The Lost Museum Archive

Barnum's Museum, New York Tribune, June 19, 1850

In the spring of 1850 Barnum closed the American Museum for nine weeks of renovations, which included enlarging the Lecture Room to seat 3,000 spectators. In this speech, given at the re-opening and reprinted in the New York Tribune, Barnum emphasized the morally uplifting entertainment available at the Lecture Room, a key element of his attempts to appeal to a middle-class, "respectable" audience.

BARNUM’S MUSEUM.–The opening of the American Museum, after being closed nine weeks, was the signal for a rush, which crowded the new hall to its utmost capacity. About three thousand persons were present, who witnessed the performance of the moral Drama of the Drunkard with repeated bursts of applause. After the performance, Mr. Barnum was loudly called for, and responded to the call as follows:

LADIES AND GENTLEMEN: I can scarcely command language to express my thanks for this unexpected compliment. I confess to you that during a somewhat eventful life, this is the proudest moment I have ever yet experienced.

During the last nine years it has been my pleasure, on this spot, to cater for the amusement of this community, as well as the vast number of strangers from the country, who visit our great metropolis, and here is the place where permanent prosperity for the first time attended me. I feel, therefore, no small degree of pride and satisfaction in presenting you with this beautiful temple, on which Art has lavished all her powers, and it is you, my patrons, whom I may and do most sincerely thank for giving me the ability to erect a place of amusement, which all who have seen it acknowledge is an honor to our City, and to the refined taste and artistic skill of this country.

I trust that you will believe me, when I pledge my honor, that the thought of gain was but a secondary consideration with me in making the valuable improvements just completed in this establishment. I was doing well enough pecuniarily, and had been already blessed by fortune far beyond my expectations, and fully equal to my desires. Indeed, I had seriously thought of retiring from public life, and transferring my interests in all public exhibitions, to my valuable assistants; to whose integrity, energy, and good habits, I am indebted for much of my success; but knowing that amusements and relaxation from the business and cares of life are absolutely required and will be had, in every civilized land, I felt that this community needed and demanded at least one more place of public amusement, where we might take our children, and secure much rational enjoyment, as well as valuable instruction, without the risk of imbibing moral poisons in the chalice presented to our lips.

This reflection induced me to take the necessary steps for erecting and perfecting what is acknowledged to be the most beautiful, commodious, comfortable, and best contrived Saloon in this country, and I verily believe in the world, and so long as a discerning public shall prefer pure enjoyments, pleasing exhibitions, and wholesome specimens of Comedy or Drama, upholding virtue, portraying its beautiful and certainly happy consequences, and as vividly painting the positive and inevitable evil consequences of vice, in whatsoever form–just so long during the continuance of my life and health, will I cater for public gratification; but, unless some unforeseen calamity overtakes me, I pledge myself to withdraw into private life, if ever the moment arrives that the great mass of our citizens prefer immoral and vicious, to moral and reformatory entertainments. But I know the American public too well to fear any such result. I have studied too long, and too thoroughly, the habits and tastes of my countrymen and women, to mistake their wholesome instincts upon this subject.

I do not wish to be understood, in making these remarks, as reflecting in the slightest degree upon other places of public amusement. Their managers pursue, no doubt, the course which their peculiar views dictate, and it is not for me to challenge either their judgement or their policy. The Bee, we are told by naturalists, contrives to gather honey from even the most poisonous of Nature’s productions. I conceive it possible, after a somewhat similar fashion, to distill for the great Public every species of the popular drama, and present them all so completely divested of mental impurity, so perfectly racked off the lees of verbal pollution, that the most inexperienced may imbibe them without apprehension, and the most cautious prescribe them with a confident hope of intellectual advantage. It remains for you to say whether the effort to effect such a reform is not worthy of encouragement; it is for you, ladies and gentlemen, to decide whether or not I fall short in my endeavor thus felicitously to combine innocence with pleasure, rational amusement with a proper sense of virtue and morality.