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P.T. Barnum, In France

April 14, 2010
P.T. Barnum, by Matthew Brady

P.T. Barnum (Presumed Public Domain. By Matthew Brady, via Wikipedia)

When I saw that this week’s Library of America story was by P.T. Barnum, I knew I had to read it. Like most people I’ve heard of Barnum and his travelling shows, but had never read anything by him.

“In France” is not a short story, as most of the Library of America offerings are, but an excerpt from his 1869 memoir Struggles and triumphs. The whole memoir can be read online at the Internet Archive, here. While “In France” is the title of Chapter 12 in the memoir, the Library of America has not selected the whole chapter. Rather, they have published the middle of it, focusing on the story of how Barnum managed to present “General Tom Pouce” (ie Thumb), wearing his famed Napoleon Bonaparte costume, to the anti-Bonapartist King Louis Philippe. This was 1844, and Stratton (Tom Thumb) was just 6 years old!

You don’t read this for the writing. As memoir, or as travel writing, it is pretty prosaic. He doesn’t do much reflection – at least in this excerpt. You do not get a sense of how he felt about what he was doing, and you certainly get no idea of how his “exhibit”, General Tom Thumb, felt about being dressed up in costumes and paraded. However, it is interesting for its insights into Barnum’s modus operandi – particularly his economic and diplomatic nous. He knew how to work the system, though we are given the impression that he was a hard but not a dishonest negotiator. There is a funny little story running through this excerpt about the licence fee he needed to pay for exhibiting “natural curiosities”. Barnum felt the fee (25%) was too high and succeeded in negotiating a lower one, partly because the official involved did not believe that Barnum would make much money. When it came time for renewal, the official realised his mistake but was once again (legally) finessed by Barnum who argued that Tom Thumb should not be seen as a “natural curiosity” but as a “theatrical” performance (which incurred a much lower 11% tax)!

He also talks about how he worked his promotion – and makes this delightful comment on the French versus the English:

Thus, before I opened the exhibition all Paris knew that General Tom Thumb was in the city. The French are exceedingly impressible; and what in London is only excitement, in Paris becomes furor.

I don’t know when merchandising associated with the arts/performance first took off, but in Paris in 1844 it was in full flight. Barnum writes that:

Statuettes of ‘Tom Pouce’ appeared in all the windows, in plaster, Parian, sugar and chocolate; songs were written about him and his lithograph was seen everywhere. A fine café on one of the boulevards took the name of ‘Tom Pouce’ …

While this merchandising, generated by others for their own benefit, clearly also served Barnum well, there’s no mention of his licensing Tom Thumb’s image for promotional purposes. I can’t help thinking that the master showman missed an opportunity here!

Like the previous Library of America offering this is a short piece: it’s well worth reading for our “historical” if not “natural” curiosity!

3 Comments leave one →
  1. April 15, 2010 12:13 am

    I had no idea Barnum ever wrote anything. Clearly the man found his niche and was a genius at it. He did miss out on the statue sales. Maybe you couldn’t license an image back then, but you’d think he would have been able to come up with something!

  2. April 15, 2010 1:50 am

    Some people just have the alchemical gift of turning base metals into gold. I suspect Barnum was one of these.

    An interesting post – who’d have thought it!

  3. April 15, 2010 9:37 am

    Stefanie and Tom. I had no idea he’d written anything either, but according to Wikipedia he wrote several books. Glad the post interested you both.

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