Holiday Fun in NYC, 1864

I’m still taking some time to relax and catch up on my reading. Meanwhile, I hope you enjoy this Revised! and Enhanced! holiday post that first appeared last December.
UPDATED: 28 Dec.2022 to correct a minor error about the “Bower of Beauty” illustrations.

It’s the week after Christmas. Perhaps you have family or friends visiting from out of town. If you have children, they’re home from school. How to keep them entertained? If you lived near New York City in 1864, you were in luck. Barnum’s American Museum was ready with spectacular and unique holiday exhibits for the whole family, all for the low, low, price of 25 cents for adults, 15 cents for children under age ten!

Barnum’s American Museum. Christmas and New Year holiday bill, 1864. [New York: Wynkoop, Hallenbeck & Thomas, Book and Job Printers, 113 Fulton St. N.Y], Library of Congress. Click to see larger, easier to read, image.

P. T. Barnum and his museum

Before he achieved lasting fame as a circus impresario, P. T. Barnum made a name for himself as a promoter and showman:

Phineas Taylor Barnum (1810 – 1891) was an American showman, businessman, and politician, remembered for promoting celebrated hoaxes and founding the Barnum & Bailey Circus with James Anthony Bailey. He was also an author, publisher, and philanthropist, though he said of himself: “I am a showman by profession … and all the gilding shall make nothing else of me.” […]

Barnum became a small business owner in his early twenties and founded a weekly newspaper before moving to New York City in 1834. He embarked on an entertainment career, first with a variety troupe called “Barnum’s Grand Scientific and Musical Theater”, and soon after by purchasing Scudder’s American Museum which he renamed after himself. He used the museum as a platform to promote hoaxes and human curiosities such as the Fiji mermaid and General Tom Thumb.

In 1850, he promoted the American tour of Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind, paying her an unprecedented $1,000 a night for 150 nights. He suffered economic reversals in the 1850s due to bad investments, as well as years of litigation and public humiliation, but he used a lecture tour as a temperance speaker to emerge from debt. His museum added America’s first aquarium and expanded the wax-figure department.

Photo credit: Charles D. Fredricks & Co, photographer. P.T. Barnum / Charles D. Fredricks & Co., “Specialité,” 587 Broadway, New York, [Between 1860 and 1864]. Library of Congress, click to view larger image in new window. Biographical information from Wikipedia, click link for the full, spectacular story of Barnum’s life!

Believe it or not, we’ll have occasion to return to Barnum and the legendary tour of soprano Jenny Lind, “The Swedish Nightingale,” that he promoted in 1850. There is a Turck family connection (another True Story!), found in Josephine Turck Baker’s Correct English in the Home.

Something for the whole family

Meanwhile, the Barnum’s American Museum visitor of 1864 had so much to see for their modest admission fee. Live animals such as The Great Living Whale and The Living Hippopotamus were on view, as was The Living Happy Family (and wouldn’t you like to know what that “exhibit” comprised?). And who could pass up Signor Pietro D’Olivera’s 200 Educated White Rats—performing “a great variety of amusing and interesting tricks” — particularly since “children especially find this exhibition replete with interest”?

And as the Wikipedia biography mentions, Barnum created the first public aquarium at his museum, the Aquarial Garden, which:

Occupying one of the large Halls of the Museum, is of itself an Exhibition worth more than the cost of Admission to the entire Museum. Its numerous crystal ponds of River and Ocean water, abounding with Living Fish from nearly every River and Sea, are alive with interest to all classes. One tank has 8 LARGE SPECKLED BROOK TROUT, the largest and finest ever seen together; another has 12 BEAUTIFUL SEA HORSES, the most interesting tiny inhabitants of the great deep, the heads and necks of which resemble, in their graceful curves, those of the horse. No visitor should fail seeing them. Indeed, every tank in the entire collection is replete with interest.

And that’s not all!

There was so much more to see. Living Monster Snakes! The Living Learned Seal! Superb Dramatic Performances nearly every hour on Christmas and New Year’s days!

And, the poster informs us, to add still further to the interest of THIS GREAT FESTIVE SEASON, the Manager has expended over Seven Thousand Dollars in the preparation of a New Holiday Piece, never before seen in America, entitled:

or, the
In the Enchanted Forest, in which occurs a
By Randall, of London, In which appear

The poster (above) gives us a hint of what the Gorgeous Mechanical Scene of Barnum’s 1864 Home of the Fairies looked like. I also found this similarly-titled Currier & Ives lithograph1 published just a few years later:

Was the artist inspired by a holiday visit to the Bower of Beauty at Barnum’s American Museum? Who knows!

Phew! It’s hard to beat that for entertainment!

Barnum’s American Museum is long gone, but I hope you are enjoying at least some time off this week and, perhaps, a fraction of the fun and wonder that thrilled visitors back in 1864.

I’ll be back soon with new posts, after I replenish my stock of exclamation points!!!



1. Unknown artist. The Fairie’s Home, circa 1868. New York: Published by Currier & Ives. Library of Congress.

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