What the Dickens?!

From the Curator’s Desk: What the Dickens?!

Bet you’re thinking this holiday-time message will be yet another focused on Charles Dickens’ novella, A Christmas Carol.  And yes, it’s about Dickens, but no, it’s not about A Christmas Carol.  This story has a “twist”– if you’ll pardon the pun– it’s different from any other Dickens blog post you’ll read!


Portrait photograph of Charles Dickens
Portrait photograph of Charles Dickens, late 1867, by Jeremiah Gurney & Son, Broadway, New York City. Wikimedia Commons.


This week brought one of those rare and cherished moments of elation experienced by curators, archivists, and all of you who love the combination of history and mystery!   (And who isn’t curious?!)  Here’s what I discovered as I was looking for images to accompany a Curious People Wanted video about a coat in our collection.

Since 1895 an old black wool coat with a fancy quilted lining has been at the Barnum Museum.  Was it forgotten by a long ago visitor?  No, it wasn’t that.  We had tidbits of its story gathered from a few notes, but the story wasn’t very certain—no evidence to back it up.

The coat’s tale was that it had belonged to Charles Dickens, and that he had given it to a friend, the famous publisher George W. Childs of Philadelphia.  Dickens was heading back to England in April of 1868 after a five-month tour of theatrical readings in the Northeast, and for whatever reason the coat was left with Childs.  Childs subsequently gave  it to P. T. Barnum, and many years later Barnum’s widow Nancy donated it to the Barnum Institute of Science and History, the Barnum Museum’s predecessor.  At that point, Nancy was moving on to her next chapter, living in Europe as the wife of a wealthy Greek gentleman, so in preparation for the move she was emptying her home in Bridgeport.  But was the coat’s connection to Dickens real?  We were never certain . . . until now!

Thomas Nast cartoon
Thomas Nast cartoon, “The British Lion in America (Charles Dickens)” published in the New York ‘Daily Joker,’ 1868. See June 16, 2021 blog by Jaanuja Sriskantha, Charles Dickens Museum website at dickensmuseum.com (London, England).

While scouting for images to use as stills, I turned up a cartoon by the well-known 19th century editorial cartoonist Thomas Nast, a caricature of Dickens in America.  Oddly, what caught my eye in the sketch was Nast’s depiction of the lining of Dickens’ coat.  Ordinarily a coat lining would not be noteworthy, but the quilted pattern in our coat is distinctive, and Nast had loosely interpreted a scrolling feather design in his sketch, a design that looked familiar.   I was immediately struck by its similarity to our coat, and felt sure there must be a photograph upon which Nast had based his Dickens caricature.

It did not take long to find a portrait photograph showing Dickens in our very coat, and not only one photo, but two more as well!  You can imagine the triumphant “ah-hahs”, one after another, upon discovering proof that our coat really belonged to Dickens!   I also found that one of the images had been used to make a stereoview card—the double photo image cards that were a popular parlor entertainment at the time.  So the coat was important in that respect too.

All these photographs showing Dickens in our coat were taken in America at the time of his second—and final—tour of America.  The tour was enormously successful—probably too much so from Dickens’ point of view.  The fans were practically rabid in their enthusiasm to see and hear him, and if possible to snatch a scrap of his clothing as a souvenir.  He was mobbed whenever he went out.  No doubt with a sigh of relief he boarded a steamer back to England in early spring of 1868.  But despite his weariness and feeling unwell, he did not go home to rest.  His publisher had set up a grueling tour schedule of theatrical readings.  Dickens followed through with it, but paid a high price due to the stress and constant travel.  His health failed and he suffered at least two strokes, the last one causing his death in June of 1870, at age 58.

Wool coat worn by Charles Dickens
Wool coat worn by Charles Dickens during his winter tour in America, November 1867 to April 1868. Barnum Museum Collection. Gift of Nancy Fish Barnum.

So, what the Dickens was he doing leaving his coat behind in America?  The reason may have been a purely practical one:  such as, he got a new coat and did not want to take up space in his luggage with the old one.  But there’s another possibility to consider.  During the time of Dickens’ visit, Barnum’s American Museum—the second one—went up in flames due to a heating failure.  That catastrophe occurred on March 3, 1868.  Barnum, you may recall, had been quick to re-open after his first museum burned in 1865: the second one opened within a few months.  Perhaps people anticipated that he would once again open another museum.  And in light of that expectation, Dickens or Childs might have thought that displaying Dickens’ coat, which was a recognizable part of his “signature costume,” would be a novel attraction.

Dickens’s coat was certainly the kind of thing Barnum would have displayed in his museum.  And though we know Childs gave the coat to Barnum, we do not know when, so without that information it’s hard to determine if there is merit to the idea.  We will probably never know—it’s just something to ponder!

Detail of the coat’s quilted silk lining
Detail of the coat’s quilted silk lining with scrolled feather design. Barnum Museum Collection. Gift of Nancy Fish Barnum.

What we DO know is that Barnum did not open another museum so if the intent was for him to exhibit the coat, it never came to pass.  Ultimately it was displayed at the Barnum Institute of Science and History in Bridgeport, Connecticut, and it was likely on view for many, many years in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.   The black wool has faded to a greenish color in many places, buttons are missing, and much of the silk lining is damaged, showing areas of loss.  I do not think this was due to silk-snatching fans, however!  Most likely the fabric deteriorated from exposure to light, and a 1960s trip to a dry cleaner for “cleaning and pressing” probably caused additional damage.  The one “silver lining” to the loss of the black lining is that we can see what would have been the hidden layers:  a thin layer of batting for warmth and a backing fabric of wool and cotton or linen.  As far as the coat’s style, the rather triangular shape of the coat and bell-shaped sleeves is consistent with fashions of the 1860s, when women’s skirts and sleeves were exceptionally wide– broadly speaking, the Civil War era.  The silhouette of men’s fashion always “aligned” with the silhouette of women’s fashions, hence the cloak-like shaping of this garment.

Take a look at the photos and compare for yourself—you will readily see that “our” coat is the same one you see in the photo of Dickens.  I find it very exciting to finally know that the coat really did belong to Dickens, and not only that, but also that it was a distinctive part of his “look” for his public appearances in America.

You can learn more about the coat in a “Curious People Wanted” video, set to launch on the Barnum Museum YouTube channel around mid-January, 2023.

Wishing you happy holidays!

Adrienne Saint-Pierre
Barnum Museum Curator

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