BARNUM quickly set about his "heroic endeavor" to establish his museum as the grandest spectacle and entertainment venue in all of New York. He admits in his autobiography, "Before I bought it, I weighed the matter well in my mind and was convinced that I could present to the American public such a variety, quantity, and quality of amusement, blended with instruction,

"all for twenty-five cents, children half-price," that my attractions would be irresistible, and my fortune certain."6 The museum's location on Broadway and Ann Street positioned it in one of New York's most fashionable areas to see and to be seen; the Astor House and the Matthew Brady photograph studio were located directly across the street. Soon, the self-styled businessman with a penchant for advertising transformed the American Museum into the grandest spectacle of the late nineteenth-century.

The garish fašade of the museum hinted to the grand spectacle that lay just beyond the entrance door. Barnum admitted to hiring a cacophonous orchestra to play on the outer balcony of the museum in order to drive people into the museum: "I took pains to select and maintain the poorest band I could find-one whose discordant notes would drive the crowd into the Museum."7 A series of flags representing countries around the world surrounded the perimeter of the roof. Paintings of "nearly every important animal known in zoology"8 hung on the outside of the building along with gas lights that advertised Barnum's name. The contents of the museum and the added amenities further contributed to the visceral experience that occurred when one visited the American Museum. Patrons could buy numerous souvenirs such as carte de visites of human curiosities,

Mrs. Bates
Carte de visite of Mrs. Bates,
who was over 7 feet tall.
Barnum's Fat Boy
Carte de visite of Barnum's Fat Boy
Ms. Anna Swan
Carte de visite of Ms. Anna Swan,
who stood 7 feet tall.
glass-blown figurines from Bohemian glass blowers, and preserved animals from the on-site taxidermists. Fortunetellers, phrenologists, and food were all sold in the museum as well.9 The basement of the museum contained a huge tank that served as the home for hippopotami and beluga whales. Barnum kept Peale's paintings of birds and animals and exhibited those in order to appeal to the more highbrow patrons in his museum. The conglomeration of animal curiosities, human oddities, portraits, and morality plays led one person to submit an anonymous letter to The Nation accusing Barnum of "unscientific exhibitions, disreputable patrons, and profit driven fakery"10

Barnum, however, knew that "unscientific exhibitions" generate public interest and he set about obtaining new and bizarre items for display. One of the first curiosities he acquired was the Feejee Mermaid. Barnum obtained the infamous mermaid from Moses Kimball, proprietor of the Boston Museum. Before exhibiting the "ugly, dried-up, black-looking, and diminutive specimen"11 in 1842, Barnum created "mermaid fever"12 by distributing flyers that depicted a mermaid with a human-like visage. He writing letters to newspapers that claimed a certain "Dr. Griffin, agent of the Lyceum of Natural History in London" would be traveling through New York with a "veritable mermaid taken among the Feejee Islands." In reality "Dr. Griffin" was Barnum's friend Levi Lyman. The creature, which was nothing more than the upper torso of a monkey sewn to the lower half of a fish, became one of Barnum's biggest attractions during his first year of business.

Drawing of the Feejee Mermaid
The Feejee Mermaid
Mermaid Advertisement
Advertisement for the mermaid

Based on his successful tour with Joice Heth, Barnum knew that the real money lay not in exhibiting manufactured animal oddities but in human curiosities. In 1842 Barnum began exhibiting the midget Charles Stratton when the boy was only five years old and less than two feet tall. Using the aggrandized mode of presentation, Barnum renamed Stratton "General Tom Thumb," and he advertised the General as being eleven years old for fear that the public would not find a diminutive five year old particularly scintillating. Barnum also reinvented Tom's biography claiming that the boy was from England. Barnum writes in Struggles and Triumphs, "I took the greatest pains to educated and train my diminutive prodigy."13 Train him he did; Barnum taught General Tom Thumb numerous song and dance acts that he performed to the delight of audiences.
Barnum and Tom Thumb

Back to previous page | Table of Contents | Next page