The Lost Museum Archive

Behaving in Public in the Nineteenth Century

In the early nineteenth century, rich, middle-income, and poor New Yorkers often went to the same theaters--the most popular public place for entertainment at the time. Such mixing of classes upset many wealthy and middle-class theatergoers who complained about the often rowdy behavior of laborers, artisans (skilled workers) and apprentices who also were part of the audience. By the time Barnum's American Museum opened in the 1840s, different classes no longer attended the same theaters. This activity asks students to evaluate the American Museum as one of the first public places where different types of New Yorkers (and their families) once again intermingled--but under very different circumstances than before, with new rules curbing certain kinds of public conduct.

Your task:
Read the following excerpt from an 1802 article by Washington Irving (author of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle) about attending a theater performance. Then explore the Museum rooms and look for clues that indicate how Barnum designed the American Museum to be a "safe" place for different types of visitors. Look at the exhibits, placards, and signs and explain what kinds of public behavior were allowed in the Museum and what kinds were not. Are there any exhibits that you think might incite visitors to act like the theatergoers in Washington Irving's description?

Washington Irving describes a visit to a New York Theater in 1802:
(More affluent theatergoers sat in the pit right in front of the stage, while poorer audience members perched in cheaper seats in the gallery located above the stage. Because they sat so high up, these theatergoers were often jokingly referred to as "gods.")

My last communication mentioned my visit to the theatre; the remarks it contained were chiefly confined to the play and the actors: I shall now extend them to the audience, who, I assure you, furnished no inconsiderable part of the entertainment.

As I entered the house, some time before the curtain rose, I had sufficient leisure to make some observations. I was much amused with the waggery and humor of the gallery, which, by the way, is kept in excellent order by the constables who are stationed there. The noise in this part of the house is somewhat similar to that which prevailed in Noah's ark; for we have an imitation of the whistles and yells of every kind of animal. . . . Somehow or another the anger of the gods seemed to be aroused all of a sudden, and they commenced a discharge of apples, nuts, and ginger-bread, on the heads of the honest folk in the pit, who had no possibility for retreating from this new kind of thunder-bolts. I can't say but I was a little irritated at being saluted aside of my head with a rotten pippin, and was going to shake my cane at them; but was prevented by a decent-looking man behind me, who informed me it was useless to threaten or expostulate. They are only amusing themselves a little at our expense, said he, sit down quietly and bend your back to it. My kind neighbor was interrupted by a hard green apple that hit him between the shoulders‹he made a wry face, but knowing it was all in a joke, bore the blow like a philosopher. I soon saw the wisdom of his determination, a stray thunder-bolt happened to light on the head of a little sharp-faced Frenchman, dress'd in a white coat and small cock'd hat, who sat two or three benches ahead of me, and seemed to be an irritable little animal: Monsieur was terribly exasperated; he jumped upon his seat, shook his fist at the gallery, and swore violently in bad English. This was all nuts to his merry persecutors, their attention was wholly turned on him, and he formed their target for the rest of the evening.