building at the corner of Broadway and Ann Street, animals both living and “stuffed” were displayed, including enormous and exotic wild beasts. There was also an aquarium; a “cosmorama” filled with trompe l’oeil scenes from around the world; a portrait gallery; more than 100 items of statuary; a gallery of life-sized wax figures of the famous and infamous, plus others arranged in tableaux scenes; historical curiosities and natural oddities; scientific inventions; artifacts and weapons representing cultures in distant and remote places; “wonders of nature” such as giants, thin men, and little people; special events like poultry contests and dog shows; and a grand, multi-story lecture hall where speakers, performers, and plays were presented. (Not to mention there were musicians on the balconies, a garden on the rooftop along with a large Drummond light, and banners and flags to catch people’s attention.) How on earth did all this—and the visitors who flocked to see these things—fit inside Barnum’s Museum?
To tease our imaginations, let’s return to a letter explored in a previous blog (June 5, 2020) and pair it with a couple of rare guidebooks. The letter, dated September 11, 1845, is the one in which Barnum rather humorously expounded upon his ideas of how “puffing” and “humbugging” are best accomplished. But it continues with further instructions to C. D. Stuart, who had recently returned to the city after touring with the Swiss Bell Ringers (who were English, not Swiss). Stuart, Barnum hoped, would now be turning his attention to assisting the American Museum manager, Fordyce Hitchcock, and putting his writing skills to good use. Barnum urged Stuart,
If you remain at the Museum I want you with Hitchcock’s concurrence to get up a Catalogue of the Museum, to sell to visitors. It should be of such a size as would cost us $40 to $50 per 1000, and sell for only 6 cents each, the object being not to make money on the sale, but rather to have the price so low that many copies can be sold & thus send into the country a good puff of the establishment. A good cut [wood cut or engraving] of the museum should be prepared and placed upon the cover—a cut that would show well & perhaps a frontispiece should be prepared showing the Museum Park—Astor House Fountain & c.—As things are continually changing in the museum, the catalogue should announce that a new edition would be published every year—say about 1st November.
This instruction to Stuart reveals the start, in 1845, of Barnum’s annual (or occasional) guidebook for visitors to his museum. At present we know of only six such booklets that are still in existence, though there may be others in collections not publicized, or hidden in archives amidst larger collections of family papers—an oddball item that someone just happened to save. As ephemera—that is, material never intended to be preserved—one naturally expects these slim, paper-covered guides to be rare, and they are. Here at the Barnum Museum and at the neighboring Bridgeport History Center in the Bridgeport Public Library, we are fortunate to each have one. The Museum’s is from 1849, the earliest surviving example we know of, while the History Center’s booklet dates from 1850. You can virtually turn the delicate pages and zoom in on the illustrations and text by viewing them in our P. T. Barnum Digital Collection, here (1849) and here (1850). A similar but different 1850 booklet, held by the Library of Congress, features a paper cover with a delightful portrait of a young Barnum; its main purpose was to describe and illustrate the recent alterations and new décor of the museum, Barnum’s $50,000 investment. A later guidebook, dating to the early 1860s is owned by the University of Minnesota; it can be seen online through HathiTrust. The New York Historical Society also owns two undated booklets that are believed to date from the 1860s (they are not accessible online).
To Stuart, Barnum presented his idea for the catalog’s introduction, noting, “The work should commence with laudatory remarks on the great benefits to be derived by young & old from visiting a Museum of Natural History & art . . . .” He also directed specific language to include in the text:
[The American Museum] contains much [the] largest & most valuable collection in America, and . . . its proprietor (now in Europe) is making constant additions, his pride being to present to the public always the most varied and excellent entertainments for the established & moderate price of 25 cents.
In the 1849 booklet, a fictional storyline reinforces the idea that one could barely hope to see everything, for the two boys visiting with their Uncle Find-out, “stared with all the eyes they had” upon entering Room No. 1. “They saw so much to look at, that if their heads had been full of eyes they would not have had eyes enough to see all that was there staring them in the face.” With its tiny print and black and white illustrations, the 24-page booklet is quite different from today’s museum guides. However, pictures do punctuate the text on many of the pages, and show wild animals, displays of wax figures, strange artifacts, and famous performers such as “The Quaker Giant and Giantess” and “General Tom Thumb.” Interestingly, the text does not follow the plan that Barnum had laid out to Stuart:
. . . have each article in the museum numbered—if the number is plainly written on a bit of colored paper, thus, 168 . [It] is better than to print them, then let numbers in the catalogue of course correspond & give the name & country of the beast, bird or article numbered–& wherever it will admit it, give a description of the habits & peculiarities of the article of thing described. Thus you will be furnishing information with the puff & making it slip down easy.
That said, Barnum acknowledged, “These are only hints—you & Hitchcock think of them & [then] go ahead.”
Possibly the first editions used his format, then tried the storyline idea in 1849, and returned to the catalog style the following year. The Bridgeport History Center’s 1850 booklet does adhere to the format Barnum suggested. Although this is a much more substantial guide at 114 pages, rest assured it does not describe 600,000 items; the highest item number is 883. Each object or specimen is numbered and titled, and some are described. The text suggests the lists follow the order in which one would view the items at the museum. Perhaps there was some logic to the sequence, but if so, it escapes me. Following the artifact catalog, the museum’s popular performers are described with a disclaimer that one should not expect to see all of them at the museum. (Some had come and gone, of course.) If you’re curious about the interior, I’d certainly recommend this booklet for its illustrations of the various spaces within the museum, and for getting a better sense of what was displayed where, as the objects are listed according to the “saloon” (large hall or gallery) they were in.
Just one more thing! The idea that these guidebooks would primarily serve as promotional material rather than as an additional source of income is quintessentially Barnum. If the thousands of booklets sold for a few cents and were brought home by the museum’s visitors—who would likely show their souvenir to friends and family—booklet purchasers would essentially be paying to advertise the American Museum. To boot, word of mouth coupled with informative print material could more effectively attract people from rural and distant places than Barnum himself might reach through regular advertising.
So, our 1849 guidebook may be an example of Barnum’s theory at work. Penned at the top of the cover is the name of the original owner, Abner G. Gould, the town where he lived, Westbrook, Maine (outside of Portland), and a date, June 10, 1849, undoubtedly the day of his memorable visit to the American Museum. Not only does this provide the obvious identification information, the fact of its being written there suggests that the owner valued the booklet enough to keep it from getting lost—which could have been while he was in the city, but also perhaps when he returned home and lent it to others to read.
Who was Abner Gould? An “ordinary” young person from rural America, exactly the kind of person whom Barnum wanted to attract. Documents and census records tell us that in 1850 Abner was 19, living with 11-year-old Josiah Gould, presumably his brother, in the multi-generation household of the Joseph Broad family. They were farmers, the occupation Abner himself followed, eventually acquiring 20 acres of his own. He never married, and at age 33, he served in the Civil War. That his small, yellow-covered Sights and Wonders in New York booklet may have been passed around Westbrook and then survived for 171 years somehow seems all the more amazing. It’s a modest bit of evidence that Barnum thoroughly understood his “everyman” clientele and was determined they should come and “stare with all the eyes they had.”
Barnum Museum Curator