This essay provides a brief overview of the American Museum and its pioneering place in American popular culture.
P.T. Barnum's American Museum, located from 1841 to 1865 at the corner of Broadway and Ann Street in lower Manhattan, has been long recognized by historians as a pivotal institution in the development of nineteenth-century urban culture. Barnum purchased the museum from John Scudder in 1841. Foreshadowing trends in American commercial amusement, the Museum gathered exhibitions and amusements that previously had been offered in separate milieus. In an urban culture characterized by increasing difference—in taste, in subject, and in audience—it was the first to combine sensational entertainment and gaudy display with instruction and moral uplift. For a twenty-five cent admission, visitors viewed an ever-revolving series of "attractions," from the patchwork Fejee Mermaid to the diminutive and articulate Tom Thumb. But the Museum also promoted educational ends, including natural history in its menageries, aquaria, and taxidermy exhibits; history in its paintings, wax figures, and memorabilia; and temperance reform and Shakespearean dramas in its "Lecture Room" or theater. Thus the museum drew its audience from a wide range of social classes and strove to assure that the lecture room and salons would be one of the few respectable public spaces for middle-class women. However, until the Civil War African Americans were, except for certain days, barred from the Museum, as they were from most antebellum New York commercial amusements.
Recent scholarship has greatly expanded our understanding about the ways popular culture intersected with developments in the nation’s political and social life in the antebellum era. New studies have also revealed how the American Museum did not merely entertain and edify audiences. Over the course of its 23-year existence, it supported the expanding arena of antebellum public life as it also revealed the nation’s narrowing political path toward civil war. In an unprecedented fashion, the Museum encompassed in one place immigrants and native-born, working-class and middle-class, men and women, city residents and rural visitors – and yet, repeatedly and increasingly, foundered on the social tensions arising from gender, ethnic, class, and racial difference.
These features make Barnum and the American Museum particularly valuable to students in deciphering the formation of American identity and culture in the antebellum period. Amid the burgeoning and splintering cultural marketplace of the era, Barnum’s American Museum stood out as archetypal, an institution that transcended difference in breadth and size of the audience it drew and also exploited difference in its exhibits in order to attract that audience. In short, in the view of recent scholarship, Barnum’s American Museum epitomized its era. The American Museum was distinctive for its ability to contain and negotiate, for a time, the conflicts and tensions of the age–from moral reform to racial identity to industrial change, from sectional tension to middle-class formation. While the political history of the antebellum and Civil War years has been thoroughly explored by scholars, the way that these tensions were expressed through popular culture has only recently been taken up by historians and is rarely presented in teaching materials. By exploring The Lost Museum, students will come to understand the intersecting social, political, economic, and cultural tensions that tore at American Society during he 1840’s, 1850’s, and 1860’s.
When a spectacular fire destroyed the American Museum on July 13, 1865, some commentators lamented its passing while others cheered. Barnum quickly re-opened the American Museum at a different location, but it too burned to the ground in 1868. After the second fire, Barnum turned to the circus, for which he remains well known to this day. Barnum was a larger-than-life figure whose name became synonymous with showmanship and "humbug" in his own era and ever since, and his earliest endeavors at the American Museum foreshadow much of American popular culture in the twentieth century.
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