Today’s equivalent might be an afternoon at an Imax theater, or a trip to Dylan’s Candy Bar or to see the dinosaurs at the Museum of Natural History.
But for New York City kids growing up in the antebellum 19th century, the greatest treat of all was a visit to Barnum’s American Museum.
“Sometimes my mother and father would take me to P.T. Barnum’s Museum—on the corner of Broadway and Ann Street,” wrote James Edward Kelly, who as a small child in 1860s New York recalls Barnum’s as the promise land “for all good boys and girls.”
“As I remember it, it was a large, light colored building, five stories high. It had a balcony over the first floor, and facing Broadway was an expansive banner on which was painted the latest wonder of the world, and behind it a band was constantly playing,” remembered Kelly in his memoir, Tell Me of Lincoln.
It’s not hard to see the appeal. From 1842 to 1865, Barnum’s was a menagerie (below), circus, theater, and freak show all under one heavily decorated roof.
For 25 cents (15 cents for kids under age 10), parents and their offspring could gaze at exotic animals, view exhibits of scientific discoveries, watch historical plays, and be entertained by magicians and musicians in what was cheekily called the “Lecture Room.”
“[At Barnum’s] I found the people of my fancy realized: giants, in the person of Miss Anna Haining Bates Swan (at left), eight feet high, and dwarfs, such as Commodore George Washington Morrison Nutt” (below).
“Here I also saw Barnum’s white whale, and Ned the trained seal, who had an almost uncanny intelligence,” recalled Kelly.
Barnum’s was famous worldwide, a must-see for tourists. At its peak the museum was open almost around the clock, entertaining crowds in the millions.
“The country people, so as to get all they could for their money, used to bring their lunches and stay all day, thus filling up the building,” stated Kelly.
While kids were enthralled, many proper adults found Barnum’s appeal decidedly lowbrow, catering to the “vulgar gaze,” as one English visitor put it in 1854.
Barnum’s occupied “a gaudy building, denoted by huge paintings, multitudes of flags, and a very noisy band,” the visitor wrote.
“The museum contains many objects of real interest . . . intermingled with a great deal that is spurious and contemptible.”
The museum burned down in 1865 in a spectacular fire that killed many of the animals. Though Barnum rebuilt it in farther north on Broadway, the operation ceased in 1868.
But Barnum’s remained alive in the imaginations of kids like Kelly, who remembered the excitement of watching a show in the lecture room (below).
“Then came the delicious moments of suspense, when the audience waited for wonders that were behind the curtain….”
“Then with a crash from the band, the curtain rolled up and we soon got goose flesh over the blood-curdling play, unsurpassed by any in the Old Bowery Theatre.”