In turning 100 the other day (I’m feeling great, thanks for asking) I was looking back at my very first Corner by Corner post. And that made me think how it would be fun to slowly look back at all of them and see what tangents were left unexplored. I mean, that would be fun right? And it would fit my general theme of making lists of tangents that I can’t ever hope to systematically explore. So let’s do it. Here’s my second post ever – written in the days of the great Take the Handle craze of 2008 (heady times my friends, heady times). I think I remember who I was back then; I remember who I wanted to be at least. But did I become that person? Well who cares! Let’s talk about P.T. Barnum instead. He’s quite a tangent.
I mentioned him all those years ago because he brought the opera singer Jenny Lind – “The Swedish Nightingale” – to the U.S. for her first American tour, which started at Castle Clinton on the Battery. And we all know him of course as a circus man. But this guy was what you might call just a straight up American – probably the 19th century’s most important impresario (can you name any others?), the guy who basically invented modern showmanship. Now what is it that makes us like that kind of thing so much? Well step right up and let me show you!
Phineas Taylor Barnum was from Connecticut, but he fled the farm and moved to New York at age 23 or 24, to run a grocery store. Just one year later, in 1835, he caught his break: a Philadelphia showman was displaying an old black woman, Joice Heth, (blind and toothless) who said she was 161 years old and had been George Washington’s slave nurse, with a bill of sale from 1727 that claimed to prove it. Despite Heth’s sensational story she didn’t draw too big an audience and Barnum figured he could do better; he promptly sold his grocery store, borrowed money, and bought the rights to her. He spread posters all over New York, drummed up some press interest, and sure enough he turned her into a sensation. One of his tricks was to spread doubt himself – via the press – as to the truth of her claim, figuring that would make people more interested, not less, in coming to see her. It was a pretty shrewd notion, and the beginning of Barnum’s mastery of the hoax.
And it really was just the beginning. After Joice Heth’s death one year later (an autopsy would reveal she was not, in fact, 161, but closer to 80) Barnum traveled the country as a showman, ran an entertainment steamboat on the Mississippi and sold Bibles (I told you he was a straight American). Then in 1840 he returned to New York and leased Vauxhall Gardens – around today’s Astor Place – and turned it into one of the more popular and lucrative entertainment venues in the city, changing performers and performances by the night to create a novel and exciting new format: “the variety show.” Still, Barnum had his sights set bigger (and then bigger yet) and in 1841, again just one year after leasing Vauxhall Gardens, Barnum purchased the old Scudder’s Museum on Broadway and Ann Street and turned it into his sensational American Museum. Now “museum” might have had a slightly different meaning back then, as Barnum’s American Museum was stocked with “jugglers and ventriloquists, curiosities and freaks, automata and living statuary, gypsies and giants…,” not to mention his star attraction, a 2 foot, 1 inch midget known as General Tom Thumb (he toured Europe later and was a hit). In the process of promoting his museum, at the prime location of Broadway and Ann Street, just below City Hall, Barnum pulled out all the tricks, and even invented some new ones, while again intentionally bringing up questions as to the veracity of his attractions – a seed of doubt that only brought the crowds in more, if nothing else than to see if they could spot the hoax themselves. By the mid-1840s his American Museum was one of the star attractions in New York.
But what Barnum was still lacking, perhaps, was respectability (and maybe oodles and oodles of money) and that’s where Jenny Lind came in. To lure the very popular, very respectable, and very shrewd, Jenny Lind over here from Europe Barnum promised her $150,000 (in 1849 mind you) for 150 concerts, plus all her expenses, all paid up front. Barnum had to mortgage everything he owned and borrow more to make it happen but make it happen he did. Using his ample promotional powers he helped create “Lindomania” across the United States, making Lind a true celebrity at a time when that word itself had only just come into coinage, and raking in earnings that were “unprecedented in the history of American entertainment” (her New York debut alone at Castle Clinton grossed close to $300,000). But then this was a man who seemed to know earning potential when he saw it – be it in the form of the vulgar or the sublime.
Incidentally it’s something that I’ve come to realize about myself as well, or about this blog in particular, in reflecting over the many long years I’ve spent at it – namely that it has exactly zero earning potential (Corner by Corner – your first stop shop for general musings about very little that’s actually specific!). Though I’m just kidding of course – I realized before this blog was even born that it would have no earning potential. It’s worthless! Don’t try to tell me that it isn’t. Honestly. Don’t try to tell me. I don’t even really want to hear it. Really. I’m walking away right now, that’s how serious I am. Really I’m – wait, what? What did you just say? Did you just say it was worth someth…Oh, oh, you were talking to that guy. Oh, that’s cool. No, that’s cool. Yeah, okay. See you later.