This activity focuses on the rise of mass popular culture and the creation of celebrity during the 1850s. Designed for high school juniors and seniors, it examines how P. T. Barnum created public enthusiasm for Jenny Lind, a Swedish soprano, and compares Lind’s career to that of her contemporary, African-American singer Elizabeth Greenfield. The activity encompasses such themes as how popular entertainment informs social values; the role of celebrity in American culture; and how responses to Lind and Greenfield reflect antebellum ideas about race, gender, and class.
In 1849, almost no one in the United States knew who Jenny Lind was. By September 1850, P. T. Barnum had changed all of that. Barnum promoted the concert tour of Lind, a Swedish opera singer, so successfully that he earned a vast fortune and created a new cultural phenomenon: the celebrity. Barnum drummed up such great public anticipation about the "Swedish Nightingale" that 40,000 people greeted the arrival of her ship in New York City harbor. He fueled "Lindomania" by orchestrating ticket auctions and negotiating a host of Lind-endorsed products (including Jenny Lind songs, clothes, chairs, and pianos). Barnum shrewdly promoted Lind’s character--her modesty, benevolence, and selflessness--as much as her artistry. One scholar contends that because of Barnum’s efforts, Lind became "the standard for measuring not just sopranos, or even women artists, but women" throughout the 1850s.
During the same period, Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield began her career as a public performer, singing recitals and touring upstate New York, Massachusetts, and cities in the Midwest. In 1853 she debuted at New York City’s Metropolitan Hall, and because African Americans were denied admission, she was asked to repeat her concert at the Broadway Tabernacle. In 1854, Greenfield performed for Queen Victoria of England. Greenfield was born a slave in Natchez, Mississippi; her owner relocated to Philadelphia, freed Greenfield, and paid for voice lessons for her. One Canadian reviewer described her range, which spanned three and a half octaves, as having "the amazing power of [her] voice, the flexibility and the ease of execution." But Greenfield faced tremendous obstacles in pursuing her career. In reviews of her concerts, her race and physical appearance often drew as much attention as her singing. One reviewer dubbed her "the Black Swan," a name that remained for many years.
Themes: popular culture in the 1850s; celebrity; racial and gender identities
1. Obtain historical data from a variety of sources (National History Standards, Standards of Historical Thinking, 4-B)
2. Identify issues and problems in the past and analyze the interests, values, perspectives, and points of view of those involved in the situation (National History Standards, Standards of Historical Thinking, 5-A)
3. Use their analysis of these varied sources as the basis for a creative writing assignment (NCTE English Language Arts Standards, 5, 6)
Assessment: dialogue or letter writing/point-of-view writing
Read the material and look at the artifacts in the Archive on Jenny Lind and Elizabeth Greenfield. Consider the following questions as you read, taking notes about how these questions can be answered using the materials in the Archive:
1. What did Barnum do to create "Lindomania"?
2. What values did Lind personify and why was she held in such high esteem?
3. How did her career and image compare with that of her contemporary, Elizabeth Greenfield?
4. What distinctions can be drawn between the two? What reception did each have? How was each marketed? What do the differences tell us about conceptions of beauty and issues of race in that period.
5. How did the careers of both Lind and Greenfield come to reflect some of the larger political and social issues of the period?
Write either a series of letters or a dialogue between Greenfield and Lind in which they discuss their careers and their experiences performing in nineteenth century America. Or, write a series of letters or a dialogue between Greenfield or Lind and a present day female performer in which they discuss their careers. If you choose the latter task, consider the following questions:
1. How are present day popular performers and entertainers marketed and how does today’s marketing compare with that of the 1850s?
2. What values do present day music stars represent?
3. How do race and notions of female role models or feminine beauty affect performers today?