The Lost Museum Archive

"Barnum’s Booby Show," New York Tribune, June 6, 1855

This article describes the "Grand National Baby Show" held at the American Museum in 1855. Like much of the newspaper coverage of the baby show, it pokes fun at the exhibition itself and at the parents and children who came to participate in it. This article also derides the scientific pretensions that Barnum hoped would help to justify this public spectacle, including the questionnaire administered to each contestant. This account contains evidence about the surprisingly mixed class and ethnic identities of the parents who presented their children at the baby show.

The Great National Baby-Show, which has been so long and so ardently expected by happy pairs who were sure that theirs was the fattest and finest youngster in all the world, arrived yesterday.

A baby-show is an exhibition of human cattle from yearlings or even monthlings up through the two-year-olds, three-year-olds, &c., to ten-year-olds, according to Barnum, including animals in the present case that girth a yard and three quarters. The object of baby-shows is to encourage the improvement of the breed by judicious crossing and [word unclear], and it is hoped that a series of baby-shows, connected with scientific elucidations of the principles which give physical improvement, will do much toward assimilating the diverse races with which our glorious country is checkered.

To accomplish these ends a series of questions have been prepared to be answered by exhibitors. They are as follows:

First: What is, or would be, the present age of the father of the child?
Second: What is or would be the age of the mother at the present time?
Third: What is the exact date of the child’s birth?
Fourth: What is the name of the child? . . .
Fifth: With how many previous children has the mother been gifted?
Sixth: What was the diet of the mother for a twelve month previous to the birth of the infant?
Seventh: What were her habits of exercise during the same period?
Eighth: Is the child one of premature or of regular birth?
Ninth: Have the parents or child resided on mountainous or elevated land, or the reverse?
Tenth: Have the diet and exercise of the child been subject to any special care or particular regimen? If so, please describe it. State also how often the child has been bathed or washed all over, and whether in warm or cold water.
Eleventh: Please mention any uncommon personal incidents of which the mother was subject for a year previous to the birth of this infant.

The importance of the results which may be anticipated to science from a comparison of the answers to these questions can hardly be appreciated by the unprofessional. Here will be embodied statistics from which may be deduced the intention of Providence, whether all babies should be born on mountainous or elevated land, or the reverse. Hence we may establish parental age, the day in all the year on which a child should be born, the prevailing taste with regard to human nomenclature, the degree of giftedness which is most desirable, the proper diet and exercise for mothers, and the popularity of Hydropathy with Young America. More than half the answers have been given in, and from a cursory examination we learn that the average age of competing mothers is about 35, which will perhaps explain the fact that very few were personally present; that the degree of previous giftedness is very varied; that the diet of the mother has generally been a general diet; that the child is one of regular birth; and in about half the cases, that it takes a cold bath every day. Very few definite answers have been given to the last question.

But all this must not lead us away from the contemplation of


The Museum was American with infinitely repeated stars and stripes. Two mammoth flags had been prepared, regardless of expense and expressly for this occasion by the addition of a supplementary breadth of muslin, on which it was announced to all the world that the great National Baby Show was around. A transparency, infantile in everything but size, represents babies in arms, babies on sofas, babies under the American flag, and babies wrapped in the American flag—babies of all qualities and in any quantity. In front of the main entrance were two babies executed in wax, evidently stationed there as standards by which to criticise the present and as models for the imitation of would-be competitors at future Baby Shows. A nursery impervious to masculine vision occupies the space between the stair-case and a case still redolent with rememberings of the rhinoceros and the giraffes. This room is said to be fitted up with all sorts of appliances for babyhood and maternity. A lady was in attendance to secure maternal ease and comfort, and a number of nurses were very attentive to the wants of infancy.

Upstairs the Statuary has been removed from the show-cases, usually the receptacle of waxen royalty and infancy, and they are furnished with chairs. Babies, babies’ nurses, and in some rare instances babies’ mothers sit in show-cases to exhibit themselves and their marvellous productions. The central room is occupied as a waiting-room for the children, and the northern room is devoted to twins, triplets and monstrosities generally.

. . .

The stock to be exhibited amounts in all to 143. Seven sets of triplets, eleven sets of twins and 100 single babies. They were not all in attendance yesterday.

Mr. J. R. Sprague and his wife of Danbury, Conn., exhibit five children—two girls and three boys—triplets and twins. All of them were born in Knox County, Ohio. The triplets are five years of age, and named Harriet Eliza, Hannah Jane and Harrison Taylor. The twins are named Willard Franklin and Willis Francis. Their age is three years. The father thinks it is improving the time pretty well. All sorts of inquisitive questions were asked. Mr. Sprague believed that he was the father of the children. So their mother said.

Mrs. McFlynn of New-York, exhibits three children; two girls and a boy, eight years of age, born in Ireland. Their names are James, Mary, and Patrick.

. . .

Robert Owen exhibits three boys five years old. Their stepmother is also with them. The boys were admirably drilled. When any one came up to see them she gave the word of command and they all stood up, told their ages and names, William Henry Seward, John Quincy Adams, and Albert Lamartine, shook hands and sat down again. The stepmother said that they lived "away up in Fort Byron in Cayuga County, they had been up since 5 o’clock that morning; we’ve come three or four hundred miles; was 12 days on the canal-boat; there was six children and him (pointing to the happy father) and me."

Mr. Francis Degan of Addison, New-York, exhibits triplets—two boys and a girl.

The list of twins would be long and solemn. A gentleman who spoke with a strong German accent exhibits a pair of twins whose heads seem to need washing. He said that his doctor told him the scarf had better not be washed off, it would come off itself bye and by.

Mr. Edward Duffy of New-York exhibits a little boy 13 months old, dressed in Native American costume. The bodice is composed of the full spread American eagle in white embroidery on a blue ground, and the skirt of red, white, and blue stripes. The lady in charge speaks with "that rich brogue."

. . .

The baby who took the premium of $100 as the handsomest in the collection somehow escaped the notice of reporters. Its name is Charles Orlando Scott; it was born Feb. 18, 1851; the father is 30 years old and the mother 28; the mother has had two children before; she "lived freely" for the year previous to its birth; she indulged during that time in general domestic exercise; its birth was regular, and it has been bathed in cold water Winter and Summer. Mr. Barnum speaks in very high terms of the beauty of the mother. The mother and child will be enthroned to-day and through the week for the public ratification of the award. After that it can be found at No. 369 Fourth av. Its father is a coachman. It is therefore definitely ascertained that a handsome baby must have a handsome mother, that she must have had two children before, that she must live freely, take general domestic exercise on level land, and that her husband must be a coachman.

. . .