The Lost Museum Archive

"Barnum’s Baby Show—A Protest," New York Herald, May 12, 1855

When critics decried his "Grand National Baby Show" as an unseemly public display of private maternal virtue, Barnum countered those protests in part by naming a panel of respectable local women to act as the contest’s judges. The New York Herald newspaper received this letter from a woman incorrectly identified as a baby show judge. Setting the record straight, she sharply criticized the contest and urged mothers not to attend.

Some few weeks since, returning from a professional engagement in Massachusetts which had detained me a month, I found a letter from P. T. Barnum, Esq., requesting me to act as one of the committee of women, whose duty should be to decide upon and award the premiums at what is called the Baby Show, to be held at Barnum’s Museum, New York, some time in June next; I forget the date.

Upon reading the letter in question I tossed it aside as one of the things unentitled to a reply, and thought little more of it in relation to myself, being at that time encumbered with the cares consequent upon a change of residence and having also sickness in my family. Probably I should not have given it a second thought had not a friend last evening assured me that my name had already been made public as a member of said committee. Under these circumstances I ask the privilege of a few words through the columns of the Tribune.

Of P. T. Barnum, Esq., I have nothing to say. He is the better judge of his own vocations, and in getting up his various monstrous exhibitions, or exhibitions of monsters, he is evidently in his true sphere, and it is for the public to judge of its quality and to protect itself from the enlargement of any "sphere" detrimental to good taste and sound morals. But I feel keenly whatever tends to vitiate the finder sense, or degrade the position of my own sex, and as my name has been made public in connection with this premeditated exhibition, I am compelled to enter my protest lest I be thought capable of lending to it aid and countenance.

I am conscious of a sense of profound pain and humiliation to think any woman will countenance in any way a demonstration like the one proposed. No true woman can or will do so. Indeed I hardly think any full born American woman would. It seems to me the natural modesty and decent common sense of the sex might be enough to protect them from what is utterly repugnant to the spirit of womanhood.

There is something intrinsically revolting in this attempt to force aside the veil which screens and protects the chaste matron, where she and her "pretty brood" within the sanctuary of home are exempt from the rude gaze of a prying curiosity, and thus thrusting her unblushingly into the public eye, with all the suggestions and none of the decencies of maternity.

The harmonious woman to whom has been delegated the fostering culture of a beautiful ministure of the Creator, will hold herself as one made holy thereby, and she will profane neither herself nor child by any unseemly or ostentatious display of either. If her culture be of high order she will shrink from it as from deadly sin. If she have a shred of womanly pride in the fabric of her being, she will resent the implied insult offered to her when invited to figure personally in a human "live cattle show."

I do hope and trust our women will have the taste, the decency and dignity to utterly ignore the projected baby show.

Very respectfully,
E. Oakes Smith
No. 96 Stuyvesant st., New York, May 4, 1855