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Newspaper Advertisement for the Boston Museum, 1850

Newspaper advertisement for Boston Museum in the Barre [Vermont] Patriot, 1850

Newspaper advertisement for the Boston Museum
from the Barre Patriot, Vermont, 15 September 1850

The most popular form of entertainment in America in the nineteenth century was far and away the dime museum, an example of an advertisement for one such establishment in Boston appears here. Unlike the theaters and small circuses that had an unsavory reputation, the dime museum was presented as a safe and wholesome refuge where upstanding citizens could learn of the newest scientific discoveries, or partake of the latest and best entertainments.

The first grand museum was founded in Philadelphia by painter Charles Wilson Peale. Growing out of the tradition of the wunderkammern (or cabinets of curiosities) so beloved for centuries by eccentric men of means, Peale's Museum featured natural history specimens and his own paintings, which he hoped would serve to educate and uplift the public and in the process earn himself a tidy income to support his growing family.

In spirit, Peale's museum was uniquely American, reflecting the vigor and curiosity of a new nation. Rather than pooling random items together as was the European tradition, Peale's specimens and displays were arranged in what he considered logical and scientific groupings. Initially, people were intrigued by this new institution, but Peale soon realised that if he wished to attract customers in order to remain solvent, he was going to need to find a way to entertain them, as well. So, Peale added musicians and other performers to attract a larger audience. And come they did. While this concession to the public's lower sensibilities grated somewhat against his desire for a pure educational experience, Peale did not object to the startling amount of coin dropping into his pockets. Encouraged by this success, Peale and his sons opened further museums in other cities, spreading the new entertainment medium from New York to Baltimore. This new enterprise really came into its own when taken a step further and grander by later enterprising businessmen like John Scudder and P. T. Barnum - men who turned education into show business. [My homage to Charles Wilson Peale's famous self-portrait and tribute to Phineas Taylor Barnum, The Showman and His Museum, may be seen here]

What made the museums so popular was that in a single building - at any time and for a low admission price - anyone could see a host of wonders and amusements, many of an exotic nature, that one would normally have to pay to see individually, or could never hope to come across elsewhere. Here was a sort of nineteenth century one-stop-shopping: pantomine, minstrelsy, waxworks, song and dance, natural history, human oddities and more - all under one roof, and presented in such a way that the patrons felt they were bettering themselves through the experience. For the cost of a few coins, one could travel to far off lands, meet extraordinary people, attend a temperance lecture, feel morally superior to primitive peoples, or just have a jolly good laugh. Truly, there was something to appeal to every interest and sensibility.

Although the museums reached the height of their popularity in the late 1800's, dime museums would continue to function in one form or another through the 1940's. Many of the sideshow perfomers who were out on the road from May to September would spend their winters holed up in a museum in some northern city, where they could be assured of a comfortable and warm spot out of the elements but which still allowed them to make a decent living.

The Boston Museum of the 1850's - a successor of Peale and friendly competitor with Barnum - seems to have been a model of the form. The advertisement in this Vermont newspaper sought to attract patrons to the larger town of Boston, where many engaging amusements were to be seen. Of course, a certain amount of bluster and bravado was necessary to make the punters feel like it would be worth the trip:

Tremont Street, ……Boston.

THIS MUSEUM is the largest, most valuable, and best arranged in the United States. It comprises no less than
to which has been added the present year, besides the constant daily accumulation of articles, One Half of the celebrated
swelling the already immense collection to upwards of
the greatest amount of objects of interest to found together at any one place in America…

Okay, so clearly they are trying to impress with volume. Surely that must have been enough to bring patrons flocking to the door? Apparently, Moses Kimball, the curator of the Boston Museum, was not content to rest on his laurels. The public would do well to consider the:

One Hundred Feet in length, filled to its utmost capacity with WAX FIGURES of the size of life, singly and in groups, to the number of upwards of TWO HUNDRED, which have been in preparation for the last two years by a corps of the most distinguished artists to be found in either the old country or the new, and are so NATURAL and LIFELIKE as to
Mock Reality,
and lead the beholder to doubt whether the figures do not actually live and breathe.

Among the figures and groupings arranged to mock reality and creep the living bejeezuz out of visitors was "the celebrated Tableaux of CHRIST'S LAST SUPPER", and similar religious fare catering to the devout, such as a vignette about the prodigal son, the crucifixion, Christ arguing with the doctors ("a characteristic group of seven figures") and something called "The Game of Life", in which a Christian plays chess against Satan.

There were waxy displays to appeal to the secular mind as well, including a likeness of "THE SIAMESE TWINS and their beautiful American wives" (the writer must never have seen the Yeates sisters!), and nine figures representing "the MASSACRE BY PIRATES of the passengers of a merchantman in the India Seas." Abolitionists, who had money to spend like everyone else, could enjoy a display entitled "HORROR OF SLAVERY, as exemplified by seven figures, being actual likenesses of a slave-owner, a slave-driver, and their victims." Surely, an enlightened exhibition for the era, but racial benevolence extended only just so far, for another waxwork called "MURDER of Miss McCREA by the Indians during the Revolutionary War" alleged to accurately depict "the characteristics of the Red Men." The temperance crowd was courted with three groups of wax statues depicting the evils of strong drink, including a drunkard murdering his wife (they really went in for murder back in the day). Perhaps a bit less interesting were further depictions of a school, a blacksmith shop, and various distinguished people whom I presume to have been neither drunk nor murderous, otherwise they would have been so indicated.

The Boston Museum also boasted of a collection of "BIRDS, BEASTS, FISH, INSECTS & REPTILES obtained from all parts of the world, together with innumerable varieties of Natural and Artificial Curiosities." These curiosities were further augmented with artistic representations "of the GREAT and GOOD of all nations, - Naval and Military Heroes, Patriots, Statesmen, and Divines; - Rare Coins and Medals; - Shells, Corals, and Fossils..." Why portraits should be included among shells and fossils I can scarely guess, but even greater wonders awaited:

the Fejee Mermaid, detail from advertisement for Boston Museum, 1850

and ancient Sarcophagi, 3,000 years old; and an entire
Family of Peruvian Mummies;
the DUCK-BILLED PLATYPUS, the connecting link between the BIRD and BEAST, being evidently half each; — the curious half-fish, half-human
which was exhibited in most of the principal cities of America, in the years 1840, '41, and '42, to the wonder and astonishment of thousands of naturalists and other scientific persons, whose previous doubts of existence of such an astonishing creation were entirely removed...

Here they were trotting out an old favorite. Barnum and Kimball made a ridiculous amount of money displaying the Fejee Mermaid in the years listed above (see my tribute to this infamous gaff, The Woman with the Fegee Mermaid, here). That original mermaid had been leased to Barnum by Moses Kimball, with whom Barnum entered into a partnership to jointly exploit the alleged mermaid. Apparently, this gruesome hoax in which the upper half of a monkey was attached to the lower half of a large fish hadn't lost it's appeal in the several years since its debut and was proving a perennial favorite. Similarly, Barnum's and Kimball's friendship was strong enough to last well into old age. The two remained each other's life-long confidantes and routinely shared money-making schemes and even performers.

Fanciful hoaxes aside, there were genuine animals at the Boston Museum to be seen:

Elephants and Ourang-Outangs;
ANIMALS and BIRDS of every nation; Sharks, Seals, and a variety of FISHES, including the curious
all in lifelike preservation; the whole forming a School of Instruction, blended with Amusement, that for extent and interest is unequalled in the known world; - the whole to be seen for the small admission fee of
In Addition to which, and
visitors are admitted to the gorgeous Exhibition Hall, which has been newly decorated at an expense of nearly five thousand dollars, where they can witness the magnificent
given EVERY EVENING, and WEDNESDAY and SATURDAY AFTERNOONS, by a Company of Commedians and an Orchestra of Musicians, admitted to be SUPERIOR to any ever before collected in this country, with the aid of
Stage and Scenic Arrangements,
the most grand and superb ever seen in either Europe or America! thus warranting the universal admission that the Boston Museum, besides being the most comfortable and genteel, is also the
Cheapest Place of Amusement
IN THE WORLD! A single visit will prove the truth of this assertion, as the admission is only
25 Cents to the Whole!!

If these satements were true, I commend the typesetter for reserving the exclamation points until the very end. This was a remarkable exercise in restraint, for which I am grateful. I don't think I could have stood the strain if they were introduced sooner.

Hyperbolic expressions aside, the Boston Museum certainly provided a wealth of entertainment for a paltry admittance price.

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All Images and Text © James G. Mundie 2004 - 2010