This humorous account of the chaotic scene at Barnum's baby show appeared as a chapter in Doesticks, a chronicle of the New York City adventures of the eponymous author, "Q.K. Philander Doesticks," the pen name of humorist and journalist Mortimer Neal Thompson. Thompson wrote for the New York Tribune beginning in 1855 where his anti-slavery verse and prose, and later Civil War reports from the field, attracted wide attention. Tales of travels and adventures were popular among antebellum readers, and Doesticks, published in 1855, seems to be a satire of the genre. While obviously exaggerated, narrator Damphool's description of his visit to the baby show provides a vivid sense of what it might have been like to visit the American Museum.
THE late grand convention of precocious and pinguid* children, created such a stir throughout the country, that the news, by some unknown conveyance, penetrated even to the obscure Wolverine hamlet wherein Damphool had for four months been content to vegetate. The infantile humbug promised something new in the way of sight-seeing, and as he desired to meet all his relatives and name-sakes who would be certain to be present on that eventful occasion, and wished to improve this noble opportunity of contemplating the infant Damphools of the country, who were to be there exhibited by their stultified progenitors, he took the next train of cars and started for Gotham, to view this first congress of rudimentary "humans."
His immediate care, on reaching the city, was to repair to the establishment where I, his former friend, am generally to be found, -- having discovered the object of his search, he had some considerable difficulty in convincing me of the utility of such a show, or the absolute necessity that existed of visiting such a promiscuous assemblage of everybody's brats; and paying twenty-five cents to hear a squalling chorus by the unregulated voices of the young ones, and to view the prolific women who had so increased the population of the country, in some cases by as many as four at a single litter.
I had some old fashioned notions that babies should be kept at home, and allowed to take their necessary allowance of nutriment, and soil their necessary allowance of linen (a baby is always wrapped up in cloth enough to full-rig a topsail schooner, from the middle of which its insignificant head sticks out, like a lap-dog which has been rolled up by mistake in the parlor carpet), within the limits of the domestic circle; and not paraded before the public to perform these pleasing functions in the presence of. an assemblage, composed in great part, of modest young men and bashful maidens, uninitiated as yet, in the mysteries of baby life.
After laboring for some time to convince me that adolescent and embryo human stock is as legitimate a subject of exhibition as any other animals, and that fecund mothers and high-blooded fathers should be as much brought into public notice as brood mares, or imported Durham cattle; and that public displays of fine children, and a discussion of the mode of rearing and training them, and an interchange of sentiments on these important points between those of most experience in the matter, would tend to the great physical improvement of the human race, I was so far satisfied that I agreed to go and witness the latest effort of the "Great American Showman" to get up a sensation.
Went to the entrance of the place of exhibition, took a look at the show-bills below, and the huge painting above, which represented in the most prominent rainbow hues the supposed appearance of the infant wonders -- at the waxen boy in a scratch wig and full suit of Young America clothes, and the impassible girl of like material, whose Cereous head was covered with such a crop of hempen curls that if woven into a rope it would have been long enough to hang half the rogues in the city; which two infant prodigies were the contribution of some enterprising hair-dresser and wig-maker, and were most industriously revolving beneath two glass cases in the hall in front of the paying place, and whose striking beauty was presumed to be all-powerful to arrest the attention of the hurrying multitude and make them lay down their quarters and take a peep at the exhibition whether they would or no; having, I say, taken a bird's-eye glance at all these, we laid down our money (Damphool paid for both) and entered.
Tremendous crowd -- hurried in -- got my toes annihilated, my hat smashed in, and my shirt collar reduced to the dimensions and appearance of a slimy dishcloth, in less than a minute.
Forced our way up to the platform. Saw a number of complacent mothers with movable fronts to their dresses, sitting side by side on an elevated plank, holding their babies in their laps (each one having a stock of baby linen handy, and a huge bucket of some liquid to me unknown, but which looked like starch, within reach, and which every now and then they poured into the faces of the specimen babies who lay with their wide mouths open like so many young robins) casting jealous glances at each other, tender glances on their young charges, and appealing glances at the crowd before them.
The youngest babies were dressed in unaccustomed clean clothes, in which, as they were unused to such style of garments, they looked ten times dirtier than ever -- they had a profusion of green and blue ribbons on their frocks, which they kept in their mouths all the time -- their faces were full of wrinkles, their eyes were watery and weak, and their pug noses seemed to be living fountains.
Other babies under the required age (4 years), decked out in all sorts of colors, and with dresses made universally in most execrably bad taste, were standing on some of the other platforms, or running about amongst the crowd, daubing themselves and those indiscreet and enthusiastic persons who attempted to handle them, with half dissolved candy, and sticky gingerbread. And occasionally getting up a fight among themselves -- where little fists would unceremoniously visit little eyes, and little feet would indulge in a series of energetic little kicks, and little fingers would pull out little bunches of little curls, and little voices would give a course of most discordant screams (which were little but . . .), and so the little Tom Hyers** would amuse themselves until separated by some courageous individual who dared to touch the little monsters.
I stepped up to a lady to ask the age of a baby which she had in her maternal arms, when I found myself instantly a centre of baby attraction -- babies seemed to pitch into me from all directions -- a baby poked its fingers into my eye, a baby put sugar on my ruffled shirt, a baby daubed gruel on my white vest, a baby filled my kid glove with milk, a baby dropped something done up in a rag down my neck, and a baby of huge dimensions and unredeemed ugliness amused itself by filling my hat full of playthings which it appropriated from the weaker babies on either side. So that I found in that article of apparel a tin whistle, three dolls, a sugar house, a miniature Noah's Ark with all the animals, a rattle-box, a hair-brush, and two india-rubber balls.
Tried to get out of the muss, but a baby was pulling my coat-tails, and a four-year old baby stood upon each foot improving the pattern of my white pants by wiping their dirty bands thereon. I stepped back and knocked over a baby, I rushed forward and stepped on a baby, I leaped to one side and crushed a small baby in a pink dress, I sprung to the other and crushed a fat baby and its nurse against the wall. I tried to escape from the room but tumbled over a baby, recovered my feet and started again, but babies got between my legs and tripped me down-stairs, where I landed in an exhausted condition, which was by no means improved by a careless woman dropping her baby directly on my head from the fourth story.
Saw the distribution of prizes, -- first prize given to an Irish baby with a stub nose; second, to a Dutch ditto, with eyes of different colors; and all the rest to the very babies who ought not to have had any, but deserved to be spanked and sent to bed until they should grow decent looking.
Not a good looking baby got a prize, and the very ones who should have taken the premiums were sent home without having their expenses paid.
The $100 prize baby did not amount to much after all. Not a young couple who saw it but thought they could do better in less than a year; and the mothers of those babies who didn't get anything thought they could beat it on six months' notice.
Those industrious ladies who desired to rear a large family in the shortest time possible, and so had produced three or four children at a birth, were all rewarded by the Great Showman for their extra pains and labors, and all went home triumphant with a premium for fecundity, and money enough to buy flannel for all the brood.
Everybody said the baby show was a humbug -- but everybody went to see it. Everybody said it was disgusting -- but everybody paid his twenty-five cents to be disgusted, and everybody was disgusted to his heart's content.
No one was perfectly satisfied except the mothers of the lucky babies, and the proprietor of the entire concern, who made a small fortune by the operation.
The excitement is now over, the public have seen the sight, the press has had its say, the women have shown their babies, Damphool has gone back to the country, and the world is once more comparatively quiet.
No other so great excitement will agitate the world until next year, when the Great Showman intends to revive the subject, and show the world the modus operandi of baby birth, with illustrations by the mothers of the babies who took the prizes this year, and who in another twelve-month will probably have no shame at all in the matter, and will stick at nothing. Let us wait, and hope.
* fat; oily.
** Tom Hyers was a famous boxer of the antebellum period.