This week’s blog post, #74, is the last in the series featuring one of the Barnum Museum’s greatest treasures, P. T. Barnum’s letter copybook from 1845 to 1846. Admittedly, when I started writing this series in April of 2020, I really had no idea how long it would take me to get through the 750 pages, writing a blog post once a week, but the time seemed right to jump in and start. It’s been a year and a half. Although this has been a much longer “journey” than I anticipated, I have enjoyed it, and I hope that whether you were a regular or an occasional reader you, too, found Barnum’s words fascinating and revealing of his personality. Thank you for sticking with me on my adventure.
I still marvel that this particular volume of letters managed to survive, dating as it does from the early years of Barnum’s career as a museum proprietor and showman, the beginning of his rise to fame and fortune, complete with challenges and sacrifices. This opportunity to get to know Barnum as a young man in his mid-thirties has considerably enriched my understanding of him, not only as a showman and promotor, but also as a father, husband, employer, business partner, mentor, friend, and as a stranger making his way in various foreign countries. He was a complicated person, and without doubt a bright and exceptionally hard-working and energetic man. Above all, he was driven to succeed, probably not so much for financial rewards as people assume, but rather, because he craved the triumphant “highs” of bringing his ideas to fruition. He admitted his mistakes and accepted his failures but always, he looked to the future. Did he have flaws? Yes, but he was certainly not the “scam-artist” or huckster that some make him out to be; that’s a superficial interpretation. I found it refreshing that his letters revealed genuine concern for others—granted, not all others, and not always at times when he should have paid heed—but he did strive to be fair and help those in need. I think some people might be surprised to learn how greatly Barnum suffered from homesickness while on this tour of Europe—he was at heart a man who adored his family and home, though he was rarely able to put his innumerable, pressing business matters aside. To quote my colleague, John Swing, who has patiently read my draft each week, “These letters really ‘humanize’ P. T. Barnum.”
I feel it wouldn’t be right to wrap up this series without making note of the twenty-eight letters in the copybook that I chose not to include in my blog posts, except in the very first one. These are multi-page letters that Barnum composed for the New York Atlas, and which he directed to the newspapers’ editors, Herrick, West, and Ropes, or sometimes just to West. These letters are scattered throughout the copybook, often inserted in odd places that do not follow in sequence with other letters. In theory, the purpose was to give (American) readers of the Atlas a view of the daily life, history and culture of people in countries abroad, kind of a travelogue, but Barnum surely did this to promote himself, Gen. Tom Thumb, and his American Museum, which could only improve with the added élan of a well-traveled, enterprising proprietor.
Few people at that time had the means or desire to cross the Atlantic to sight-see, so Barnum arranged with the Atlas to serve as a foreign correspondent. He would share what he observed during his travels in Europe, and relate his experiences and opinions thereof to the public. The letters were thus composed with that audience in mind, crafted to hook readers, unlike letters written to individuals. For that reason I chose to skirt Barnum’s Atlas letters in favor of focusing on his relationships with individuals, but it doesn’t mean they aren’t worth reading. They do contain interesting information, and in some cases, they fill in gaps in Barnum’s correspondence.
For example, we had learned from numerous letters that Barnum planned to take Gen. Tom Thumb to Spain to meet the Queen–she wished to see him–yet he never shared the outcome of that side trip in his personal letters. But he did narrate the event and the lead-up in three of his Atlas letters, Nos. 77, 84, and 85.He described how the visit came about, explaining,
The Duc and Duchesse de Nemours and the Duc d’Amale [d’Aumale] are to go to Pampelune [Pamplona] a town in Spain two days journey from here, to visit the young Queen of Spain, who comes from Madrid for that purpose. Her Spanish Majesty has forwarded an invitation through her Consul here to General Tom Thumb to visit Pampelune on that occasion. The smiles and patronage of Royalty are not quite so much of an object now as they were before the little General had cut so big a figure among the crowned heads, however it would be ungrateful in us to turn up our democratic noses at the invitation from royalty after all the benefits we have derived from it; so I have concluded to honor the young Queen with my presence in company with the illustrious little General. There appears to be great difficulty in finding a proper husband for the Queen and as I hear she is a “little body” I half fear she will propose to the General—if that should unfortunately be the case and he should accept, there will be an end to my speculation.
Describing the visit in another letter, he remarked, “The Queen of Spain has kissed the General and given him a charming present, and we also by her invitation, or rather command, occupied a royal box and beheld a Spanish Bull fight, got up in honor of the Queen of Spain, her Mother, and the Duc and Duchess de Nemours.”
An extensive description of the bull fight is also given in Letter No. 85, though it is clear that Barnum “borrowed” liberally from other travel authors to describe the customs. (Thanks to museum volunteer Tova Clayman for investigating that, and doing other fact-checking, as well as transcribing the Atlas letters.) No doubt Barnum plagiarized because he was constantly pressed for time, and couldn’t possibly take in all the necessary information on a brief trip like that. All along he had been scrambling to keep up with his obligation to the Atlas, and in his November 1st letter to editor West he apologized, noting,
I returned from London yesterday & am sorry I have not time to write 2 letters today, but I swear I’ll send six by next steamer. My late letters are full of typographical errors.
Another letter, this one addressed to all the editors, pleads, “Correct this letter for I have not time even to look it over.” But at that point Barnum still hoped his letters could be turned into something more. He mentioned an idea to his friend Moses Kimball in December of 1845, suggesting that he might polish up his Atlas letters to write a book:
As every body who travels nowadays must write a book—I think some of revamping my letters to the Atlas, and of writing some more in the same name of the General, & publish a book under the title of,
General Tom Thumb’s
Travels in Europe with
Remarks on Men and Manners, Courts, Kings, & c & c
This brainchild soon faded, however. In early March, as Barnum was approaching his 94th letter, he was feeling quite dissatisfied with his writings, and related his misgivings to a couple of his correspondents. His letter dated March 1st, 1846, to Mrs. Henry Barnum of Bridgeport, confessed,
. . . I am going to quit writing for the Atlas. I am so full of business continually that I am constantly thinking of something else when I do write, and my letters frequently get so tame and dull that I get ashamed of them myself, and when a person gets ashamed of his own work, it is high time he stopped it.
Two days later he wrote to museum manager Fordyce Hitchcock and advised him, “If West asks about letters tell me [him] I have no time, and as I am getting cursedly ashamed of what I have already written—it is doubtful whether I [will] write any more—or especially more than enough to make up the hundred.”
Despite saying that, a month later, on April 3rd, Barnum was apparently still prepared to compose a few letters for the Atlas, though he acknowledged their decline in quality and having used others’ words. As he put it to West, “I am now getting a little time again to write, but I think my letters are getting stale for I am getting lazy and take much more from hard books than from my own hand & therefore guess I shall not write very much more.”
I find it curious that Barnum felt his letters were getting “tame and dull.” Certainly his descriptions of people in rural areas of France, such as in Brittany, would cause a modern-day reader to cringe, as he was less than kind in his descriptions. This was Barnum’s first exposure to people who lived very close to the land, and whose beliefs, customs and language—their whole way of daily life—had remained firmly rooted in centuries past. He perceived them as backward and dirty. He even disliked their ancient style of their clothing, which he felt was not only peculiar but also ugly and unflattering to the women. Today, such comments would be offensive, but in Barnum’s era that was an acceptable style in writing a travelogue. In fact Mark Twain’s book, The Innocents Abroad, published nearly twenty-five years after Barnum’s letters, also contains disparaging commentaries about people whose living conditions were “primitive”; he was especially disgusted by people who rarely washed, and pointed out the irony that he and his fellow travelers were corralled and fumigated by such people, who feared cholera coming into the country yet themselves were unhygienic.
Circling back to the topics of last week’s blog, I would like to thank Nannette Rod for helping to answer questions left hanging by Barnum’s last two letters in the copybook. We had learned that Gen. Tom Thumb was performing in Portsmouth, England, around August 20th, and guessed this was one of several stops on a summer tour. Nannette found the full itinerary in an ad in The Times (London), stating that Gen. Tom Thumb would perform in sixteen towns around the southern coast of England from July 29th through August. It seems far more demanding than we might have hoped for the boy, considering his non-stop work schedule in London.
This late summer tour involved two days of performances in six of the sixteen towns, and one day in nine others, “ending” the tour on the Isle of Wight where, perhaps, they had a few days break since no dates are specified there. These performances were promoted as Farewell Levees, a last chance to see the American Man in Miniature before he sailed to the States. (Not surprisingly, another long itinerary of Farewell Levees appeared in the September 10th, 1846 issue of The Times, this time covering the southwestern shires of England, then on to Wales and Ireland.) We also learn from these same ads that Gen. Tom Thumb had gotten a new carriage! (I had wondered if that could be the reason Barnum shipped the miniature coach and phaeton back to the U.S. in August.) The ads proudly announce that Gen. Tom Thumb’s “new miniature equipage, just completed for America, will promenade the streets daily.” Great sleuthing, Nannette!
Finally, before I sign off, I’d like to share a short passage from a letter written while Barnum was in Bordeaux, France. Since this was from early in my reading of the copybook, I noted it but “let it be” hoping I would later find related comments to enhance or extend the snippet. But I did not come across anything else like it in the remaining letters, so it will simply stand as a small addition here. The words caught my eye because Barnum lived in an age when society was rapidly being transformed, in large part due to advances in technology, and so getting his take on recent inventions was intriguing to me. He offered these comments to his showman friend Moses Kimball on August 26th, 1845:
Certainly the two most miraculous discoveries of the age are the electro-magnetic telegraphic communications and the Daguerreotype. The first brings the poles together—the last snatches nature in an instant and reflects the image upon the plate with the perfection of a mirror. They are indeed wonderful discoveries.
And, I might add, there are certainly more “wonderful discoveries” to be made in the copybook, with letters so very rich in content. While I hope I’ve given the readers of my blog posts a very thorough “introduction” to Barnum’s letters, I don’t claim to have covered every possible topic; there is more to mine, and more to learn about his correspondents. In addition, continuing to build out the context will provide a more meaningful interpretation of the letters. I am grateful I had the opportunity to expand my understanding of P.T. Barnum’s life during these critical years in his career, and to write about what I learned, but more importantly it has been an honor to share Barnum’s own words, written from the heart.
Barnum Museum Curator