Barnum's phenomenally popular baby shows, staged at the American Museum in New York and in several other cities in 1855, reflected many antebellum attitudes about race, gender, and class. In this exchange of letters, published in the New York Tribune newspaper, a correspondent asks Barnum if African-American babies will be allowed to compete in the upcoming baby contests. Barnum replies that he will follow accepted social custom for the time, which called for strict segregation of the races. Barnum never staged any baby shows for African-American children, although other showmen subsequently presented "Colored Baby Shows" that closely imitated Barnum's original.
SIR: Rejoicing in the fact that our patriotic and enterprising fellow citizen, Mr. Barnum, is approaching, by his unmitigated zeal and indefatigable industry, to the full fruition of a scheme for the promoting of a proper spirit of emulation, among the baby producing matrons of this "land of the free and home of the brave." I say, Sir, that it is in rejoicing in this philanthropic offspring of Mr. B's imagination, that I now address a line to him through the columns of your respected paper, hoping that a cloud of gloom which has hovered over the frost work of bliss, may be wafted away, and that we may look forward to the sunny days of the baby-show, as to a scene of unalloyed enjoyment and boundless edification. I wish to inquire whether, on the coming contest between the infantile members of the community, those to whom nature has given a dark exterior will be admitted to the arena, as combatants for the proffered rewards of merit. Resting in the disinterestedness of my esteemed friend, I trust that as my inquiry is advanced sincerely, it will merit a passing notice and elicit an expression that shall cause solid satisfaction to take the place of doubt. I pause for a reply.
New York, May 1, 1855
* The above is a pertinent inquiry. We believe, however, that the advertisement of the Baby Show does not specify any particular complexion or requisite in the infant prodigies. That being the case negro babies and mothers, complying with the conditions of entrance, will certainly be entitled to compete for the premiums. ED.
P. T. Barnum to the Editor of the New York Tribune, May 4, 1855:
SIR: When I first announced that I would distribute eleven hundred dollars in premiums at the Baby Show to be held in my Museum from the 5th to the 8th of June next, you expressed some disapprobation of the scheme, and seemed to doubt its success. I replied that I believed the Exhibition to be a legitimate thing, and that it would present one of the most agreeable and interesting scenes ever witnessed in this country. I added my conviction that one hundred of the finest babies in America would be presented for competition on that occasion. I now assure you that fifty-one certificates have already been issued; and as these include the certificates for twins, triplets, and one quartern, the number at this moment engaged may be said to exceed sixty. Hence the strong probability that the full number of "one hundred cradles" will be occupied during the event in question.
But I find an article in your journal of this morning, purporting to emanate from an anonymous correspondent, and derisively asking me if colored children are to participate in this exhibition. To the communication is appended an editorial remark to the effect that such may be the case. Now, lest some person, unaccustomed to the discovery of jokes in THE TRIBUNE, might misapprehend the facts in the case, allow me to admit that when public opinion sanctions without exception the promiscuous assemblage and close companionship of black and white, in churches, schools, theaters, courts of justice, railroad cars, Italian Opera houses, editorial sanctums, and printing offices as well as among bank directors, marchants on change, and in the social circle, I shall not be found backward in pronouncing your correspondent's inquiry "pertinent" and answering it accordingly. As society is as present constituted, however, and as it seems likely to remain during our day and generation, I regard his question as im-pertinent, and merely state that I shall manage the Baby Show, as I manage all other enterprises in which I engage, with a respectful deference for the social usages of the community I seek to please.
Permit me to add in conclusion that after exhibiting (as I certainly shall in June next) from sixty to one hundred of the finest white babies on this continent, I shall have no objection to offer the same amount of cash premiums for a similar exhibition of the finest colored ones, provided your anxious correspondent will guarantee, under good security, that an equal number shall be brought into the competition, at such a suitable place as I may select, as well as at such a time within six months as I may designate.
P. T. BARNUM
* It really strikes us that Mr. Barnum's exclusion of "dark complected" babies and matrons comes rather too late. The Courts have decided that colored persons have a right to travel in public conveyances as well as whites; and why have they not equal right to compete at a National Baby Show? Or can there be any truly National Baby Show from which so large a part of the nation are excluded? ED.