Voices for Women’s Rights in Unlikely Places

Voices for Women’s Rights in Unlikely Places

When the latest issue of Atlas Obscura popped up in my Inbox on the Monday after Christmas, its timely subject title caught my eye: “When Mrs. Claus cracked the North Pole’s glass ceiling.” Did she really, I wondered?  Atlas Obscura noted, “In the 19th century, the character [Mrs. Claus] embodied debates about women’s rights—and occasionally got a sleigh ride of her own.”  This reference to the 19th century and women’s rights made me curious, and I would soon find more to intrigue me when I recognized a connection to P. T. Barnum.

The lead story in the December 27th, 2021, release of Atlas Obscura is by Maura Ives, a professor of English at Texas A & M University.  Her article, “Remembering when Mrs. Claus Cracked the North Pole’s Glass Ceiling,” was originally published in The Conversation (theconversation.com) on December 15, 2021.  Professor Ives’s research to prepare for teaching a class on Christmas in literature led her to discover an array of poems and stories about Mrs. Claus, written by female authors for popular newspapers and magazines of the late 1800s.  Their tact was to use the fictional Mrs. Claus—whose herculean behind-the-scenes work in support of Santa’s big day was, after all, indisputable—to represent the plight of all women whose work was unappreciated.  The authors argued that women deserve full recognition for the essential nature of their work, too often ignored or conveniently overlooked, and rarely given the appropriate credit.  I hardly need to say that these issues, along with generally lower wages and salaries than male counterparts, continue to impact women today.

One of the authors Ives mentions in her article is Sarah J. Burke, whose poem, Mrs. Santa Claus Asserts Herself, boasts a modern-sounding title though it was published in the Victorian era.  The poem was included in the January 1, 1884, issue of Harper’s Young People, an illustrated weekly magazine. The lead story in that issue happens to be a Christmas story by Louisa May Alcott.  (You can read the complete issue in Google Books.)

Cover of a children’s book, P. T. Barnum’s Circus, Museum, and Menagerie, co-authored by P. T. Barnum and Sarah J. Burke, and published in 1888. (Collection of the Barnum Museum)

While far from having the same degree of name recognition as Miss Alcott, Sarah Burke’s name rang a bell for me.  I recalled that, with Barnum, she co-authored a series for young children, published in the late 1880s.  Very likely Sarah Burke had a major role in the writing and design, much as Mrs. Claus did in the preparation of toys and gifts, and elf management, and from a practical standpoint that would make sense since Barnum’s health had declined at that time.  Neither Burke’s name nor Barnum’s appear on the cover as authors, but the title page, five pages after the fly leaf, states that the “Text and Illustrations for Little People were Arranged by P. T. Barnum and Sarah J. Burke.”  Barnum’s Circus, Museum, and Menagerie was published by White and Allen (New York and London) in two versions: as three individually-titled books, and in 1888 as a single volume containing all three stories.  The Barnum Museum has these books in its collection, including a complete version that P. T. Barnum himself donated to one of the Barnum Museum’s predecessors, the Fairfield County Historical Society.

The title page includes both authors’ names and an illustration of P. T. Barnum reading to his great-grandchildren. (Collection of the Barnum Museum)

The cover and many of the illustrations are richly colorful and would surely have appealed to children—as well as the parents and nannies who read to them!  Prior to advances in color lithography in the 1870s and 1880s, “color” illustrations in children’s books were generally achieved by hand-painting, adding watercolor tints to black and white prints.  Thus, most children’s books had few color images, if any, until the latter decades of the 19th century.  Even then, books brimming with color pages would be the exception rather than the rule.  So that makes Barnum’s Circus, Museum, and Menagerie books rather special.  On the other hand, it is not too surprising they are special given Barnum’s consistent desire to surpass people’s expectations in all of his endeavors and enterprises.  Whether inspired by a personal philosophy or invented as a marketing strategy—or a combination of the two—Barnum’s goal was to create something out of the ordinary and make it affordable to ordinary people.  Although I do not know what the books cost at the time, it stands to reason that Barnum would have wanted them to be reasonably priced.  In that way, his name, image and brand would reach the largest number of people.

One of three double-page color illustrations in P.T. Barnum’s Circus, Museum, and Menagerie.
(Collection of the Barnum Museum)

The single-volume, sixty-four page version in the Barnum Museum’s collection displays an extraordinary number of full-color illustrations.  (You can download a pdf here.) In total there are sixteen full-page color illustrations plus three double spreads, exciting images that surely captivated readers of all ages.  All other pages, even those that are entirely text, have single- or multi-shade tinting that adds to the visual appeal of this book.  (Granted there are images within a few illustrations that makes one cringe, though they were acceptable in their time.)

Illustration showing a woman of ancient Roman times, pulling ahead of her male competitor as she is about to win a chariot race. (Collection of the Barnum Museum)

The last page of the Circus section features an illustration of Santa Claus guiding his sleigh full of toys, pulled by eight (not so tiny) reindeer.  Perhaps Sarah Burke thought to allow Santa a cameo appearance in the story, although Mrs. Claus is nowhere in sight.  Despite Mrs. C’s absence, a woman is the “unlikely” champion of the story immediately preceding the Santa illustration.  This suggests to me that Sarah Burke looked for opportunities to show women as strong, competent, and independent, not just supporting the work of men but successfully competing with them.  As this story snippet unfolds, narrator Mr. Barnum explains a bit of Roman history to his great-grandchildren—the ancient chariot races—and then asks “Tom” who will win.  Smarty-pants Tom thinks he knows the answer—the man in purple robes—because he has learned about chariot races in school books.  But to his surprise and chagrin, the man in his great-grandfather’s magically-come-to-life story is not triumphant.  Instead, the female driver of a gilded chariot suddenly pulls ahead to finish first, and “as the flag of Victory was presented to her, Tom wished he had not been so sure.”  I may be wrong, but I have a hunch that Sarah Burke wrote that bit, and was pointing out the influence of school books on children’s perceptions!

It is fascinating to think about Professor Ives’s article, in which she sheds light on the women’s rights and suffrage agendas behind “Mrs. Claus” Christmas stories and poems in popular Victorian magazines.  And I particularly enjoyed re-reading the Barnum-Burke book with the fresh perspective that her article provided.  I hope that is a sign of things to come in 2022, in which we gain new and insightful perspectives.

Happy New Year!

Adrienne Saint-Pierre
Barnum Museum Curator

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