Required Reading

  • T. [Phineas Taylor] Barnum and James W. Cook, The Colossal P.T. Barnum Reader: Nothing Else Like It in the Universe(Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2005).
  • * Lost museum website <>

For all the Beyonce fans in this class: I’d encourage you to re-watch the music video for “Formation” now that we have started our slavery units. Pay attention to the representation of New Orleans contemporarily in a post-Katrina and Black Lives Matter world, but also focus on New Orleans’ historical representation. The costuming, the set design, the physical mannerisms in the choreography are arguing for a very specific black legacy that touches on slavery, Quadroon & Creole culture, the black church, and cultural resistance in New Orleans in layered ways. I’d also direct your attention to how “OK ladies now let’s get in formation” reverberates some of our class conversations as well as the repeated line “slay, trick, or get eliminated.” How are men represented in this video? Do you see anything from Stylin‘ in this music video?

Above: Historian James “Jay” Cook tells the story of Barnum’s Fiji Mermaid.

Weekly Precept Assignment 

This week, our weekly assignment will focus on analyzing primary sources and using them for research. The Colossal P.T. Barnum Reader is an edited collection of primary sources. After reading through the book, select one of the images printed between pages 158-180. In your first paragraph, contextualize the image and do your best to analyze it. Who created it? When? Why? For what purpose? Who distributed it? What do you think the image arguing? What specific elements of the image make you believe that? In your second paragraph, suggest an argument you might make using the specific image you selected and 1 other primary source you found in this reader that you could use to substantiate your claims. The point of this exercise, beyond learning more about the world of P.T. Barnum, is to practice using primary sources, analyzing them, and building arguments with them. If you need a reminder on what constitutes a primary source versus a secondary source, here is my online guide.  Keep your response between 250-400 words. Post your answer in blackboard.

Rhae Lynn Barnes is an Assistant Professor of American Cultural History at Princeton University (2018-) and President of the Andrew W. Mellon Society of Fellows in Critical Bibliography. She is the co-founder and C.E.O. of U.S. History Scene and an Executive Advisor to the documentary series "Reconstruction: America After the Civil War" (now streaming PBS, 2019).

11 responses to “Week 2: P.T. Barnum

  1. On page 173 (Fig. 22), there is an image of a lithograph of a “black and white” family. This lithograph from the early 1860s was taken by Nathaniel Currier and James Merrit Ives commissioned by P.t. Barnum as an advertisement for P.T. Barnum’s American Museum or “Gallery of Wonders”. The image depicts a black mother, and her three children. However, two of her children are white as snow—“albino children with their black mother and sister” (173). The image without the text would not reveal what this lithograph is really about. Barnum saw albino people as a case of nature working in mysterious ways, as revealed in the blurb under the photo: “…Barnum’s display of racial anomalies…” (173). Barnum’s fascination with seemingly-white people with “pure African blood” is one of the most peculiar of his findings.

    Barnum had to exaggerate the people in the images. He created stories about them that were not necessarily true in order to get people to come to his museum. He tried to bait gullible common people who had never even imagined that people could be different than how they are themselves. This is seen with Figure 22 and the many other lithographs commissioned for his museum. Barnum makes bold claims that they are “alternately black and white” (173) considering he has no actual scientific evidence of this. He knew that he could get away with conning the people who were interested in his flashy poster to come and view the anomaly that was albino people. Barnum talks about this “playing-up” method of advertisement when talking about General Tom Thumb, in a piece written in 1847. It reads, “The imagination cannot conceive the possibility of such extreme littleness… we find it difficult, with the best artistic aids, to picture on the mental retina a perfect miniature man…” (118). This is an example of how Barnum and his team had to think creatively and outside the box in order to display these anomalies to the general public in an eye-catching but almost realistic way. It had to be executed in a way that wouldn’t be too bizarre that people would be terrified, but not too tame that they were not interested in paying to see these other-wordly people.

  2. Figure 11 on page 162 of the P.T. Barnum reader shows a lithograph of William Cammell, a black member of Barnum’s production who was afflicted with vitiligo. The image depicts his changing skin color, and promotes his condition as a “slave in the South….[who] accidentally discovered a weed which…converts the skin of a Colored person into the hue of a white one.” The image was created in 1850, over a decade before the civil war and the emancipation of the slaves, and portrays the inherent racism and degradation of black bodies within society. This is evident in the tagline for his exhibit, which reads “William Cammell-The Person of the Negro is Now Undergoing a Wonderful Change.” In the photo, Cammell is still portrayed as a slave, or otherwise not as a typical white man, by his clothing, which resembles something more akin to a foreign culture rather than the genteel Victorian clothing pictured on the white patrons in other figures included in the reader. Regardless, he is pictured standing tall and proud, with a smile on his face as if to show that his “changing hues” really was a wonderful discovery. The phrasing associated with the image, as well as his posturing and portrayal, appear to depict that white skin was superior to black skin at that time, and to attain white skin would be the ultimate treasure and would make one proud.

    In 1850, people were fascinated with ideas of race and skin color, but only in the sense of seeing non-white persons as almost a different species of animal altogether. This is evident in Figures 19 and 24, which depict a “missing link” between ape and man as an unintelligent yet “playful as a kitten” black man that was found and “rescued” in the jungle (209). Of course, Barnum played up this intrigue by including many persons of color in his exhibitions: William Cammell, Chang and Eng, the Aztec children, the missing link, the “Eliophobus”, and the albino children born to a black mother, to name a few. Many of these exhibits were based on falsehoods, such as the true ethnicity of the albino families, but in many of the photos, including Figure 24, when the exhibit, or the “other,” is depicted interacting with patrons, the patrons are always depicted as genteel, mannered persons in stark contrast to the backwardness of almost barbarian depiction of colored people (174-175). Although Cammell himself is pictured alone and not juxtaposed with other patrons, I argue that, due to the contrast in the clothing and depiction of the patrons in other posters with the image of how Cammell was dressed, although Cammell was visibly becoming white, he would not have been considered white or would have retained his inhuman status in society because he could never truly “be” white; in other words, from his clothing and actions white people/patrons would probably still have regarded him as someone who could never become as sophisticated as them or as someone who could enter white society. On a larger scale, this image represents how although slaves might have been freed just a decade or so later and would have legally been on more equal footing with white people, white society would not have accepted them or their culture as being equal.

  3. Figure 26 on page 177 of The Colossal P.T. Barnum Reader portrays a lithograph of a colored man, William Tillman, titled “William Tillman, the Colored Steward”. The photo was taken in the early 1860’s during the civil war, and shows Tillman standing proudly, wearing fine clothing and holding a genteel pose; very unlike how a colored steward would normally hold themselves. The interesting aspect to this lithograph is the story behind it: Tillman was a steward on the ship the S.J. Waring when it was captured by a privateer/pirate named Jeff Davis. Tillman and a fellow shipmate orchestrated the re-capture of the ship, and Tillman even captained the ship back to New York. The lithograph was used to advertise that Tillman could be visited at Barnum’s Museum, and astoundingly he attracted thousands of visitors who wished to praise him. What really makes this picture interesting is that though Tillman was a colored man he till received “unstinted praise from all parties, even those who are usually awkward in any other vernacular than derision of the colored man..” (177).

    This picture sharply contrasts with the other depictions of colored people in the other figures. Figure 19 and figure 24 “What Is It?” shows disfigured caricatures of an African man that is described in one account in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper March 24,1860 as “[Having] too much intelligence for a nigger, and not enough for a monkey” (209). This horrible comment shows some of the feelings that were held towards blacks in this time, that essentially they could be considered dumber then monkeys. So then how could a museum show an exhibit depicting a black man in such a horrible way, while also housing a different colored man whom people were actually coming to praise! The best explanation was that this event occurred during the Civil War, so a story of a heroic “colored steward” who saved his white crewmates and the ship was one very well received. This was a very unique story, and Barnum took advantage of the public’s normally very harsh and negative view of colored peoples and spun it around to highlight how courageous this man had been. As said in the previous paragraph, even those who had never said anything good about colored people were giving Tillman the highest praise.

  4. Figure 22, on page 173 in The Colossal P.T. Barnum Reader, illustrates a Currier and Ives lithograph. This photo was taken by these two and was displayed as an advertisement for Barnum’s museum and gallery. Here albino children are shown with their black mother and black sister in the early 1860s. Because the general public had a tendency to be too ready to believe in most things and there is no text to determine what the lithograph is trying to accomplish, this exhibition was used as a test. It was dictated that the pure African woman gave birth to ‘alternately black and white” children. In this period of time, racial anomalies were popular and highly talked about. So it is plausible that Barum would display such a picture.

    From what we have learned in class, I would assume that this hybridation of race was somewhat alarming to the general public, but wanted by slave owners. This is because a child of African descent could be white passing and that could be an issue for having a pure white bloodline, but in the slave owner’s case if albino children were a thing then they had more chances of creating “fancies”. I don’t think this was Barum’s intent though. Because of Barum’s dramatized artistic style, the people in the pictures he hung up in his museums and galleries were over the top and exaggerated. He was able to get away with his claim that these children came from this “pure African blood” because people of that time were so gullible and wanting to believe. They didn’t even question his credibility. On page 6, in the introduction of the reader, the author suggests that Barum strays from the truth. Barum’s relationship to the truth was similarly ambiguous. As he was known as “the progenitor of all show business tricksters.” Page 190 accounts another time in which he played on the audience’s gullibility. Here, the Times of London account for the appearance of General Tom thumb at Princess’s Theatre the night before. They write that this “little dwarf” enters on stage down to the foot-lights which hid a good portion of his body from the pit. Yes, he was a small man, but they started out the show by deceiving the audience with his dimensions and proportions. The journalist writes, “The latter were by far the most interesting part of the exhibition, as they shows his actual proportions in the most distinct manner…” So from this, you can take that Barum set it up to have General Tom Thumb to appearance smaller and younger than he actually was at first, and then jolted the audience with the realization at the end. His career was full of tricks and the audience fed into it.

  5. For my analysis I have selected Fig. 24 on page 275 title What Is It? Shown with Patrons. The image is a Currier and Ives lithograph. This image was likely produced as a collaboration with P.T. Barnum and the lithographers. Perhaps Barnum described the What Is It? to the lithographers, or the illustrators produced the image based on popular press descriptions of the event, or even attended the exhibit themselves. Likely this image was used for marketing purposes to invite visitors to the exhibit, and/or to create sensation or gossip which was P.T. Barnum’s moda operandi for marketing. This image is unique from the other What Is It? lithograph (Fig. 19, page 170) in that the What Is It? is more neutrally clothed and placed between the gazes of white spectators. I chose this image precisely for that fascinating interactions between viewer and subject which operates both within the image and between the image itself and whoever would be seeing this advertisement in press. Accompanied with the advertisement text, the image argues both the oddity and also the accessibility of What Is It? By placing the central figure in contrast to white patrons, What Is It’s stark difference to the average white patron is exaggerated. While difference, particularly racialized difference, can often be a threat particularly in the historical context of the 1860’s, the closeness of patrons, the presence of a child, and the caption all ease potential anxieties about What Is It? Barnum claims the What Is It? is as “playful as a kitten,” comparing the man to an innocuous animal much like other curious but harmless organisms in the American Museum.
    The What Is It? is more closely described in a press response from the New York Times on page 209. This excerpt further suggests the role of white fantasy in P.T. Barnum’s exhibits, particularly exhibits that dealt with questions of race. Throughout the article the author refers to the inhuman qualities of What Is It?, referencing him as a “creature,” a “new species” and describing the subject as a good “addition to the many excellent items” in the museum. Along with being caught by gorilla hunters and being found in a tree, the comparison of the What Is It? to animals and “brute” life forms extends throughout the excerpt. To complete the disavowal of human nature or spirit, the subject of the exhibit is given a question as a name making the nature of the exhibit “philosophical” in nature. The whole purpose of both the article and the exhibit seems to be a practice in exploration and conformation of the exotic, alien, and inhuman characteristics of Africans in the 1860’s. Much like the Hottentot Venus, What Is It? exists to perpetuate white fantasies about the inferiority of black bodies in an economy and culture heavily reliant on racial exploitation. The author of the New York Times article makes sure to clarify that- though the black being cannot speak and appears quite like a monkey- it can laugh and play. This qualification suggests the imperative to assure the happiness, docility, and cooperation of black bodies, particularly when proximity to white spectators is involved.

  6. “William Tillman, the Colored Steward” is a lithograph made by Currier and Ives in the early 1860s. The piece was meant to attract visitors to the American Museum, or Barnum’s museum as it is called in the lithograph, where Charles Tillman was “receiving visitors.” This lithograph is simpler and looks more formal than many of the others in Barnum’s Gallery of Wonders series. There is no fanciful border or background. The focus of the print is a portrait of William Tillman, smartly dressed in a bow tie, suit and vest. William’s serious expression and lighter skin tone (though he is still clearly Black) also seems to mark him as a different sort of “exhibition.” His description focuses on his heroic actions on behalf of the Union Army during the Civil War. In a way, William was a “wonder” and worthy of exhibition because he was portrayed as a stately, heroic former slave, which, according to the racial biases of many of Barnum’s viewers, set him apart from other African-Americans

    The case of William Tillman exemplifies how Barnum simultaneously helped and hurt his human “exhibitions.” For instance, by taking part in the exhibition, William Tillman saved himself from slavery before the passage of the 14th Amendment. One of Barnum’s most famous “wonders”, Charles Stratton who played the role of Tom Thumb, also experienced some opportunities previously denied him. A promotion for Tom Thumb from 1847 points out that “the General’s education has, until recently, been neglected” but with the instruction provided for Stratton by Barnum “the General is now advancing in reading, writing, music, etc., with every prospect of rapid proficiency.” For many of the “freaks”, Barnum’s shows were one of their only chances to make money and be employed. Yet, at the same time, Barnum’s promotional materials and the very practice of exhibiting and putting people like Tillman and Stratton on display is inherently exploitative and dehumanizing. This paradox reflects the many paradoxes of Barnum’s life. Acknowledging this paradox can also encourage us to look at how vulnerable populations, such as minorities or the disabled, were sometimes able to utilize exploitative systems to their own benefits.

  7. Figure 19 features a lithograph of the “what is it?” in a jungle-looking environment. The image was likely used as a visual advertisement for the “what is it” exhibit in PT Barnum’s museum (Barnum, 170). The ad is from the early 1860s, when Barnum was already well-established and had acquired quite a bit of wealth. Thus, it is probable that the lithograph was created by people who worked to promote exhibits at Barnum’s museum. They could have put this type of image on posters around New York to promote the particular exhibit. Although the person in the image is an ordinary African-American man, he is exploited by Barnum to seem more like an animal. He is depicted in a fur dress and leans on a wooden pole. These visual elements imply that people with dark skin are closer to animals than they are to humans.

    This image conveys how Barnum used outrageous marketing tactics to make ordinary people seem like forms of unique entertainment. This particular example demonstrates blatant racism. The use of the “what is it” man was undoubtedly representative of the racism in American society at the time; however, PT Barnum also exploited white people as forms of entertainment as well. The “Wonderful Albino” family is another example of how Barnum would lie about people’s background to make them seem more intriguing (Barnum, 171). In this case, Barnum claimed that the husband, wife and child were the children of black parents from Madagascar, when they really came from the Netherlands. The use of all of these individuals as museum attractions speaks to how Barnum was able to tap deeply into America’s racial beliefs. Although both the “what is it” man and the albino family were seemingly normal people, the exploitation of their African heritage prohibited the American public from seeing them as ordinary humans.

  8. On page 167 (Fig. 16), there is an image of a lithograph of General Tom Thumb. This lithograph is from the late 1850’s and was taken by Nathaniel Currier and James Merrit Ives. This lithograph was used by P.T. Barnum as a form of advertisement for his “Gallery of Wonders”. The image depicts General Tom Thumb on a chair surrounded by the various characters he portrayed. The purpose of this advertisement was to compare the size of General Tom Thumb to the chair he was standing on. The caption under the image states “Stratton’s face appears more mature in this version, and the surrounding panels feature a number of new characters…” (167). This quote shows how General Tom Thumb was a main act for P.T. Barnum, through the aging in his face and many personations he did. The title of the lithograph “The Original General Tom Thumb: The Smallest Man Alive” depicts how Barnum used General Tom Thumb’s abnormal height to attract wide range audiences. This is seen in the small print directly under the title; it states, “22 years old and 33 inches high”. Barnum was fascinated with the mystery of General Tom Thumb’s size and the fact that this exhibit made good business for his “Gallery of Wonders”.

    Barnum displayed many rare peculiarities in his “Gallery of Wonders”, but General Tom Thumb was one of the most popular attractions. Barnum took advantage of General Tom Thumb and the fact that he charmed every single audience. The Portland (Maine) Advertiser from 1845 states, “Mr. Barnum of the American Museum, says the New York Express, has sent home $14,000, as the proceeds of but six exhibitions of Tom Thumb” (191). To make money Barnum dressed General Tom Thumb in different outfits and had him personate various characters. “His personations of what are generally termed the ‘Grecian Statues’, are among the most beautiful and wonderful portion of his performances” (121), this exemplifies how Barnum used General Tom Thumb solely for profit. Figure 16 is an example of how Barnum advertised General Tom Thumb and other people for his own benefit. The article Some Account of General Tom Thumb, The Man in Miniature describes the lifestyle of General Tom Thumb and the work he did. “He is constantly engaged in walking about, talking… without showing any signs of fatigue, and seems the happiest little fellow in the world” (119). From this source, it is obvious that Barnum took advantage of General Tom Thumb’s popularity and lively work ethic. Barnum’s obsession with rare peculiarities drove his entire “Gallery of Wonders”. This is seen with other exhibits, like Jumbo the Elephant because he forcibly transferred the enormous animal to the United States to boost his business. Barnum’s fascination allowed his business to thrive since he constantly made selfish decisions that would mostly benefit himself.

  9. The figure I chose to analyze is figure 26 on page 177 of William Tillman “the Colored Steward.” This lithograph displays a black male posing as he wears fine clothing. When I first came across this picture Tillman’s attire captured my attention since it is unusual for me to see African Americans during the 1860s dressed up with a three piece suit and a bow tie. His face looks healthy and plump without much facial hair, he looks to be a man in his thirties. As for his hair it is nicely combed back, he looks very presentable. Seeing him so dressed up I thought he might of had some sort of power but as I read the picture’s caption it stated that Tillman was a steward of the S.J. Waring. Interestingly, Tillman was actually a hero who helped save the ship from a pirate. His photo was then displayed in New York in the Barnum’s Museum which apparently was big attraction amongst thousands of visitors despite being a “colored man.” I think the argument that this picture is trying to make is the heroism of William Tillman for his courageous act which is why he appears to be standing straight up with his shoulders back posing in an elegant way instead of appearing weak and worn down.
    The artist of this photo presents Tillman’s image through a positive and graceful perspective given his elegant appearance. I found it interesting how Tillman and the white men are similarly presented found on page 176 (in this lithograph “the smallest man alive” is being advertised). The two men on that photo are also posing standing up straight with their hands to their side like Tillman. They are both wearing suits, have their hair combed back, and have shaved faces. I find it interesting how Tillman is presented in the same way as the two white men despite being black unlike the man found on page 175. Both Tillman and the other man are black but only one of them is presented in a positive manner and the other as a villain. The only reason I can think of why this is so is due to Tillman’s heroic story other wise he would have not of been drawn and displayed in the Barnum’s Museum.

  10. I chose the lithograph Figure 24 on page 275″What is It?” or “Man Monkey.” This image stuck with me because I think it captures the voyeuristic hunger in America at this time. The patrons, keeping their distance, are drinking in the Man Monkey. There is a fixation with the other, the strange, and the curious here. Contextually speaking, it seems like this lithograph was made to compel persons to patronize the museum and see the creature. The image invokes the argument that you can come to the museum not only to experience how strange these creatures are, but to also internalize how above it you–the patron–is to it. The otherness of the Man Monkey emphasizes the “correct-ness” of the patrons surrounding it. The fact that there is a respectful distance maintained between the creature and the patrons suggests this difference in character. I think this otherness is tied more so to the racial factor than to the actual creature-like qualities of the Man Monkey. What makes him so stark in contrast to the patrons is not that he is a curiosity, but that he is a black one at that.

    Even if you look at a different image portraying a curiosity that is not black, there is a huge difference in the portrayal of the subject. For example, General Tom Thumb is another curiosity that PT Barnum used to attract patrons. However, in his lithograph, Figure 16 on page 167, he is still portrayed as a finer man who carries himself with the utmost dignity and fancies time spent with the Queen. Museum-goers could grow fond over General Thumb, but could only glower in disgust and curiosity of the black creature. During the shows, there are two courses of tension running: one of race and one of voyeurism.

  11. Figure 11 on page 162 is a lithograph of a posing William Cammell. According to the description, “He was a slave in the South and it is said accidentally discovered a weed in which by the juice gradually converts the skin of a Colored person into the hue of a white one.” I could see this promotional item being used to grab the attention of educated whites. Cammell’s pose is of poise and stature, making him appear novel and proud. His skin condition could have wowed people who thought this was some medical or physiological phenomenon. On the contrary, the lithograph text reveals the author’s bias in demeaning Cammell. The author thought it was important to point out that Cammell was a slave from the all-encompassing South, that he discovered the weed “accidentally,” and was transforming black to white rather than white to black. The transformation was further reinforced with the depiction of a round nose, curly hair and fill lips. The juxtaposition of the demeaning description and Cammell’s strength in his body position accompanied with the obvious contrast of black and white, support Barnum’s strategy of emphasizing his attractions’ “ambiguous status” and resistance to categorization. (Cook, 156)

    In Kanye West and Jay-Z’s “Niggas in Paris,” the song breaks to be interrupted by a quote from Blades of Glory (2007): “ I don’t even know what that means… No one knows what it means, but it’s provocative… No it’s not… It gets the people going!” Though the line was written decades after P.T. Barnum’s era, it reveals the truth about human entertainment — producers must recognize entertainment before they release it. To further support this point, let’s look at Barnum’s response to the New York Mercury when asked to write a weekly contribution. In the letter Barnum writes, “Yours of yesterday is received. I am quite too much occupied, not in humbugging, but in amusing and gratifying the public to write for you on any terms.” (Barnum, 1864) Such a response reveals that Barnum was aware (and proud) of the effects his attractions had on his audiences. He took his business very seriously. Cook adds, “Over the course of his career, Barnum employed a growing army of press agents, assistant managers, and advertising writers. Still, he continued to exert control over the corporate script.” (Cook, 103) Many of Barnum’s marketing tactics, including the William Cammell lithograph, were written with extreme detail and precision. The rhetorical choices may have served as a small window into Barnum’s perception of reality, but more importantly reinforced his perception of his target audience’s perception. I’m not out to say Barnum wasn’t racist, however the promotion reveals much more about what the American public thought was taboo and entertaining. I suggest that the exhibit was successful because the audience could assume the Barnum’s vision. It was up for them to interpret. It got them going.

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