Trumpets, “Venus,” and a Young Man, Heading to America
This week we’ll follow up on the status of new attractions Barnum planned for his American Museum in New York, and learn about another of his “good turns” to help out a friend. This latter is mainly interesting for the window it provides on Barnum’s views of America as he explains them to the London-based “Mr. and Mrs. Collins.” The Collins, Barnum told his museum manager, are “the best friends I have in Europe.”
Barnum’s November 10, 1845 letter to Mr. Collins, addressed as “Dear Sir,” seems to hide some details about the relationship. It’s not clear whether Barnum intentionally failed to mention a name, or if perhaps (though unlikely) he’d forgotten the name of a guest who had been with the Collins family for a while. Apparently the guest had been ill, but was “improved” and was also making some progress in learning English. Barnum hoped that when he next saw the Collins family he would “find [their] guest in perfectly restored health, and able to salute me in good English.” The next remark suggests that Barnum knew full well the name of this mystery person, for he wrote, “If such shall happily be the case, to you and your lady will certainly be due all the praise—as well as my everlasting gratitude.” Hmmmm. Does this “gratitude” underlie Barnum’s motivation for the good turn?
Apparently the Collins had a son, 18 years old, who had learned the art of saddle-making and “was a fine young fellow of excellent habits and of learning & general intelligence” and could speak and write in French and English. As Barnum explained to manager Fordyce Hitchcock, the young man’s parents wanted him to “see the world and at the same time to break off a love match which he . . . was forming.” Barnum stepped in to offer Hitchcock’s help in getting the Collins’ son situated with a job in a “respectable saddle manufactory.” He directed Hitchcock to “make enquiries through your friends in New York, Newark, & Bridgeport, and if possible engage him a place to work at his trade, so that when he arrives he will not be still on expense.”
Adding that it would be necessary to find him a private boarding house “where it will not cost him much to live,” he explained that the young man’s parents “are in middling circumstances only, so they send him in the steerage.” To Mr. Collins, Barnum advised that he send his son with “at least one good ham and some salt beef” as well as other provisions to sustain him through the long voyage. He recommended an ample supply of food and plenty of books to read, since the ship could be detained if the winds were not favorable. Sailing from London on November 20th, the ship Mediator would “probably arrive about Christmas time.” Barnum assured Mr. Collins,
I am confident that neither he, his mother or you will ever regret his going—for no country on earth holds out better prospects to industry, perseverance and good habits, than does America. In that country a man who conducts himself properly may succeed in all he aspires to—and as there are no nobility, except nature’s noblemen [i.e., Native Americans]—there is no aristocracy except that which is founded on talent, and good habits. No matter whether a man is a Banker or a shoemaker—a legislator or a barber—all receive the same respect, and the one is received in as high society as the other provided there is no stain upon his character. Your protege [protégé] will do well to remember this difference between the society of the Old & New World and he can vastly profit by it. . . . Never let him be ashamed to acknowledge that he works for a living—for all do that in America, and industry is therefore a great honor.
Endeavoring to ensure the young man would feel as comfortable as possible upon arrival, Barnum suggested that Hitchcock ask an Englishman friend named Davidson to “take him at once to Sweeny’s as that is . . . more like the English way of living, and he may conclude to live there & hire a cheap lodging room.” He added, “I have given him letters to you & Philo F. Barnum & hope before he arrives one of you will find him a place to work at his trade.”
The remainder of Barnum’s November 10th letter to Hitchcock concerns the business of the museum, including recently shipped novelties calculated to be a good draw for the holidays, and investments in major attractions for the coming year. In a week or two I’ll be discussing one of Barnum’s potential “investments” that warrants its own blog—it’s a tough story—and for now explore the mechanical and optical wonders he had in store for his audiences.
Fittingly, the Mechanical Trumpets were being shipped on a vessel named St. Nicholas that Barnum hoped would “reach N. Y. by or before Christmas,” estimating four or five weeks in transit after leaving the port of Havre. These Mechanical Trumpets were not destined to become a new exhibit inside the American Museum; rather, they were to be installed outside on one of the balconies facing Broadway. The idea to entice passersby into the museum with music was not new; Barnum was already employing a band to play from the balconies. But the mechanical set-up would save him money, and he instructed his manager to dismiss the musicians once the Trumpets were in place.
Barnum informed Hitchcock that “[the] Directions for using it will be contained in the box–& I expect also to send them in this letter (in French). It is managed much like an organ & I shall have some barrels made to play Yankee Doodle—Hail Columbia & c. & c.” He went on to explain,
There are no automaton figures with it—so you must put it on the balcony and put a boy behind to turn it—but don’t let the boy be seen—let the people suppose the machine is wound up. If it is too d—d loud on the first balcony, you must raise it to the 2d. Of course you will discharge your band after you receive this–& [the Mechanical Trumpets] might be played at intervals day & night.
Barnum also reported that he had paid 1000 francs for the Mechanical Trumpets, plus owed the as-yet-unknown cost of crating and shipping them to America. But he warned Hitchcock, “Let no person know that it cost less than 2500 francs for if the other museums have [i.e., want] them they must pay me that.” He followed with the instruction, “Tell them I can get them one for $500 besides expense of freight—in all say $510—I beat the man down considerably to get him to this.” Later in that letter Barnum reported he had saved $400 on another attraction by bargaining for 2000 francs less, and based on that information we can calculate a tidy profit by selling Mechanical Trumpets for over $500 after purchasing them for $200 (plus shipping).
Barnum’s letter also repeated information he had mentioned previously about sending the Physioscope, an amazing optical invention he had acquired in London, and a few new slides to refresh the “Dissolving Views” shows. These would be received by fellow showman Moses Kimball in Boston, who had been instructed to dispatch them to Hitchcock in New York. (See blog, November 6, 2020.) The reason for that arrangement is not certain but in a letter to Kimball, Barnum advised him that he should not need to pay U.S. Customs duties on these items since they were scientific instruments; as we learned from earlier letters, Barnum felt burned by the exorbitant duties levied on his other shipments from Paris to New York. Perhaps he thought there would be less hassle with U. S. Customs by sending the crate to Kimball in Boston. In any case it was intended that Hitchcock would have the Physioscope and the slides in hand in December. Barnum remarked,
I think you had better not bring it out till Christmas. However do as you please about that. I think if you keep that & the extra views for the holidays & then announce them strong as new features, they will draw and added to the capital attractions which you now have, they will please.
Turning to the future, he wrote with great anticipation concerning the purchase of a splendid and colossal new attraction for 1846. Barnum apprised Hitchcock,
I have engaged the Panorama of Napoleons funeral. The same artist is doing it whom Molteni was to employ & for which he was to charge me 8000 francs. I have engaged it for 6000 francs thus saving 400 dollars. I shall also introduce the funeral of Lafayette—costing perhaps 800 or 1000 francs more. They are to be done in July.
The news of this “coup” must have surprised Hitchcock since only a month before Barnum had written him to say, “I have given up trying to buy the diorama of Napoleons Funeral.” That conclusion followed remarks in his August 18th letter stating he was trying to locate an existing and possibly worse-for-wear panorama depicting Napoleon’s Funeral, because opticians “Messrs Molteni & Co.’s . . . demands are too great for me. They ask 10,000 Francs for the [new] Panoramas—viz 8000 for that of Napoleon and 2000 for Versailles.” True to form, Barnum did not give up and instead circumvented middlemen Molteni & Co. by approaching the artist.
He had also been pursuing another hoped-for acquisition that was briefly mentioned in a letter of August 25th, 1845. Barnum had said he would try to purchase an Anatomical Venus in Paris. This was a popular kind of novelty—though clearly not for all tastes—in which a beautiful female figure, unclothed and made of wax to give a very life-like appearance, was constructed with large openings that revealed replicated organs of the human body, organs that could be removed in layers. “Dissectible” Venuses were first made in the late 1700s for the purpose of teaching anatomy, however, they were not standardized representations of the human body devoid of humanity. Anatomical Venuses were, as the name implies, idealized female bodies intended on some level to be visually seductive as a counterpoint to the discomforting, even revolting, exposure of human organs and entrails. They were not only made for medical teaching. As museum attractions, Anatomical Venuses surely prompted strong visceral responses in viewers, though perhaps different from today’s audiences who would be more likely to think them bizarre or even repulsive. For Barnum, an Anatomical Venus matched his vision to offer entertainments that were educational and stimulated wonder and curiosity. Barnum therefore proudly shared the following news with Hitchcock in his November 10th letter,
I have also nearly engaged an Anatomical Venus—the price was 4500 francs—the man now offers to make it for 2500! to be done in Feb or March! Thus you see I am going it!
Barnum was on a roll, and had more plans in the works—but that goes without saying if you know anything about Barnum. We’re now halfway through his copybook of letters written between July 1845 and May 1846, and I have no reason to think the second half will become dull. Ahead of us we have a month in Paris with Gen. Tom Thumb’s entourage, and then we’ll all head off to London if Barnum sticks to the schedule he has proposed. The itinerary is certain to generate interesting news in Barnum’s letters and give us new perspectives on his life while we continue to weave the various storylines together. For now, “cheerio!”
Barnum Museum Curator