Feld Entertainment made a surprising, but not necessarily unexpected announcement that the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus (which presently tours as two separate shows) will hold its final performance(s) in May. The present show traces its roots to 1871, which was the first season that P. T. Barnum fielded a circus, so some combination of its present title has been touring for over 146 years!
There are, I suppose, two ways to react to the news. The first is to bemoan the passing of the great American railroad circus, even though many traditionalists will tell you that the era already ended in 1956 when RBB&B abandoned the “big top” for indoor arenas. The other is to recognize that the model of touring a large and costly circus around the country is simply not viable in this day and age, and that it’s impressive that this all lasted as long as it did.
I would also add that when one era ends, another begins. Perhaps the greatest asset of the American circus historically has been its capacity for reinvention. And while this announcement coupled with the closing of the Big Apple Circus last year is a tough blow for circus fans, it’s not as if the circus arts are going to disappear. As I have argued in Circus and the Cityand elsewhere, it only looks like the circus is in decline if you have a very narrow and traditional idea about what the circus is. Cirque du Soleil is a veritable global entertainment empire. Les 7 Doights and other innovative companies put together and tour incredible shows. Organizations like the American Youth Circus and, in my neighborhood, the Boston Circus Guild show that circus retains its vitality and appeal. At the core of the circus is the delight people take in seeing the spectacular feats by performers, and the fact that one of our biggest entertainment companies does not find it viable to tour a large arena show does not mean that the circus is going to go away. I am hopeful that a reinvented American circus will find the audience that the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus no longer could.
A 1794 US silver dollar that sold for over ten million dollars in 2013 is going a European tour this spring, where it will be displayed alongside an original copy of the Declaration of Independence. More information about the exhibition can be found here and the itinerary is as follows.
Prague: February 9-11
Warsaw: February 16-18
Tallinn: February 22-23
Helsinki: February 25-26
Stockholm: Feb 29-March 1
Oslo: March 3-6
Dublin: March 12-13
London: March 18-20
The tour was organized by the Samlerhuset Group, which also published a fine volume on “the rise of the dollar” that I contributed an essay and the introduction for.
Today of course the United States dollar is recognized and valued around the world, but this contemporary power has obscured its humble origins. The first silver dollars struck at the newfound mint in Philadelphia in late 1794 were modeled on Spanish silver coins that were the dominant form of currency in circulation at the time. The equipment was so inadequate and the government reserves of silver were so small, that only seventeen hundred or so coins were produced, many of them weakly struck. Still, the coin was significant in the sense that it affirmed American independence. Thomas Jefferson famously intoned that “Coinage is peculiarly an Attribute of Sovereignty. To transfer its exercise to another country, is to submit it to another sovereign.” The iconography of the coin, and indeed its very existence, was a material reflection of the revolutionary spirit upon which the United States was founded. Check out the catalogue for the full story of the origin of this seminal coin.
I am excited to have been named the new curator of the Harvard Theatre Collection. Although sorry to be leaving the American Numismatic Society, which has been a wonderful and interesting place to work, I am thrilled to be plunging back into the world of popular entertainment. I hope to resume more regular blogging here, and please check back for announcements about new digital initiatives and projects concerning the Harvard Theatre Collection.
Joseph Cowell (1792-1863) was a British comedian and theatrical entrepreneur who performed on both sides of the Atlantic. His memoir, Thirty Years Passed Among the Players(1844), offers a fascinating window into the nineteenth-century entertainment industry, and includes some interesting anecdotes relating to numismatics as well. Born Joseph Hawkins Witchett, he started out as a sailor before a series of mishaps and adventures led him to a life on the stage. Adopting the stage name Cowell, Joe first appeared on stage in London, where he gained renown as a comedian and became a favorite at the famed Theatre Royal, Drury Lane.
This eventually brought Cowell to the attention of Stephen Price and Edmund Simpson, the lessees and managers of New York City’s Park Theatre. When it initially opened January 1798, it was simply known as “The Theatre” as it lacked any real competition. This particular building is actually well-known to numismatists as it features on the much-debated “Theatre at New York” token.
In John Kleeburg’s definitive essay on the token, he shows that it is the work of Benjamin Jacob, a Birmingham diemaker who copied the design from an illustration of the theatre under construction that was published in the 1797 edition of Longworth’s American Almanack . The theatre struggled during its early years, but eventually found its feet in the 1810s and 1820s under the able management of Simpson and Price.
The formula that proved most successful was simply to import the best talent they could find from Britain each season, a strategy that brought the likes of James W. Wallack (1818-19), Edmund Kean (1820-21), and other stars across the Atlantic. The original Park Theatre burned to the ground in May 1820, but a new theatre financed by John Jacob Astor was constructed on the same site.
This ‘Second’ Park Theatre opened on September 1, 1821, and the star of the season was the English actor Junius Brutus Booth. The other principal import that fall was Joseph Cowell, whose initial impressions of the city and the theatre were not encouraging. On first viewing the Park, he dryly described it as “the most prison-like-looking place I had ever seen appropriated to such a purpose.” But it was his initial experience with the monetary system that really soured his welcome to the United States.
Cowell came off the ship eager for a meal, but found that New York City in those days was not exactly accommodating for travelers. With “thirteen or fourteen English shillings” in his pockets, he roamed the streets look for a place to eat:
After wandering about I knew not whither, “oppressed with two weak evils,” fatigue and hunger, I entered what in London would be called a chandler’s shop, put some money on the counter, and inquired if they would sell me for that coin some bread and butter and a tempting red herring or two I saw in a barrel at the door.
“Why, what coin is it!” said a fellow in a red-flannel shirt and a straw hat.
“English shillings,” I replied.
“No,” said the fellow, “I know nothing about English shillings, nor English anything, nor I don’t want to.”
I thought, under all the circumstances, and from the appearance of the brute, it might be imprudent to extol or explain their value, and therefore I “cast one longing, lingering look behind” at the red herrings in the barrel, and turned the corner of the street, where I encountered two young men picking their teeth, for which I have never forgiven them.
Cowell blamed the difficulty of this encounter on the late war with England, which he believed was “still rankling the minds of the lower orders of Americans.” He then went in search of a place to exchange his shillings, eventually heading up Broadway and coming upon “a dingy-looking cellar” with a sign reading: “Exchange Office. Foreign gold and silver bought here.” Cowell depicted the scene as follows:
I descended three or four wooden steps, and handed my handful of silver to one of “God’s chosen people,” and, after its undergoing a most severe ringing and rubbing, the (I have no doubt) honest Israelite handed me three dirty, ragged one-dollar bills, which, he said, “s’help me God is petter as gould.” As all I wanted then was that they should be better than silver, my politics at that time didn’t cavil at the currency, and I hastily retraced my steps to the red-shirted herring dealer, and, placing one of the dirty scraps of paper on the counter, I exclaimed, with an air of confidence, “There, sir, will that answer your purpose?” He was nearly of the Jew’s opinion, for he declared that it was “as good as gold,” and I gave him a large order, and made my first meal in the United States seated on a barrel, in a grocery at the foot of Wall-street.
There is a lot to unpack here, from the casual anti-Semitism to the larger workings of the American monetary system. The essential problem was that the United States at the time lacked the domestic sources of gold and silver necessary to produce enough coins to satisfy its growing populace. The 1820 census showed that the population was nearing ten million, but the U.S. Mint only produced two million silver coins that year in all denominations (10¢, 25¢, and 50¢) and the only gold coins minted were a quarter of a million half eagles ($5). This was obviously not anywhere near enough coinage, so the balance of circulating money consisted of Spanish silver coins and, particularly in urban contexts, paper money. The “dirty dollars” that Cowell exchanged his shillings for would have looked something like this two-dollar bank note from the Franklin Bank of New York City:
At the time, banks issued what was essentially their own currency, which was printed with variable quality and rather quickly became ragged as it circulated. Paper money was also easily counterfeited, and the issuing banks were themselves often suspect, making for a confusing swirl that could leave the unsophisticated bereft. Cowell’s aside that “his politics at the time didn’t cavil” at paper money suggests that he later became an advocate of “hard money” (i.e. specie), perhaps due to some bad experiences with the paper kind.
As historians like Shane White and Timothy Gilfoyle, among others, have shown, new arrivals to the city were often marks for various sorts of unscrupulous characters looking to turn a quick buck. Many of New York City’s so-called “exchange offices” existed in the grey area at the margins of the financial industry, making their money in quasi-legal lottery and stock schemes. As their name suggests, they also functioned as domestic and international currency bureaus, giving out local paper money for foreign coin or bank notes from elsewhere in the United States, at widely variable rates. Whether or not he got a fair exchange from the stereotypical Jewish money changer he encountered, Cowell ended his first day in New York City flat broke through more traditional means.
After his meal, Cowell dropped in for an unimpressed look at the evening’s entertainment at the Park Theatre. Later, he found his way to the bar and treated some new American friends to a few rounds of grog and cigars. He eventually became so incapacitated that he was robbed of all of his “moveables,” which included his “hat, cravat, watch, snuffbox, handkerchief, and the balance of the dirty dollars.” Cowell was subsequently carried down to the harbor, tossed into a row boat, and delivered to the ship he had arrived on as “a gentleman very unwell.”
Despite Cowell’s inauspicious start, he had a very long and successful career in the United States. He made his debut at the Park Theatre on October 30, 1821, and was particularly well received for his performance as Crack in the musical The Turnpike Gate. Cowell went on to become one of the most popular stock players at the Park when the theatre was at the apogee of its profitability and influence in the 1820s. He ably managed a variety of companies and theatres around the country, and spent some time in the circus as well. Cowell married three times and many of his descendants, most notably Sam Cowell and Kate Bateman, became luminaries in Anglo-American theatre. He reprised the role of Crack for his final performance in New York City in 1863 before retiring to London. Cowell’s memoir is a wonderful read that offers a compelling look at the world of popular entertainment while also observantly noting and commenting on the particulars of everyday life in the United States.
Common-Place, the wonderful digital journal published by the American Antiquarian Society and the University of Connecticut, launched a new redesign this summer. The journal invariably makes for good reading, and it reminded that some time back before I had even started this website, I wrote a short essay about one of the most spectacular pieces of show printing in the Society’s collection. The Zoological Institute was the mightiest entertainment conglomerate of its day and the image below hardly does their broadside justice so please check out the archived article for some great detail images.
An eagle-eyed reader sent me a photograph of a gravestone they spotted in Oakwood Cemetery in East Aurora, New York. It memorializes George G. Gordon, who died on June 11, 1872. The stone is graced with a wonderfully cut illustration of a large circus tent, inside of which an inscription reads:
Erected by Henry Barnum
and the members of the Central
Park Menagerie and Circus.
In memory of
GEORGE G. GORDON
who departed this life June 11, 1872
In the 31 Year of his Age.
The Great Central Park Menagerie and Circus was a short-lived show that was organized over the winter of 1871-72 in Amenia, New York. The proprietor and manager of the operation was Henry Barnum, a longtime circus man and distant relative of the showman P. T. Barnum. Dennison “Den” Stone was the equestrian director and coordinated the riding acts, which were the primary draw for the circus in that era. In its spring preview of the “tenting season,” the New York Clipper gave the following summary of the show:
As you can see by the fact that 167 men, 212 horses, and 90 wagons were employed, it was a labor-intensive wagon show that was hauled overland each night and set up in a new location for two or even three performances each day. The Great Central Park Menagerie and Circus was one of the largest wagon circuses to ever tour, as it was put together just as railroads were transforming the show world. Indeed it was in this same year, 1872, that P. T. Barnum’s famous circus toured by rail for the first time, and by the end of the decade all the biggest shows had abandoned wagon travel for railroads.
The Great Central Park Menagerie, International Circus, and Iroquois Indian Troupe toured through western Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Vermont in April and May, and then veered into upstate New York in June. The show was a beefed-up version of the typical American show, featuring a large roster of circus performers, an extensive menagerie, and a sideshow with a French Giant, a skeleton man, etc. These attractions were arranged in separate tents, but they could all be seen with the purchase of one fifty-cent ticket. Seemingly the most unique element of this show was that it featured an “Indian Circus Rider,” Ka-Ke-Wa-Ma, who performed in the center ring. In addition, there was a larger Iroquois Indian Troupe that appeared in a spectacular pantomime called Life in the Wilderness for the show’s finale. Advertisements promised “characteristic scenes and dances,” and a staging of the story of Pocahontas & Captain Smith that featured a “terrible realistic scalping scene.” Part of what is so interesting about this Iroquois Indian Troupe is that it predated Buffalo Bill’s famous Wild West Show by over a decade, but used many of the elements that made that later concern such a success. While Indians had often figured in American show business before, this kind of proto-Wild West entertainment was something of an innovation and was very popular according to press accounts. The newspaper advertisement to the left, from the Jamestown Journal, gives a full run-down of the show. Perhaps the most notable individual performer was Willie O. Dale, billed as the “Wonder Equestrian and bareback sensationalist.” Though just twelve or thirteen years old, he had been trained by his father of the same name, who was regarded as one of the finest equestrian performers of his era. Dale’s act consisted of various dramatic balancing and acrobatic feats performed on the back of a moving horse, most notably backwards somersaults. The fact that the Ring Master Robert Ellingham was also listed as a “Lecturer on Natural History,” suggests that the well-appointed menagerie played a prominent role in the show. Indeed, much of the show’s advertising centered on the animals, even if many of those pictured in the posters do not seem to have actually been present on the lot.
Whatever the case, George G. Gordon was certainly traveling with the show that year, at least until it passed through East Aurora, which is about twenty miles southeast of Buffalo. Legend has it that Gordon was a performer who fell off a horse, but a more reliable account suggests that he was simply a foreman of a tent crew who suffered heart attack while the big top was being raised. His elaborate tombstone was most likely purchased through funds donated by his fellow circus hands. An 1875 account in the New York Clipper noted that when the Van Amburgh circus visited East Aurora on July 31: “the members of the company and band visited the grave of George G. Gordon, who died while in the employ of the Central Park Circus, and had formerly been a watchman with Van Amburgh & Co. Many citizens were also in attendance, and appropriate remarks and a prayer were made by Rev. Mr. Adams.” Gordon was clearly well-regarded, and the story goes that a circus lady asked local children to plant flowers on his grave every spring, which became a tradition through the 1960s.
But “the show most go on” as they say, and the Great Central Park Menagerie and Circus continued its 1872 tour through Pennsylvania and New Jersey, ending its season in New York City that October. The show foundered the following year as the Panic of 1873 proved a disaster for the American circus industry and sunk many of the big wagon shows. The properties, animals, and many of the performers were subsequently absorbed into the Great London Show, which toured by railroad in 1874. Although they were both ultimately short-lived, George G. Gordon’s magnificent tombstone stands as a memorial to both the man and the Central Park Circus and Menagerie.
Welcome NPR listeners! I do most all my money-related blogging now over at Pocket Change, the blog of the American Numismatic Society. If you are looking to read a bit about nineteenth-century U.S. history and/or explore the fascinating story of the American circus, please stay and have a look around this site…
The NPR segment can be heard below. One thing that was regrettably cut which I spoke about is that the reason that the ten-dollar bill is presently being redesigned is because the government is in the process of making a long-overdue change that will place tactile features on US paper money for the visually impaired. In this context, I suggested Helen Keller might be the best choice for #TheNew10 as she embodied both of the rationales behind the present redesign, i.e., including a woman and adding features for the visually impaired. For more on what should be a very interesting story to follow through the end of the year when the decision on whom to add is made, see this post.
The Visual Studies Research Institute at the University of Southern California is hosting a conference this week called Material Evidence, Visual Knowledge. As the title suggests, the presentations examine how new technologies enable new ways of looking at material culture. My presentation looks at what the digitization of the American Numismatic Society’s paper money collection and considers what this tells about the design and circulation of counterfeit money in the antebellum United States.
I made my national television debut earlier today in a segment with the effervescent Nancy Giles on the history of the penny. You can view the video here. As regular readers will already know, I am doing the majority of my digital work over at Pocket Change, the website/blog of the American Numismatic Society. One of the things that Nancy and I spent some time discussing, and something that I will be exploring in more detail in a future post on Pocket Change was the relationship between evolving notions of womanhood and representations of ‘Liberty’ in the antebellum United States. The images below show how Liberty’s hair was tamed from the ‘Flowing Hair’ cent of 1793 to the ‘Braided Hair’ cent of the 1840s and 1850s.
For more information about how and why representations of Liberty followed this course, head here. And thanks to Alan Golds, Nancy Giles, and the wonderful crew for producing the segment!
This weekend I was quoted in a column by Gail Collins of the New York Times about the campaign to replace Andrew Jackson on the twenty-dollar bill. WomenOn20s certainly seems to be gaining steam, but here’s hoping that this also sparks a broader conversation about US paper money, which is going on a hundred years without a significant redesign, whomever the personages pictured. For whatever reason, many Americans seem to regard the look of their currency as sacrosanct and any change is bound to be controversial, but it seems past time for something to happen.
As I pointed out in the column, Australia equitably has a woman and a man on each of their paper money denominations. Australians have also embraced a broader view of the type of person worthy of such an honor by choosing figures beyond the world of politics–artists, poets, inventors, etc. Making room for more and different kinds of people on American money would seem to be a worthwhile goal and might spark an interesting national discussion about who and what we value about our country. In this vein, the Times is hosting a fascinating Room for Debate discussion on potential candidates for the twenty. Collins cites me as supporting Amelia Earhart, but this was something that I mentioned in the course of a larger discussion about the politics of finding a replacement for Jackson. Quite simply, it needs to be a figure that can both garner popular support and be palatable to those on both sides of the political divide. I think, to take one example, that Margaret Sanger’s sexual politics would excite enough consternation to doom her candidacy. From a purely practical perspective, I think Amelia Earhart is an excellent candidate. She is someone who is a feminist icon, but also seems to be politically non-controversial. Her name is a familiar one to most Americans and her pioneering efforts in aviation certainly provide a strong narrative to mobilize around. Again, she is not my preferred candidate all things considered, but she seems like a more practical and possible one than some of the other names being bandied about.
For historians, I think this discussion is an interesting reflection of the vagaries of historiography and the volatility of the popular historical imagination. As numerous commentators have pointed out, when the decision was made to put Jackson on the twenty-dollar bill in 1928, his reputation was that of a war hero and as a hard-charging advocate for the common man. Arthur Schlesinger’s Age of Jackson (1940) perhaps marked the peak of Jacksonian adulation, but his reputation has more or less been on the decline ever since. In a recent, acclaimed, and perhaps now definitive history of his era, Daniel Walker Howe essentially presents Andrew Jackson as a villain. Moreover his reputation as a violent racist and infamy as the architect of Indian removal has even seeped into the popular imagination. The hit musical Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson, for example, rather sympathetically portrays him as a democrat gone awry, and if you haven’t seen it, please watch the clip below. Sean Wilentz and a few other historians have mounted a measured defense that emphasizes Jackson’s essential contribution to American democracy, without ignoring his obvious failings. Still, it seems to me that Jackson now has one of the most compromised reputations in antebellum American history. This was why I described Jackson as the “low hanging-fruit” of figures on US currency, and why I think this effort to replace him will ultimately succeed. Moreover, I have not as of yet seen anyone leaping to Jackson’s defense. And while I am not inclined to do so here, it is worth exploring why Jackson gets singled out for derision given that many of his ‘moneyed’ peers were also slave-owning (Washington), Indian-hating (Jefferson), and corrupt (Grant).
Some heartening news out of the circus world this week as it seems that Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey are going to phase elephants out of their touring shows. I wrote a piece for the New York Daily News last year advocating for an end to the practice that you can still find here. Rather than recapitulate all of those points here, I will just say that what was perhaps the most interesting part of the announcement to me was the forthright acknowledgment by Ringling that people were simply not “comfortable” with performing elephants. It remains to be seen whether the few remaining circuses in the United States that still employ elephants follow suit, but with Ringling giving up the ghost for a variety of legal and financial reasons, I can’t image these other shows will be far behind.
Janet M. Davis struck a rueful tone in her piece published today, citing the the elephant as an American circus icon. Suffice it to say that I am much less sanguine about this history (see this for but one example). I am also much more optimistic about what this might means for the American circus moving forward than most. Despite their outsized image, elephants were historically just one part of the vibrant and diverse form of live entertainment we know as the circus. Indeed, the vast majority of American circuses since at least the Great Depression have not had the herds of elephants that are supposed to be so iconic and necessary. In the New York Timeswrite-up, Richard Pérez-Peña, quoted me as saying that Cirque du Soleil shows that the circus can succeed without exploiting animals, but I should point out that this emerged out a larger discussion about the contemporary vitality of the American circus. At least in New York City, the circus is flourishing and every month seems to bring a new show. Outside of Ringling, they are all succeeding sans elephants. Clearly the RBB&B show has some to decision that they can succeed without them as well. Moreover, having just returned from Australia, which has experienced a decades-long renaissance in the circus arts, I am pretty confident in saying that the prospects for the circus without elephants remains bright. It’s only a real problem if you understand the circus in a ‘traditional’ and narrowly American way. Whatever the future holds and despite my disappointment at the rather extended timetable Ringling outlined, I believe this is good news for the American circus.