Have a drink with: P.T. Barnum
The Greatest Showman on Earth
Ask him about: elephant agriculture
Barnum month continues! With the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey circus performing its last shows yesterday in New York, and first-look pictures of Hugh Jackman’s Barnum musical The Greatest Showman breaking this week, it’s a good day to tip the top hat to Phineas T.
Here are ten things you may not have known about Barnum:
1. He never said “There’s a sucker born every minute.” P.T. Barnum never spoke his most famous words. In the late 1860’s, workers near Syracuse, New York dug up a ten-foot stone colossus, claiming it was archaeological evidence of Biblical giants having lived in the northeast United States. Really the “Cardiff Giant” was a hoax planted by skeptic George Hull, and as it drew thousands of people to see it, the statue made its owners money hand over fist. When the statue’s owners refused to sell to Barnum, the showman simply created his own “Giant,” and claimed the other guys were showing a fake. One version of the tale has angry owner David Hannum spitting out the famous phrase in the resulting legal dispute.
Have a drink with: Henry Bergh
The Great Meddler, mustache aficionado, friend to animals
Ask him about: Aquatic rhinoceros*
Today I’m over at The Atlantic writing about Henry Bergh, America’s first animal rights activist and a relentless crusader for the early animal rights movement. Through an unlikely and yet genuine friendship with entertainment icon P.T. Barnum, the two men advanced their mutual goal to make the world a better place – Bergh through service to animals, Barnum through the joy of spectacle.
Have a drink with: The 19th Century Anti-Gun Lobby
“We’re all hot at the same time, and we should do somethin’ about it!”
Ask them about: Background checks
If you watch enough movies – Civil War dramas, Wild West adventures, Five Points gangland brawls, Mel Brooks – you’d be forgiven for thinking that the 19th century was one long festival of unmitigated gun violence.
Indeed, in the 1800s, industrialization was the catalyst for mass production and ownership of guns. Prior to that, gun ownership was relatively rare and despite a romantic ideal of the American militia, apparently most of them literally couldn’t hit a barn door.
But what might surprise you is that the American reputation for a history of unchecked gun culture is, on the whole, undeserved. In the 19th century concealed carry prohibitions were common – and serious.
Have a drink with: Lovestruck 19th C New Yorkers
Don’t do it, girls!
Ask them about: Victorian-era sexting
In 1893, the city of Baltimore got serious about keeping harmful and degenerate behavior out of its city parks. By which it meant it was tired of kids flirting on on public property, and forbade young couples from courting in the parks lest they offend public morals. The New York press seized on the opportunity to make fun of its southern neighbor, with the World quipping: “A man must not put his arm around a woman’s waist if he has scruples about being indicted…the affectionate and spooning throng have been informed of the terribleness of the fate that will overtake them if they are caught swapping gum or tootsy-wootsying within the park limits.” They also made sure to proudly note that, in New York, “joy is unconfined.” Nyah.
Joy does have its limits, though. You may have earned the right to tootsy-wootsy in Central Park by now, but if we’ve told you once, we’ve told you a thousand times: NO SEXTING.
Have a drink with: The American Voter
On Tuesdays we wear white.
Ask her about: Her “citizen’s right, guaranteed to me and all United States citizens.”*
In case you need some historical comfort for your Election Day habits:
Compulsively clicking “refresh” on FiveThirtyEight? We get it. P.T. Barnum got it, too, which is why he offered a daily “Presidential Test Vote” at his American Museum (open to women as well as men!) and fed results to the daily papers:
“Women as well as Men vote at BARNUM’S MUSEUM All this week. Now is the time, Ladies, to show your preference. The vote will be taken, and the curiosities and entertainments of the museum increased in proportion.”
(While at the Museum, you could conveniently escape your polling anxiety with “Two LIVING ANACONDAS, a LIVING SKELETON, the DWARF LADY, a MODEL of the MALAKOFF, &c.”)
Have a drink in: New Jersey
Jug handles and justice.
Ask: what exit?
No one would blame you for reading the news lately and deciding that 2016 was the year that somehow squeaked past quality control at the Time & Space Assembly Plant, having been created from spare parts by drunken intern howler monkeys.
Even though reasoned voices assure us that things in fact aren’t that bad, that doesn’t mean any of us are exactly sleeping better in the short term. But once again our 19th century friends at the New York Ledger arrive to the rescue, with some brass-tacks advice on where exactly America can find an example of solemn, principled order:
Have a drink with: An Anonymous Neat Freak
Not a fan of the cake smash.
Ask him: so how do you feel about nursing in public?
In an evergreen forest of advisories, parenting blogs, media content and pop-sociology books on parenthood it’s easy to suspect that no era outside of our own has ever been so laser-focused on how we mold our children, and even easier to feel nostalgic for a time in which maybe, just maybe, people kept unsolicited parenting advice to themselves.
But lest you think the past was a freer, bygone era, take one (presumably male) 19th-century New York journalist, who if he even had kids was at least very lucky his wife, children and no doubt ample domestic staff did not one morning decide to lace his oatmeal with strychnine.
Because if you believe the July 2, 1859 issue of the New York Ledger, children should apparently not only be neither seen nor heard, but little walking Swiffer pads for Jesus. Mothers, take note:
Have a drink with: John C. Calhoun
The “cast-iron man,” nullifier, racist.
Ask him about: getting into college
Yale University recently announced that it would retain the name of 19th century politician and slavery advocate John C. Calhoun on one of its twelve undergraduate residential colleges. The decision has been broadly condemned: on Twitter, #FormerlyKnownAsCalhoun quickly topped the trends list, and singer Janelle Monae used Yale’s Spring Fling stage to lead protest chants, calling Calhoun a “white supremacist.”
In a note to the Yale community, university president Peter Salovey justified the decision with the statement that removing Calhoun’s name “obscures the legacy of slavery rather than addressing it.”
But was John Calhoun history’s intolerant yet benign uncle, whom we harmlessly leave at the dinner table to rant, and should we care that his name’s on an Ivy League building?