BARNUM's American Museum

BARNUM's American Museum -- it was in New York, but it had its counterpart in other cities and its features were widely copiedbecame a national institution in the 1840's. No out-of-towner ever missed it; it was the delight of country visitors. They might occasionally have seen giants and dwarfs, jugglers and rope-dancers, pantomimes and acrobats, but here under one roof was a wealth of amusements (six hundred thousand curiosities) such as imagination could hardly picture. The visitor bored by the national portrait gallery could watch the three living serpents of enormous size being given their noonday meal. When he had exhausted the wonders of the model of Niagara Falls (with real water from the new Croton Reservoir), he could have his fortune told by the mysterious Madame Rockwell. There were statues of scriptural characters and waxwork figures depicting the horrors of intemperance; models of new machines and an anatomical Venus; an ever-changing selection of panoramas, dioramas, cycloramas, and georamas.

Urban workers and country farmers were not the only visitors. When a Canadian giant was exhibited, the aristocratic Philip Hone, one-time mayor, made careful measurements of this natural phenomenon, reporting in his diary that the 619-pound monstrosity had ankles three feet five inches around. He went repeatedly to see General Tom Thumb. Upon the midget's return from his triumphal foreign tour ("kissed by a million pairs of the sweetest lips in Europe"), Mr. Hone proudly noted that Tom Thumb spoke to him by name.

From the portals of the Museum went out scores of traveling exhibitions which gave Barnum his nation-wide fame. Some of them were authentic, some of them cleverly faked. There was no denying the genuineness of the giants and midgets. Possibly the bearded lady was a border-line case, although her whiskers were guaranteed "to put at a single glance all incredulity at defiance." But there were also Joice Heth, whom Barnum blandly claimed to have been the nurse of George Washington; the notorious Woolly Horse, supposedly captured by John C. Frémont; and in later years the famous white elephants of Siam. Few people really cared whether the elephants owed their color to art rather than nature, even when the whitewash began to fade. No one minded being taken in by the Prince of Humbugs.

When exhibitions began to pall, Barnum experimented with melodrama and variety acts in his sumptuous Lecture Room. He was prepared to stage anything-so long as it was highly moral-and he gradually evolved a program with two and three performances a day which won his show-place still greater popularity. In midsummer of 1843 we find him advertising Chang Fong, the Chinese juggler; the inimitable Winchell, famous for "Droll, quizzical, mirth-provoking impersonations"; a knittingmachine run by a dog; and the Ethiopian Serenaders, with "six performers, each one of whom is a professor of Music."

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